What is Consciousness? Find out in the Documentary AWARE
The traditions of Yoga advocate for a deep inner contemplation of the nature of awareness. The documentary film AWARE: Glimpses of Consciousness is about that very exploration as told by six main characters: a brain researcher, a plant biologist, a Mayan healer, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, a philosopher, and a researcher in psychedelic experience at Johns Hopkins. Each has a different way of approaching this exploration, and the filmmakers allow each participant to speak for themselves. They do not take a didactic position but rather they address questions throughout the film such as What is consciousness? Who or what has it? How is it experienced and known? And, how can we even understand or define it, given that it appears to be so subjective?
Many religious and philosophical traditions, as well as the field of science, have attempted to explore and explain consciousness—but few filmmakers have attempted to tackle this topic. It is quite a task to create a film to represent something as ineffable as awareness, and yet the filmmakers, Eric Black and Frauke Sandig, managed to create a work of art that is highly compelling. The pacing of the film itself evokes in us a meditative awareness that draws us deeply in as we go on a visually stunning journey into the topic, where dialogue is interspersed with scenes of nature in which we can rest. The unhurried presentation allows us to relax and be immersed in the experience, respecting the audience’s ability to actually have an attention span. The cinematography is stunning, offering us abundant images and sounds of nature that evoke both peace and awe, accompanied by a rich and varied soundtrack that contributes to the contemplative mood.
Questioning our Assumptions
One of the appealing things about the documentary AWARE is that we are not asked to accept any one particular point of view, rather we are invited to listen, ponder, and perhaps question our own assumptions and beliefs about the world. During each interview, we get up close and personal with the characters, who each speak about consciousness from years of dedication with genuine humility. We can see and feel their tremendous sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity for their chosen field of study.
Experts Featured in the Documentary AWARE
The interviews start with Christof Koch, president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Koch begins by telling us about a transformative psychedelic experience he had years ago, which in part fuels his research into how the brain produces subjective feelings. He states that his own personal goal “is to understand how consciousness fits into the universe, how it fits in with the laws of physics and biology that have been so successful in describing everything else.” And yet, he questions how this “grey goo” (the brain) produces feelings of love, for example, and suggests that consciousness might actually be a fundamental feature of the universe.
Moving to Nepal, we are introduced to Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who formerly worked in science, who tells us that he is engaged similarly in the “rigorous pursuit of knowledge” through studying consciousness from the inside, where, he says, we can discover through meditation a “self-illuminating nondual awareness, maximal clarity, a limpidity of the mind.” We see Ricard spinning the dharma wheels in the streets of Kathmandu, chanting with other Tibetan monks, meditating on the beach, and in a playful dialogue with his teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche.
Next we meet plant scientist Monica Gagliano, a researcher at Southern Cross University in Australia in the relatively new field of bioacoustics. At one point, filmed wandering through a forest, she says that under the ground the trees are connected and communicate with each other. She explains that trees and plants detect sounds from their environment and produce their own sounds. For her, plant behavior points to the question whether of plants are sentient and conscious, her experiments suggesting subjectivity and learning in plants.
We next meet Josefa Kirvin Kulix, a Mayan healer and therapist from Chiapas, Mexico. As we watch her gathering the medical plants that she grows herself and uses in her practice, she describes an indigenous viewpoint in which the individual is an integral part of the natural world, not separate from it. She speaks with a stillness and warmth that is affecting and calming, as she describes her connection with plants, animals, and rocks: “I am woven of the same substance.”
Roland R. Griffiths, interviewed in his laboratory at Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, is one of the pioneers in psilocybin research. He reports on the experiences of participants with carefully measured doses and skilled guides. He says that in his research, he’s noticed that “these experiences looked like the experiences that have been reported over the ages by mystics and religious figures. There’s a sense of unity of all people and things, a sense that everything is interconnected, and it’s accompanied by a deep reverence for that experience.” He describes how psilocybin and meditation have some neurological similarities in what’s observed in the brain. For example, they both decrease the default mode network (mind-wandering) and increase interconnectivity of other parts of the brain, leading to an open-mindedness and freedom from habitual responses, which, he says, “has huge implications for healing.”
We also hear an intimate report from Loyola philosophy professor Richard Boothby about his life-changing psychedelic experience as part of a research study. He describes very movingly his sense of connection to his son, who had died by suicide, in a way that was profoundly healing for him.
Recognizing our Interdependence
We walk away with from this journey feeling inspired and perhaps a little humbled. Despite their different approaches, each of the individuals featured in the documentary AWARE seems to be pointing to an expansive, timeless experience that we might call our essential nature, in which we recognize ourselves to be interconnected with all of life. In this distracted and challenging world, the pursuit of heightened awareness of our interdependence is perhaps more important than ever. The willingness to address the challenges that are facing humanity today requires us as a species to reflect upon these questions and perhaps to realize that we’re truly all in this together.
November 10: A Day of Consciousness
Kelly Birch, MS, LPC, has been a contemplative practitioner for many years, studying and practicing in the yoga and Buddhist traditions. She is currently a licensed professional counselor in private practice, an IAYT-certified yoga therapist, and a mindfulness teacher. Kelly co-edited a contributed book, Yoga and Mental Health (Handspring, 2018); was editor of Yoga Therapy Today from 2010 to 2017; and was founding editor of the Journal of Yoga Service. She teaches online undergraduate classes at Endicott College, MA, including Health Psychology and Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice.??With a BA in biology, Kelly worked in scientific research in the San Francisco Bay Area for several years, including molecular epidemiology and biotech lab research. Kelly now lives and works in Ashland, Oregon.
With a BA in biology, Kelly worked in scientific research in the San Francisco Bay Area for several years, including molecular epidemiology and biotech lab research. Kelly now lives and works in Ashland, Oregon.