Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Moment of Pure Consciousness

Have you ever waked up in the morning and experienced a moment in which you were no longer asleep but not yet remembering anything? That state is like the “pure consciousness” or unconditioned consciousness, consciousness without content, described by mystics.

It is a serene state of consciousness with no perceptions. Then the memory circuit lights begin to flash on and you remember who you are, where you are, and all the things you have to worry about. For a timeless moment you simply are, and then you become somebody thinking, “Oh my God, I was fired yesterday”; or, “Why do I feel so angry? Oh, yes, I’m having a terrible fight with Mary”; or, “Oh, no, it’s this morning I have the exam.”

Of course all days aren’t that worrying. There are mornings when consciousness fills with happy thoughts akin to “I’m getting married today!” or “It’s Christmas morning!”. I’m guessing that on most days for most people it’s a mix of pleasant anticipations and only minor worries, like “Where shall I have lunch?”, “How am I going to spend that bonus?”, and “How will I get that report ready by five?” But the contrast between the blissful state of pure consciousness and the content supplied by the awakened brain is most easily recognized when one goes from contentless serenity to the realization that you have something serious to worry about.

Of course it may be only I who worries in that way, or only I who experiences that moment of unburdened consciousness. How can I tell what goes on in the heads of other people? I’ve always been a worrier, which may be a price I pay for all the good fortune I’ve had in my life, but I don’t know whether other people worry in the same ways I do or not. When I wrote, “Have you ever waked up in the morning and experienced a moment in which you were no longer asleep but not yet remembering anything?” I asked myself, what if nobody else ever wakes up that way?

One of the many difficulties of being human is that we are never sure whether our feelings and perceptions are the same as other people’s. We used to have discussions around the bicycle rack at my high school about the impossibility of knowing that what I call “yellow” is the same as what you call “yellow”. Sure, we can point and agree that this flower is yellow and that dress is yellow, but how can we ever know if our inner perception is the same? Can you describe “yellow” (without examples) in a way that is guaranteed to create a mental image of yellow in another person’s consciousness? Could you enable a person blind from birth to see "blue" and know she was not seeing what you call "red"? To go beyond that, how often can you be sure that another person is going to perceive and respond to scenes or events in the same way you are? I took it for granted that nature untouched by man produces the most sublime emotions possible, but then I read a passage by a New York Jewish woman journalist who wrote, “Nature is something I have to get through between my taxi and my apartment building door.”

The admirable Dr. Leo Walder, the only psychotherapist I’ve ever known to actually help somebody, used to ask me when I’d talk about some attribute or trait of mine, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” To me it seemed obvious that it was good or bad, but not to him. He may have had a client the previous hour who had the opposite feeling about the same thing. We get into a lot of trouble assuming that other people have the same reactions which we do. To one person a home stuffed with dolls and knickknacks is comforting, to another it is suffocating. I knew a professor who kept two kitchen cabinets crammed with cans of Campbell’s soup because when he was a child his family was poor, and soup meant security; to me it meant, “Let me out of here!”

The unpredictable difference in individuals' responses is an obvious reason why it’s so important for people who live together to communicate clearly and often. What makes one spouse seethe may seem to the other completely innocent or even pleasant. Communication can prevent a wife exclaiming after thirty years, “But all this time I thought you LOVED cabbage!”, or a husband saying, “Why didn’t you tell me that doesn’t feel good? It feels good to me. How could it not feel good?” We tend to assume that our own feelings are “normal”. What other handy measure of normality do we have?

At the oppositve extreme, we sometimes discover that we underestimate the amount that we have in common with others. Instead of assuming that our reactions and tastes are the same as other people's, we just as incorrectly assume that in certain respects we are vastly different from other people – so different that it would be embarrassing if they knew what our feelings and thoughts were really like. Particularly when we believe that our faults or shortcomings (as contrasted with our strong points) are unique are we one hundred percent likely to be wrong. If you find yourself thinking, “I’m the only person who feels this way,” or “Only I would be so awkward in that situation,” you are surely incorrect.

Humans seem to get pleasure from finding out that others feel or think the same as they do. There’s a sense of relief and a desire to smile. People enjoy reading something in a novel that's "just like me!" People falling in love are entranced by how much they have in common. “Oh, you feel that way TOO?” And a staple of stand-up comedians is, “Have you ever noticed how hard it is to. . . ?“ or “Do you ever get as nervous as I do about. . .?” Comedians get laughs just from describing common, everyday experiences, with no punch line -- making the audience think, “He feels just the way I do!” Maybe it’s a kind of “I’m not so alone after all” reaction.

In this essay I’ve wandered from pure consciousness to differing perceptions and reactions. I want to come back to the original subject and suggest that after the moment of clear consciousness comes, and the flood of daily concerns fills awareness, it’s a good idea to work on trying to control the content of consciousness.

First, if there is something foolishly self-tormenting, like jealousy or fear of getting sick, use Dr. Walder’s “thought control” .

Then, if you still insist on worrying (the only activity that gives absolutely no benefit), distract yourself as a mother distracts a child by saying excitedly, “Look at that cat!” Concentrate on the most pleasant things you can recall or imagine – ecstatic romantic moments and sensual joys, creative triumphs, vocational successes, the perfect buffet, pretty faces. Imagine filling a compartmented display box with things you like.

But who am I to give advice? Here we are, back to the questions raised in the middle of this post. Does everybody already know everything I could possibly write? Am I too far from the well-traveled road to be understood? Are there any other people who have worried as much as I have in my life with so little worth worrying about? Are people smirking as they read this, or are they saying, “Ah, this sounds like me!”

To quote Philo of Alexandria again . . . "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

We just don’t necessarily know what the battle is.

I must conclude this with a poem which often comes to my mind:

"Richard Cory"

"Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

"And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

"And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

"So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head."

Edwin Arlington Robinson


  1. I like that quote about everyone fighting a mighty battle.

    The poem at the end is a great reminder not to judge people by appearances.

    I wish I had understood these things when I was younger!

  2. Thanks, Rob. I'm pleased to have a comment from a blogger I admire so much.

  3. What a great post, Fleming.
    By reading it I just had that “Oh, you feel that way TOO?” feeling again and again.. :)
    Specially when you wrote that about the colours thing.. and the poem encompasses that idea beautifully.

  4. A nice essay but I take issue on your denigration of worry. It needs a bit of qualification. Without worry we'd be overdrawn, we'd leave our houses with the taps on to flood everything, we'd abandon our children, we'd not buy food for tomorrow.

    We'd destroy the planet, as indeed we may already be doing. Many are arguing that we don't worry enough.

    Worry tells us that something is wrong and the reason it dogs us is that we have not discovereed what exactly it is trying to tell us!

  5. This column spoke to me, as I have shared similar feelings and thoughts... that you have now eloquently put into words for me.
    Thank you.

  6. Hi Fleming!
    A moment of pure consciousnes - this is something I always feel when I fall asleep and wake up. I like get up fast and be active. This protects me against bad, sad, angry thoughts.
    Hope you had a wonderful Sunday!

  7. Very thoughtful, significant poem.
    Have a great week ahead!

  8. Thanks for your extravagantly kind words, Joice. It's good to know you feel the way I do!

  9. Ann, thanks very much for letting me know that we share similar thoughts and feelings.

  10. Krystyna, thank you. I'm amazed to find that you and other people find so much in common with what I wrote about the "moment of pure consciousness." I really didn't know whether I was alone in experiencing that.

    Your strategy of getting up fast and becoming active sounds very positive and effective. Next time I wake up and find myself starting to worry, I'll remember what you said.

  11. Ah, yes, Yves, the eternal dissenter! : ) I'm glad to hear from you.

    I have to dissent in turn: When I use the word "worry" I'm not talking about the same thing you're talking about. You seem to be talking about paying attention to our needs, including our future needs . . . observing, perhaps with an emotion of concern, and then doing something positive.

    To me, worry is an entirely negative, passive state of mind in which one visualizes things that can go wrong and feels bad emotions about them in advance. I see what you're getting at, but I think we need some semantic fine tuning.

    Sincere thanks for your visit and comment.

  12. Bijan, you are too kind! Thank you.