Can you please explain the difference between ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’?

Q: Can you please explain the difference between ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’? Thank you.

A: These two terms are often difficult for people to get their heads around and create confusion as teachers use them differently and have different ideas in mind when explaining them. (This applies to teachers across different traditions as well as those within the same tradition!). Some, for instance, use ‘consciousness’ as that which is changeable and impermanent (discursive intellect or mentation) and ‘awareness’ as the Absolute – unchanging, unborn Reality. However, other teachers refer to the Absolute as ‘Consciousness’, albeit Pure Consciousness, different from the changeable, personal consciousness.

The way I tend to relate to it for ease of understanding, and which is congruent with the Buddhist teachings, is that ‘consciousness’ [pali: vinanna] (i.e sense-consciousness ) is part of the conditioned realm (changeable, arising with sense-contact) – it is that which cognises and forms part of the process of thinking, analysing, reasoning, and so on. We can talk of different ‘levels’ or ‘states’ of consciousness too of course, from higher, refined levels to lower levels of consciousness which are experienced as individual, separate states.

‘Awareness’, on the other hand (in this paradigm), refers to that which transcends all [changeable] ‘states’ of consciousness and is impersonal, unconditioned, unformed, unborn (unmanifest) – the classic notion of the Deathless. ‘That’ does not belong to you or me as an object, personal attainment or possession but is our ‘natural state’ and not separative or dualistic. For Nisargadatta, and other teachers, (including for example, Ajahn Sumedho and many Ajahns of the Thai Forest tradition, as well as the Dzogchen and Mahamudra masters), ‘Awareness’ (free from dualistic constraints) equates with the Absolute Reality – it is sometimes called ’empty cognisance’ or ‘unmanifest knowing’. Consciousness (in this paradigm) can be seen as the manifest aspect of Awareness, and when we purify this consciousness through staying in presence, full mindfulness, or simple ‘Being’, it is a portal to recognising the Absolute, Awareness itself. I hope this helps clarify.

Addendum: The above question is a very important question and is often raised in spiritual circles. We have edited the original response slightly in order to bring more clarity to the points made. It’s also important to recognise that the English words used (‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’) are translations of the original language of the teacher. Particular language for things (labels) are often inherited through a tradition, and they function within a particular paradigm. Also, each translator chooses which word they find more apt to describe the teacher’s intent. Translations are really ‘approximations’ of the intent, also filtered through the translator’s mind. Additionally, we need to recognise that language and word-meanings are morphing all the time in fast-changing cultural contexts. For these reasons, and more, we need to be very savvy about attaching to words and meanings too fixedly, and rely more on direct insight into reality supported by the practice of presence, mindfulness & wisdom, which is what all true spiritual teachers recommend. Words can only ever be approximations of reality — labels. Remember the Zen metaphor of the finger pointing to the moon — in this sense, the finger is the word (or concept/label etc.), pointing at that which needs to be seen and known directly and is not ‘That’ itself.