There have been two parallel tracks of inquiry and discovery in the history of humankind.
The first is that of what we perceive to be the external world: the world of space and time; the world, literally, of our environment and humble beginnings. Such explorations have been undertaken by both explorers and scientists who have defied conventional wisdom and who continually seek to expand knowledge. I will leave the history of such explorations and the naming of those explorers to the history and science books. However, today, with our telescopes and microscopes, with our spaceships and space probes, with our laboratories and computer simulations, we have learned so much about our biological DNA, the earth and all its life, and the universe in fields that include molecular biology and genetics to astrophysics and astrobiology to cosmology and quantum physics. In just a few short millennia, humankind has moved from living in caves or on the savannah to sending space probes beyond the boundaries of our solar system. However, no one would disagree that there is likely so much more to learn and to discover.
The second track of exploration and discovery is that of our own consciousness. The type of exploration has its own long history and has roots in all the mystical traditions of the world’s religions and various cultures. This exploration has been less visible, less acknowledged, and less influential, at least on a mass scale. And contrary to the first track, what continually is discovered is the same, whether that ‘discovery’ occurred 2500 or 2000 years ago or today.
It is the exploration of our own consciousness that, to me, is the final and perhaps only frontier of human inquiry, with the irony that there is nothing to explore and nothing to find. Such exploration is not grand nor grandiose by any means. It will never make the front page of our newspapers or headlines of our internet media: “Masses of people wake up to their true nature!” Such exploration is a private matter; unobtrusive and unobserved by others, except perhaps those who also engage in such exploration and discuss it among themselves.
Indeed, whereas exploration of the world and universe requires concepts and schemas, thought and analysis, imagination and engineering, exploration of consciousness, although initially involving the mind, requires a letting go of concepts and a letting go of thought and analysis. Or perhaps simply, just letting go.
Moreover, and on the one hand, the exploration of the world requires differentiation and the labeling of objects, of me versus you, of subject and object, and of classification. It demands a separation of the observer and the observed and of objects from the space in which those objects appear. And in doing so, we parse out the particularities and granularities of a universe of a world that appears infinite in both directions, outward toward the edges of the universe and inward toward the edges of atomic structure, of quarks and strings, and of wave functions. And ultimately, for those intrepid explorers in the world of quantum physics, we have learned that what we call reality is actually empty! Nothing actually exists, nor cannot exist, without consciousness; without an observer. I believe it was Niels Bohr who once wrote that that observer and the observed co-arise in a mutually creative fashion.
However, on the other hand, the exploration of consciousness requires exactly the opposite: a dropping of ideas and conceptualizations, a dropping of self and other; a dropping of subject and object. And in this exploration, it is eventually seen that all sensations, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts are themselves empty!
Spiritual inquiry is the process by which such inner exploration occurs, whereas scientific inquiry is the process by which external exploration occurs.
Ironically, what is eventually seen by both those who explore the boundaries of the universe both macro and micro and those who explore the boundaries of the mind and consciousness is that there is no separation at all between both realms. One does not and cannot exist without the other!
Ultimately, those who have engaged in internal inquiry come to see for themselves that the universe and consciousness, subject and object, co-arise as well. And that what is prior to both subject and object, prior to thoughts, etc. is emptiness. No thing. Void of substance; of characteristics; void of description or understanding.
It is the foundation, the strata, the substrate—a substrate of nothingness—upon which both the universe and consciousness arise. It is the final frontier of exploration. But one that can never be known. For how can the eye of consciousness see itself? (Spoiler alert: although witnessing consciousness cannot see its own source, everywhere it looks, there it is!)
In many spiritual circles, teachers talk about the sense of being; the sense of being alive. When one’s internal eye attempts to look for itself: when attention directs attention toward attention, the only thing it can see is its reflection, which is, after all nothing more than itself.
This is similar to what astronomers have observed when exploring the edges or beginning of the universe. The deeper telescopes look, the further back in time they see. At some point, the only thing our telescopes have been able to observe is the background microwave radiation left over from the big bang. Astronomers have pegged that radiation at about 300,000 years after the big bang. Nothing can be seen before that.
Likewise, with internal exploration. As the mind quiets down and thoughts subside, the last ‘thing’ that can possibly observed is the first “I thought”, the first movement of mind, the dawn or awakening of witnessing consciousness itself.
However, as I’ve already stated, witnessing consciousness cannot see itself. Like the witnessing consciousness that peers through telescopes looking for the origin of the universe and cannot see beyond the first emanations of light, so too witnessing consciousness cannot see its own source. And both cases, witnessing consciousness cannot see its own birth, the emptiness from which both arise and from which both are interdependent. But again, to be repetitive, everywhere it looks, there it is!
Ironically, without mind, without witnessing consciousness, neither the universe nor consciousness can be explored. Ultimately, however, to understand what exists prior to both the universe and of consciousness, both the universe and consciousness must disappear. And when that happens, that which is the universe and that which is witnessing consciousness disappear: they are then realized to be two apparent manifestations of just one absolute basis of reality, which is none other than what the universe/consciousness really is: emptiness, which is itself everything!
In Buddhism, it is said that form IS emptiness and emptiness IS form. This is not a teaching device. It is the truth. Perceptions of the world and awareness of those perceptions are the same thing. One cannot exist without the other; and both co-arise together. But from where? From what? The answer to the question cannot be known; only inferred; but whatever this no-thing is; whatever this nothingness is; whatever this Void is, is You.