The terminological confusion surrounding the idea of getting beyond form consciousness is regrettable. Frankly, in large part because of the confusing welter of different words and phrases, it took me years to figure out what various authors and other teachers were saying.
There’s no good choice but to regiment ordinary terms in order to communicate more effectively.
The purpose here isn’t to argue for some thesis after clarifying it; instead, it’s merely to point in a certain direction. The truth is that that direction (way, path) leads to a destination that’s ineffable. That’s the root cause of the terminological confusion.
A form [object] is anything that it’s possible to single out for our attention, anything we can pick out and focus on. It may or may not be real or taken to be real.
For example, your right hand is a form. So is your right thumb. So is your right thumbnail. These are real forms. They are perceptual forms, which are objects that can be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Real perceptual forms can be singled out perceptually in more than one way. For example, your thumb can be seen and touched.
If she’s dead and you remember it, your grandmother’s face is a memorial form. Initially, it was a perceptual form, which is how you learned it. Your grandmother’s face is no longer real.
If you don’t yet have one and nevertheless think of it, your granddaughter’s face is an imaginary form. Its qualities are familiar perceptual ones, but you’ve combined them in a certain way to try to imagine what her face will look like. Since she doesn’t yet exist, your granddaughter’s face is not yet real.
There’s nothing whatsoever controversial so far. Let’s change that.
This is controversial: is your consciousness [awareness] of any form separable from that form?
My view is that Sartre was correct in thinking that consciousness of any form is inseparable from that form [see his Being and Nothingness]. Why?
Notice that, if you try to single out that awareness apart from the form that it is about, you’ll fail in the sense that you’ll fall through to the form in order to identify it. It’s impossible to single out that consciousness without doing so via its form, the form its directed upon. You can’t single out your consciousness of your right thumb without guiding off it.
Is all your consciousness form consciousness? In other words, is it always the case that consciousness is about forms?
Again, there’s controversy. My view is that it’s false that all consciousness is form consciousness. Why? The opposing view is plausible only to those who have never experienced (or never realized that they have experienced) “void” [empty] consciousness.
In other words, there is void consciousness as well as form consciousness.
This is a matter of experience, not of argument. Why? If consciousness is inseparable (a la Sartre) from what it’s about, then void consciousness cannot be singled out because what it’s about, namely, void, cannot be singled out.
The essence of a form is its being singleoutable. The concept [principle of classification] of being a form is inapplicable to (the) void; it’s false that (the) void is a form.
There’s no controversy about the existence of form consciousness. Of course it’s real. The only question concerns the existence of void consciousness. Is it real?
Suppose that you yourself have experienced it. Suppose, to take a situation that not infrequently occurs, you have experienced a moment of Zen during which you were doing something with such focus and concentration that you lost both ordinary self-consciousness and time consciousness. It seems that most adults have had such experiences. They do happen spontaneously.
Can you single out the consciousness itself in such experiences apart from what it was about? Not really.
You have no doubt that the experience was real, that you temporarily just became whatever you were doing (such as, for example, woodworking or making a shot playing hockey or playing the piano or enjoying great sex). “It” certainly happened. What, though, does “it” denote?
Often it’s said that it’s a different state [level, kind] of consciousness. It’s undoubtedly a shift in perspective.
You have either experienced it or not. As Plotinus and other philosophers have pointed out, either you apprehend that kind of experience or you don’t.
If you have, you get it; you understand what I mean when I use “getting past form consciousness.”
If you haven’t, you won’t get it until you have that experience.
N.B.: An experience isn’t unreal just because you haven’t had it. That would be like a blind man thinking that colors are unreal because he has never seen any.
Why, though, is getting past form consciousness the secret to living well?
Because it opens a critically important dimension in the sense that it liberates us from bondage to forms.
With respect to forms, it changes everything – and nothing! Although our ordinary experience of forms doesn’t change, our perspective on that experience changes.
As long as we are stuck in the temporal domain of Becoming, nothing abides. Among other things, this entails that the lasting satisfaction we often desire will remain forever elusive.
Once we directly experience the non-temporal (eternal, timeless) domain of Being, we realize there’s infinitely more to life than incessant flux. The joy of Being is not only expandable but endlessly satisfying.
The Buddha was right on target with the idea of nirvana, which is the extinguishing of all forms. He seemed always to characterize Being negatively, in contrast to Becoming, by, for example, referring to it as the domain that is deathless or without desire, which has the advantage of leaving it open as to exactly what it is.
In the domain of Becoming, Butchvarov is correct: to be real is to be multiply singleoutable (technically, to be the subject of one or more true material identity judgments [see his Being Qua Being]).
What else is there in addition to Becoming? Being itself, which is ineffable because it is not singleoutable.
That it’s impossible to single out (and, so, impossible to conceptualize or to talk about coherently or to think well about) doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s possible directly to apprehend it and that that apprehension, when developed, has the power to ground and guide us in a way impossible without freedom from bondage to forms.
When it’s the result of deliberate yogic or meditative training, an initial breakthrough to Being is often called “spiritual awakening” or “satori.” Someone who successfully expands that insight so that it more thoroughly infuses his or her daily life is a sage, a successful philosopher (lover of wisdom).
Being makes living well possible. There is no living well without the direct apprehension of Being.
Although we identify with a set of forms — such as these thoughts, these emotions, this body, and so on — that identification or self-understanding is radically incomplete. Those judgments are not false, but they are infinitely far from the whole story.
Each of us is also a concretization of Being. Unless we realize that, we are missing the forest for its trees.
Another way this is often said is that we are not just selves, we are Self. In other words, we are not just many separate individuals, we are all one Self.
The secret of living well isn’t merely to think this (or to try to think it): it’s to “realize” it. Until we do that, we have not fulfilled ourselves. We cannot experience lasting satisfaction. We have failed to fulfill our human purpose.
May you fulfill yours!
I encourage you to leave comments or pass this post along to anyone who might be seriously interested in living well.
If you have questions or feedback for me directly, you may email me at: Dennis@ConsultingPhilosopher.com