Exercise 41

EXERCISE 41: The Mystery of Consciousness – 4


Once you have quieted yourself, return to the experience of being aware of being aware…

We are fairly certain that animals are aware… We often like to imagine that they think like us, but it seems quite probable that, while animals are aware, they are not aware that they are aware (there are certain limit cases that are currently being studied, such as Koko the ape, and other trained primates that seem to be able to reflect on themselves.)

Let’s call this property of self-awareness ‘sentience.’

Now here are some points to ponder about sentience, from the point of view of the evolution of the universe:

Only sentient creatures are perfectible: a cat is a cat. A cat can’t become a ‘better cat.’ It is what it is. A human being can be a good human being, a better human being, a bad human being…

Only sentient creatures endow the cosmos with meaning. ‘Meaning’ is a purely sentient product (I’d say ‘human product,’ but, just in case that elsewhere in the universe there are sentient beings who are not human, I’m preferring ‘sentient.’) We humans live in a world of meaning. Things around you have value, refer to something else. You understand the meaning of strange things like ‘Eastern Daylight Saving Time’ and ‘culture shock’ and ‘depression’ even though these are not ‘things’ but cultural artifacts, words that carry meaning for you.

Only sentient creatures appreciate the beauty of the cosmos. ‘Beauty’ is a ‘meaning’ that only sentients can understand. A cat can’t appreciate art, or a sunset, though it can certainly experience these.

Only sentient creature seek “truth.” Again, the notion of ‘truth’ – the correctness, adequacy, appropriateness of a statement or a theory, through verification of some sort – has meaning only for sentient beings. Cats don’t argue about truth.

Only sentient creatures can transform “evolution” into “history,” i.e. direct the course of transformation of the world. Cats can’t plan the future, can’t reflect on the past and learn from it, can’t negotiate with others for this or that sense of the future. With humanity, ‘evolution’ becomes ‘history,’ for better or for worse.

Because sentient creatures are integral members of the cosmos, the cosmos is aware of itself for the first time through sentient beings. You are the universe aware of itself.

Ponder that for a while…

Through sentient beings, new notions – new realities – enter the cosmos: love, justice, truth, thought, feeling, desire, fear, joy, self-transcendence…

But – and here is where the other shoe drops… – our very sentience is nothing…


Ask yourself this: can you ever get to look at your very self? Can you ever get behind the ‘I’ that says ‘I’? Once you think you’re there, you’ve brought your ‘I’ with you! Because you’re the one trying to get behind you!

We can always get around a ‘thing.’ A ‘thing’ is an ‘object’ (which comes from two Latin words, which together mean: ‘thrown in front of’) which is before me, that I can grasp. (Which is why science has such a rough time with consciousness and subjectivity: it can’t be experienced from the outside; it can’t be looked at, tested, prodded, measured…)

Your essential subjectivity is not reducible to an object. It is no-thing… Nothing.

Journal all of this if you can…