A Small Outline of Consciousness

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This is just a small overview, to give some basic understanding about consciousness for the purpose of easier study of the mind. For the broader picture in which the information of this post is contained, please read the main blog “Keys to the Abhidhamma system”.

Before the arising of the most rudimentary forms of mentation, primarily during deep dreamless sleep, there is the condition of utter unconsciousness. This is termed the stream of bhavanga, which being “all unconscious”, is usually taken to stand entirely outside the mental process.

In the first phase of the sequence of the activities of the mind, stand unconscious inclinations from the deepest past, that have almost no relation to the present life. These being thus, gain close to no mental energy from the present life and are due to that generally difficult to apprehend. As the mind awakens to greater life, there arise dreams, wandering (unconscious) thoughts and emotional reactions, all of which arise as a result of some prior sense-impressions. It is only when these unconscious processes become arrested, that adverting to present sense-objects and active conscious processing become possible. During active mental processing, the mind transforms sense-objects into ideas. First by giving a name to the thing apprehended (evolving a name concept), later by, via the process of thought, creating more complex ideas that give meanings to the object thus processed.

Yet, as a person develops, usually through contact with religion or through the acquisition of metaphysical ideas, the mind will begin to process ideas which have to be felt to become understandable. Thus, there begins to form a closer relationship between mental processing and the ‘unconscious’ life-continuum. Which gradually increases in depth.

Spheres of Consciousness

When a being, having acquired a conception of good and bad, realises itself as being definitely bad, it will due to that get drawn to the places where suffering prevails.

For beings in the grip of suffering (or in a realm of suffering), mental processing generally will not go beyond the mere receiving of usually painful and unpleasant impressions, whereafter the life-continuum will just move into latency, bringing into manifestation (thereafter…i.e. life-continuum vibrating) kammical seeds that are responsive towards those painful and unpleasant impressions (i.e. inner mind states of agony and agitation).

When a being, having acquired a conception of good and bad, perceives the good in the realm of the senses, it will due to that be drawn to the world of the senses.

Thus, for human beings, as well as for animals, although the nature and quality of existence can greatly vary, the sphere of the senses is the main reference point for the workings of thought and the accomplishing of kamma. And so will in sense-sphere world, the main activity of consciousness be the receiving, designating and processing of sense objects and ideas related to the senses, occasionally followed by activity producing intentions.

Further, when a being, having acquired a conception of good and bad, perceives more and more the sphere of the senses as bad, and due to that searches for some higher good, it slowly draws away from the sense-sphere world into a world of finer matter. Finer feelings, light or apparitions, self-created or objectively real, gradually begin to appear more often in the field of consciousness. And the mind accumulating kamma in that sphere, begins to enter it more and more fully. Thus consciousness begins to expand in extend (that is, in space) and duration.

When, based upon prior refinement, the mind can see and engage directly with ideas utterly disconnected from material things, consciousness becomes established in the immaterial sphere. Here the objects of conscious processing will be abstract ideas of a scientific or cosmological character. And based on such processing will the mind initiate kamma in that sphere. As there is no resistance to consciousness by any matter, as long it dwells in that sphere, there will be no perception of locality, nor of time. Both appear, when reflected upon as infinite and eternal.

Having seen the futileness of the realm of the senses, having glimpsed the imperfection of the fine-material sphere and recognising that the mere exploration of ideas is not in itself the highest path, consciousness, learning to comprehend each sphere in matters of ultimate truth and natural law, begins to enter and exit each in accordance with what is needed for spiritual perfection and liberation from worldliness. Thus, gradually it becomes accomplished in ‘moving about’ without accumulating any personal kamma in any of those spheres. With that consciousness’s proper sphere becomes the path of holiness.

Note to the word ‘Fine-material’: It took me a long time to in any way get used to the designation of fine-material consciousness (there is an alternative rendering of form-sphere consciousness which seems even worse), but that is the Abhidhamma designation for anything related to experiences that are subtler (and purer) than mere sensory experiences. One may say, that the bottom end of the fine-material element delineates all experiences of Qi or Prana, providing the basis for the mental factor of sustainment (the second Jhāna factor), while at the upper end it has become so refined, that it gives way to pure mindfulness and spiritual vision.

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