Make a determined effort to capture it, right now!
It’s a slippery customer, isn’t it? As soon as you shift your attention from this flow of words and begin to stretch out your hands (as it were) to capture whatever it might be wherever it is it eludes your grasp, doesn’t it? If you deny this, the challenge would be to describe the process you have undergone since you read the words ‘Consider your normal state of what you might call consciousness…’ What was it like to get hold of ‘consciousness’? If it did elude your grasp initially what did you do to pin it down? Or did you simply deny that it was a problem—‘consciousness’ is just this awareness of things around you, things happening… Or maybe you think it’s not worth troubling with because you’re going to wait till some clever neuroscientist chap or chapess eventually finds a way to provide us with all the answers so that we can be served up with ‘consciousness’ pinned & wriggling on a wall.
Meanwhile… We are stuck with the word ‘consciousness’ and, as is the case with all the words we use, we take it for granted that it actually signifies something definite, something that can be measured, calculated, reduced to order in some sterilised sophisticated technological way.
To rely on a direct one-to-one relationship between the words we use like bullets from a gun and whatever they are assumed to represent is a habitual but rather dubious pursuit.
The Normal State of Consciousness
Now, what might that be? An internal version of an external reality… A survival mechanism—it keeps us focussed…. An internal something or the other that picks up some signals from what’s outside of us but by no means all—not x-rays, not radio-waves, not the vibration of air or gravitational pressure… An interpretative entity responding to a limited range of internal stimuli—thoughts, organic sensations, muscular activity, pains, feelings not all of which can possibly enter into what we like to call ‘consciousness’.
Millions of things going on in and around us simultaneously—we are only ever ‘conscious’ of a small proportion of them; what we construct from the small inklings that get through the sensory screens is only a limited version of an assumed totality. Opening ‘consciousness’ up wide to the whole of ‘reality’would cause an overwhelming influx of what William James called a ‘booming buzzing confusion’—massive overwhelm.
Let’s limit our focus even further to a single moment of consciousness. An eighty mile sprint on a motorbike = one concerted moment of consciousness within which there are other moments: the split second avoidance of a collision, going down a road with particular memories attached to it; thinking about the happenings of the previous night = a moment of consciousness; anticipating what’s round the next bend = a moment of consciousness.
How Long is a Moment of Consciousness?
It might be as short as a second (1,192,631,700 cycles of the frequency associated with the transition between the two energy levels of the isotope cesium 133 !) or, longer, the time it takes in India to boil rice, the length of a symphony, or, not subject to linear measurement at all, ‘a continuous mode of simultaneity and present-centredness, the mode of night’ (Ornstein 1977). An eighty mile sprint on a motorbike is, for me, akin to being ‘out-of-time’, out of ‘time’ which does not exist (Le temps ne s’en va pas mais nous nous en allons… quoted in AJAyer’s The problem of Knowledge).
the past an avenue—
at its end
garden & nursery
The night was falling so that the table in the garden among the trees grew whiter and whiter and the people round it more indistinct. An owl, blunt, obsolete looking, heavy-weighted, crossed the fading sky with a black spot between its claws. The trees murmured. An aeroplane hummed like a piece of plucked wire. There was also on the roads, the distant explosion of a motor cycle, shooting further and further away down the road. Yet what composed the present moment?
For the young there’s so much time to come that the present moment lasts forever. Now, for me, for whom there’s not much time left, it may be a day or just the observation of an apple on a tree being devoured by a hungry blackbird. Age closes down the present moment which must have a context; now the days pass short with great regret. However,
…all the same, everybody believes that the present is something, seeks out the different elements in this situation in order to compose the truth of it, the whole of it.
To begin with: it is largely composed of visual and of [other] sense impressions. The day was very hot. After heat, the surface of the body is opened, as if all the pores were open and everything lay exposed, not sealed and contracted, as in cold weather. The air wafts cold on the skin under one’s clothes. The soles of the feet expand in slippers after walking on hard roads. Then the sense of the light sinking back into darkness seems to be gently putting out with a damp sponge the colour in one’s own eyes. Then the leaves shiver now and again, as if a ripple of irresistible sensation ran through them, as a horse suddenly ripples its skin.
But something else is also happening—beyond sense impressions. There are miscellaneous mental awarenesses, says Virginia Woolf, fantastic and not so fantastic constructions on ‘reality’.
But this moment is also composed of a sense that the legs of the chair are sinking through the centre of the earth, passing through the rich garden earth; they sink, weighted down. Then the sky loses its colour perceptibly and a star here and there makes a point of light. Then changes, unseen in the day, coming in succession seem to make an order evident. One becomes aware that we are spectators and also passive participants in a pageant. And as nothing can interfere with the order, we have nothing to do but accept, and watch. Now little sparks, which are not steady, but fitful as if somebody were doubtful, come across the field. Is it time to light the lamp, the farmers’ wives are saying: can I see a little longer? The lamp sinks down; then it burns up. All doubt is over. Yes the time has come in all cottages, in all farms, to light the lamps. Thus then the moment is laced about with these weavings to and fro, these inevitable downsinkings, flights, lamp lightings.
So what are we talking about? Linear sequence or patterned whole? Consciousness can go beyond ‘the moment’ to construct fantasies on what remains immediately current: impressions of a chair and then the extension of the legs down deep into the planet. Just imagine!
Then there’s succession and order; this impression to be followed by another—endless pageant, linear sequence; beyond this lamp to many lamps in all the farms across the valley, a patterned whole. ‘Consciousness’ takes one lamp and extrapolates from it to many lamps.
The chaos of ‘consciousness’ goes on; it can be halted by the apprehension of this lamp in this window, for example.
The Patterned Whole
…is the wider circumference of the moment. Here in the centre is a knot of consciousness; a nucleus divided up into four heads, eight legs, eight arms, and four separate bodies. They are not subject to the law of the sun and the owl and the lamp. They assist it. For sometimes a hand rests on the table; sometimes a leg is thrown over a leg. Now the moment becomes shot with the extraordinary arrow which people let fly from their mouths—when they speak.
Four people talking together in an evening light, shooting conceptual arrows from their mouths when they speak.
All this shoots through the moment, makes it quiver with malice and amusement; and the sense of watching and comparing; and the quiver meets the shore, when the owl flies out, and puts a stop to this judging, this overseeing, and with our wings spread, we too fly, take wing, with the owl, over the earth and survey the quietude of what sleeps, folded, slumbering, arm stretching in the vast dark and sucking its thumb too; the amorous and the innocent; and a sigh goes up. Could we not fly too, with broad wings and with softness; and be all one wing; all embracing, all gathering, and these boundaries, these pryings over hedge into hidden compartments of different colours be all swept into one colour by the brush of the wing…
What is it that Happens in ‘Consciousness’?
Not one thing but many things; so many that the singular word, in itself, ceases to carry much in the way of meaning. So many things go to make up what we simplify down into what we call ‘consciousness’. Anything that’s ‘other-than-conscious’ functions in just the same kind of way; the contents of the provisional list flips alternately between ‘conscious’ and ‘other-than-conscious’ events: malice, amusement, watching, comparing, judging, overseeing, owl-moments, flying-fantasies, amorousness, innocence, sighing, the crossing of boundaries, pryings.
‘Consciousness’ is never but one thing; the existence of the word itself has us imagining that it is thus. As with ‘memory’ (or any other abstraction from a totality) it is very misleading to think of it as a noun or thing. Language bamboozles us. It’s important to convert nouns into verbs, if only for the hell of it—to see what happens: so ‘memory’ becomes the act of ‘remembering’—a reconstructive process; ‘consciousness’ becomes being-aware-of and being conscious is to pass through so many moments when we make ourselves aware of whatever it might be.
…one sneezes; and the whole universe is shaken; mountains, snows, meadows, moon, higgledy-piggledy, upside down, little splinters flying and the head is jerked up, down…
Bodily responses to external stimuli enter into being-awareness,
…That is why the moment becomes harder, is intensified, diminished, begins to be stained by some expressed personal juice; with the desire to be loved, to be held close to the other shape; to put off the veil of darkness and see burning eyes…
To Look at the Matter from an Alternative Point of View…
All these events enter into what we like to call ‘consciousness’. But that pre-supposes that there is such a thing. What if all these events suddenly went ‘poof!’ and did not exist or just failed to register—there would be no ‘consciousness’. There is no consciousness in the absence of things & events. Consciousness is a construction out of thinginess; it is simply in the relationship between events and the reception of events—in itself non-existent.
Woken at dead of night, I hear the rain falling on the valley and open the window a little more in order to hear it better and smell its delight; my Being is suffused with rain and valley—that, one might say, constitutes my ‘consciousness’ for the moment; I am the rain and the valley; and now I shift attention to my right hand and ‘I’ become the awareness of this midnight fountain pen (with black ink since 1954…) scudding across the page… And now I become the thought of the journey back home in the morning down a road ‘I’ know so well. A succession of trances…
The whole of life is a series of trances, both long and short, discrete and overlapping, in awareness and in the other-than-conscious-mind at the bottom of the Figure of Eight (qv), with which identification is so intimate that we forget that it’s all just a trance.
I would abolish the reifications, ‘Unconscious’ and ‘Subconscious’ which give rise to all kinds of spooky imaginative thinking: there are things of which we are aware and, in seamless connection, things at the bottom of the Figure of Eight that bubble around in the Other-than-conscious-mind, which, on its own, is no more a reliable guide to ‘reality’ than what takes place in the upper circuit.
Life itself is a trance during the course of which we choose to ascribe importance to a lot of little trances—the work trance, the recreational trance, the trance of small impressions—this painting, this poem, that article in the newspaper—and that of larger diversions & concerns—the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq, for example.
‘Consciousness’ is an invention; without the pageant of trances there is no such thing. Object-trance, passion-trance, music trance, writing trance. Because of my upbringing, subject to all the forces of conventional wisdom, I, the manager of my manifold trances, have got used to calling my huge collection of them ‘consciousness’, but I never knew what it really meant especially when I observed learned people writing learned tomes on the subject and neuroscientists making a living from trying to identify the site/s of its origin in the brain. It is an invention, a reification of the endless management of trances.
Or else it is an emergent property of the system of trances to which we are inevitably subjected. For example:-
We exist in a great boxful of trances; they press in upon us without cessation; we can focus more or less as we choose. I went to the bathroom just now; there was a batch of trances: lino-trance, tap-trance, washbasin-trance, soap-trance, towel-trance, light-pull-trance.
We Cannot Escape the Trances, Birth to Death
Without them, the food of Pure Impressions, life, as Gurdjieff says, would cease.
Not for me right now but for Virginia Woolf once (sometime in the 1930’s probably) this is the series of trances that kept her essay The Moment: Summer’s Night on track:-
And then comes the lowing of the cows in the field; and another cow to the left answers; and all the cows seem to be moving tranquilly across the field and the owl flutes off its watery bubble. But the sun is deep below the earth. The trees are growing heavier, blacker; no order is perceptible; there is no sequence in these cries, these movements; they come from no bodies; they are cries to the left and to the right. Nothing can be seen. We can only see ourselves as outlines, cadaverous, sculpturesque. And it is more difficult for the voice to carry through this dark. The dark has stripped the fledge from the arrow—the vibrations that rise red shiver as it passes through us.
For me, with no cows in sight or sound, this is part of the reading trance.
And then, whether we get it or not, we attach a bit of ourselves to each and every trance. Trances become ourselves. The Blitz trance, for me, for example, becomes an Awareness-of-the-fragility-of-all-things-I when once, to the four-year-old me, it was more concretely definable as Hearing-bombs-dropping-I, Seeing-the-flash-of-explosions-over-London-I.
This house where I have stayed often in the last six years is a long trance shortly to end because my landlady is selling up; its Victorian comfortableness is a profound trance—many of my ‘I’s are attached to minor trances connected with the place: Watching-the-arrival-of-dawn-I, Writing-I, Reading-I, Shivering-with-cold-I, Talking-over-breakfast-I—plus a host of others which, if you insist, become my consciousness of the place—an emergent property of The Old Manse. It would be nothing without the trances, the I-tagging.
Then comes the terror, the exultation; the power to rush out unnoticed, alone; to be consumed; to be swept away to become a rider on the random wind; the tossing wind; the trampling and neighing wind; the horse with the blown-back mane; the tumbling, the foraging; he who gallops for ever, nowhither travelling, indifferent; to be part of the eyeless dark, to be rippling and streaming, to feel the glory run molten up the spine, down the limbs, making the eyes glow, burning, bright, and penetrate the buffeting waves of the wind.
“Everything’s sopping wet. It’s the dew off the grass. Time to go in.”
And then one shape heaves and surges and rises, and we pass, trailing coats, down the path towards the lighted windows, the dim glow behind the branches, and so enter the door, and the square draws its lines round us, and here is a chair, a table, glasses, knives, and thus we are boxed and housed, and will soon require a draught of soda-water and to find something to read in bed.
Elsewhere (in Moments of Being), Virginia Woolf writes about
…separate moments of being [which are] embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger. I had a slight temperature last week; almost the whole day was non-being…
Events disappearing into ‘nondescript cotton wool’, non-being, could be taken as being about self-forgetting, going into dead trances, doing things, as it is said, in a trance, without thinking about it: “Did you ever see a trance walking?” as my mother used to say of me.
As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. [A couple of instances]… I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later…
The trance of looking at a single flower expands to encompass the whole of reality.
Those trances that become significant to us can become a kind of shock to the system; they make us stand outside ourselves at least for a moment, perhaps forever when recollected in tranquillity, and they have the power to move us into a different order of being. Virginia Woolf goes on to suppose
…that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art… we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock…
To Return to Our Starting Point…
‘Consciousness’ as an abstraction is a very slippery customer. Re-construe it as the emergent property of an endless system of trances, as General Manager of trances and it comes closer. It can be done.
It could be focussed as a knot of trances or as a pageant of events on which we impose some kind of individual order or structure; then you can begin to capture it by delving into the nature of things that bring it about.
Look around you now! Bring the things of your environment, just whatever they happen to be, into focussed awareness. For me, for example, wardrobe, lamplight, scissors, desk, pen, book, bare walls—momentary trance, the constituents of ‘I’ right at this moment. The sleepless bed to which I shall shortly return. Wind and rain throughout all this.
Then, it makes complete sense to me that the very deliberate act of self-remembering (“This is me here and now, being me here and now…”) unties the knot of trance.