restricted access Dantian Cultivation and the Hard Problem of Consciousness
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Dantian Cultivation and the Hard Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness is one of the least understood phenomena of human existence. In the 21st century, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, biology, and physics are trying to unravel its mysteries. In the discussion of consciousness, a distinction can be made between states of consciousness and the nature of consciousness. "States of consciousness are qualitatively different patterns of subjective experience" about both internal and external events (Kowalski and Westen 2005, 294). States of consciousness include, a) Freud's conscious, preconscious, and unconscious; b) Jung's collective unconscious; c) conscious and unconscious cognitive processes; d) sleeping and dreaming; e) altered states of consciousness such as meditation and hypnosis; and f) drug-induced states of consciousness.

The nature of consciousness is about how it arises and what it is initself, i. e., its ontology. Most current descriptions do not reach to its foundation. For example, two Western psychology definitions of consciousness are, "the subjective awareness of mental events" (2005, 294), and "our moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and the environment" (Passer and Smith 2004, 159). There are other, similar definitions of consciousness that describe its process but not its ontology. The ontological questions eventually come down to whether there is a physical or non-physical basis to consciousness and whether or not it exists as a fundamental property of the universe (Shannon 2008). This paper attempts to show that Daoist dantian or elixir field cultivation, as practiced in internal alchemy, leads to an experience of cosmic oneness which [End Page 177] sheds light on the ontology of consciousness and removes some of the obstacles to the current understanding of it.

Consciousness Past

Consciousness has always been critical to human existence. Throughout history it was utilized and experienced in various ways. It alerted prehistoric people when danger was near. Ancient shamans used altered states to enter nonphysical realms and gain important information that lead to healing and balance. The Hindu Upanishads describe the expansion of consciousness as the way for humans to unite with the cosmos, i. e., Atman connecting to Brahman (Prabhavananda and Manchester 1948).

In Greek philosophy, Plato believed that true reality consisted of eternal forms or ideas that were beyond the physical world. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato thinks humans should focus their consciousness on the highest truth (symbolized by the sun) instead of letting consciousness remain in the darkness of the cave (symbolized by shadows). Plato, and other philosophers after him, examined states of consciousness rather than what it is in-itself.

A significant development in the ontology of consciousness was Rene Descartes' statement "I think, therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum). This made mind or consciousness a fundamental factor of human existence, dividing the world into two basic factors, physical external objects and mental internal processes. Descartes's dualism of mind and body became firmly established in Western philosophy and science. While impeding developments in medicine and psychology, dualism nevertheless established consciousness as a central factor of the human condition.

A strong interest in consciousness occurred in the late 19th century, when Wilhelm Wundt and E. B. Titchener began conducting studies on the nature of consciousness. Consciousness then came to play an important role in the psychological theories of William James and Edmund Husserl. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung put it at the center of psychodynamics. Behaviorism ignored consciousness, but it came to the forefront again with the development of cognitive, humanistic, and transpersonal psychologies during the 1960s and 70s.

Since the late 1980s, the ontology of consciousness has received a lot of attention. Several theories have been put forth and two main obstacles [End Page 178] have been encountered. David Chalmers labeled the two obstacles the "easy problems" and the "hard problem" of consciousness (2006; 2002).

The first involves features such as discriminating sensory stimuli, how the brain integrates information from many different sources, and verbalizing internal states of mind. These processes are closely associated with consciousness and are the objective mechanisms of the cognitive system. Neuroscience is solving many of these problems by observing brain activity and discovering the neural correlates of various behaviors. Easy problems are about objective phenomena which can be observed...