Basic definitions of Awareness, Attention, Understanding, and Intelligence

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Acharya Prashant: Kundan (questioner) has asked for these four terms: ‘awareness’, ‘intelligence’, ‘attention’ and ‘understanding’.

The word awareness is meaningful in only in the context of the word consciousness. Consciousness is a divisive phenomenon. To be conscious of something is to be something and know the other thing. Consciousness is always in duality. You always say, “I am conscious of something.”

When you go close to what you are conscious of, when you are really inclined to know and realize the object of consciousness, then you soon discover that it is impossible to know that object without turning inwards. You have to know the subject also. The more you want to know the object the more you have to turn towards the subject. The more you turn towards subject the more you see that the subject and object are inseparable; that they are the one. If they are one, then the distance between the subject and object disappears. Now there is no telling apart, they are one and hence there is nothing. Subject and object hold meaning only when they are separate.

When you are one with the object of your consciousness, when you are one with the world, then there is no point in saying you and the world; then there is just one entity and that one entity is neither you nor the world. Both you and the world disappear. This disappearance is the end of consciousness. This disappearance is the end of duality. An empty space free of consciousness remains and this is awareness. So in awareness, there is no you and there is no world.

You can always claim that you are conscious of something but could never say, “I am aware of something.” In awareness, there is neither I nor something. This also tells us about the nature of consciousness. The more deeply you are conscious of something, the more that thing starts disappearing. Now, this is contrary to the popular perception. What happens is that the more we say we are conscious of something, the bigger it becomes an image in our mind.

Reality is different.

As the level of consciousness increases, the world starts getting more and more hazy.

The boundary line between you and the world start getting blurred. 

You start seeing yourself in whatever you see. 

You start finding it difficult to go just by what your eyes are telling you. 

An alternate starts emerging. That alternate is not the world but just the absence of the world. So in some sense, as consciousness heightens it disappears; as consciousness rises it also sublimates. Sublimates not only in the sense of achieving a peak but also in the sense of getting wiped off. It reaches a conclusion.

Awareness is the highest point of consciousness.

Awareness is when you are so acutely aware that there is left nothing to be conscious of, and there is nobody left who can be conscious. 

It is some kind of meta-consciousness. So, you can be conscious, but you cannot be aware. There is just awareness. Neither you nor any object, just awareness.

Is that clear?

Similarly, the world understanding is only relevant in the context of thoughts.

What consciousness is to awareness, thoughts are to understanding. So you are thinking, thinking, and thinking in the process in consciousness. But if your thinking is well directed, soon thought will come to a point of dissolution. Now the thought is gone. Not that thought has reached some kind of condensation, it is just gone. Not that thought has reached some kind of crystallization, it is just gone. Not that you have received the answer to your question, the question is just gone.

This is understanding.

Just like awareness, understanding can have no object. Just like awareness, it is not really correct to say that, “I understand this or that.” Yes, in your normal everyday parlance you’d still sometimes say that I understood what you said but deeply you must know that understanding is not about having somebody’s words or sentence as an object. In fact, try to bring that in your language as well because language can be a source of a so much of confusion. Catch yourself using these words improperly. You could say, “I appreciate what you say” but never say, “I understand.” Use the word ‘understanding’ with care.

Then there is intelligence and attention.

The mind is a place where two distinct forces operate:

One is a force of unification; the force of oneness which brings all the fragments of mind to a common center. It is like a magnet attracting many tiny pieces, scraps of iron which are lying scattered and there is a powerful magnet at the center which is attracting all those scattered pieces to one particular center. And then there is the force of division and fragmentation which takes the different pieces away and away in multifarious directions.

The mind is constantly split between these two forces. The force that unites the mind to the center is the force of attention. Opposite to this is the force of dissipation and hence attention, the word attention, holds any significance only in the presence of another world call it dissipation or distraction.

Attention is the coming together of the mind’s energies towards the one center. Just coming together is not sufficient, they have to also come together towards the center. If they’re not coming towards the center than it is merely concentration. You can push your mind, you can generalize your energy towards any particular object that cannot be called attention that is merely concentration.

Attention is when the fragments of the mind get directed towards the center and only the center. I am repeating, concentration is easy because it is easy for the mind to be directed totally towards an object of its desire — that is concentration. You want something or you’re afraid of something your mind becomes total in looking at it, we will not call it attention.

Attention is when the mind that is split, the mind that has come far away from the home wants to return; when all these splinter elements of the mind want to get reunified and reunified at the center, that is an attention. Are you getting it?

So, when you just want to know about something, it is not attention.

When you are really curious in your inquiry that is also not attention.

Attention is when you want to reach the utter depth and you will not stop at any point in between.

Attention is when you say that I have to reach the very truth which is at the foundation of anything.

Of course, attention will start with the fragment. So at the beginning of attention, there would be the process of thought and consciousness and at the other end of the attention, will be just silence and peace. Or you could say, at the other end of attention there will be simple understanding or awareness. Call it whatever you want.

Attention takes the mind on a journey. Understanding is a state of finality. Awareness too is a finality. Nothing is happening there. In understanding, all happening has ceased. In awareness too all happening has ceased and understanding and awareness are just the same. But in attention, things happen, it is a movement; it is not a cessation.

In attention, there is a movement from consciousness to awareness, from the periphery to the center, from the fragments to unification. That is why I say that attention is the bridge between thoughts and understanding — starts with thought end with understanding.

Then there is intelligence.

What is intelligence?

The mind, just as we said, is the field of the interplay between two forces, one of unification and the other of separation. Similarly, the mind can also be seen as the field of play between two forces — one of realization and other of ignorance or illusion.

Intelligence is the force within the mind, the foundation of the mind that helps one see, realize and discriminate. There is much in the mind which prevents one from realizing and there is much in the mind which helps one to realize. What helps you realize is called intelligence. Getting it?  That which helps you realize is intelligence.

Listener 1: Sir, Adishankara uses the term  Vivek (discretion). Is it the same as Intelligence?

AP: Discrimination or discretion is just a function of intelligence.

Intelligence not only discriminates, it also unifies; it not only reject, it also surrenders.

So, ‘Vivek’ or the faculty to discriminate is just a small function of intelligence. When you really see the false against the Truth you not only reject the false but parallelly you also surrendered to the Truth. Intelligence is wider than Vivek. Or you could say that Intelligence is Vivek expressed in its totality. It is the full and complete flowering of Vivek. Vivek would just mean that you’re able to see the light as different from darkness. Intelligence says, “Now, that you have seen light, be light.”

L2: Sir, if everything is Truth, if everything is godly than why it needs to discriminate?Then what is the need of this intelligence or Vivek?

AP: For whom is the need?

For whom is the need? Is the need for someone who is seeing everything as good? Is everything godly for the common man? The common mind is always living in duality and hence always making choices, always differentiating or is he saying that no, everything is just godly, that all is truth? So, when you are making choices then you should be able to make intelligent choices.

The one who is already living in intelligence does not need to be told about intelligence. Actually, for him the word intelligence becomes meaningless. He is already living, breathing, eating in intelligence. When we are saying that, ‘All is God’, is that a mere statement?

To a mind that is busy escaping from something or achieving something or differentiating between this and that, living in distinction, having choices, all is not good at all. He is seeing things differently, for him there is diversity. And when there is diversity for you than it is important to understand what is what. This is intelligence.

If diversity has ceased to exist for you, iIf day and night are same for you then the word intelligence has no meaning, no use. But if day and night are still different for you, if friends and enemies are still different for you, then the word intelligence holds great significance. Then you should be really able to distinguish. That is intelligence.

What is the foundation on which you distinguish? How do you distinguish?

The way it has been classically said is, “If it is subject to time and space than it cannot be the one Truth, this is intelligence. If it belongs merely to this world and is not pointing to something beyond then it is worthless. This is intelligence.” This is the basis on which the intelligent mind makes its choices.

And remember, we are only talking about those who are still making choices. If you’re someone who is living choicelessly, then intelligence has no meaning for you, you’re already home. To the ones were still making choices this is how intelligent choices are made. Whenever you have to choose just ask yourself, ‘Is this just of the world or is a pointing to something beyond; with this do I become peaceful; with this does love arise in my heart?’

Love and Peace are of the beyond and they should be the determining feature of your choices.

Will it just come and go away in time or will it give me a flavour of the timeless? So many things keep happening to me will it just one of those things or will it give me something that things cannot give me? Will it just be an event within the normal run of my consciousness or will it elevate the level of consciousness itself?’ — This is how intelligence operates.

You see, when you say attention, the context is of knowing and when you say intelligence, the context is of separating. When you pay attention to something you want to know what that thing is. Attention always starts from thought. Right? One end of attention is always thought and thought always has an object. You want to really know what it is. So attention has an object whose reality is to be known. Intelligence has an object that needs verification. Intelligence has something as its object from whom the falseness has to be separated. Just the difference of context; in which context are you using these words.

L3: So right now when we say we are attentive or we are aware it is actually we are conscious of it?

AP: When you are listening to me, you need to be attentive. When you are looking at the world you need intelligence. Is the difference clear?

L4: Sir, understanding and awareness cannot be used because when they are there used there is no ‘I’.

AP: They cannot be used including in this sentence. ‘I understand’ can be said and that would only mean ‘I don’t exist’. You can say, ‘I understand’ but when you say ‘I understand’ then you should know the responsibility. To say ‘I understand’ is a huge responsibility. It is akin to saying that ‘I don’t exist, I am egoless’. So it is with that seriousness that you should use this sentence.

L4: So ‘I’ is just utilitarian.

AP: Carrier; something to enable the formation of sentence otherwise you will just say, ‘Understand’ and nobody will know what has been said. So just to cope with the rule of grammar you’ll say, ‘I understand’.

It is just like spoon carrying the ice cream. You don’t eat the spoon.


Excerpts from a ‘Shabd-Yoga’ session. Edited for clarity.

Watch the session: Acharya Prashant: Basic definitions of Awareness, Attention, Understanding, and Intelligence | YouTube


Further Reading:

Advait in Everyday Life

final-book-cover_advait-in-everyday-life-4-copy

Advait has since long been revered as the crown jewel of all spiritual philosophies. However, there are very few books, if any at all, that practically demonstrate the presence, applications, methods and benefits of living as per the golden teaching of Advait-Vedanta.

This book is a much needed and rare attempt to bring spirituality and philosophical teachings to everyday life. The author’s genius lies in being delightfully able to bridge the abstract world of theorizations and principles with day-to-day circumstances, happenings, emotions and relationships.

Paperback: https://goo.gl/GbHByV

Kindle: https://goo.gl/VXdQdA

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