Recognizing the Significance of Consciousness

Nova Spivack
Waking Times

Consciousness is the most amazing of all things, but not everyone recognizes this fact. Fortunately, this can be changed.

For some people the experience of being conscious is so vivid that it is literally striking, almost shocking to them at times. It is clearly apparent to them that consciousness is a totally unique and mysterious phenomenon.

The startling reality of consciousness is undeniable and self-evident to people who recognize it vividly — they can see that they are conscious and they can see that consciousness is something really special — something formless, empty, unfathomable, and transcendental in nature. It transcends the body and the mind, it transcends the physical material world, it transcends thoughts and emotions. It is more fundamental than anything. It seems to be the ultimate fabric of reality itself.

When consciousness is directly recognized to this extent, it is obvious that it is not a process or a substance or anything material or reducible for that matter – and it takes place in a completely different dimension from everything else. It’s not mediated by one particular sense or even by the cognitive faculty that thinks thoughts. It is a necessary condition for all of the senses and the mind, but it’s not identical to any of them. It’s something else altogether.

A good analogy is that consciousness is like the light of a movie projector and all phenomena of the senses and the mind are images in the movie being projected by that light. This is how it actually seems to be when carefully analyzed.

Another analogy is that consciousness is like a dreamer, and all phenomena are like dream appearances within its dreams — but this analogy is imperfect because it ascribes a self or identity to consciousness where in fact there is none (any self or identity is merely a construct appearing within or to consciousness, not an attribute of consciousness itself. Actual consciousness has no self or identity).

  • When carefully examined it is found that consciousness is empty of entity or substance – it is not a “thing” that can be grasped, it is not something that can be said to be one or many, or that can be said to be a kind of universal mind. But there is something so transcendental about it one is tempted to say it is divine, or that it is the divine being at the heart of reality. However such statements actually limit what consciousness is and are not exactly pure or correct.

    Consciousness as it actually is is not something that can be labelled or pinpointed – it’s vast and unbounded, and completely empty of anything that can be limited or labelled. It is not “something” or “nothing” — it is beyond such distinctions.

    It cannot even actually be found to be a thing, nor to be nothing. It has no shape or color, no location, and no content of its own. Its scope is boundless, without center or edges, without beginning or end — if you observe consciousness you cannot find such boundaries in it.

    Despite having no characteristics that can be found or grasped, consciousness is absolutely brilliantly open, clear and bright. It is very similar to light, or space, except that light and space are not awake — they are not aware — so these analogies have limited value.

    If you see your own consciousness vividly for yourself it is a powerful experience, a reminder that there is something much more to being, and to the cosmos, than meets the eye. That which is the very essence of each sentient being is actually the most amazing phenomena in the universe — there is nothing more astonishing than consciousness.

    What is really strange however is that some people are not aware of their own consciousness and don’t recognize how special it is. They just don’t notice it, they don’t appreciate it, and overlook it, even when it is staring right through their own eyes.

    If you try to speak to such people about consciousness and why it is such a mystery, why it is special, why it is not like anything else, and why it is fundamental, they simply don’t understand, or their eyes glaze over and they tune you out, or in the worst case, they judge you as some kind of a nutcase or fanatic.

    But in fact, exploring and appreciating consciousness is not “woo woo” behavior at all. It’s one of the most important things to do in life. And if it’s done rigorously and carefully, without imposing a lot of beliefs on it in advance, it can actually be as scientific and valid as any other process of careful observation and study.

    Nobody is actually any more or less conscious than anyone else, but not everyone realizes how conscious they are, or even what consciousness is actually like (when not mixed with thoughts and sensations). What varies is not consciousness itself, but our conceptual understanding and personal recognition of consciousness.

    We sentient beings are not inanimate objects, we are awake, we are aware — we are conscious, but strangely this is not a startling and important realization, to everyone. Some people don’t notice it at all — they go through life like sleepwalkers completely unaware of the miraculous jewel of consciousness that is right at the center of their own experience. This is a waste of the precious opportunity of being alive – it is like not really or fully being alive in fact.

    But if you really see your own consciousness as it is, directly and clearly, you cannot help but experience a sense of awe, wonder, appreciation and mystery. It’s like witnessing a miracle. Except the miracle is your own true nature. This makes life something more amazing and wonderful. It makes every moment special. At the very least, this is a better way to live, a richer level of experience, and better use of the opportunity of being alive.

    Fortunately anyone can develop a greater appreciation and recognition of consciousness, even people who presently are completely ignorant of its significance. It has nothing to do with intelligence or education level, all it takes is learning how to recognize consciousness and then practicing that.

    Recognizing consciousness is different than observing a physical thing, and it’s also different than having a subjective thought. Consciousness is neither an object or a subject of a thought – rather it is the pure and simple light of knowing or being. It is not something you can focus on, and it is not some kind of transcendental self. It is beyond these limited kinds of experience, in its actual nature.

    To recognize consciousness directly, in its pure form, you have to meditate without actually meditating on something. This is called non-meditation, a form of meditation in which you don’t meditate, but you don’t get distracted either. You do not strive for some goal or result. You do not focus on some thought or object. You do not attempt to prevent thoughts or perceptions. You do not grasp at something or reject something. You simply just be.

    Allow yourself to momentarily rest in a state of being that is timeless and inconceivable, yet vividly awake and clear. This is the how the mind is when it is completely at rest, when there are not even any thoughts arising for a moment. When the mind rests like this, there is a brief glimpse of consciousness as it really is (as opposed to a subtle conceptualization of consciousness or a subtle sensory or mental experience that is not actually the same as pure consciousness). It is clear in the gap between one thought and the next, but in fact whether or not there are thoughts it is equally present and stable.

    Once you have recognized consciousness as it really is – pure, clear, bright and limitless – then the next thing to do is expand the length and strength of this recognition. At first it lasts only for a second before concepts arise and one falls into distracted conceptualization again. But gradually, with practice, you can learn to rest in a state of non-conceptual, non-dualistic, awareness – pure consciousness, for longer periods of time. This is different than having advanced meditation experiences, or learning to concentrate on something. It is not being distracted by anything, rather than concentrating on something in particular.

    The Buddhist traditions of Zen and Dzogchen, in particular, teach expedient methods for developing the ability to recognize consciousness more and more fully. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to do this practice — this recognition is not the property of some particular religion or philosophy. Everyone has equal access to it, it is their birthright.

    Recognizing consciousness in its pure form and realizing its significance is a direct route to experiencing transcendence and union with the ultimate nature of reality. That alone is enough to make it worthwhile. But there are other benefits as well.

    Familiarity with the nature of consciousness gradually changes how one lives and acts in the world — it reduces confusion and leads to more beneficial, more compassionate, more selfless actions and decisions. This is not only good for the individual, it is good for relationships, and for communities. Ultimately as one develops this further in this practice it can lead to higher levels of individual and collective spiritual realization.

    There is no end to the depth of this realization, and even when fully realized, there is no graspable “realization” that can be grasped or expressed or owned. That is why the wisest and most realized beings are usually the most humble and simple and would never claim to be special. They recognize that consciousness is not their property, not something they control or have exclusive access to.

    The process of developing this realization is a process of shedding layers of conceptual confusion and ignorance and returning to the pure and simple light of wisdom that is everyone’s actual nature. It’s really that simple. But it’s extremely difficult in practice.

    I believe that all the great religions have this same wisdom and purpose at the heart of their highest teachings — but they apply different methods and conceptual constructs to help people progress. Some may be more expedient and less conceptual, than others, but in the end what they are pointing to is the same. How one chooses to practice is a matter of personal taste, but in the end, the purpose and result of these paths are all the same.

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