If you’re looking for questions about what lays the foundation for all things existent, then check out this article about the mind-body problem and consciousness.
The Ground for Everything Existent
Could you imagine a feeling nothingness – just complete stillness and emptiness?
- You don’t feel anything particular that can be described as having an experience.
- You’re not sad, not happy, not resentful, not motivated or inspired.
- You’re simply there in the present moment with no thoughts running through your head, no future plans you’re going to do, no anxieties, no attachments – just it
What is this ‘IT’?
What I’m talking about is the core essence of existence itself – what it’s like to be anything and to experience something.
There are many definitions as to what consciousness is, why do we possess it and how it expresses itself.
What is Consciousness?
I’m definitely not qualified enough to tell you that. But I’ve done some research and I’ve had a few experiences about the nature of this thing that literally creates reality.
Most of my inquiry focuses on meditation and that’s what we’ll be talking about in today’s Body Mind Empowerment Podcast. I’m your host Siim Land and you might not have known this about me – that I have a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology, which is the study of humans and human cultures.
My thesis was called Body Mind Dualism and the Nature of Consciousness in Transcendental Meditation. I did fieldwork with a group of meditators in Estonia who had been practicing for decades.
In this article, we’re going to go into some of the most profound concepts and ideas I got during my study and some revelations I experienced.
I have to say right away that I’m no expert on this topic and that I know nothing about it. Just a newbie so there’s probably a lot of things that need to be re-interpreted. Nevertheless, I feel confident in sharing some of the main ideas.
I’m going to just read the introduction to my thesis – The Mind-Body Problem
How It All Started
I first came into contact with meditation when I just graduated from high school. Of course, I had heard about it previously but it always remained to be this mystical and weird thing – something only yogis and spiritual people would practice.
To be honest, my initial interest for trying it out came from the selfish desire of improving my mental performance – to sharpen the blade we call ‘the Mind.’
As I continued my practice, I never had the intention of progressing further with it. There are many stories and ideas about topics such as ‘enlightenments’, ‘awakenings’ and other epiphanies but only a few can actually tell what they all mean. I do not claim to be enlightened because, in my opinion, any claims of the like would immediately falsify me.
That is why, throughout this thesis, I take the Socratic position of “I know nothing.” Yet, I have had several strange occasions while meditating, wherein it seems as if I enter an altered state of consciousness.
Although I am completely awake and aware, both my body and mind feel at one instance estranged from me and at others fully united. In search of getting at least some explanations, I had decided to do my research on this topic.
My aim with this thesis was to enquire over the notion of body-mind dualism or the subject-object divide that remains to be a topic of controversy in anthropology, philosophy and science in general. I did my investigation based on consciousness as experienced in the practice of transcendental meditation.
My research questions include: ‘How does transcendental meditation influence a person’s consciousness during practice and outside of it?’ Namely, ‘How does it affect their experience of their body and mind?’ and ‘How, if at all, does the subject-object divide manifest itself?’
I also seek to enquire into over the nature of consciousness in general, as described by my informants, and what role does it play in an individual’s life.
What Is the Mind-Body Problem
The underlying conflict and tension of this thesis and my meditation experiences involves the notion of body-mind dualism. It was Rene Descartes in the end of the 17th century who notoriously brought it to surface as it exists in science today by saying “I think, therefore I am” (1641).
The mind-body problem is the problem of explaining how mental states, events and processes – like beliefs, actions and thinking – are related to the physical states, events and processes, given that the human body is a physical entity and the mind is non-physical (Crane : 1999), or the relationship between these two worlds of body and mind (Popper 1995 : 5).
Does the Body Mind Divide Exist
Cartesian dualism takes the position that mental phenomenon are non-physical (Hart 1996: 265-7), or that the body and mind are distinctive from one another with the latter existing separately from the former (Crane and Patterson 2001: 1-2).
However, in anthropology, Tim Ingold shows that this separation has many implications because of leaving our involvement in the world ambiguous „as we have come to live in a world where thought is active and action is passive“ (Ingold 2000: 416).
An anthropological account on the mind-body problem represents more the view of embodiment. The paradigm of embodiment postulates that: „the body is not an object to be studied in relation to culture but is to be considered as the subject of culture, or in other words as the existential ground for culture“ (Csordas 1990: 5), hence it is already situated in and constituted by culture.
Mind-Body Problem in Phenomenology
Such an approach stems from the school of phenomenology pioneered by the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the latter of whom wrote that: „the body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be involved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 82).
Phenomenologists take the position that consciousness originates from the body and is the body projecting itself into the world. Individuality can never be understood as long as the world is made into an object because both universality and the world lie at the subject’s core. It is realized only “if the world is the field of our experience, and if we are nothing else but a view of the world…” (ibid : 406).
Therefore, it can be thought that an individual’s consciousness is never an individual thing standing distinct from the world and culture it is situated in. I found much inspiration and assistance from a phenomenological approach in describing the experiences of myself and my informants, which is why I have included it in my research.
The Difficult Problem of Consciousness
There have been many scientific inquiries and treatises on the topic of consciousness but so far no consensus has been reached.
The philosopher John Searle’s common-sense definition of consciousness – called as such for its face value „…refers to those states of sentience or awareness that typically begin when we wake from a dreamless sleep and continue through the day until we fall asleep again, die, go into a coma or otherwise become unconscious“ (1998: 381).
Consciousness and all other mental phenomenon are said to be higher features of the brain caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain (ibid: 379). But this does not give answers to how and why we have phenomenal experiences.
What’s It Like to Be a Conscious Bat?
The most widely cited and influential thought experiment about consciousness (Dennett 1991: 441) is that of Thomas Nagel who, in his 1974 paper „What Is it Like to Be a Bat?“, argued that „an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.”
He uses bats to explain his thesis because they are mammals and their sonar system is similar to the human sense of vision. Although it would be possible for us to imagine what it would be like to fly, navigate around the environment, hang upside down, Nagel suggests that it is still impossible for humans to truly understand what is it like to be a bat because their brains would not have been wired to be like that of a bat from birth. You would be a bat-man – a man with the body of a bat and but the consciousness and perspective of a human.
The only unquestionable fact of our experience is our own mental activity, which means that we can only know what it is like to be ourselves.
When asked, how to define consciousness, my informants would say that it is indefinable and not found anywhere – it is supra-spatial and indefinable. Definitions are said to give something a form – restrict it within a framework – but consciousness is formless and infinite. Something can be placed somewhere only if it is limited and bound. That which is boundless cannot be localized.
A Field of Consciousness
The nature of consciousness is consciousness – to be conscious. But still, what I discovered during my fieldwork was that at least the practitioners of Transcendental Meditation and its discourse have created a conditional viewpoint of consciousness as a field. Here is what one of them named Enn said:
Mathematics approaches all phenomenon through distances and quantifying temporality and spatiality. Therefore, consciousness can be viewed conditionally as a field, which comprises everything and from which everything is made of. It is thus situated nowhere.
This coincides with quantum theory, in which the structure of the Universe is looked upon as based on events not purely substance or matter.
Each of these events inject knowledge into a physical system that bears information, thus the quantum approach to consciousness is “underlined by a dynamical process of chosen course of action, which, on the psychological side, injects a new experience into the stream of consciousness of the human agent and, on the physical side, actualizes brain states that contain the neural correlates of those experiences (Stapp 2007: 889).
This Shit Just Went Quantum
The quantum universe is information-based, as opposed to the purely material one of classical physics. Individual entities are micro-local quantum fields, amidst a much bigger field, that interacts with their neighbors.
In anthropological ethnography, a similar idea is held by Bruce Kapferer who did fieldwork among practitioners of sorcery at Sri Lanka. “It [consciousness] arises in a world of other conscious human beings who participate in the process of consciousness of any particular human being (ibid : 134).
Consciousness takes form in an intentional body, a body directed and oriented towards the horizons of its life-world.
Consciousness, in other words, while embodied, nonetheless extends beyond its physical confines into the world which is fundamentally an inseparable part of the dimensionality of consciousness.
What Is ‘IT’ Then?
The terms used so far all look at the phenomenon in some way or the other but to explain the phenomenological aspect of it, or what is it like to be something, I will be drawing analogies from other fields that are not solely commonsensical but also corresponds with a hypothetical theory of consciousness as a field.
Physicist Michio Kaku gives a space-time theoretical description of consciousness: „Consciousness is the number of feedback loops required to create a model of your position in space in relation with other organisms and in relationship with time“ (2014).
Feedback loops are processes of cause and effect between two parts that interact and are connected with each other. In my own words, it refers to possessing sentience about one’s own body/mind/consciousness and increased awareness of its position amidst other forms of sentience.
The reason why I have chosen this description is that it correlates with the research done on consciousness as a unifying field, namely the aspect of smaller quantum fields being neighbored and influenced by other such fields.
It also fits with the idea of Merleau-Ponty, who stated that “consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’ but of ‘I can’” (1962: 124). When applied to Kaku’s theory, it would mean that the conscious agent is capable of creating higher amounts of feedback loops that include the individual’s own consciousness but also that of other living entities – they possess the sentience and awareness.
The Biggest Tension of the Body-Mind Problem
This is the underlying tension I have come across during my research and experience. On one hand, while awake, it feels as if the body and mind/subject and object are divided, but on the other, especially in a meditative state of consciousness, these dualities seem to collapse.
This is also the position I am going to take in this thesis, namely that Cartesian dualism is almost like an illusion that we perceive as real at face value and that consciousness can be conditionally looked upon as an invisible field of embodied knowledge and events that influence human behavior and their experience.
As you can see, it’s complex and it’s simple at the same time. Explaining these things is very difficult with science and I think that the spiritual teachers fail miserably at it as well.
But I’ll continue with explaining what is transcendental meditation and what I’ve learned about it. I’ll just read a few outtakes from the upcoming chapters here and there.
Carrying On With Meditation
So, transcendental meditation or TM is this meditation technique created by this guy in India named Maharishi. He pioneered the movement and founded the global Transcendental Meditation organization as well. I have no affiliations or connections with them other than my research.
They say that TM involves no beliefs, religious ideas, spiritual lifestyle or special powers – which I saw to be true. It’s just a mental technique that you can use to induce certain brain states and altered states of consciousness with.
And I must say that it’s very effective – it’s so simple but the speed at which you gain control over your mind and how easy it is is quite amazing.
Basically, you sit down to meditate and you repeat a mantra. A mantra is a two syllable word that doesn’t have any magical significance or power to it. You can even gain the same effect by repeating any 2-syllable word like „NA-TURE, I-AM, CUL-TURE“ or just make random vowels like „inn-ann“ whatever floats your boat.
How Does the Mantra Work
The mantra is only a means of focusing on something while meditating. Once you start meditation, you begin to repeat the mantra over and over again.
At first, you say it out loud but then you gradually lower its volume in your head. The sound is traced back even further in successively finer stages in the thinking process until the finest stage of thought is transcended and the mind is left in a state what is called in TM literature as ‘pure consciousness’ (Samadhi).
Maharishi (1963) described pure consciousness as a state of non-dual awareness between the subject and the absolute Being of existence. People use words, such as ‘separate, distinct, infinite, unbound, timeless’ and ‘perfectly silent, beyond thought’, to explain this state (Maharishi: 1972).
In my own experience, I want to add the aspect of stillness. That is what essentially happens – muscles relax and thoughts settle.
How to Reach Pure Consciousness
To reach this state of pure consciousness, one has to gradually refine the mantra down to its finer form of vibration, which is achieved by bringing one’s full attention to the mantra and enclosing oneself from other perceptions in the environment as much as possible, as to promote concentration.
- When given the mantra, you receive it in its most material form – just the word.
- As you start repeating it out loud, you begin to focus your attention solely on its sound.
- Eventually, you stop saying it out loud and repeat it only in your head.
- The refinement continues further until the mantra begins to fade away. It starts to lose its physical form completely.
- You then do not even actually think about it or say it either.
- Its conceptual form – something you could get a hold of with your mind – vanishes entirely and all that is left is only its vibrational frequency.
This is when you have entered this so-called pure consciousness where no effort is required to maintain a meditative state. Despite there being nothing to trace down, you do not un-experience it or lose track of the repeated intervals either. It still exists and you can feel it being there, although completely silent.
What Does ‘IT’ Feel Like
It feels empty in the sense that you are not attached to any sensory or perceptual experience and are simply dwelling there. But at the same time, it feels full in its bliss or ‘bliss-full-ness’. This is my own phenomenological account that is very similar to those of others as well.
As Maharishi (1997) put it, the object of experience fades away with the help of the mantra – when the mantra disappears, the subject/experiencer “finds themselves awake to their own existence.”
Are Dualists Right?
Okay, I want to return to the idea of body-mind dualism again.
One of the biggest problems with Descartes’ dualism is that it takes the body and mind as separate entities, whereas there is evidence to prove them being very deeply linked.
- In cases of brain damage (e.g. car accidents, drug abuse, disease), the mental qualities of the person in harm are always influenced or compromised.
- In neuroscience, there is strong empirical evidence showing that cognitive processes have a physical basis in the brain (Dehaene and Naccache 2001) and that mental activity influences the entire physiology and vice versa.
The state of one’s physiology has a profound effect on meditation. For instance, the food you eat influences the brain’s cognitive processes and the position one sits in while meditating can hinder concentration by making the practitioner focus on the discomfort. That’s why it’s easier to meditate in between cozy blankets than on a hard chair.
The more physical stimuli you have to focus on, the harder it is for you to enter a meditative state. That’s why the mantra is so effective – you have only one single thing to think about. It’s like playing Jedi mind tricks to your mind. “These are not the droids you’re looking for – just keep repeating the mantra.”
As you refine the mantra to its finer form, eventually, you cease to be “about” anything and become silent. This is the still and pure state of consciousness that, in my own phenomenology, does not imply towards being unconscious but instead means that you exist with the world without any preceding thought or action and simply are there. It is the presence of non-dual awareness.
As one establishes the state of pure consciousness, one’s physiology becomes less active, in terms of entropy and energy needs, and, according to practitioners, the mind becomes silent.
Some Wierd Meditation Stuff
Meditation itself, in general, is described by my informants as the effortless quieting of the mind and ceasing of thought activity.
One dives into oneself, on board the mantra, until the mind silences on the level of thought.
Knowledge of oneself in space consisting of thoughts, emotions and the signals coming from sense organs, all of which begin to dissolve, while the person remains to be completely alert.
After this, there is not a lot of perceptions to grasp onto that would create a solid and distinguishable ground for one’s subjectivity.
In my own experience, it feels as if the body and mind merge or melt together with the environment, as the point of separation between the three becomes very hard to identify.
Dualism Strikes Back
This made me think about Cartesian dualism again.
I looked it up again and found that Descartes’ infamous phrase has actually been taken out of context.
Instead of saying just: “Cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am,” the sentence was preceded by: “[W]e cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt…” (Descartes, 1983: 10). It’s given more compactly as: “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum – I can doubt, therefore, I think, therefore I am.”
It says that the only thing we can be sure of is that we exist – we can experience what it is like to be ourselves and we are having conscious experiences. If we can doubt of our existence, question our presence in the world and recognize our own subjective experience, then we cannot deny that we are a subjective being inside a world.
Although I would agree with that to a certain extent – that we are indeed individuals with our own experiences and sensory perceptions – this feeling disappears during deep meditation.
Is the Cartesian Dualism Real?
In my opinion, the Cartesian divide almost happens just because we are self-conscious. “Only because we are immersed in the world can we imagine ourselves existing separately from it.”
It is as if our analytical mind creates this distinction because we can identify successive experiences from one another. In pure consciousness, there is nothing to be experienced – it is pure and silent. It might feel as if one’s body’s boundaries begin to disappear.
In my own experience, there have been brief episodes where I simply lose myself completely both my sense of time and space. Time or other temporal/spatial perceptions merge together. After I stop meditating, I slowly open my eyes. Then I experience a momentary shift in consciousness again – the body seems and feels slightly foreign to me.
It is as if I do not want to move anywhere. At first, I even cannot do it because all my muscles are relaxed and restful. I would much rather remain in that blissful state a little longer.
This is the notion of re-emerging dualism I just talked about.
It is not that there is a divide between the body and mind, it is just that I experience it while being self-conscious – that is in an ordinary state of waking consciousness, wherein I can doubt about my subjective existence.
My Meditation Sessions in a Nutshell
My regular meditation sessions alone usually begin with me getting into a comfortable position, taking a few deep breaths and starting to repeat the mantra.
Nevertheless, it seems to be a cardinal rule that I still get random thoughts popping into my awareness. This monkey mind or squirrel cage.
Sometimes they rob me of my attention completely and I follow them – I drift off into some story or loop and only a while later notice that I have lost the mantra entirely.
I then drop the thought and start with the mantra again. That’s how you’re building new neural pathways in your brain – you experience something like a distractive thought and then what you do afterward is going to create a habitual response.
- If you keep going down that rabbit hole and start browsing social media, then you’re gonna continue doing it.
- If, however, you stay calm and relaxed, you say – “These are not the droids you’re looking for” – and you guide your focus back to the mantra. That’s how you condition your brain to stay concentrated even when you’re reading, when you’re studying, working out or even talking to someone else.
This will not be successful if there is force involved or when I am trying to make it happen. Instead, it is a complete letting go that happens by “distracting” your mind to the mantra – to give it something to be about until it is not.
My body enters into a blissful state whereby breathing becomes shallower and slower. Yet, my respiratory rate is still powerful enough to keep me oxygenized. As it decreases ever so slightly, I begin to sink into the transcendental field even more. It is a gradual falling to its surface levels and then merging together into oneness with it.
Self-Consciousness the Crown Jewel of Existence
Okay, I think it’s a good spot to end it there. That covered the first chapter of my thesis, which was the most important one.
The main message I think is that your body and mind are intertwined entities and that we experience this dichotomy or this sense of being something just because we’re self-conscious.
It’s quite mind-boggling to think about that evolution has led us down this rabbit hole where we develop self-awareness and bam we’re instantly pulled out of the natural world around us on a phenomenological level. Monkeys aren’t aware of evolution, or the Milky Way Galaxy or death – at least not that science knows of.
However, our human consciousness has so many feedback loops that we can see ourselves in space and time in relation to other sentient beings.
It’s our highest stage of development right now, but at the same time, it can cause a lot of existential turmoil. We know the potential within us but we’re almost trapped by our own being. That’s a topic for a whole nother episode.
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But thanks for listening, my name is Siim Land.
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