People imagine that they are always conscious when they’re awake, but if you observe yourself carefully you’ll see that you’re conscious only when you look to see if you are.
Are you conscious now?
Perhaps you think this a silly question, but have you ever thought really deeply about what it means? It seems obvious that I’m conscious now, but then the more I look the less obvious it becomes.
I’ve been asking myself this question for many years. Here is some of what happened. I’d love your comments on how you get on if you are willing to try it too. Just try and ask yourself — as many times a day as you can — am I conscious now?
Of course I am. Yes, I am conscious now.
But something odd happened. When I asked myself the question it was as though I became conscious at that moment. Was I not conscious before? It felt as though I was waking up — coming to consciousness as I asked the question — because I asked the question.
What is going on? I can remember what was happening just before I asked the question, so it seems that someone must have been conscious. Was someone else conscious a moment before — as though the waking up is a change in who is conscious? It certainly didn’t feel as though it could have been me because I just woke up, but surely it wasn’t anyone else, for who else could there be in here? Another possibility is that I wasn’t really conscious before I asked the question. This is deeply troubling. For I’ve never asked this question before. Surely I cannot have been unconscious, or semi-conscious, all my life can I? Perhaps there are lots of things that make me conscious apart from asking this particular question. Even so, this is rather scary. It certainly seems as though I must spend a lot of my time unconscious, otherwise I could not have this definite sensation of coming awake when I ask “Am I conscious now?”. Let me ask it again. Can I reproduce the awakening and look into it to see what it is really like? Am I conscious now?
I practise it a lot, for weeks and months. I keep doing it. I keep asking “Am I conscious now?” To begin with the hardest part is remembering to ask. But I want to know. Little things remind me of the question — a look, a sound, a sudden emotion — any of them can propel me into asking. And then it happens again and again; it feels as though I am waking up. Yes, of course I am conscious now. Yes of course I am, but it seems as though I wasn’t a moment ago.
I know now, from all the many students who have trodden this path with me, that the hardest part is remembering to ask the question. So we’ve tried various strategies. Some put stickers all over their house: “Are you conscious?” on the front door; “Am I conscious now?” on the toaster; “Are you sure you’re conscious now?” on their pillow. Others get into pairs so that they can keep reminding each othe, or take to special times and places, asking the question every time they go to the loo, or in bed, or when they have a drink or food. Sometimes these tricks work; sometimes they don’t.
I wonder why it’s so hard. It almost seems as though there is something conspiring to prevent us asking the question; something that makes it hard to face up to… to what? To being fully aware, I suppose. Although it seems impossible to answer “No”, it is hard work to answer “Yes, I am conscious now”, perhaps because it reminds me that most of the time I cannot have been. But it’s worth it. I persevere.
Am I conscious now? Yes.
Ah, here’s a new question: Can I stay this way? And a funny thing happens. I answer yes. I am fully conscious now, I have woken up to this present moment. Right. This is easy. Here I am. But before I know it I am far away in distraction, thinking about something else, being angry with someone, being miles away in the past or the future or something completely invented and troubling and annoying. I ask again. I sigh. Lost again. Yes, I am conscious now, but where was I?
It troubles me that I seem so often to be unconscious. I cannot believe I spend most of my life in a kind of darkness. Surely that cannot be so. Yet every time I ask this question it feels as though I am waking up, or that a light is switching on. All the more troubling is that this light is so rare. By asking the question and switching it on, I seem to have stumbled on the fact that my normal state of life is some horrible kind of gloom. Was this why I was so troubled; so ill at ease? Was this why I so often felt that nothing was real; that nothing was clear, as though something I couldn't place obscured the view and made my head swim?
I want to explore this darkness; this normal state if that is what it is. But that is impossible isn’t it? How can I look into the darkness, when looking makes it light.
Reprinted from Psychology Today's website. Originally published July 9, 2007.
Copyright 2007 Sussex Publishers, LLC
Photo by Jolyon Troscianko.
Susan Blackmore, Ph.D., is a British psychologist, writer, and broadcaster and author of The Meme Machine and Conversations on Consciousness.
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