Mind / Matter

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg, the Universe or Consciousness?

Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object, or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?


There is no contradiction between body and spirit, between mind and matter. These are just words we use to understand one thing.

--Zoketsu Norman Fischer

The confusion is apparent and purely verbal. What is, is. It is neither subjective nor objective. Matter and mind are not separate, they are aspects of one energy. Look at the mind as a function of matter and you have science; look at matter as the product of the mind and you have religion…Neither [mind nor matter] comes first, for neither appears alone.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

The mistake in the beginning was to think of solids and space as two different things, instead of as two aspects of the same thing. The point is that they are different but inseparable, like the front end and the rear end of a cat…Take away the crest of the wave, and there is no trough.

--Alan Watts

People desperately want to describe existence and, historically, they speak of matter, energy, consciousness, spirit, oneness, and mystery. But descriptions are merely limited interpretations. All of them. They can never tell us what life actually is.

--Darryl Bailey

When the idea of a separate, independent world collapses, the idea of awareness collapses with it. If there is no object, there cannot be a subject. If there is a subject, there must be an object. So even in the idea of ‘oneness,’ duality is implied. ‘Oneness’ is one thing too much.

--Rupert Spira

Not one, not two.

--Zen Expression

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.

--The Heart Sutra

The ordinary and the extraordinary are one and the same thing, as are the spiritual and the material, as are me and the other.

--Wayne Liquorman

All you need to do is to get rid of the tendency to define your self.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

As we explore the actuality of the body and discover directly that it is insubstantial, impermanent, and boundless, we find that many knotty problems dissolve into thin air along with the body. For example, there is much debate over which is primary, mind or matter, consciousness or the brain, and whether consciousness is limited to the body or whether it is prior to and beyond the body. Will it survive the body or die along with the brain?  Did the universe begin with matter, and did consciousness appear much later in the evolutionary process as a feature of complex organic life, or are evolution and matter dream-like appearances in consciousness?

Maybe the questions themselves are somehow flawed, rooted in false assumptions and binary or dualistic ways of thinking. Perhaps the truth, as many of the quotes above suggest, is that "the brain" and "consciousness" (or "mind" and "matter") are just different words (or perspectives) that we use to understand one thing that is really not a "thing" at all. We can call this living reality "consciousness" or "energy" or "emptiness" or "no-thing-ness" or "beingness" or "the Self" or "subatomic wavicles" or "blippity-bloop," but what are we actually talking about? Whatever we try to grasp or take hold of slips through our fingers like smoke and turns out to be no-thing solid at all.

We cannot deny that all our knowledge and experience, everything perceivable and conceivable, appears in consciousness, and is in that sense “made up” of consciousness. The very notion that there is a “material” world outside of consciousness can only appear in consciousness. Every scientific discovery appears in consciousness. Don’t take any of this on faith, but look and see for yourself. What is always here in every experience? What must be here first in order for anything else to appear at all? What is it that you cannot doubt or deny? Consciousness!

And yet, what is consciousness? Can it be grasped, pinned down, or pulled apart from experiencing (i.e. from sensing, perceiving, thinking)?

We may think that consciousness is a brain creation, but no brain has ever appeared outside of consciousness, and if we cut open the brain, we won't find this text or this computer or this room we appear to be sitting in. So where exactly is this room, and am I in it, or is it in me?  Indeed, every location, every happening, and everything I ever encounter (including the thought-sense of being a separate person), appears within consciousness. Does "the world" actually exist “out there” apart from me as some observer-independent, substantial reality?  Are we really a bunch of separate, independent organisms all “looking out” through the windows of our senses at a single objective reality that always exists “out there” whether or not anyone is aware of it, each of us seeing this single reality in slightly different ways?  Or is that very idea of separate people all viewing an objective external reality “out there” a fundamental misconception?  As Zen Master Dogen asked, Are there various ways of seeing one object, or have we mistaken various images for a single object? 

When we ask whether consciousness is an activity of the brain, or whether the brain is an appearance in consciousness, and which came first, the brain or consciousness, the problem itself only exists as a movement of consciousness. The entities this question brings into apparent existence ("the brain" and "consciousness") are conceptual abstractions in which thought attempts to freeze and divide the seamless movement of life into discrete and definable objects. The objects we are trying to reconcile or put into some sequential order don't actually exist as separate things in the way we think. Any notion of cause and effect is a conceptual construction—a way of thinking about things, as are the notions of time and space and sequence. Our actual experience is timeless presence or beingness. And in deep sleep, this whole question and the one who feels driven to answer it disappear completely.

Because of our ability to abstract, conceptualize and formulate what we see, it's very easy to jump from simple (undeniable) observations into the realm of (speculative) metaphysical dogma and belief, making something out of no-thing-ness. It's easy to fixate on, and even become identified with, one side of what may be nothing more than an imaginary conceptual divide or a battle over words and labels. And it's easy to draw false or unverifiable conclusions from certain experiences. Many people think consciousness exists independently of the brain because they have had near death experiences or out of body experiences, but near death is not death, and out of body experiences can be induced by probing a certain section of the brain. Neuroscience is still in its infancy, and if we start thinking we know everything about how the universe or the brain works, we may be in for a surprise. Listening openly and being willing to question everything, including our most cherished notions, is at the heart of what it means to be awake. There is truly nothing to lose, and if we think there is, it is certainly an illusion that we are clinging to and defending.

Science and spirituality involve fundamentally different ways of knowing ourselves and the world, both of which have their place and their validity. Science involves standing back and observing from the outside, forming tentative beliefs or hypotheses and then testing them out. Science is by nature always ready to question past conclusions and discover something new and unexpected. Science involves knowledge or information about the world and ourselves. Spirituality at it's best involves direct, unmediated knowing, the kind that requires no belief and that cannot be doubted. It is not about anything; it is this very reality, here and now. Just this! The suchness of this moment. Scientific knowledge tells us, for example, that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, while spiritual knowing is the direct experiencing of diving into the ocean or drinking a glass of water. In that direct experiencing, there is no "water" and no "me" anymore. It is one seamless happening. And that happening (unlike a scientific experiment) is unrepeatable, never the same way twice, always fresh and new. The chemical composition of water can be doubted, but the immediate, nonconceptual, direct experiencing of water cannot. It cannot be doubted, nor can it be grasped or pinned down.

Spirituality (including nonduality) turns into what we think of as religion and gets into trouble as soon as it veers away from this direct knowing and starts formulating what has been seen into conceptual abstractions. Before we know it, we are believing in ideas and second-hand information, making them into revealed truthes that cannot be questioned. This kind of religious fundamentalism and dogmatism is easy to see in the Islamic State or in the way the Catholic Church reacted when Galileo dared to suggest that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but the fact is, this kind of belief-based fundamentalism can show up in certain versions of Buddhism, Advaita and radical nonduality as well. So can we come back, again and again, now and now, to the simplicity of what is? What is it that we know directly without the slightest doubt? Isn't it the undeniable actuality of being present and aware and the undeniable happening of this moment? Interpretations of this happening or this awaring presence can be questioned and doubted, but the actuality of being present and of this present happening (prior to any interpretations of what it is) is beyond doubt. And in that nondual simplicity, who is worried about which comes first, the brain or consciousness, mind or matter? No such concern even arises!

Clearly, we don’t “know” (in the sense of knowledge) what consciousness is, and we never will know, because there is no way to stand outside of consciousness and observe it as an object.  And in fact, scientists are finding there is really no way to stand outside of anything and observe it as an object. In the deepest sense, we don’t really know (in that way of knowing) what anything is! And what does it even mean to wonder what something "is"? The very question creates a dualism that is conceptual but never actual. Once again, we can so easily get tangled up in our concepts and ideas, mistaking the map for the territory without realizing it.

Although we don’t know (in a scientific sense) what consciousness “is,” we know it intimately as the groundless ground of every experience – it is always right here. It is what Here / Now is. It is the water in every wave, the screen that is equally visible in every different scene of the movie. It is the aliveness of this living reality of present experiencing, the undeniable fact of being present, being aware.  We have absolutely no doubt about being here, and this doubtless certainty requires no training, no belief, and no proof. Consciousness would have to be here first in order to doubt it! 

As we explore actual present moment experiencing, we find ceaseless change and complete interdependence. We find that everything is made up of everything else, and we discover that solid, independent objects only exist conceptually as ideas (and to some degree as conditioned perceptions).  When examined closely and carefully, we see that the boundaries between objects are fluid, porous and notional, and that any given object only exists (and can only exist) along with, and because of, everything it is not—that it is actually made up of everything it is not. This is sometimes called Oneness, but once it is named and conceptualized, it becomes another (imaginary) object, so Buddhists prefer to call it emptiness. As one Buddhist teacher put it, everything is empty of itself and full of everything else. Emptiness is not some mysterious vacancy or voidness, but rather, exactly this – this eternal (timeless) Now, ever-present and ever-changing. 

At a casual glance, we do seem to see a substantial world of apparently solid, separate, persisting objects, and this appearance isn’t going to disappear. It has a relative reality and a functional utility within the dream-like movie of waking life. But when we look more closely and carefully, either through meditation or science, we find the borders are not solid, the objects are nothing but continuous change, and the "me" who is assumed to be seeing all this cannot be found. We have an idea that "matter" is something very solid and substantial, like chairs and tables, but when we look closely at any material, it turns out not to be in any way solid or substantial. Matter seems to evaporate into thin air when we really investigate it, whether that investigation is scientific or meditative in nature. Form is nothing but emptiness (thorough-going flux, constant change, formlessness), and emptiness is not some "thing" other than this constant forming and unforming. There is always only Here / Now, this timeless, un-locatable immediacy that never comes, never goes and never stays the same. Sometimes it is filled to the brim with colors and shapes and activity, and at other times it empties out into what some might call pure consciousness or primordial awareness, as in deep sleep, when everything perceivable and conceivable disappears (including any sense of being present and aware, and including the one who cares about all of this).

Although consciousness (or beingness) is the one thing of which we have absolutely no doubt whatsoever—it is our most intimate and ever-present reality, the very ground of every experience—even so, we can’t ever apprehend or grasp this conscious presence or say exactly what it is!  It has no taste, no color, no shape, no form – other than every taste and every color and every shape and every form. As someone said, it’s so clear, it’s easy to overlook.  And even this clarity, this first light of awareness, this sense of beingness, vanishes completely in deep sleep. The groundlessness that remains can never be perceived or conceptualized. We can call it "pure consciousness" or "the Self" or "emptiness" or "energy" or "primordual awareness" or "the universe," but these are all word-concepts that separate out, reify and freeze into pieces what is actually indivisible flowing wholeness from which we are in no way separate. The words are pointers to the living reality, and as such they are useful sign posts, but if we mistake them for the reality to which they point, then we're back in the realm of belief and dogma fighting holy wars over different conceptual abstractions and different maps.

We can become very confused trying to figure out if the moon is made of "physical matter" or if it is "pure consciousness," and if NASA's trips to the moon happened "out there" in some “actual outer space” or if they were "only appearances" in and of consciousness. And yet, what is the difference? Couldn't these simply be different ways of conceptualizing, labeling, and thinking about the bare happening itself? And is the "bare happening" of what we call "the moon" the same thing if you are an astronaut standing on the moon, or a mission control person watching from a screen on the ground, or an astronomer looking through a telescope, or a child reading about it in the pages of a history book? Is there really any single, solid, substantial, enduring, fixed "thing" called "the moon" or "the moon landing," or do we merely think that there is? To quote Dogen again, Have we mistaken various images for a single object? We might also say that the moon is every bit as real as you are right now...and exactly how real is that? What is real about "you" in this moment? This is a wonderful question to explore meditatively, by looking deeply and directly.

Teachings such as Zen and Advaita are not about acquiring information, knowledge and answers. They are about questioning everything we think we know and waking up to the aliveness and fluidity of Here / Now, discovering that there is truly nothing to grasp. These teachings invite us to simply notice when things are solidifying in the mind, when we are feeling confused or defensive, when we have lost touch with the bigger context and gotten overly identified with a fragment in an apparent conflict or stuck on one side of a conceptual divide.

Can we see right now that the whole problem of "mind vs. matter" is a dream-problem? Without the words, what is this, right here, right now?  Is it Mind? Is it matter? No word can capture it. What remains in deep sleep? What was here before the universe was born, before the Big Bang? What were you before conception, before your parents were born? Was there really a before? Could the so-called Big Bang be moment-to-monent? Explore these questions not by thinking about them and trying to find an answer, but by falling into the answer-less-ness of Here / Now.

When the thinking mind gets busy trying to solve the mystery of the universe, we wonder if the fundamental reality is mind or matter.  We wonder which comes first, the brain or the mind, the chicken or the egg. We wonder if we are a brain in a vat, or whether or not consciousness will survive death. We wonder what is prior to consciousness. Perhaps questions such as these are all akin to asking what happens to me if I fall off the edge of the earth.  People used to worry about that. But obviously, the apparent problem, which at the time seemed quite serious, was based on false ideas about the earth.  The danger of falling off the edge was never really there.

In exploring our own direct and immediate experience, we may discover that no separate thing is ever born and nothing real ever dies. We may find that there is no before and after, no “out there” or “in here,” except relatively, in the world of appearances. Realizing this doesn’t mean we lose the ability to distinguish a chicken from an egg, nor does it mean that we can't appreciate science or learn from history or plan for the future or that we have no boundaries in a practical sense or in the way psychology uses that term. Awakening does not deny relative reality or the ability to set limits and make distinctions, but awakened understanding functions within that relative reality without the stickiness and confusion that comes when relative reality is mistaken for absolute reality, or when some relative object (such as any idea of "consciousness") is mistaken for absolute Truth.

Gradually, we become more and more sensitive to the way the mind divides, abstracts, reifies and then gets confused, trying to reconcile the pieces it has just created. We can begin to see this happening as it happens. And we can begin to see directly that our confusion is all in how we’re thinking and not in reality itself.  We come back to the simplicity of what actually is. In this simplicity, there is no consciousness, no brain, no me, no world...but that doesn't mean that there isn't this whole happening that we tentatively call "consciousness," "brain," "me," and "world." We can still use these words and concepts, but we no longer mistake them for reality itself.

As we become intimate with our actual direct experience, we discover there is no separation between the seer, the seeing, and the seen. The words only seem to divide what is actually one seamless whole. There is diversity, but not separation.

Believing this as an idea is not enough to satisfy the cosmic itch. Belief is always shadowed by doubt. And even though we may know this from our own direct experience, our tendency is to forget and to once again go looking “out there” for something to save us, or even to go looking out there for “Here and Now.”  The old hypnotic trance of feeling separate and vulnerable and lacking overtakes us—the way a movie "overtakes" the screen and seems to hide it—and (within the movie, as the main character) we search desperately for a fix to this imaginary dilemma. This habit of overlooking the jewel and searching for it somewhere else is a conditioned pattern and tends to recur. Within the context of the search, which is a kind of movie-story, it all seems to be about "me," and it all seems very serious and real.

But at some point, the bubble pops, the movie ends, and there is a waking up to the utter simplicity and immediacy of what is: this undeniable seeing-hearing-sensing-breathing-awaring-being, prior to all the labels and stories about it. And ultimately, it is recognized that this unbroken wholeness includes even the thoughts and stories and maps! There can be a letting go of the attempt to grasp it all conceptually, a free-falling into groundlessness and the freedom of not knowing and not needing to know.

It seems to be the nature of consciousness (or this living reality) to explore and inquire and question. In the dream-like movie of waking life, seamlessness appears as a multitude of individuals, like different waves on the ocean, and “we” do this exploration through meditation, science, body awareness work, art, lovemaking, politics, philosophy, psychotherapy, and in all kinds of ways. Consciousness (or whatever this is) explores itself and then comes home from its explorations. “We” put aside all our words, our telescopes and microscopes, our computers and paint brushes and cameras and drop into the silence of deep sleep or death, the silence that refreshes and renews. And then, before long, the dream world appears and then the movie of waking life, which is another kind of dream, and at the end of every episode of that dream-like movie, “we” let everything go and fall back into the refreshment of deep sleep, just like the whole universe, endlessly expanding and contracting, dying and being born, inhaling and exhaling. We can call it "the universe" or "consciousness" or "primordial awareness" or "seamless being" or "the Self" or "emptiness" or "Totality" or "Mind" or "matter," but before all those words, what is it?

We may find there is no need to define it. We can use words provisionally as pointers. We can use maps. We can use different maps and different pointers. But ultimately, Truth cannot be grasped or mapped or pointed at. And yet, here it always is, plain as day.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2011, 2015, 2017--

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