A definition of consciousness

There is often confusion when it comes to terminology relating to the subconscious-, and unconscious minds. Some people use these terms interchangeably, but this is not accurate according to Sigmund Freud’s original definition, who, after all, was the one who brought the term ‘consciousness’ back into vogue.

The Freudian view – the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind

Put simply, Freud believed that the unconscious is a person’s store of collected information, such as memories, thought patterns, desires, or traumas, etc. that have been repressed and are not easily brought to the conscious mind, this information remains far below the consciously accessible surface. Yet, the information stored there drives and controls the conscious mind on many unseen levels creating conflict that expresses itself as psychosomatic illness, mental problems, neuroses, etc.

Bringing unconscious processes into conscious awareness through psychoanalysis is thus believed to assist in resolving these issues.   The subconscious mind on the other hand lies just below consciousness, and is easily accessible if attention is paid to it.

For example, we might know someone’s address, and phone number, or how we felt a few weeks ago when we went to the movies. Nevertheless, this information is not necessarily stored in our conscious mind, but in our subconsciousness. Thus, when required to think about it for a little while, we are able to recall the experience or information easily when we focus our attention.

However, this may not be as easy when we have to recall a rather traumatic event, because the experience may have been so bad that we have repressed it to the unconscious either fully or in part, so that we are able to continue to function in everyday life and not being swamped with images and emotions that we are unable to deal with at this point in time. As a result, the unconscious according to Freud is seen as a protective function of the mind, even though this protection could be misguided.

The Jungian view – the collective unconsciousness

Carl Jung on the other hand understood the unconscious mind as the storehouse of all those aspects of an individual’s personality that are not part of his or her awareness yet. These aspects have to be brought into consciousness so that that person can become a fully competent individual. If this is not achieved, that person will be in a state of conflict between the unidentified forces of the unconsciousness and his or her conscious awareness. The more of the unidentified forces of the unconscious are brought into consciousness, the more they serve the person rather than discomforting him/her.

This is very much in line with the Buddhist idea of enlightenment which can be seen as the ultimate awareness and understanding of the true purpose of one’s life, whereas being unenlightened renders one a common mortal, and thus someone who will invariably experience conflict with the self and the environment.

Keen to understand the human condition Jung went even a step further.  He defined yet another level of consciousness, something he called the collective unconsciousness. This concept came to Jung in a dream where he saw a house that had a cellar under which was yet another cellar and under which was a storehouse full of prehistoric pottery, bones, and skulls.

To him the collective unconsciousness is information, images and ideas to which all people regardless of cultural background or heritage have equal access to. In other words, Carl Jung was convinced that there is a level of consciousness that is a constantly expanding storehouse in which all of the human experience, history, knowledge, ability, etc. is deposited, and to which we all are connected.

Freud on the other hand believed that evolutionary patterns are common to all people, just like our genetic information is passed on from generation to generation, but he did not share Jung’s idea that all our actions (i.e. the Buddhist term for karma) should be deposited into an interconnected consciousness.

This is where their views parted. Freud only believed in the individual’s personal unconsciousness influenced by ancestral and evolutionary patterns, whereas Jung saw a whole new level below that, a real time storehouse of collective information to which we all constantly contribute and have access to.

Even though Freud didn’t accept Jung’s theory, Jung nevertheless incorporated Freud’s view of the personal unconsciousness in his framework of understanding the human psyche.

Based on his theory, Jung believed that the collective unconscious and the external world are two opposites which between them gives rise to the observing ego or self of a person (think of the battery example given earlier, the plus and the minus are opposing forces and thus create energy).

The Jungian based personality assessment for example, the MBTI, encapsulates this concept of dichotomous relationships within a person. Having dealt with many clients during his career, Jung realised that there were a number of personality traits that were common to all people.

He noticed that people have a preference to be either more extraverted or more introverted when it comes to dealing with their environment. The more extraverted the person the more he or she would consider him or herself a ‘people person’. Conversely, the more introverted a person, the more ‘personal space’ they may need. These preferences have of course consequences in the way that person feels and thinks about him or herself and how he or she responds to the environment.

If we think about this for a moment then we will come to understand that a certain type of personality would befit a certain type of jobs. For instance if one would have to work in sales and thus needed to talk to many people, it would probably make it easier  if that person were to have a more extroverted personality. On the other hand, for a job behind a desk somewhere hidden away from too many people, a personality with a higher degree of introversion may be more preferable as it would be less internally conflicting to that person’s natural tendencies.   Many psychologists today agree that there are at least eight personality traits that we all share to varying degrees. There is Introversion as opposed to Extroversion, Intuition as opposed to Sensing, Thinking as opposed to Feeling, and Perceiving as opposed to Judging.

However, neither an extremely extraverted person nor an extremely introverted person can ever divorce him or herself from the other side of their personality. In other words, even though the extroverted person is less ‘conscious’ of his or her introversion he or she is nevertheless also introverted. Thus Jung named this hidden, less conscious part of personality the ‘shadow’. It is hidden from conscious view but it is there nevertheless.

The Buddhist view – the nine consciousnesses

In his assumption that there is indeed a greater, interconnecting consciousness, Jung’s view is very similar to the Buddhist understanding of the 8h consciousness. In fact, Buddhism even considers an additional 9th consciousness. However, in order to understand this concept fully, it is necessary to first see the Buddhist concept as a whole. As such, Buddhism understands the first five consciousnesses to be the basic senses of:

The 5 consciousnesses – the five senses:

  1. Touch
  2. Taste
  3. Sight
  4. Hearing
  5. Smell

For example when we imagine the birth of a baby, we could say that at that moment the newborn is predominately aware of the five sense organs of sound, touch, smell, taste and sight and has no or little conscious awareness of the workings of the deeper layers of consciousness.

The five senses enable us to take in information from outside ourselves, i.e. these are our sensors that collect data which will be analysed and assessed in the sixth consciousness.

The 6th consciousness – the conscious mind

As the newborn continues to grow, it learns more and more how to give meaning to the information taken in through the five sense organs. In other words, the growing person learns to recognise, organise and allocate information from the outside world, i.e. for instance the developing person learns what is ‘red’ or what is cold or hot, etc. and thus forms judgement and makes sense of the external environment.

The 7th consciousness – the subconscious mind or limited egotistic self

The 7th consciousness is all about the inner self. It is here where our perception of who we are is based. The question is how did we come to know that we are who we are? Well, in Buddhist terms that’s not too complex to answer.

It is all about the way we have been brought up, and the things we have come to believe about ourselves that has created this consciousness. Parents have given us a name, taught us a language and we have accepted it. The society we live in has taught us what it means to be one of its members, and we have come to accept it.  Teachers have taught us how to read and write, and name the things and phenomena that surround us, and we have come to identify with it. This is how our ego is formed. We now know our name, our language, our nationality, our culture, what’s right or wrong, we have knowledge and a view of the world we live in, and thus we have a sense of being something quite specific.

All of this ‘knowing’ has given us an inner mental representation of what and who we ‘think’ we are. From the Buddhist perspective, at the level of the 7th consciousness we are a limited egotistic self.

Up to this point the Buddhist view of consciousness doesn’t really differ much from the Freudian or Jungian view.

The 8th consciousness – the Alaya or Karma Consciousness

However, as mentioned earlier, only Jung hinted that there may be an even deeper level to it all, something he termed the collective unconsciousness. Jung saw the collective unconsciousness as a storehouse of the collective human experience created and constantly updated by each individual, and so does in fact Buddhism.  But instead of calling it the collective unconsciousness it is called the Alaya consciousness, which means Karma (Action) Consciousness.

It is here where all past causes and effects (actions) of not only the individual, but those of society and the environment at large are stored.  They are stored as inherent causes ready to manifest when the external conditions are right for a manifest effect to occur. Up until then, these past actions of the individual, society and the environment are in a state of latency.

For example, let’s assume you have damaged someone’s car accidently, but you weren’t courageous enough to tell that person that it was you who did it and after a while you forget that this ever happened.  As such, you carry an inherent cause which is registered with the 8th consciousness and thus will eventually manifest in someone doing something to you that gives you a similar experience to that which you have caused that person with the damaged car to experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your car get’s damaged in retaliation, but it may be that you experience a loss of some kind to bring things back into equilibrium.

Now, at this stage one could come to think that this kind of consciousness storehouse, i.e. karma, is rather fatalistic and bleak as it would presume that there is a strict and inescapable law of an ‘eye for an eye’ causality at work.

This would mean that one cause would create its effect which in turn would condition all the future causes and their effects and so on, thus leaving us stuck on a certain path with certain tendencies. Buddhism teaches that the law is indeed strict unless there is some higher awareness that causes us to change our action. In other words, if we have a ‘bad’ attitude or behaviour we are likely to get a certain response from our environment. If the response we are getting from our environment keeps reinforcing our ‘bad’ attitude we are indeed repeating a self fulfilling prophecy.

Many therapists will know clients that have had 2 or 3 marriages that all ended up ‘the same’ even though they had different partners. In fact there are those clients that have become so disillusioned that they swore to never get married again, and yet they may instead find themselves in an employment situation that brings out the issues that have formerly been confined to their personal relationship with their partner (i.e. the boss at work or their business partner gives them a hard time for one reason or the other). This constitutes a change in environment, but not in circumstance.

The strict law of causality is thus inescapable no matter where we go and we are therefore bound to repeat cycle after cycle of the same unconscious behaviour until a higher level of awareness allows us to do things differently.

However, as soon as we are aware of what causes our behaviour, we are able to change the outcome instantly or at least start working on it. Therapy as mentioned earlier, functions by raising our subconscious or unconscious issues into conscious awareness. This is the first step. In therapy we largely depend on the therapist who enables us to get in touch with the deeper levels of consciousness.

By aiming to keep the practitioner in the right ‘frame’ of mind Buddhism does this by default without necessarily relying on another person but an external ‘object of worship’ which functions as a reminder that this potential does indeed exist within us.  Yet, this requires a concept of what would be termed a greater self. Therefore, in addition to the 8th consciousness, Buddhism proposes that there is an even greater level of consciousness, namely the 9th consciousness, also known as the Buddha consciousness. It is here where Buddhist philosophy leaves the concept of contemporary psychotherapy behind.

The 9th consciousness – the ‘Amala’ or the Buddha Consciousness

Put simply, the 9th consciousness is the true identity of all things, the essence and the basis of all of life’s functions. On the most fundamental level everything is connected to it without distinction. This is where everything comes from and this is where everything returns to. This is the beginning and the end. The good or evil, right or wrong, large or small, Ying and Yang, anything, distinction does no longer exist here.

Here we know that our life is eternal and that it operates within a strict law of causality. All is one, we are one and all is a function of the 9th consciousness. As such, the 9th consciousness is pure life force, it offers a complete understanding, it is full of compassion, wisdom and love. It is the eternal and we are all part of it, no matter what our shape and form, we can never be divorced from it. This condition is always pure and can never be diluted or tarnished. Here we know that even the villain has a mission to fulfil, that of creating a hero.

Here we know that all aspects of life, all phenomena; our current circumstances no matter how challenging are manifestations of our own creation. Here we know that even those around us are created through us, and we are in turn created by them. However, the difference in this life condition compared to others is that it is marked by freedom of ‘how to react’ to the circumstances we find ourselves in.

By knowing that we are the creator we can thus ‘change’ what we no longer desire. All that is required is faith that this is in fact possible and this is where the challenge lies. So…the question is, ‘can you really believe that you are indeed of such power and influence?’ ‘Can you belief that you are the creator of your circumstances?’ Faith is the key. We have access to this life condition at all times, but only faith manages to open the door to experience conscious awareness of this deep seated consciousness that has always existed.

The purpose of practicing Buddhism lies in accessing the ninth consciousness

Therefore, the sole purpose of Buddhist practice lies in accessing the 9th consciousness in order to purify the many causes and effects that lie within the 8th consciousness. This way, we are able to change our action based on wisdom, and consequently make new causes and therefore can expect different outcomes. Having changed our action (karma) this way, the 8th consciousness will have also changed, and we will consequently experience those changes in the other 7 consciousnesses.

The NDB practitioner sees these outcomes as ‘actual proof’ of his or her practice and thus gains even more faith in his or her practice.  This is the condition of a Buddha’s life. By accessing the 9th consciousness, practitioners are free of perceived impurities or negative causes, no matter what the circumstances. To the Buddha all phenomena make sense, s/he is awakened to the true nature of life and all phenomena. In this life condition we will see things with pure perception and clarity.

There is no doubt that this life condition is difficult to maintain as we are swamped with daily obstacles in life. There are bills to pay, people to please, illnesses to overcome, the onslaught of life’s challenges are too numerous to count. However, they are an inescapable fact of life and will have to be dealt with in one way or the other.

In order to access this deep life condition, the NDB practitioner chants Nam Myoho Renge Kyo to remind him or herself consistently of his or her true nature at all times, especially when facing unavoidable daily obstacles and deadlocks.

In summary, the Buddhist perception of consciousness holds that the ninth and the eight consciousnesses represent the concept that we are all interconnected. The way we are experiencing distinction in the seventh consciousness by perceiving ourselves as a fixed, isolated individual self is therefore deluded and distorted in terms of NDB.

The seventh consciousness – the seat of ego and delusion

The deep seated delusional ego of the seventh consciousness has a tendency to resist life expansion as it fears constant annihilation through impending death of its ‘falsely’ perceived individuality. It is therefore constantly preoccupied with perceiving duality (distinction) in all things. A life based on this nature is called delusional in Buddhist terms as it has no ability to see that the eighth consciousness connects the energy of this life to the one that was before and the one that follows.

The seventh consciousness is ignorant, arrogant, discriminates, separates, and is concerned with matter, i.e. material possessions. Its tendency to protect its ‘turf’ by being ignorant is in direct conflict with the greater self that is all about awareness or enlightenment as found in the eights and ninths consciousnesses collectively.

Understanding and believing that there is indeed something like an eight consciousness that records and accumulates our action, desired or undesired, wanted or unwanted, makes all the difference.

We come to see that every aspect of our living thought, word or deed, our looks and circumstances, our relationships, health, good or bad fortune are all stored as internal causes waiting for external causes to be activated once again. This shows the way we are migrating through our life, not just in the here and now, but also in those that follow. As such, we are a never ending cause creating an effect that makes another cause creating another effect…and so on into infinity. We are constantly ‘on the move’ nothing ever stands still we are a process that knows no end. The only constant is the law itself and this is where true identity lies.

This is indeed a very advanced interpretation of consciousness, something that contemporary psychology cannot parallel at this stage. Contemporary psychology is mostly preoccupied with defining the sixth and seventh consciousnesses, whereas the 8th and 9th consciousnesses are seen as rather illusive and abstract.

Thus, even though there may be differences in interpretation, Buddhism agrees with contemporary psychology to varying degrees about the functions of the 6th and 7th consciousnesses. Either one of these theories proposes that there is an aware and an unaware aspect to the human experience. This in turn causes an experience of internal conflict as the aware aspects of the self perceives itself as separated or distinct from its unaware aspects.

Taking all this into account, it is unsurprising that there is the assumption in psychoanalysis that the distinction between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind can be defined as follows:

Last updated by at .