Article

Consciousness, Attention and Will

– Rajen Vakil

Humans possess three fundamental faculties: consciousness, attention, and will.

Throughout the centuries, from philosophers to yogis to scientists, everyone has tried to define consciousness. Yet, consciousness still remains one of the most esoteric and mystical aspects of our lives.

According to the dictionary, consciousness refers to something that allows us to become aware of what exists, whether it is external or internal to the senses.

As students of spirituality, we must ask ourselves what is the objective of life? It is to reach a higher level of consciousness where we become increasingly aware of our mind to the point that one day, we completely transcend ?

In the spiritual sense, man is not awake. He lives in a kind of hypnotic sleep, where he becomes attached to the objects of consciousness. Gurdjieff refers to this sleep as identification, where man lives in psychological sleep. The aim of spirituality, therefore, is to wake from this state of darkness.

It is crucial to understand that consciousness is not a psychological process. It is not thought, nor feeling, nor sensation, or movement. In the simplest terms, memory is not consciousness. It is through consciousness that we become aware of thought, feeling, sensation, movement, and memory. So even though we become aware of these things through consciousness, they are not consciousness themselves. We can say that they are the objects or the content of consciousness.

In our present condition, there is never a single moment that our consciousness is free of content. Our consciousness is always attached to the objects of consciousness. The whole spiritual journey is the effort of the student to separate consciousness from the objects or content of consciousness. The student aims for a state where he experiences pure consciousness, free from content. That is, to hold a state of consciousness free from thought, feeling, sensation, movement, and memory. This is the state of nirvana or enlightenment. It is in this state that consciousness is free, and there is the perception or darshan of the divine.

Here we must ask ourselves a question: What is it that allows consciousness to become aware of the objects of consciousness? The answer is the second fundamental faculty: attention.

Consciousness, by itself, cannot be aware of objects. To do so, it throws out a beam of light, like a torch in a dark room. This beam of light is attention, which allows consciousness to see and become aware of objects in the room; thought, feeling, sensation, movement, and memory.

Attention activates the five senses. It flows out from the eyes and allows consciousness to see, flows out of the ears so that sound can be heard, out of the nostrils to activate smell, it creates a sense of taste through the tongue, and it activates touch throughout the entire body.

Attention brings the objects of consciousness into the field of consciousness.

However, attention is a double-edged sword. While making us aware of the objects of consciousness, it also causes consciousness to become attached to these objects.

When attention gets attached to objects, we say I, my, and mine. When it gets attached to physical objects of the senses, we say ‘this house is mine’, ‘this car is mine’, etc. When it gets attached to people, we say ‘she is my wife’, ‘he is my son’, etc. And when it gets attached to psychological objects, we say ‘I think this’, ‘I feel this’, etc.

In Indian terminology, consciousness is called Atma (Spirit) and attention is Jeeva (Soul). However, attention attached to the objects of consciousness gives birth to a false sense of ‘I’. This ‘I’ is the ego. And we say ‘I’ to everything. This ‘I’ veils consciousness, which is called Maya. Because consciousness is truth, this ‘I’ veils truth. And because consciousness is God, it also veils God.

The whole spiritual journey is the lifting of this veil of Maya and then holding the state of consciousness which comes as a result. This is done by the conscious effort of separating consciousness from its objects. When consciousness becomes aware of itself, it is called Sadhana.

Man possesses free will, and this free will is used to control attention. But our attention is now totally out of control, as it only responds to external stimuli. Animals too have attention, but they do not have the free will to control it, as it automatically responds to external stimuli. In other words, the animal’s attention can only go outwards, but a human’s attention is capable of going both outwards and inwards.

It is our capacity to turn attention inwards that makes a spiritual journey possible. When we learn to control our attention by applying our will, we free our attention from the objects of consciousness. The result is that our attention no longer automatically responds to stimuli but can be applied where we want it to be used.

When we are able to free our attention from the objects of the senses and from the psychological content of our minds, we can now send it within. Attention emerges from consciousness, but now we direct attention back to consciousness. That is, through attention, consciousness sees itself. My Guru, Mr. Tavaria, says that this is the highest state, in which consciousness sees itself through the eyes of awareness. In doing so, we realize our true original nature and wake up from the dream of life.

It is like when we watch a movie, we totally identify with what happens on the screen, just as man identifies with every event in life. At some point in our work, however, as students of spirituality, we must realize that we are totally hypnotized by the screen. This is the beginning of waking up. We then look inside and see that our thoughts, emotions, and sensations are reacting every moment to what is happening there on-screen. By observing them over a long period of time, we separate, and our attention is no longer seduced by them. We are free of the content of the mind. We then realize we are sitting in a chair and turn our attention towards who is sitting in the chair. In that moment, we wake up and realize it was a movie all along. This is the awakening, the enlightenment.