Practice Notes: Awareness & The Body

Who or what is that knows and then declares: "I am aware"?.


What makes visual cartoons effective -- startling, funny, provocative -- is often the play between subjective and objective – or we might say “private” and “public” -- elements of the characters’ experience. Through the use of thought-bubbles and speech-bubbles, the cartoonist is able to portray, simultaneously, what the characters are thinking or feeling (representative of their private/subjective experience) and what they are saying out loud (representative of their public/objective presentation). In the venue of film, Woody Allen is a master at creating a similar effect, via the overlay of his character's thought-process with what the character is speaking for all to hear. The pleasure of viewing a Woody Allen film comes in large part from having simultaneous access to these two realms of functioning.

Typically, in a cartoon or a Woody Allen (or similar) film, what is being reported, internally or externally, is the presence or absence of this or that phenomenal object. So for instance, a character reports feeling ill or well, at ease or diseased, pleased or disgruntled, in relation to certain circumstances. It’s much less common for the report to be about nothing beyond the simple fact of awareness, the sense of being aware in and of itself.

Avenues Of Exploration

A question central to nondual spiritual inquiry is: Who or what is able to experience or say such a thing -- that they are aware? Is it a body that is aware? Is it a mind that is aware? Is it awareness itself (aka the Tao) that is aware? And if the latter, to what extent is this awareness that is aware of itself dependent upon a body and/or a mind?

When the words I am aware are spoken out loud, clearly there’s the involvement not only of a mind (with language capacities) but also of a physical body, with its vocal chords, lips and tongue and palate – all of which are necessary in order to audibly articulate these words, in a fashion that allows them to be heard by others, i.e. to enter into the public domain. Or, sans speech, the body’s hands and fingers move a pen on paper, or press keys on a computer’s keyboard, to create a written report.

When the words I am aware are “spoken” internally – when we say them silently to ourselves – clearly there’s the involvement of a mind, with cognitive capacities sufficient to formulate the sentence.

Yet the “experience” itself, of simply being aware, exists prior to the formation of the externally or internally spoken report – and continues to exist, after the words have been spoken. This “experience” of being aware is the non-phenomenal referent of the word “awareness” and of the sentence “I am aware.” Such an experience is deeply subjective. It carries the sense of being most intimately “my own.” It is who I am most essentially.

Is Intimacy Personal?

And yet, the deeply subjective and intimate nature of such an “experience” does not necessarily imply that it is personal, i.e. that it is unique to, limited by, or in any way dependent upon an individual human bodymind, localized in space and time. Though we may habitually assume this to be the case, it has yet to be established. (Hence, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness.)

In fact, there’s now convincing scientific evidence for the existence of nonlocal communication between humans – i.e. communication that does not depend upon a space-time signal. Such results point, at least inferentially, in the direction of a nonlocal “field” of consciousness, through which such signal-less communication is mediated. (See Amit Goswami for details on these experimental results.)

Quantum Leap: Awareness & NDE’s

Near-death experiences offer additional food for thought, along similar lines. Among those that I’ve heard recounted, Anita Moorjani remains my favorite. Why? – Because she not only was able to narrate in vivid detail the events transpiring in and around the room in which her cancer-ridden and (medically speaking) “unconscious” and comatose body lay; but also, upon returning to a (medically speaking) “fully-conscious” state, underwent – in a seemingly spontaneous fashion – a complete healing of her physical body.

How was this “quantum leap” from extreme dis-ease to near-perfect wellness possible? And how was it that Ms. Moorjani’s subjective experience was so completely at odds with the medical doctor’s objective report of the condition of her body? While her body lay in a coma – medically “unconscious” – not only did she maintain awareness, she was what we might call “super-aware” – i.e. capable of tuning in to events (which were later confirmed as objectively true) far beyond the space-time confines of the room in which her body lay (presumably) dying.

It’s almost as though the computer of Anita Moojani’s bodymind was shut down completely: and then re-booted in a way that included the installation of completely new software, and the deletion (or de-fragging) of the dis-eased programming. The implication of such a metaphor, of course, is that the “software” exists non-locally, in the same way that radio waves exist non-locally. The body does not create the software. It simply acts as a medium through which the software functions. The physical body is akin to a radio that is able to tune in to nonlocal radio waves, in a way that allows the music to be broadcast.

Thought Experiment

In any case, wouldn’t it have been excellent if – as in a cartoon or Woody Allen movie – we could have had a “real-time” report of Ms. Moorjani’s subjective experience, as she underwent the near-death experience? Or, similarly, say in cases of extreme hypothermia, where someone’s physical body has shut down completely (to the point of being declared medically “dead”) for several hours even – though later was revived.

To establish, by direct report, a continuity of awareness, in cases when the systems of a physical body have shut down completely, would certainly go far in establishing (by scientific criteria) consciousness as being nonlocal and independent of the physical body.

The big question, of course, would be how to broadcast such a report: how to make visible/audible/felt the contents of such a nonlocal awareness – including, importantly, the sentence I am aware – and to establish continuity with the voice that once spoke through the now-shut-down body, and will again speak through it, once revived.

See Also: Allan Wallace on an empirical approach to exploring Consciousness


An analog of this kind of experience occurs, for meditators who, in certain samadhis, lose awareness completely of their physical body.

And it occurs for all of us during dreaming or deep sleep, when the physical body that, in the waking-state, we refer to as “mine,” is not on-line, so to speak: not among the objects appearing within the field of awareness. Instead, we identify with a dream-body, or with no body at all. So, from the point of view of subjective experience, we all have had the experience of being aware separate from the appearance of our waking-state body.

But just for fun, in this essay we’re taking the position not of the Host (i.e. direct subjective experience) but rather of the guest (in playful identification with limitation), and wondering how this might be proven in ways acceptable within a western scientific paradigm.


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