The “Pure Consciousness Experience”

Numerous essays have been written challenging the view that the interpretation of the mystic experience as well as the experience itself, can not be viewed divorced from the social, historical and cultural configurations out of which it arose. Robert Forman and other essayists that appear in his recent book, The Innate Capacity (1998) are motivated by the belief that mystical experience, as an aspect of consciousness, is an innate human capacity. Forman posits that mystical experience is uniquely unmediated, unlike regular modes of experience, and that it designates its own coherent category of experience. He suggests that context may shape the nature of a mystical experience by being incorporated into it but that at a certain point in one’s practice, one necessarily transcends contextual, “constructed” knowledge or experience. It is this moment of unmediated experience that Foreman calls a “pure consciousness experience” (PCE), a “wakeful but objectless consciousness” (7).

In Barbara Stoler Miller’s (1995) translation of Patanjali’s classic Yoga Sutra, themes that Forman discusses in his essay: Mystical Consciousness, the Innate Capacity, and Perennial Psychology (1998, 3-42), find an easy ground for a comparative study. The ultimate goal of Patanjali’s yoga is to be freed from the control material and ego-based nature has over the human spirit through intense physical and mental practices. Miller writes that Patanjali: “…seeks a new perspective on the nature of knowing—a way to clear the mind of accumulated experiences and memories that bind us to a world of pain” (preface, ix). The eightfold path elaborated in the Yoga Sutra leads the seeker through progressive stages of disciplined physical and mental training in order to slowly unravel layers of ignorance and delusion which serve to bind the true spirit (purusa) within to the phenomenal world (prakrti) (6).

Forman’s intention is not to lay out such a path for his readers, but rather to draw out these ideas to counter the “constructivist” theory that all experience, including mystical experience, is mediated. He draws on a number of both eastern and western mystical and philosophical texts and his own experience to give substance to the theory that the actual moment of “pure consciousness experience”is unmediated because all thinking and modes of conceptualization, which he associates with language and other means of mediation, are said to stop (7). Both Patanjali and Forman speak of the necessity of direct experience: “pure consciousness” or “nirbija samadhi”can not be known rationally or by any sort of objective knowledge. It transcends regular modes of thought and association and yet, paradoxically, it is innate; always present but veiled by illusion and ignorance.

Central to Forman’s entire position is his concept of “knowledge-by-identity”. He writes: “Both knowledge-about and knowledge-by-acquaintance (adapted from James’ theory) come through a complex set of epistemological processes involving memory, expectation, language, and concept use. However, the knowledge-by-identity that I am and have been conscious is a, and perhaps the only, form of knowledge that is not ‘processed through’ these extremely complex epistemological ways” (22, parentheses mine). Knowledge-by-acquaintance is the result of a direct, sensory experience, while knowledge-about is the result of comparison, association and analogy. It involves analytical modes of thinking which require language and incorporate cultural experience (20). Knowledge-by-identity, in contrast, can’t be known linguistically or through the senses. It is so intimately present that one is not even aware it is there and it is only through this knowledge that one can know what awareness or consciousness is: “Other than the knowledge I have of my own awareness, I know of not other case of knowledge-by-identity” (22).

The “pure consciousness experience”, thus, is a direct encounter or awareness of that which one is: “I know it as a unity that can become aware of any thought, perception, or what have you because I am this unity” (23). It is through one’s own consciousness that one comes to experience, feel, know or understand everything coherently. It “ties together” all thought and memory but it is not any of these things and can not be known through them. It is beyond the purview of conceptual knowledge: “The mechanics of how a consciousness knows itself or ties itself together continuously through time is something we can not possibly know” (24).

Forman places emphasis on the usefulness of meditative procedures as means to come to know or experience one’s innate pure consciousness. He writes that they: “…encourage one to gradually lay aside and temporarily cease employing language and concepts. If one truly forgets all concepts and beliefs for some period then those concepts and beliefs cannot play a formative role in creating the mystical experience(s)” (7). Forman claims here that the pure consciousness experience necessitates “forgetting” the concepts and structures that serve to mediate more common experience.

The Yoga Sutras are concerned with the methods by which one can attain an experience that is akin to what Foreman is describing. The purpose and goal of the discipline of yoga is explained in the opening aphorisms: “Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought. When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world. Otherwise, the observer identifies with the turnings of thought” (1:2-4). It is made clear that there are at least two ways of experiencing the world. One’s spirit is either engaged in the ceaseless “turnings of thought” and identified with material reality and its cycles of cause and effect or it is removed from these bounds and becomes the “observer”—rather than a participator. Cessation is possible through “practice and dispassion” (1:12). One must actively engage in the rigorous effort to still the mind which, before tamed and calm, is clouded by illusion. This effort, or “yoking”, is yoga.

Yoga concerns itself with detaching one’s identity from the material world to realize a supreme quality within that is not immediately perceptible. Through dedication to the path of yoga, one gradually becomes aware of the subtle levels of not only the material world but, importantly, how it is reflected inwardly.

Through this unfolding, one comes to know the nature of and the interaction between the two complex and paradoxical principles of material nature (prakrti), and spirit (purusa). Purusa is related to what Forman spoke of as consciousness. It is independent and distinct from material and mental processes and yet without it, neither thought nor activity (aspects of prakrti)would be conscious. Foreman writes: “Awareness makes a thought or a perception an experience: we can have no experience without being conscious of it. Purusa, sheer awareness, is thus innate, part of the essential machinery of having any experience” (11). Through yoga one begins to distinguish between prakrti and purusa and gains the ability to break the connection, which is taken for granted, between them. A direct realization of purusa is thus perhaps equatable with Forman’s “pure consciousness experience”. Just as Forman indicates that consciousness, in its purest form, is realized through efforts to let go of concepts, attachments and other “intentional” constraints (30), the goal of the Patanjali’s progressive eightfold path is to realize directly, without intellectual, rational or even intuitive activity, the freedom of purusa.

Foreman indicates that the realization of pure consciousness involves a “transformative process” (30). It requires effort or, at the very least, entails movement from one mode of conscious existence to another. The “advanced states”, he writes, “result from something innate” (31), the realization of something that is a critical part of our own inherent nature. He writes: “I have been conscious throughout my life; the mystical experience is only a coming to an uncompounded experience of that” (31). PCE is the result of “forgetting” the conventions of language, image and other content-full stimuli. It is not, ultimately, realized or known through any means or practice; it is simply seeing “purely”, without the filters of language and culture, for the first time.

Through the meditative practices and contemplative thought experiments Patanjali prescribes,the same intimate “transformative” realization is ultimately achieved. One must pass beyond the bounds of material nature and learn to watch, instead of engage, in the games of the mind and intellect. It is a progressive, unlearning process: “When the turnings of thought stop, a contemplative poise occurs, in which thought, like a polished crystal, is colored by what is nearby—whether perceiver, process of perception, or object of perception” (1:41). Through “contemplative poise” one becomes aware through intuitive means or by the intellect, that prakrti and purusa are distinct. This “seed-bearing contemplation” (sabija-samadhi) (1:41-46) leaves traces and still involves cognitive processes but important wisdom is gained by it. “A subliminal impression generated by wisdom stops the formation of other impressions. When the turnings of thought cease completely, even wisdom ceases, and contemplation bears no seeds” (1:50-51). The “tranquility” that follows the “intuitive cognition” of seed-bearing contemplation (1:47) sets the ground for an even deeper state. The seed of wisdom gained by sabija-samadhi stop the formation of new thought or impressions. Miller writes that thought, recorded memory and even intuition “have no relevance to the realization of the state of pure contemplation” (nirbija-samadhi) (43)—even the wisdom gained in sabija-samadhi dissolves. Rational knowledge, made of prakrti, is necessary to proceed on the path, but almost in a backwards cycle of de-evolution. One strips prakrti of its external components until it no longer exists—all that is left is purusa which itself dissolves. One becomes, essentially, primordially uncreated and unbound from the fetters of time and space. On a mundane level, knowledge-about and knowledge-by-acquaintance are subsumed by knowledge-by-identity which is the witness of consciousness just as the play of prakrti finds its resting place in purusa.

Forman emphasizes the idea that PCE is only a direct experience of the subtlest level of consciousness that “comes with the equipment of being human” (34). It is realized through a process of “letting go, an emptying of the self, a forgetting of language and sensation” (34). The Yoga Sutras prescribe just such a process. Patanjali prescribes methods for the “withdrawal of the senses”(2:54-55). Through discipline in yogic practices, especially posture and breath control (2:46-53), one can gain control over the senses and prepare the body and mind for the more advanced stages of yoga. The various levels of contemplation dig deeply into the constructs of the mind to expose the mechanisms that construct false identities and bind us to cycles of desire, anger and delusion. One uses thought to overcome thought, to transcend it and all forms of knowledge which inhibit apprehension of the true nature of the spirit.

Absolute spiritual integration is the ultimate goal of both yoga and PCE. Experience seems to be at the heart of both discourses. One engages oneself in the process of de-evolution and integration, but even this engagement must ultimately be abandoned. One must truly let go of all of the mental and physical constructs that confine one’s awareness to only one, limited mode of experience.

Miller, Barbara Stoler, 1996. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. University of California Press, CA

Forman, Robert K.C. 1998. “Mystical Consciousness, the Innate Capacity, and Perennial Psychology ” in: The Innate Capacity. New York: Oxford

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