The Experience of Awareness

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Experience of Awareness

Luke 8: 26-39

Pentecost 5C 19.06.2016


When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus* had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. It seems that the man with the demons was not happy that Jesus might send them away. The change in his world was bound to be huge and it frightened him. A world without demons for him was a paradigm shift filled with unknown complexity. According to some scholars, if we want to consciously shift into any new paradigm there are two human capacities we need to pay particular attention to. The first is awareness. The second is our capacity to identify things. The man with demons may have been aware of the changes needed or about to eventuate but he was certainly unable to be sure of his capacity to survive the change.

In our prayer of awareness this morning I implied that awareness is in the first instance an inner spirit thing. That if we are to be aware of something it is always a new thing and it is always a journey that begins inside us. This may seem like being too self-centred or inward looking and it is but not in any selfish way but rather that it is scientifically supported and a basic requirement of being human. I think that awareness is the point where consciousness takes shape as experience, where complex biological and physical processes unfold across brain, body, and environment on which they depend. We might understand this at the conscious level as the difference between wakeful awareness and dreamless sleep. Consciousness meets the non-conscious perhaps.

I want to suggest that like the man with the demons being aware of the possibility of being without demons; being aware has always been a part of religion in that one has always set out to meet with, touch and understand the presence of a God or the divine whatever. This I suggest means that awareness, that state if you like of being aware, has always been part of religion and it is only recently with questions about the truth of things or the reality of things that we have begun to expand and integrate the disciplines of science, religion, anthropology and philosophy in our search for this truth.

It is now far too simplistic to suggest that science and religion are poles apart. In some ways they are different approaches but the two can, and will eventually be, united; and their meeting point is very likely to be human consciousness. At one level neuroscience and consciousness are already in conversation. The man was afraid of the demons leaving because of what might happen to his world and even the demons begin to speak for the man indicating just how deep this fear can be.

Our reaction is to remind ourselves that the most obvious fact of our existence is that we are conscious beings. Indeed, all we ever know are the thoughts, images, and feelings arising in our consciousness. Yet as far as Western science is concerned, there has been nothing more difficult to explain and it has been left to religion to deal with. Unfortunately Religion has not kept up with the evolution of psychology and neuroscience nor with science as a whole.

One question we are confronted with is why the complex processing of information in the brain leads to an inner personal experience? Why doesn’t it all go on in the dark, without any awareness? And why do we have any inner life at all?

This paradox – the undeniable existence of human consciousness, is set against the absence of any satisfactory scientific account for it. What this means is that there is much debate still about what consciousness is. It is also true however that we all seem to know what it is. We know that consciousness is lost when falling into a dreamless sleep (or undergoing general anesthesia), and it is what returns the next morning on waking up (or coming round). More generally, consciousness implies a continuous (but interruptible) stream of phenomenal senses or experiences – a technicolour, multimodal, fully immersive and wholly personalized movie perhaps, playing to an audience of one.

Some scientists assume that consciousness emerges in some way or other from insentient matter. But the reality is that no one really knows yet so perhaps we could consider an alternative worldview. There is a world view to be found in many spiritual traditions be they metaphysical or not. There, consciousness is held to be an essential component of the cosmos, as fundamental as space, time, and matter. Maybe that’s still a step too far for some of us but the universal idea pulls us back to saying that religiously, scientifically, philosophically we believe that awareness is one of the most fundamental aspects of our experience. We are ready and waiting to be aware. We perceive things. We don’t just live life. And then we put awareness together with living and we experience it. The fact that we are aware – that we experience – is what allows us to respond to the world. It is what allows the world to affect us. This is not new because we have always religiously thought that being aware through awe, devotion, ritual and celebration we can experience God in our lives.

It was common in the West until only a few hundred years ago to assume that only human beings were truly aware. Even what we now consider to be the most intelligent animals were assumed to be merely automated, mechanistic, instinctual beings without any real inner capacity to know or feel. At the same time there have always been those who believed that everything is aware. In the Western philosophical canon individuals like Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead are two examples of individuals who saw the universe as alive and infused throughout with intelligence and feeling. This view is apparently known as Panpsychism and it is something we now believe to be considered more seriously.

One can see behind this journey in thinking a sense of an evolutionary purpose or cause. The paradigm we have been brought up in has seen the universe as essentially inanimate empty space populated by things a few of which are alive and intelligent beings. The more intelligent person has been seen as the one with more excuse to dominate and manipulate and see as the world as resource for the use of. The new paradigm however, will recognize that the universe we live in is awake. Our awareness is an awakening to the fact that we are not an intelligent thing living in a dead universe. We are more a part of the universe and our intelligence is more an extension of the intelligence of the universe itself. We are an organ of perception of a living universe. Here we again have an allusion to religion, perception, prayer, the other is an awareness of that which is beyond us. Our faith makes us well. Our search for truth empowers our perception and our prayer changes things. “Arise your faith has made you well” “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” etc etc.

Some want to argue that the intelligence we express as human beings is not ours. Traditionally we might have said that it is the intelligence of our God that we express. Today some want to say that it is the intelligence of the universe expressing itself through us. I am not so sure about that as I need to do some more thinking about such a big narrative. I am not yet ready to give up on the objective existence of God, even if I no longer see God as the ground of being, or believe that everything is always subjective. I can and do go along with the claim that the universe is a living universe understood though our conscious awareness but I want to think about the character of this awareness. The reason I want to think about is that the awareness that emerges through something as complex as a human being has a wide range of perceptual possibility and also some extraordinary capacities and that seems to be enough for me to grapple with at present. To give away all human responsibility for intelligence and the exclusivity of awareness as a human ability is a bit much for me as of now.

In attempting to analyse the character of awareness the most obvious component is the ability to identify things. As humans we not only experience things, we identify them. We create concepts that amalgamate a set of experiences into one experience.

An example of this might be like this. Let’s play a little game. We know there is someone sitting next to us, it doesn’t matter how close or how far, just think about the person who is next to you. We see the shape of their body and we know that they are a person. We don’t see their whole body because we are looking from one side of course. We can only see part of them, but through the power of conceptualization we add all this up, fill in any gaps, and identify them as a person. In our mind’s eye they look like a person.

This suggests that our experience of any identified thing is not an experience of the thing itself. It is an amalgamation of numerous experiences that we recognize. Of course this is not a simple one way process but rather a more complex compilation and an evolutionary process. Our experience of the person next to us is a living development as are all of the conceptual things that we identify becoming real. One of the things in this process that we identify is ourselves. We can identify ourselves, in the same way that we identify the person next to us. There are a certain set of experiences that we have of ourselves that we amalgamate into our identity. In other words we need to know what others think of us to know ourselves. This identity is what we call our self, or our ego.

My claim this morning is that this journey of illumination is the journey of awareness and it is a religious journey as well as a scientific and psychological development. We know that in many mystical schools, the journey from the identity level of self, or ego, to the source of self as a universal awareness is a religious journey. Our conversion experiences, our ‘aha’, moments, bring us into contact with the source of awareness.

The man with the demons was converted by his awareness that the impossible was possible, that he could be rid of the demons, and the work he had still to do was to build a perception of how and what that journey toward wholeness would be like. His problem was that he had little experience of what was possible and thus his ability to identify a life without demons was limited. He had little upon which to base his perception and thus struggled to identify the outcome.

The man with demons also reminds us that our current way of identifying ourselves as human defines a range of perceptual possibilities. We can only be aware of so much in our current form. Our inability to deal effectively with many of the global or complex challenges we face is telling us that our current range of perceptual possibility is not vast enough. We simply do not have the imagination to envision the solutions we are looking for. This also opens up the area of public prayer and its efficacy or how a prayer for others on the other side of the world works but because there are quite a few more sermons in this I will stop here and let you ask questions, make comments or whatever…… I know all this sounds technical and complex but it isn’t actually. It is only putting words to what you already know. The difference is that I am claiming that what is scientific, psychological and biological is also religious……. Amen.

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