Consciousness vs. Mind: Which is which?


Consciousness vs. mind: Which is which? And furthermore, how is this question relevant to our lives?

This question has vexed philosophers and scientists--which used to be the same tradition before the term “science” was coined in the 19th century--for millenia. And why? Because it attempts to uncover the truth behind where we come from, who we are and where we’re going. It seeks to define the different components of human experience so that we may be nourished by understanding, and reap the rewards of a well-balanced, well-adjusted life. To investigate this question is to discover the root of whatever it is we call “I” in our experience, and in doing so, discover the lasting peace and happiness that is our birthright. 

This question has been a particular interest of mine for the past 10 years, as someone who is frequently plagued by thoughts and feelings, and is even more frequently unsure of which thoughts to follow and which to ignore on my pathway of self-discovery. For me, discovering the difference between mind and consciousness--which I have often conflated with each other--has been the discovery of who I am versus who I have often believed myself to be, which is the prerequisite for freeing my system from the limitations those beliefs create in my life.

Before we dive in, it’s important for us to acknowledge that these two terms often have different definitions based on which school of science or philosophy we have been exposed to. My own background in these matters is a philosophical background--specifically in the lineage of non-duality, which seeks to answer this question through logic and experience. This does not necessarily mean that other definitions of these words are wrong. Rather, it highlights our need to be specific and precise with how we use our words and how we listen to what may seem like contrary points of views. I will do my best in this article to outline alternate definitions for these terms and how they apply to my own understanding. 

Now that I’ve provided a disclaimer for what can be a highly charged and sensitive topic, let’s dive in! 

What Is Mind? 

Everything we experience is mind. Mind is the content of our experience, which includes all thoughts, memories, images, bodily sensations and external sense perceptions (hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing). 

When we touch a book, we are not experiencing the book itself, we are experiencing a sense perception of touching a book. When we are eating lunch, we are not experiencing food, we are experiencing a variety of tastes, textures and bodily sensations. When we are laughing with a friend, we are not experiencing a person independent of us; we are experiencing our perception of a person, combined with sound, thoughts, and bodily sensations. 

This can be extrapolated to anything we could ever experience in life: When we are tasting coffee, we are experiencing the contents of mind. When we bump our shin on the table, we are experiencing mind. Thus, mind includes both our internal experience of thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings, and the external experience of the world as we know it through our five sense perceptions. (Yes, in this paradigm, even the body is considered mind!)

When we understand what mind consists of, what naturally collapses is the false distinction between an inside world made of mind and an outside world made of matter. Although this conventional view has been passed down to us by our culture, the evidence of our experience shows us that all there is to matter, experientially, is mind. We cannot know matter, we can only know mind. 

Once we understand what mind is made of, we can begin to investigate the qualities of the mind. For instance, by design, the mind is inherently limited. I do not know your thoughts, I only know my thoughts. I don’t feel your pain, I only feel my pain. My mind is distinct from your mind and all other minds. Its contents are also finite--meaning they start and stop in time. Every thought, sensation and perception has a beginning and an end. In this way, we can think of mind as the medium that our finite experiences flow through. It does not exist in its own right, it appears and disappears as the changing content within it begins and ends. 

What Is Consciousness? 

I like to start with the explanation of mind because it’s an easy-ish concept to latch onto. We are all used to giving our attention to the experiences of our finite minds. We all understand the difference between a thought and a shooting pain in our calf. We all know the distinction between a sour taste and a hug from a loved one. What can be a more difficult is learning to discern consciousness in our experience. 

If mind is everything that is experienced, consciousness is the experiencer of everything that is experienced. It is whatever we are deeply referring to when we use the word “I”. When we refer to ourselves as “I”, we are not referring to something that changes (the contents of our mind); we are referring to the unchanging continuous element in our experience. This unchanging element is consciousness. Mind changes constantly, but that which is aware of the change does not change. If mind is the content of a movie, consciousness is the screen upon which the movie is played. 

We cannot say much about consciousness because it doesn’t appear and disappear like the content within it. It is not a thought, it is the perceiver of thoughts. It is not a sensation, it is the perceiver of sensations. It is not a sense perception, it is the perceiver of sense perceptions. It is difficult to even direct our attention towards consciousness because it itself is the source of our attention. Attention is designed to move towards objective experience--towards our thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. Most of us have not practiced letting our attention dissolve back into its source--the place from where all experience arises. This place (a placeless place) is consciousness. 

Now, what I’ve just said is a radical point of view from the standpoint of conventional belief because it recognizes a distinction between consciousness and mind. From our culture’s worldview, consciousness is seen as a property of the brain, synonymous with mind itself. This view asserts that we are bodies that have somehow turned on--or became conscious--sometime after conception (although no one as been able to determine when)--that the brain and consciousness are developed together, with the brain preceding consciousness. Most of us have been educated in this model throughout our lives, despite there not being one shred of scientific evidence that consciousness is produced by the body or is a byproduct of the brain. 

The terms unconscious and subconscious are examples of conventional belief categorizing mind and consciousness as the same thing. When we see someone sleeping and say they are unconscious, what we really mean is that they don’t have access to their waking state mind. When we describe behavior that arises from deep patterns that are not immediately recognizable, we might say that the behavior is generated by our subconscious. Again, what we mean when we say this is that our behavior is being generated beneath the threshold of our waking state mind. These words may have us believe that consciousness is something that can disappear or that has different levels to it. But when we can make a clear distinction between consciousness and mind--mind being everything that is experienced, and consciousness being that which experiences--it does not necessarily follow that consciousness disappears when we are asleep (although the contents of our mind do), or that it modulates itself into different levels (although the content of our minds modulate every moment). 

When we equate consciousness with mind, we believe that it shares the limits and destiny of the body. This belief is reflected back to us in how we see the world: A diversity of humans who are fundamentally separate in their beingness from each other, whose individual consciousnesses start and stop in time with the birth and death of each body. In this view, we believe ourselves to have separate consciousnesses from each other, and it is this feeling of separation which is the root cause for both the existential unhappiness that pervades most of our lives and the broader world conflicts that underpin our societies. To believe that consciousness and mind are the same thing is to believe that consciousness disappears when the mind disappears in death. And because each of us have an innate sense that what we essentially are (consciousness) is free, eternal and infinite, believing that mind and consciousness are the same is what naturally produces a deep-seated fear of death that underpins all of our angst, anxieties, and depressions. 

To believe that consciousness is a byproduct of the brain is akin to believing that the earth is flat, simply because it looks flat to our senses and we have not yet developed a sophisticated enough technology to understand that it’s round. My prediction is that conventional science will never find consciousness as a property of the brain (in the same way that conventional science has yet to find matter), and that the truth of consciousness will continue to scientifically elude us until we have sophisticated enough technology to see that the brain is actually a property of consciousness, and not the other way around. 

Luckily, there is another approach to understanding consciousness aside from the scientific method. We can use logic and experience, and we can do it for ourselves right now. Take a moment to allow your attention to soften back into its source and recognize the element of your experience that has never changed or aged. When we consult our experience through the lens of logic, we arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion that our culture has arrived at. Not only is consciousness not a property of the body, but the body is actually a property of consciousness! Our mind does not contain consciousness within it--consciousness contains our mind! 

And when we investigate the nature of consciousness, we do not find an edge or a boundary that separates our consciousness from the world. What are the implications of this? Perhaps consciousness has no edge. Perhaps consciousness is infinite in space and eternal in time. Perhaps consciousness is the medium through which the mind, body and world are known. Perhaps consciousness is shared among all finite minds, meaning that when one finite mind disappears in death, consciousness is not changed or affected. Imagine a piece of lint being pulled off a sweater and caught in the lint trap in the dryer--what happens to the dryer? Nothing! It is not changed by the changing content within it. Everything I have just said can be verified right now in each of our experiences. This is the only barometer we can currently use to determine the validity of such claims.

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