For the sake of clarity, the words ‘Awareness’, ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Attention’ all mean the same thing. I use these terms interchangeably in this article.
There are some who might claim that ‘attention’ and ‘awareness/consciousness’ are two separate aspects of the mind, but I disagree. This is because, when you give attention to something, you bring that something into your field of awareness/consciousness. So they are essentially the same thing.
Difference between being conscious (Level-1) and realizing your consciousness (Level-2)
When a person is alive, he/she is said to be ‘conscious’. This is because, he/she knows that he/she exists.
This very fact makes him/her a conscious being. But just because we are conscious beings, does not necessarily mean that we are awakened.
In an unawakened state, our consciousness is lost in our thoughts. Fully identified with your thoughts, beliefs, self-image/ego. I call this state, ‘Level-1 consciousness’ which is our default state.
In an awakened state, we become conscious of our consciousness and in the process you become conscious of your thoughts, beliefs, self image/ego and hence are no longer fully identified with it. This state can be called, ‘Level-2 consciousness’.
Level-1 is our default state as humans. In other words, we always fall back to this state when we are not in Level-2. This is because, when you are not mindful of the mind, you become one with the mind. When you are not mindful of your thoughts, you become one with your thoughts.
Another point to note is that an awakened state is not a constant state. Even people who have experienced awakening switch between level-1 and level-2 states of consciousness. It’s just that once you have experienced Level-2 consciousness, you can reach this level at will.
Let us understand these concepts in a little more detail:
Reaching Level 2 Consciousness (Separating consciousness from your thoughts)
On a general basis, our attention/awareness/consciousness is lost in our thoughts.
It gets pulled around by one thought after another during our waking hours. (and sometimes even during certain sleep states. This is why we remember certain dreams, because our attention was focused on these dreams.)
The first step towards reaching Level 2 consciousness is to separate your attention/consciousness from your thoughts. In other words, you need to become conscious of your consciousness (or conscious of your attention).
Once you become conscious of your attention/consciousness, you automatically realize that your thoughts are not you and that they are simply energy forms that are happening in the brain.
When you give your consciousness to a thought, you begin to think. By giving your consciousness to a thought, you are giving it your power. And whatever you give your power to begins to grow. So in this case, the thought begins to grow – or newer thoughts are generated.
Becoming conscious of your attention/consciousness
Becoming conscious is an instant phenomenon. It does not take days or months of practice because it is accessible to you at any given moment.
To become conscious, you simply need to become conscious of your ‘attention’. (I use the word attention because attention as a word is easier to understand as opposed to awareness or consciousness.)
To become conscious of your attention, ask yourself this question, ‘what am I focusing on right now?’
The moment you ask this question, you become conscious of all the thoughts running in your mind.
For example, where is your attention focused on at this moment? At this very moment, part of your attention is focused on reading this article. Part of your attention might also be lost in some thoughts, perhaps thoughts related to this article or some thoughts related to the past or future.
Difference between thoughts and attention
Once you become conscious of your attention, you realize that your attention is separate from your thoughts.
Thoughts are something that your brain produces, and your attention is a faculty of the brain that the brain uses to focus on these thoughts.
Think of your attention as a torch light. Becoming conscious is equivalent to getting a hold of the torch light so you can shine light on whatever aspect of your reality you want to. Previously (before becoming conscious), your brain had control over your consciousness and hence it would shine it on thoughts that it deemed important.
As long as you are conscious of your attention, you do not automatically engage with a thought. You can control how much engagement you give a thought. Even when you engage with a thought, you do so consciously and hence you have the power to disengage at all times.
One more point to note is that staying conscious of your attention takes work. Staying conscious is equivalent to staying alert of your attention. If you don’t stay alert, you will soon realize that your attention gets pulled back into your thoughts. This is because, your attention is a limited resource, and the brain uses it based on its habituation.
The following part of this article helps you understand this concept better.
Your attention is a limited resource
There are a ton of things happening in and around you.
Your brain is constantly taking in auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory and visual inputs from your environment and processing them, but you are not aware of most of it.
You are only aware of a certain amount of thoughts and sensations. This is because the brain wants to use its resources efficiently and hence gives attention to only those aspects that it deems the most important.
As expected, your brain expends most of your attention to the repetitive thoughts it generates and to some important environmental inputs. Inputs that are repetitive are phased out. You need to make a conscious effort to bring these phased out aspects within your field of consciousness.
Let’s do a simple experiment to get this clarified:
At this very moment as you are reading this article, become aware of all the sounds around you. In other words, give your full attention to your hearing. You will now start to hear all the sounds that you did not hear before. For example, sound of the fan or A/C running, sounds of electronic equipment, sound of birds, insects, vehicles etc.
This is because your brain was processing all these sounds as usual but your consciousness was not focused on these sounds. Your attention/consciousness was focused on your thoughts and some important environmental inputs like text on your computer’s monitor and its interpretation as you read this article.
Now carrying on with our experiment, continue to focus your attention/consciousness on these sounds and see for how long you can stay listening to them before your attention/consciousness gets pulled back into your thoughts.
Try it for yourself and you will find that within 15 to 20 seconds, your consciousness gets pulled back into your thoughts and in most cases you even missed when that transition happened. It will require a conscious effort on your part to keep your consciousness focused on the sounds for a long period of time, at-least in the beginning.
This conscious effort is what being conscious of your consciousness is. You keep an eye on your attention/consciousness making sure it is focused on the sounds and does not get pulled in by your thoughts.
So two things are happening here:
- You stay alert/conscious of your attention/consciousness.
- You keep it focused on a particular thought/emotion/input making sure it does not get deviated by other thoughts arising in the brain.
What we learn from this experiment:
You have the ability to become aware of your attention, and then take your attention for your thoughts and focus it anywhere else that you want to.
In case of our experiment, we focused it on the auditory input. This ability gives you the power to separate yourself consciousness from your thoughts. As previously, your consciousness was lost in your thoughts, you now have the ability to take your consciousness and direct it wherever you want in a conscious manner.
Therefore, you have the ability to engage with only those thoughts that you want to and let other thoughts go.
1.) Consciousness, awareness and attention – all mean the same thing. It is the most important and powerful faculty of the brain.
2.) We are all conscious beings but in our default (unawakened) state, our consciousness is lost in our thoughts. We are fully identified with our thoughts/emotions/ego.
3.) Awakening is the process of becoming conscious of your consciousness (or becoming conscious of our attention).
4.) Awakening makes us realize that our consciousness is separate from our thoughts. Hence we are separate from the mind generated thoughts, emotions, beliefs, self-image/ego.
5.) In an awakened state, we have the ability to look at our self-image/ego/thoughts/emotions objectively instead of staying lost in them as before.
6.) Awakening is not a constant state because it’s hard to remain conscious of your consciousness for prolonged periods of time as your consciousness generally gets pulled back into your thoughts when we are not alert. But we do grow in consciousness we practice staying conscious on a regular basis.
7.) As we practice staying awake, our consciousness starts to grow.