About 18 years ago I noticed to my astonishment that all my life I had been unconscious in a certain sense while I was in the waking state. Another way of saying that same thing is that I began to see what it means to really be conscious. The first sentence is negative and the second is positive but both describe the same experience, because you only realize that you have been unconscious by comparison when you reach a state of real consciousness.
Several years before that discovery, I had become convinced that everything is God and I had experienced states in which I loved everyone and everything. Some people might refer to those earlier experiences as a kind of enlightenment but only that later discovery, the discovery that I had been unconscious all my life, can be called waking up because that’s what waking up means: emerging from unconsciousness into consciousness. In the hoary but accurate metaphor we’ve inherited from the ancients, I began to move from darkness to light.
It was obvious to me at the time that this discovery, the discovery that I had always been unconscious, was the most important one that I had made so far on my spiritual journey. But something puzzled me. I had read many spiritual books, but none of them had prepared me for this discovery. Not a single one had told me, “Although you think you’re conscious, you’re not really, and part of enlightenment will be noticing that what you take for consciousness is really unconsciousness.”
In an attempt to explain to myself why the books said so little about this, I thought, “Well, I suppose this discovery is implied by the expression ‘waking up.’ Many books use that phrase. For example, Buddha said he was awake. If you wake up in this spiritual sense, you must be waking up from something, and that something must be the ordinary waking state in which everyone imagines that they are conscious but which, I have now discovered to my surprise, is really a state of relative unconsciousness.”
As far as it goes that explanation is probably true, but it didn’t really explain why books say so little on this topic, and I began poring through spiritual literature looking for plain explicit statements telling people, “You think you’re conscious but you’re not really, and you have to find a way to notice that fact.”
To help remedy this state of affairs, I wrote an article on this subject and put it on the Internet. That was the beginning of this website. For many years this site consisted of just that one article, which is still on the home page. In order to write that article I had to invent a name for that strange unconscious state that seems to be conscious, and I called it ‘being lost in thought.’ This name still seems like a good one to me because it points out the mechanism behind the phenomenon, which is that when we think, consciousness diminishes.
Eventually I found a few pieces of writing that describe the lost-in-thought state. I’ve mentioned them all here before. The best by far is by Pyotr Ouspensky. There are also a couple of articles by Susan Blackmore and a paragraph in one of Anadi’s early books.
For a long time that was all I found. Then one day I realized that the Sanskrit word pramada is a technical term in the yogic traditions that refers to the lost-in-thought state. Of course the ancient yogis had noticed what I had noticed, and of course they invented a name for it just as I had.
As an ordinary word pramada means accidental, negligent, forgetful, inadvertent, careless, neglectful of one’s duty, etc., but the old spiritual teachers turned the word into what lawyers call a term of art, a technical term, by giving it a very specific meaning. In spiritual books pramada is a particular kind of inadvertence, the kind that makes us forget to remain conscious. Pramada is what happens when we allow ourselves to slip into the lost-in-thought state.
This is why the Adhyatma Upanishad says, “pramada is death.” If pramada merely means forgetfulness or neglect of duty in a general way, it wouldn’t be death. But in this context pramada means that you forget to remain conscious and therefore you slip into unconsciousness, and unconsciousness really is a kind of death. In a certain sense you aren’t alive when you’re unconscious.
You’re alive and a rock is not. Why? In a certain sense it’s because you’re conscious and the rock isn’t. But if you’re not really conscious, then you’re not really alive either. That’s why, in a certain sense, pramada is death. I have to qualify that statement with ‘in a certain sense’ but nonetheless, in that sense, the statement is literally true. It’s more than a metaphor.
Pramada and ‘lost in thought’ are not exact synonyms because most people are lost in thought almost all the time, but only somebody who has noticed real consciousness can make an effort not to slip out of it, and therefore only a tiny minority of people can experience pramada. The lost-in-thought state is the ordinary state of most human beings, and pramada is what happens when people, after noticing that there is an alternative to that state, forget to stay out of it.
It’s impossible for anybody to understand the technical meaning of pramada in ancient spiritual teachings unless he or she has noticed that he or she is normally unconscious in the ordinary waking state. But most people, including most seekers and most translators, have not noticed this, and that’s why they cannot understand the real meaning of the word, and that’s why the word is usually translated in a way that misses the point. The Wikipedia page on pramada is an example. It’s not wrong, exactly, it just completely misses the point.
The reason I decided to write this article today is that I happened to run across a sentence by Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, that seems to refer to pramada. One of my long term plans is to write an article or maybe even a book about pramada, so I thought to myself, “I should make a note of this statement by Heraclitus so I can find it again.” I don’t have any special place to keep such notes so I decided to put it in a blog post so I can find it with Google. But blog posts are seen by other people, not just by me, so I have to explain in the post why I wrote it and what the quote means. That’s what I’ve done here, and you’ve been reading the results.
I’ve written about this topic many times before, but the fact that I’m repeating myself is a good thing, not a bad one, because seekers need to be reminded about pramada over and over.
Here’s what Heraclitus wrote first in Greek and then in English translation (DK B1). The last sentence (which I’ve put in italics) is the relevant one:
τοῦ δὲ λόγου τοῦδ ἐόντος ἀεὶ ἀξύνετοι γίνονται ἄνθρωποι καὶ πρόσθεν ἢ ἀκοῦσαι καὶ ἀκούσαντες τὸ πρῶτον· γινομένων γὰρ πάντων κατὰ τὸν λόγον τόνδε ἀπείροισιν ἐοίκασι πειρώμενοι καὶ ἐπέων καὶ ἔργων τοιούτων ὁκοίων ἐγὼ διηγεῦμαι κατὰ φύσιν διαιρέων ἕκαστον καὶ φράζων ὅκως ἔχει· τοὺς δὲ ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους λανθάνει ὁκόσα ἐγερθέντες ποιοῦσιν ὅκωσπερ ὁκόσα εὕδοντες ἐπιλανθάνονται
Though this Word [logos] is true evermore, yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance with this Word, men seem as if they had no experience of them, when they make trial of words and deeds such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its kind and showing how it is what it is. But other men know not what they are doing when awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep.