The Consciousness We Are

By Peter Kingsley*
* From Reality, pp. 510-13; copyright © 2003 Peter Kingsley, used with permission. More about his work can be found at

There is one crucial point to note about Empedocles' instructions for [his disciple] Pausanias. This is that the things he tells him to do are things we never do ourselves.

As a matter of fact, they are altogether beyond our experience.

People can live what to any external observer would seem the fullest of lives without touching, even once, the state Empedocles is pointing to. And this is because we spend all our lives fast asleep in a dream.

His first instruction to Pausanias is not to perceive but to perceive that he is perceiving -- to watch the perceptive process itself. In other words he is telling him not just to look or touch or hear but to look and touch while fully conscious of looking and touching, to hear with the awareness that he is hearing.

And anyone who starts to do this seriously will begin to become aware that what passes for ordinary human existence is nothing but a dream.

You may find it easy, right now, to notice for a split second the objects in front of your eyes while also noticing that you are noticing them; to become aware for the briefest moment of all the sounds or silence in the background. Probably it will seem so easy you will wander away, quite contented because now you know there is no mystery here for you.

And you will be back again in the dream.

This state of awareness is the trickiest of things because it never extends beyond the present moment. The reason why Empedocles instructs his disciple about it, presents it to him as such a very specific practice, is because it doesn't do itself. It isn't automatic but only lasts for as long as you stay conscious.

The moment you become fascinated by something you perceive, you will be dragged off by your nose into a seemingly external world of spiraling shapes and colors. The moment you wander off after some fascinating thought inside your head you will be left with unseeing eyes, staring blankly into space all over again, deaf to the gentle sounds around you. And this is how we pass our lives, silently tugged backwards and forwards from one state to the other: always lost, except perhaps in the most fleeting moment, to ourselves.

For Empedocles, exactly as for Parmenides, one of the most extraordinary facts about human existence is that people appear to be such creatures of the senses and yet never use their senses at all.

They are just used by them -- bashed around by them, buffeted here and there. And the worst aspect of this situation is the way we manage to believe, like blind people so blind they think they are not blind, that we can see the whole.

But so far we have hardly even touched the surface of what Empedocles in these few words is telling Pausanias to do.

If he were instructing him not only to look but to become aware at the same time of looking, that would be important enough. He is not, though. He is explaining to him that as well as being aware of whatever he is seeing he also has to be aware of every single thing he is hearing; touching; tasting; feeling.

Nothing is to be left out. Not the slightest preference is to be shown to one sense as opposed to any other. And this choiceless, all-embracing awareness can only happen in one particular moment: right now. For if you miss anything now you are missing everything. You are asleep again.

Even to think about what you are doing is to lose that awareness, because in the moment of thinking you have already left the present moment.

The demand for such complete, uncompromising attention is so unreasonable that it seems only sensible to tone down what Empedocles is saying; to want to make him demand less than he really is demanding.

But Empedocles is, to say the least, not the most reasonable of teachers. And while the practice he has just outlined is far more strenuous than our wandering minds can ever manage, there is that other faculty he has already mentioned by name which at any or every moment is perfectly up to the task -- the sleepless alertness, always present by its very nature, called metis.

Few things could seem to demand more effort than the process of getting used to this awareness. But nothing is more effortless than the awareness itself. And what had looked impossible to begin with becomes easier with time because even though each moment of awareness is only an awareness in the one moment, metis is like an organism that actually nourishes itself. Or, as Empedocles explains in a single line quoted from his poetry by later philosophers who sensed it must mean something but were rather too busy thinking to see what:

For humans, metis grows in relation to what is present.

This phrase of his, "in relation to what is present," happened to be a common one. It was used very often for describing how somebody acquainted with the ins and outs of kairos, with the art of responding effectively to the needs of the present moment, would plan and act. And that, of course, is essential to what metis is.

But here is where we find ourselves being brought right back to the heart of that tradition which Empedocles, along with Parmenides, belonged to.

For both of them, accumulating enough metis to become an effective human being was no more than the smallest of beginnings. Any metis that comes to an end when the ship arrives in port or a chariot race is won hardly deserves the name at all. To them, its value lay not in helping them live human life to the maximum. Instead, what made it crucial was its capacity to carry them beyond human existence altogether.

Nothing could be more paradoxical than this tradition they both belonged to. It taught that, to become free from illusion, all we need to do is accept illusion wholeheartedly. To find what lies behind movement all we have to do is embrace it completely.

And, in just the same way, to go beyond this world of the senses all we have to do is use our senses to the full. For to open up our "palms," those instruments of metis, and perceive everything with total alertness right now is to open the way to a world of stillness quite unknown to our restless minds -- is to become aware of the common factor linking each sense together, motionless, featureless, placeless and timeless, which is the consciousness we are.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2004/January 2005)

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