The Book

Having an interest in the questions Krishnamurti talked about goes necessarily with an interest into what constitutes consciousness, the very heart of being human. A highly interesting book on this subject, The Crucible of Consciousness by Zoltan Torey (1999, Oxford University Press), is a comprehensive synthesis of the scientific data available from such fields as evolution, neuroscience, biology and psychiatry. The author sets out to achieve not only a major clarification as to how consciousness functions, but also a shift in our understanding of the mind, therefore of ourselves, and our role in the world. Although written for the interested lay person, it is not an easy read; the subject is subtle and the language dense and often scientific. It is a book to study, to read and re-read as one tries to grasp how the many pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Torey states from the start that "the conscious brain is at the crossroads of all investigations. Its decoding is necessary for the understanding of the world and our place in it." He believes that our ignorance of the nature of consciousness leads to all kinds of unhelpful speculation. And since the human mind has "the ability to create fiction, and then to believe in it and act on this belief," this is a potentially dangerous situation. To him there is clear evidence that consciousness is neither ghostly in essence nor simply a sophisticated computer.

Awareness and Self-reflective Awareness

Awareness, consciousness and mind have different connotations but we often use them interchangeably. Torey avoids the latter two for most of his investigation and focuses on awareness. Awareness (the state of being wary, alert) is a biological factor in all higher organisms and is the basis for what we call human consciousness. Awareness means, fundamentally, the internal representation of the ever changing world around us which allows us to act appropriately in given situations. But human consciousness is that and something more. The something more is a breakthrough in evolution which has allowed the fragile human being to dominate the world. And this something more is - although unique in evolutionary terms - nothing mystical or otherworldly, but fully consistent with the biological world we inhabit.

The explanation, which I simplify here, goes like this: awareness is the seat of experience. But awareness in the human brain is twofold: there is biological awareness (awareness A) which is connected via the senses to the 'real' world so that it can sense what is happening there, but then there is an additional awareness. This part (we will call it awareness B) does not focus on the 'real' world, but 'looks back' onto the content of awareness A as present at that moment. In other words, in the human brain awareness can look at its own content. Awareness has become self-reflective and so can now know that it is knowing, can feel that it is feeling. 'Self-consciousness'(in the sense of being conscious of consciousness) is born. We will go into this later in more detail.

Original Perception and Abstraction

Again, it is through awareness A that the original, fluid, and momentary perception of our world through the integration of our sensory input is formed. This perception does not enter consciousness, but its content is drawn upon by awareness B. Importantly, awareness B perceives differently, namely, on a higher plane of abstraction in the form of stabilised and standardised images and words. This twofold seeing and the continuous interaction between the two modes of awareness is crucial and provides the basis for self-awareness. This is not the case in the animal brain, where the experience simply 'is', remaining unaware of itself.

The development of self-reflective awareness has far-reaching effects. For the first time in evolution a brain has access to its own content, and for the first time a brain can bind the organism's attention long enough for internal processes to work with that content.

While those areas of the brain which take part in the generating of awareness A are grounded (to put it positively) or trapped (to put it negatively) in ongoing environmental input and sensory traffic, the specialised processes which constitute awareness B can generate their own 'internal' attention. The brain can now delve into its memory banks, analyse, combine and re-combine experiences, play through different action patterns without having to act on them, and generate alternatives and complex choice. For the first time a brain can ask questions and articulate answers. But there is a price to pay. The questions and answers may have a distorted relationship to reality (or none at all), and the brain's new ability may engender self-obsessed and neurotic behaviours. It also means that the brain, which before was unconscious of itself and thus lived embedded in the eternity of 'what is', has now to deal with its new self-reflective capability, has to deal with concepts of future, death, insecurity, and, last but not least, the concept of self.

The Central Feature of the Self-reflective Mind - Language

Central to the self-reflective mind is its symbolic skills as they are represented in our ability to use language. Language is the code with which we internally handle perceptions - this handling we know as thinking, imagining, speaking. I will not go into the details of the evolution of language which Torey explores in several chapters of his book. He explains language as a process that is analogous with the physical manipulation of objects - only, in this case, the 'objects' handled are word-linked images held in awareness.

thinking and speaking are accompanied by the sense that they are being done, that they come from inside and not from outside

Thinking and speaking occupy a part of the brain which in evolutionary terms had originally taken care of motor tasks. Therefore, their activity is accompanied by proprioception. In other words, thinking and speaking are accompanied by the sense that they are being done, that they come from inside and not from outside, in the same way that we feel that hands are moved from inside and not from outside. It is here, in proprioception, that Torey sees the birth of our sense of self: namely, that in association with our body some 'thing' exists which is conscious of its existence, has continuity in time, and is the subject of our actions, perceptions and feelings.

The Sense of Self

How does self-reflective awareness create the impression of a self? Torey suggests that when thinking takes place there is both awareness of the content of thought and awareness that the content is being thought of (proprioception). Torey gives the example of seeing a table. Firstly the table is perceived on the physical, sensory level as a form and not yet as a table. This ground perception does not enter consciousness, but it triggers awareness B which recognises that this form falls under the category 'table'. This recognition, which is a self-reflective process (awareness B scanning awareness A), is accompanied by proprioception and is therefore conscious, in other words, with it goes the sensation that the experience of the table is 'mine', from which we conclude that it is 'me' who sees the table. Let's look more closely at this. It seems that we as human beings translate this feeling of 'this is being done by this organism'(proprioception) into a concept which we call 'me', the 'self'. Again, we (and 'we' here stands for the thinking and feeling process) interpret this sensation of proprioception - which is created every time thinking/ feeling happens - to be a subject or an essence which is at the centre of our life, which owns and controls the thoughts, memories, experiences, and specific faculties of this human organism.

;I guess we can see this in daily life: what we are generally interested in is our conscious activity. We do not have any real regard for the unknown, what we cannot feel or convert into thinking simply does not exist for us. But every time we think and feel, we get the sensation that we exist as a 'me'. Therefore, we insist on continuing these activities, because the ending would mean (so we imagine) that there is virtually 'no-thing' left, i.e. the end or even death of that sensation which we have called 'me'and believe to be something continuous and independent. Instead, it seems now, we have identified ourselves with a mechanism as simple as proprioception, a by-product of the thinking and speaking process. Remember what Krishnamurti said: he claimed that there is no self apart from the thought which creates it. He asked why we are so relentless about adding to our experience, why we can never stop, never end anything, why we attach ourselves to the content of our consciousness and cannot let it go. The answer seems to be much clearer now: because we believe that the conscious activity is 'us'and that there is no other way to live.

Returning to the book, when self-awareness gets translated into a concept (an image called 'me'), this concept then becomes part of the content of thought. When we think about the 'me', both the word with its meaning and the proprioception mingle into one inseparable experience. Thinking about it further only continues the feeling since every thought brings further self-sensation. This is the reason we feel that the self is somehow elusive and non-physical, e.g. a soul or a spirit. Once the concept of self is there, it will be almost impossible to see that in actuality there might be only the process of self-reflective awareness.

Considering what has been said, we might now be tempted to see this process of self-reflective awareness as being 'us'. Torey refutes this because he sees the self-reflective awareness loop to be a subsystem of the biological organism. The conscious part of the brain is only an intermediate level of the whole system and can therefore influence and guide the outcome but is not the final 'decision maker'. "In short, we can conclude that it is the biological system that owns and uses the mind and not the other way around." Of course, as it stands now, this is not our experience, since we have identified with a small part of the activity of that biological system, believing it has overriding importance as well as being somehow separate and independent from the biological system and the world.

Torey sees his findings as a first step, a first but important clarification of the nature of our consciousness and therefore of our role as human beings. And according to him this role is one of responsibility to this (material) world and not to any other world nor to our individual and fanciful beliefs.

Personal Reflections

a miracle explained makes it no less miraculous

I still remember my first reactions at the suggestion that consciousness is grounded in physicality and materiality. I felt it somehow to be a let-down, a decline to an inferior order. That shows to a certain extent how much our culture looks down on the physical world - and treats it accordingly. We do not see the material and the non-material, the manifest and the non-manifest, as an unbroken whole, as part of "the implicate order" of the universe, to use David Bohm's words. Torey himself addresses this aspect: "I perceive the mind-system as being a miracle of cognitive organisation. This must seem even more miraculous now that purely physical processes can be shown to sustain it. But then a miracle explained makes it no less miraculous." He also states that the evolutionary depth in matter and biological systems developed over billions of years cannot be compared to any of our machines, including the computer.

It was fascinating to see that most of the findings about perception, the process of thought and the concept of self echo the discoveries of Krishnamurti, who came from a very different background and perspective. I understood the wonder of thought in new ways, as well as its limitations. I got a deep sense of what might be an awareness without knowing, without a trace of self-awareness - and from that background saw my usual state dominated by an intense hunger not so much for life, as such, as for the conscious experience or self-experience - and the limitations and distortions which go with that. I felt that for the first time I could appreciate the interplay between original perception (K would probably have used the word observation) on one side and thought with its knowledge on the other, and how important it is not to think in isolation but to connect and check thinking with perception and our intuitive capacities. There was an almost shocking realisation of how far we have already become single-minded: we (especially, perhaps, in western culture and society) are overestimating the role of thoughts and feelings to the point that we are identifying our very lives with it. There were instances while reading the book and going through my day that I was struck by the feeling of being nothing but a self-reflective process, a process totally embedded in and made up of the physicality of this mysterious world. If we are nothing special, nothing separate and 'other'- then we are indeed the world, with its beauty and terror, and then there is a profound kinship with all other things and beings.