…consciousness is the common factor in every experience—the undeniable knowingness of being here now, the bare sense of presence. ~ Joan Tollifson
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 sentences, 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 use these words, but what matters isn’t the words or the particular map that I am presenting, 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 vast emptiness or pure 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 subtler than consciousness, subtler even than space. In deep sleep, even the first, most subtle sense of being present vanishes along with everything perceivable, conceivable and experienceable. The apparent observer-thinker-author-doer-experiencer also vanishes. Whatever remains cannot be found or seen as an object, or experienced as an experience. Some call it pure consciousness, some call it objectless consciousness, I am calling it awareness.
Awareness is simplicity itself, that which cannot be further reduced, the no-thing-ness at the core of our being, the emptiness of form. 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—the unseeable Source being and beholding it all, the Ultimate Subject. Awareness is infinite intelligence, infinite potential. It is primordial, unborn, undying. It is what remains when the whole universe is no more. Some may call it the Tao or God or the Self or the Supreme or the Absolute or simply “I.” Awareness is the single, undivided “I” to which we all refer.
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 an illusory play. Awareness is the light behind attention that illuminates and dissolves all imaginary problems and 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 what remains when consciousness is finished. Awareness is what underlies all the apparent diversity and duality, like the movie screen or the mirror in which all the movies and reflections come and go. Awareness is 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.
In the second installment of Consciousness, Awareness and Attention Joan adds Attention to the mix.
We are honored to publish this 2-part guest post authored by (& copyright of) Joan Tollifson with her permission. The text content of this post (without all the images here) was previously published (as a single post) on Joan’s website, titled: Consciousness, Awareness and Attention.
See Joan’s brief BIO, that is in lieu of her teacher page on Stillness Speaks, which will be added shortly … and as is typical of our teacher pages, it will provide a comprehensive view about Joan’s background, and work. She is the author of four books with a fifth one in the works.
Would it be true to say – Aware is who I am, consciousness gives definition to the Am-ness?.
Thanks for dropping by.
It’ll be best for Joan to respond to your comment … will inform her.
Well, it’s all words and how we use them, and people use them differently, and I use them differently in different places. So, it’s helpful not to stick to any particular definition, and if we seem to be disagreeing with someone, to find out how they are using the terms before we dismiss them as wrong or get into an argument. And of course, what really matters is the direct realization, which is wordless. But yes, as I am using these terms here, you could say awareness is our True Self, Ultimate Reality, Unicity–transparent and formless–and consciousness is what appears as the separate self and the apparently fractured world of ever-changing forms—the world of definitions and measurements. Consciousness is dreaming the myriad dreams of waking and dreaming life and becoming hypnotized by its own creations and identified with the characters it has created. Awareness beholds it all. But again, just words pointing out different aspects of a seamless living reality.
Thank you Joan you articulate clearly. Awareness is – that, questionless state that shows up as consciousness ” disappears”. Best jose
Thank you, Jose.
Your comment “Whatever remains cannot be found or seen as an object, or experienced as an experience. Some call it pure consciousness, some call it object-less consciousness, I am calling it awareness” … is Spot On!. And I Experientially Know (Meta Noetics) that as a fact as I had an amazing at-one-with experience in that Infinite-Eternal State of Singularity, i.e. the Zero Point Field.
And after I returned – with a bit of coaxing from an amazing white glowing intelligent being – to the duality side of our universe I came to an amazing Self-Discovery. A human Identity is a very, very foolish folly. I experientially know that there are no mirrors in eternity that can ever inform or reflect WHO I AM … for they can only inform or reflect … WHERE I AM At. Where “I” stands for Intention, A stands for Awareness’s Intention Focused Intention and M stands for the Meaning Making Process that Sires all In+tentional states of energy in this universe.
It sounds like you had a very powerful and revelatory experience. There are many experiences, including some that are very subtle and sublime, but what I was pointing to there is actually not an experience.
I can’t really comment on what you say about Focused Intention and Meaning Making Process because I’m not sure what you’re talking about. But thank you for the comment.
Strange that I see both words and definitions reversed from yours, these past months, which of course doesn’t matter. In so far that I got rid of the word awareness altogether — where even quantum particles are conscious of each other. Once I got rid of the other word “awareness” — which in my vocabulary is exotic jargon and there is no need for it — things became easier to understand for that part of me that wants to understand 🙂
I’m not totally sure what you’re saying, and I may not be understanding you, but ultimately, I would say that it is essential to drop ALL the words. Words can only take us so far. Of course, “dropping all the words” doesn’t mean we can’t use words again–we have to in order to communicate verbally–but the words are always only pointers to, or descriptions of, an ungraspable living actuality. The thinking mind wants to “understand” all of this. But awakening is not about understanding or getting a conceptual grip on everything. It’s more like relaxing into the wordless openness of not knowing. ?
Yes Joan there are different ways to speak about consciousness or awareness. Pure consciousness and pure awareness are often used interchangeably and in this writer’s opinion correctly so. Pure consciousness or pure awareness means to me awareness with no object of perception as occurs in deep meditation. No thoughts, no mantra, no focus on anything yet not asleep. We could say the consciousness has expanded as opposed to sleep where consciousness is nil.
That infusion of pure consciousness into daily awareness, which has always been there, then creates the state of witnessing in which that state of pure stillness never leaves in spite of the flow of thoughts and events. A beautiful state that the human nervous system can experience. It is the end of death. The recognition that the “I” has dissolved into the eternity of the oneness that has always been .
Incidentally, if you are familiar with muscle testing, it is the individualized consciousness that interacts through the human body of another, With the universal pure consciousness. Since all knowledge is contained in a blueprint in pure consciousness it can be extracted from Unmanifested pure consciousness for the benefit of the patient.
It really amazes me that people pronounce themselves as teachers often advising that words are really just meaningless sounds and then continue to explain existence as seeming to that had form while informing us at the same time all of existence is formless and beyond any possible explanation. Calling something Tao, or God, or awareness or whatever you feel like calling the formless these words really aren’t that important. I agree. Yet we have a profundity of books, videos and other media that label terms like awareness as the deepest level of existence.
How does Joan or any one for that matter know what is really the deepest level of reality all we can really offer is the sense of a continuous movement and a knowing when sitting alone that no single entity is directing any of this movement. What are we trying to do with labels forms and meanings when without them what is there to describe what is there to question.?
‘How can you talk of existence or non-existence……..
One who knows the truth … lives beyond explanations. Descriptions don’t apply.’
Maybe it would be kinder to tell folk there is nothing to offer and direct them ‘ to go home and live their life’
Does it take another book to do that?
Hi Steve, I’m very sympathetic with all you say here! But I notice that you, too, have been compelled to put your way of seeing into words. Not unlike Lao Tsu, who opens the Tao Te Ching by saying that the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao, and who then goes on to write another eighty verses about it! Or like Zen teacher Steve Hagen, who went to his teacher, Katagiri Roshi, after Katagiri had first asked Steve to start teaching, and Steve told Katagiri that it was utterly impossible to say anything true about this matter. Katagiri totally understood, and he replied, “But you have to say something, otherwise no one will understand.” Katagiri also liked to say that Zen is useless. But still, he dedicated his life to it and to sharing it. As I see it, our misunderstanding creates suffering, and in response, we speak, attempting to expose the error and point to the placeless place (Here / Now) where suffering ends. And “we” don’t do any of this, as you point out. As I would put it, it is all a movement of undivided Consciousness. And sometimes, the heart simply overflows with joy, and we speak from that. Either way, the word water is not water, and the map is not the territory, and the True Tao cannot be spoken. But the map may be helpful. And then when the destination (Here / Now, Just This) is reached (or more accurately, noticed), we put the map aside.
I notice that you also have a formulation that you seem to regard as true: “All we can really offer is the sense of a continuous movement and a knowing when sitting alone that no single entity is directing any of this movement.” (Sounds like my good friend Darryl Bailey). Ultimately, word-concepts such as change and changeless, choice and choiceless, movement and stillness can all be deconstructed into meaninglessness (as the great Nagarjuna so brilliantly did, showing us that NO formulation can capture reality). These are ALL just pointers, pointing our different aspects of reality, and ultimately, ALL must be discarded. Yes, ever-changing movement is noticed Here / Now, but the ever-presence of Here / Now is also noticed. The changing and the changeless. As I’m using words in this post, consciousness points to the ever-changing and awareness to the ever-present. But other words would do just as well, and ultimately, stillness and movement (form and emptiness) are not-two. It is a seamless reality. (And of course, even to say that misses the mark).
Well…blablabla, eh? I have often (very often) had the thought that it would be better to be silent than to write another book or give another talk or respond to a comment. And yet, as you notice, no separate entity is directing this movement. Alas, the words keep pouring out. From you, from me–ultimately both from the same unnameable source.
Anyway, thank you for your comment, which I enjoyed very much.
Jose, Lawrence, Bert, Dr. Steven K, and Steven,
Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Am informing Joan … it’ll be best for her to respond as appropriate.
Again, thanks for dropping by.
Ramana Maharshi answered all these questions:
Be still and know who you are.
what a great blessing you are joan…..thank you .