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#3999 - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - Editor: Jerry Katz  

The Nonduality Highlights -    

Colin Drake was my guest on Nonduality Street radio this Tuesday.

You may hear the show as a podcast at      


Awareness and the Brain


Colin Drake



In reply to a recent article a critic wrote: 'There cannot be any awareness  unless there is one who is aware  and, what/who is it that is aware? The brain of course!  Before the brain existed & upon its death there was no & will be no  awareness.'


This is the mind's central argument against the realization that deeper than mind/body (which is experienced as a flow of thoughts/mental images/physical sensations) is pure awareness. (Further than that, this is what we are at this deepest level!) The argument goes that without the brain 'we' would not be aware (of anything), therefore upon its death there will be no awareness. This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the word 'awareness', which is quite understandable as I use this word in a very particular way. Which I hope will be made clear by the following excerpt from Beyond the Separate Self :


Before starting, we need to discuss the nature of awareness itself. It is obvious that we would not ‘know’ (be aware of) our own perceptions without awareness being present. This does not mean that we are always conscious of each one of them, as this is dictated by where we put our attention, or upon what we focus our mind. However, all sensations detected by the body, and thoughts/mental images occurring in the mind, appear in awareness, and we can readily become conscious of them by turning our attention to them. So awareness is like the screen on which all of our thoughts and sensations appear, and the mind becomes conscious of these by focusing on them. Take, for example, what happens when you open your eyes and look at a beautiful view: everything seen immediately appears in awareness, but for the mind to make anything of this it needs to focus upon certain elements of what is seen. ‘There is an amazing tree’, ‘wow look at that eagle’, ‘what a stunning sky’, etc. To be sure, you may just make a statement like ‘what a beautiful view’, but this does not in itself say much and is so self-evident as to be not worth saying!


The point is that the mind is a tool for problem-solving, information storing, retrieval and processing, and evaluating the data provided by our senses. It achieves this by focusing on specific sensations, thoughts or mental images that are present in awareness, and ‘processing’ these. In fact we only truly see ‘things as they are’ when they are not seen through the filter of the mind, and this occurs when what is encountered is able to ‘stop the mind’. For instance we have all had glimpses of this at various times in our lives, often when seeing a beautiful sunset, a waterfall or some other wonderful natural phenomenon. These may seem other-worldly or intensely vivid, until the mind kicks in with any evaluation when everything seems to return to ‘normal’. In fact nature is much more vivid and alive when directly perceived, and the more we identify with the ‘perceiver’, as awareness itself, the more frequently we see things ‘as they are’.  (p.14-15)


So I differentiate between becoming 'conscious' of something, which means the mind 'seeing' it, which requires a brain, and awareness itself, which is the substratum in which these 'things' occur. So when there is no mind (brain) there is indeed no 'consciousness’ of thoughts, mental images or sensations.


In fact one of the great values of having a sophisticated mind is that it can become 'aware of awareness'. So a human birth is indeed fortunate for it gives us the opportunity to achieve what the Buddha calls 'the first factor of enlightenment' which is 'awareness of awareness'.  This is easy to see by sitting quietly and noticing how thoughts and sensations come and go, whilst ‘awareness’ is a constant conscious subjective presence.


However, even if you reject this concept of awareness, at the level of 'becoming conscious of something' it is easy to demonstrate that this does not necessarily require a brain; for all living things rely on awareness of their environment to exist and their behaviour is directly affected by this. This does show some ability to process incoming data and act (or react) according to this, but does not imply a ‘brain’ in the normal definition of the word [1] … At the level of living cells and above, this is self-evident, but it has been shown that even electrons change their behaviour when (aware of) being observed! Thus this awareness exists at a deeper level than body/mind (and matter/energy [2]) and  at the deepest level we are this awareness! About this, Sogyal Rinpoche says, ‘In Tibetan we call it Rigpa, a primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant and always awake …. It is in fact the nature of everything’ [3].



My e-book Beyond the Separate Self  aims to provide a simple framework in which one can directly investigate the nature one’s moment-to-moment experience which readily reveals 'awareness of awareness'. This may be sampled and purchased for immediate download at 

[1]Organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull’, or ‘intellectual capacity’ (OED)

[2] The theory of relativity, and string theory, show that matter and energy are synonymous.

[3] S. Rinpoche  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 1992, San Francisco p.47

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