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Consciousness, Awareness and Attention


Are consciousness, awareness and attention the same thing?

First, it’s important to note that these are all words. There is really no such “thing” as consciousness or awareness or attention. These words are used to point out different aspects of the seamless living reality that has no actual boundaries or limits. And these three words all get used in different ways by different teachers, and even by the same person in different moments, and this can lead to much confusion. We may be talking about the same thing using different words, or we may be seeing things differently. It’s always helpful to clarify how terms are being used if it’s not obvious, and it’s also important not to cling to any particular usage or way of expressing deep insights because then we become closed and rigid and unable to listen to anyone who expresses the same essential insights differently. What follows is how I am using these words right now, but I may have used them differently in another moment, and I might use them differently tomorrow. What matters isn't the words or the particular map that I am presenting here, but rather, waking up to the living reality itself.

I would say that consciousness is the common factor in every experience—the undeniable knowingness of being here now, the bare sense of presence. We don’t need to look in a mirror or read it in a book or have someone else tell us—we know beyond the slightest doubt that we (as this aware presence) are here.

Consciousness is also the dividing up of unicity into apparent multiplicity, the dream-like creation of apparently substantial forms out of what is actually formless energy. Consciousness is the world of duality and apparent separation, including most basically the thought-sense of subject and object, self and not-self. Consciousness is also the appearance of time and space in what is actually the timeless, dimensionless, placeless, ever-present, utterly immediate here-now. Without the appearance of time and space, and without the appearance of duality, nothing could be perceived or experienced. Consciousness draws boundary-lines around “things” and reifies or freezes what is actually thorough-going flux into apparently substantial, separate, persisting entities: chairs, tables, nations, planets, atoms, molecules, people, emotions, historical events, life situations, presidents, and so on. It tells stories about cause and effect, success and failure, gain and loss. In short, consciousness is what I call the movie of waking life or present experiencing. It includes sensing, perceiving, thinking, conceptualizing, remembering and imagining. Its creations are not unlike the dreams that come during sleep.

Awareness is upstream from consciousness. While consciousness divides unicity up into apparent multiplicity and duality, awareness is nondual. It is unicity, boundless wholeness, seamlessness. Awareness has no beginning, no end, no inside, no outside, no opposite. It is the ever-present here-now—timeless, immediate, infinite and eternal. It is intelligence itself, that which is aware of thinking, that which sees thoughts as thoughts, that which recognizes the false as false, that which is conscious of being conscious.

Awareness is not separate from the movie of waking life, but it is not entangled in the movie or trapped in the drama. Consciousness, on the other hand, gets easily mesmerized and hypnotized by its own creations, sucked into its own imaginary dramas, identified with the characters it has created, lost in the stories it is spinning. Awareness is that which beholds the play of consciousness without being caught by it. Awareness sees the thoughts as thoughts, it sees the drama and recognizes it as a passing show. Awareness is the light behind attention that illuminates and dissolves all imaginary problems and false identities. Awareness is that which is aware of sensing, aware of perceiving, aware of thinking, aware even that consciousness is disappearing as we go under anesthesia or fall asleep. Awareness is like the movie screen or the mirror in which all the movies and reflections come and go.  Awareness could be described as the unconditional love that allows everything to be as it is.

Here is how Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it: “Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginning-less, 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.”

Attention is the capacity for focusing the light of awareness on particular objects (sights, sounds, sensations, ideas, memories, body parts, and so on). We can give attention to our breathing, or to the felt-sense of presence, or to the tingling in our feet, or to the clouds in the sky, or to the birdsong, or the traffic sounds, or the pain in our tooth. Attention moves from place to place, while never leaving here-now. Attention can be narrowly focused or very open and global. Awakening is often spoken of as a shift in attention and identity from person to presence, from encapsulation and separation to boundlessness. But attention is always moving, and like a zoom lens, it can be zoomed in or out, onto the personal or the impersonal, the limited or the boundless. No one controls this zooming in and out. And so, more profoundly, being awake is the absence of needing the lens in any particular place, or trying to always be zoomed out, identified as awareness and not as a person. Awareness beholds and allows it all. It is everything. Nothing is excluded! Nonduality includes (and transcends) duality, but it is not against duality. Without apparent duality, nothing could appear at all.

And remember—and this is critical, there is no such “thing” as awareness or consciousness or attention. These are words, labels, conceptual abstractions that we use to point out certain aspects of the (actually undivided, seamless) living reality. What such words point to is not a concept, but once we start talking about this living reality and using words, it’s important not to mistake the pointers (the words or the maps) for the territory and the different aspects of the territory that they help us to notice. There is no actual boundary between consciousness and awareness, or between self and not-self, or between inside and outside. No such “things” actually exist.

Everyone sees a completely unique movie of waking life. In the movie, aware presence gets conflated with an object that appears in the movie. We believe we are a character in a story. We lose sight of the awareness that is beholding the whole show and the undivided seeing-listening-being that has no boundaries or limits. We identify as a fragment in an apparently fragmented world. We think "the world" is actually an objective, observer-independent reality that is "out there" somewhere, outside of consciousness, and we believe we were born into it and that one day we will die.

But the apparently separate self, if investigated closely, is simply ever-changing thoughts, sensations, memories, mental images and stories appearing in consciousness. It cannot actually be found as any kind of substantial or persisting entity.

If you try to grab hold of a thought, you can’t! It is a burst of energy, gone in an instant. You can have a memory of it, but the original thought has vanished. “The body” is actually ever-changing, thorough-going flux, inseparable from the so-called "environment" around it. You cannot find any place or moment in time where this body began or where it ends. You can think that it began at conception or at birth, but where did the sperm and egg begin? In nature, everything is recycled—dead bodies become fertilizer for the soil and food for other life forms, and everything is made up of everything it is not. The body could not exist without air, sunlight, water, parents, grandparents, food and everything that makes the food possible—in short, without the whole universe being as it is, the body would not be here.

Are you limited to the body , encapsulated inside of it looking out? We’ve learned to believe that this is true, and we believe it so strongly that it actually seems like our experience. We mistake the map for the territory without realizing it. But if you look at your actual direct experience, isn't it equally true that the body is appearing in you, boundless awareness? Many spiritual teachings land on the idea that we are exclusively boundless awareness and not the body, just as scientific materialists tend to land on the opposite idea that we are only the body and that consciousness is a brain activity. In reality, we don't know exactly how the brain figures in all of this, or for that matter, what the brain even is! Go closely into the so-called "brain" and it, too, dissolves into an indeterminate subatomic dance that is mostly empty space. Scientific and metaphysical ideas are both super-imposed on life itself by thought. Maybe we don't need to land on either side of these conceptual divides. Maybe we can live in the groundlessness of not knowing.

If you look closely, you won’t find an actual boundary between inside and outside of you, or between self and not-self, or between awareness and the content of awareness. You can have an experience of boundlessness or a recognition of the ever-present here-now, but the sense of being an individual person will still show up. It may disappear for awhile in certain meditative states or in many ordinary moments when there is no thought of "me," or in certain drug experiences, but it will come back. We cannot deny the body and the person, but at the same time, we cannot deny spacious, open, boundless awareness.

Liberation is the seeing through and falling away of imaginary problems (flat-earth problems, based on a false understanding of how reality is). Liberation is a relaxing of the grasping mind, a letting go of beliefs, an opening into groundlessness, and above all, simply being what you always already are and cannot not be: Here-Now, open, free, aware presence, being and beholding present experiencing, exactly as it is. If you’re looking for this awakeness, you are believing the thought that "this isn't it," and that "you" exist apart from this undivided unicity and somehow need to "get it," and that "it" is some thing or some particular experience other than the present experience, which has already vanished as quickly as it arrived. Reality is no thing and no way in particular. It is all-inclusive. It's right here showing up as the taste of tea, the sound of traffic, the knowingness of being present and aware—just this! Don’t be confused or mystified by words and ideas. Simply be what you cannot not be, what is here before all the explanations and formulations, and what remains even in deep sleep and when the whole universe is destroyed. And if you're looking for that, relax! You are that! We overlook the utter simplicity of this by trying to get into some special state of presence, or trying to have some flashy enlightenment experience, or trying to get rid of the self, or trying to identify as boundless awareness and not as a body or person. All of that is unnecesaary complexity and effort, leading only to delusion. Just be Here-Now—hearing the traffic, smelling the coffee, breathing, thinking, sensing, awaring—simple, simple, simple. And we don't need to call it anything. All the words can fall away. They serve their purpose, and then, let them go.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017 --

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