This post is based on dialogue rather than monologue, which brings a different approach to things. Because it is already fairly lengthy, I’ll not offer much by way of introduction. Hariod and I have had a brief discussion on the topic of reincarnation and whether or not we consider life to be a conscious continuum. I hope you enjoy. For those not inclined to read through all of this, at least a haiku:
Crispy autumn leaves
scurrying across the street.
Red whispers tumbling.
A discussion on life and death: is conscious life a continuum?
Hariod: Michael, I think we both accept the physical aspect of life as a given, that we are not merely ideas, or pure consciousness – agreed? If that is so, let’s see what happens when we tread upon the speculative ground of the after-life, or rebirth, reincarnation – however we choose to couch it. What do you think, or instinctively feel, about this – does anything endure, or is anything conditioned following brain death? I want to be open to this possibility, not in hope, rather in the spirit of enquiry. That said, all such enquiries are necessarily provisional, subject to refinement, and perhaps wrongly put, though with your permission, perhaps we can start with this elementary one: ‘is conscious life a continuum?’
Michael: Hariod, I have come to think of what we would call the physical aspect of life as the flowering, or creative movement, of a timeless awareness. This timeless awareness is without beginning or end, and in this conception the whole of physical existence would, in fact, be the product of an idea. So in this sense I do intuit the existence of a continuum of being. I would say that we emerge from it and return to it, without ever truly separating from it. What I don’t know is whether the capsule of conscious awareness I possess today—the identity with which I am familiar and the boundaries of my awareness—marches onwards indefinitely as an “atom” of consciousness, as a continuum of conscious life as it were. My initial reaction is that it does not. I don’t think we are enduring atoms of conscious awareness, and I think the idea that we are is perhaps the fundamental misconception at work in the world today. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, I also would argue against the notion that the particular character, nuance and quality of being that we call “Hariod” is lost… Hariod and Michael are in there somewhere, as colors are hidden in pure white light, but in the ultimate sense we are all of the same being.
Hariod: So, you’re suggesting that our physicality is a causal effect, not merely of other physicalities, but of what you would call a ‘timeless awareness’; is that correct, or would you rather not discuss in terms of causation? That is my first question; the second is to ask how this ‘continuum of being’ comes to be knitted together as a continuum – is it dependent upon physicality to achieve that? Thirdly, when you say that ‘we emerge from it’, in what sense is the ‘we’ you invoke instantiated prior to emergence in physicality – or is it not? This is the perennially difficult question of enduring selfhood of course. Lastly, and I know I’m placing all the onus for answers on you here, could this ‘capsule of consciousness’ as you call it, exert a causal influence both upon itself and upon your ‘timeless awareness’ itself?
Michael: Yes to your first question. I would view physicality itself as being contingent upon the existence of a non-physical, non-temporally bound awareness that is without quality or condition, and that cannot be influenced in any way by what may occur in the fields of physical expression.
Regarding the continuum, I want to be careful to denote the possible distinction between the continuum of a discrete being, such as a “capsule of awareness” that we so readily perceive ourselves to be, and a continuum of being that is the whole of all existence. I think you are asking about the latter. Assuming so, my feeling is that it is not in any way dependent upon physical expression to be timeless, un-conditioned and continuous. As all that arises does so as an extension of what it is, it is inherently continuous over and through all forms of existence.
To your third question, I have a couple of notions that arise by way of reply. First, I would simply say that I don’t think a particular, conditioned “self” can instantiate without some vehicle for establishing relationship to other conditioned expressions of being. This is because it seems to me that in order for conditioned selves to arise, they need to somehow “push off” from one another to come into some manifest expression. They must have relationship as a vehicle for differentiating and influencing one another. Whether this might happen before a child is born on this earth, I don’t know. I think that it could quite easily occur in more subtle fields of consciousness for instance, but I have no direct experience of myself in this regard and so simply don’t know if it does or not.
In the absolute sense, which is the second way I am inclined to answer your question, one might say that each of us is an idea held within the timeless, unconditioned awareness. In that sense, being outside of time and space, the idea for a Michael and for a Hariod would be eternal.
Now this obviously gets us to your fourth question about influence, and unfortunately by now I’ve made a complete mess of things. There are quite simply paradoxes, at least in my own thinking, about these questions. But I would say that conditioned selves that emerge from the ground of being influence one another continuously, for that is their nature and actually it is requisite that they do so in order to mutually come to expression, but they cannot change the ground of being upon which they stand, or from which they emerge. What is influenced is what is known and expressed within the field of conditioned selves. What cannot be influenced at all is the timeless ground of being; that is inscrutable – save for its continuous revelation through conditioned selves.
Hariod: That awareness which you describe sounds like the sort of thing that may present itself – I hesitate to say that ‘we experience it’ – in transcendental moments of illumination. It doesn’t delineate itself in space and time, or as a matrix of subject and object, and instead simply reveals itself to itself as itself, not as an object in the mind and without distinctive qualities, and yet in an utterly undeniable way. This is what frustrates a lot of people who want a description of it I suspect.
Anyway, I accept that this awareness exists as some sort of ground-state, or Tabula Rasa, of everything, without which there is nothing – not the presence (as idea) of ‘no things’, just nothingness, maybe an eternal void, although even that suggests spatial form for the void to fill. One can never know the absence of this ground-state, only that it is, when it is, and as it is. In other words: it cannot be remembered. [‘re-membered’ – the constituent member parts reassembled.]
As regards your intuited ‘continuum of being’, then yes, I am of course taking it in the sense of that same ‘timeless and unconditional awareness’, though think the inclusion of the term ‘being’ may cloud the issue Michael. Beingness, to me suggests discreteness and finiteness perhaps? Then again ‘non-being’ suggests absence, so it’s tricky.
Going on to your further point, then you say the ‘self’ has no continuum. I agree; in my own terms, I see it as simply a narrative construct held together and perpetuated by the stream of mentation and memory. It’s a brain-dependent homunculus, and it dies with the mind, or possibly before if seen for what it is. That just leaves us with what to me is the fanciful notion of the soul, and which might undergo some Pythagorean transmigration across the continuum of awareness. I think that concept is nonsensical; a put-up job forged by (man-made) religions and going back some 7,000 years or so. But what do you think; might you and I indeed possess immaterial souls, Michael, and I simply don’t get it?
You go on to suggest that we may exist as if Platonic ideas, eternal and immutable. That would be rather like an enduring soul would it not – an entity not subject to birth or death, as its physical counterpart would be? That feels too romantic for my plodding and arid sensibilities, and yet as consciousness is conditioned, and on the basis that it exists beyond mere physicality, then the question for me is whether the conditioning ends upon the death of the brain. This is one way in which rebirth can be accommodated – though obviously not for Hard Materialists!
This matter of condition-dependency also brings us back to the central question of whether conscious life is a continuum. Phrased another way, is the life of consciousness (as a conditioning, causal stream) body-bound necessarily? Can the conditioning effect obtain post-mortem? If we think about it, the conditioning of consciousness allied to the living individual is not mapped physically with neural correlates; it’s latent and immaterial. Why then, could it not persist – if only for an instant – so as to condition some later moment of consciousness that may itself be allied to another living individual?
That conception makes the elephant in the room disappear. And for clarity, the elephant represents the question of whatever it is that gets reborn or reincarnated. For myself, both self and soul are mythical constructs, and yet the conditioning of consciousness is not. Accepting this conception is satisfying for me, as not only can I do some good in this life, but the possibility holds that those actions – as imprints upon a signature consciousness at death – may do good in some future life. And so on.
This is probably as far as I can take the question Michael – the end point for my own speculations, though I’m happy to keep engaging with your own of course.
Michael: Well, there are a lot of worms in this can of mine, Hariod. Your response leaves me wanting to clarify one or two notions. First, as I mentioned obliquely, I think that consciousness can be conditioned without what we are calling physical reality. In practical terms for this discussion, I mean that I think consciousness can be conditioned without being directly coupled to the physical hardware of any particular biological organism. If the absolute is unconditioned, then any personified form of consciousness would be what I’m calling conditioned. But I don’t think it is necessarily the case that particularity, which is perhaps a better word than personification, requires a physical form to take on its particular character. It merely needs some vehicle for expression—some means of differentiating a ‘this’ from a ‘that’.
To give an example of this, many indigenous spiritual traditions allow for dialogue with the “spirits”, or the ancestors. Having had some exposure to one of these traditions, I can only say it would be very difficult for me to argue the experiences of people within these traditions are fabrications, and I would never try to do so. Nor would I try to explain them away as artifacts of neuroscience. Though I believe these experiences are quite genuine, I still do not feel it is necessarily the case that what we think of as a discrete ‘self’ proceeds on a long journey through countless lifetimes, becoming one person, then another, then another. This type of thinking, in my opinion, is predicated upon a sort of confusion of the timeless and the time-bound.
It may be easier for me to try and explain with an analogy. Let us say the absolute is a great mass of clay, and is sculpted into various shapes. Those shapes would be particulars… or beings. A shape could be made that endures for a time, and then passes away, but the memory of the shape need not pass away. Now the specific quantity of clay that formed that first shape does probably not, in my opinion, remain discrete from the one great mass of clay that is the absolute, but instead falls back into it upon dissolution. The manifest shape dissolves. It does not in my opinion continue to stay discrete, to change costumes if you will, and go on to make a different shape in a subsequent time period. The specific quantity of clay that made the shape of Michael is gone, absorbed into the infinite, but the idea of Michael is never lost. And any bit of the great mass of clay that is the absolute could embody that pattern. In a very real sense all of the clay is Michael. All of the clay was Michael. For the clay is nothing if not continuous. Michael, as a seemingly discrete lump of clay wandering around America briefly may or may not have realized he was a continuous extension of all of the clay, but that would be his loss… He might have fallen prey to the idea he was a completely independent, self-existing being, like so many of his time.
Continuing just a bit, if a person ‘A’ had made a strong impact on the lives of others, there may be some who wish to connect with that conditioned bit of clay known as ‘A’ even after her death on Earth. I can think of no reason why the great absolute mass of clay would not be able to form the pattern of ‘A’ for such an interaction. As all of the clay knows precisely what it is to be ‘A’, ‘A’ would respond. All responses, involving communication, necessitate some mobilization through particulars. An extension of the clay, and perhaps none of the specific clay that was involved with A’s life on Earth, could respond to this other person’s desire to connect. And why would it not?
What I’ve tried to suggest here is that I don’t think it’s exactly and only one way or the other. I don’t think it’s the case that physical body hardware is required for the conditioning of consciousness, but I also don’t think that we are nearly as discrete as it seems. I don’t think what we would typically think of as an eternal self exists and endures as an independent capsule of awareness, immutable through countless lifetimes, but rather that our awareness is enfolded back into the sea—into the singular continuum of awareness. If we do have an identity that is changeless—a soul if you will—then there is only one of them and it is all of us and all there is, ever was or will be. That which we experience within us as this changeless soul is the root of all of us. It is both Hariod and Michael.
Thus it is true that Hariod and Michael are particular conditioned expressions of consciousness that will dissolve when their bodies die, and it is also true that there is a timeless, eternal well of all life that is both Hariod and Michael.
Hariod: Okay Michael, I can accept your graceful conception as a possibility, and it chimes analogously for me with how the mind works in subjective experience – that in itself might warrant its further consideration. Nonetheless, something within me wants to pull the reins in a wee bit and stick to consciousness (mind objects), awareness (the illumination of consciousness), and physicality, rather than delving into spirit worlds and perhaps thereafter teleological and cosmological theories. I’ve had minor experiences of such matters, but wouldn’t want to erect them as pillars in this discussion.
The outcome of all this is that we both are open to the idea of that conscious life is a continuum; it intuitively sits well for us, even though for myself, I’ve no desire for any afterlife. For my part, I can’t get a purchase on any mechanism for these Platonic ideals of yours – I just can’t envision a medium (excuse pun) in which they’re carried as memorized templates in effect. It’s probably a failure of my imagination – not the first! Then again, neither can I explain my own instinct that the conditioning effects of consciousness obtain across the moment of death. Still, to posit that they don’t obtain is equally problematical, so I’ll opt for the instinctual response.
I’m going to wrap my contribution up by striking what I think will be a very firm note of agreement between us. That’s to say that whether or not there is an afterlife, we lose nothing, and gain everything, by living a morally and ethically good life here and now. I am perfectly at ease with non-existence, yet ill at ease with wrong-doing and harmfulness. Doing good and remaining harmless is its own reward, and if we want to experience heaven, we need not rely upon any afterlife; it will appear as the self dissolves in pure harmlessness. Peace and thanks to you dear Michael, and I’ll leave you to round-out the discussion here.
Michael: Hariod, very briefly, before I offer my resounding endorsement and gratitude for what is indeed a very firm note of agreement between us in your closing, I just want to say that we have the physicists to help us when our imagination falters… Ha! In reflecting on the medium by which conditioned forms of consciousness might obtain in the absence of gross physical bodies, I realized I’ve taken for granted the fact that I see templates for this all around me. These templates are themes I see built into our world. For instance, the way particle physics endorses the notion of an active vacuum, latent with information and seething with self-cancelling fields that occasionally give rise to something measurable. The way symmetries break open and reveal an up and a down, a left and a right. There is in simpler terms the relationship of the subconscious to the conscious. Where does all the information reside when not in use? One might say in our brains, of course, but as a template, I see an example of a latent continuum from which something emerges from time to time for examination. These are not attempts to say exactly how this may occur, only that I’m infatuated with the idea that nature is riddled with echoes of how things truly are. That is perhaps a discussion for another day.
I was thinking before your last reply that this would all just be hot air if we didn’t somehow get back to the present, and reconnect to the importance of living from our hearts, dissolving falsehood, and continuing to be more open and loving for their own sakes. And there is nothing I could add to your closing really, other than to reiterate it. Despite all we have discussed here, it is in the present, and in our willingness to “dissolve into pure harmlessness” that we gain all that could possibly be gained. There is nowhere else to gain it except for where we are, and where we are is the opportunity to make the most profound choice of our lives, to choose peace. Thereby to discover heaven is all we’ve ever been given.
Many thanks for engaging with me here, Hariod. I enjoyed this very much. Peace to you also.