Being conscious occurs in the now. (Even if your attachment to ego has ended, and you’re conscious as the norm, consciousness is experienced now.) When you’re conscious, you’re aware of what’s happening in the now: sensation in your body, what your body is doing, things directly observable in the immediate scene. Consciousness is neutral, unresisting awareness of present-moment reality. There are no mental filters, no inner narrative. Simply awareness of what is, right now.
The more you become conscious that thought is occurring, the less the mind will run all the time on its own.
Consciousness is attention. It’s different from thinking. Thinking involves processing, labeling, visualizing, categorizing, projecting. It causes emotion. Attention is simple awareness. It’s peaceful (whether or not the immediate scene looks peaceful).
If something is going on in your mind at the moment, being conscious means you’re aware that you’re thinking. That is, you are not “lost in thought.” Something is happening in your mind, and you’re aware of that. It’s just the same as if you were using some other part of your body to do something: if you are using your hands to slice carrots, you’re aware of that. You are paying attention to what you’re doing, whether you’re doing it with your hands or your feet or your mind.
Being unconscious means you’re lost in thought, in the pictures and stories your mind is producing. You have entered the made-up content of your mind and are occupying it as if it were reality itself. Your ego is invested in this content as being real and important, and very likely as a result you are experiencing some kind of emotion (stirred up by the thinking). You have forgotten that all of it is the product of your mind (even if its content appears to be true or important). As a result, you are missing actual reality, what’s happening in the now — including that you are inventing the thoughts.
During a period of unconsciousness, the content of thought has become a replacement reality. When you’re unconscious, your ego is completely running the show. Nothing useful can occur in terms of spiritual insight or development. Awareness is not in the picture. Only egoic thought is occurring. The ego cannot possibly be used to get out of its own way. Only awareness can see in such a way to quiet the identification with egoic thought.
When you’re driving away from home and suddenly you don’t know whether you turned off the stove, it’s because you were thinking about something besides turning off the stove when you turned the knob (if in fact you did). If you had been paying attention to what you were doing, when you did it, you would know for a certainty that the stove is now off. If in fact you turned it off, you were unconscious at the time. You were lost in the momentary replacement reality occurring inside your head. You literally “weren’t there” when your hand turned the knob. You were occupying the movie or soundtrack your mind was producing at the time.
Being conscious doesn’t necessarily mean your mind is quiet. It means if your mind is doing something, you’re aware of that, rather than being lost in its content. The more you become conscious that thought is occurring, during the times the mind is active, the less the mind will run all the time on its own. The reason it runs non-stop is that you enter into its content as if it were real. You don’t notice you’re thinking. You notice what the thoughts are about. If you keep giving yourself the impression that the content of your thought is reality itself — rather than observing that you are thinking — then your ego gets the message that you really must keep thinking all the time, because not to do so would be dangerous. It would be threatening to the well-being of the ego, which seems to be what you are. Thinking seems to be crucial to “your” (the ego’s) continued existence.
As soon as you notice that you are thinking — that you’ve been absorbed in the content as if it were reality itself — some of the steam runs out of the mental activity. It’s only when you believe your thoughts are reality that painful emotions are generated.
Of course there’s such a thing as useful thought, the kind that has nothing to do with keeping the ego going. Practical thought does not cause emotion. It is applied to a purpose: making a plan for a trip, studying a new language, figuring out how to repair something that’s broken. (Of course, the ego can find all kinds of ways to get in an uproar while these episodes of practical thinking are occurring. Like getting mad at the broken thing, or becoming frustrated because you can’t figure out how to fix it. In which case, unconsciousness has taken over. But it isn’t inevitable that it will always do so.)
You cannot decide to be conscious more of the time. This is not something to be “practiced.” (Spare yourself this cherished illusion.) In any given moment, either you’re conscious (aware) or not (lost in thought). You didn’t “decide” which to be; it just happened, in a spontaneous kind of way. Even so, probably it’s the case that the more often you are conscious — the more often you are really here, and not suffering — the more consciousness will predominate, as a general trend. Each time you’re thinking and you happen to notice that you’re thinking, something potent has occurred. It’s just that you aren’t in charge of when that noticing happens. Nature will, as ever, take its course.