Wave Analogies of Consciousness, Mind, and Ultimate Reality

Many analogies can be used to help describe our nature, reality, the mind, and consciousness. Here are a few using waves.

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

Nikola Tesla, the inventor engineer who contributed to the modern alternating current electricity supply system, is attributed to have said:

If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.

-Wikiquote notes, “First attibution is to Ralph Bergstresser who claims to have heard this from Tesla in a conversation ‘following an experience with the Maharaja’s son.'”

Of course, Tesla was often working with electricity, energy, frequency, and vibrations of energy (alternating current is a kind of vibration/frequency, the current reversing in direction many times a second), and so the quote seems plausible. He had found a “secret” to transmitting energy through such means. I think he was on to something.

These terms, especially frequency and vibration, have taken on a life of their own in New Age spirituality. I just received an email the other day which said that “we can raise the frequency of consciousness on this planet,” and “attune to higher level of consciousness,” and “focus our energies in a whole that transcends the sum of its parts.”

That sounds nice, for but many people it is too woo-woo. Maybe I’ll trademark that—too-woo-woo™. It just doesn’t sound related to our everyday reality. Raising the frequency of consciousness? Attuning to higher levels? Focusing our energies? I usually try to avoid such language myself. It doesn’t seem grounded in any real-life experience.

But I do think that such language can be used as a symbolic analogy for many qualities of reality, our lived experience, and even consciousness itself, and I will try to explain that in this post without getting too far into the woo.

Ocean-Wave Analogy

One traditional analogy for reality that has often been used in Eastern spirituality is that of an ocean and wave. Here’s a couple quotes:

You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.

-Rumi

Enlightenment for a wave in the ocean is the moment the wave realizes it is water.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

The idea here is that our lives are like a wave in the ocean of being or reality. The ocean itself is flat stillness, but when moved by energy it rises up into waves. The wave is not something separate from the ocean, but is the ocean itself waving.

We rise up from the elements of the Earth in a similar way to how a wave rises up from the ocean. Both persist for a time, and then return. This is reflected in Genesis 3:19, where God tells Adam/Eve, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Humans are beings which have emerged from a deeper reality, they have a temporal life, and then they return to the source from which they came. The Hebrew adamah literally means “ground” or “earth.”

We tend to think of ourselves as independent separate beings, isolated from the rest of reality/nature/God, like the word “wave” is a separate word than “ocean.” But this is a kind of illusion of consciousness, perhaps a result of the dualistic subject-object awareness of the mind. When we transcend this dualism of the mind, we can actually become aware of the whole ocean of nondual consciousness, oneness, or at-one-ment, and we realize that that is our true Self, our true Name/Identity, our true essential nature. Our mortal life is like a wave in that ocean, rising up for a moment, expressing that ocean, giving shape to the surface, form to this energy, incarnating this deeper reality, and then eventually subsiding back into stillness.

Guitar String Analogy

A guitar string is similar to an ocean wave. Its most basic nature is as a string, which is still, motionless, soundless. It just is. But when that string is tight and plucked, energy is put into it, and it begins to wave, and that wave produces sound, and that sound can make music.

Our lives are like the vibration in the guitar string. Our ultimate identity is the string itself, the energy of the cosmos itself, but when that energy collapses into the elements of the Earth and cosmos, and energy from the sun is continually pumped into it, it eventually evolves into beings like us. We tend to think of ourselves as the sound and music, the vibration, but we forget that we are fundamentally the string, the elements, the energy of the cosmos as a whole.

Quantum Field Theory

Now we’re getting a bit smaller. Quantum Field Theory (QFT) is a theory in fundamental physics that considers what things are made of at the smallest scales. And when we go that small, what we find is a situation similar to the above analogies:

QFT treats particles as excited states (also called quanta) of their underlying fields, which are more fundamental than the particles.

-Wikipedia, “Quantum Field Theory”

The smallest particles of nature, particularly those subatomic particles, are perhaps not particles at all, at least not in their fundamental nature. They are considered to be excited states of underlying fields, fluctuations of the field itself (these fields perhaps all being part of a single unified field). For example, a photon is considered to be a fluctuation of an electromagnetic field. This is where we get the wave-particle duality, where these smallest things seem to exhibit the nature of both waves and particles, they are both spread out and oscillating, and also seeming to become discrete and localized, particularly as they are observed or measured.

Consciousness/Mind as a Field/Wave

I like to think of consciousness in a similar way as the above examples. It is a useful analogy, even if it is not perfect. Consciousness is perhaps our most fundamental being, and the Ultimate Reality of our existence. It is like the ocean, the string, the unified field. It is flat, still, motionless, soundless or silent, nothingness. It is empty, it is void, it is the ground of being. It is pure being. There is nothing there. It is dark. It is the essence, the rock, the foundation of life. There is not even a self there, no duality, no experience.

The mind, on the other hand, is like the wave, the vibration in the string, the fluctuation or excitation in the unified field. It is the light-energy moving through the essence, moving the essence itself. The contents of consciousness are not something separate from consciousness, but more like the modulation of consciousness, the activity of consciousness itself, just like the subatomic particles are excitations of the underlying field itself. The Light of consciousness is the energy that is moving consciousness itself.

In the mind there arises duality, subject-object relationships, perceptions, sensations, feelings, thoughts. These are all modulations of consciousness, moving consciousness, exciting it, vibrating it, the music of consciousness, producing waves in consciousness (which can be depicted even quite literally as EEG waveforms of electrical activity in the brain). This includes everything in our everyday experience of life.

EEG waves

A problem arises when we come to identify ourselves solely with the activity of mind, with the waves, the vibrations, and not the essence of which it is made, consciousness itself. We identify ourselves with the story in our mind, the experiences of our life, our perceptions of the body, the narrative of our life. We identify with the name that was given to us, where we grew up, the religion we took part in, the education that we received, the job we do. These all make up what we might call the ego, or the “separate self” identity of mind. This ego seems to begin to emerge early in our childhood, through the experiences of life in this particular body.

But all the activity of consciousness tends to veil consciousness itself, obscures it, hides it. We think we are the activity, but not the essence. We could think of this veil of ego like another field (P2) placed in parallel above the unified field (P1), hiding that deeper field underneath it. When waves of energy move through the unified field (P1), it can poke through the upper field of mind (P2) to manifest itself, express itself, becoming known, becoming thought. This could be considered the conscious part of our awareness, what usually comes into mind. Anything that pokes above the ego-field comes into conscious awareness. What’s below it could be considered the subconscious or unconscious. (This is similar to Freud’s conception of the mind like an iceberg, the conscious mind being like the part that pokes above the water’s surface).

Everything below the ego-field (P2) is completely hidden or veiled to those parts that poke above. Since we usually identify only with the contents of consciousness, the activity of consciousness, those parts that poke above and come into awareness, we become quite unaware of and forget the deeper unified nature of consciousness itself. We only see the disparate, differentiated, separated waves of consciousness that poke above the ego-field into conscious awareness, including the particular wave that we consider our “self.” Every wave seems separate, every thing and every being having its own independent dualistic existence, like islands in the sea. We forget that the Earth is a unified whole under the water’s surface, and the islands are not really separate clods of earth, they just appear that way above the water’s surface.

This, I perceive, is the existential rift that spirituality tries to help us see through and heal, and which spiritual practices such a meditation actually train us to transcend. Contemplative practices work to dissolve or make transparent that ego-field, turning it into a “sea of glass.” When the activity of consciousness subsides back into pure consciousness itself, like waves subsiding back into the ocean, those portions poking above into the mind’s awareness cease to have existence. The mind becomes empty, even of the perception of one’s ego-self identity. The veil of the ego-mind itself eventually falls away, and consciousness recognizes itself again as the unified field, this nondual oneness, the One, the ground of being, the undivided essence and whole of Reality, the Divine.

Summary

Consciousness seems like the unified field of Reality, while every body-mind and object is the differentiated expressions or modulations of that same field. The mind tends to hide or veil the unified field as long as there is activity in it, waves roaring and crashing all around, poking above the ego-field into our mind’s awareness, drawing our attention, and even forming our ego-identity. But when those waves come to stillness, when the mind is emptied of perceptions, then consciousness simply comes to rest in itself, back in the unified field, and there comes to know itself in its absolute purity. This, I suggest, is the essence of awakening.

Does this help you envision what the differences of mind and consciousness may be, the difference between the ego-self and the true Self? Please share your thoughts.


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