Three concepts of consciousness

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 18 February 2024

section 3
the concept of consciousness that goes with exclusive spirituality

If you haven't read the earlier sections,
you may like to read them first:

Exclusive spirituality

The defining characteristics of the Exclusive spirituality concept are two: (1) the ultimate reality is consciousness rather than matter, and (2) the only state of consciousness really worth having is a state of pure consciousness. The Matter and Exclusive spirituality views are at least in some respects each other's mirror image. Just as the physicalist position holds that consciousness is no more than a causally inactive epiphenomenon of physical processes, so the most extreme position on the exclusive spirituality axis holds that the material world is nothing more than an illusionary imposition, adhyāropa, on the absolute silence, emptiness and purity of the spirit. While the austere simplicity of the physicalist worldview appears to have helped physics to develop by isolating it from the complexities of religious and social sentiments, exclusive spirituality may well have helped India to understand the highest ranges of consciousness undistracted by the messiness of consciousness at the level of our ordinary human lives. The great strength of the Exclusive spirituality view is the absolute beauty of the experience of pure consciousness, and the detailed and penetrating psychological insights it has developed about the highest ranges of consciousness available to humanity.

In the scientific mainstream, Exclusive spirituality as ontology plays hardly a role. During the second half of the twentieth century, the very possibility of an entirely pure consciousness was commonly denied, for example, by Steven Katz (1978) who claimed that all mental phenomena were socially determined, and, strangely enough, by Carl G. Jung (1958), who held that a state without a clearly distinguished subject and object was inherently unconscious.1 By the end of the century, the possibility of this state was defended effectively by Robert Forman (1990) who based himself largely on Indian sources. And at present, its possibility is more routinely accepted, but the interest in it even amongst those who "do yoga" is negligeable. In Indian philosophy it has many protagonists and can well be called mainstream, if not foundational.2

The idea of pure consciousness can be found throughout Indian thought, but perhaps most prominently in certain schools of Vedānta, Sāṁkhya and Buddhism. There are considerable differences between these three knowledge-systems in terms of their philosophy, but the origin of the concept of pure consciousness is almost certainly experiential rather than speculative, and, as we will see, in terms of experience these differences appear less insurmountable.


There are many methods to arrive at a pure consciousness, but the cultivation of detachment is one of the most commonly practised techniques. It works through a systematic withdrawal of one's consciousness from its involvement in one's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and — perhaps most importantly — one's ego-sense, till only an absolutely pure, silent self, or not even that, remains.3

When one sits on the beach and watches the sea stretch out in front of oneself, one can feel extremely tiny, but also extremely vast. When one's sense of a separated-out ego vanishes, the difference between these two states also disappears and they merge into one.

Starting from the mainstream physicalist conception of consciousness, one might expect that the result of emptying one's consciousness by shifting the borderline between world and self inwards would be an increasing sense of powerlessness, of shrinking, of dullness even, but in practice the opposite is true. As one dis-identifies more and more from one's small set of habitual thoughts, feelings, sensations, motives and actions, one experiences an increasing sense of an infinite, inalienable peace and absolute truth, which can at times go together with a positive sense of exhilaration, liberation, and, strange enough, vastness.4 It is as if the wall between the world and oneself becomes thinner and one finds oneself extending not only beyond the borders of one's old egoïc self but even beyond those of the manifest world. One step further and there is the permanent realisation that one's identity is transcendent and entirely independent of anything that could possibly happen in and to the social/physical world we "normally" live in. But one need not end there.

From the perspective of Indian philosophy, it is clear that the method of detachment starts from the naïve subject–object dualism typical of the ordinary waking consciousness. But it is used not only by dualist traditions like the Sāṁkhya and the yoga of Patanjali, which espouse an absolute division between puruṣa (self) and prakṛti (nature). It is also used by various monist schools like Advaita Vedānta. In the latter, the dualism is not accepted as an ultimate truth, but only as a pragmatic means to shift the apparent border between self and world either fully inside or outside till one arrives experientially at a monism of the spirit in which one knows one's ātman (individual Self) to be one with Brahman (the Self of the universe). Either way, the method of detachment leads, even in those who start with a dualist philosophy, to a monist experience. Where the different philosophical schools differ is in what is included in the One. In some, the experience of an absolute truth, bliss and eternity leads not only to a sense of the total irrelevance of the manifest physical world, but even to a certain disgust against it. In others it leads to compassion for all those who still suffer from the illusions that smaller types of consciousness entail. And, as we will see later in more detail, when one realises that the Absolute consciousness that transcends the manifest reality at the same time also encompasses and actively inhabits absolutely everything, there arises the possibility of engagement with the world in complete freedom, joy and awareness of the underlying oneness, literally "for the love of it".

Pure consciousness as tool for research

One aspect of consciousness that stands central in the exclusive as well as in the integral systems of Indian thought is the idea that pure consciousness not only produces immutable peace and delight but also true knowledge. From an epistemological standpoint, the status of pure consciousness is interesting because it opens a way to unbiased self-observation. If the central realisation of the Absolute removes the limited ego-sense from one's basic identity, there is at least at that level no longer any support for an egocentric response to the things that enter into one's consciousness, and this should in principle allow one to function as a free observing intelligence without any bias or axe to grind. In practice it is not as simple as this, however. Human nature is extremely complex and even when the central realisation is there, distortions may continue to intrude into one's thoughts and actions, and perhaps even into one's primary perception due to remnants of the ego and residual impurities in the outer parts of one's nature. Fortunately, once the type and direction of these intrusions becomes known, one can compensate for them through a process that is similar to the manner in which physical defects in telescopes and other instruments can be corrected electronically after the observation is over. We'll come back to this in the chapters on Knowledge.

The older Vedāntic and Buddhist schools talk about this process of purification in terms of karma and samskaras that still need to be exhausted even after realisation. Sri Aurobindo speaks of the need to transform the entire inner and outer nature under the influence of ever higher levels of consciousness. There is a subtle but important difference between the two positions. For a passive realisation in which one aims "not to be reborn", exhaustion of karma is sufficient as it leads to a state where nothing activates any response or initiative. As Sri Aurobindo (Letters on Yoga–II, p. 398) points out, if one aims at an active participation in a further evolution of the manifestation, this is not enough and a full transformation of one's nature is needed. Interestingly, this higher degree of purification and change is also needed if all one wants is to use a free consciousness to take psychology further. After all, not only complex dynamic interventions, but even the simplest description of one's awareness and its contents is an active, creative process that requires a transformed instrument of expression to reach anything that could possibly be considered unbiased and appropriate to the context. To this also we'll come back in the chapters on Knowledge.

Pure consciousness and the material manifestation

To what extent and in what manner the socio-physical manifestation is part of the ultimate reality has been a major issue throughout the Indian tradition, and over time many different answers have been proposed. Together they make a kind of gradient from māyāvādin traditions, which stress the illusionary nature of the manifestation, to pūrṇa Vedānta which stresses that in the end both spirit and matter are manifestations of the inalienable oneness of saccidānanda.

Psychologically, the experience of the Absolute can have different "flavours". In its most classical form, one can experience absolute emptiness, entire freedom of form and content, a total transcendence. But one can also feel oneself becoming one with the undivided All, extending illimitably through space and time. And one can even — and this is perhaps the most mysterious and beautiful — experience the infinite Presence right here in the smallest of things.

It has been argued that the form which the experience of the Absolute takes depends on one's expectations, on the theory in which one's practice is grounded and on the tradition from which one starts. As the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2.6) said (several thousands of years before Katz), "Whoever envisages it as the existence, becomes that existence, and whoever envisages it as the non-existence, becomes that non-existence." But this is not always the case. In actual life, spiritual experience often contains at least some element of surprise. When one reads the autobiographical notes mystics have left behind, some degree of conflict between their experience and the tradition from which they came also appears to have been the rule rather than the exception. In fact, the unexpected character of the experience tends to add a sense of authenticity to their descriptions as it gives the feeling that they experienced something that existed objectively, something that was not the product of their prior thought and imagination. In Christianity, where the official doctrine was rather narrowly defined — and where deviation was not without risk — this led in those who stayed within the fold, like De Kempis and Rhuysbroeck, to rather touching attempts at reconciliation between the conflicting narratives of their experience and their religious faith.

This said, at least in some people, the form the experience takes appears to depend not so much on prior assumptions as on the location in one's subtle body from where one begins one's exploration. If one goes inside, for example, on the level of the hara, as in some forms of Zen, the experience may give a predominant sense of power and solidity. If one goes inside at the level of the heart, the experience may include an element of personhood, of love, of compassion. If one concentrates in a centre of consciousness just above the head, the sense of impersonality, vastness, formlessness is more likely to dominate. Accordingly, the Indian tradition holds that there is a self, a true being, puruṣa, on each level of consciousness. The common characteristic of all these states is that the sharp division between the ego and the world is not felt, while the clarity and depth of awareness and bliss tend to increase as far as one's nature can handle.

A fascinating aspect of all such experiences is that they leave one with a permanent sense of having seen — or rather of having been one with — something that is much more true, beautiful, eternal than the ordinary reality. This is its strength, but it is also where the conceptual confusion starts. When one comes down from the Transcendent into a more ordinary type of consciousness, the ego can jump back into action and declare that the specific way in which one's mind formulates the little shadow of the Transcendent which is within the ego's reach offers the single best description of the ultimate reality. When that happens, the Divine turns into my Divine, and when I'm brave — and blind — I'm ready to fight with anyone who dares to claim that his vision is more true than mine.

The differences in the flavour of the experience have gone together with different psychological theories. The most infamous of these is perhaps that while the Sāṁkhya holds that there are many selves, Advaita Vedānta holds that there is only one Self, and Buddhism that there is no self at all. During the later, more analytic period of Indian thought, differences like these led within the Indian tradition to a welter of competing philosophies, schools and sects.5 Seeing such differences, some modern scholars, like Katz (1978) and, in a more sophisticated fashion, Ferrer (2002, pp. 71-111), have come to the conclusion that the whole idea of a single perennial philosophy supporting the conceptual jungle is problematic. Though there is a point in this criticism, the denial of a perennial philosophy, or at least of a perennial reality, is not the full truth either. For the traditionalist within the Indian tradition, the sceptical position is not valid because the most respected scriptures in the tradition, right from the Ṛg Veda and the older Upaniṣads to the Bhagavad Gitā, insist on an ultimate oneness supporting from behind all differences in appearance. For those who trust their own judgment and experience, the perplexity can be resolved by going beyond one's initial experience till one finds an inner place, described in the Gitā and several older texts, which goes beyond the dualities of form and formless, personal and impersonal, etc. From the level where the differences between the different flavours of "pure consciousness" are still extremely real to one's experience, it is possible, for example, to rise to a place where one can flip effortlessly from the infinite peace and harmony of the cosmic self to the utter freedom and delight of the non-self. The experiences are still different, but while the philosophies of ātman and anatta are each other's opposites, the underlying experiences are such close neighbours that one begins to get a sense of something indefinable beyond both. Sri Aurobindo indicates that there is indeed a state of consciousness, entirely beyond the mind, in which all these different aspects of the divine are experienced simultaneously, and there is no conflict anymore between them. One could well argue that duality is a characteristic of the human mind, but not of reality itself.

In Buddhist as well as in post-Shankara Vedāntic thought, there has been a tendency to consider the most extreme form of an entirely passive and pure consciousness — an absolute and permanent emptiness, silence, formlessness — as the highest type of consciousness and source of the most absolute pure bliss. Philosophy tends to strive after the impersonal and the abstract, and in a certain sense, this is the legitimate extreme of both. But to take psychology (and our human understanding in general) further, we need something more. And this brings us to the third pole of our conceptual discussion of consciousness, integral spirituality.


For the integral concept of consciousness:


1“To us, consciousness is inconceivable without an ego…. If there is no ego there is nobody to be conscious of anything. The ego is therefore indispensable to the conscious process….an ego-less mental condition can only be unconscious to us, for the simple reason that there would be nobody to witness it…. I cannot imagine a conscious mental state that does not relate to a subject, that is, to an ego.” (Carl G. Jung, 1958, p. 484, quoted in Dalal, 2001)

2An overview comparing Indian and Western approaches to pure consciousness has been given by Ramakrishna Rao in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12 (3), pp. 3-30.

3In the ordinary waking state, there is a clear distinction between oneself as subject inside, and the world as object outside, but the borderline between self and world is continuously shifting. Sometimes people identify with entities outside their own body — e.g. their work, their possessions, their family, their country — and sometimes they look with a certain objectivity even at their own thoughts and feelings. Through yoga, it is possible to learn how to shift the border between self and world at will, and on the path of detachment one moves the border gradually further inwards till absolutely everything, including all one's thoughts, feelings, and actions, are seen as part of outside nature. In the chapter entitled "The Self and the Structure of the Personality", we'll discuss the border between the self and the world in some more detail.

4The impression one gets is that consciousness by itself is infinite in every possible dimension, and that it becomes limited only by its content. In the next chapter we'll explore how this relates to Sri Aurobindo's fascinating concept of "exclusive concentration" as the main power behind the creation of the manifest world.

5See Sri Aurobindo's comment on the shift from intuition to reason in the Indian tradition.