Consciousness is Where It’s At

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The Buddha, in a cliff

I have worked as a university professor, trying to explain the oddities of U.S. history to undergraduates. I’m a bit of a fiend for clarity of exposition.

Some of our fine dharma teachers lack this particular fixation. They are undoubtedly highly accomplished and share what they know out of compassion that we can all appreciate, but they clearly do not pay too much attention to the best way to state what they are saying to ensure the greatest possible understanding by non experts.

I was recently listening to a talk on the theme of awareness and the possibility of being aware of one’s awareness, which I always find deliciously meta, when I had a really strong realization that poses a bit of a problem. This teacher was using “consciousness,” “awareness,” and “mindfulness” interchangeably, although he did gesture at the realization I had and the problem it poses by noting that “mindfulness” does point us towards “mind.”

This teacher did not squarely state what I realized, but he did lead me to the realization, and it was a big one. I am very pleased.

What I realized is that, in the future, I will be much more careful to use “mind” only to describe what I have called “monkey mind,” or “everyday mind” in order to convey the point that what I have called “Buddha mind” is not really mind at all.

What we are aiming for, what I am aiming for, is consciousness, pure and simple. Ours is a thoroughly materialist world. We think that things with mass, things that are tangible, things that are things, are real and primary and should command our attention.

So, “mind” is what we are stuck with now. What we want is “consciousness.” The teacher I was listening to pointed out that we good materialists point to our brains as the physical seat of our minds. He said, if he asked his audience if they were conscious, they would have to say, yes. If you are reading this, you are conscious. But we have no physical organ we can point to as the seat of consciousness, except maybe the brain.

But consciousness is like gravity — it operates everywhere. We can assume that consciousness is a characteristic of the entire universe, like gravity is. We have no obvious indicators to look for to see the operation of consciousness as we do with gravity, unless maybe our ability to observe and understand the universe, or anything, at all, is just consciousness in operation.

Maybe this is just so obvious that it’s hard to see.

The Buddha could not have anticipated this orientation to the world, so he did not forestall our mistake by explicitly warning us against it, but he did state flatly that mind is primary and determines where we end up, and by “mind” here, I mean “consciousness.”

Reality is ultimately consciousness. I don’t know how. I don’t know if the Buddha knew how and just chose not to try to explain that, or if it just unknowable, but somehow, we addled humans translate, not to say corrupt, pure consciousness with our minds, in the new sense that I mean here, or “monkey minds,” which gives us a degraded, unnecessarily limited idea of what reality is.

What we are trying to do with our practice is to switch our awareness wholesale over from mind in the sense of monkey mind over to pure consciousness.

As Buddhist teachers often say, this is the easiest switch imaginable, but precisely because it it so easy, we routinely overlook it.

Just keep meditating until you can switch from mind to consciousness.

Help spread the word.

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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