Nisargadatta's Difference Between
Consciousness & Awareness

This is a post I made to an Egroup devoted to the teachings of Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj.


Nisargadatta, who passed on in 1982, was a self-realized sage who taught a path of staying constantly with the inner question "Who am I?" This path of self-inquiry was also taught by the great sage Ramana Maharshi of Arunachala, who died in 1950. They both said that by dwelling on the question of our actual identity eventually a series of realizations occurs which leads to self realization or knowledge of the Self, which is not different from God-realization. This post deals with a subtle distinction made my Nisargadatta between the words "consciousness" and "awareness."


I have noticed in some posts a confusion, one which I also had when I first began reading Nisargadatta. It concerns the difference between the way he uses the two terms "consciousness" and "awareness."

Like most people I had always thought of these two words as meaning basically the same thing, but N. uses them to point to two very different meanings. When he uses the term "consciousness" he seems to equate that term with the "I Am " and when he talks about "awareness" he is pointing to something altogether beyond the consciousness ("I Am"), that is, to the absolute.

As far as I understand so far he is saying, of the consciousness, that it is all that we know, it is the fundamental sense of presence that we feel, and that it is a universal feeling of the sense of being. Consciousness = "sense of presence" = "the beingness" = the "I Am."

Those four terms are equated throughout his talks. And while he directs us, as we start out, to simply be aware of the "I Am" so that we come to the realization that we are the consciousness itself, and not the body or the mind or the mind's thoughts and identification, he does an amazing twist at the end of all that. When the realization has established itself that I am the consciousness itself (and he always points out that this means the universal consciousness only, the same in a human or a cow or a dog or an ant), when I realize that I am the "I am" he take us to the next realization which is when I subsequently realize that I am NOT the "I am," I am beyond that, I am pure awareness only!

These are breathtaking leaps! In his use of the word "consciousness" there is always the touch of the duality. If I am conscious it is in relation to being unconscious. If "I am" it is always in relation to the "not-me." If I am conscious it is always conscious OF something. Consciousness always has an object of which I am conscious. So while the realization of my identity as the "I am" is very much closer to reality than the idea that "I am so-and-so, a person" it is still a step away from the final realization of the absolute, that I am the non- dual awareness which is allowing the consciousness to be conscious. Awareness is that which is shining through the consciousness, but it is beyond the consciousness itself. So " awareness" is different from "consciousness" in Nisargadatta's talks. The pure awareness is the absolute, without which there can be no consciousness.

Another way he puts it is that the awareness "is that by which I know that I am." Thus the awareness is there before the "I am" (or consciousness) appears, and is there after the consciousness disappears (unconsciousness or death). So the awareness is beyond even the universal consciousness. Another way that he put this astonishing distinction is by saying that the absolute is "awareness unaware of itself." That statement of his is almost like a Zen koan, but I think the idea is of an awareness without a trace of distinction or duality. He speaks of it as "shining," and of it being an uncaused mystery. This is even beyond our idea of God, so he does not call it "God" but simply says "the absolute," or the ultimate reality, beyond time, which ever was and ever will be.

So while consciousness is always conscious OF something (dual), awareness is not OF something, it is not even aware OF itself, and thus is absolutely singular, nondual.

This difference between his use of the words "consciousness" and "awareness" took me a long time to grasp, because we don't really make this distinction in ordinary common English. Being conscious or being aware are thought of as the same. But Nisargadatta uses the terms differently and difference is a great key, I think, to understanding what he is trying to convey to us.

I was amazed when I first realized that he had played a kind of "trick" in leading us from one realization to another. This is the trick: first he is telling us to realize that we are really the "sense of presence" or the "sense of beingness," and when we finally realize that he turns us around to the next higher realization and says what seems to be the opposite: "NO, you are not that "I Am" either! You are beyond the beingness, beyond the consciousness, beyond the sense of presence, you are the pure awareness only by which the conscious has been able to come into being: you are the absolutely pure original awareness only." This latter realization can only proceed out of the former realization. First I must realize that I am the "I am," the universal consciousness, then out of that I can realize that I am NOT the "I am!" I am actually the absolute only, and nothing else REALLY exists at all! Everything else is no more real than a dream.

This is just breathtaking to me! No one else but Nisargadatta has ever made that line of realization clear to me. It is utterly simple, really, but difficult to stay with and crack open. Elegant but subtle. That is why he tells us that we must become completely obsessed with it. We must develop an intense NEED TO KNOW. You can't just play with it and expect to get anywhere. When he describes the time before his own realization he says that he was thinking and pondering about this nearly every single waking moment! He was OBSESSED to find out what he really was! The usual playing with words has no significance at that level of constant meditation. It simply becomes a life and death matter to really find out for oneself what one is. This is religion at it deepest level, the actual breakthrough into the absolute reality.

So the consciousness and the pure awareness are quite different really, although the consciousness can only exist because of the prior shining of pure awareness. The awareness, on the other hand, does not depend on any way whatsoever on the consciousness, and is not even touched by it. The consciousness comes and goes, waking and sleeping, birth and death, but the awareness is always there. The consciousness suddenly appears in the morning on top of the birthless and deathless ever existing pure nondual awareness. Other than that absolute, there is really nothing.

Another interesting thing that is confusing at first is how Nisargadatta keeps hammering away at the question about "When did you first appear? What was that exact moment when you first knew that you ARE?" That is a very difficult question, but he says it is of extreme importance to contemplate. I can't remember when I first knew that I was! I have no idea! Isn't that rather mysterious in itself? I still puzzle over this a lot but I am beginning to suspect that perhaps his stressing of this question might be to prepare us for the final realization: that I am NOT that "I Am." In other words, this "I am" had a beginning, seemed to appear out of nowhere, and it will have an end. So I must be beyond that "I am," because I am the knower of that "I am." I am not actually the "I am" but rather THAT which is aware of the "I am."

It took me years to figure this much out. Each realization builds on and becomes possible because of the previous realizations, and the final realization can even seem to contradict a previous realization.

1. First I realize I am not all this other stuff that people usually think they are. I am not a person. The person is memories, knowledge, habits, and other false identies: "Mr. So- and-so." So I dispense with that. I can see that it is all a false identity made up by thoughts.

2. Then I realize I am not even the more intimate stuff that people usually think they are. I am not the body (that is the toughest one, as Nisargadatta points out again and again). I am not the mind or its thoughts either. I am not the chemistry of all this either. One could spend an entire lifetime and not ever get through this realization.

3. Then I realize that if I subtract all the above, what is left? Only my sense of existing itself, my sense of presence, my sense of being here, the consciousness. I realize that I am that consciousness only, the feeling of existing. I must be THAT. What IS that? It is very subtle. But now I am coming closer. This is the realization of the mystical phrase "I am that I am." And along with this stage of realization comes the realization of my universality. This realization of the "I am" brings with it the explosive understanding that there is no such thing as an individual, the "I am" is universal, everyone and every living thing is feeling it the same way. We don't ourselves create our sense of "I am." Rather we inherit the prior existing sense of presence of the original beingness which spontaneously first appeared on the background of the void, or the object-less pure awareness.

4. When I am thus established in sense of identity with this universal sense of presence, or the "I am," I am at last poised for the final realization. Remember, the realization of the "I am" is already a very high state, and many will simply stop here to enjoy living in the universal personless beingness. This is the knowledge of God and the knowledge that I am God. But some rare ones keep going and keep questioning deeper and come to the breakthrough realization that ALL beingness, even the beingness of "God" is still a form of illusion and duality, and they will realize and move into and "become" the pure awareness only, giving up even that last and very high identity as the universal "I am." The consciousness will continue on no doubt, and the all the activities of life, but the identity of myself will now be fixed back at its original home, the pure awareness which was prior to consciousness.

This last step is still incomprehensible to me but I love to think about it again and again. Many can give up the lesser false identifications, casting them off like tattered old clothes and stripping naked down to the singular universal consciousness. But who can give up that very sense of beingness itself? We LOVE to be, and fear terribly not being anymore. It is frightening! Looked at from a lower level the final realization seems like absolute and utter anihilation itself, and who on earth wants to be completely anihilated? Thus, very few rare souls ever realize the final realization! Above all, I WANT TO BE!

But the true sage makes the final realization and the final step and is in fact completely anihilated. "He" ceases to exist, and all that is left of him is what was there at the beginning of the world, as Buddha became the Void itself and entered into the great nirvana. A friend of mine called it "The Great Suicide." Then one realizes the final incredible and terrifying reality: there is nothing. And though really and truly there is absolutely nothing, at the same time that nothingness is inexplicably filled to fullness with an indescribable "something which is not a thing," the pure awareness, the absolute, unaware of itself. That is the one and only "thing-which-is-not- a-thing" which is truly real. All else is false, a fraud made of spacetime, of things which begin and end and come and go, the Great Maha Maya, the dreams of the universal mind.

That a human creature can realize THAT is a miracle to me, a miracle in this incredible dream-Creation. The whole thing boggles the mind. The mind cannot grasp it, because the mind is too limited. As all the sages have sung, it is not a matter of gaining anything, it is just a matter of removing stuff, and removing more stuff, until that which was always there begins to shine through. Certainly I can't CREATE the ultimate reality. All I can do is clean the mirror so that light of the incomprehensible pure awareness can reflect through the mirror and shine. That is why Nisargadatta says that self realization is very simple and easy, and yet it is very subtle and difficult. Removing all the dirt from the mirror is not so easy as it might seem, although that is really all that needs to be done.

Above all, in contemplating all this, one feels sometimes like bowing down and thanking heaven that sages like Nisargadatta, and so many others, especially in ancient times (like the "satya yuga" or age of truth), have taken birth and shown the way. As N. points out, our lives, if we sum it all up, are primarily an experience of suffering overall. One thing or another, from birth to death, there are endless problems, unfullfilled desires, stuggle and effort, and suffering. Now and then a few happy moments to keep us going. In fact, if there were no such possibility as realization and liberation one might well say that suicide were a preferable way out and an answer to the sufferings of life.

But that awareness has broken through in the cases of so many sages and saints and proven throughout all of human history that a glorious freedom is indeed possible. From the ancient Vedas and Upanishads to the teachings of the Christ, again and again, certain rare ones have demonstrated to mankind that evolution into the likes of angels is possible. For this we must be ever grateful throughout our journeys, and follow the teachings and instructions of those like Nisargadatta, with great earnestness, love and joy.