‘Consciousness Cannot Perceive Anything But Consciousness’

Atmananda was a teaching master of the Vedanta. Here is one stunning pointer he gives us in passing: “When you know any object, you stand as Consciousness; and the object also cannot help appearing as Consciousness, since Consciousness cannot perceive anything but Consciousness” (Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda, ed. Nitya Tripta, no. 34, p. 18, my emphasis.)

I. Knowing Any Object

1. To know any object, there must be that which is aware of the object. But that which is aware of the object is Consciousness.

2. What is thus established is the priority given to the Subject–namely, Consciousness. To know any object, then, requires standing as Consciousness.

II. An Object’s Appearing

1. Consciousness can be said to know the object in the sense that Consciousness is shining its light on the object. Without the luminosity of Consciousness, the object could not appear.

2. What is thus established is the object’s dependence on Consciousness. There is no sense in which it could be correct to speak of the object’s having an independent existence.

3. Therefore, the object “borrows” whatever existence it has from Consciousness.

III. Consciousness Can Only Perceive Itself

1. The crux of the argument in higher reason is to be found right here: “Consciousness cannot perceive anything but Consciousness.” This, indeed, is what needs to be expounded upon.

2. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that matter exists. (This is what Vedanta denies.) Is it not so that matter can only interact with matter? Could matter ever interact with angels (should angels also exist)? No, since matter and angels are made of totally different stuff.

3. Let’s suppose that mind exists. (This too is what Vedanta, in a sense, i.e., in the sense of the rejection of reification, also denies in that mind is, on this understanding, nothing but thinking and feeling.) Could mind ever interact with anything other than mind stuff? No, for such is the insurmountable problem of Cartesian substance dualism. So, mind can never come into contact with matter or with any angelic substance (were there to be such a substance).

4. The principle has therefore been established: X can only ever interact with something X-like.

5. Deep meditation has already established the fact that Consciousness exists. Furthermore, deep, intuitive understanding has also make it plain that Consciousness shines its lights on all objects.

6. But then how could Consciousness shine its light on what is other than Consciousness? This is impossible, for there would be no way for Consciousness to “cross the gap” to make contact with matter (physical objects), the senses (seeing, etc.), or mind (thoughts).

7. Therefore, since Consciousness exists and since it is precisely the shining of its light on an appearing that is the condition of possibility for that appearing, it immediately follows that Consciousness must be shining its light on some Consciousness stuff.

8. But then Consciousness stuff–here, so elegantly handled by Atmananda, is Vedanta’s claim about Brahman as the material cause (see Brahma Sutra)–is none other than Consciousness Itself. So, Consciousness cannot perceive (or witness or know) anything but Itself.

9. Therefore, everything–the objects of experience as well as the Subject of experience–is Consciousness.

To Be Concrete

  • The Body: Feeling sensations ordinarily mis-labeled pain is Consciousness. Doing is Consciousness. Movement is Consciousness.
  • The Senses: Seeing is Consciousness. Hearing is Consciousness. Smelling is Consciousness. Touching is Consciousness. Tasting is Consciousness.
  • The Mind: Thinking is Consciousness. Feeling is Consciousness.
  • The Witness: The Background of all experience is Consciousness.

Everything is Consciousness and Consciousness is everything.