Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Exploring Consciousness I

Alex Prosi (AP):Hey Arvind, I’m excited to be here and have an opportunity to finally co-write a dialogue with you. For the readers who (likely) don’t know me, my name is Alex Prosi (they/them) and I’ve been talking to, learning from and working with Arvind for four years now. Most notably among those years, I joined Arvind as a student in his ASIAN 259 course in Fall 2019 entitled “Neuro-Culture and Asian Theories of Mind”; a prototype for his upcoming ASIAN 409 course entitled “Exploring Consciousness.” While my academic background in this field has consisted primarily of texts suggested by Arvind, the texts we read seemed to never be exhaustive of dialogue. As such, I have a feeling that by bringing our two different backgrounds together, Arvind and I should be able to poke around at quite a few interesting ideas. 

Before we enter into a more nuanced dialogue, let me provide a glance into my academic background for those folks who don’t want to try to dig up my old term papers. As an academic, my research typically situates itself around religion and the secular—but not as a detailed excursion into the specifics of certain spiritual traditions. Rather, I tend to focus on inquiries such as, “What is the historical context of the category of ‘religion’?” or “How do terms such as ‘religion’ or ‘secular’ become applied as tools of control?” or even “How do groups utilize labels such as ‘secular’ or ‘religion’ to navigate in the universalized European mode of thought?” 

Let’s get into the conversation of consciousness studies a bit more now. For starters, I’d like to ask about your own personal investment in the topic. What began your own journey into the deep dive that is the question of consciousness?Was it a specific text or perhaps a personal question? Or was it more focused on changing something about the world around you? What inspired you to go through the intense labor of creating a course devoted to the topic?

Arvind Mandair (ASM): Hey Alex, thanks for your questions. It’s good to be thinking about this topic again and to be teaching Exploring Consciousness AS409 this Fall semester. 

I’m not sure that I can point to any one occasion or incident after which the question of consciousness became important for me. For a long time, certainly for much of my adult life, ‘consciousness’ had a very common sensical meaning for me. It implied something like being aware of myself and my surroundings and something to do with the way my mind processed knowledge about the world.  

However, I do recall something from a much younger age, perhaps as early as 7 or 8, namely, feeling uneasy about a certain schema of thought that I was expected to imbibe as if it was entirely natural. I’m talking about some of the most fundamental

such as materiality/ideality, life/death, matter/mind, organic/inorganic  etc. At school the world of science told us that everything in the universe was ultimately just matter whose workings could be explained by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. But if that was the case how do we explain life, thought, dreams, and any number of other ethical issues, not least the question: how best to live this life?

I was raised in a Sikh family which drew from a broadly North Indian worldview, but the schools I attended had a strict Anglican ethos which I pretty much internalized from the time I was in kindergarten (or nursery school as it’s called in the UK). So for deeper, metaphysical questions about the nature of existence, I found myself drawing from two different traditions—Christianity and Sikhism—both of which seemed to be simply inserting ‘God’ as an answer to anything that couldn’t be explained by resort to materialism alone. In short, at these early stages, both the scientific worldview and the worldview of monotheistic religions seemed to trap us in dualisms such as materiality/ideality with the latter term always demoted in relation to the former.

The first time I broke out of this trap was when I began to question the monotheistic worldview. In the late 1980s I read certain aspects of Sikh philosophy closely for the first time and realized that its worldview wasn’t monotheistic. Or at least, monotheism was a very constrictive lens which gave us a misleading picture of Sikh notions of reality. Instead the whole of this scripture seemed to be talking about the narrowness of our everyday consciousness and how it needed to be transformed so that we could get a more expansive understanding of consciousness. In other words, an important strand of these scriptures looks at the nature of mind. 

That led me into the study of mysticism and spirituality and I began to teach courses in these subjects. This was from the late 1990’s until around 2006. By this time I was also working heavily in fields such as psychoanalysis and kind of stumbled into the field of ‘consciousness studies’, or as its better known, Transpersonal Psychology. What I found interesting about this field was that you could bring all sorts of disciplines together and integrate them into a mode of knowledge that was just as practical as it was theoretical. People in this field not only studied consciousness but they did so from the perspective of lived (meditational) practices. In other words, consciousness is not something you can know or speak about—you have to live it. It is embodied as much as it is within or about the mind. Which means of course that body and mind, matter and memory, materiality and consciousness, are intricately connected rather than separated as dominant worldview leads us to believe. 

At the time I was also teaching and researching heavily in the area of Intercultural philosophy which led me to realize that consciousness had been studied for centuries by different philosophical traditions. 

Now, fast forward to around 2012. At this time I began to delve more deeply into the rapidly developing field of neuroscience—particularly the version of neuroscience developed by Varella, Joseph LeDoux, Antonio Damasio and Mark Solms—as well as the subfield of neuroculture (which is basically the humanities’ appropriation of neuroscience by philosophers and social scientists such as Catharine Malabou and Victoria Pitts-Taylor). I was attracted to neuroscience partly because of the role of MRI imaging of human brains giving us insight to the role of the brain in relation to consciousness. Before I switched to philosophy/religion I was initially trained and worked in the natural sciences (in my doctoral work I trained in what was then an emerging analytical called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (or NMR which is the precursor of today’s MRI). Because of this background I found the new work in brain imaging to be fascinating. 

In the last few years I’ve been trying to connect all these different fields and started to organize workshops which brought together exponents of these various fields to try and develop productive conversations. That in turn led me to creating the course “Exploring Consciousness”. 

AP: While I have been privy to more information about your background than perhaps the average person, I still had not realized how far back this inquiry initially came from. While academia often loves to talk about research in terms of its disciplinary approach, it seems as if it would be rather difficult for anyone to try to pin you down as coming from one or the other. It’s a mixed and rich perspective that doubtlessly would frustrate some but in my own opinion is most likely to bare fruit. 

The schema taught in education of your childhood, with “‘God’ as an answer to anything that couldn’t be explained by resort to materialism alone” particularly resonated with my own childhood experience and development. Growing up in Dearborn, Michigan—the city with the highest Muslim population in the United States—I could never quite feel comfortable using “God” to fill in the gaps. The tension of simply adding “God” in felt palpable to me in a place where I would often hear casual racism or occasionally (seemingly always Christian) religious hostility. This environment galvanized my later studies at university to try to find some kind of “neutral” answer to all of these greater questions in a secular space; a space that I learned to my horror relied just as much on that same schema. It was the empty feeling following that revelation that would empassion me in your initial course far more than I expect.

Given all of your experiences, I’m curious to know what is the most important aspect of consciousness studies you want to share through your course? 

ASM: I would point to several  interlinked aspects. First, the completely interdisciplinary nature of consciousness studies, and how that interdisciplinarity allows students with very different interests and backgrounds to begin productive conversations that may not be possible elsewhere. Some courses might focus just on science, some just on culture, others look at psychology alone, while some might be restricted to a study of religion and philosophy. This course teaches students how to integrate all these perspectives, to try and see the world and our minds holistically.  This in turn can help to really expand one’s worldview and to allow diversity to circulate within us. We can’t expect to create a diverse world unless we learn to see our ‘self’ as already diverse.  

Though not immediately obvious, I think the material we’ll be covering in Exploring Consciousness—and the dialogues that emerge from them—will enable individuals to break through the culture wars we’re currently and have been experiencing. These culture wars continue to pit science against spirituality, progressiveness against cultural traditions in a way that adds fuel to the fire. Exploring Consciousness gets students to think beyond oppositions. It’s not always easy, but we can at least make a start. And thirdly, the course also teaches us about health and well-being by exploring recent cultural and institutional appropriations of mindfulness, yoga and other forms of meditative practice. In sort, there is something for everyone. 

When I last taught an earlier version of the course in FA19, I remember trying to explain what I meant by radical interdisciplinary, holism and expanded worldview.  I ended up drawing a bunch of Venn diagrams to connect the spheres of knowledge and practice discussed in this course. The diagram I used for the course poster below is an adaptation of these earlier Venn diagrams. 

So, basically there are five main fields that I’m trying to connect: Psychology, Geo-Philosophy, Neuroscience, Spirituality and Health and Well-Being. Each of these fields asks different questions, but ultimately they are all part and parcel of the same question that keeps recurring through every class: “What exactly is consciousness?”.  Ultimately, what I want to share with the students is not just how to answer this question, but to learn to ask more and more complex questions, to learn to think in paradoxes,  and to appreciate the idea that consciousness is All, it is Nothing, and yet will always remain One. In other words it can’t be defined… and that’s not a bad thing at all! Letting go of the desire to define it can in fact be intellectually and existentially liberating. That’s something we’ll bring up in class again and again.

Exploring Consciousness Course Poster
Course Poster for Arvind Mandair’s course, Exploring Consciousness