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Consciousness and Awareness – What’s the Difference?

September 5th, 2010 39 comments

If you are seeing this picture and understanding what it represents, then you are conscious. This is an indisputable fact. The knowledge of your own consciousness is the one and only fact of which you can be absolutely certain. Everything else that you might think that you know is an inference or assumption, and therefore cannot be known with certainty.

The definition of consciousness that Francis Lucille has often used is based on this fact, and may be stated thus:

Consciousness is whatever is reading these words right now, and understanding them.

This is an experiential definition, and it seems to be necessary to define it this way because consciousness is not a “thing” or object per se, and therefore cannot be defined in terms of other things. Our minds simply cannot grasp the nature of consciousness, because of its lack on tangibility. Hence it can only be pointed to. And yet, it is apparent that consciousness is what we are ourselves. Whenever we refer to “I”, it is this very same consciousness to which we refer. So in the scheme of things, it seems important that we understand it!

An interesting point to note is that, according to Lucille’s definition (and also as he has pointed out himself), there is no distinction between consciousness and awareness. The two words are treated synonymously, and are used interchangeably.

Those of you who have an interest in non-duality will likely also have come across Sri Maharaj Nisargadatta. (A famous book documenting some of his discourses, I Am That (PDF), is available as a free download.) Nisargadatta spoke extensively about consciousness, but he also referred to awareness and made a distinction between the two. The following quote from the book illustrates this especially well.

What you need is to be aware of being aware. Be aware deliberately and consciously, broaden and deepen the field of awareness. You are always conscious of the mind, but you are not aware of yourself as being conscious.

But what exactly is the distinction here? This caused me some confusion, and apparently it has confused others too. The easy way out here might be to remember that we are talking about the intangible, and just paper over the cracks by suggesting that it’s not surprising that there would seem to be inconsistencies between intangible things when we try to conceptualise them. But in fact on further investigation there my be some rationality in the distinction after all. These further quotes from Nisargadatta may make things a little clearer.

The mind produces thoughts ceaselessly, even when you do not look at them. When you know what is going on in your mind, you call it consciousness. This is your waking state — your consciousness shifts from sensation to sensation, from perception to perception, from idea to idea, in endless succession. Then comes awareness, the direct insight into the whole of consciousness, the totality of the mind. The mind is like a river, flowing ceaselessly in the bed of the body; you identify yourself for a moment with some particular ripple and call it: ‘my thought’. All you are conscious of is your mind; awareness is the cognisance of consciousness as a whole.

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.

So the distinction that Nisargadatta is making appears to be between a mental/bodily consciousness (ie. our thoughts and sensory inputs) versus a broader awareness which extends beyond mentations and sensations. And this does appear to have a parallel with Lucille’s description of perception versus apperception (mentioned, for example, here).

“Perception” refers to the experience of an object (phenomenon, that which appears, thought, body sensation or external sense perception), whereas “apperception” refers to the experience of the subject (noumenon, that to which that which appears appears). The human mind is the experience of perceptions, but apperception takes place beyond the mind. (Extract from Francis Answers No 27)

Therefore I propose the following simple explanation of the distinction between consciousness and awareness.

  • Nisargadatta’s “Consciousness” = Lucille’s mentations and perceptions (particular to a body/mind)
  • Nisargadatta’s “Awareness” = Lucille’s consciousness (both perceptions and apperceptions, both particular to a body/mind and universal)

Having sorted out that little conundrum to the (hopefully not overly smug) satisfaction of my own mind, the next question is what an apperception is, and how on earth we can be aware of something that is not within our own mind or body?

Ah the joys of non-dual investigation!