Consciousness and awareness

Consciousness is overrated. Not because it’s no better than stupor, but because most of my decisions and perceptions are unconscious: not just controlling breathing, digestion and heart rate, but much of how I relate to other people. I wandered round the lakes in November, wondering if there was still any ripe blackberry, but all were shrivelled. A mile or two further on, suddenly my conscious attention zoomed in on a single ripe blackberry, as if I had programmed myself to notice it. Had I consciously inspected all the bushes, I would have taken far longer to find it. I have no idea if it was the only ripe blackberry within my field of vision that morning. Food is a priority for any living creature- but I saw it unconsciously, in a way I cannot imagine doing consciously.

So consciousness might be of those things which unconscious processes bring to it, for a particular kind of attention. I did not pluck or eat the blackberry without conscious awareness, though I find myself picking up a glass to sip at it as others I am talking to do. We are aligned. I don’t think about the right moment to pick up the glass. Desire and action seem one, to my conscious self: the decision is unconscious, consciousness simply notes it. After an encounter, I have thought “I was flirting” when at the time I thought I was “only being friendly”. That incorrect perception might aid me to lie to another. “I was only being friendly,” I would say, wide-eyed, winningly, consciously believing that.

Much of the ways we relate to each other is unconscious. Someone told me he always thought about what he was going to say. I find myself saying things, believing them, wanting to say them, without being conscious of them beforehand. That would seem cold and calculating. We do not know others’ experience. Or, especially in counselling, I know what I want to say but feel inhibited from saying it. I know it is true, and helps understanding, but I can’t get the words out. Consciously, I am conflicted.

Then there is a reverie, when my attention wanders off into nothing, and consciously I am “ruminating”, thinking thoughts I have often thought before. This goes with depression: it is a normal human thing, but depressed, tired or mourning people may do it more. I think something is going on unconsciously at the time, but not clear what it is. I could be simply resting, unaware of anything worth doing or considering. I could be nursing the unacknowledged feelings which depress me.

“Awareness” feels different. I started entering it as a specific state, in spiritual or religious contexts. The monkey mind quietens. If I start thinking about something, it may be new thought rather than the same old recordings. “The world in a grain of sand, or heaven in a wild flower” fits my experience: the shape of individual leaves catches my attention, and everything seems beautiful. I am in a state of delight. At first, I felt mind-blown; then I needed shocked into it; now I can adopt it, though often don’t.

What is that, the choice to be conscious of what is around me, and how does it relate to unconsciousness? It feels close to the idea of “unconscious competence”, as when I drive without thinking about where to put my feet or hands. I just reach down for the gear stick at the right time. I can consider whether my gear is correct, consciously, or allow other brain processes to judge while I hold a conversation.

Yet if I am conscious of a feeling, it is different from suppressing it from consciousness, and sometimes I will be unconscious of an emotion which others can see in me. Mindfulness, directed attention with the intent of finding my own feelings seems worthwhile. If I am not conflicted, then I move in integrity. Or a feeling bursts into consciousness as I burst out crying: it will not be suppressed any more. Or I might be able to acknowledge a feeling, so that it shows no visible sign in my face or body-language.

I feel I am sometimes able to pursue goals unconsciously, without the need for conscious thought. If I act, my neurons and dendrites are working away whether I “think” about it or not. There is just one person within my skin, one animal process.

That psychiatrist said I had a “fragile sense of self”, which may be linked to consciousness or unconsciousness. So I had a desperate need to believe I was “manly” though I did not believe it, and had not seen my dogged persistence, which is a manly characteristic (though one admirable in women too). Fragile, perhaps, because what I wanted to believe of myself did not really fit.

Thinking about Carl Rogers’ ideas of the self-concept and the organismic self, they are entirely different. The self-concept is an idea of self, a coherent set of characteristics one imagines one has. The organismic self, in contrast, is protean, mercurial, able to change and give different responses in different situations; dogged persistence in one, graceful concession in another- if it is not restricted by the need to preserve the self-concept. All this may emerge into consciousness, or not.

The unconscious is my muse. A poem- or Ministry- may come to me almost full formed, though who knows how long it has been forming in parts of the brain I do not perceive working?

It is not a matter of “spiritual states”. I sit in meditation or worship, and pay attention to what I am feeling, or what is around me; and that might not be more “spiritual” than a reverie. I had thought of calling this post “Consciousness v Awareness” but I mature as consciousness, unconsciousness and the attention I “pay” become more in harmony, working together.

4 thoughts on “Consciousness and awareness

  1. I have played the drums for over fifty years, and, for the most part, I am self-taught. Many years ago, I decided I could still benefit from taking a few lessons. My teacher wanted to test my abilities, and so asked me to improvise a solo for him. When I finished, he asked me how I had processed my thoughts as I played. I had no answer, because I had played just what was coming to me moment by moment. He acknowledged that I had some good chops and had demonstrated proficiency in some advanced rudiments. He then told me to stop being conscious of what I was playing – as I was playing it, and to start thinking four bars ahead. By putting my energy into being conscious of where I was going, rather than what really was rote, my improvisation would become much more inspired. I have found that this technique works well in living my (improvised) life, as well.

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  2. Interesting as there is often a lot of discussion about what goes on in Meeting for Worship and the word worship, which I feel is giving attention to the process of being aware, of each other, our thoughts, and maybe sometimes a bit beyond or deeper when silence is felt. Difficult to express.

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    • Until last week I would have said that “awareness” was specifically a spiritual state, and I sought to be in that state; and when thinking about that post, then writing it, I came to see it more as part of a repertoire.

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