What is Consciousness? 6 Myths Busted and 4 States Explained

Sadhguru defines consciousness and busts some common myths about a much misunderstood topic. Explaining that consciousness has nothing to do with the mind, he outlines different conscious states from a Yogic perspective.
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Table of Content
1. What is Consciousness?
2. Six Myths About Consciousness
3. Consciousness and Brain - Are they Related?
4. Four States of Consciousness
5. Degrees of Consciousness
6. How to Raise Consciousness
7. Yoga and Consciousness
8. Shambhavi Mahamudra Kriya - A Technology to Raise Consciousness
9. Infrastructure for Raising Human Consciousness
10. Consciousness in Animals - Do Animals Have Consciousness?
11. Can Consciousness Be Programmed and Can Machines Become Conscious?
12. Scientific Study on Consciousness

What Is Consciousness

Sadhguru: “Consciousness” is a highly abused word. It is used in many different ways. Let me define what we refer to as consciousness. As a piece of life, as a body, you are a certain amount of earth, water, air, fire, and ether, or akash. And there is a fundamental intelligence that puts all these things together in a particular way to make life out of it. The same ingredients that are lying there as mud sit here as the life you are. What an incredible transformation! There is a profound and unimaginable level of intelligence that can make simple things like air into life.

The only reason why you experience life and aliveness is because you are conscious.

Whether it is a tree, a bird, an insect, a worm, an elephant, or a human being – everything is made up of the same simple material. We call this intelligence that makes life happen “consciousness.” If you are unconscious, you do not even know whether you are alive or dead. If you are in deep sleep, you are alive, but you do not know it. The only reason why you experience life and aliveness is because you are conscious.

6 Myths About Consciousness

Myth Buster #1: Wakefulness Is Not Consciousness

The nature of English language is that it is very good for describing and defining external things, but is very limited when it comes to internal dimensions of many aspects of who we are. To use Yogic terminology, what is generally being referred to as consciousness is jagruti – that means wakefulness. But we do not consider wakefulness as consciousness. Wakefulness is a state of the body, mind and the bio-energies within us, but that is not consciousness.

Myth Buster #2: Self-consciousness Is Not Consciousness

Consciousness does not mean becoming self-conscious. Self-consciousness is sickness; unconsciousness is death. Being conscious just means that you are in touch with the root of who you are. What you call as consciousness is not an act, an idea or even a quality – it is the very basis of creation.

Myth Buster #3: Consciousness Cannot Be “Done”

Consciousness happens not because you are doing something, but simply because you have allowed it. Life is happening to you, but it is not your doing. What we are calling consciousness is the basis of your life and your existence. It is not something that you can do or not do at a particular time. Consciousness is still on whether you are in this body or you are disembodied. The question is only whether it is available to you or not. You are always available to consciousness – you cannot escape that – but is it available to you?

Myth Buster #4: Consciousness Is Not Alertness

If we say your consciousness has risen, it does not mean that you are more alert than your German Shepherd. Alertness is of the mind. Consciousness is not of the mind, but if consciousness is on, it clears the mind. It forcefully finds its expression through the mind and body, and through every cell of your living being.

Myth Buster #5: Consciousness Is Not a Mental Understanding

Consciousness is not a bunch of thoughts or a certain level of understanding, it is a boundless dimension. We have different aspects or dimensions of intelligence functioning within us; our body and cellular structure has its own intelligence, there is a conscious level of intelligence, of intellect which is discerning in nature, there is an emotional intelligence and a genetic intelligence. All these dimensions of intelligence are ruled by the memory that we have accumulated. Our genetics, intellect, emotions and the very way our body functions is ruled by the memory that it carries. What you call as memory is a certain kind of boundary. For example, "This is my friend, this is a stranger," how did this happen? This person is in my memory, this person is not in my memory, that is what differentiates the two. Memory creates possibilities, but a limited possibility within the boundary. What we are referring to as consciousness is a dimension of intelligence which is free from memory. It is boundless in its nature.

Myth Buster #6: Anesthesia Has Nothing to Do with Consciousness

Anesthesia has nothing to do with consciousness; it has something to do with body and various functions of the body. You are shutting down certain aspects of the bodily functions like transmission of pain, which is the main interest when someone is going to surgery. This has got nothing to do with losing consciousness and gaining consciousness. There is no such thing. Not just in medical terminology, generally in English language, there is no distinction between "He became conscious" and “consciousness” as a larger possibility.

(Read more about consciousness and anesthesia in this article by Sadhguru)

Consciousness and Brain - Are they Related?

In the Yogic sciences there is no such thing as brain. Brain is just body. Like there is a heart and liver, there is a brain. I think this overly exaggerated sense of what is brain is coming because our education systems have become purely intellectual. We think intellect is everything. In the Yogic system, we are looking at the human mind as sixteen parts. These sixteen parts are in four categories. The first one is buddhi which means the intellect. Intellect is essentially like a knife. You use a knife to cut things open.

Buddhi

This is the nature of the intellect that it will dissect whatever you give it. The entire modern science is coming out of human intellect – so everything is by dissection. What you can know by dissection is only the material aspect of life. You cannot know life by dissection.

We say, “If you touch your chitta, god will become your slave,” because if your intelligence becomes boundless, everything becomes accessible.

The intellect is a survival instrument. If you did not have a discriminatory intellect, you could not survive on this planet. It is very vital. But intellect cannot function unless there is a certain volume of memory. If you wipe out all your memory, you will suddenly look stupid. Intellect looks smart only when you back it up with information.

Today, there is too much orientation towards intellect and the other dimensions of intelligence are completely uncultivated.

Ahankara

The next dimension of the mind is referred to as ahankara which we have completely ignored. Ahankara does not mean ego as most people are beginning to think. It means identity. Intellect is an instrument which protects the identity. Identity is that instrument which allows the intellect to function in a certain way. Now if you say, “My identity is my family,” your intellect will do everything to protect that. In the name of race, religion, nation, we have done many things which are utterly idiotic and inhuman, but we do them with great pride because we are identified. If intellect is the knife, the hand that holds it is the identity.

Manas

The next dimension of the mind is called manas, which is a silo of memory. There are many states of memory. The Yogic system is focused on how to activate different dimensions of memory because with a limited amount of memory, you are bound to act in immature ways. If your intellect becomes super capable, it is very important that your identity is cosmic or limitless and your memory is so evolved that all dimensions of memory are active.

Chitta

The fourth dimension of intelligence is referred to as chitta. This is a dimension of intelligence which is unsullied by memory. Memory is the basis of all forms that have happened. It is the memory stored in this body which is deciding the color of our skin, or whether we are male or female, a human being or some other creature. Memory is a tremendous possibility but is also a limitation and a boundary. The boundary between what is you and what is me is just memory.

But chitta has no memory. No memory means no boundary. It is an intelligence beyond bounds. In the Yogic culture there is a mischievous way of expressing this. We say, “If you touch your chitta, god will become your slave,” because if your intelligence becomes boundless, everything becomes accessible.

4 States of Consciousness

Jagruti

For wakefulness, we have a word called jagruti. If you are in a state of jagruti, it means you are awake. If ten people fell asleep and they came awake, when they come awake, all of them will not be equally awake. One person may be instantly awake, another person may take two minutes, another person will take an hour to wake up. Another person needs a strong coffee, otherwise they will not wake up. Like this there are different levels of wakefulness, too. This is jagruti. This wakefulness is not consciousness.

...there is an intelligence beyond memory which we call as turya or chitta. This is consciousness.

Swapna

The next dimension of consciousness is called swapna, which means a dream state. A dream state is far more vivid than the wakeful state for most human beings. It is like going to a cinema. If you go to a cinema, the key factor in the impact the cinema has on you is turning off the lights. If you do not turn off the lights, the cinema will be no good, no matter how well it is made. So a dream state is like a cinema. Turning off the lights in our experience is the eyelids. If you close your eyes, the lights should be off, the world should be closed. This dream state is considered a more powerful state than jagruti. Jagruti or wakefulness is important for performing action in the world but for human consciousness, in terms of profoundness of experience, a dream is always more profound than walking on the street.

Sushupti

The next state is called as sushupti which means a dreamless state, but there are dimensions of consciousness that you are aware of. It is a totally dreamless sleep state, but you are aware. There is no picturization or video running in your mind, there are no people or words, but you are conscious in your sleep. This is a very powerful state if you really want to manifest something in your life. This is something to be explored.

Turya

The last state is called turya. This is consciousness, where there is no memory involved of any kind. In the Yogic sciences, we are looking at consciousness essentially as an intelligence beyond memory. Memory is considered a boundary. This is one person and that is another person, simply because this embodies one kind of memory and that embodies another kind of memory. Memory does not mean just what I remember and you remember. There is genetic, evolutionary, elemental, atomic, karmic, inarticulate and articulate memory.

These different dimensions of memory are playing on a daily basis. For example, today, if we eat dog food, we will not become dogs. Something within us remembers, no matter what you eat, this has to be transformed only into a human being – the evolutionary memory is absolute.

People think that their thoughts are free. This is a joke because your memory is determining everything. In one word, we call this karma. Karma is the residual impact of all the memory that you have. It is impacting your every thought, emotion and action. The very way you sit, stand, breathe, understand and perceive life is determined by this memory. But there is an intelligence beyond memory which we call as turya or chitta. This is consciousness.

Degrees of Consciousness

All of us are conscious, the question is only of degree. Even a rock, a dog and a pig are conscious. The question is only how conscious they are. Even among us, how conscious we are is different from person to person. This degree of consciousness determines everything. To give an analogy, I am sure every one of us blew soap bubbles at some stage in our life. When you blow a soap bubble, the soap part of it is very little, the large part of it is the air that it captures. The kind of soap and how it gathers is your memory. It gives it a form. But when the bubble bursts, there is no such thing as your air and my air. There is something called as your body and my body, your memory and my memory, your intellect and my intellect, but there is nothing called as your consciousness and my consciousness. How much of it did you capture or how big is your bubble will determine the scale and possibilities of your life.

How to Raise Consciousness

You can neither raise consciousness, nor can you bring it down. We only use the expression of “raising consciousness” against the following background: if you are strongly identified with your physical body, the boundaries of what is you and what is not you are distinctly clear. In this state, you experience yourself as a separate existence. This means you are in survival mode, which is what every other creature is in, too. When you identify yourself as the body, the boundaries of who you are, are 100% fixed.

You do not have to raise your consciousness – you have to raise yourself to find access to it and experience it. Consciousness is there all the time.

Even in the physical realm, the more subtle something is, the more the boundaries disappear. We are breathing the same air, which also includes some moisture. As we breathe, we constantly exchange air and water. We have no problems with this exchange between us because we are not identified with the air and the water. But we are identified with our body and consider it as ourselves, so we do not want anyone to transgress the boundaries of our body.

What we refer to as consciousness is a much subtler dimension of who you are, and it is commonly shared by everyone. It is the same intelligence that is turning food into flesh in me, in you, in everyone. If we move people from being identified with the boundaries of their physical body to a deeper dimension within themselves, their sense of “me” and “you” decreases – “you” and “I” seem to be the same. This means consciousness has risen on a social level.

Essentially, we do not raise consciousness. We raise your experience so that you become more conscious. All of us are conscious to some extent. The question is to what degree you are conscious. You do not have to raise your consciousness – you have to raise yourself to find access to it and experience it. Consciousness is there all the time. If it was not, you would not be able to convert your breath and your food into life. You are alive – that means you are conscious. But so far, you only have minimal access. As your access improves, your sense of boundary expands. If you become identified with consciousness, you will experience everyone as yourself. This is what Yoga means.

Yoga and Consciousness

The word “Yoga” means union. Human beings are trying to experience this sense of union in so many ways. If it finds a very basic expression, we call it sexuality. If it finds an emotional expression, we call it love. If it finds a mental expression, it gets labeled as greed, ambition, conquest, or simply shopping. If it finds a conscious expression, we call it Yoga. But the fundamental process and longing are the same. That is, you want to include something that is not you as a part of yourself. You want to obliterate the distance or the boundaries between you and the other.

Instead of talking about it and intellectualizing it, we are looking at how to raise your experience from the physical aspect of who you are to a dimension beyond the physical.

Whether it is sexuality or a love affair, ambition or conquest – all you are trying to do is make something that is not you a part of yourself. Yoga means becoming one with everything, or in other words, obliterating the boundaries of who you are. Instead of talking about it and intellectualizing it, we are looking at how to raise your experience from the physical aspect of who you are to a dimension beyond the physical.

Shambhavi Mahamudra Kriya - A Technology to Raise Consciousness

This is what Shambhavi does. It takes you to a twilight zone. You are still rooted in the body but you are beginning to touch a dimension beyond, so that your experience of life is not limited to your body – you experience it as a larger phenomenon. This is raising consciousness. It means you experience all the people around you as a part of yourself.

The material that makes the five fingers on your hand was in the earth some time ago, and now it is your five fingers. What was on your plate yesterday as food was not “you.” But you ate it, and today you experience it as a part of yourself. You are capable of experiencing anything as a part of yourself if only you include it into your boundaries. You cannot eat the entire universe. You have to expand your boundaries in different ways.

Expanding the sensory boundaries in such a way that if you sit here, the entire universe is a part of yourself, is Yoga; this is raising consciousness. We are not doing it philosophically or ideologically but experientially, using a technological process that everyone can make use of. The nature of a technology is such that it will work for whoever is willing to learn to use it. You do not have to believe it; you do not have to worship it; you do not have to carry it on your head. You just have to learn to use it.

Infrastructure for Raising Human Consciousness

A hundred years ago, if you walked into an Indian village, you had to search the whole village to get one man who could read and write in just the local language itself. But today, at least 70% of the population can read in their own mother tongue and many can speak English. The turnaround happened because someone built schoolrooms and trained teachers.

Similarly, to raise human consciousness, to transform the individual human being, the most important thing that needs to happen in the world is that we build the needed infrastructure, both human and otherwise.

In the past, there was phenomenal infrastructure in this country for inner wellbeing. There are more places created for spiritual blossoming than anywhere else on the planet. So, it is not a coincidence nor is it an accident that every generation produced enlightened beings.

But that infrastructure is now receding, not growing. This is one of the commitments that Isha has for the world: we want to build infrastructure for the inner wellbeing of the human being. When I say infrastructure, I am not just talking about physical infrastructure. Physical infrastructure is just to incubate human infrastructure. The most important thing is what kind of people you generate. Without the right kind of people, you cannot transmit this science because this is a subjective science. Without the right kind of people, it will not get across to people the way it should.

(This short excerpt was taken from this blogpost)

Consciousness in Animals - Do Animals Have Consciousness?

An animal is programmed in such a way that its life is largely fixed around its survival process. For any creature, once their stomach is full, their life is settled. They just sit there happily. But that is not the nature of the human being. When the stomach is empty, there is only one problem; when the stomach is full, there are one hundred problems. This is the nature of the human being, because survival is not the endgame for us, it is the beginning. But for all other creatures, survival is the endgame for them. But even among them, certain creatures are far more capable of being sensitive to consciousness. Wherever there is consciousness, certain creatures behave in a certain way. In Indian mysticism, there will always be a cobra simply because we have always seen that wherever there is a little bit of access to consciousness, these creatures somehow sense it and they arrive.

What makes them sense it? This is not a certain science for me, I am just guessing – because they are stone deaf, I think they are super alert in some other sense. For example, a cobra in southern India has no ears at all, no hearing mechanism, so it has got the whole body to the ground and literally ear to the ground. It is able to sense even the minutest vibrations in the planet. It has a sensitivity to certain vibrations. When someone accesses what we are referring to as consciousness, the other vibrations which everyone is normally throwing out on a day-to-day basis – their physical and psychological stuff – probably becomes minimal. This lack of that reverberation is something that a cobra senses. If you sit in a forest and become meditative, cobras will gather in front of you. They will come and sit there as if they are waiting for you. This has been my personal experience any number of times and this will be vouched for by any number of Yogis in the tradition.

Can Consciousness Be Programmed and Can Machines Become Conscious?

Everything that you know has a limited boundary – body, psychological space, emotional space and energy space. Consciousness is not bound by anything. It is the ultimate motherboard of the existence. So can we make a machine conscious? It is a ridiculous thing. I want you to understand that even you cannot become conscious. The word “conscious” is being used in so many different ways that it is confusing but there is consciousness. If you dissolve your physical, psychological, emotional and energy forms, you have become consciousness. Not that you became conscious in the sense that you possess consciousness, but you have become consciousness. You can neither generate consciousness within this nor in any of your electronic stuff. This is a complete misunderstanding. Essentially, when we say consciousness, we are talking about the fundamental. Everything else is a pop-up. The galaxy is a pop-up, solar system is a pop-up, the planet is a pop-up and you are a pop-up. A human being has the ability to not just be a pop-up, but become the source. When you become that, in some way you dissolve your identity, because your body, your mental structure essentially is because of identity.  

In your experience, what is you and what is not you is a made up reality that you make up by identifying with it. Whether it is an object or a person or a thing or a property, including your body and mind, you only feel that it is you when you are identified with it. So if you withdrew your identities, then you dissolve. Not that your body will melt away – it is still sitting here – but because you have withdrawn your identity, it has dissolved from your experience. Then you are consciousness, because that is the basis of your existence.

Scientific Study of Consciousness

Harvard Medical School affiliate Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has set up the Sadhguru Center for a Conscious Planet in Boston, United States with the goal of pushing the boundaries of medical science to explore how raising human consciousness can augment healing and recovery.

The Sadhguru Center for a Conscious Planet is a multidisciplinary research center focused on understanding the relationship between human consciousness, cognition and compassion. The Center conducts rigorous research, facilitates thoughtful conversations and exploration, and builds awareness through education and community outreach.

Editor's Note: Almost 4 Million viewers tuned in to watch Sadhguru discuss Memory, Consciousness & Coma at Harvard Medical School in this YouTube Video.