The Difference Between Consciousness, Witnessing and Awareness

Discrimination between the real and the unreal is the key to realizing truth. The ultimate discrimination is between Awareness, and Objects superimposed on Awareness. The journey towards this discrimination begins by becoming more and more conscious of the activities of one’s mind. The root cause of our misery is primarily “ignorance”, a thick veil of unconscious, that keeps deluding us from the nature of reality, by creating fear and desire. Since unconsciousness, or as Vedanta calls it – tamas – is the root cause of ignorance, becoming conscious of the activities of one’s mind is the beginning of one’s journey to liberation.

As one becomes more and more conscious of one’s entire mind, one gradually becomes to be a witness rather than a doer/thinker. Or to put it another way, one becomes more of an Observer to the Thinker and the Thought. The Witness is a stage where one transcends the duality between the Thinker and the Thought. However, ‘witnessing’ is still not the end of duality. Though one duality has been seen through, a more fundamental duality appears – the duality between the Observer and the Observed or the duality between the Subject and the Object. Advaita Vedanta approaches this duality by making the Subject as real – as Atman/Brahman – and the Object as unreal or Maya/Prakriti or Ignorance. The ultimate reality for Advaitins is Formless Brahman/Nirguna Brahman/Akshara Brahman. All forms are seen to be Maya – a play of illusion created by Brahman.

However, a more Integral View would not ‘qualify’ reality by any attribute, even with the attribute ‘formless’. Moreover, the Advaitic explanation of Maya (the Object/Observed) being something inexplicable and beginning less could never cut the ice with me. Aurobindo has written a very logical and clear critique of this view which I shall present in another blog post. Krishnamurti too, did not consider the Absolute reality to be only ‘formless’. He talked of living truth which existed from moment to moment and which did not exclude the world of forms.

If one pursues the Advaitic Path by abiding as Witness (Subject), negating the Superimpositions/Prakriti (Objects), then one finally finds liberation in a formless Brahman, called Akshara Brahman/Immutable Brahman, in Bhagavad Gita. But this is a quietistic path. A path of inaction and escape from the suffering of the material world of forms. It does not want to ‘deal’ with the world and find liberation within it. There is another form of liberation which is not an escape, which is about finding liberation in this world and not creating  a gulf between this world and truth. This is the Integral Path, a path that leads to realizing the Absolute or Parabrahman – the Integral and Ultimate Reality, which is neither this nor that – which is both Forms and Formless; and beyond both of them. As Aurobindo writes,

Being is not Parabrahman nor is Non-Being Parabrahman; these are only affirmative and negative terms in which Consciousness envisages its self-existence.

Parabrahman is beyond Knowledge because Knowledge cannot comprehend that which comprehends it and is anterior to itself.

The beginning of Wisdom is to renounce the attempt to know the Unknowable.

So to consciously establish identity with the Absolute/Parabrahman, the Witness has to dissolve in Awareness. Awareness is Integral, it is Parabrahman, without any duality, and beyond all descriptions. The Witness may dissolve into Akshara Brahman (Immutable Self) and the person moves to extinction from the world of forms; or the Witness may dissolve into Parbrahman/Awareness, in which case it is liberated into an Integral truth, a truth encompassing, and at the same time going beyond the world of Forms and the Formless, or Being and Non-Being.

To bring out the experiential side of Consciousness, Witnessing and Awareness yet more clearly, I am reproducing an excerpt from Osho : Meditation, the Art of Ecstacy. I have never been a great fan of Osho but the way he has brought out the difference between these terms in this excerpt, I have not seen it done by anyone so far. Before you proceed to read this extract, if you ask me in one line, the difference between Witnessing and Awareness, I would say it is the difference between Effort and total Effortlessness …….. in experiential terms.

Consciousness, Witnessing and Awareness

What is the difference between awareness and witnessing?

There is much difference between awareness and witnessing. Witnessing is still an act; you are doing it; the ego is there. So the phenomenon of witnessing is divided between the subject and the object.

Witnessing is a relationship between subject and object. Awareness is absolutely devoid of any subjectivity or objectivity. There is no one who is witnessing in awareness; there is no one who is being witnessed. Awareness is a total act, integrated; the subject and the object are not related in it; they are dissolved. So awareness doesn’t mean that anyone is aware; nor does it mean that anything is being attended to.

Awareness is total – total subjectivity and total objectivity as a single phenomenon – while in witnessing a duality exists between subject and object. Awareness is nondoing; witnessing implies a doer. But through witnessing awareness is possible, because witnessing means that it is a conscious act; it is an act, but conscious. You can do something and be unconscious – our ordinary activity is unconscious activity – but if you become conscious in it, it becomes witnessing.

So from ordinary unconscious activity to awareness there is a gap that can be filled by witnessing.

Witnessing is a technique, a method toward awareness.

It is not awareness but, compared to ordinary activity, unconscious activity, it is a higher step. Something has changed: activity has become conscious, unconsciousness has been replaced by consciousness. But something more still has to be changed. That is, the activity has to be replaced by inactivity. That will be the second step.

It is difficult to jump from ordinary, unconscious action into awareness. It is possible but arduous, so a step in between is helpful. If one begins by witnessing conscious activity, then the jump becomes easier – the jump into awareness without any conscious object, without any conscious subject, without any conscious activity at all.

This doesn’t mean that awareness isn’t consciousness; it is pure consciousness, but no one is conscious about it.

There is a further difference between consciousness and awareness. Consciousness is a quality of your mind, but it is not your total mind. Your mind can be both conscious and unconscious; but when you transcend your mind, there is no unconsciousness and no corresponding consciousness. There is awareness.

Awareness means that the total mind has become aware. Now the old mind is not there but there is the quality of being conscious. Awareness has become the totality; the mind itself is now part of the awareness. We cannot say that the mind is aware; we can only meaningfully say that the mind is conscious.

Awareness means transcendence of the mind, so it is not the mind that is aware. It is only through transcendence of the mind, through going beyond mind, that awareness becomes possible.

Consciousness is a quality of the mind, awareness is the transcendence; it is going beyond the mind. Mind, as such, is the medium of duality, so consciousness can never transcend duality. It is always conscious of something, and there is always someone who is conscious. So consciousness is part and parcel of the mind, and mind, as such, is the source of all duality, of all divisions – whether they are between subject and object, activity or inactivity, consciousness or unconsciousness. Every type of duality is mental. Awareness is nondual, so awareness means the state of no mind.

Then what is the relationship between consciousness and witnessing? Witnessing is a state, and consciousness is a means toward witnessing. If you begin to be conscious, you achieve witnessing. If you begin to be conscious of your acts, conscious of your day-to-day happenings, conscious of everything that surrounds you, then you begin to witness.

Witnessing comes as a consequence of consciousness. You cannot practice witnessing; you can only practice consciousness. Witnessing comes as a consequence, as a shadow, as a result, as a byproduct. The more you become conscious, the more you go into witnessing, the more you come to be a witness.

So consciousness is a method to achieve witnessing. And the second step is that witnessing will become a method to achieve awareness.

So these are the three steps: consciousness, witnessing, awareness.
But where we exist is the lowest rank: that is, in unconscious activity. Unconscious activity is the state of our minds. Through consciousness you can achieve witnessing, and through witnessing you can achieve awareness, and through awareness you can achieve “no achievement.” Through awareness you can achieve all that is already achieved. After awareness there is nothing; awareness is the end.

Awareness is the end of spiritual progress.
In awareness you lose the witness and only witnessing remains: you lose the doer, you lose the subjectivity, you lose the egocentric consciousness. Then consciousness remains, without the ego. The circumference remains without the center.

This circumference without the center is awareness. Consciousness without any center, without any source, without any motivation, without any source from which it comes – a “no source” consciousness – is awareness.

So you move from the unaware existence that is matter, prakriti, towards awareness. You may call it the divine, the godly, or whatever you choose to call it. Between matter and the divine, the difference is always of consciousness.

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