I imagine that spirituality would be so important
in my life. Throughout my childhood and student years I always
thought I would end up as a scientist. I loved science. I loved
discovering how the world works, why the sky is blue, what makes the
wind blow, how sound travels through the air, how electric currents
flow, why iron rusts, why things expand when heated, how plants know
when to bloom, how we see color, how a lens bends light, why planes
can fly, how a rainbow forms, why snowflakes are six-pointed stars.
The more I discovered, the more fascinated I became. At sixteen I
was devouring Einstein and marveling at the paradoxical world of
quantum physics. I delved into different theories of how the
universe began, and pondered the mysteries of space and time. I had
a passion for knowing, an insatiable curiosity about the laws and
principles that governed the world.
I was not, however, a materialist, believing that everything could
be explained by the physical sciences. By my mid-teens I had
developed an interest in the untapped potentials of the human mind.
Stories of yogis being buried alive for days, or lying on beds of
nails, intrigued me. I dabbled in so-called out-of-body experiences
and experimented with the altered states of consciousness produced
by hyperventilating or entraining the brain's alpha rhythms with
pulsating lights. I developed my own techniques of meditation,
though I did not recognize them as such at the time.
Nevertheless, my overriding interest was still in the physical
sciences, and, above all, mathematics. Thus, when it came to
choosing which subject I was to study at university, the choice was
obvious. And when it came to deciding which university I should
apply to, the choice was again clear: Cambridge. It was, and
probably remains, the best British university for studying
The Turning Point
In my third year, I was exactly where I thought I would want to be.
Stephen Hawking was my supervisor. Although he had fallen prey to
the motor-neuron disorder known as Lou Gehrig's disease several
years earlier, the illness had not yet taken its full toll. He could
walk with the aid of a cane and speak well enough to be understood.
Sitting with him in his study, I found half my attention would be on
whatever he was explaining to me (such as the solution of a
particularly difficult set of differential equations), while my eye
would be caught by the hundreds of sheets of paper strewn across his
desk, on which were scrawled, in very large handwriting, equations
that I could hardly begin to fathom. Only later did I realize these
papers were probably part of his seminal work on black holes.
On more than one occasion, a spasmodic movement of his arm would
accidentally send most of the papers sliding to the floor. I wanted
to get down and scoop them up for him, but he always insisted I
leave them there. To be doing such ground-breaking work in cosmology
was achievement enough. To be doing it with such handicaps was
astounding. I felt both extremely privileged and very daunted.
So there I was, studying with the best of minds in the best of
universities, yet something else was stirring deep inside me.
My studies in mathematics and quantum physics explained how the
entire material universe could have evolved from the simplest of the
elements-hydrogen. Yet the most fascinating question for me had now
become: How had hydrogen-a single electron orbiting a single
proton-evolved into a system that could be aware of itself? How had
the universe become conscious?
It was becoming clear that however hard I studied the physical
sciences, they were never going to answer this deeper, more
fundamental, question. I felt a growing sense of frustration,
manifesting at times as depression. I found myself reading more
about mind and consciousness, and less able to focus on my
The Best of Both Worlds
My tutor must have sensed I was not at ease in myself and approached
me one day to ask how I was doing. I shared with him as best I could
my confusion and misgivings about my chosen path. His response
surprised me: "Either complete your degree in mathematics [I was in
my final year] or take the rest of the year off and use it to decide
what you really want to study." Then, knowing how hard it would be
for me to make such a choice without a deadline, he added, "I want
your decision by noon on Saturday."
Saturday, five minutes before noon, I was still torn between my two
options, struggling with feelings of failure, and a sense of wasted
time. In the end, I surrendered to an inner knowing that I would not
be fulfilled continuing with mathematics, and that I really wanted
to take the rest of the year off. By late afternoon I had packed,
said a temporary farewell to my friends, and was on my way, with
only uncertainty ahead.
During the next six months I produced light shows, worked in a jam
factory at night, and from time to time pondered my future career.
After exploring various options I returned to Cambridge to study
experimental psychology; it seemed the closest academic approach to
understanding consciousness. Whereas clinical psychology involves
treating those who are mentally ill at ease, experimental psychology
is concerned with the functioning of the normal human brain. It
includes the study of the physiological process of perception and
how the brain builds up a picture of the world. It encompasses
learning and memory, the brain's control of the body, and the
biochemistry of neuronal interactions. Understanding the brain
seemed a start in the right direction.
So I found myself able to continue pursuing my interests in
mathematics and physics, while at the same time embarking on my
exploration of the inner world of consciousness.
Today, after thirty years of investigation into the nature of
consciousness, I have come to appreciate just how big a problem the
subject is for contemporary science. We all know, beyond any doubt,
that we are conscious beings. It is the most intimate and obvious
fact of our existence. Indeed, all we ever directly know are the
thoughts, images, and feelings arising in consciousness. Yet as far
as Western science is concerned, there is nothing more difficult to
The 'Hard Problem' of Consciousness
The really hard problem-as David Chalmers, professor of philosophy
at the University of Arizona, has said-is consciousness itself. Why
should the complex processing of information in the brain lead to an
inner experience? Why doesn't it all go on in the dark, without any
subjective aspect? Why do we have any inner life at all?
This paradox-namely, the absolutely undeniable existence of human
consciousness set against the complete absence of any satisfactory
scientific account for it-suggests to me that something is seriously
amiss with the contemporary scientific worldview. For a long time I
could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then suddenly, about
four years ago on a flight back to San Francisco, I saw where the
If consciousness is not some emergent property of life, as Western
science supposes, but is instead a primary quality of the cosmos-as
fundamental as space, time, and matter, perhaps even more
fundamental-then we arrive at a very different picture of reality.
As far as our understanding of the material world goes, nothing much
changes; but when it comes to our understanding of mind, we are led
to a very different worldview indeed. I realized that the hard
problem of consciousness was not a problem to be solved so much as
the trigger that would, in time, push Western science into what the
American philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift."
The continued failure of science to make any appreciable headway
into this fundamental problem suggests that, to date, all approaches
may be on the wrong track. They are all based on the assumption that
consciousness emerges from, or is dependent upon, the physical world
of space, time, and matter. In one way or another they are trying to
accommodate the anomaly of consciousness within a worldview that is
intrinsically materialist. As happened with the medieval
astronomers, who kept adding more and more epicycles to explain the
anomalous motions of the planets, the underlying assumptions are
seldom, if ever, questioned.
I now believe that rather than trying to explain consciousness in
terms of the material world, we should be developing a new worldview
in which consciousness is a fundamental component of reality. The
key ingredients for this new paradigm-a "superparadigm"-are already
in place. We need not wait for any new discoveries. All we need do
is put various pieces of our existing knowledge together, and
consider the new picture of reality that emerges.
Consciousness and Reality
Because the word "consciousness" can be used in so many different
ways, confusion often arises around statements about its nature. The
way I use the word in this article is not in reference to a
particular state of consciousness, or particular way of thinking,
but to the faculty of consciousness itself-the capacity for inner
experience, whatever the nature or degree of the experience.
A useful analogy is the image from a video projector. The projector
shines light onto a screen, modifying the light so as to produce any
one of an infinity of images. These images are like the perceptions,
sensations, dreams, memories, thoughts, and feelings that we
experience-what I call the "contents of consciousness." The light
itself, without which no images would be possible, corresponds to
the faculty of consciousness.
We know all the images on the screen are composed of this light, but
we are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is
caught up in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In
much the same way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually
aware only of the many different experiences, thoughts, and feelings
that appear in the mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness
itself. Yet without this faculty there would be no experience of any
The faculty of consciousness is one thing we all share, but what
goes on in our consciousness, the content of our consciousness,
varies widely. This is our personal reality, the reality we each
know and experience. Most of the time, however, we forget that this
is just our personal reality and think we are experiencing physical
reality directly. We see the ground beneath our feet; we can pick up
a rock, and throw it through the air; we feel the heat from a fire,
and smell its burning wood. It feels as if we are in direct contact
with the world "out there." But this is not so. The colors,
textures, smells, and sounds we experience are not really "out
there"; they are all images of reality constructed in the mind.
It was this aspect of perception that most caught my attention
during my studies of experimental psychology (and amplified by my
readings of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant). At that time,
scientists were beginning to discover the ways in which the brain
pieces together its perception of the world, and I was fascinated by
the implications of these discoveries for the way we construct our
picture of reality. It was clear that what we perceive and what is
actually out there are two different things.
This, I know, runs counter to common sense. Right now you are aware
of the pages in front of you, various objects around you, sensations
in your own body, and sounds in the air. Even though you may
understand that all of this is just your reconstruction of reality,
it still seems as if you are having a direct perception of the
physical world. And I am not suggesting you should try to see it
otherwise. What is important for now is the understanding that all
our experience is an image of reality constructed in the mind.
Because our perception of the world is so different from the actual
physical reality, some people have claimed that our experience is an
illusion. But that is misleading. It may all be a creation of my own
mind, but it is very, very real-the only reality we ever know.
The illusion comes when we confuse our experience of the world with
the physical reality, the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers
of ancient India spoke of this as "maya." Often translated as
illusion (a false perception of the world), the word is more
accurately translated as delusion (a false belief about the world).
I suffer a delusion when I believe that the manifestations in my
mind are the external world. I deceive myself when I think that the
tree I see is the tree itself.
If all that we ever know are the images that appear in our minds,
how can we be sure there is a physical reality behind our
perceptions? Is it not just an assumption? My answer to that is:
Yes, it is an assumption; nevertheless, it seems a most plausible
For a start, there are definite constraints on my experience. I
cannot, for example, walk through walls. If I try to, there are
predictable consequences. Nor can I, when awake, float through the
air, or walk upon water. Second, my experience generally follows
well-defined laws and principles. Balls thrown through the air
follow |precisely defined paths. Cups of coffee cool at similar
rates. The sun rises on time. Furthermore, this predictability is
not peculiar to my personal reality. You, whom I assume to exist,
report similar patterns in your own experience. The simplest way, by
far, of accounting for these constraints and for their consistency
is to assume that there is indeed a physical reality. We may not
know it directly, and its nature may be nothing like our experience
of it, but it is there.
To reveal the nature of this underlying reality has been the goal of
the physical sciences, and over the years they have elucidated many
of the laws and principles that govern its behavior. Yet curiously
the more deeply they have delved into its true nature, the more it
appears that physical reality is nothing like we imagined it to be.
Actually, this should not be too surprising. All we can imagine are
the forms and qualities that appear in consciousness. These are
unlikely to be very appropriate models for describing the underlying
physical reality, which is of a very different nature.
Take, for example, our ideas as to the nature of matter. For two
thousand years it was believed that atoms were tiny balls of solid
matter-a model clearly drawn from everyday experience. Then, as
physicists discovered that atoms were composed of more elementary,
subatomic, |particles (electrons, protons, neutrons, and suchlike),
the model shifted to one of a central nucleus surrounded by orbiting
electrons-again a model based on experience.
An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but these
subatomic particles are a hundred-thousand times smaller still.
Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a grain of
rice. The whole atom would then be the size of a football stadium,
and the electrons would be other grains of rice flying round the
stands. As the early twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur
Eddington put it, "matter is mostly ghostly empty space"-99.9999999
percent empty space, to be a little more precise.
With the advent of quantum theory, it was found that even these
minute subatomic particles were themselves far from solid. In fact,
they are not much like matter at all-at least nothing like matter as
we know it. They can't be pinned down and measured precisely. They
are more like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite
location. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles.
Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance to it.
Somewhat ironically, science, having set out to know the ultimate
nature of reality, is discovering that not only is this world beyond
any direct experience, it may also be inherently unknowable.
The Paradox of Light
With hindsight, my decision to study theoretical physics along with
experimental psychology was definitely the right one. They provided
two complementary directions to my personal search for truth.
Theoretical physics was taking me closer toward the ultimate truths
of the physical world, while my pursuit of experimental psychology
was a first step toward truth in the inner world of consciousness.
Moreover, the deeper I went in these two directions, the closer the
truths of the inner and outer worlds became. And the bridge between
them was light.
Both relativity and quantum physics, the two great paradigm shifts
of modern physics, started from anomalies in the behavior of light,
and both led to radical new understandings of the nature of light.
For example, in relativity theory, at the speed of light time comes
to a stop-in effect, that means for light there is no time
whatsoever. Furthermore, a photon can traverse the entire universe
without using up any energy-in effect, that means for light there is
no space. In quantum theory, we find that light has zero mass and
charge, which in effect means that it is immaterial. Light,
therefore, seems to occupy a very special place in the cosmic
scheme; it is in some ways more fundamental than time, space, or
matter. The same, I later discovered, was true of the inner light of
Although all we ever see is light, paradoxically, we never know
light directly. The light that strikes the eye is known only through
the energy it releases. This energy is translated into a visual
image in the mind, and that image seems to be composed of light-but
that light is a quality of mind. We never know the light itself.
Physics, like Genesis, suggests that in the beginning there was
light, or, rather, in the beginning there is light, for light
underlies every process in the present moment. Any exchange of
energy between any two atoms in the universe involves the exchange
of photons. Every interaction in the material world is mediated by
light. In this way, light penetrates and interconnects the entire
An oft-quoted phrase comes to mind: God is Light. God is said to be
absolute-and in physics, so is light. God lies beyond the manifest
world of matter, shape, and form, beyond both space and time-so does
light. God cannot be known directly-nor can light.
The Light of Consciousness
My studies in experimental psychology taught me much about the basic
functioning of the human brain. Yet, despite all I was learning
about neurophysiology, biochemistry, memory, behavior, and
perception, I found myself no closer to understanding the nature of
consciousness itself. The East, however, seemed to have a lot to say
about consciousness, and so had many mystics, from around the world.
For thousands of years they had focused on the realm of the mind,
exploring its subtleties through direct personal experience. I
realized that such approaches might offer insights unavailable to
the objective approach of Western science, and began delving into
ancient texts such as the Upanishads, The Tibetan Book of the Great
Liberation, The Cloud of Unknowing, and works of contemporary
writers such as Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and
I was fascinated to find that here, as in modern physics, light is a
recurring theme. Consciousness is often spoken of as the inner
light. St John refers to "the true light, which lighteth every man
that cometh into the world." The Tibetan Book of the Great
Liberation speaks of "the self-originated Clear Light, eternally
unborn . . . shining forth within one's own mind."
Those who have awakened to the truth about reality-whom we often
call illumined, or enlightened-frequently describe their experiences
in terms of light. The sufi Abu'l-Hosian al-Nuri experienced a light
"gleaming in the Unseen. . . . I gazed at it continually, until the
time came when I had wholly become that light."
The more I read about this inner light, the more I saw close
parallels with the light of physics. Physical light has no mass, and
is not part of the material world; the same is true of
consciousness. Light seems in some way fundamental to the universe,
its values are absolute, universal constants. The light of
consciousness is likewise fundamental; without it there would be no
This led me to wonder whether there was some deeper significance to
these similarities. Were they pointing to a more fundamental
connection between the light of the physical world and the light of
consciousness? Do physical reality and the reality of the mind share
the same common ground-a ground whose essence is light?
Hunting through my local library one day, I happened upon a book
titled The Science of Being and Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh
Yogi. This was the Indian teacher who had recently made the
headlines when The Beatles renounced their use of drugs in favor of
his technique of Transcendental Meditation, or TM for short. Little
knowing how much this work would change my life, I added it to the
pile of books I was borrowing and took it back to my study. There it
sat, unopened, on my desk for two weeks. Finally I got around to
taking a further look. Within minutes it had my attention. Maharishi
was saying the exact opposite of just about everything I'd heard or
read on meditation; yet it made sense.
To give just one example, most of the books I had read on meditation
talked about how much concentration and effort it took to still the
restless mind and discover the deep peace and fulfillment that lies
within. Maharishi looked at the whole matter in a different way. Any
concentration, the least bit of trying, even a wanting the mind to
settle down, would, he observed, be counterproductive. It would be
promoting mental activity rather than lessening it. He suggested
that the reason the mind was restless was because it was looking for
something-namely, greater satisfaction and fulfillment. But it was
looking for it in the wrong direction, in the world of thinking and
sensory experience. All that was needed, he said, was to turn the
attention 180 degrees inward and give the mind a technique that
helped it settle down. Then, in that quieter state it would begin to
taste a little of the fulfillment it had been seeking, and would be
spontaneously drawn on to deeper levels of its own accord.
Maharishi's ideas appealed to my scientific mind. They were simple
and elegant-almost like a mathematical derivation. But the skeptic
in me was not going to take anything on faith. Just because
something is written in a book, or because some famous person says
it, or because many others believe it, does not mean it is true. The
only way to know how well his technique worked was to try it.
Journey to India
As soon as I completed my undergraduate degree, I earned some money
driving a truck, then set off in an old VW van for India (it was the
sixties, after all). My destination was Rishikesh, an Indian holy
town, about 150 miles north of Delhi, at the foot of the Himalayas.
The plains of northern India do not gradually rise up into
mountains, as in the Alps; the landscape looks more like the Rocky
Mountains in Colorado. One moment it is flat, the next there is
mountain. Rishikesh nestles right where plain turns into mountain,
and at the very point where the Ganges comes tumbling out of its
deep Himalayan gorge.
On one side of the river was Rishikesh the bustling market town, its
crowded streets a jumble of stalls, honking cars, bicycle rickshaws,
and bony cows. On the other side was Rishikesh the holy town. The
atmosphere here was very different. There were no cars for a start.
The one bridge across the river-a suspension bridge strung high
across the mouth of the gorge-was deliberately built too narrow for
cars. Along this side of the river, and sprinkled up the jungle
hillsides above, were all manner of ashrams, each with its own
architectural style and spiritual inclination. Some were austere
walled quadrangles lined with simple meditation cells; others
gloried in lush gardens, fountains, and brightly colored statues of
Indian deities. Some were centers for hatha yoga, others taught
meditation or followed the teachings of a particular guru.
About two miles down river from the bridge was Maharishi's ashram,
the last habitation before the winding track disappeared into the
jungle. Here, perched on a cliff top, a hundred feet above the
swirling Ganges, were half-a-dozen bungalows, a meeting hall, dining
room, showers, and other facilities providing some basic Western
Here, just over a hundred of us, of all ages, from many countries,
had gathered for a teacher training course. Many were like myself,
recent graduates and looking for intellectual understanding of
Maharishi's teachings as much as experience of deep meditation.
There were PhDs in philosophy, medical doctors, and long-term
students of theology.
Over the coming weeks we listened to Maharishi talk at length, and
asked question after question, virtually interrogating him at times.
We teased out everything, from the finer distinctions of higher
states of consciousness and subtle influences of meditation to the
exact meaning of various esoteric concepts.
Even more important than our growing understanding of meditation was
the opportunity to deepen our experience. Initially we meditated for
three or four hours a day. As the course progressed, Maharishi
gradually increased our practice times until we were spending most
of the day in meditation-and much of the night as well. He wanted us
to have clear experiences of the states of consciousness he was
During these long meditations, the habitual chatter of my mind began
to fade away. Thoughts about what was going on in meditation, what
time it was, what I wanted to say or do later, occupied less and
less of my attention. Sounds outside no longer triggered images of
monkeys playing games on the roof. Random memories of the past no
longer flitted through my mind. My feelings settled down, and my
breath grew so gentle as to virtually disappear. What thoughts there
were became fainter and fainter, until finally my thinking mind fell
completely silent. In Maharishi's terminology I had transcended
(literally gone beyond) thinking-hence the name "Transcendental
Indian teachings call this state samadhi, literally "still mind."
They identify it as a fundamentally different state of consciousness
from the three major states we normally experience-waking, dreaming,
and deep sleep. In waking consciousness we are aware and experience
the world perceived by the senses. In dreaming we are aware and
experience worlds conjured by the imagination. In deep sleep there
is no awareness, either of outer world or inner world. Samadhi they
define as a fourth major state. There is awareness, one is wide
awake, but there is no object of the awareness. It is pure
consciousness-pure in the sense of being unmodified by thoughts and
images-consciousness without content.
In terms of the video projector analogy, this fourth state of
consciousness corresponds to the projector being on, but without any
data being fed to it; only white light falls on the screen.
Likewise, in samadhi you know consciousness itself, in its
unmanifest state, before it takes on the many forms and qualities of
thinking, feeling, and sensory experience.
One further quality of this state of consciousness marks it out from
all our normal states. When you are in this state you discover a
sense of self that is more real and more fundamental than any you
have known before. You are no longer an individual person, with
individual characteristics. Here, in the complete absence of all
normal experience, you find your true identity, an identity with the
essence of all beings and all creation.
Looking for the self is rather like being in a room at night with
only a flashlight, looking for the source of the light. All you
would find would be the various objects in the room that the light
fell upon. It is the same when we try to look for the self which is
the subject of all experience. All we find are the various ideas,
images, and feelings that the attention falls upon. But these are
all objects of experience; they cannot therefore be the subject of
the experience. For this reason, the self cannot be known in the way
that anything else is known.
We can now begin to see just how close are the parallels between the
light of physics and the light of consciousness.Both are beyond the
material world. And both seem to lie beyond space and time. Both
seem intrinsically unknowable-at least in the way that everything
else is known. And both are absolutes. Every photon of light is an
identical quantum of action, and the foundation of every interaction
in the universe. The light of consciousness is likewise absolute and
invariant. It is the source of every quality that we ever
experience. And its essential nature is the same for everyone. Since
it is beyond all attributes and identifying characteristics, there
is no way to distinguish the light of consciousness in me from the
light that shines in you. In other words, how it feels to me to be
conscious-that sense of being we label "I"-is the same as how it
feels to you. In this sense we are one. We all know the same inner
I am the light. And so are you. And so is every sentient being in
Mystics have spoken of this inner light as the Divine Light, the
Cosmic Light, the Light of Light, the Eternal Light that shines in
every heart, the Uncreated Light from which all creation takes form.
Once again the phrase "God is Light" comes to mind. But now God
begins to take on a much richer and more personal meaning. If God is
the name we give to the light of consciousness shining at the core
of every sentient being, and if that pure consciousness is the very
essence of self, then it is only a short step to the assertion that
"I am God."
Consciousness and God
To many, the statement "I am God" sounds ridiculous. God is not a
human being, but the supreme deity, the almighty, eternal creator.
How can any lowly human being claim that he or she is God? To those
of a more religious disposition, the statement may sound heretical,
if not blasphemous. When the fourteenth-century Christian priest and
mystic Meister Eckhart preached that "God and I are One," he was
brought before Pope John XXII and forced to "recant everything that
he had falsely taught." Not all were so lucky. The tenth-century
Islamic mystic al-Hall„j was crucified for using language that
claimed an identity with God.
To those who do not believe in God at all, such statements are
meaningless, the symptoms of some delusion or pathology. They might
have been tolerable a couple of hundred years ago, but not in the
modern scientific era, where God seems a totally unnecessary
concept. Science has looked out into deep space, across the breadth
of creation to the edges of the universe. It has looked back in
"deep time" to the beginning of creation. And it has looked down
into the "deep structure" of the cosmos, to the fundamental
constituents of matter. In each case science finds no evidence for
God; nor any need for God-the Universe seems to work perfectly well
without any divine assistance. Thus anyone talking of a personal
identity with God is clearly talking nonsense.
That is where I stood thirty years ago. Now I recognize that I was
rejecting a rather naÔve and old-fashioned interpretation of God.
When we look to mystical writings, we do not find many claims for
God being in the realm of space, time, and matter. When mystics
refer to God, they are, more often than not, pointing toward the
realm of personal experience, not something in the physical realm.
If we want to find God, we have to look within, into the realm of
deep mind-a realm that science has yet to explore.
* * *
Reprinted with permission of
the author. For for of Dr Russel's writing and to purchase his
books, please visit his web site: