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Awareness and the Brain


neuroscienceThis article is a topic taken from my upcoming Nonduality Press book called Direct Inquiry:  A User Guide, Foreword by Chris Hebard.  The book will feature lots of experiments in awareness, and even some diagrams of many of the unhelpful yet common ways we interpret our experience -- ways which cause alienation and separation. 
This part on the brain is taken from a large section dealing with the body.  The body is not often dealt with in nondual teachings, writings and gatherings.  But it is just as much a part of experience as emotions, thoughts and feelings!

Actually, your direct experience can show you directly, in the here-and-now, that:    

  • The "body" is not a physical object.
  • The "body” is not a separate object endowed with a separate sentience.
  • The "body" is not a container of awareness.
  • Rather, the body, like the world, is awareness itself.
That is, in direct experience you can discover that the “body” is actually the body of love and the world of light: pure clarity and unconditional openness. The body is actually the world – there is no difference to be found. It is the global world of experience in which there is no inside/outside, no here/there, no separation and no suffering.
But what about the brain? Many credible scientists say that awareness is a produce of brain chemistry. What about that??
Here is a preview.
…the pinkish gray meat between our ears produces the richness of experiential awareness.
-- Science and Nonduality Conference website
In college I dissected brains. As an undergrad student, I was a physiological psychology major. Many people, even folks attracted to nondualism, think that the brain is what gives rise to awareness. But is that our direct experience?
There is no contradiction between nonduality and neuroscience. Neuroscience measures a subtle object. This subtle object is a kind of sentience, a local reactivity associated with a biological organism. This sentience is an arising in the witnessing awareness that is your true nature, your direct experience, infinite sweetness and unconditional love.  
The World
When looked at very closely, physical objects are not to be found. They melt directly into awareness. Your direct experience of a physical object is nothing more than colors, sounds, textures, sensations of hardness, softness, moistness or dryness. Each of these sensations is inseparable from its exclusive sensory modality. In other words,
  • colors are inseparable from vision,
  • sounds are inseparable from hearing
  • sensations of texture, hardness, softness, moisture or dryness are inseparable from touch
  • flavors are inseparable from taste
  • fragrances are inseparable from smell
Even in imagination, “sense objects” cannot appear apart from “sense faculties.” This is shocking if it is “grokked.” For example, if it is deeply understood how a color can never be experienced separately from seeing, then it simply makes no sense to believe that you can “see a color.” Colors aren’t objects hanging around outside awareness, waiting to be seen. Rather, the arising of color is what we mean by “seeing.” The way we ordinarily speak of seeing in the everyday sense, we allow that an object is present whether currently seen or not. In the everyday sense, if your cat runs out of the bedroom, you think of the cat as existing, but momentarily unseen. The cat can be seen, and it can be unseen. When it is unseen, it is simply “somewhere else.”
But of course in our direct experience of color, an unseen color is never experienced. The absence of a color is never experienced. If a color is not something experienced as absent, then it can’t be the kind of thing that is experienced to be present. A color, like any other “arising,” is not the kind of thing that can alternate between being present and absent. You can’t have a one-sided coin. If you can’t have one side of a pair of opposites, then you can’t have the other side either. So neither “present” nor “absent” applies to an arising.
This is our direct experience “of the world.” Neither present nor absent, but experienced as awareness itself.
The Brain
The brain is normally thought of as a mass of a certain kind of biological tissue. That is, it is normally thought of as a physical object. As a physical object, it is part of the “world.” How does the brain arise? What happens? No one sees their own brain in the act of seeing. We may “see” and “feel” the brains of other organisms, the way I did in school. We see many images of brains in anatomy classes, images of CAT-scans and X-rays on light tables, in textbooks, on computer screens, represented by scopes and meters of different kinds, and on TV shows about doctors and cops. 
What arises in all cases is a visual or tactile image. But biologists and physiologists say that the brain is an essential component for sentience. Many people attracted to nondual teachings agree (see first quote above.) 
The “awareness” that is measured by brain science includes
  • certain kinds of reactivity to stimuli,
  • the ability to see, hear, smell, move, etc.
  • the ability to speak or give verbal reports
  • the ability to recall objects and actions
  • the ability to report one’s name or location
  • the measurements of chemicals
  • the activity of and within neurons, as measured and depicted by various kind of scientific apparatus
There are two things to say about these elements in the description of awareness. One is that they are all based on the very same kind of physical object as a table or a chair. You can investigate at any time how one of these objects or events arises: as a set of colors, sounds, textures, etc.   So how can the brain, which is experienced as an arising in awareness, actually give rise to awareness?  That is like saying that the color "blue" can give rise to awareness!
Awareness vs Sentience
The other thing that can be said is that the “awareness” measured in these ways is not the Awareness of the nondualist (the capital letter proves it! :-)). What the scientist is measuring in these ways is something infinitely less subtle: it is sentience, the waking state, which in Advaita-Vedanta is called “jagrat avastha.”  This waking state is a subtle object that comes and goes, alternating with the dream state (sushupti avastha) and deep sleep. 
And that to which it arises is the witnessing awareness that is our true nature. The following table spells out the difference between them:
Is apprehended by witnessing awareness Apprehends waking-state sentience
Comes and goes Never comes or goes
Measured by science Measuring and science appear to it
Appears as an object along with other objects Never appears or disappears; can’t be an object
There is at least one per person Never more than one, and even that is too much to say!
You are there even if it is not there It IS you; you as awareness are never not….
The Brain and Sentience
Neuroscience can create experimental correlations between parts of the brain and aspects of waking-state or dream-state sentience. As many inquirers have told me, “Hey, remove my brain, and that’s the end of consciousness!” That may be the end of a certain span of waking-state sentience, but it cannot be the end of the kind of awareness that the nondualist talks about.
Why not? Because the very removal of the speaker’s brain to as an event requires witnessing awareness to “take note” of it as an event. Of course the speaker needn’t be present for this, but impersonal witnessing awareness is never absent. Even if entire universes cease, awareness is not a kind of entity or object that can disappear along with them. It isn’t an object in the first place. Awareness is THAT to which the coming and going of universes appears. Regardless of what comes and goes, awareness IS. 
Does awareness arise from the brain?
(Needed for the experiment: A comfortable chair, a table, and if possible, a photo or diagram of a brain printed from the Internet.)
Follow these steps:
  1. Sit comfortably in the chair. Starting with yourself, wish yourself and all other beings in the universe good will and happiness. Then follow your breath for a few moments. If a thought comes, let it come and go. Don’t follow it, analyze it or chase it away. It will go in a moment of its own accord.
  2. Look at the table. Feel the texture of the table. It arises visually as color. It arises tactually as texture, warmth/coolness, hardness/softness. These are all directly experienced and arise freely in open, clear awareness. 
  3. Do you see the color giving rise to impersonal witnessing awareness? Do you actually witness a causal process going on where the color is seen to cause witnessing awareness to appear? What would that even look like? How can the process create awareness, when awareness is already present, apprehending the process itself?
  4. Do you feel a texture causing witnessing awareness to arise? Aside from the texture associated with the table, what is there additionally in direct experience that could create the existence of witnessing awareness? What would that even feel like? And isn’t witnessing awareness already present in order for this creative process to appear? So how can the process create awareness?
  5. This is analogous to steps (3) and (4). Look very carefully at the image you printed of the brain –it may serve as an aid to imagination. Imagine that you are looking directly at a “real” brain. You may be assisting in a neurosurgical procedure. We know that in direct experience there is nothing more to a physical object than colors, tactile sensations, sounds, etc. And even these don’t really “arise” since they are not separate object in the first place. But if we are allowed to speak in terms of these visual and tactile sensations for a moment, we will check our direct experience. These sensations are arising in and appearing to sweet, open, loving witnessing awareness. 
  6. Do you have direct experience that these particular “brain-colors” are causing witnessing awareness? Just what would this causal process look like? Let’s say for a moment that you do seem to have direct experience of these colors causing awareness. What is this direct experience appearing in? Witnessing awareness is already present before the causal process even arises. So the process cannot possibly cause the witnessing awareness that preceded it.
It is never our experience that witnessing awareness is not present. Therefore it is never our direct experience that witnessing awareness comes into existence based on a causal process. The process itself must appear in witnessing awareness, which was there “first.” Awareness is always and already.
There is no contradiction between nonduality and neuroscience. Neuroscience measures a subtle object. This subtle object is a kind of sentience, a local reactivity associated with a biological organism. This sentience is an arising in the witnessing awareness that is your true nature, your direct experience, infinite sweetness and unconditional love. 
Nonduality and neuroscience – you can think of them as different songs.


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