We are all aware that we possess as individuals something that we call consciousness and something that we call intellect. Most of us are aware that our consciousness seems to observe our intellectual thought and through this mechanism we are aware of ourselves as conscious living beings. We also as living beings tend to use the word awareness to describe our conscious state and for most people the words “awareness” and “consciousness” are interchangeable. In reality however awareness and consciousness are not the same thing.
The difference between awareness and consciousness is that one is transitory in nature and the other is ever present. Consciousness is transitory in nature and can morph between different states. A person can be fully conscious or they can be unconscious. They can also enter into states of consciousness that are often described as “illusory” but which nonetheless seem to be real experiences from the individuals point of view. Somebody who ingests hallucinogenic substances for instance will often have very strange experiences where the external world appears to morph into something entirely different from their normal apperception.
There is however something important to note about these changes in consciousness and that is they appear to be observed. There is something that is unaffected by changes in consciousness and continues to observe independently of the content of consciousness. This observer we call “awareness”. For example in the case of somebody experiencing hallucinations, their consciousness is in a different state to their normal state of consciousness but they still observe the experience. This observer however is so “subtle” in nature and so free of characteristics that it usually remains unnoticed by the observer. This observer has no opinions, no beliefs, no feelings and no intention and is “completely free of all characteristics” as zen tends to put it. Zen also terms this awareness as “emptiness”.
Many people who take hallucinogenic substances mistake the change in consciousness produced by these substances as the important part of the experience while failing to notice that there is something that remains unchanged during this process. If this were not the case and awareness was effected by such experiences then the experience would remain unknown. So the person having such an experience mistakes the content of consciousness for reality and believes that they have seen into a different aspect of reality, but at the same time fails to realise that this is essentially a projection taking place within awareness and in that sense is no different to their normal state. The experience is illusory but so also is their normal everyday experience.
At this point some may object that awareness seems to disappear when a person loses consciousness and goes to sleep. However, if we think about this carefully we can see that this is not the case. While it is true that we become unaware of the external world due to consciousness “switching off”, we are still aware at a very deep level of continuing to exist. We also dream and often experience these dreams as a reality that appears very real. Awareness continues to operate but in the sleeping state consciousness of the external world has switched off. This is why the sleeping state appears to be dark. It is not that awareness has disappeared, it is that the conscious projection of the external world has switched off and therefore awareness perceives only darkness which is it’s true nature. Awareness is often mystically described as a “dark light”.
Zen Buddhism attempts to draw a persons attention to these facts by asking seemingly nonsensical questions about other states of being. For example it might ask “What was it like before you were born” or it might ask “What was it like when you went to sleep last night”. This is an attempt to encourage the individual to use their intuition and perceive something important, namely that awareness continues perpetually, irrespective of the persons state of consciousness and this awareness is closer to their real being than consciousness which is essentially illusion.
The spirit of zen might say:
“Be dark, be unconscious”.
It might also say
“Set your attention on nothing”
The person who can set their attention on nothing and keep it there gains two benefits. They remove their attention from the illusory conscious projection and fix it on the illuminating awareness and they inhibit the endless chatter of the essentially neurotic intellect which feels the need to constantly classify and control the external environment. In this way they create the conditions for the development of new and more profound perceptions of reality.