Conscious and Preconscious

Here are some more thoughts on Consciousness and Awareness, continued from last post.

In the last post I distinguished between consciousness and awareness. It’s not an absolute distinction but a pragmatic one. It is useful to think of these words this way…for gongfu, for healing, for living.
Awareness: Responsiveness to one’s environment.\

Consciousness: Awareness of awareness.

We humans start our journey in a preconscious state: body awareness. It is a fusion state, and the nascent nervous system is unable to differentiate anything. Pure sensorimotor functioning. This holds to about four months, when we start to distinguish the physical body from the physical environment. But we remain primarily preconscious for the first year, unable to think representationally at all.

At about 18 months, we start to discern differences between self and environment at an emotional and feeling level. Language takes root and we begin to name objects. This begins the slow development of our conscious minds, our ability to think representationally. The conscious mind is able to observe and to translate those observations into words. We learn to objectify events by mentally separating out from them and representing them first by making noises that mean something (words) and later by writing them. This is our first go at abstraction, where a sound or a symbol stands in for the thing being represented. Anything we can think about, talk about, write about, or imagine becomes an object.

We are conscious when we are aware that we are aware. That is, to be conscious of something you must know that you are aware of it. We are aware of billions of things each moment, but conscious of only the tiniest fragment of that. The bandwidth of consciousness is miniscule, probably only 20-40 bits of information per second. It is estimated that our five senses take in about 12 million bits of information per second, with most of that information discarded by the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of the passing moment.

All that information that is not yet (and may never be) conscious is preconscious. Preconscious includes subconscious, unconscious, sensorimotor, organic, cellular, and subcellular information. It includes awareness of all those trillions of human cells in the body, as well as of all those trillions of non-human cells in the human microbiome. Preconscious awareness is much more vast than any conscious mind can fathom.

For example, you look for one second at the 50,000 people in a football stadium. You are aware of a lot of them, but how many are you truly conscious of…in that moment? How many could you describe accurately? And how long would it take to bring that information up? And even if you have an eidetic memory, it takes time to process that information, so you are not conscious of the present moment while doing so.

And when you focus on all those people and what they are all doing in that one second, how much of your internal state are you conscious of? Your hear-rate fluctuation? Your bile secretions? The skin temperature of your left foot?

You get the picture. Consciousness filters information. It has to. That is its job.

The conscious mind filters information by comparing new sense data against our expectations of what we’ll encounter. It reviews by context and discards data that don’t fit. What we get are headlines…like the news crawl at the bottom of the tv screen: “This…just…in…storm…alert…for…the…tri-state…area…”

These headlines are abstractions: thoughts, thoughts of thoughts, thoughts of thoughts of thoughts, systems of thoughts, systems of systems of thoughts, thoughts of systems of systems of thoughts…You get the idea.

And this thinking thing is pretty adaptive for the 21st Century human, so we take great pride in our ability to objectify and create abstractions. All that preconscious awareness gets abstracted too, creating a separation between body-awareness and thinking. Consciousness gets out of phase with preconsciousness, and that results in a myriad of physical and mental problems.

The conscious mind is like the captain of a huge ocean liner and the preconscious as all the crew, passengers, animals (wild and domesticated), structures, equipment, personal possessions, and all the internal environments of each of those. The captain has her hands full dodging icebergs, checking the course, adjusting for weather, making nice with VIPs, and looking captain-ish. She has very little awareness of what is going on in the engine room, the kitchen, with that strange couple in Suite 313, or the sailor selling crystal meth to the piano player in the lounge. But…she could be aware of some of these things—and many others—by personally investigating them, one at a time.

This captain relies on reports (abstractions) to keep the ship running smoothly. There is a trust that the crew will take care of business and only alert the busy captain when something rises to that level of urgency. The captain is content to focus on the external environment and the managerial and social requirements of the post. If she neglects the important duties of that post for very long it creates a sense of disharmony and danger that affects the ship’s smooth operation.

Body-Mind Integration

Something interesting happens when we turn the power of the conscious mind toward the physical sensations that are being broadcast 24/7, but without the usual abstraction. That is, we just feel what is happening without labeling, explaining, anticipating, or objectifying in any way. We turn the light of consciousness toward the body and focus on all the sense information that is present, without getting caught up in the moment-by-moment commentary of the rational mind.

We discover that consciousness is not so separate from preconsciousness after all. Consciousness transcends and includes preconsciousness. That is, it goes beyond all that body awareness, the Eye of Flesh, but also includes it. Consciousness includes self-awareness, and that includes some body awareness. When we integrate the two (rather than just converting the Eye of Flesh into just another story), we awaken the SuperConscious mind, conscious awareness beyond thinking.

In Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate, I talked about opening the “Three Eyes”: Eye of Flesh (preconscious), Eye of Mind (conscious), and Eye of Contemplation/Spirit (SuperConscious).

This is the “moving meditation” aspect of taijiquan practice. We consciously feel what is going on in each moment, and in doing so we shift into SuperConsciousness. Eye of Mind integrates with Eye of Flesh and this opens the third “eye,” Eye of Spirit, the shen of taijiquan.

And that is a story for another day.


Here’s a video of Master Yang Fukui doing a Wood qigong meditation:

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