Madre de Dios, Peru, 2017, photo by Andrew Frawley

The Curse of Consciousness: Why Peak Human Pleasure Exists in the Absence of Thought

Consciousness has long been touted as the human advantage. While consciousness surely grants us the ability to learn the laws of the physical world and manipulate it to our needs and demands, if one stops to think, they will quickly realize the baggage that consciousness has brought along for the ride.

Consciousness has granted humans the awareness to solve problems, think abstractly, and to even realize our place in the universe (however microscopic that may be). However, it’s also given us a stunningly inflated sense of entitlement that we use to justify our destroying the planet and slaughtering of everything living in the name of our own comfort and pleasure.

Think about it; we’ve shredded (and continue to shred) every plant that has a use for us. We enslave animals. We breed and slaughter them for food. We kill them for fun. We destroy mountains and burn forests for our houses. And if we found a way, we’d be doing the same thing to every other planet in the universe.

So yes, consciousness has surely made us feel special. And we can do lots of cool things that other animals cannot. But, this essay isn’t even about the entitlement and destruction that comes from consciousness, it is instead an investigation into the world of internal chaos that it has catalyzed.

In other words, I believe consciousness is a sickness our body is trying to reject. It is a late stage development in evolution that our 2-million-year-old primate body actively works to push away and hide from during our entire existence.

If you’re skeptical, it’s an easy sell. If you connect the dots on the many different things humans love to do you’ll quickly realize the one thing they all have in common is that they make us stop thinking.

That’s right. We spend our lives being drawn to activities that help us avoid our consciousness and to not think.

Let me elaborate.

If I asked someone what their absolute favorite activities were, what would they say?

The majority of folks would list off painting, running, eating, reading, watching movies, drinking, smoking weed, watching sports, having sex, or some other equally engaging activity.

And if I asked someone what the perfect career would be like, what would they say?

While the specifics of the job may vary (income, location etc.), the foundation is inarguable. The average person would describe their dream job as engaging, something they love, something they could do all day without noticing the time has passed.

If you review all of the above scenarios of both work and play it’s clear that in all of them the person is fully immersed, lost in the moment, out of their head, and focused on their exploding senses. Even while reading, a brain stimulating activity, one will get so immersed that they just leave their conscious mind completely. And I argue, that’s exactly what why we like any of these things.

Think about all of your favorite activities. You leave your head. The best runs we go into a euphoric auto-pilot, the best days painting we just create without a second thought, the best sex we go full animal.

For years, I spent every night reflecting on the events of that day to help catalog what I really enjoyed the most about that day. I wanted to use this to build a really fun career and life by doing more of the activities I enjoyed. From my reflections, I began to believe my thing was people because I’d get so lost in good conversation. During a good conversation, I’d lose time, and be immensely present.

As I grew older, I tried new things and began to build a diverse portfolio of hobbies. I thought about my hobbies a lot. I thought I was weird for liking so many things. I’m not even a bubbly weirdo spouting love and energy, I just find many things to be pleasant.

That’s when I noticed all of my favorite activities had a similar thread: they were just things I found myself deeply immersed into. And that’s the whole point. Immersion is out of the head.

I began to look at others and how they spent their time and it was very similar to my activities. It became clear: what we truly desire as people is to be immensely present. And the reason we love being present is because we want to escape consciousness.

If you read between the lines, that’s all anyone is ever trying to do.

And I am sure you’ve already asked yourself, what about thinking, Andrew, that’s fun and isn’t that completely embracing consciousness, making you very wrong and silly?

The thing is, I see the act of thinking abstractly about a problem as an activity no different than what you do at work. Immersing yourself into your thoughts on a problem in your head is no different than immersing yourself into a math problem on paper. Both equally remove the self from consciousness.

The important note here is that consciousness and thinking are very different. I have to think to write this sentence, but talking to myself and becoming aware of myself in relation to other items is consciousness.

In other words, thinking about how to rob a bank is complex and fun. Consciousness is wondering why you (self) don’t fit in at school (self in relation to a thing).

Lastly, even when consciousness seems to be doing good via some wholesome self-discovery (i.e. the ego), I argue it ends up ravaging the self and bringing on unnecessary pain. Truth seekers know this best (more on this later).

Regardless of the above, even if you like ‘thinking’, the sad truth is that I’d even argue the majority of people do not enjoy it and are unashamedly on a quest to do less of it. Surely every data set has outliers. And unfortunately, in this data set, those outliers are the likes of you and me, the people who like to think.

The average human, though, trudges through their day racing to get home, sit on a couch, drink beer, have media videos pounded into their head, eat, masturbate, then sleep. All activities that let you leave your mind and immerse externally.

And even for us thinkers, we push ourselves to be present and out of our mind.

Western worlds, having run the gauntlet of industrialization, are just trying to get away now. Millennials are wildly active in pursuit of their ‘purpose’ (aka something so fun they get out of their head) and the entire populace has taken the world of yoga, meditation and mindfulness main-stream.

To further extend this point, a yoga teacher in a class of mine once told everyone to ‘be present with the lightness of a dog lost in a field smelling flowers.’ Envying the animal for its lack of consciousness. Praising animals for this ability to be present is not new.

Dogs are the world’s favorite pet simply for that. The unconditional love and lack of grudge holding make them the envy of our species. We sit in awe (and aw) at their seemingly infinite pool of present moment joy. With any animal, we tend to believe the cause of their present moment loving is that they aren’t conscious and they don’t over think the world around them. And we are pretty jealous.

I find it a funny coincidence that the species that feels entitled and special for their high executive functioning admires other creatures for their lack of it.

Does this not start to paint a picture that our biology is just working our life and existence wishing to bring us back to where we were 70,000 years ago when consciousness arose?

Let’s not forget how evolution works. A random mutation in the genome happens, that mutation sometimes gives a creature an advantage to survive. Because of that, it survives and reproduces. That’s it. Nothing within evolution accounts for the quality of life of that creature. Consciousness was a mutation that helped us realize we can make fire and use words. That made us great at not dying. That’s why we have it. I think a lot of us forget how possible it is to have a feature on our body that developed for survival and exists with literally zero consideration for how much we smile.

Yes, very fun stuff, I know. Let’s continue to explore our human obsession with being present. Starting with Buddhism.

The philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism are older than any other stream of thought at nearly 3,500 years old (yes, Buddha is older than ‘Jesus’). They are humanity’s longest living pattern of thought, meaning we like it so much we keep telling our kids about it, and coincidentally it’s all founded on not thinking at all.

Up until now, most of what I have covered is how our mind actively tries to escape itself but it doesn’t really paint the picture of consciousness as a curse. From what I have shared, consciousness sounds more like a neutral agent that exists in our life.

But, unfortunately, that’s not the whole story.

Part of the challenges associated with consciousness is that we can think, and think, and overthink. Our conscious mind allows us to create egos, identities, self-worth, and then compare that to objects around us such as people, buildings, oceans etc. Sometimes these things are great for the individual such as when we are blindly full of ourselves feeling good, naïve like kids missing the point, or standing in a place of clarity seeing the truth.

The other times, though, these developments from the conscious mind are pretty painful. A good example of this would just be a kid in high school trying to fit in or someone who thinks they are really smart, then fails a test. Their identities are crushed and painful sadness ensues. Thanks, conscious mind!

While we might not have hard data on it, it’s no secret that the average human spends lots of their life insecure, sad or depressed. Need evidence? Just look at art. Inarguably, art is an extension of the mind. It requires deep intensity and emotion to create it, just like this article. What is created by our hands in the physical world, exists first in the non-tangible world of the conscious mind. While some art is happy, lots of it is built on sadness. It’s great art but I am just making a point.

This is how we begin to not just illustrate consciousness as a neutral agent, but instead as the active antagonist to our existence.

For example, I have always found it ironic that the conscious mind creates the ego of the self, then it is also the conscious mind that curiously investigates science, ultimately crushing that ego and bringing the self back down to irrelevancy.

That doesn’t sound so bad, except for the fact that crushing your ego usually carries with it an existential crisis full of confusion and meaninglessness. Yes, indeed, losing your identity is hard. I find this all ironic because if the conscious mind had never created the ego in the first place then we wouldn’t have had to ‘seek the truth’ and experience the pain of tearing it down. This is what I mean when I say truth-seekers, who love thinking, experience intense unnecessary pain for their ‘love’ of thinking.

Is it worth it just to gain the knowledge that we are irrelevant? We are really prided that we know humanity’s physical size and relation to the universe. But really, most people go through pain to get there and what’s the point? Does a dog need to know ‘the truth’ of the universe to live a quality life? Not really. I am just as much of a truth-seeker as the next guy, but I have to admit, our species has an unhealthy obsession with collecting knowledge for really no real reason.

I suppose it just points us to the philosophical question, ‘what makes life worth living?’ … be it truth or flourishing? Does truth enhance flourishing?

Discuss this with yourself and write me back. Moving on.

Relating back to the point of science losing identity and ego, I think, this experience is actually the best of the troubles brought on by consciousness. It sounds painful, but consciousness brings on much worse.

For example, many others simply overthink reality and kill themselves. If we are to tout consciousness as man’s greatest asset, we’ll need to find a good way to explain and offset the conscious minds ability to make itself so miserable that wants to blow itself to pieces.

And let’s again consider the mind of a truth-seeker as they begin to ‘seek truth’ and question reality. The truth seeker reads books about science, history, and technology. They start to realize the world is a giant ball of math. They begin to see overlaps between genetics and computer science. They question life as a simulation. They realize free will is a fallacy. They realize religion is fake. Neuroscience helps them realize everything they experience is electricity. Obviously, I’ve been there. But if you Google around, this is pretty common and pushes most people into a bleak view of reality and many others to Nihilism. If I could quote from the movie Jackie, “There comes a point on man’s search for meaning where he realizes there are no answers and he either accepts it or kills himself.”

And all of this is capable because of our friend consciousness. I am happy I’ve learned the basics of science and predict benefits to come from it, but even still, that’s a lot of hell and for what outcome? Truth?

All of that truth-seeking sounds like a really painful set of lessons that are all rooted in discovering the truth. But what good, really, is the truth? There’s only debatable application here if you ask me. The argument is basically that the truth reduces suffering in the long term. Learning science etc. helps someone be calm about a human’s place in the world. Or conversely, the truth helps us find cures for physical pain like cancer.

That’s a really tough sell if you ask me, though. If consciousness helps us reduce suffering, I’d say we’d be in a much rosier spot if we never had it and were just as super present as a dog from the get-go. Even through the lens of reducing physical pains etc. it really only puts us in a philosophical debate about what is life and what’s the purpose of extending it?

In life, we die no matter what, so you can’t claim that science prevents the suffering of death and/or losing a family member. Living to 40 vs 80, you’re going to experience the pain of your parents death eventually. So really, all the truth does now is delay the same suffering we will all eventually face.

I agree, though, if there was ever any motivation to life, it would seem that to reduce suffering is a good goal. But that just brings me back to my point, does consciousness really reduce suffering? Or does it increase suffering?

From the way I look at it, we suffer a lot in the name of acquiring knowledge. But what does that knowledge do for us? To offset the suffering we endured to acquire that knowledge, it’s going to have to really take life up several notches on the quality scale, something that I simply can’t admit it does.

And that’s the story of consciousness.

Perhaps it really is a curse or a sickness that developed in us 70,000 years ago. While we are the best at survival, clearly an evolutionary win, we live aware of the vastness of existence, but with no real answers — beautiful and torturous at the same time.

It all depends on what barometer you are measuring consciousness up against. If you measure it against truth and knowledge, consciousness is a grace and miracle. But if you measure consciousness up against quality of life, that’s a more challenging argument.

It makes me think of an old cartoon where an image is shown of humans full of ego and self-worth pushing themselves with great stress to fulfill a modern world of an ideal life. Meanwhile, in the second frame, a couple of dogs look on laughing at our naïveté for what really makes life worth living.