Four Modes of Everyday Consciousness

The gear shift on our car labels the modes of the transmission: Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive and maybe Sport. Our consciousness has a few basic settings of its own, though they are not so clearly labeled and we often shift from one to another without knowing it. But trying to describe them has heightened my appreciation of them. Here are the ones that I come up with when I’m awake.

The first is Awareness. This unfocused, nonverbal state seems to consist of plain sensory input with little or no processing beyond a sense of recognizing familiar items. It is the state of my consciousness when I’m idly watching a man ride a bike down the street, when I watch a movie, when I’m relaxing or tired. It includes familiar actions like lifting a fork or saying “Hi. How are you?” Awareness feels passive but also primed for response.

Stream of Consciousness, Gary Buhler (

Stream of Consciousness, by Gary Buhler

Like Awareness, Stream of Consciousness also seems undirected, spontaneous. But there the resemblance ends. This state consists of words, images, and sounds flowing or tumbling around with little connection to where I am or what I’m doing. Sometimes this flow gets noisy and intrusive, a kaleidoscope with little or no focus. It includes vivid flashbacks and anxious glimpses of the future. But mostly, in my head, it consists of words, a sort of thinking-lite. And quick. An instant from a minute ago: “Pomodoro Seinfeld Columbus reservation not on Tuesday Bill’s trip 70th street.” Thinking-very-lite.

Third, after Awareness and Stream of Consciousness, there’s Attention. Attention is similar to mindfulness, but mindfulness seems to be a meditative goal while Attention in one form or another is the state that our mind is in whenever we are concentrating on something. It is focused, often wordless, and sometimes relaxed. It is the “flow” state we enjoy when we are fully immersed in dancing, painting, writing, jogging. Or when we are observing a bird closely or, fleetingly, when we take a picture. To me, Attention has the quality of stepping closer to something and experiencing it with clarity and pleasure.

Finally, there’s Language. When we are thinking, talking, listening, reading, writing, Language is not only on our mind. It is also the mode of our mind. My wife and I discuss plans for the day, I think about a blog post, I try to make a point in a conversation, and I read apps in search of news that is new. What’s odd about Language in contrast to the sense of closeness that sometimes comes with Attention is that I sometimes experience  Language consciousness as a slight stepping away from or around something. This is difficult to explain. The advantage of Language is that it connects us with others. The disadvantage is that the symbols and rules that we play by to say what we mean and connect with others  are not the thing itself.

So these are the states that I most often catch my conscious mind in the midst of: Awareness, Stream of Consciousness, Attention, and Language. Among these four there are many variations depending on what the brain needs to get done, different levels of quiet and frenzy, focus and randomness, articulation and muteness, closeness and distancing.

This post is over. Time to shift gears. You too.