What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is the way the mind processes information and assigns meaning.
There are probably as many definitions of “consciousness” as there are definitions of “love” or “god.” To sort these out, consider three words: awareness, perception, and consciousness.
In Buddhist circles, consciousness is sometimes a synonym for “awareness.” For example, “eye-consciousness” and “ear-consciousness” refer to awareness of sights and sounds. I find it less confusing to call them eye-awareness and ear-awareness. In this sense, awareness is raw, un-interpreted sensation: how a newborn perceives colors and shapes before there is any cognitive understanding.
Perception is the process of putting a label on a raw perception. Consider the image on the right. If you see the light areas as foreground and the dark as background, you may see the face of a woman with long hair. If you see the dark as foreground and light as background, you may see Bill Clinton playing a saxophone. The raw image is the same. The awareness is the same. But the perceptions are different.
How we process the information about and assign meaning to the longhaired woman or Bill Clinton depend on our consciousness. A philanderer and an ascetic may think about the woman differently. A Democrat and a Republican might think about Bill Clinton differently. But again, the raw awareness – the actual shapes and colors – are the same for all these people.
Consciousness is invisible. We can’t touch it like a like a rock, feel it like an emotion, or ponder it like a thought. Yet it effects how we perceive rocks, experience emotions, think about ideals, and define who we are.