Discovering Consciousness: A Paradoxical Guide

Janaki Ram
15 min readApr 3, 2023

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With words, I express my experience of becoming aware of the metaphysical nature of Life and Consciousness. The story combines a few simplified concepts from philosophy, science, and spirituality to grasp the abstract nature of one’s existence.

“The real question is not whether life exists after death. The real question is whether you are alive before death. Now is the only reality. All else is either Memory or Imagination. Discover yourself. Otherwise, you have to depend on other people’s opinions who don’t know themselves. — Osho.

The Heartbeat — Becoming Aware of Consciousness

It is 8:00 am, feeling very cold. The advanced medical monitor on my left is displaying my vital signs. I paid attention to it for the first time and wondered what the numbers and beeps meant. The doctors, medics, and nurses surround me, focused, coordinating, and working precisely with instructions from the doctor. These tiny sensors attached to my body send information to other monitors. I heard the surgeon say, “stat.” The responses from others were stable, or a specific number from each monitoring person. It turns out that they were related to my heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, oxygen in my blood, breath speed, etc. Phew, glad they’ve got it all under control!

Someone peering above my head asked, “Are you comfortable breathing with the mask on the face.” What kind of question is that? Of course not, but you don’t argue on an operation table, so I gave a big, fake nod and said, “Oh yeah, I love it.” I could feel the pressure of the oxygen pushing through the mask, making it impossible to breathe slowly, so I pretended to relax. The giant LED above on my left shows my heart’s workings. For a few seconds, the speakers were switched on. Now I could hear my heart in Dolby surround sound, pumping like a beast, but was it in or out of sync? But apparently, that’s what they found out in the previous tests. Who knew my heart was such a rebel?

Evidently, my heart, at sixty-six, is a real overachiever! It’s out here expanding and contracting 100,000 times like it’s training for a marathon, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood daily. I remember wondering, “what could be the total of heartbeats for a sixty-six-year-old, now on the operating table.” I’m poor at math; Now I know consciousness is what kept me up from falling asleep during my math class. Thankfully, it is the anesthesia to my rescue. I’m drowsy, blissful as my eyelids close heavily, and then I don’t know when I became unconscious.

Anaesthesia and Consciousness

A new study, “Studies on the mechanism of general anesthesia” — (Ref at the end of the article.) * Solves the longstanding medical mystery of changes in Consciousness from Anaesthesia. Scientists found that billiard-like break shot to cell-membrane structures triggers the brain’s loss of consciousness from anesthesia. The scientists used modern nanoscale microscopic techniques to observe living cells and fruit flies. Their experiments showed how clusters of lipids in the cell membrane serve as a missing go-between in a two-part mechanism. Brief exposure to anesthesia causes the lipid clusters to move from an ordered state to a disordered one and then back again. These states lead to many subsequent effects that ultimately cause changes in consciousness.** That could be a physical origin aspect of consciousness. Research suggests that anesthetic agents produce their results by disrupting the brain’s normal functioning, leading to decreased neural activity and a loss of consciousness. However, it is still a complex and multifaceted phenomenon not fully understood.

Groggily, I wake up to someone calling me by name. I opened my eyes to find a group of people staring at me like I was a zoo animal. I mean, come on, I know I’m not the most attractive person in the world, but a little decency, please! I realized that my mind had started to work, bringing back the “I am” aspect of separation from the surroundings. My memory and thoughts rushed in as I became aware of my surroundings. I am in the ICU, with many doctors and nurses staring at me like I was their next science experiment. The doctor said she tried to wake me up after the operation, but it seemed I responded weakly and returned to the deep state. The usual me, an overachiever when it comes to napping.

This evaluation of my vitals is happening after six hours of the surgery. The doctor said the pacemaker was working fine, and I was doing well. There is no record of those hours in my mind, but my body was alive and functioning. After gaining consciousness, there was nagging pain on the top right of my chest. I saw a bandage, the tell-tale signs of where they had inserted the pacemaker.

Earlier, I was sick, and after multiple tests, the doctor determined that my heart rate was erratic, especially during sleep, which had long intermediate pauses. The diagnosis was that it falls outside the regular pattern and sometimes critically lower during the night.

When I was diagnosed, I tried to make light of the situation by saying, “that means I’m an advanced meditator. I can slow down my heart rate.” The doctor brushed it aside with a smile, as regular banter. My wife gave me a look that meant, “shut up.” If her look had the power, it could have burnt me. So, I complied with the doctor’s advice for a pacemaker.

Knowing these few things from observation, experience, and science is fascinating.

It is a miracle that the body is alive and still working relentlessly to keep it that way, even in a deep unconscious state.

1. Without consciousness, the brain and other organs might be working in a diminished manner in the background to keep the body systems working against the odds.

2. The funny reality is that the mind cannot comprehend itself even when you are conscious and aware. Anyway, without consciousness, the brain is impaired with a cognitive gap. The memories of our life, the senses, experiences, perceptions, emotions, imagination, beliefs, ideologies, intellect, one’s story, and everything we possess are nothing. They have zero value during that period. Without consciousness, you cannot observe your mind’s inner workings and external world. It is as if every atom of your body is part of existence, and the “I am” aspect has ceased. Realized that the observer and the observed exist as a pair in our thought enabled only by conscious awareness.

3. On gaining consciousness, I appreciated that the brief period of the unconscious state was like a dress rehearsal for death — a state of nothingness. In death, I would permanently be no more, disappearing into nothingness for eternity. The possessions and wealth I own or owe to others, the beliefs and convictions I carried, the entitlement, the power I wielded, and the powerlessness I felt many times are NOT. That “I am” identity, and everything becomes nothing for eternity. What are we running after? Doesn’t it seem like we humans are not bright?

“In the end, the King and the Pawn go back in the same box.” — Italian proverb.

4. I woke up from anesthesia, and my brain said, “Woah, what just happened?” And then I started thinking about consciousness. I’m aware that I’m alive and stuck in the hospital. According to science, consciousness is all about being able to perceive and respond to stuff around you. This makes sense since I keep getting woken up by nurses poking me.

a. According to science, consciousness is related to sentience, or the ability to recognize thoughts, experience emotions, think, feel, and respond to environmental stimuli. It is typically associated with the brain and nervous system.

b. Additionally, consciousness is often described as continuous, so we don’t just randomly pass out all the time or are permanently in a deep sleep.

c. I learned a new word. ‘Qualia’ trying to understand the phenomena. Qualia are incredible personal experiences that cannot be fully communicated or understood by anyone other than the one experiencing them. These experiences can vary widely from person to person.

For example, that feeling you get when you’re at the beach. The sense of awe and wonder when experiencing the beauty of nature, watching a sunset. You feel the soft sand under your feet being washed away as the waves wash onto your feet and ripple back on the shore. Now you close your eyes and listen to the sound of waves as the breeze blows gently, caressing your face. You pull back your hair and realize you are part of the existence and not separate. It’s like, whoa, a mind-blowing experience.

d. Without consciousness, we’d be oblivious to the world around us. We wouldn’t be able to think, feel, or even know that we exist. So, no God. No nothing. Nada. Zilch. Consciousness is like the VIP pass to reality, necessary to perceive, imagine, and interpret our physical existence. We become aware of our surroundings, thoughts, emotions, and sense of self through consciousness.

e. A typical living human of 70 kg has almost 7*1027 atoms (seven followed by twenty-seven zeros!) formed into an average of 37.2 trillion cells. And human microbiome includes about ten times as many microbial cells — around 100 trillion bacterial cells in the human body. Our bodies are like little universes unto themselves, all working together to create this considerable, wacky experience we call life. And when all that stuff comes together, it somehow creates this tranquil space called “pure consciousness.” It’s like the ultimate high of creation in which everything appears and disappears. Consciousness is the subjective experience of being alive and aware.

f. But I also realized that consciousness isn’t the same as the mind or the ego. The mind is like the collection of all our thoughts, including our experiences, imagination, and feelings. At the same time, the ego is the sense of self we create in our minds based on our experiences to give ourselves a sense of individuality. Consciousness is more like the backdrop against which all that other stuff plays out. Actions are the things we do, the choices we make, and the behaviors we exhibit. Effects are the outcomes or results of our actions. At the same time, experiences refer to our feelings or emotions in response to those outcomes.

So, there you have it, folks. My profound insights into the mysteries of consciousness. All thanks to some anesthesia with a sprinkling of science and common sense. But will it be complete without some religious, spiritual, philosophical, and imaginative perspectives to kickstart or even question our intellect?

The emerging perspectives

From a religious and spiritual perspective, everyone has a unique view. According to some religious traditions, your consciousness isn’t just some random firing of neurons in your brain. Nope, it’s got a spiritual or metaphysical dimension. Some folks even think your soul or spirit is the source of all that consciousness juice. So, if you ever feel like you’re not all there, remember, you might just be too spiritually advanced for the rest of us mere mortals. The next time you feel disconnected, meditate and connect with the divine. It’s like Wi-Fi for your spirit. Consciousness is often associated with meditation and internal or externalized prayer, rituals, and practices in spirituality and religious traditions.

For religion, purpose in life is linked to death, to live with the fear of retribution after death or rebirth to face the after-effects of earlier life. You can read about death (briefly covered) in the article “Purpose of Life, the Real Joy of your Being” here.

Let’s take a spiritual journey through different belief systems and their views on consciousness.

1. In yoga philosophy, you can either be a dualist or a non-dualist. The traditional dualistic view in yoga philosophy holds that the individual self (jiva)or consciousness is separate from the universal supreme consciousness (Brahman). Like in dualistic yoga, you can think of your personal self as distinct from the universal supreme consciousness. Like being the star of your show but also having a chance to guest appearance on a bigger, grander stage with meditation and practice. On the other hand, yoga also includes non-dualistic perspectives that emphasize the essential unity of all things.

2. Buddha differed from his spiritual teachers, who had foundations in yoga philosophy. He went beyond their understanding and debated the subject of consciousness and God. Buddha did not believe in a personal God or deity, at least not in the sense of a supreme being who created and governed the universe. Buddha taught that consciousness arises from the interaction of the senses with their respective objects and that it is impermanent and dependent on conditions. He also taught that consciousness is not an unchanging self or soul but rather a collection of mental process that arises and ceases with the conditions that give rise to it. Buddha has a scientific temperament and is a rationalist. Buddha’s preaching aims to achieve a state of consciousness free from suffering and the illusions of the ego mind to live a content life here and now. You can read about his principles in the article “Making Sense of Life Learning from Buddha” here.

3. In Taoism, Consciousness is understood in terms of the Tao or the Way. The Tao is often described as a universal force or energy that permeates all things, including human consciousness. Taoist teachings emphasize the importance of aligning oneself with the natural flow of the universe and cultivating inner stillness and harmony through practices such as meditation, qi gong, and tai chi. The immeasurable or the Tao that cannot be named refers to a reality beyond words, ideas, or mental constructs. It is a fact not limited by human language or thought but encompasses all that is, was, and will be. In Zen Buddhism, many Koans aim to point toward this reality beyond words and concepts. One famous Koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This Koan is not meant to be answered with words but rather to provoke a shift in consciousness that allows the practitioner to experience reality beyond words and concepts.

4. Deity-worship-centered religions worldwide view consciousness as a permanent aspect of the self. But remember, consciousness allows our senses to project the replica of reality onto our mind to perceive.

Hey, I get it. Sometimes you need to believe in something bigger than yourself, and most of us cannot think of it in the abstract. So, in your childhood, you were introduced to a deity by those you trusted, and you followed. Nothing wrong there with the intentions. They, too, believe it. And that has been going on for generations without question. That is religion sneakily embedded in our culture. But let’s not forget that these deities are just projections of our consciousness. So, the next time you pray to a statue, remember it’s like talking to a mirror. And so, the deity is always a poor projection of one’s consciousness. I feel this ‘Self’ representation is used to revere, respect, or fear. Deity Worship can profoundly affect the devout, providing a sense of connection with the divine, a source of spiritual guidance, and a sense of belonging to a community of believers.

But it also leads to a separation between oneself and the divine. The deity seems to exist outside oneself. And so, to connect with the sacred space within, the sincere ones instinctively close their eyes in prayer. I always felt, “If it’s within my consciousness, an outside deity is not required. A heartfelt thank you and love are enough. But if it’s not within, then you follow in someone else established system of control and rituals.”

History shows that religion’s power dynamics can adversely affect the devout, leading to dogmatism, intolerance, and even violence. Political leaders and religious heads use religious rhetoric to gain power over the masses and to dictate policies, leading to a lack of freedom. I believe people should put their foot down and say, “Hey, can you keep the religion out of my politics and the politics out of my religion? My relationship with the divine is conscious and personal, whether externalized or internal. Thanks!”

Balancing out in going beyond knowledge on consciousness and objective reality of God

Albert Einstein did not subscribe to any organized religion. Still, he often spoke about a belief in a higher power or cosmic force beyond human comprehension. He believed there was an underlying order and unity to the universe that could not be explained by traditional scientific methods alone. Einstein’s belief was not based on any specific religious doctrine or dogma but instead on a sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the universe. A rational mind is usually lost in scriptures, and you can’t question them. Today’s science is transformational. Its process and insights take us from confusion to understanding in a precise, predictive, and reliable manner.

“There is no creator. Creation itself is enough onto itself. It needs no outside agency to create. When you accept an outside agency to create, you fall into a vicious circle. Because the reasoning is that how existence is there without being created by someone, that is the reasoning of all religions. If you accept the logic, the question arises who created God? And if God can be there without being created, what is the problem? Then existence can be there without being designed. Primarily, you accept that something can be there without being created. So why unnecessarily go from A to B, from B to C.” — Osho

From what I understood from spirituality and science, consciousness is inseparably linked with existence. But the question remains, can consciousness exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves in space?

Astro physicists hypothesized that all of the atoms in our body are traceable to the trials deep in the universe, from the centers of stars that exploded, distributing their endowments. These enriched clouds of gases made the next generation of star systems. Life forms that include homo-sapiens evolved from it throughout billions and millions of years. So don’t feel small thinking you are alive in this universe, but understand that the universe is happening within you to feel the enormity of it.

Our only access to it is our consciousness, but our mind is not enough to experience vast existence. For one, I realize my conscious awareness is the only element of actuality I know. It allows me to perceive and personally experience external reality by enabling the mind to separate itself from it in the now. Then the mind ponders on the subjective to objectify. But the question remains, is the external world our senses report to us out there? However, natural for us, are they valid in a dynamic existence? Not as we want to think. And so, there is no need to embrace a particular faith or belief system or be spiritual, a scientist, or have an ideology to understand this. All this knowledge is a trojan horse that introduces the ego mind of ‘I am” to the absolute conscious you. What you are seeking is already there within.

“Truth cannot be given to you by somebody. You have to discover it. And to realize there must be a state of mind in which there is direct perception.” — J. Krishnamurti

Conclusion

When it comes to consciousness, everyone has to experience it for themselves. Scriptural information or worldly knowledge is perishable, insufficient, and cannot give complete, straightforward answers.

So, the question arises, a life lived, is it all only of the mind? Absolutely. You have one life. This is your heaven or hell that you make. Death is the ultimate leveler. What remains for eternity is the reality of nature. The creation brings its mystery into being with Life Consciousness to briefly wonder at itself and explore the potential in the cosmic play. You are the microcosm in the macrocosm, like every other.

This concept of consciousness reminds us that reality is much more than what we can comprehend with our limited human language and thoughts. It reminds us that a vast and complex reality exists beyond our personal and cultural biases. Forget the social hierarchies of authorities humanity has created to sustain a morality that is not moral. They limit our minds and individual experiences.

To consciously sit in meditation is to explore the deeper dimensions of reality that transcend our individual perspectives and to connect with the infinite possibilities of the present moment. It encourages us to let go of our attachment to fixed ideas and concepts and open ourselves up to the universe’s endless potential. Here is a story to round off our abstract life.

The Story of the Monk

There was a monk who, after years of practice under the guidance of a master, finally understood from experience that all you think, experiences, and emotions are just memory for the brain. Death is the end of all that, but the creation continues. Suddenly, life became easy as he realized the simplicity within the complexity of existence. He recognized the beauty and the triviality of the whole process when he became ‘the witness’ instead of getting involved. The concept is beautifully expressed in a stanza loosely translated from a Tibetan poetic vignette, “The Treasury of the Natural State” by Longchenpa.

“For everything is but an illusion,

Flawless in being what it is,

That has nothing to do with good or bad,

Acceptance or denial,

Realizing this as well, you will burst out laughing!”

It restores you to the ultimate freedom to choose your life. You realize the connection between everything and the beauty of interdependence. Appreciate the futility of acquiring and the beauty of giving. In that, one experiences’ Samatha’ (Level-headedness), which includes all the qualities of effortless love, stable attention, mindfulness, joy, and tranquility.

*Reference “Studies on the mechanism of general anesthesia” appeared on May 29, 2020, in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS). Authored by Lerner and Hansen, Mahmud Arif Pavel, E. Nicholas Petersen, and Hao Wang, all of Scripps Research. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2004259117.

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Janaki Ram

I am not a spiritual teacher. The Musings here are my understanding of multiple aspects of life to slowly piece together the puzzle and make sense of life.