Buddhism & Self-Awareness

I’m constantly amazed at how modern science echoes ancient Buddhist teachings over and over again.

Hell, some Buddhists were even talking about atoms 2,000 years ago. I went to school for psychology, and I always felt like something was missing. Then I stumbled on Buddhism. It filled in all the gaps in Western psychology that I didn’t even know were there.

I hope that, after reading this entry, you’ll have that same appreciation. This entry is gonna be a little more heady than usual because we’re talking about some heavy shit that I’m gonna try to approach without beating around the bush. Before we get started, we’ve gotta clarify some terms.

Consciousness & Awareness

We tend to treat consciousness and awareness like they’re synonymous. They’re not. Consciousness is conscious experience. Whatever we’re experiencing is technically a representation of stimuli in consciousness.

If we point at a red delicious apple and say, “That’s a red apple,” we’re actually wrong. It’s consciousness we’re experiencing. Outside of consciousness, the objective “apple” has no name or appearance.

We don’t have access to objective reality—the interacting conditions that provide our experience of the red apple—only subjective reality. What those objective conditions are is up for debate, and I’m not gonna get into it because they’re beside the point.

Buddhism is about ending suffering, and suffering doesn’t come from those unobservable conditions; it comes from our subjective experience.

Awareness is knowing consciousness. It’s insight, the knowledge we have about our experiences. Consciousness is subjective experience, awareness is the knowledge that subjective experience is subjective experience. The experience of what we call a red apple is consciousness; the understanding that, “That’s a red apple,” is awareness.

Self-consciousness is the experience of our bodies and minds; self-awareness is the understanding that they’re us or ours, our bodies and minds—not the apple’s.

Vijnana and jnana

We tend to translate vijnana as consciousness and jnana as wisdom. I don’t know who did that, but they were kind of dumb. Vi- means two, bi-, split, or differentiated. Jnana means awareness as we defined it above, aka knowledge.

So vijnana is literally translated as differentiating awareness or dualistic insight. Consciousness—as we define it in the West—isn’t pigeon-holed by any Buddhist term because it isn’t relevant to freedom from suffering.

Our problems aren’t caused by our experiences, they’re caused by how we understand our experiences. The problem isn’t consciousness, it’s differentiating awareness.

When we mistranslate these precise Buddhist terms, our practice gets fucked up from the get-go. We either think that we’re supposed to not experience anything when we meditate, or that nothing exists—even consciousness.

From the beginning, Buddhism has been about dropping that vi- from vijnana so that it’s only jnana. We’re kicking differentiation to the curb.

The True Nature of Things

Buddha said that: 1) Since no one has access to our minds, no one can enlighten us. We have to do it ourselves. 2) What we consider permanent is actually impermanent. Because of that, 3) What we think has an actual identity can’t be identified since it’s always changing. 4) What we think has its own characteristics, really has no characteristics; they’re all dependently arisen. Because of that, 5) What we think can be differentiated can’t be differentiated.

All of these misunderstandings (moha, also called delusions) are caused by confusion (avidya, or ignorance). To break free from suffering, we have to bring awareness to this confusion. To do that, we have to unbind all of those misunderstandings we have about ourselves and the world. When we stop differentiating, then we can see through this confusion to who we really are.

The Five Stages of Self-Awareness

Developmental psychologists have noticed that self-awareness goes through five stages of development.

Stage 0: Confusion. When we’re born, we’re conscious but not self-aware—meaning we have no knowledge about ourselves or the world. We don’t understand that there’s a separation between the mind, body, and the environment.

Infants can’t tell the difference between their bodies and everything around them, and they can’t tell the difference between what they’re feeling and what you’re feeling. Yes, they can feel your feelings; infants are highly empathetic.

Stage 1: Differentiation. After a few months, we realize that the body is separate from the surroundings. We still don’t have ideas like, “This body is me and mine,” but we have knowledge that the apple on the table isn’t part of us. Most animals have this degree of self-awareness as well. That’s why they don’t eat themselves.

Stage 2: Characteristics. Now we know that there are things about the body that are unique to it, and this understanding applies to everything else too. Grass is green and the sky is blue. But not everything that’s green is grass, and not everything that’s blue is the sky. Before this stage, we don’t understand that. If we somehow skipped this stage, we might see a blue ball on the table and say, “Look! The sky!”

Stage 3: Identification. This isn’t just a body, it’s my body. It’s me. Other bodies aren’t mine or me. What I’m feeling is mine. These toys are mine. “No, Johnny, that toy isn’t yours.” “Yes it is!”

Stage 4: Permanence. Not only is this my body, but it’s always my body, even when it looks differently over time. That tree is still the same tree, even when it loses its leaves.

Stage 5: Other Selves. We’re not the only ones with a mind and body. Our parents, friends, and everyone we meet has one too. They can’t read my thoughts or feel my feelings, and I can’t read or feel their’s.

During stage 5 a huge split happens in the mind that changes us for the rest of our lives, and it even influences the way we view time. Since other people can’t experience me the way I do, there’s a private self. The me they experience is the social self, which consists of their opinions and expectations of me.

Then we start a lifelong juggling act where we try to balance those two self-concepts. That creates more of them: the ideal self, and the non-ideal self. We set goals for ourselves that involve changing the way we think, feel, and behave to meet the ideals we (and others) have for ourselves.

After stage 5, we can’t just be ourselves anymore. We have to strive to be someone better.

Back to Buddhism

I’m not sure if you saw it or not, but Buddhists addressed all of those issues centuries ago, but their take on it was a little bit different.

Buddhists correctly identified the steps involved in self-awareness. Then they said, “Hold your horses, fella, we’ve gotta a problem.”
“What’s that?”
“Really, there’s no self.”
“What?! Why?”
“Because the self depends on permanence, an identity, and characteristics, and all of those things depend on differentiating awareness (vijnana). Really, nothing’s differentiated because everything’s constantly changing and interdependent.”
“How can you say that you fuckin’ nut job?”
“It’s nothing special. It’s evident even now. Just stop and see. There’s no separation between the mind, body, and the environment. Only false knowledge separates things.”
“There is too a sep—whoa.”


Consciousness isn’t the problem. Misinterpreting conscious experience is the problem. Consciousness is always unidifferentiated, even while you’re reading this.

What we call the self is only self-awareness, knowledge about the self. Without this knowledge, we can’t find a self anywhere in our experiences. We acquire this knowledge by ignoring our everyday conscious experience and imagining differentiation where there is none.

When we’re confused, we differentiate to make sense of things. The second we think that differentiation accurately reflects the way things are, we set up the conditions for suffering. The more we differentiate, the more we suffer, and the more suffering we cause.

Buddhism isn’t about abolishing awareness or consciousness. It’s about bringing awareness to consciousness. I misspoke when I said Buddhism doesn’t address the Western interpretation of consciousness. It does. It’s called tathata: Suchness. In Zen, we call it, “Just This.”

A Tathagata (another name for the Buddha) is someone who experiences and lives as Just This, who brings awareness to this naturally undifferentiated conscious experience.

Level 0 is only confusing because there’s consciousness without awareness, consciousness without understanding. The Buddhist path is about unlearning all the BS knowledge we used to make sense of this confusion, and replace it with 1) Knowing that our BS is BS, and 2) knowing consciousness as it is without all that BS.

Really, consciousness is just consciousness. It’s already complete. With each moment, including this one, we’re directly experiencing the way things really are, the way we really are. We can’t do anything but experience things the way they are.

And the way they are is present.

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