How to Stay Conscious 1

I assume you know what it’s like to be conscious. If not, you can find out by following the suggestions in my article How to Stop Thoughts.

The next step is to remain in that state as intensely as possible, as frequently as possible, and as long as possible.

Most people find this hard to do, so here’s a tip. Consciousness is like a state. It’s like the lights being on.

Concentrate on keeping the lights on.

Don’t pay attention to anything else. Don’t pay attention to things that become visible in the light.

Just keep the lights on.

More Detail

I crammed the main idea of this article into a few paragraphs and put them at the start because people don’t always read all the way to the end. Now let me really explain what I mean.

You’ve discovered what it’s like to be conscious. The next step is to make it your permanent state. You can think of this as abiding in consciousness. Living in consciousness. Soaking in consciousness as if it’s an ocean. Dissolving in that ocean as if you’re a salt doll. (That’s an old metaphor which was invented, I think, by Sri Ramakrishna.)

Or even better you can realize that consciousness is yourself. You are consciousness. The thing that’s soaking is your mind; it’s soaking in you.

Or best of all, don’t think about it. Just do it.

Most people find it hard to remain conscious for more than a few seconds. One reason why they have difficulty is because they are holding onto an object rather than consciousness.

If you pay attention to an object — to something of which you are aware — you will probably pull yourself into the lost-in-thoughts state. In order to stay out of the lost-in-thoughts state, you have to keep your attention on consciousness, not on objects.

Consciousness is not an object. At this stage, it seems like a state. It is the state in which you are aware. The state in which you aren’t lost in thought. The state in which it feels like the lights are on.

One way you can keep your attention on consciousness is by focusing on the task of staying in that state. To me it feels like the lights are on. If it feels some other way to you, focus on how it feels to you. However it feels, keep that feeling going. In my case, I keep the lights on.

Light is a metaphor, of course, but it’s a remarkably good metaphor. That’s why it has been used by so many authors for thousands of years. For example, Annamalai Swami said:

You stumble around in the darkness of your mind, not knowing that you have a flashlight in your hand. That light is the light of the Self. Switch it on and leave it on and you will never stumble again.

There used to be a TV commercial for potato chips when I was a kid that said, “Betcha can’t eat just one.” Well, I can’t print just one quotation from Annamalai Swami’s book. Here’s another:

Constant meditation is the only way. If you bring the light into your room, the darkness immediately goes away. You have to see that the light is not put out. It has to be continuously burning so that there is no darkness.

And one more:

Mind is just a Self-inflicted area of darkness in which the light of the Self has been deliberately shut out.

I’m relying heavily on the metaphor of light in this article to convey my meaning. It’s a good metaphor but like all metaphors it has limitations. Let me explain a few things to prevent a possible misunderstanding. Consciousness isn’t something we see. This metaphor doesn’t mean that consciousness is visual. Nor does consciousness need to light anything up in order to be apparent. Consciousness is apparent even when it’s not lighting anything up. Things that get lit up are objects and right now, for our purposes, objects don’t matter. When physical lights go on, assuming we’re not blind, we have a feeling: “Ignorance just got dispelled. I know where I am now.” We have a feeling of knowing. When we are conscious, we also have a sense of knowing. It is this feeling that is similar. It is a knowing that we know. A consciousness that we are conscious.

As I said earlier, if you focus on an object — on something of which you are aware — you will probably pull yourself into the lost-in-thoughts state. It’s easy for that to happen because even when you’re conscious there are lots of objects floating around the mental space: thoughts, smells, sounds, memories, energy, and so forth. Some of these phenomena are so subtle or so different from the kinds of experience that we talk about that we have no names for them. You have to refuse to be distracted by them. You have to refuse to place your attention on them. You have to keep your attention on consciousness instead.

One of the reasons why objects distract us so easily is that we have a habit of using them to take our bearings. We make a continuous subliminal effort to control the realm of mental phenomena, or to seek certain things in it, because it provides an orientation or foundation for us. This is part of the machinery that creates and sustains the ego. We have to let the mental phenomena go free to do whatever they will do. We must let go of them and hold onto consciousness instead.

When we start to do this, consciousness doesn’t feel like a secure handhold because it’s infinite. When we let go of objects in this way we may feel a sort of vertigo or even fear, like a fear of falling. But in reality we can’t fall because we are not objects inside a space where falling is possible. We are the infinite realm in which falling takes place. We cannot fall. We are infinitely stable. There is nowhere we can fall. We have to let go to discover this.

Last but not least

It’s difficult in the beginning to ignore objects and focus instead on consciousness, but I think you can do it because the human mind has a tremendous built-in power to concentrate on one thing and ignore others. Here’s a video of an experiment to prove it. If you’ve already heard of this famous experiment and think you know what will happen, watch it anyway. You may be surprised by this version.

Photo by Sven Začek.
Quotations from Annamalai Swami: Final Talks edited by David Godman.

22 thoughts to “How to Stay Conscious 1”

  1. I keep reading this and some other articles of yours over and over as they have helped me to remain conscious. I am however not able abide in that state for more than a few minutes at a time.

    1. Hi Alec. You wrote, “ they have helped me to remain conscious.” I’m glad to hear that! Thanks for telling me.

      If you can stay conscious for a few minutes, then you’re well beyond the beginner’s stage of “my mind is a chaotic uncontrollable mess and this is impossible!” At the few-minutes stage you’re within reach of noticing that if you can do it for steadily for a little while — for me it’s about five minutes — it suddenly starts to get much easier. I’ll mention some other tactics that I plan to write about in the future.

      (1) One thing is to *insist* on staying conscious. Nisargadatta (or his translator) uses that word someplace. You just *insist.* You make a powerful act of will. (2) Another thing is to hold the I-thought which I haven’t mentioned so far on this blog. The I-thought is an object but it’s possible to pay attention to it without losing consciousness. (3) Another thing you can do is notice the moment when you lose conscious and try to see why it happens. See the mechanism that makes it happen. If you can do this you will see that the I-thought is reaching out for a thought. It’s hard to see since you are already slipping into unconsciousness when it happens. At that moment you become confused and it feels like you *are* the I-thought, so it feels like *you* are reaching out for a thought. This causes you to lose your independence from the thought process and the lights go out. (4) Another thing is meditate (stay conscious) very intensely immediately after you wake in the morning. It’s generally easier at that time. If you do it for about 30 minutes, there is a lingering effect that continues to make it easier for the rest of the day.

  2. I have another question. Does this practice help us to be happy in life. Does it help us realise our innermost longings. As humans there are somethings we lack and we need them to feel a sense of fulfillment. I know spirituality is all about suppressing one’s desires. I have reached a stage where I have lost my desire for many things but what if there is something you long for deeply. I have practiced this for many years and I think I have attained a certain level of spirituality but I still feel an emptiness deep within me. I know there are no simple answers to the most diificult questions of life.

    1. “I have practiced this for many years and I think I have attained a certain level of spirituality but I still feel an emptiness deep within me.”

      Are you saying you feel a desire to fill the emptiness? If I understand you correctly, that’s the desire to find yourself. That’s one of the things that make people seek enlightenment. If you didn’t have that desire, you might not be reading this. There’s nothing wrong with that desire. This practice (which I haven’t described fully yet, it’s Self-enquiry) can satisfy that desire.

      “Does it help us realise our innermost longings.”

      That depends on what you mean by innermost longing. The old spiritual books say that our innermost longing is the desire to know ourselves. If that’s true then yes it does. I think those old books are right. If however you believe like Freud that happiness is the result of satisfaction of a childhood wish — we could call this the Rosebud theory of happiness, after the film Citizen Kane — then it might but not necessarily. Most likely you won’t care about your longings after Self-realization.

      “Does this practice help us to be happy in life.”

      This practice makes us happy but it may take a while to feel that effect. Right from the start you can probably notice that when you are conscious you aren’t unhappy. Even if you do it for only a few seconds, during that time your attention isn’t on your mood. You’re not looking at it so you don’t feel it.

      “I know spirituality is all about suppressing one’s desires.”

      I don’t agree with that. Enlightenment is the state of sahaja samadhi. In that state attention is completely uncontrolled. There is no longer any mental controller that could suppress anything. Suppression isn’t possible in enlightenment.

      You never have to suppress anything to become enlightened. Spiritual practice — at least the kinds of spiritual practice that I write about on this website — is about transferring attention from certain things to other “things” like consciousness, yourself, love, and God.

      When you turn your head and look out the window instead of at the TV, are you “suppressing” the TV? When you focus your attention on consciousness or love instead of your daydreams, are you suppressing your daydreams? No. It’s true that they go away because you aren’t paying attention to them but that’s because you lose interest in them.

      “I know there are no simple answers to the most difficult questions of life.”

      I’m not so sure about that. 🙂 I think these three answers do a pretty good job: Be conscious, strive to know myself, and look at things from the other person’s point of view.

  3. Thank you. I can’t say I am fully satisfied with your answers but you have definitely helped me to be more conscious and awake. I have something to add, happiness is elusive. You are lucky to have found it. How long must one try to be aware of being conscious in a day. Can one really experience a state of real peace and happiness. This hasn’t happened to me.

    1. Alec, I was very depressed for many years and I’m not now. I’m going to try to write a couple of posts on this subject in the next few days. People are different. One person might notice a difference in mood the first time they practice and somebody else might do the same thing for years and notice nothing. I want to ponder this a bit. I’ll try to write about it in the next few days.

  4. I haven’t found happiness while practicing being conscious either, but I assume it is because I am not really conscious and that I am mostly lost-in-thoughts during my daily routine. And, even when I am conscious to be aware of my consciousness, I am still in the realm of thoughts (ie., I am not in a no thoughts state, but rather I am aware of my thoughts and aware of my actions). But, when I sit and meditate, I eventually get to the point where my mind finally starts to quiet (the first 20 to 30 minutes is a war with my thoughts). Once my thoughts quiet, then I am able to settle into being aware and focused on my consciousness. Here in this stillness, I have moments (split seconds) where my thoughts occasionally do stop. It is radiant joy and it slips away the second I recognize it. This is where I think true happiness is found (I think so and hope so anyway)….if I keep practicing, I will hopefully let you know in just a few years time…LOL 🙂

    1. I think your explanation is exactly right. This paragraph could be helpful for other people to read because it shows how the process sometimes works. I’m saying “sometimes” because people are different. A lot of good observation and details here, like the 20 to 30 minute war with your thoughts. If you don’t mind I think I’ll quote this as a blog post to help draw it to people’s attention. It’s wonderful that those split seconds are so pronounced and visible. I think your hopes will be fulfilled. 🙂 When did those moments first happen?

  5. I should clarify that the “radiant joy” at the end of my comment above is really a poor description. It is profound stillness that is radiant… like a flash of something profound, yet completely still…I have not a clue really if what I am trying to say here, except that I yearn to be there…

  6. I finally found this last night. I googled how to stay conscious. To read this article and all the comments it gives me such relief. To know that I’m going to be ok now. i may not have a hold on it. I am just glad to know it’s there. Can someone give me some pointers.

  7. Thank you for this! I don’t know if you still respond here, but here goes. I began to notice a sort of background silence or stillness a couple of years ago. It’s not an absence of thought or sound, just a stillness that I perceive in addition to everything else. When I pay attention to it, it can have different effects on me. It can cause spontaneous bursts of happiness, or I can feel a sort of vacuum inside, followed by that happiness. Sometimes it “triggers” my perception of that flowy energy inside the body. It can be an aid to stilling my thoughts, or to “cancel” or provide a strong contrast to my moody moods. Some times, it just adds that stillness to the mix, changing or cancelling nothing. Animals seems to respond to it?

    I just call it “listening to stillness” or even just listening to listening (because listening doesn’t make a sound). But I don’t know what it is beyond that and I’m afraid to give it a name or to attach it to some concept, like awareness, consciousness and so on. I’m also afraid that I’m just playing mind tricks with myself and that it isn’t as “spiritual” or significant as I hope it is…which is why I’m writing here.

    Oh, and I have experienced a couple of times during meditation a sort of “fade out” of my thoughts, as if the volume gradually turned down to zero, followed by a sense of being more awake to my senses, with that quiet mind state you spoke of. It feels spontaneous and I can’t force it. Some times, after my mind/body/breath has calmed down, my thoughts become very quiet, but they aren’t completely gone. It’s as if they are simmering beneath the surface, kind of like half formed words, sounds, images or sentences, ready to trip me up, so to speak. I guess this is a good place to reaffirm my vigilance not to trail off and lose concentration.

  8. Hi Freddie, This post and the original “How to Stop Thoughts” are really gems. I had read them years ago a couple of times and never forgot about them. Today, somehow I re-found them while browsing your blog and started re-reading this one. When I was reading the word consciousness, I suddenly stopped and decided to stay in the conscious state with the strongest will I’ve ever had for this subject. I decided to stay like this for 20 minutes while looking at the word ‘consciousness’. By the way, the choice of the word happened automatically by itself.

    The result was my most successful attempt of ‘staying with the lights on’. What’s even better is that I noticed an increased state of awareness in my normal activities after that, almost like it’s become my permanent state, even though more than an hour has past now. From now on I’ll concentrate on this as my sadhana.

    The beauty of your description of the method is that, so far, it’s the only one that hasn’t encouraged me to use my mind to feel the consciousness. Therefore I could understand that I’m doing the correct thing, and I could put a strong will on it. Thank you!

    1. This post and the original “How to Stop Thoughts” are really gems.

      Thanks. I created this website in order to publish “How to Stop Thoughts.” For a long time (seven years? I forget) the site consisted of that single page. I was reluctant to publish it because I felt unqualified to give advice about sadhana but the discovery, which I had made a few years earlier, that I had been unconscious my whole life, seemed extremely important to me, and I could find very few texts where that fact was stated clearly and unambiguously, so I did it.

      The result was my most successful attempt of ‘staying with the lights on’.


      From now on I’ll concentrate on this as my sadhana.

      That’s good. I hope it’s valuable for you. You didn’t ask for advice but if I could offer a suggestion — this is based on how that “lights on” state evolved for me — I don’t know if this is good advice, but things went this way in my case — you might want to do a little more than that. As you get more comfortable in that state in which the lights are on, make use of it. In that state, hold “me”. Try to be aware of “me” while the lights are on. In my case, one day these two things (impersonal consciousness and I-ness) merged. That merger resulted in the availability of a new state of luminous, relatively effortless, empty clarity.

      1. Thanks, Freddie. I’m always all ears, for your advice.
        I’m not sure if I get that “me” correctly though. Are the “me” and “I-ness” same as you refer to them above? Do you have a post explaining the I-ness? I think I have a feel for it, but then I lose it. It’s so subtle for me if I understand it correctly.

        1. I’m not sure if I get that “me” correctly though. Are the “me” and “I-ness” same as you refer to them above?

          Yeah. I wrote I-ness without thinking because it’s one of Jan’s terms. I really meant “me” in a vague way. It can be interpreted to mean anything that feels like a contraction or a center.

          On second thought I don’t know if the suggestion I made is a good one. It happened to me 5 or 6 years ago but I don’t know if it was useful or necessary. But of course no harm in trying and seeing what it’s like for you.

          1. I am not sure I get the “me” either. I asked both of them.
            On another note, literally seconds ago something happened. I think I’m broken now 🙂
            I was working, and I noticed I don’t go to the ‘lost in thoughts’ mode anymore. I came here to make a test of staying conscious looking at the word “conscious” as I did yesterday.
            Now it seems to be my permanent state. It can’t be that simple, can it?
            All I did was that last night and staying conscious as soon as I woke up today, and some mindfulness about this throughout the day.
            Is this a temporary satori / grace? Is there something that I can do to make better use of it?

            1. Now it seems to be my permanent state. It can’t be that simple, can it?

              Let’s see how long it lasts. Please keep me posted. 🙂

              Is there something that I can do to make better use of it?

              The sadhana of your choice? See if anything is different now?

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