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What Is Consciousness?

This is part one of a three part article. Please look at Part Two and Part Three to continue reading.

Consciousness, at its simplest, is sentience or awareness of internal or external existence. Consciousness is everything you experience.

Consciousness refers to your individual awareness of your unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and environments. Essentially, your consciousness is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. This awareness is subjective and unique to you. If you can describe something you are experiencing in words, then it is part of your consciousness.

Rupert Spira the well-known British spiritual teacher puts it together brilliantly: “Consciousness, awareness and Self are the same thing. It is that with which all experience is known. That in which all experience appears. That out of which all experience is made. The infinite, indivisible reality from which everyone and everything derive their apparently independent existence from.”

Your conscious experiences are constantly shifting and changing. For example, in one moment you may be focused on reading this article. Your consciousness may then shift to the memory of a conversation you had earlier with a co-worker. Next, you might notice how uncomfortable your chair is, or maybe you are mentally planning dinner.

This ever-shifting stream of thoughts can change dramatically from one moment to the next, but your experience of it seems smooth and effortless.

What is a thought

A thought is a representation of something. A representation is a likeness – a thing that depicts another thing by having characteristics that correspond to that other thing. For example: a picture, image, imprint or mold of an object is a representation of that object.

A map is another example of a representation. The mind is a kind of map. Our thoughts are maps representing and corresponding to things that our brains have either perceived with our senses, felt with our emotions or formed as an action plan. Thoughts are ideas, images or concepts in the mind. Thoughts take the form of words or pictures which may evoke certain feeling associations.

Types of Consciousness

There are a number of things that can cause changes or alterations in consciousness. Some of these occur naturally, while others are the result of things such as drugs or damage to the brain. Changes to consciousness can also result in changes in perception, thinking, understanding, and interpretations of the world.

Some different states of consciousness include:

  • Dreams
  • Hallucinations
  • Hypnosis
  • Meditation
  • Sleep
  • States induced by psychoactive drugs

There are two normal states of awareness: consciousness and unconsciousness. Altered levels of consciousness can also occur, which may be caused by medical or mental conditions that impair or change awareness. 

Altered types of consciousness include:

  • Coma
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Disorientation
  • Lethargy
  • Stupor

Changes in consciousness can sometimes be a sign of medical conditions or they may even be a sign of an immediate medical emergency.

For example, sudden changes in consciousness might be a sign of:

  • Aneurysm
  • Brain infections
  • Brain tumor or injury
  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Drug use
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Heatstroke
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Low blood sugar
  • Poisoning
  • Shock
  • Stroke

Theories of Consciousness

One of the problems with the study of consciousness is the lack of a universally accepted operational definition. Descartes proposed the idea of cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), suggested that the very act of thinking demonstrates the reality of one’s existence and consciousness. While today, consciousness is generally defined as an awareness of yourself and the world, there are still debates about the different aspects of this awareness.

Levels of Awareness

A person’s state of consciousness is interconnected with their level of awareness. For example, if someone is in a half-asleep or drowsy state, they will typically experience a lowered level of awareness. Conversely, when exposed to a stimulant, a person can experience a heightened level of awareness.

Low Awareness

Although you may not feel as if you are aware of every single detail of what is happening around you, even in a state of consciousness where you have a low level of awareness, your brain is still capable processing the signals it receives.

Think about the way a person who is asleep in bed may instinctively grab a blanket when they feel cold. Although they are not actively thinking about being cold because of their current state of consciousness during sleep, their brain received a signal that their body feels cold.

High Awareness

A person who experiences a high level of awareness tends to be more in control of their thoughts. The ability to pay attention to detail and analyze the activity around you comes with heightened awareness, but this can typically only be achieved during certain states of consciousness.

The practice of mindfulness is one example of how heightened awareness of a person’s thoughts can be achieved by focusing on the present moment. Meditation is often used to reached this type of awareness because the practice can help individuals achieve an altered state of consciousness which allows for better access and control of one’s thoughts

Perhaps the only widely agreed notion about the topic is the intuition that it exists. Opinions differ about what exactly needs to be studied and explained as consciousness. Sometimes, it is synonymous with the mind, and at other times, an aspect of it. In the past, it was one’s “inner life,” the world of introspection, of private thought, imagination and volition”. Today, it often includes some kind of experience, cognition, feeling or perception. It may be awareness, awareness of awareness, or self-awareness. There might be different levels or orders of consciousness, or different kinds of consciousness, or just one kind with different features. Other questions include whether only humans are conscious, all animals, or even the whole universe. The disparate range of research, notions and speculations raises doubts about whether the right questions are being asked.

Chocolate and consciousness

Take formless melted chocolate. Get a chocolate candy bar mold in the shape of a man. Pour the chocolate into the mold and let it cool. You will get shaped chocolate bars shaped like a man. Even though the chocolate bar now appears to be a particular individual shape, it remains nothing other than the chocolate that it was all along.  Consciousness is also formless, like the hot chocolate. Memories or sensed objects are stored in the mind. Consciousness wraps around those objects. We mistakenly think these objects are “who I am“.

Consciousness and the microchip

There are three basic parts to a microchip.

  • Stuff the basic “stuff” out of which the chip is made (prakriti). The stuff out of which all of the other subsequent levels of our being are constructed or manifested. 
  • Manifestations the program and memory that operate in the chip. Including individuality, intelligence, mind, senses and the building blocks of earth, air, fire, water and space.
  • Consciousness the electricity that allows the chip to operate. The pure, untainted, eternal consciousness (purusha) which flows through the entire matrix of activity of actions, speech and thought.

Experiencing the self

Self-realisation is the state of knowing ourselves as “electricity”, the pure consciousness that allows all of the surface levels of our being to operate. There is no “I” as a composite of personality, program or memory, which is itself attaining or gaining something new. Rather, it is the realisation of that core self, which is beyond all of those countless false identities as unique and beautiful as those may be.


What is consciousness Scientific American

Four States of Consciousness Verywell Mind

What is Consciousness Verywell Mind

Consciousness Wikepedia

The direct path to peace and happiness Rupert Spira (Garrison Institute)

Living the Yoga Sutras Practical Translation and Discussion Swami Jnaneshvara

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