As we look at each of the Five Aggregates that constitute the ways we experience being and what we hold to be ‘self’, we discover if we slow down and see each aggregate as it arises and falls away, we can hold it in a spacious way.
The fifth of the Five Aggregates is consciousness. With this aggregate we see the four others. We’re conscious of this body and all material form. We are conscious of feeling tones, whether something in our current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We are conscious of cognition, how we interpret the experience based on acquired knowledge and past experience. And we are conscious of volition, the urges, impulses and intentions to change or extend the experience.
In class there were questions about semantics: What is the difference between consciousness, awareness and mindfulness?
Because English is a conglomeration of other languages, we often have several words that mean the same thing, and to some degree these three words are used interchangeably. But I’ll try to make some distinction between them.
There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
The Buddhist teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon after being handed down as an oral tradition kept alive by generations of monks, also use the same word to mean multiple things, depending on the context. For example in Pali the dhammas (The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness we are currently studying) is different from The Dhamma, the overall term for the teachings of the Buddha, aka natural laws. In this same way ‘consciousness’ is used in a more general way throughout the teachings, but is assigned a specific role here in the Five Aggregates.
For our purposes here, let’s say that:
Consciousness is what we and all beings experience when we are awake. “The patient has regained consciousness.” This doesn’t mean we are in top form and ready to focus necessarily. Perhaps we could think of it as the weak muscle we are working when we take on the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice with intention: To be fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. We are studying The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so it is a skill we develop through practice and study. With mindfulness practice, we exercise consciousness, turning it into a stronger ‘muscle.’
Awareness, as in ‘bare awareness’ is a spacious, alert but relaxed mind-state arrived at through meditation practice.
To continue, the role of consciousness is to provide a perceived continuum by weaving together a pattern out of a huge but intricate network of micro-impulse events, thus creating this experience we call reality. Think of the way a piece of film travels through a projector so that small individual image come to life on a huge screen. The Buddha called consciousness the magician, working in illusion. Consciousness creates patterns that help us to navigate in the world, assembling them into the collective agreement of a solid world that we experience. This is a big job and a useful one.
Because consciousness sees all of the other aggregates, we might feel that it is who we are. At every aggregate we grasp at the straw of identity, only to discover it won’t support that assumption. And here we are again. For something to be a solid separate self it needs to be consistent, permanent and governable. Does consciousness meet any of these criteria?
Consciousness sees erratically, doesn’t it? Sometimes we realize we have been on autopilot, going about doing habituated things, lost in thoughts and daydreams. Are we conscious when we fall asleep? Are we conscious when we are under anesthesia while having surgery? No. So consciousness is impermanent, and unreliable.
Even when consciousness is on the job, it is no more in charge than any other aggregate. It sees what’s going on, but it doesn’t oversee it in the sense of directing the others. It is pretty typical for us to think of consciousness as sitting inside the brain like the driver up in the cab of a monster earthmover truck, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers to make things happen. But consciousness is in the role of bystander to our experience, just a witness, not the driver at all. And anyway part of the time it’s asleep at the wheel!
At this point one student pointed out that we have now gone through all five aggregates, and not one of them is permanent, governable or in control. ‘So is there no self?’ she asked weakly, fearful of hearing the answer.
“There is no separate self.’ That is different from saying there is no self, isn’t it? No separate self means we are not isolated and alone, but intrinsically connected to all that is. This is great news!
This great news is called Annata. Coming to a place of understanding Annata, even if only briefly, can transform the way we experience life completely. Instead of grasping and clinging to a false sense of separate self with all the suffering that activity entails, we can instead rejoice in the moment-to-moment experience of being awakened to life.