The fundamental and most basic thing we have knowledge of is that of our subjective experience, our point of view, and our perspective on the world. Every sight, every sound, every feeling, every thought, every emotion—all of these experiences are experienced from a particular subjective perspective. This subjective perspective is what philosophers mean by “inner experience” or “consciousness,” what is sometimes called “phenomenal consciousness.” It is this kind of subjectivity that generates the famous “hard problem of consciousness” for materialism. In this essay, I will be articulating and advocating for the truth of a response to the hard problem of consciousness called philosophical idealism.
The scientific dogma of materialism/physicalism/naturalism says that consciousness is either “generated” by matter, “emerges from” matter, is identical to matter, and/or is a function of matter. In the most extreme theory, which I used to believe for many years with the conviction of religious faith, materialists will say consciousness doesn’t exist at all, and that there is no such thing as “inner experience”—it’s matter all the way down. This philosophical move is called “Quining qualia.” The key point of this materialist worldview is that matter is the ultimate, fundamental ontological primitive and consciousness is either derived out of matter, a complex arrangement of matter, or a mere epiphenomenon of matter.
The thesis I will argue in this essay is that the core truth of mysticism from across all spiritual and religious traditions is precisely the opposite: consciousness is the fundamental ontological primitive and matter is a manifestation of consciousness. I will not necessarily be “arguing” for this view in the analytic sense of that term, but rather, explicating for its experiential validity in the hopes it resonates with your intuition on some level of depth beyond that of empty syllogisms and logic-chopping.
Consciousness being the fundamental ontological primitive of reality does not mean that my limited perspective on the world as seen from my eyeballs and heard from my ears is the metaphysical foundation of the universe. That position is called solipsism and is very far from the idea I am describing.
Rather, the claim is that there is an impersonal, universal, eternal all-pervasive Consciousness that is the ontological foundation of not just my personal consciousness but your personal consciousness as well, as well as all the “little” personal consciousnesses that exist in the universe. Deeper still, this universal, all-pervading “Big” Consciousness is the ontological foundation for all of matter and energy that exists.
The Giant Dreamer
To use a common metaphor, this impersonal, universal, eternal, all-pervasive Consciousness is a Giant Dreamer and all the multifaceted particularities of the universe, including individual personal consciousnesses and all the particularities of tables, chairs, rocks, and trees, etc., these are all dreams in the Great Mind of the Universal Consciousness.
Just as when we dream at night, we dream up vast dream worlds with space and time and multifaceted particularities, so too the Universal Consciousness dreams up a vast dream world (“the universe”) that includes many places, people, and things. This vast dream world includes the personal worlds of our own inner experience.
The secret wisdom of the Perennial Philosophy, the Great Truth of mystical experience, is that we ourselves, in our deepest, truest Self, are absolutely identical to this great Universal Consciousness. Indeed, there are, ultimately and at the absolute level, not two things: the Universal Consciousness and little ole me. There is only one true reality: Universal Consciousness, eternal and unchanging.
It helps to stop for a minute and remind ourselves that it is expected that the limitations of our finitude prevent us from fully cognizing the entire scope of what this claim entails.
The whole path of mystical spirituality and contemplation is slowly removing our ignorance wherein we cognize ourselves to be distinct from this eternal, Universal Consciousness that is eternal and all-pervasive. And since it is all-pervasive that means I am all-pervasive. It means that I am the same as you. The same as my dog. As the tree in my yard. As the entire night sky. It means I am identical to the infinities at the heart of all the black holes in the cosmos.
When we remove the ignorant belief that we are separate from everything else we come to a startling realization: We are this Universal Consciousness, and so is everything else. And thus, in conclusion, we find ourselves on the vista of a radical conclusion: all is One. And what is the nature of this One True Reality? It is Pure Consciousness, which has always existed and always will exist. In removing this ignorance and realizing our true nature as The One Universal Consciousness, we realize we lack absolutely nothing for we are absolutely everything, and thus we realize true peace, true bliss.
Where is Consciousness?
But where is this Universal Consciousness? The Church of Science says: can I measure it? Can I touch it? Can I point it out as a “thing” or “kind of stuff” in the way that I can point to the various objects in my personal, experienced world?
This is a fundamental category mistake. Since Universal Consciousness is inner experience in its purest form, and by its very nature inner experience is not an object that can be grasped or cognized the same way we can grasp and cognize about trees and rocks and other objects, we cannot grasp or cognize Universal Consciousness as if it were just another object or another “thing” that exists “out there.” It is the “in here.”
It is not a thing. It is that which experiences things. It is not an object. It is that which experiences objects. It is not a kind of stuff. It is that by which the very experience of stuff is possible.
To use an analogy, consider your eye, which sees. This act of seeing involves a perspective, a point of view. Can the eye look at itself? No, it is that which makes looking possible. But can’t you see your eye in a mirror? Not quite, for when you look at a mirror, you are seeing a reflection of your eye, but you are not seeing the eye itself looking at the reflection as you look at the reflection. To use Alan Watt’s famous phrase, trying to “find” the subject is like asking the teeth to bite themselves.
Since “inner experience” by definition involves a point-of-view, a perspective, it is subjective. But for subjectivity to exist, there must be a subject for whom there is something-it-is-like to be a subject, something-it-is-like to have an experience. In other words, in order for there to be consciousness, there must be a conscious subject that experiences the experience and unifies it into a particular point of view. But the subject is not an object. You can’t point to a subject the same way you can point to a thing. The subject is the experiential awareness that lights up the object of experience.
So asking, “Where is this Great Univeral Consciousness? Point it out to me” is a category error that stems from the dogmatic assumption of a hollow worldview that states (without ultimate proof) that anything which cannot be measured by the tools of science does not exist. When someone says that, they are having a thought. Consciousness is that which thinks the thought. When they are looking around for the Universal Consciousness in this or that place, consciousness is that which is experiencing the looking. When they place their ear to the ground to listen for Consciousness, consciousness is the subject that hears.
And since The One Truth of mystical philosophy says that the Universal Consciousness is all that exists, that entails that ultimately, all of reality is inside. All of reality is an inner experience. What we think of as the “objective world outside of our heads” is in fact an appearance inside the Great Mind of the Universal Consciousness. To use the dream metaphor, the “objective outside world” is in reality an experiential reality inside the dream-world of the Dreamer. The fundamental “stuff” the world is made of is subjective. The world is not made of “matter.” It is made out of consciousness itself!
How to Account for Objectivity?
But how can we account for the regularity of Nature? How can we account for the idea that if my friend and I are both looking at the sunset, the regularity and objectivity of the sun are independent of whatever beliefs or opinions either one of us has about it?
This is tricky to think about, but just because the fundamental stuff of reality is the inner conscious experience of a Great Universal Mind that thereby doesn’t entail that the “dream world” of this Great Mind has no “inner logic” that follows patterns of mathematical exactitude. Just as our own dreams have a kind of inner logic, the “inner logic” of the Great Dreamer’s Dream that is our universe has regularity and logic that corresponds to precise mathematical and logical beauty.
However, because reality is ultimately a Dream in the Mind of a Great Dreamer, we have far less trouble accounting for the mind-boggling mathematical elegance of reality of the world we experience. On the materialistic worldview, it is difficult to understand why blind, dumb, random matter would have the perfect, Platonic, mathematical elegance that not only brings physicists and mathematicians to tears but also makes the mathematics of music perfectly awesome in its beauty. It is not surprising that Plato’s theory of Forms was inspired by the mathematics cult of Pythagoras, who saw the mathematical perfection of music as evidence of divinity.
Whirlpools in the Stream of Consciousness
Bernardo Kastrup uses the metaphor of whirlpools in a stream. My subjective point of view from this body is one whirlpool in the stream of the Great Mind and your subjective point of view from your body is another whirlpool in the stream. Each whirlpool is a “localization” of the overall stream and is made out of the same “stuff” as the stream itself. When I look at your brain I do not “see” your subjectivity just as you cannot “see” my subjectivity.
This is because your physical brain is how your inner experience appears to me from the second-person perspective. Similarly, if I were to open up my own skull and look at my brain with a mirror, I would not “see” my own subjectivity, my subjectivity is what allows me to see the brain in the first place.
But what about the idea of mind independence? Does this imply that if nobody is perceiving the moon that it would disappear? No. For the Moon is never independent of the mind of the Great Dreamer. And just as when I look at a tree, the greenness of the leaf is subjective quality or “qualia” of my experience, the “Moonness” of the Moon is a subjective quality in the experience of the Great Mind.
Similarly, since the core mystical truth says that my truest Self is identical to the Universal Consciousness, that means that my experience of the greenness of the leaf is the same as the Universal Consciousness’ experience of the leaf. My subjectivity is the Great Mind’s subjectivity. My point of view is the Great Mind’s point of view.
But if the Great Mind’s point of view is all-pervasive, extending through the entire universe, why does “my” subjectivity seem so limited? Why does it seem as if I am merely looking out from the particular vantage point of the eyeballs in my head, and not some universal perspective on the entire universe?
This is what Indian sages call maya or ignorance. It is merely a forgetting of my true nature that makes me identify with the limitations of my bodily and mental processes, which include those of my eyeballs perceiving from their limited vantage point. From my bodily and mental vantage point, I can only see the laptop I am writing on and all the various items on my desk.
But all these various particularities and limitations of perspective from the Universal point of view are a kind of ignorance. If I could see truly the deepest “layer” of reality, I would see that underlying all my bodily sense impressions, and underlying all my mental perceptions and categorizations, there is but One Single True Reality which is Pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
It only seems as if there are all these various distinct items on my desk. In reality, they are all One singular reality: Universal Consciousness. It only seems as if I am distinct from all these items on my desk. In reality, the items and my desk are the same.
Sages and mystics from across history and culture have said that it is possible to experience nondual perception such that one’s mind does not make a distinction between me, the subject, “in here” and all those objects, not me, “out there.” With nondual perception, the subject-object distinction collapses, and the true nature of reality is perceived. That true nature of reality is Ultimate Oneness. Oneness in the great universal, eternal, all-pervasive light of Universal Consciousness. Mystics usually describe these nondual experiences as involving a kind of union with the Absolute or a union with God or a union with the Cosmos.
The Limitations of Language
It is difficult if not impossible to capture what-it-is-like to experience nondual perception in ordinary language, which necessarily by tricks of grammar requires us to think in dualistic categories. I myself have had experiences like this on a handful of occasions, usually thanks to the help of psychedelic drugs such as mushrooms, LSD, and cannabis. Other mystics say they experience these states of nondual perception during deep states of meditation, of which I have only had the barest of glimpses.
Other mystics describe similar states of nondual being just happening spontaneously, perhaps in response to being out in the awesome wonder of Nature, or in the rapture of lovemaking. In most cases, the experience of nonduality is fleeting. Usually, our dualistic, cognizing mind kicks back into gear and starts to generate the ignorant feeling of “me” in here being distinct from “not-me” out there.
One thing that is helpful to remove this veil of ignorance is to continuously remind oneself that everything is divine and that you are no different from anyone else. This is actually a very pragmatic methodology, for if you are in a traffic jam and some jerk cuts you off, reminding yourself that not only is that person fully divine but that at the ultimate level there is no difference between you and them because you are both One With Ultimate Consciousness, it goes a long way towards instilling a sense of compassion and loving-kindness. This works not just with people but with everything. Suddenly you realize that mindlessly treating the Earth as if it was just dead, lifeless matter is a mistake for all the reality is lit up in the Light of Universal Consciousness.
Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that staying at this “absolute” level of reality is exceedingly difficult. Just knowing the absolute level exists does not solve all our problems of human suffering, and the vast majority of our life is lived at the relative level. Years of serious spiritual practice are needed to shift the needle further into the realm of the absolute and I absolutely do not advocate this philosophy as a kind of spiritual “quick fix.”
There is no doubt that all of what I am saying is highly non-intuitive thanks to us being steeped in our materialist culture, where we are so used to the idea that our experience is nothing but brain activity. It takes a lot of “forgetting” to forget these wrong ideas and settle into the deeper truth of nonduality, the deeper truth that ultimately, at the deepest level, reality is “made of” the same stuff as our own inner experience, but when we get to the ultimate level of reality, “we” are identical with the Great Universal Mind. Thus, there is no such thing as “my” inner experience, there is only the inner experience of the Great Mind dreaming a vast dream.
The Filtering of Consciousness
In Bernardo Kastrup’s language, this vast dream of the Great Mind involves a “localization” or dissociation from the universal, all-pervasive perspective which is beyond the limitations of space and time. The Great Dreamer dreamt of creatures having bodies and brains and these brains act as localizing “filters” that filter out the vast universal Consciousness into the particularities of egoic consciousness, which we experience as our limited points of view.
Kastrup also points out that numerous empirical findings in the neurosciences are converging on the idea that when brain activity turns off or is minimized, the “filtering” mechanism gets turned off as well, and “we” experience ourselves as our true nature: a transpersonal universal mind. This is the source of all great mystical experiences. These findings are hard to reconcile with the neural reductionism of materialism, which predicts that the more “dazzling” and varied one’s conscious experience, the more brain excitation one would expect. But in reality, we find that our deepest, most colorful, and more experientially powerful experiences happen when there is the least amount of brain activity.
A River of Consciousness
Let us imagine that the Great Universal Consciousness is like a great river. A river of consciousness. A river of experiences. At first, this river exists outside of space and time and has no particularity, and is perfectly even and smooth, with no form or distinction in the water whatsoever. Obviously this is an imperfect metaphor due to the limitations of metaphor itself but stick with it. The river is just pure consciousness. But over time the river becomes “excited” here or there and parts of the river begin to crystalize into particular crystalline formations. These crystals are dynamic and swirling and dancing but still pretty simple. They take the form of galaxies and balls of rocks and and eventually oceans and mountains and continents.
Over time the crystals become more and more complex, more and more varied if their forms. But ultimately these dancing crystals are still made of that primordial river of consciousness that is outside of space and time. That is their ontological foundation. These are crystals in the great river of consciousness.
Later on, some crystals begin to get really complex and they form into these dynamic swirling vortices in the river of consciousness. Some of these crystalline vortices form sensory apparatus that along them to touch and hear and see and taste other parts of the great river of consciousness. But because these complex crystals are localizations of particularity in the river of consciousness, their sensations are also limited and particular.
These crystalline vortices develop a particular, limited, personal “point of view” that allows them to perceive the other crystalline formation in the Great River. Of course, this subjective “inner experience” of these crystalline vortices is only made possible because, as crystals in the river of consciousness, their perceptions “borrow” the primordial inner experience of the Great River of Consciousness. The primordial impersonal water of consciousness makes it possible for there to be personal consciousness.
But these crystalline vortices are ignorant of the true nature of what they are perceiving. They think they perceive pebbles, trees, plants, and chairs. They are ignorant of the fact that all these “things” are not things at all but ultimately made out of the water of the river of consciousness, which is not a thing, but an eternal river of consciousness outside of space and time.
But the vortices do not know this. They think they are perceiving all these separate things, which their crystalline minds have given 10,000 names and distinctions and categories. Furthermore, the crystals do not realize that they themselves are not different from all they perceive. They think that there is this real boundary between themselves and the rest of the river of consciousness when in reality that boundary is an artificial construction of their mind. All the crystals in the universe are one singular reality: Pure Consciousness.
But the crystals are fooled into thinking that not only are all the other crystals separate from themselves but that the crystals around them are non-experiential. They mistake the river of consciousness, the river of inner experience, as something non-experiential they call “matter.” And in fact, they make the further mistake of thinking that their own personal inner experience arises out of this stuff they call “matter,” not realizing that “matter” is merely how the other crystals of experience appear to their own personal point of view.
But in reality, the crystals have it exactly backward: it is inner experience, the river of consciousness, that is primordial and fundamental, and “matter” is but merely how the great river appears from the limited perspective of each individual crystal. But matter is not fundamental. It is derivative from a perspective of ignorance.
If the crystals removed all their ignorance about the reality they would come to realize that they themselves and all their limited perceptions are but a small slice of the Greater Whole, which is composed of a singular ontological “stuff”: consciousness. But since this primordial “stuff” is consciousness, it is in reality not a kind of “stuff” at all: it is a Subject. Pure subjectivity. Pure consciousness independent of any object. For any distinction between this Great Subject and objects is illusory, for all objects, made of the water of the river of consciousness, are themselves Subjective.
Thus, if the crystals were to realize their true nature, they would realize that their True Nature Is Pure Consciousness, which is the Only Reality, and that every “thing” they have ever perceived, including themselves, is Absolutely One with this reality and that All Is One, All Is Consciousness, and they themselves are in fact this Consciousness and were never not this consciousness.
To fully awaken to the bliss of this eternal Consciousness, it is not necessary to “attain” anything. The crystals merely have to realize their True Nature, which is the Same Nature as the Great River of Consciousness, which is impersonal, eternal, and universal.