In consciousness, distinctions among perceptions, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings are unified.
In a previous insight, I made a passing reference to perceptions, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings as a set of perturbations that can occur within the field of consciousness. Let's explore this idea in greater depth.
The distinction between the mutually-observable world of matter and the subjective inner world is virtually a cornerstone of the common-sense, materialist perspective on reality. Some deep thinkers about this sort of stuff have even gone so far as to imply or state directly that what is not observable in the objective sense doesn’t even exist or, at the very least, is intellectual fluff.
For example, in the social sciences, a hardline behaviorist would argue that thoughts and feelings are not appropriate objects of study for any psychology that wishes to call itself scientific, since thoughts and feelings cannot be independently observed and, therefore, if they exist at all can only be endlessly conjectured about. The logical positivist would take philosophy down a similar road, positing that any philosophical statement that cannot be objectively verified or falsified by scientific methods carries no literal meaning and, therefore, should be disregarded as mere linguistic babble. (Not to be too snarky here, but I’ve never heard a decent defense of the criticism, But the statement that posits logical positivism is itself unverifiable.)
But these types of arguments can only get traction from an implicit belief in materialism, in which the existence of matter is primary, even first in terms of temporal order, with consciousness arising out of it sometime later in an as-yet unexplained way.
That’s where we started our journey. We had to start there. At the point in history where most of us currently find ourselves (excluding, perhaps, a few native ancestral people of various continents who may still be relatively unaffected by modern world culture and who, I’m guessing, are not many among my readers), materialism isn’t just a possible way to think about the world; it’s essentially the unquestioned only way to think about the world. If I were writing this book in Florence, Italy, in 1250, a century before the Black Plague swept across Europe and Asia, I wouldn’t be the least bit concerned about convincing you to question materialism: Instead, I would be writing to convince you (assuming you knew how to read) to question Roman Catholicism, and praying – yes, praying – that the local Church Fathers never found out about it.
But that was a long time ago. Catholicism is no longer an unquestioned, unquestionable truth, even for most devout Church-going Catholics. The Holy See lost its influence on most thinkers centuries ago in what is historically called the Enlightenment. And so, the Age of Reason has supplanted the Age of Faith, and you and I are currently looking at the world through the filters of all we’ve been taught, straining to see what might be seen there if those filters were removed.
To begin to get a look at “what’s out there,” humans began a collective project about 500 years ago in which they used whatever enhanced methods they could find to see the world around them more clearly. They invented and improved telescopes for seeing distant things, and microscopes for seeing small things. And they developed entire branches of mathematics to order and make sense of the vast quantities of data they were slowly gathering.
The success of this project at accomplishing much of what it set out to achieve cannot be overstated. It will doubtless continue to reap huge benefits for humanity another few centuries – provided, of course, that humanity can manage to continue holding back on using it for mass destruction until…
Until we find our way to a new and humble understanding of reality to help guide us on a more grounded path.
Which is where we left off with the previous insight.
The raw material that any of us human beings gets about ourselves and the world around us arrives in a limited number of ways. To keep things relatively simple, I’ve distinguished these routes of entry as perceptions, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings. You might slice them up somewhat differently, using a few more or a few less categories. But the important place that we’re working toward – hopefully, step-by-step, with your having signed off, at least provisionally, on the whole endeavor – is this that all of them occur within consciousness, a kind of field of awareness which, it turns out upon observation and reflection, is not very much like any physical space studied in the natural sciences.
In fact, while perceptions, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings are all distinct in how we experience them – just as, say, feelings of impatience and jealousy are also distinct – there is a sense we are slowly coming to that these different phenomena have a common source as what I’ve called perturbations in the field of consciousness in which all things arise.
You could think of a perturbation as similar to the result when you pluck a guitar string: What comes into being is a vibration that your ear perceives to be a musical note, with a set of qualities such as pitch, volume, and duration that arise and then gradually subside.
This note resides in the air that completely surrounds the guitar and your ear, and without that air it wouldn’t exist. Yet I’ll bet that in all the time you’ve ever listened to music or the voice of a friend in a conversation, you’ve virtually never stepped back from the experience to observe, This is all simply a set of perturbations of the air – nothing more!
All the diversity of sounds you’ve heard throughout your life are equally comprehensible as perturbations within the field of air that surrounds the earth. This in no way limits their beauty or usefulness, but it does unify them even in their multiplicity.
In a similar way, the fantastic diversity of experiences from which the fabric of your life has been woven has a single comprehensible source that in no way diminishes them: they can all equally and without exception be apprehended and understood as perturbations within the field of consciousness in which everything arises.