Defining Consciousness

Defining Consciousness

A discussion on a definition of consciousness came up in another forum. The author was surprised to discover that at a Nonduality conference, most couldn’t or were unwilling to define consciousness. They could say profound things about it but not define it. He also found attendees didn’t think there was a definition and that many think we can’t or shouldn’t define it. He went on to offer a definition of “Observerless Limitless Beingness”.

I responded with some feedback on the topic, edited slightly here for context.

One of the dynamics of the awakening process is that we recognize ourselves as consciousness. But because we are it, it is difficult to define. Like trying to understand what your head looks like without a mirror. We’re immersed in it. Also, within consciousness itself, it is experienced as limitless being. Thus there is no sense of it’s fundamental nature or origins. It appears as eternal and boundless.

The key is, we don’t know it’s origins so don’t know it’s fundamental components. Thus it becomes awkward to define.

But we know from science that there can be infinities within infinities. And it turns out consciousness (I use it interchangeably with awareness here) does have an origin. The Sanskrit word is Brahman, though that’s often used for things like simple presence as well. And it’s true that everything is Brahman.

The key is there is a stage of the development of nonduality where one transcends Atman/ consciousness into Brahman. The Vedas call this the Great Awakening and this process is the primary subject of the Brahma Sutras. (although this is not widely understood)

In this process, you discover the origins of consciousness and thus it becomes much easier to define. Having the ultimate in abstraction make sense to others is another matter.

I raise the point because your definition won’t hold up to this. Consciousness is limitless but only to itself. It actually has an “outside edge” so to speak. Also Being/existence is an effect of self-aware consciousness. It requires an observer. No observer, no beingness.

Consciousness is the effect of 2 “qualities” of Brahman – a tendency to alertness and a tendency to liveliness. Liveliness stirs alertness into awareness and awareness flows. This is called Saguna Brahman in the Vedas, Brahman with qualities.

The effect is the 3 aspects of consciousness – the development of observer, of the process of observation (flow), and the object of observation aka creation. Liveliness initiates all of it.

Together you have infinite consciousness, aware of itself both globally (atman) and at every point within itself (as all forms and life). We might call that “Observed Limitless Beingness” I adjusted the first word because it is self-aware globally as well, even if we’re not aware of that yet.

I also wrote about the subject a couple of years ago in a magazine article. My understanding has matured further on the topic with articles like this. I would write a bit better conclusion to the magazine article now, but it would remain profoundly abstract.

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  1. Jim Flanegin

    Thanks. The Great Awakening. Indeed – precious Atman continues to exist, much as an organ of the body, still necessary for interacting in this world, but it is no longer the driver of life. Its needs are still known, and tended to, but more as a result of the perfection of Brahman.

    Suffering, the contrast Atman sees between itself and Brahman is seen as just that, simply a contrast, transforming the experience from suffering, which is only possible with Atman identification, to learning, knowledge and wisdom.

    Any underlying desire driving this process is automatically fulfilled, in terms of Brahman, in terms of our surrender to Brahman, so it is far more than an intellectual exercise, and becomes the intentional basis of life itself. I particularly liked your point in this regard about Atman being globally self-aware – very interesting, and useful to keep in mind.

    Thanks again for writing about this – quite a rare find! A chance to relax, and unpack, for a bit. 🙂

  2. Hi Jim
    Interesting point about suffering. I’d never framed it that way. But you’re right. Even in the cosmic, there is drama as illustrated by the ancient epics and stories of gods, etc.

    Certainly the suffering of Atman isn’t personal the same way as the suffering of the ego but when we go beyond Atman, that too falls away.

    Amusing you use the word “unpack”. I’m doing the opposite at the moment – packing. For a move to a new home in a nearby smaller city.

    1. Jim Flanegin

      Excellent! Yes, it is like that 100x increase of bliss you spoke of in another post, but it manifests like a symphony directly within the circumstances of our lives.

      A similar thing occurred personally, and it took me *nine months* (hmmmm…) simply to comprehend, and familiarize myself with, the extent of my huge ongoing success, much less figure out what to do next – lol.

      Intimate Brahman, or the descent of Brahman, is what it feels like, the other side of the dance, so that an incomprehensibly large and tangible benefit manifests out of nowhere, and continues to do so. Like nothing else I have ever experienced. It almost feels like magic, if not for the complete surrender and humility that comes with it.:-)

  3. Agreed, Jim. Funny things too – like I won the big door prize at several large events in a row. Really annoyed some friends because it was something important to them and I didn’t even know I was in the contest. (laughs)

    Sometimes, stuff shows up before I’ve had a chance to think about it. And sometimes there are lags while timing comes together, then it all happens quickly.

    One amusing bit currently. Several things I gave away or sold when I downsized for grad school have been offered back to me.

  4. Joel

    Davidya, it’s nice to discover that my presentation on Observerless Limitless Beingness received some attention. My 14 page paper explains it much better than I could in a 20 minute presentation, but two things are worth emphasizing I think. One is that “observerless awareness” is a real, direct, human experience, and I gave several examples of teachers who describe it (silent mind). It is how we experience “pure beingness” after we as observers are removed from the experience. Two is that that the word consciousness itself is overburdened, as it is used for both process and function. A big part of my presentation tried to establish that. We could communicate better if we were to apply the other poorly defined words awareness, mind, and intelligence as the process for example, and consciousness as the structure. My real hope was to open a discussion on how to agree on a consciousness nomenclature so science can find a nondual perspective on consciousness that is useful. This will take more work course. My next presentation is a poster at SAND 15 in October. Perhaps that will get the idea across in a more comprehensible way. Great blog btw.

  5. Hi Joel
    If your paper is available online, you’re welcome to post a link here. I didn’t link because there wasn’t a useful way to.

    Yes, I can appreciate the need for more standardized nomenclature. Part of the issue is in the lack of agreed upon definitions in the first place. Unless you can agree on definitions, there will be no standard terminology.

    And yes, I know some teachers speak of “observerless” and this is an experience. And actually, it can refer to one of 2 things – the loss of the sense of “me” with initial Self Realization can lead to a period of being without a point of reference in limitless being. This is usually temporary though.

    Later on, in the Unity stage, observer and observed merge leaving only observing. We can call this observerless but it is not without observing so I disagree on the phrasing.

    The vast majority of people experience consciousness as the observer or witness. Thus, you cannot define it as observerless. Rather this is a quality of a certain stage of development rather than of consciousness itself.

    I can also note there is a further stage where we go beyond consciousness and being into a fuller value of nonduality. All of this is based on experiences of people today and historically via the Vedas.

    I’d also suggest “nondual” is overburdened. It is a quality of a stage of development that is often confused with other stages. For example, Self Realization is often associated with an inner wakefulness and an illusory world. As Shankara (the founder of modern nonduality) observed, that illusory quality is an effect of dominant rajas. And you’ll note there is 2 things there. Even if one is illusory, the illusion is still separate so it’s not non-dual – it’s dwaita. So even non-duality is not well understood at a non-duality conference.

    We’ll probably be able to meet then. I’ll be doing a talk at SAND myself this fall on the stages touched on above. As you note, I’m not sure what I’ll be able to cover in the allotted time but we’ll see.

  6. If you’d like some context for the stages I mention, I’d suggest this overview:

    If you’re going to understand consciousness, you can’t leave out the process by which it unfolds to itself. Some teachers deny stages or avoid concepts of stages as a barrier. And while agree the map is not the road, it’s a really good idea to have some context for what is unfolding. Many people are shifting into stages that most modern teachings don’t recognize.

  7. Joel Weddington

    Hi Davidya,

    Wonderful breakdown of stages of consciousness and you’re obviously very experienced and authentic in transmitting this knowledge. The challenge for me is to relate my model for understanding consciousness in a way that is scientifically useful. I’ve completed my spiritual understanding, and am now intrigued that science is lost on the subject. There’s no way I can relate that in a blog post or an elevator speech. At some point, people may decide to take an hour and read my actual paper, which is available on It is a work done with love and light, but a very different sort of work than to promote enlightenment. Thanks for your work on that path. Joel

  8. Joel Weddington

    My paper on a scientific definition of consciousness, and also the rough draft “A Cosmological Model for Consciousness” is available at my site Thanks for the opportunity to post that. It is targeted for scientists or nondual thinkers who have an interest in science and consciousness studies. Looking forward to attending your presentation at SAND 15 where my poster will be presented.

  9. You’re welcome, Joel.
    Just a point for your own clarity. From the original perspective of Nonduality in India, the average person does not experience duality, they experience multiplicity. Many different states and perspectives. They may notice apparent opposites like hot and cold or heart and mind but these are polarities, not dualities in the classical sense.

    When there is a shift in being to Self Realization, then you come to dwaita or duality. There is an inner silent observer and an outer world – 2 distinct things. This is a common state of many who have shifted and are teaching.

    Only later, when those 2 – inner and outer – are merged into one do you begin the unfolding of true nonduality. This is not widely understood in many modern “neo-advaita” circles. Many who are talking nonduality are actually speaking of duality.

  10. This is part of why I’m giving the talk at SAND. To take another step at clearing up some of the misconceptions. There are other speakers at the conference who think as I do, like Igor K, Rick Archer, etc.

    But also, to offer a framework for science. For example, some have begun to posit Transpersonal stages of development but that school of thought has been leaning on Buddhism. While Buddha spoke to all the stages, this understanding has largely been lost in modern Buddhist thought.

    I should also note that this isn’t my idea. I’m simply bringing modern terms to many thousands of years old understanding of human potential.

  11. Finally, I would note that I would be very careful about statements like “I’ve completed my spiritual understanding”.

    True spiritual understanding comes from direct experience. Each change in stage of development obliges a new evaluation of everything we understood before.

    Thinking one complete can be both a barrier to new understanding and is an obstacle to proper science as well.

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