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Two Streams of Conscious Awareness

Two streams of conscious awareness, described as self and pure awareness.

Key points

  • The self stream involves how we make meaning out of the world and how we attach interpretations, hopes, and fears to our experience.
  • The pure awareness stream refers to the basic experience of "isness," or simply being in the world without memory or desire.
  • Anchoring ourselves in pure awareness allows us to observe how our identities attach meaning to things in the world.

The coolest and most basic insight that has coalesced in my understanding of human consciousness over the past 18 months is that a fundamental distinction can be drawn between two different streams of conscious awareness. Although I was vaguely aware of the distinction between the two domains years ago, it has been via the work of the philosopher Rob Scott and his analysis of the fundamental shift that the distinction has become crystal clear to me recently.

I label the two streams the self stream and the pure awareness stream. John Vervaeke uses a metaphor to teach people how to get a good grip on shifting their perspective and learning how to look at things we normally look through. Vervaeke's metaphor involves glasses. He makes the useful distinction between looking through your glasses and shifting your perspective to take off your glasses and look at them as objects to be analyzed.

Using Vervaeke's metaphor, I suggest that you encounter the world through your consciousness. You can consider your consciousness a kind of "epistemological portal" that you look through to see the world.

But how do you shift your perspective from looking through your conscious awareness to looking at it? When you do, it becomes a lesson in dividing that awareness into two distinctly different streams.

Gregg Henriques
Two lenses of Self and Pure Awareness.
Source: Gregg Henriques

For example, the photo shows a pair of glasses that has lenses labeled “self” and “pure Awareness.” [The lenses are on the “iQuad Coin,” which is part of the Unified Theory of Knowledge. I will not go into that here, but if you are interested, this link takes you to are a series of posts that outline it.]

The self lens refers to your normal mode of being in the world and making sense of what you see. Think about what matters to you, what you believe and value, and how you tend to make meaning of things encountered. We can frame the self lens as the lens of “I am me” and “This is what I am trying to do in the world and why.”

You can get a sense of it by comparing and contrasting how you are in the world with other people. Consider, for example, something you enjoy, like football, and then how you experience that game. Then contrast it with how someone who hates the game experiences it.

The self lens is the lens that I focus on in psychotherapy. It helps people understand these various parts of themselves. It filters between them along with past experiences and other aspects of their lives combined and intersected that give rise to how they make sense of the world. We can use what I call the Unified Theory of Knowledge’s model of human consciousness to add some texture to the self lens.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Specifically, as shown above, it gives the "Updated Tripartite Model" to map the domains of self into the following three areas: 1) the experiential self, consisting of your felt sense of being in the world and your nonverbal perceptions of things like you attachment security and status and safety; 2) your private self, which is the domain of your narrating ego that explains what is happening and why, and what should be happening; and 3) the public self or persona, which refers to the image we project and how we try to portray and regulate our image and reputations in the social world.

There are also filters that operate between these domains. Specifically, the attentional filter regulates what gets placed on your screen of awareness, and thus exists between your conscious and unconscious mental processes. The Freudian filter regulates the relationship between your subconscious and self-conscious processing. It involves things like suppression and repression and how we rationalize our ways of being in the world.

Finally, the Rogerian filter regulates what you share publicly relative to what you think and feel privately. “Know thy self” refers to one’s capacity to see these domains and understand how they work to place you in the world and orient you to what you desire, fear, or believe. Please note that it takes practice to be able to reflect on these domains and filters and how they relate to giving us our experience of being ourselves.

With this meaning-making frame specified as the self stream, we can now shift to the other stream, pure awareness. Although you have immediate access to it, you may not have considered it a second stream.

Whereas the self lens is all about interpreting things, attaching meaning and memories and desire and hopes to one's experience, the pure awareness lens is perceptual awareness. This may seem confusing at first, but you can observe it and differentiate it from the self stream with a bit of practice. It takes philosophers like Scott or ancient sages like the Buddha to help us home in on it and differentiate the two streams.

In this presentation, Scott explains this stream and how to separate it from the self stream. He defines the pure awareness stream as “pure experience” and separates it from “thought,” which I call the self stream. Consistent with the glasses metaphor, he uses the concept of lenses to make his point. He has developed a path to wisdom called “the fundamental shift,” designed to help people see the difference between their self stream and the pure awareness lens and learn the value and beauty of identifying with being in the world at the moment and identifying with pure experience.

It is worth noting that many wisdom traditions have also emphasized this move. For example, in Buddhism, there is the capacity to detach from the self’s beliefs, needs, and desires such that there is awareness without the self. In this video, Jamaican sage Sri Mooji guides people toward the pure awareness stream in this video. He does this by helping them “drop” into the fundamental thing that they know. Like Descartes’ foundational insight of “I think. Therefore I am,” Mooji starts with “I am,” which corresponds to the self stream. However, rather than moving into the thinking “I am,” which is the self stream, he proceeds to drop further into “am is,” the pure awareness stream.

Over the past year, I have cultivated my ability to differentiate the self stream from the pure awareness stream. It has been both enlightening and helpful. When I shift into the pure awareness mode of identification, I become aware of being in the world. In this moment, it is the chair's press from below, the computer screen in front, the coffee cup to the right, the ringing from my tinnitus, and so on. I started to write “my backside in the chair,” but I changed it because this stream is evolving for me so that I don’t even feel it as “my” backside, rather a raw perception in mental space.

It is pure awareness, without memory or desire. In addition, this sense of pure awareness can expand such that there is a felt sense of oneness with the universe. I experience the universe as pure awareness in that mode, and my experience is a fractal of that whole. I labeled this state of being “wisdom energy.” I described it as loving being without memory or desire.

I hope this has helped teach you to step outside your consciousness and see that there are processes of pure awareness and a self-system that grabs that awareness and attaches meaning to it.

I am in strong agreement with Scott that if we can make a fundamental shift into pure awareness or experiencing “isness itself” and then observe how our identities attach meaning to things in the world, and skillfully cultivate our identities from that vantage point, we will be able to achieve a higher and more optimal state of consciousness and being in the world.

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