Consciousness = a medium without a message

21 Sep

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Writing about consciousness is a bit weird. Reading someone’s writing about consciousness is even weirder, so I’ll keep this short. For me, light provides a great metaphor for understanding the nature of consciousness. I’ve always liked the notion that it is the reflection of light off of objects that allows me to perceive them. In counseling and coaching, we often try to get clients to understand that their difficulties with other people, their greatest loves and their greatest frustrations, are….when investigated….simply reflections of themselves in the actions of others. In this sense, our minds perceive objects “as we are” not as they are.

But I recently found another great nuance to this metaphor. This one is provided by Marshall McLuhan, who in the 1960s, produced some challenging theories about the nature of human communication. His most popular aphorism, “the medium is the message,” has been extremely helpful in understanding the difference between subject and object. I am reminded of Bob Kegan’s work on adult development and how the subject of one stage of development becomes the object of the next stage. Anyways, one thing jumped out to me from McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In this book, he proposes that media itself (newspapers, radio, books, etc.), not the content they carry, significantly influence our experience and understanding. McLuhan suggests that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered through it, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. And here is where it gets interesting, because McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as an example. He shared that a light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. 

I think this is a perfect metaphor for consciousness. If you’re a student of meditative theory, then you might recall any number of people or texts that make this same allusion. The one that immediately comes to my mind is Epstein’s Thoughts without a Thinker. McLuhan’s insight into intersubjective communication is profound. The medium and its implicit structure determine what can be communicated. Similarly, consciousness and its implicit structure determine what can be perceived. Awareness, by definition, is without content and because of this we are never fully aware of it. It sits in the background…it IS background…which provides us with the occasion of perception. It is the medium that allows us to perceive objects around us, which we then mistake for ourselves (again, Plato’s Myth of the Cave comes to mind).  Anyways, I thought it was a great way to think about the nature of consciousness. Just as light allows us to perceive objects around us, but we are unable to perceive light directly, it is the same with consciousness (although, with practice, we can actually perceive this background). I think this is why descriptions of non-dual awareness so often include elements of “illumination.” Anyways, it is just a thought.  

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