Exploring the Nature of Consciousness

By establishing a dialogue in which the meditative practices of Buddhism and Christianity speak to the theories of modern philosophy and science, B. Alan Wallace reveals the theoretical similarities underlying these disparate disciplines and their unified approach to making sense of the objective world. In this article, he explores the relationship between Christian and Buddhist meditative practices, showing that, though Buddhism and Christianity differ in their belief systems, their methods of cognitive inquiry provide similar insight into the nature and origins of consciousness.


Directing awareness inward to illuminate itself is a practice that has been used for centuries in various contemplative traditions in the East and the West. Within Christianity, it can be traced back to the Desert Fathers meditating in Egypt during the early centuries of the Christian church. Hesychios the Priest (seventh century), for example, a priest and monk who lived in a monastery on Mount Sinai, commented on this form of meditation in his treatise On Watchfulness and Holiness.  A central theme of this meditation manual is attentiveness, which he defined as “the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought.” 1When the heart has acquired stillness,” he wrote, “it will perceive the heights and depths of knowledge; and the ear of the still intellect will be made to hear marvelous things from God.2.  This gives rise to a unique kind of spiritual well-being.  The meditative practice of turning awareness upon itself was preserved by Greek Orthodox hermits from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries. The monk Saint Symeon (949–1022), for instance, counselled aspiring contemplatives to first of all seek three things: to free themselves of all anxiety regarding both real and imaginary things; to strive for a pure conscience, with no lingering sense of self- reproach; and to be completely detached, so that one’s thoughts are not drawn to anything worldly, not even to one’s own body. 3.  Then, after withdrawing one’s awareness from all worldly concerns, the attention is focused on one’s heart and the practice continues as follows:

To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ. . . . The rest you will learn for yourself, with God’s help, by keeping guard over your intellect and by retaining Jesus in your heart. As the saying goes, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” 4

Nikiphoros the Monk lived in the second half of the thirteenth century and dwelled in stillness on the Holy Mountain of Athos. In his treatise “On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart,” he emphasized the need to turn inward, letting one’s awareness descend into the depths of the heart to discover the hidden treasure of the inner kingdom. Saint Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), who spent twenty years in monastic seclusion on the Holy Mountain, also encouraged those who sought “a life of self-attentiveness and stillness to bring their intellect back and to enclose it within their body, and particularly within that innermost body within the body that we call the heart.” 5 But he made clear that all references to one’s awareness descending into the heart are not to be interpreted literally, for our mental faculties, he wrote, are not located spatially inside the physical heart “as in a container.” Although Christian contemplative inquiry into the nature of awareness has steadily declined with the rise of modernity, it has not vanished entirely. As late as the nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox monk Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815–94) referred to this practice when he wrote, “Images, however sacred they may be, retain the attention outside, whereas at the time of prayer the attention must be within—in the heart. The concentration of attention in the heart—this is the starting point of prayer.” 7 And the contemporary American contemplative scholar Martin Laird clearly describes it as follows:

Shift your awareness from the distraction to the awareness itself, to the aware-ing. There is nothing but this same luminous vastness, this depthless depth. What gazes into luminous vastness is itself luminous vastness. There is not a separate self who is afraid or angry or jealous. Clearly fear, anger, jealousy may be present, but we won’t find anyone who is afraid, angry, jealous, etc., just luminous, depthless depth gazing into luminous, depthless depth. 8

As a result of such practice, Christian contemplatives through the ages have reported exceptional states of inner knowledge and genuine well-being—a kind of “truth-given joy”—that arise when the heart is purified and brought to rest in its own innermost depths.


From the early seventeenth century onward, while scientists confined their research to the external world, the inner world of the human soul and consciousness was left to theologians and philosophers. Despite their many ingenious theories, they failed to come to a consensus on even the most rudimentary questions, and in the late nineteenth century scientists began to investigate this unexplored dimension of the natural world. William James was fascinated by this topic, as it can be viewed from scientific, philosophical, and spiritual perspectives, and he rejected the notion that all physical and mental phenomena arise out of some primal stuff called “matter.” In his view, the primal substance of the universe is pure experience, which he characterized as “plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that,” prior to the differentiation of subject and object. 9   James commented that psychology in his time was hardly more developed than physics had been before Galileo, and despite many advances in the cognitive sciences during the twentieth century, this is still true of the scientific study of consciousness.10 He added that a topic remains a problem of philosophy only until it has been understood by scientific means, at which point it is taken out of the hands of philosophers.11  The fact that philosophers continue to make a living by writing book after book claiming to explain consciousness is evidence that the West does not yet have an authentic science of consciousness. Scientists and philosophers continue to speculate on the real nature of the mind, as opposed to its appearances to introspection, by purely logical means, without any compelling empirical evidence. Einstein commented, “Propositions arrived at purely by logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics— indeed of modern science altogether.12


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