Thought and Awareness

A talk by the Warden of Shanti Sadan leading into a meditation session.

One of the central points which is often highlighted in presentations about the non-dual teachings, is that there is an essential difference between thought and awareness, between everything in our mind, and our awareness of all that is in the mind.

Thoughts are passing and finite: each thought has its particular form and qualities and is rapidly succeeded by another. In contrast, awareness is unchanging; it reveals equally everything that passes through the mind. In awareness we find no gaps or boundaries. We experience the one awareness, making all experience possible.

A particularly significant difference is that thoughts depend on awareness to reveal them, but awareness itself depends on nothing else to reveal it. Awareness is its own light. Conscious awareness is uniquely self-sufficient in this way.

It follows that we do not have to be limited by the feeling ‘I am my thoughts and feelings, and no more’. By deepening the sense that we are our awareness, we may discover a new dimension of inner freedom and fulfilment.

Having heard these teachings, the next step is to investigate them for ourselves. Looking within, we can confirm the vital distinction between thoughts and feelings, and the awareness of them. In doing so, we see a way opening up from mental constriction towards inner expansion, true independence and the highest self-realization.

Alongside our study and reflection on the teachings, we make a special time each day for the non-dual meditations, when we put aside discursive reasoning and affirm that the awareness illuminating our life from within is in essence identical with the light of universal consciousness, immaculate and infinite.

On this path it is important that we don’t just accept theories without making efforts to verify them for ourselves. And if we sincerely pursue this enquiry, we may expect to encounter challenges on the way.

One such challenge might present itself like this. We decide: ‘Now I am going to explore the difference between thoughts and awareness, by simply watching my thoughts as a detached observer’.
But then an inner voice might say, ‘Isn’t that just another thought? “I am the one watching my thoughts”, seems to be one more thought, does it not?’

To put that another way, if we notice or detect the occurrence of a thought in the mind, that ‘noticing’ or ‘detecting’ forms another thought. And if we do not notice or detect in any way thoughts coming and going, then we are not being aware of the mind. It seems that whatever position we take in relation to the mind and its thoughts, that is another mental process, one more thought.
As a result, we may conclude that this investigation cannot lead to the discovery of anything essentially different from thought, any more than a river could be detached from its own flow.

And another question arises. If we are seriously reflecting, we may ask: ‘What exactly do we mean by awareness?’ In order to distinguish awareness from what it is not, to identify with it, and to deepen this experience, we must be able to think about awareness, to compare it with what is not aware, to reflect on it in various ways. In that case, how can we say that awareness is essentially different from all the other ideas that occur in the mind?

If we consider and investigate awareness, then it is an object that we have become aware of, not awareness itself. And so it would seem that any endeavour to know more fully the nature of awareness is futile and self-defeating. But if we can’t observe or understand awareness in some way, then awareness amounts to nothing in our experience; the word has no meaning.

So, we began with the teaching that there is an essential difference between thought and awareness. But going into this we have found apparent contradictions and no clear solutions. Should we conclude that there is not a real distinction between the contents of the mind and our conscious awareness? If so, there would seem to be no possibility of finding any freedom and illumination beyond the boundaries of the mortal mind.

Is there a way forward? First, let us notice that the mind has many aspects and levels. For example, there is one part of our mind which responds immediately to events. In some situations, an immediate reaction is appropriate, perhaps to avoid danger or damage. Then there is another phase of our mind which is able to observe and reflect on those reactions. And those reflections may themselves be further considered and refined. In this way we move, as it were, between levels of our mind according to the need of the moment. However, this is all, evidently, within the realms of thought, different levels and types of thought.

And illuminating it all is awareness itself, one consciousness that reveals equally the multitude of thoughts and mental activities. We can view one aspect of the mind from another, and so we may progress from instinctive to reflective living. What thought cannot do, is rise above itself altogether, into the state of pure awareness.

Perhaps we have heard and understood this before. And yet, do we not sometimes find the mind trying to take the impossible step beyond itself, and seeming to fail, and wondering if there is something wrong with the teachings?

Does this throw light on our earlier difficulties? Let us see where we have got to. We are presented with the principle that there is an essential difference between thought and awareness. We proceed to investigate this and find that every attempt to simply observe thoughts, turns out to be just another thought. And so we wonder if the teachings are mistaken. In fact, what is happening is that our thought is trying to rise above thought, and, inevitably, cannot.

This is an important lesson for the mind about its own role and limits. Sometimes as a form of meditation practice, we do try to simply observe our thoughts as a detached witness. We can learn and benefit much from this practice. But it is not meant to put the mind into the position of pure awareness.

What then is the true relation between thought and awareness? Let’s consider this.

The heart of the non-dual teaching is that at the unillumined stage of our life we do not know our own true Self, but it is possible to discover our true Self in direct experience. This revelation is called Enlightenment, and in knowing our true Self, we know the Self of all, the universal Reality, and thus find release from all limitations and suffering.

The nature of the ultimate Self cannot be fully expressed in words, but it may be indicated provisionally as pure conscious awareness. It follows that our true Self is not our mind, and that the Self is to be discovered by turning in the direction of our own awareness.

The teaching that our mind is not our true Self is contrary to the compelling feeling that we are our mind, that the mind’s ups and downs and limitations are our own. This is why presentations on non-duality often emphasise the distinction between thought and awareness. How can we overcome the conviction that we are the mind and nothing more? It is by reflecting on the essential differences between the many, changing, limited qualities of what we experience, and the pure, self-luminous, unchanging consciousness that illumines all experience.

And so this teaching on the distinction between the contents of experience and our awareness is a helpful step. But it is not the complete and highest truth.

We may have already asked ourselves, how can there be a complete separation between thought and awareness, between mind and consciousness? Does that not contradict the principle of non-duality, that ultimate reality is undivided? If consciousness and objects are entirely different, how can there be any interaction between them? How can pure infinite unchanging consciousness have any connection with ever-changing, limited experiences? How is our awareness of thoughts possible if they are two entirely distinct principles?

So far we have been thinking of conscious awareness as comparable to an inner light or observer, shining or looking on all experiences equally and not constrained by any of them. This is a helpful idea while we are trying to understand that we are more than the mind and not limited by it.

But the idea of conscious awareness, Self, as a light and witness is not the final truth. It is more true to say that pure consciousness is the underlying nature, the essential being of which all phenomena are formed. It does not illuminate objects and experiences from outside, it is their essence and substance, as it were.

To use an analogy that is far from perfect, consciousness is not so much like a light revealing phenomena, it is more like the universal energy of which all things are formed. But this analogy should not be pushed too far, because the true Self is consciousness absolute and no limitations in space and time or causation apply to it.

The practice of stepping back from thoughts and identifying with awareness is a helpful one up to a point, but it is not sufficient to lead us to the highest truth. Progress depends on a balance of two elements, theory and practice. The theory is conveyed through the teachings that we receive as guidance from an illumined source. They point us towards the truth that surpasses anything the mind could conceive or discover unaided. The practice is to reflect and meditate on what is indicated by that illumined source.

It is true that there is an essential distinction between all limited phenomena, mental and physical, and the true Self, which may be indicated as universal consciousness. But it is not just the difference between observer and observed.

All one can say is that Self is absolutely real, and everything else is not absolutely real. Phenomena abide in absolute conscious-ness, but absolute consciousness is not limited by the phenomena, which do not share its absolute reality. Our true nature, our I, is the absolute reality. On enlightenment, the Self is realised, and the status of phenomena is exposed.

Words can go no further. Let us turn to our practices.

We have found that our mind longs for expansion and fulfilment, and is sensitive to higher guidance. But it also creates obstacles and obscurities when it tries to exceed its own limits. In meditation, we restrain its excesses, focus its longings, and absorb our attention in the appeal of higher truth.

To do this we need to proceed step by step with structured practices. It is always good to begin by preparing our mind for meditation, which means remembering its place in the greater whole. Let us do so now by focusing for a moment or two on this thought:

Truth pervades our mind, and infinitely surpasses our mind. Reverence to that truth.

The next step is a breathing practice.

Be aware of your breathing. Let the breath become a little slower and deeper, without straining at all. Be aware equally of the in-breath and the out-breath, and if possible, make them about the same length.

Now, on the in-breath, say silently to yourself the word ‘Here’, and on the out-breath, the word ‘now’. If other thoughts intrude, as soon as you notice, come back to your breath and the words, here, now.

Do this for four minutes.

We continue with a visualisation practice.

For a moment, observe your mind and notice how pictures appear before your inner eye. See each picture appear, and then be replaced by another.

Now, try to occupy this picture-making space with one consciously chosen picture, a picture of a line of light. See inwardly a line of light, in the centre of your body from the region of the navel to the point between the eyebrows.

You may find it helpful first to locate inwardly the navel, and then the point between the eyebrows. You may gently press these two points if it helps. Then visualize a line of light extending between them in the centre of your body. If other pictures or thoughts arise, replace them with the line of light.

This practice centres our attention, and it is deeply protective and empowering. Do this for five minutes.

Now we meditate on a text from a non-dual classic:


Repeat the words inwardly, phrase by phrase, until the meaning is in focus. Then keep the attention on that. If the mind wanders and other thoughts come in, calmly bring your attention back to the text. Repeat the words, focus on the meaning, let the full significance sink in. Do this for six minutes.

The time we give to meditation each day is both special, and an integral part of our life of enquiry. To keep it special, and to infuse all our life with its benefits, it is helpful to end the session with a closing practice, just as we began with an inner preparation. We can close our practices this time by reflecting on these words:

We offer our unconditional goodwill to all living beings.
We gratefully receive the goodwill offered to us.

Rest in this for a few moments.


This article is from the Autumn 2021 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.