I’ve been trying to get a clearer view of the different ways in which my consciousness functions during a typical day. It’s like trying to catch a view of myself in the mirror in a mirror. I’m omitting here the labyrinth of my sub-conscious and looking just at the everyday workings in my head that my head is aware of. I’m including meditation and mindfulness, since I do them every day at a basic level and in different contexts.
The literature divides up consciousness in a daunting variety of ways. But I see in myself mainly four modes.
The first is Awareness. This unfocused, baseline consciousness consists of plain sensory input with little or no processing beyond basic comprehension. It is the opposite of being asleep or unconscious. “Doctor, he’s regained consciousness.” It is the state I’m in when I idly watch a car go down the street, when I watch a movie, when I pick up the remote to change the channel. It includes familiar, unthinking actions like lifting a fork or saying “Hi. How are you?” Awareness feels passive but also primed for responsiveness.
My second mode of consciousness is Stream of Consciousness. This is a noticeable flow of words, images, and memories that moves along on its own through my head regardless of my surroundings. Sometimes, for me, this flow gets noisy and intrusive, a kaleidoscope with little or no focus. It includes vivid flashbacks and anxious glimpses of the future. But mostly it consists of words, a sort of thinking-lite. Human consciousness must have changed a lot around 100,000 years ago as the brain began to store names for images of things and for countless abstractions and relationships. The result was that we could say or think, “Why are you doing it that way?” and such flotsam has been popping up in our mental streams ever since.
Next, after Awareness and Stream of Consciousness, there’s Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a concentrated but relaxed and wordless attention to something. I experience brief periods of it during meditation, in between the moments when my Stream of Consciousness washes everything else out of my head for a while. Mindfulness is at the core of not only meditation but also any exercise of concentration such as painting, music, dance and other types of physical exertion. We are mindful when we observe the behavior of a squirrel or, fleetingly, when we take a picture of someone. Sometimes I sit for a minute to grasp the sensation of the night or the ocean or being alive. Such mindful consciousness has the quality of stepping closer to something, allowing us to experience it with greater clarity and peace.
Finally, there’s Language—as used for thinking, talking, listening, reading, writing. Language arose as a social tool, and it is essentially social even when we’re just thinking to ourselves; an audience is implied even when it’s not present. It may pop up in the Stream of Consciousness, but it’s the mental mode for extended episodes of talking, listening, and thinking, problem-solving mood. My wife and I discuss plans for the day, I think about a question for a blog post, I try to make a point in a conversation with someone, and I read a book for pleasure. While mute Mindfulness feels like I’m taking a step closer, language use sometimes feels like I’m stepping around and away from something to see it from other perspectives.
So these are the principle states that I most often catch my conscious mind in the midst of: general Awareness, swirling Stream of Consciousness, concentrated Mindfulness, and purposeful Language use. Trying to classify the different modes of your own consciousness is difficult. Despite your familiarity with your own mind, you may realize it’s not easy to find the categories that capture the differences in what goes on in your head in sensible ways. This isn’t surprising given the brain’s complexity. But the process is enlightening nonetheless. You come out of it seeing yourself differently.