THE QUIET DEPTHS
by Radha Burnier
The Theosophist 1986
FOR all who seriously try to live the spiritual life, there arises the question of what is sometimes called ‘deeper awareness’. Consciousness functions in each one of us at different levels. But most of the time we function at the superficial level. Let us, then, examine what we mean by ‘superficial’ and ‘deeper’ levels. A word may indicate merely the opposite of something we know, not what we know in actuality but an imaginary opposite. For example, in opposition to the troubled state of a mind given to anxiety, we may posit a state of tranquillity. The tranquillity is not actual but presumed. So, normally living in superficiality, we may postulate an opposite which we call ‘depth’. But what real depth is, is difficult to understand.
Consciousness functions at different levels through vehicles composed of material of that level and it is conditioned and limited by that material. Although this is simple to understand from a theoretical point of view, it is not so simple to realize, and there is constant confusion between the two consciousness and its vehicles. We regard the modes which belong to the conditioned consciousness of the body as consciousness per se.
The consciousness which functions through the physical body does so through the senses. Sense consciousness is basically physical-body consciousness. In Indian tradition, four modes of consciousness are described: the waking, the dream, the deep sleep consciousness, and the indescribable ‘fourth’ which is beyond the other three. We come to the latter by elimination and not by description.
The waking consciousness is that which uses the physical body. In dream consciousness, the physical body is temporarily laid to rest and the senses do not function except instinctively. Even when the body is asleep, the person wakes up when an alarm rings which means that some part of his brain continues to register sound. We do not quite know what instinctive consciousness exists in the brain when the body is asleep, but to all intents and purposes the senses do not function. Sense perception is dormant for the time being and some other type of consciousness is at work; that is what is called dream consciousness.
In dream consciousness, the data, images and impressions obtained through sense perception (perhaps mixed with other elements) are turned around. This happens not only when the body is asleep but also in so-called waking hours when the senses are deadened and numb. Many people indulge in reverie, a word which comes from rêve, ‘dream’. A reverie is very similar to dreaming because the mode of consciousness does not use the physical senses.
If you are preoccupied, you can pass somebody by without being aware of him, for your sense perception is not active at that time. If it were, you would be fully aware of the other’s presence, how he looked, what he said, and so on. The consciousness then is using the windows which exist at the physical level, namely the senses. But in the dream mode those windows are shut, whether the dream is the reverie of waking hours or the dreaming which takes place after the body has gone to sleep.
Because there is often a mixture and the borderline is vague, people do not quite realize that there are these different modes. In an animal the consciousness works basically at the physical level. Therefore its senses are fully alert in its natural state. The animal’s hearing is sharp, its tactile sensation acute and so forth. The elephant can feel a little pin on the ground with its trunk and pick it up with a delicacy which men may not be able to do for they have largely lost the capacity to function at the physical level in full measure. Perhaps human beings have lost the capacity to function completely at any level and this creates confusion in the mind about what consciousness really is.
A primitive human being functions mainly on the emotional level; his passions are strong. He may not think much before he kills. His rages, his anger, jealousy, desire, arise from a consciousness that functions principally through a vehicle of astral matter. Mixed with it is the mode of functioning which is at the level of the mind. This is also a part of the second level of consciousness which is related to the consciousness which functions through the senses. Therefore, the sense contacts create desire-thought, and thought-desire activates sensory pursuits, and this complex we take to be the ‘self’. When people say, ‘I am conscious’ they mean consciousness in terms of sensation, passion, desire, pleasure, non-pleasure—‘I do not like this’, ‘I like this’, ‘I am attached to this.’
Consciousness implies the making of images and the naming of them. When an object is seen, thought takes the shape of the object, memorizes it together with whatever characteristics it can grasp, for all of which it has a vocabulary. These thoughts and the modifications into which thought shapes itself, we call consciousness. When we speak about ourselves as conscious human beings we imply that we have all this content in the brain. Theoretically, we may say that consciousness is something different but, as mentioned earlier, it is only a postulate. Normally, when we think of ‘ourselves’ we think in terms of the content. And however extensive the content may be it is still limited. Consciousness functioning in the different modes is also limited.
In deep sleep consciousness the turning over of sense data and of remembrances comes to an end. Still, some kind of an ‘I’ consciousness, a basic ego consciousness, continues. Only when the dream consciousness ends, is there deep sleep consciousness; they are mutually exclusive. They are like different openings at different levels into the external world. Let us imagine a high tower. If you are on the ground floor of the tower, you perceive a certain view of the external world; when you look out from the tenth storey you cannot see what is immediately below you so you are shut off from the area. If you climb still higher you will have yet another view. There may be a little intermixture of views, but there is also a certain exclusion of one or the other.
We speak about understanding, but from where does understanding arise? The mind can observe the senses and it also sees itself. When the mind sees itself, it may imagine that it has proceeded from superficiality to depth, which may be an illusion. Merely going from sense perception to mental perception or from the waking state to the dream state does not result in depth of awareness. Depth should not be equated with a certain type of thinking, or a certain kind of observation. Perhaps we should question whether in depth, there are the characteristics of the other levels. For example, movement, pursuit, the holding in the mind of objectives. The objective makes us act in a given direction from a preconceived point of view. In ‘normal’ consciousness, there are always preconceptions, aims, pursuit of objectives, and movements which are conditioned by those aims and objectives. It can exist so subtly that we are not aware of it. Depth in the true sense of the term may be entirely different, where this movement has come to an end and consciousness is not a mode of consciousness. A new kind of flow may also exist even while part of the consciousness is functioning in different modes, just as in a deep river the great volume of water flows along steadily, unimpeded by the pools, waves and bubbles on the surface. It is said that in the case of the fully awakened person, consciousness at the profound level is always the background of his actions and thoughts at the outer level. Whatever contact he has with the outer world at any level has its substratum the awakened profound consciousness.
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