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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Consciousness is not Optional

Why do we exist? What is the purpose of life? Who has not asked these questions at one time or other during their life? We ask these kinds of questions because it is natural for human beings to do so because we are creatures that are conscious of our own consciousness. Descartes expressed it, “I think therefore I am.” He began by questioning the existence of everything he could perceive about reality with his five senses. But ultimately he could not deny that something he called “I” was consciously contemplating itself.

If we focus on our consciousness without all the distractions of the world around us, in meditation for instance, we become aware that our consciousness is still present even when our mind stops. Many people report near death experiences after accidents or during medical operations in which they are conscious of being out of their bodies. People have scientifically unexplained experiences of previous and parallel lives. These types of experiences and reports bring in to question everything we think we know about reality, everything, that is, but one thing, the existance of our consciousness.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote a sardonic play called “No Exit” in which three people, who had died, found themselves together in a kind of purgatory (or hell) together. There they proceeded to torment each other just as they had tormented others in life. Their greatest wish was to die so that they could end their suffering. But alas, they could not die because they were already dead. There was “no exit” for their consciousness to take.

I believe what the famous existential philosopher is pointing out in his play is that we are all conscious beings and we have been given a life to do with as we choose. We can choose to spend our time suffering and tormenting others and ourselves or spend it spreading joy through the freedom we have. But we cannot choose to not exist. We might even imagine that we can escape the responsibility we have by committing suicide but we may end up just like the hapless characters in Sartre’s play. We might ask ourselves over and over again the question “Oh, why do I exist [at all].” but it is always rhetorical question because consciousness is not optional. It is only in the area of what we do with our consciousness in our lives that we have choice.


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