There is no shortage of literature trying to pin down what consciousness is. Every field claims expertise over it: the natural scientist attempts at reducing it to inert matter or physiological processes. The psychologist sees it as a collection of mental states. The philosopher views it as the principle of cognition. The spiritualist sees it as awareness or light. It seems everyone sees what they’re trained to see, that is, their own constructs and conceptions. Everyone is in a dark room describing part of an elephant as a separate piece of construction most familiar to them.
But who is this everyone? Isn’t everyone and every conception, and everything for that matter, what appears in and through the flow of conscious experience! These experts talk about consciousness as if one has stepped out of the stream of conscious experience and has gained a special access to it from above. But isn’t all of this, all of their being and thinking phenomena within consciousness! Even the very notion of outside or beyond consciousness is another notion, an appearance whose being and intelligibility is constituted through and through within this mysterious stream we call consciousness.
One must see this apparent predicament in the same way that geometry is related to the concept of “point.” Point, in geometry, is considered undefined and axiomatic but everything in geometry depends on it and is in fact generated by it.
We must come to face the fact that some of the most obvious and the most fundamental things in life are also the most difficult to be conceptualized or lend themselves to clear cut definitions. However, not being able to define a thing is not the same as not knowing it: we can be so intimate and entangled with certain realities that it’s almost rare to notice them, let alone define them. Our felt experience of embodiment is just one example of an often unnoticed reality with which we are identified for as long as we live.
A better example of a phenomenon which is at once the most known and the most undefined is the “I.” Not so different from point in geometry! Upon reflection on my life, I can see that there’s nothing more intimate to me than my “I.” For example, I say “when I was a child…,” “I will love you forever,” “I was dreaming that…,” and “I didn’t dream last night.” In all these statements, curiously even in sleepless dream where we claim no awareness exists, I still am. And “I” is that which I am it at all times. However, there’s no way for me to conceptualize it, let alone define it, because in any act that involves thinking, conceptualizing, or understanding in general, the “I” slips back behind that very act. You can’t be at once the driver of a vehicle and be hit by it too.
It seems it is in the nature of the “I” that it cannot be objectified. In fact, whenever we are speaking or analyzing the “I” it is really its frozen image, a mere poster, that we are viewing simply because the real “I” is the one doing the analyzing. It, the “I”, according to its essence cannot become the object of knowledge, for the simple reason that it is the pure subject of any possible knowledge. But don’t we know our own “I”? We certainly do, and this indicates that there is another way of knowing that is quite different from the way we know objects, a knowing that results not by our relating to something but by being it. This self-knowing is even more certain than the other-knowing, and in fact without it no experience and not outside knowledge or science would even be possible.
Since I can’t bit my own teeth, can I say I have no teeth? No. I know I have teeth because I am in their possession and have a direct awareness of them. My knowledge of my own teeth doesn’t require the further evidence through biting them. This is an analogy, but quite telling in the way we relate to the “I” or to consciousness. May even they’re exact same things…
Therefore, there are things that cannot be known because they are beyond the reach of experience. But there are also things that cannot be known (in the sense of discursive/conceptual knowledge) simply because they essentially belong “in” the experiencing subject and even one with it. These are unknown more so because they are too intimately known; this is unitive knowledge which is knowing through identification, a knowing that cannot be conceptualized for the simple reason that conceptualization requires a distinction, or separation, between the subject and the object. But such intimate phenomena exist only within the subject, and once separated from it they are no more what they were before our analysis and conceptualization began.
At the end, does this mean we should give up trying to understand consciousness? No; but our efforts are misplaced in this search: There is nothing to understand about consciousness; we are it. I am that I am. Our efforts may better serve us if instead of spending them on conceptualizing about consciousness we spend them on realizing that we are consciousness, one with it. We are that which knows, we are the knowing. The knowing can’t bit itself, for it can’t find but more knowing.
In other words, instead of fussing about our findings in the dark room, let’s get up and turn on the lights to see the misunderstood elephant as it is.