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Friday, June 10, 2022

Consciousness and meditation - old concepts and modern views


Ancient texts from Vedas, Vedangas and Buddhist texts have elaborate descriptions of several levels of consciousness. They include consciousness during waking period, during dream state, during deep sleep state and the base on which these three levels of consciousness are experienced as one’s own. This is called atman. This is then connected to Universal Consciousness, the root of all kinds of consciousness, the base of all the atmans of this universe, called Brahman or Mahat or Buddhi.

In the Buddhist texts, there two levels of consciousness – Mind Consciousness (mano vignana) and Store Consciousness (alaya vignana). There is a state beyond both these levels which can only be experienced.

These are great visionary insights by the ancient rishis and particularly Buddha. Now modern neurosciences have started exploring the mind and its functions including consciousness. Many old observations have been confirmed. Weaknesses of these old concepts have also been exposed. Let me try and correlate some of the old ideas with current knowledge.

The idea taught in Indian texts about our awareness during waking hours, dream state and deep sleep is easy to reconcile. It is also easy to accept that there must be one common state of awareness which makes it possible for any individual to be aware of all three states of awareness and his/her ownership of these states. Further, all these four states of awareness are objects of our thoughts and part of our awareness. That is probably the meta-awareness of modern psychology.

Is there one Universal class – somewhat similar to the idea of Plato – of a prototype of all kinds of consciousness on the basis of which everything is known. Upanishads say that there is and asks: “How can you know That by which you know?”  “That Knower is Brahman” say the Upanishads.

Adepts in meditation tell us that in the final stages of meditation the observer and the observed are one. In this state the observed is as it is. The awareness of the observer is still, with no chains of thought generated by the object observed and does not include his/her own awareness. It is the blissful state they reach.

In Buddhist school, the mind consciousness is like the branches of a tree exposed to responding to all the elements such as sunlight, water and air. It receives input from all the senses. It needs to focus on one thing at a time and learn. It is slow to learn and cannot act in a reasonable way on its own. For that it depends on the store consciousness.

Store consciousness has all the natural tendencies, mental formations such as emotions and memory of experiences. It is the source of desire, fear, anxiety, anger, and ignorance. Since it is the base for survival it is active even when we are asleep. It can act on its own but may respond quickly, based on habits and tendencies.

As I understand, the training in meditation is for the mind consciousness to focus on our sensory inputs, feelings and emotions, reflect on them and transform the tendencies at the base, namely store consciousness.

When we think of our current understanding of how the mind works, the mind receives inputs from our sensory organs and also from our own body. They go through thalamus and are processed first at the base or lower part of the brain where survival reflexes are generated. This assumes that the inputs can be registered in the first place. That depends on the reticular formation where there are centers to maintain our awareness are located. (They are turned off when we are asleep, under anesthesia and when they are damaged by some disease leading to coma).


These basic input signals are then relayed to the inner portion (medial side of the halves of the brain) where the registered messages are recognized as one’s own (ownership area). This area communicates not only with centers which register signals, and which generate basic emotions, and survival responses but also with the so-called higher centers. These areas are considered to perform our Executive Functions. There is direct two-way communication between the ownership areas and the executive areas, but not between executive areas and the survival areas.

Therefore, emotional triggers generated at the survival areas have to be first recognized as one’s own, the ownership area has to send the signals to the executive area to process and evaluate. Of course, this area will be checking with the ownership area, areas for past memories, evaluate odds of risks vs benefits and decide what to do. This is the reflective decision-making process.

Now the executive part of the brain sends signals to the motor areas of the brain to initiate appropriate action. This is what we probably call “the will” to act. Most interestingly all these steps take place in milli-seconds.

There are even more steps involved because the brain adjusts its actions as they are taking place depending on immediate feedbacks. It also stores the process and outcome of each experience for future reference. It stores the information on the value of each action as helpful or not. If the process or outcome generates happiness, it may reinforce the “addiction circuit” so that it gets activated each time the stimulus appears. If the process or outcome generate pain and suffering, the information goes into the “aversion circuit.”

Both ancient knowledge of meditation and modern neuroscience suggest that even if our brain cells degenerate or lost, parts of the brain circuits can be retrained. That is neuroplasticity. Our reactions and behavior can be retrained using some of the ancient meditation methods. That is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.


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