Ever since the group sit last week, I’ve been mulling over what consciousness is and how we experience it. In the West, the term is defined in various ways, but most often as representing awareness of oneself as an entity or ones surroundings, feelings, etc. In Buddhism, consciousness extends the definition of awareness and becomes less a noun than a dynamic process.
As I understand it, in the context of Buddhist practice, consciousness is one of the five aggregates that collectively make up what we experience as the self (the other four are body, feeling, perceptions, and mental formations). Identification with the interaction of the aggregates produces the illusion of a separate self. This separate self appears to be a totality, a uniform self, when in fact it can be broken down into its separate parts (the aggregates). One of the tasks of sitting in silence is observing the interplay of the aggregates because it is then easier to dissolve clinging to the notion of a uniform totality of being.
Consciousness is also the link in the chain of dependent co-arising that conditions arising body and mind. Consciousness, meaning what we are pre-wired to be aware of, is itself conditioned by volitions or predispositions from deep within the psyche. We cannot see these predispositions but we can see their effects, as they give birth to personality and how we react to the world around us. For example, I have a friend who spent much of his early life in conflict with others. He saw insult everywhere and was constantly at odds with shopkeepers, friends, and casual acquaintances. I once observed to him, as he was describing yet another incidence of being wronged, that things like that never happened to me. It would be more accurate to have said that I’m not wired to notice or interpret similar interactions as insults.
Finally, consciousness in Buddhism is not one but many and is specific to the six senses. Therefore, there is no overarching personal consciousness, but there is eye-consciousness (when the eye makes contact with a visual object), ear-consciousness (when the ear makes contact with an auditory object) and so on. If this is so, the consciousness in its purest, primary form is simply to know or reflect what the sensory contact has been. This recognition is the reflection in the pond or the mirror. It is what we strive to do in practice: recognize seeing as merely seeing, hearing as merely hearing, touching as touching, etc. (aka as “bare attention”).
Anything beyond direct experience of a sense object is added, polluting the pond, as Andrew Olendzki describes it in his article, “Mind Like a Mirror.“