“Consciousness does not shine by itself. It shines by a light beyond it. The mind must learn that beyond the moving mind there is a background of awareness which does not change. The mind must come to know the true self and respect it and cease covering it up, like the moon which obscures the sun during a solar eclipse.”
The Buddha made an eminently astute observation when he noted that what we are is the result of our thinking: “As ye think, so shall you be.” Indeed, it is consciousness — the power of thought-energy – which creates everything we take to be reality. Consciousness utilizes and inhabits form to express itself, and form in this sense also includes our bodies. Consequently, taking responsibility for our thoughts is a necessary step in our being able to function effectively in this realm.
One perennial obstacle in the consideration of consciousness, however, is that the terms “consciousness” and “awareness” are often used interchangeably, resulting in a lot of ensuing confusion and misunderstanding. Many a heated debate could be avoided if the two terms were used appropriately. Essentially, consciousness can be regarded as mind with objects, whereas awareness refers to mind without objects.
In our felt experience — given that everything which we can think, feel, or know is constantly changing, appearing and disappearing — clinging to and fixating on consciousness invariably creates a sense of dis-satisfaction, or stress. The ceaseless cycle of craving and aversion that characterizes the usual human activity consists of alternately grasping at objects of attention, or running away from them, and it is this very pattern which generates the conflicted experience of “me and mine”.
In various Buddhist texts, consciousness is designated as the fifth skandha, or aggregate. The five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) together create the illusion of individual and independent personhood. Conversely, the recognition of their inherent emptiness is an indication of the dawn of awakening. Consequently, Buddha is often quoted in the literature depicting consciousness as stressful, transient, and not-self, in order to liberate the seeker from attachment to it. To illustrate, here is a bit of dialogue from the Anattalakkhana Sutta:
“How do you construe thus, monks — Is consciousness constant or inconstant?”
“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”
“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”
“Thus, monks, any consciousness whatsoever — past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness — is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’. Seeing thus, the instructed Noble disciple grows disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is released.”
The non-dual sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj has been even more blunt, calling consciousness a “fraud and hallucination”, “an itching rash”, and comparing it metaphorically to “being stung by a scorpion”. He recommends that the aspirant diligently strive to understand consciousness directly through meditative inquiry, getting to know it inside and out, until it is summarily recognized as “useless and imperfect”, and then transcended. In his seminal text, the spiritual classic “I Am That”, he clarifies the difference between consciousness and awareness:
Q: You use the words ‘aware’ and ‘conscious’. Are they not the same?
M: Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginningless, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change. Consciousness is on contact, a reflection against a surface, a state of duality. There can be no consciousness without awareness, but there can be awareness without consciousness, as in deep sleep. Awareness is absolute, consciousness is relative to its content; consciousness is always of something. Consciousness is partial and changeful, awareness is total, changeless, calm and silent. And it is the common matrix of every experience.
Q: How does one go beyond consciousness into awareness?
M: Since it is awareness that makes consciousness possible, there is awareness in every state of consciousness. Therefore the very consciousness of being conscious is already a movement in awareness. Interest in your stream of consciousness takes you to awareness. It is not a new state. It is at once recognised as the original, basic existence, which is life itself, and also love and joy.
Moreover, in response to the materialists who claim that consciousness arises in the brain, Nisargadatta teaches:
“I am not my body, nor do I need it. I am the witness only. I have no shape of my own. You are so accustomed to think of yourself as bodies having consciousness that you just cannot imagine consciousness as having bodies. Once you realize that bodily existence is but a state of mind, a movement in consciousness, that the ocean of consciousness is infinite and eternal, and that, when in touch with consciousness, you are the witness only, you will be able to withdraw beyond consciousness altogether.”
In this perspective, consciousness might be considered the relative nature of mind, since it is transitory and dependent on conditions, whereas awareness would be regarded as a reflection of the absolute nature of mind, since it is the unchanging background. Whatever is subject to change has no enduring reality. Since consciousness is always moving, it cannot comprehend the motionless, so it falls into silence. Just so, by dis-engaging from identification with the stream of thought objects, a space is created for awareness to shine forth unobstructed. This is the purpose of meditation, releasing attention from the passing neural parade by being aware of being aware. In this way, attention can penetrate the surface layers where it typically resides and fall back into its source – the silent and aware, transparent and spacious essence of mind’s true nature.
Ramana Maharshi put it this way: “You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is, of the not-self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains . . .”
Through repeated practice of detachment from “other things”, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases. Thus, the spiritual endeavor in its most fundamental form is a process of letting go, surrender. The sages are unanimous in their suggestion that we give up our obsessions with the past and future, our efforts at trying to force life into our idea of the way it should be, and simply relax into our natural state, which is peace.
In the beginning, there is effort involved, because the distracting power of our mental habits is strong, and the “monkey mind” will not willingly relinquish its throne, but with consistent practice, the effort becomes effortless, and a natural and relaxed spontaneity blossoms. We no longer need to mistake the body and its consciousness for who and what we are, because those errors in discernment and identification have been outshone by the clear recognition of our true nature — Awareness.
Despite the innumerable names that are tagged on to it,
Know that the real meaning is as follows:
Let your mind spontaneously relax and rest.
When left to itself, ordinary mind is fresh and naked.
If observed, it is a vivid clarity without anything to see,
A direct awareness, sharp and awake.
Possessing no existence, it is empty and pure,
A clear openness of nondual luminosity and emptiness.
It is not permanent, since it does not exist at all.
It is not nothingness, since it is vividly clear and awake.
It is not oneness, since many things are cognized and known.
It is not plurality, since the many things known are inseparable in one taste.
It is not somewhere else; it is your own awareness itself.
~Lama Shabkar, Tsogdruk Rangdrol