An introduction to the nature of perception

NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS

If we wanted to speak the truth about the nature of consciousness, experience or reality, we would have to remain silent. That is why it’s said that the highest teaching is silence. However, very few of us are sufficiently mature to intuit the reality of consciousness from silence. Consciousness cannot really be defined, but this would be good provisional definition of consciousness: consciousness is that in which all experience appears, that with which all experience is known and that out of which all experience is made.

What do I mean by ‘experience’ in this context? Anything objective: thoughts, memories, ideas, concepts, feelings, sensations of the body, sights, sounds, tastes, textures, smells, and so on.

All of these appear in something. That something is what we call consciousness or awareness. The common name for it is ‘I’, or myself. The religious name for it is God’s infinite being. But all these refer to that in which experience appears, with which it is known and, ultimately, out of which it is made.

Now, even from a conventional point of view our thoughts and feelings appear within ourself. What is not so obvious is that the experience of the body, which we experience mostly as sensation, also appears in ourself, that is, in consciousness. And what is even less clear is that our perceptions – for instance, sounds and sights – also appear in the same consciousness, or the same field, in which our thoughts, feelings and sensations appear.

Consciousness is not actually a space – in fact, it has no dimensions – but let us provisionally give consciousness a space-like or field-like quality, and see that whatever thoughts are appearing are appearing in this space-like, aware field.

Now, with your attention, go back and forth between the thought and the sound. Ask yourself the question, ‘Does my attention ever leave the field of awareness?’

Notice that the sound appears in exactly the same field that the thought appears in. Conventional thinking would have us believe that the thought appears inside what I am and the sound appears outside what I am. But if we look for a line that divides the two in our actual experience, it is never found. Just as a line is on the map but never in the territory, so the line is in belief but never in experience. Now have this question in mind: ‘Does my attention ever leave consciousness? Does my attention ever leave the field of awareness?’

In fact, you could play devil’s advocate with yourself. Try to leave the field of awareness. Try to come in contact with or attend to something that appears just outside consciousness. See simply and clearly that nobody has ever, nor could anyone ever, come in contact with anything outside awareness or consciousness. Our entire world culture is founded on a single belief, the belief that there is a substance that exists outside of consciousness, called ‘matter’. Scientists are still looking for it – they haven’t found it! 

When we hear the question, ‘Am I aware?’, awareness directs itself towards the question. At the end of the question, there is a pause in which awareness has nowhere to direct itself, and as a result it collapses for a moment, sinks back for a moment into itself, and then rises again in the form of the answer, ‘Yes’.

In this pause awareness tastes itself, momentarily. In the pause between the question and the answer, we become aware that we are aware. Not only am I aware, but I am aware that I am aware. In that pause, consciousness knows itself; it recognizes its own being. It is consciousness itself that knows that it is conscious. It is awareness itself that recognizes its own being. Try now to think of something that has no objective qualities. It’s not possible. Although thought is made only of consciousness, it cannot know the stuff it is made of.

INFINITE UNDIVIDED FORMLESS CONSCIOUSNESS

Consciousness is an aware field, but because it has no dimensions, we can say it is more like a presence than a space-like field. It is not possible to think, let alone speak, of something that has no dimensions, so in order to speak about the nature of awareness we give it this space-like quality. We describe it as the space of awareness in which all experience appears, or the screen of awareness on which all experience appears. It has no objective qualities, and is thus sometimes said to be empty. It’s not really empty, but it is empty from the point of view of objects. It is empty of all objective content or quality. It has no finite qualities and is thus said to be infinite, not finite. Being infinite and empty, there is nothing in it that can divide it.

If we ask thought about the nature of awareness, thought will tell us that every single body has its own package of awareness. But if we ask the one who knows, that is, if we asked awareness itself, ‘What do you know about yourself? What is your experience of yourself?’ awareness would reply, if it could speak, ‘I have no knowledge of any border or distinction or form in myself. I am a single open, empty, indivisible, intimate field’.

That means that the knowing or the consciousness with which each of us is knowing our experience is the same consciousness. It means that consciousness can never be divided into parts or objects or selves. It means that if each of us were to take the thought ‘I’ and trace that ‘I’ to its origin, to its source, and if we were to trace it far enough back to the essential nature of each of our minds, we would all arrive at the same consciousness. There cannot be two infinite, empty spaces. The knowing with which each of us knows our experience is the same knowing.

Each of our finite minds is precipitated out of the same infinite field of consciousness. Each of our finite minds is a modulation of the same infinite, space-like field of consciousness. If we think of each finite mind as a field, we can say that part of the fields of our finite minds overlap, and we call that the shared outside world. Part of the fields of our finite minds don’t overlap, and we call that our private thoughts and feelings.

The reason we all experience the same world is not that there is a world made of matter appearing outside consciousness.  It is because each of our finite minds is precipitated within and from the same field of infinite consciousness. It is because our minds share consciousness that we feel we share the world. We do share the same world, but the world we share is made of consciousness, not matter, and we are that very consciousness that is informing all finite minds with its shared content.

No object ever comes out of consciousness; no object ever exists in its own right. The seeming existence of all things belongs to infinite consciousness, just like the apparent existence of characters in a movie belongs to the screen. There are never any divisions in the screen itself. The divisions are always in the appearances, never in the reality.

This means that this very experience that each of us is experiencing is God’s infinite being alone. There is nothing being experienced now other than infinite consciousness, and it is infinite consciousness itself that refracting itself into a multiplicity of finite minds and appearing to itself as a multiplicity of finite worlds. But from consciousness’s point of view it is never experiencing anything other than its own intimate, infinite self.

When the Sufis say, ‘La ilaha illallah’, they mean, ‘There is no God but God’. In other words, no thing has an existence of its own, no thing is a thing unto itself. All things borrow their thingness, their is-ness, their reality, from God’s infinite being. God’s infinite being shines in each of our minds as the knowledge ‘I am’. That is why the ultimate spiritual practice is to give the ‘I’ that I am our attention, to allow the mind to sink back into its subjective source.

Conventional thinking tells us that the experience of perception is divided into two essential ingredients: one, a subject that perceives, and two, an object that is perceived. This understanding is enshrined in the structure of language with phrases such as, ‘I see the tree’, ‘I hear the wind’, ‘I touch the person’, ‘I taste the apple’ and ‘I smell the flower’. In each case, a subject – ‘I’, the self – is joined to an object – the tree, wind, person, apple or flower – through an act of perceiving. Now, in order to understand the nature of perception, we need to explore both sides of this equation: ‘I’, the subject, and the object or world. 

Traditionally, mystics have explored the nature of ‘I’, the self, and artists and scientists have explored the nature of the object or world. In other words, mystics have tended to face inwards, directing their attention to the heart of their being or essential nature, and scientists and artists have tended to face outwards towards the objects of nature and the world. At first glance it may seem that these two set out in opposite directions. However, if each party explores deeply enough, they inevitably come to the same conclusion. Indeed, it is only because, in most cases, each party doesn’t explore deeply enough that the conclusions of mystics on the one hand, and artists and scientists on the other, tend to differ so radically. 

The painter Paul Cézanne said, ‘A time is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will trigger a revolution’. The revolution to which he referred is the coming together of these two perspectives – the convergence of the mystic’s, artist’s and scientist’s deepest understanding – and the implications this has for all aspects of our lives. So let us explore, briefly, both these perspectives.

The nature of the self

Conventional thinking tells us that it is ‘I, the body-mind’ that is aware of objects and the world. However, one simple, clear look at experience indicates that we are aware of the body and mind in just the same way that we are aware of objects and the world. In other words, the body-mind is not the subject of experience. The body-mind is an object of experience that appears and disappears like all other objects. Now, what is the perceiving subject that we call ‘I’ that knows or that is aware of all these perceived objects, that is, the body, mind and world?

‘I’ refers to whatever it is that is aware of the objects of the body, mind and world. This ‘I’ cannot be found as any kind of object, that is, as a thought, feeling, sensation or perception, and yet ‘I’ is undeniably present and aware. Hence, to be present and aware is inherent in ‘I’ which for this reason is referred to as ‘awareness’, meaning simply the Presence of that which is aware. This awareness that is our essential nature is like an aware, empty openness in which all experience takes place, but it is not itself an experience.

Awareness is not located in time and is thus eternal or ever-present; it cannot be found in space and is thus infinite, that is, it has no finite or observable qualities.

The nature of the object, other or world: From matter to mind

Conventional thinking tells us that an object is made out of inert stuff called ‘matter’. But what does experience say? Take the apparent world that we now see. Our only experience of such a world is the current perception. In fact, we cannot legitimately say that we know or perceive an independently existing world, that is, a world that exists in its own right, independent of our perception. All we can legitimately say, based on actual experience, is that we know our perception of the world. 

In fact, we cannot legitimately say that we know our perception ‘of the world’ because, as we have seen, we never come in contact with any such world. We only know its perception. So, rather than saying we know our perception ‘of the world’, we can only legitimately say that we know perception. Having discovered that we never actually know, perceive or come in contact with an object or world, as such, we can now explore our experience more deeply.

Do we actually find an object called ‘a perception’, or do we rather find the experience of perceiving? See clearly that we never actually find the seen object; we just find the experience of seeing. We never find the heard sound; we just find the experience of hearing. We never experience an object called ‘a taste’; we just know the experience of tasting.

In this way, see clearly that experience does not consist of a collection of objects or nouns, known by a separate, independent subject. Rather, it is more like a flow of experiencing, in which the apparent subject and object are contained as one. In fact, in the language of non-duality we could say that there are only verbs, no nouns! It is not ‘I see the tree’ but rather, ‘There is seeing’; not ‘I hear the wind’ but rather, ‘There is hearing’.

As such, the apparently perceived object is beginning to lose its solidity, separateness, otherness, object-ness. In other words, the seen or heard object seems to exist at a distance from ourself, but the experience of seeing or hearing always takes place close, intimately one with ourself. Thus, we have discovered that we never really know, perceive or come in contact with inert stuff called ‘matter’ but that all we know is ‘mind’. That is, all we know or experience of the apparent object or world is ‘perceiving’ – that is, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. Now, what is the nature of perceiving?

The nature of perceiving: From mind to pure knowing

Who or what is it that knows or is aware of the experience of perceiving? Ask yourself, ‘What is the relationship between the experience of perceiving and the knowing of it?’

See if you can find these two elements in your experience: one, perceiving, and two, the knowing of it. Or are ‘perceiving’ and ‘the knowing of it’ one and the same experience?

In this way, discover that experience is not actually divided into two essential ingredients. Experience does not comprise one part that knows and another that is known. It is not inherently divided into a subject and an object. 

We do not find a perception and the knower of that perception. We find that a perception is made out of the experience of perceiving, and that perceiving and the knowing of it are one and the same.

In other words, perceiving is made out of pure knowing. Reach out an imaginary hand in your experience and try to touch the stuff that perceiving is made of. Try to touch the stuff that seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling is made of.  All we find, know or experience there is the knowing of it. In fact, we don’t find the knowing of it, just as previously we never found our perception of the world. We just find pure knowing.

The light of pure knowing

And what is it that finds, knows or is aware of this pure knowing? Is knowing known by something other than itself? No! This knowing knows itself. This pure knowing, or awareness, never knows, is aware of or comes in contact with anything other than itself.

For this reason I call it pure knowing. It is a knowing that is not tainted with the slightest trace of subjectivity or objectivity. It never knows anything other than itself. And the name that is commonly given to the absence of an object or other, to the absence of separation or duality, is beauty or loveNot to know an apparent object as ‘an object’ is the experience of beauty: not to know an apparent other as ‘an other’ is the experience of love.

Beauty and love are not special kinds of experience that are limited to one or two objects or people; they are the nature of all experience. From the point of view of awareness or pure knowing – which is the only real point of view – all experience is made only of beauty and love. That is, from the point of view of awareness or pure knowing, there is only itself, being, knowing and loving itself alone. Thus, from the point of view of awareness or pure knowing, there are no finite objects or selves. It is only from the illusory point of view of an imaginary finite self that finite objects or selves are experienced. From the point of view of awareness or pure knowing, there is only its own eternal, infinite self, and all apparently finite objects or selves are That alone.

‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.’ When experience is no longer imagined or felt to be divided into two essential ingredients – a subject called ‘I’, inside the body-mind, and an object, other or world at a distance from and made out of something other than ourself – it will be known and felt as it truly is, infinite and eternal.

Everything, all seeming things, shine with the light of awareness, of pure knowing. As the Sufis say, ‘Wherever the eye falls, there is the face of God’.

-Rupert Spira