Category Archives: consciousness

Consciousness, The Fifth Aggregate

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?


  1. 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.
  2. There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
  3. 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.

Or = Oar Along the Middle Way

In the last post I shared an embellished version of the Buddha’s analogy of the Middle Way being our course as we boat on the river of life, steering clear of the seductions of either bank that represent overindulgence and self-denial. You can read that post if you have forgotten or didn’t see it.

In the analogy, we focused on both banks but didn’t really spend much time exploring the river or the boat. For example, how do we keep our boat in the middle of the river and not stuck on either side?

That’s right, we need an oar. This is a very powerful oar, and it’s spelled O-R. Or: Perhaps the most powerful word in the English language. Powerful enough to steer our vessel along the Middle Way. How?

At any moment, inserted into a sentence, the word ‘or’ creates a pivot point, full of possibility.
Whatever we are doing, however close we are coming to either shore of over-indulgence or extreme self-denial, we can use ‘or’ to remind ourselves that we have other options.

This has worked well for me when I’m on the way into the kitchen to look for a treat. My inner sweetie is all excited by the prospect of some tasty treat even though I’m not hungry, and then, if I’m paying attention, I can hear the strong, clear, calm wisdom of the word OR rising up: “OR I could go out to the garden,” “OR I could go for a hike,” “OR I could wash the dishes,” “OR I could call a friend I haven’t talked to in a while,” “OR I could sit and enjoy being in this moment.”

This same OR rises up in other situations as well:

  • I’m walking by a store that has something I want but can’t afford. I simply offer myself the word OR – as in ‘OR I could walk on by.’
  • ‘I could keep channel surfing mindlessly, OR I could turn off the TV and do something more fun.’  
  • ‘I could keep stuffing food in my mouth even though I’m full, OR I could push away from the table.’

This word ‘or’ is very empowering. It gives us choice. Sometimes we have made a commitment to do something, and so our choices may seem gone. We’re in a committed relationship. ‘Or’ doesn’t give us the option to go home to someone different tonight! But even then we have the choice of how we approach our commitment, what attitude we take. ‘I could complain about this situation, or I could whole-heartedly take it on, remembering why I committed to it in the first place.’

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not of our choosing. We find that we or someone we love has had an accident, is seriously ill or is dying. The ‘or’ is not a means of escape from the situation, but a means of finding a new relationship with it, finding how to be present with causes and conditions of life with compassionate attention rather than getting lost in the mire of regret or fear of the future. ‘Or’ is not an escape route out of a sticky situation. It’s an awakening to consciousness, a reminder to be alive and alert to the reality of the present moment.

In class a student mentioned that the oar is also used for getting unstuck, so it has a quality of mobility. True! That’s an important aspect to bring into the mix. The word ‘or’ creates options for any moment.

But again it’s important for us to use our ‘or’ skillfully. The skillful, wise ‘or’ always brings us back to the river, back to awareness, back to compassion. An unskillful ‘or’ would have us paddling back and forth from one shore to the other, trying to find balance by going to both extremes. An example would be gorging ourselves and then going on a strict minimal intake diet. Another example would be the person who works beyond the point of exhaustion all year long and has a flat on the back on the beach vacation to make up for it. This isn’t skillful paddling! This is taking the oar and paddling ourselves with it! The Middle Way is being fully present and compassionate, not going from one state of extreme mindlessness to another and believing we have found balance.

In French the word or means gold, but what fool would choose gold over the infinite possibilities of the English ‘or’ or the French ‘ou.’

In Spanish or translates into ‘o’ – How that sunny perfect circle captures the essence of the infinite rays of choice, all those potential pivotal turning points available in any given moment.

So next time you find yourself doing something mindless, see if you can empower yourself with the word OR.

We have talked about accessing our Buddha nature, our wise inner voice that is our access to universal wisdom. This word ‘or’ radiating options, keeping the world spacious and open, keeping us conscious, is a simple way to access that inner wisdom. Listen for it!

The word ‘or’ can also be used unskillfully to divide up the world, as in: ‘It’s either you or me, us or them, your way or my way, and it better be my way.’ The word ‘or’ can be very divisive. When we are wandering on either shore, away from the river, an oar is no longer a useful tool but a useless appendage, or worse a weapon. So notice how you are using the word ‘or’ to recognize if you are stuck on one of the shores or in the flow of the river, embarked on the Middle Way.



Something else we didn’t discuss about the Buddha’s Middle Way analogy of a river is the river itself. What is the river? What is this that runs through the center of our being to which we return? This is the river of awareness and compassion. We return to it from states of unconscious habitual patterns that don’t serve us or the world.

Where does the river go? Is there some place we are getting to on this river?

Where does any river go? Yes, to the sea. And then what happens to the water in the sea? It evaporates and becomes clouds, which become rain, which eventually makes its way back to the river. This natural cycle of water, how it turns from liquid to gas (and sometimes to solid) is the easiest example we have to understand the nature of things, the nature of life and of our own part in it. For it isn’t just water that cycles through in infinite transformation, but all of life, including ourselves.

Once while attending a mountain camping retreat, I had the experience of observing a cascade with the drops of water flying above the creek, each drop fleetingly solitary. And I saw how that was true for each of us as well: This sense of solitary existence, of being in an isolated encapsulated body is indeed temporary and illusory. The drop of water is part of the ongoing cycle of life. It will momentarily return to the creek and then to the sea and then evaporate into a cloud, then rain in an ongoing cycle — as will our fleeting moment of seemingly solitary existence that we call ‘life.’

The drop of water is held separate by surface tension. Interesting to think that we hold ourselves separate by tension as well. When through meditation we release bodily tension, we access our awareness of being an integral part of the whole, not an isolated drop. How refreshing! How much easier it becomes to live in this world when we feel our connection to all that is. How much easier it is to be compassionate when we understand the unitive nature of life. There is no ‘us or them,’ but the interconnected cycles of life and this wondrous gift of awareness.

Who is this ‘I’?

Scientific research is finding that our consciousness, the ’I’ and the ‘me’ that we refer to, is not a physical (or ethereal) form in our body but the relationship, the interactivity, the conversation between different parts of the brain. When researchers anaesthetize someone and study their brain activity, comparing it to the waking or dreaming brain, the difference is clear: The anaesthetized unconscious brain activity is very limited and centralized, while the conscious brain looks like lightning in different parts of the sky, call and response; like birds in the forest calling from one tree to the other.

This discovery is not all that surprising really. As we meditate and become more aware of the nature of our being in the world and in our own thoughts, we see that it is all about relationship. There is no solidity, there is only interaction. We know that even our bodies are not truly solid, but a series of processes that renew, repair and replicate cells. Nothing about us is the same as it was seven years ago, except the processes that organize matter to keep our bodies looking pretty much the same over the years (or doing the best that they can given external causes and conditions such as gravity, inadequate self-care and exposure to sun rays!)

Ever since the discovery of the atom, science has told us there is no solidity anywhere. What we perceive as solid – the furniture in the room, for example – is just an arrangement of molecules not totally unlike our own, and within each molecule, within each atom is mostly space. It’s convenient for functioning in the world to organize and perceive all this separation. Different creatures organize and perceive differently, based on what works best for getting their basic needs met. We would not recognize the world the bee sees as it buzzes towards flowers. We may not even exist in that world, so unimportant are we to the scheme of things from their point of view!

This idea that perceiving solidity in our surroundings and in our being is a kind of choice we’ve made as a species is unnerving. And it’s totally optional whether we are curious about exploring beyond this convenient way of perceiving the world and ourselves. We crave solid ground to stand on, to be sure of and to trust. But if we are curious and do sense that there is another way of seeing then we can begin to explore the possibility of trusting in this fine network of inter-relational activity.

You don’t have to hang out in a science lab to do your research, but can come to it within your own experience. Buddhism and other world religions support this exploration, this direct experience of some difficult-to-define way of being in the world. (At some point we will explore the concept of the Net of Indra, an ancient Buddhist model that supports the current scientific findings. But it deserves more time than I can give it now.)

But why would we want to explore this non-traditional way of thinking? Perceiving the world as solid works very well for us, does it not? Yes, but to over-rely on just this way of seeing, this way of being in the world, comes at a high price. When we resist opening to a more relational way of perceiving, we give up our sense of connection with nature and with each other. Instead we cling to the idea that being solid we are somehow protected and impervious to change.

As we age, most of us begin to see the false supposition of this presumed imperviousness. We may not be comfortable with it, but we see that this solidity we imagined isn’t true. Our bodies change as they age. Our parents and other loved ones die. If we stay with this view of solidity, we feel isolated and lonely. We feel we are going through a whole set of causes and conditions, and that we each have to face these difficult challenges alone.

So what good news when science shows us that indeed we are not solid, not separate, not alone! What a relief that the ‘I’ is a lively intricate set of patterns in a constant state of interaction. We are released from isolation and can dance in interconnection.

But what does this really mean to us in our day to day activities? It means that if we shift our focus from the solid to the interactive network we will find more vitality, creativity and joy.

If we sense our connection to each other, for example, rather than get stuck in defending the solid person we believed ourselves to be or judging the solid person we thought someone else to be, we can relax and release our fear. There is no ‘other’ to defend our separate self from. There is only this ongoing pattern of dancing molecules, of interactivity of thoughts, emotions and sensation.

In practical application, we focus not on another person but on the natural connection with them. Instead of seeing them as solid, isolated and locked in, we accept that they are fluid, connected and fascinating ever-changing expressions of life. This flushes out our harsh judgments about them, held over many years. It allows them to be in the space of our open embrace and to dance in the light of our awareness. What a difference this makes in our relationship!

We know from our own experience how it is to be with someone who thinks they know us, who thinks they have our number. We feel pre-judged without any room to fully be ourselves, that ever-changing fluid self that cannot be contained. So how much richer would our relationships be if we allowed for the ever-changing fluidity of others?

How often do we find ourselves bored in relationships because we think we are dealing with known quantities? We are not known quantities! Each of us is fluid. But when we are in the company of someone who sees us a certain way, we may fill that pre-defined shape just as water fills a glass.

So in this practice we notice when we are holding relationships in containers of pre-judgment, and if we can notice we are doing so, perhaps we can gently shift our focus to the fluid nature of being itself. This shift is enhanced through the use of metta – sending loving kindness and well wishing, staying with that outpouring of love without agenda.

Opening to hold the person in an open embrace, sensing in to the lightness, the spaciousness, we can be surprised by the interconnected quality of life responding to our openness.

This subtle shift into a more fluid way of perceiving life can happen in any moment, so we can relax and allow for it, rather than setting it as a goal and trying to achieve it. And even if it happens for only one brief moment, even if we only get a whiff of it, so to speak, it’s important to know that because it is timeless, that one whiff, that brief glimpse, can permeate our whole being. Just like a tea bag dipped in water, once introduced, however briefly, it can flavor our whole life.

Through our awareness practice we bring a quality of noticing. We can notice when some fear-based emotion knocks us into seeing ‘other.’ We can sense in our bodies the constriction, the rigidity, the tension that indicates how solid and separate we hold ourselves to be. And with time, this noticing will enable us to infuse breath, metta and spaciousness into any constriction, bringing wisdom, compassion and balance to the fear we feel.

In this way, we shift back and forth from seeing separated solidity and the fluidity of interconnection. But because the former has an increasingly false ring and supports us less and less (and in fact seems to get us into pickles more often than not!), it becomes easier to shift to this richer more joyous perception, this net of interactivity that is the true self, within our brains and between all beings. We resonate with it, because it rings true.