The Sphere of Consciousness

I’ve been redoing an introductory meditation course with a friend via the app Waking Up, where Sam Harris teaches mindfulness meditation. Despite starting meditation two and a half years ago, I find that it’s always nice to go back to the start with this kind of practice and I’ve found the Waking Up intro course to be the best one so far (compared to Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, Sattva, and others). In one of the introductory course episodes, Sam talks about “expanding the sphere of consciousness”. He didn’t expand much on that exact combination of words, but it gave me a nice visual and a train of thought that I wanted to write about.

One of the goals of meditation, from what I’ve learned so far, is to dissolve the barrier between self and world, and to recognize that that there is no meaning to creating a distinction between your body, your head, your thoughts, the sounds you hear, the sounds that arise, the smells that permeate the air you breathe, the feeling of grass on your feet, and the grass itself. This is sometimes referred to as losing the duality of subject/object, and different meditation teachers have different approaches to this teaching. Sam Harris often approaches this by asking the the meditator to “look for the one who is looking”, which I’ve always found very difficult. To me, that statement brings me out of the meditation and into defense mode—”He’s here! He’s right here behind my eyes and inside my head!” This, of course, misses the point.

Image from @wakingup on Twitter

So when he mentioned “expanding the sphere of consciousness”, some imagery helped me to help think about vision and understand what he was getting at. Most people have the sense that they’re seeing from a spot just behind their eyes, in the center of their heads. Sam uses the idea of “looking for the one who is looking” to ask you where you’re seeing from, and to help you notice that you can’t see the seer in your visual field, you can’t observe the observer with your eyes. So it must not only be the visual field that is causing this sensation, this sensation that we feel that we can see… so what else is there?

If you were to look at a water bottle on a table, you would say you’re seeing the water bottle (which is “over there”) from inside your head (which is “here”). Imagine zooming out to look at the spot inside your head where the “seeing” originates from—for me, that means “looking” at it from a spot farther back in my head, inside my skull but toward the back and top of my head. To use the water bottle analogy, the water bottle is the place from which you originally feel you’re seeing (over “there”) and the spot you’re focusing from is somewhere farther back (the new “here”).

Think of the initial spot from which you feel that you’re seeing as a tiny sphere. This sphere is where, intuitively, you might feel that consciousness is held. You couldn’t see the sphere if you were contained entirely within it, so pulling back your gaze to a spot farther back in your head allows you to see the sphere from the outside. But… if the sphere is consciousness, and you’re aware of it, then you must be aware from somewhere, and that is clearly in consciousness too. So it seems to me that the sphere of consciousness is simply expanding to include both of those points—the point between your eyes which you originally thought was the center of consciousness, and this new spot, pulled back. Now the sphere might encompass all of the inside of your head.

If you’ve done a mindfulness meditation practice, you’ve likely been asked to focus on the breath and where you feel it in your body. So the sphere of consciousness must at least include the chest or abdomen where you feel the breath. A body scan will show you that the sphere can expand to include the whole body.

Sounds that you hear are also appearing in consciousness. They’re not produced at your ear, your ear simply receives them from somewhere else. So the sphere of consciousness must include the source of the sound—maybe it’s someone talking in the other room, or the sound of a truck backing up outside.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

No post about expanding consciousness would be complete without at least one psychedelic looking image. Image from Unsplash

I found this an interesting visual—the sphere grows as soon as you notice other things being captured by it in consciousness. In another meditation practice called metta (or loving-kindness), the meditator is often asked to focus on another person to send them kind words or thoughts. You may wish them success on an upcoming challenge, or wish them healing from trauma in the past. If this person is in your consciousness, and their future success or past trauma are in your consciousness, it seems to me that consciousness must encompass those things—it does not have clear spatial bounds, nor does it have temporal bounds.

There are several other ways to think about losing this subject/object duality and reaching the point where you feel like consciousness is not limited to living inside your head. One way, according to Richard Lang, is to remove the head from the equation entirely! His philosophy, called the Headless Way (described on his very old looking site, sorry Richard), proposes a series of experiments and meditations to help with this imagery. Surely others have other ways of doing this, and I’ll keep exploring them as I continue to learn and meditate.

Another larger goal of this practice that is extremely closely tied to subject/object duality is the loss of the feeling of “self” entirely. It’s the recognition that there is no “self” that is controlling consciousness. All that exists are the contents of consciousness—the feelings, sensations, and even the thoughts that arise—do so without a conscious controller to initiate them. This line of inquiry could be another blog post on its own (or, you know, thousands of years of philosophy and mediation along with several PhDs), so I’ll leave it be for now. It’s clear however that these two concepts—subject/object duality and the loss of self—are inextricably linked.

The subject/object duality usually precedes the loss-of-self experiences that experienced meditators often achieve. I believe that in both cases, an understanding of these concepts can help us to feel more conscious of others, more connected to one another, more connected to our environment, and more connected to the world in which we live.

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