Consciousness & Phenomenology

purpleflowerConsciousness is a process wherein each person ascribes personal meaning to his or her experiences, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, etc. We each view the world through our own individual lenses and therefore can experience the same situation, but come up with different interpretations of what has happened. In our search for meaning, much of what we interpret as our reality is based upon the assumptions we use to scrutinize those “realities.” You can see this is true if you can remember a time when you first felt one reaction to a situation, but later, with additional information to clarify what was occurring, we immediately let go of the old interpretation and believe that our newer interpretation is closer to the “reality” of what occurred. Depending upon the assumptions one uses to explain the situation, meaning can vary from moment to moment even within the same person. If we assume that another’s intentions towards us are negative, then we will interpret their actions from this point of view. If we later realize that perhaps our fear of being negatively judged was at the root of our interpretation, we subsequently ascribe a different meaning to the same behavior that earlier had made us sad or angry.

We also have to consider that our interpretation is often colored by what Carl Jung referred as our shadow. The shadow is the dark side of our personality or our alter ego. It contains those things that we tend to hide from ourselves as well as others. We can’t admit to ourselves at times that we have certain feelings, attitudes, fears and inadequacies, so we project those unacceptable aspects out onto others and believe that they are the ones who are judging us through our fears. For example, I fear you do not think highly of me, so I accuse you of having no respect for me which allows me to blame you for my fear of being judged–something that is within me. It is a handy defense mechanism that we all use to keep out of consciousness what does not fit within our conscious viewpoint of ourselves.


Another part of personality that often distorts “reality” for us is our persona. This refers to what Jung described as the social masks we wear that help us adapt in social situations. We have as many masks as we need to use in various situations. It is only a partial exposure of ourselves, keeping a bit of who we are hidden because we may feel that if we “let it all hang out” we would be rejected in that situation. So at work, we strive to show our “employee” face. In college, we show our “academic, studious” face. We know that these are all masks of our various roles we assume, but we are aware that there is much more to our personality that we do not reveal through that mask. It is a limited way to live and experience consciousness, but one that we find adaptive and that is often used unconsciously. Our problems crop up, however, when we allow our masks to cover up the genuine person inside. It may make us feel safe, but unseen.

Through the study of phenomenology, the obstacles and roadblocks to more expanded states of consciousness can be systematically examined to provide a sense of how we each take in and interpret our reality. Phenomenology is the study of how each person experiences the world. If we are to understand another’s perspective, we must see reality from that particular person’s viewpoint and take into account the assumptions that person used to reach those conclusions. Consciousness is affected by our focus of attention as well as the meanings we assign to the reality we experience. We follow the traditional path of looking for observable causes that result in the effect that we experience. What we fail to consider is that some of the intervening factors impacting the situation may have happened at another time, another place, but are still a part of the present result.

tigerFor an example, imagine that you are interacting with another and they suddenly attack you verbally for your selfishness. In order to understand this person’s actions, we have to scrutinize what we have just said, done, or not done and may still be baffled by this reaction. What we might fail to consider is that there were earlier events and experiences that sensitized that individual to be “ready” for any perceived “acts of transgression” on another’s part. When taken into consideration, these earlier phenomenological experiences precondition that person to “focus” upon certain aspects of a situation that will feed his/her assumptions.

Actions are thus interpreted using implicit “truths” that one holds about the world and those in it. These “truths” may be incomplete, outdated, or unworkable, yet the resulting feelings, thoughts and behaviors we have are based upon these personal truths and reflect these biases.

Language and Reality

Through the use of language, humans have attempted to convey meaning to experience by using these words as symbolic tools. Words are often inadequate and only approximate what we truly mean. Using words as symbols to represent experience helps us paint our canvas of the “reality” experienced, but they are not the same as the actual experience (Wilber, 1979b). This helps to remind us that we need to check out each other’s assumptions when they use a particular word to describe something. Is your understanding of the word the same as the other person?

Consciousness is a subjective state and consists of all aspects occurring in a particular moment. To translate that experience into a form that others can understand, language has allowed humans the means by which we can exchange information and experience. It is the primary form of communication between two separate beings. Using these symbols (words) to represent experience is part of the human legacy as symbolic creatures, but these devices are restrictive and cannot fully convey internal, subjective states. Thus we must remember, “my reality does not necessarily coincide with what you view as reality.” We have to be good communicators to clarify these differences so that we keep consciousness open and aware.

yellowflowersThe names and labels we apply to experience are not the same as the experience itself. They are tools. Given this inherent nature of communication and language, studies in consciousness are thus by nature filled with ambiguity due to the multiple definitions and gradations individuals apply to any given word. This represents one limitation to the scientific study of human consciousness. Another limitation imposed upon this endeavor is that the “reality” perceived is dependent upon the focus that one assumes when interpreting experience. “We see what we want to see.” Perspective colors the process and our translations from symbolic to objective means of communication evoke awkward attempts at finding meaning and conveying what is within our consciousness. Most often, concepts and processes of experience must be worded and reworded in order to convey as accurate a description as possible to another.

Words are symbols, like markings on a map that are helpful to guide humans through unknown territories and passages in life. Metaphorically, we use the roadmap of others to provide some indication of what we can expect, where we are to go, what we are to do. The beliefs we hold about how reality works limits the manner in which we will accept or reject phenomena that is perhaps unobservable. What we cannot see, touch, smell, or taste, we do not trust. We question its validity and often say these experiences are flukes, not to concern ourselves with understanding what cannot yet be understood.

In the study of consciousness, when we speak of “reality, ” these considerations must be taken into account. Reality can perhaps be best described as constantly changing. Because consciousness and reality are in constant flux and subject to changes in perspective and viewpoint, one might imagine that some of our viewpoints are restricted interpretations of the totality of any situation.