What is Awareness?

Most of the discussions concerning the topic of consciousness (and related issues of sentience, cognition, etc) ultimately seem to boil down to the phenomenon of awareness, and what we mean by that word.

(Krishnamurti sometimes made a distinction between awareness and attention; but for present purposes I am taking them to be virtually synonymous).

Is awareness distinct from thought?

Is awareness reducible to sentience (i.e. the susceptibility to sensation), and therefore dependent on the senses?

Can there be a form of awareness in deep sleep (i.e. in what we ordinarily call an unconscious state)?

Do people in a vegetative state completely lack awareness?

There is fMRI evidence, for example, that people in a vegetative state show signs of covert awareness (a form of peripheral awareness) even though they are, to all intents and purposes, insensible to their surroundings.

And in certain forms of Buddhism they talk about awareness as being fundamentally unstructured, unfabricated, unsupported (without any ground) - like the sky, like space - and synonymous with emptiness.

So what is awareness actually?

Are you looking for Krishnamurt’s ‘definition’ of awareness? Multiperspectival? Subjective?

Isn’t awareness grounded in the human body, from interoception to sentience? No body, no awareness?

All threads for me are exploratory. I have a sense of what awareness is, but there are aspects of it that I don’t understand, or that I completely miss - and that you (or another) may point out.

I see that sentience is grounded in the organism - that is, whether in humans or animals, sentience (the susceptibility to sensation) is the response to or awareness of some kind of bodily sensation.

But I’m open to the possibility that awareness itself is - to some extent at least - independent of the senses.

So one might put it this way: in awareness sensations, thoughts, perceptions arise. Much as clouds, rainbows, sunlight or rain arise in the space of the sky.

In this view awareness then is the equivalent of space - inner-space? - and our more local, subjective feeling of being conscious (or sentient) is just one form it takes.

I suspect that awareness is beyond the brain.

Every living thing, whether it has a brain or not, is aware - not merely sentient - because every living thing adapts to its environment and evolves, and I would call that intelligent response. Or at least more intelligent than human brains have proved to be by adapting and evolving in such a way as to destroy our environment.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to intelligence than adapting and evolving, but as a conditioned brain, I can only speculate.

Yes, this is what I feel. I’m probably not alone in feeling that plants and trees have some kind of awareness - even though they lack a nervous system and the ordinary animal senses. So my sense is that awareness is not limited to sentience (as this is ordinarily understood).

Awareness is a hugely loaded term, especially in spirituality and philosophy. It’s used to point to many things, things that are in some cases dramatically (even categorically) different. Perhaps most simply defined (for me): Awareness is that which enables us to detect phenomena.

including phenomena that detects detectors.

Is awareness able to aware itself? Tricky! The simple kind of awareness I spoke of can aware itself, I think, to an extent. But the nondual awareness of Advaita and other nondualistic worldviews is seen as not being an object, therefore unable to be awared.

I am sharing below my direct observations about awareness and thoughts.

Awareness is distinct from thought.
Thought is a temporary, fleeting event (phenomenon) that becomes “visible, observable” by and in awareness.
So far I have not seen the whole movement of thought in awareness, which is: I have not seen the appearance - the unfolding and the dis-appearance of a a thought.
I only realized the past existence of a thought in awareness by the trace this thought leaves behind: the memory of a story; interestingly, this trace (the memory of the existence of a thought in awareness ) is quickly forgotten, awareness seem to have a "cleansing " effect. What I am describing is similar with a dream, when I wake up in the morning, the dream vanishes in an instant.
So, I can be aware of a thought in awareness, after it has left the awareness. Or, I could say: I realize a thought was in awareness, after is no longer there.
A thought (re)apers without my will, randomly, irrationally, on it’s own (I only assume it does this way, cause I haven’t witness the “birth” of thought in awareness).
And to be more precise, when I say thought I mean a cluster of thoughts, which are like little stories, or mini ephemeral worlds. (I don’t think thought can appear alone, I mean there is no such thing as one thought ). Sometimes I get trapped inside the cluster of thoughts, but once I am ejected out of it (which is the end of the story) I realize how absurd the story was, yet inside the cluster/story all seemed rational.

Awareness is flowing through the senses, most of the time.
When the awareness is heightened, very alert, very little thoughts appear in awareness, then senses seem to be merged with/in the awareness. I call this type of awareness an immersion in the what is.
I have not experienced awareness in the absence of senses.

What is awareness: an immediate seeing/being of/in the what is, without the support of thought


That’s the first time I’ve seen anyone use “aware” as a verb, as if awareness is doing something; is an agency, a doer, and not just what we think of as life, conscious existence.

According to your wording here ‘us’ and the ‘world’ (of phenomena) are primary, and awareness is merely a means of communication. Is awareness merely a tool that enables a separate ‘us’ to detect phenomena in the world?

I would say it is not awareness that helps an organism to detect phenomena, but the senses: that is, it is the combined chemical, neurological and nervous activity that responds to events and objects in the world - along with any thought created sense of ‘I’.

But that such activities need to be accompanied by awareness is not a given. After all, robots and computers can be programmed to detect external objects without any accompaniment of sentience.

So the question being asked here is what this awareness is in itself (as distinct from the sensory, chemical and neurological factors that ordinarily accompany it)?

One view, which currently interests me, is the suggestion that all phenomenal experience as such has as its basis a natural, groundless (causeless) state that we can call awareness. This is then not a personal or private state - it is simply the field in which all phenomenal experience arises.

I’ve been using ‘aware’ as a verb for a while, writing 'I am aware of" feels cumbersome. If it bothers you (I know you’re sensitive to right writing) let me know and I’ll try to avoid it.

Thinking about whether I implicitly consider awareness to be a doer … … … … … … … … I don’t think I do. Rather: Awareness is a process in which ‘awaring’ happens. If you ask “What does awareness do?” I might say awareness awares, but I’d mean awareness is the process of phenomena being awared.

We separated the world with words (because we could) and then forgot, that before the ‘word’ , nothing was separate. Division is an illusion.

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You are nudging the bare-bones take (that awareness is detection of phenomena) toward the more expansive and speculative (especially in the closing paragraph). I think from the bare-bones pov, awareness IS merely a cognitive ability, no more mystery to it than to a box that can detect radio waves.

That said, the ideas in the closing paragraph are interesting, could you explain a bit more?

Before we get into the more expansive sense of awareness, I think we need to touch on the bare-bones aspect - as I think there is still some ambiguity (or confusion) here.

The word ‘detection’ - in the sentences you have written - can mean two very different things.

In the case of the radio, the ‘detection’ is made by an antenna and a receiver that has been built to decode a wavelength of electromagnetic radiation for human purposes. But the mechanical device we call a ‘radio’ has no actual awareness of radio waves it ‘detects’.

However, in the case of a sentient organism (such as a person) the ‘detection’ of phenomena means the actual sentience - that is, experiential awareness (whether peripheral or direct) - of phenomena. Awareness here means that there is something it is like to experience the world; which cannot be said of a radio.

Thank you for your contribution Crina. There’s a lot in your comment to reflect on.

I will just touch on one of the things you mention here.

I think this is a fundamental point when examining the nature of awareness.

All too frequently there is a tendency to reduce awareness to thought; to make the capacity for thinking the measure of awareness.

Clearly thinking takes place in the brain - we find ourselves, as you mention, lost in an imaginary situation created by thought - but it is the awareness of that thinking that is the primary thing, not the train of thoughts and images themselves.

Without awareness thought would have no meaning at all - just as computer code has no meaning for the screen on which it appears. So thought is dependent on awareness, not the other way around.

Awareness does not require the ‘support’ of thought.

Yes, “Awareness does not require the ‘support’ of thought.”
Yes, “Clearly thinking takes place in the brain”.

Awareness illuminates thought, makes the brain see/know the thought.
So, maybe be we can say that awareness is the “light” that empowers the brain to see its own activity, its thoughts ?

I feel ‘awareness of’ is a wrong way of putting it.
Of course in awareness there is no subject or me or self. Is there an object in awareness? Also not true. Subject and object are in area of naming. Without naming there is no object, just as there is no subject.

If you call me an idiot. The word idiot is object and you are subject. Without naming there is no word, no object and no subject. There is only movement which is nameless, it is impermanent. There is no awareness ‘of’ something. There is only nameless awareness without observer, observed image as word.
So there is no Russian, no Ukranian, all those are words. Words are illusion psychologically as there is no subject, object psychologically.
Words are only for communication, how they come in awareness as expression for communication is a mystery