Chapter 1 – Am I conscious now?

Am I conscious now?

This is the first question in the book, and in a way forms the basis for all the others. At first it seems the most obvious thing in the world. Of course I am conscious now. How could I not be?

But on deeper exploration this question yields strange effects.

I first discovered this when teaching “The Psychology of Consciousness” at UWE Bristol (there’s more about this in my book Consciousness: An Introduction).

You might like to try the students’ weekly task, that is, ask yourself the question, as many times a day as you can (preferably hundreds of times) and see what happens.

“Am I conscious now?”

It’s not easy to remember to do it, so you might like to invent tricks to remind yourself. I suggest that you try this for a few days (or at least a few hours if you’re impatient!) before reading the chapter and seeing what I found.

Am I conscious now?


I’m longing to hear what other people find. Do similar things happen to all of us? Does it depend on the sort of person, or how much we’ve meditated or done other things before this? What other questions does it inspire? Do join in with some answers  – or more questions.

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31 Responses to “Chapter 1 – Am I conscious now?”

  1. holdingnobough Says:

    I sit most days for 30mins. I started sitting at the start of 2006. I have read quite a few zen titles and right now having read the Dimond sutra with commentry by Red Pine I am reading the Platform sutra with commentry by Red Pine. I nominaly started practice after crisis but I am well now. I can’t find the present moment in zazen; your description matches something of my experience. I think I wander arround in the past moment and I try to remember to wake up and pay attention.

    The phrase I try to remember in daily life is – mindful, humble, compassionate. The best sticky post-it note to remember this is my emotions.

    Are we conscious? Not all the time I suspect. Could there be zombies? Sometimes we are; of how much are we aware?

  2. ealg Says:

    I have tried this experiment in the past for about a week. I would agree that remembering to ask the question was hard, though it got easier over time. The immediate effect of asking seemed to be to make me more alert momentarily. I couldn’t say if I was conscious prior to asking the question, as whatever state of mind that was seemed hard to grasp and define.
    The most pronounced effect I noticed was actually an unusual difficulty in going to sleep at nights, as if asking about consciousness was overstimulating. It may be that if I had persevered, then this would have changed or improved. However, I found it sufficiently inconvenient in the short term to stop the experiment.
    This led me to wonder whether whatever state of mind is induced by asking is beneficial or not.

  3. uygar polat Says:

    I’m looking forward to your book and will soon pre-order it. I waited for a while not to be the first commenter, as I have no training in meditation of any kind and have more questions than answers (who hasn’t, about consciousness, right?). I tried to do these and other exercises after reading your textbook on consciousness, but I find out that they weren’t providing much insight to me. For instance the question ‘Am I conscious now?’ makes no sense to me without any reference to the contents of consciousness. I mean if you asked me ‘just a moment ago were you conscious of logging to this site, starting writing, typing quotation marks etc?’ I can probably give you a yes or no answer, but if the question is phrased as ‘were you conscious then (or now)?’, to me this question seems…unintelligible. Wonder if that makes sense, or am I getting worked up over semantics?

  4. devin1649 Says:

    After previewing chapter 1 (Am I conscious now?), my initial response was the title to chapter 3 (Who is asking the question) – this seems a more fundamental Koan to me. Asking if I am conscious now seems to assume there is an understanding that there is an ‘I’ and maybe even an assumption of what this ‘I’ is. From exploring questions like this myself, what ‘myself is’, is not as clear as it might at first seem.
    While most of us go around acting as if we had some kind of independent existence, closer exploration does not show this is the case, no independent entity can be found. which leaves the question “Who is now?” The answer to this question I would suggest is outside of the limited scope of a cognitive mind to comprehend, however by meditation on the question, I would say that it is possible to let go of all fixed views of “who is”, ending the delusion of believing in any kind of independent existence and opening to living in a world where the ‘who that is’ no longer acts as if there is independent existence – selflessly. But it works both ways, acting selflessly also assists in understanding that there is no independent self. In Buddhist terms, wisdom leads to compassion and compassion leads to wisdom.

  5. sgthomas601 Says:

    Am I Conscious Now?

    Before the question arises, I’m absorbed by the current and ever-changing content of my awareness; the screen of my MacBook and these words as they appear; my thoughts on what to type and the words to use; my body on the chair and the mild ache in my right foot; an itch on my face, now scratched and already a memory.

    And now the question arises, and I pause briefly to look and see. . .

    Returning to typing now, what I noticed is that when I asked the question and looked, there was a shift in attention from content to container, a shift in awareness to what seems like an inner space or observing self in which the sights and sounds and thoughts and feelings all take place. There was a sense also of increased alertness, a heightened appreciation of the present moment, and a pleasant feeling of detachment from the usual chaos of my inner life.

    This shift couldn’t be held for long though, and I could only sustain it for a few seconds, before I was taken over by the content again, mainly in the form of questions. Is this space real, or am I imagining it? Is it just another kind of content? Is it the core of consciousness? Do I really know what my own consciousness is like? What can I compare it to? Being unconscious? No, that doesn’t make sense, since being unconscious, as in dreamless sleep, is not an experience. If consciousness is an emergent outcome of neural activity (something more from nothing but), then what is this observing self? And so on.

    When I first encountered this question a couple of years ago in Consciousness: An Introduction, I had no appreciation of how deep and puzzling it is. I will definitely be asking this question along with the others more frequently.

  6. johnhcchan Says:

    Hi- so you got interested in Sue’s question? Not surprising because it is indeed one of the fundamental and most mysterious questions that a human being can ask . I have witnessed Sue puzzling away at “the great matter’, as we call it in Zen, for years in my retreats hidden in the depths of Wales . And what a fist she makes of it ! As an intellectual highly rated for her scepticism, I have been surprised that she persevered – but she has done – year on year . Of course, Zen practice is only one way of examining these questions – but then they are indeed Zen ‘koans’ – paradoxes – only solved when the mind abandons hope in the utterly ineffable . Indeed, the very word consciousness is a paradox about which in recent years many brilliant people have made clever fools of themselves. It is not a thing , it is an appearance but what’s that? Intensely preoccupied Sue puzzles on . May be one day she will give up and find out . But there’s a paradox for you . Try it for yourself.

    John Crook . Teacher. Western Chan Fellowship.

  7. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Here I am replying at last. I do apologise not to have responded straight away – just when I hoped to have lots of time to engage in conversations about Zen I caught some horrid bug. But now I can enjoy reading and thinking about what everyone has written.
    Ealg’s post raises a question I have struggled with on and off many times. Do I keep going with a practice that is (a) so hard and (b) sometimes seems to do more harm than good ??? For myself I have assumed that centuries of practitioners saying that in the end it is beneficial are likely enough to be right for me to carry on so I did.
    As for sleep, I have experienced the same, though not too inconveniently, and I have always needed, and made sure I got, a lot of sleep. There are those who claim to maintain mindfulness throughout all of waking and sleeping. I have no experience of this at all. I just go to sleep! Although on retreats or during intensive practice at home I can wake up in the morning directly into a very alert state. Does anyone else have similar experiences?

  8. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I’m pleased to see that sgthomas got to this question through reading Consciousness: An Introduction (see
    That book was based on my consciousness course at UWE, and it was the questions that the students and I tackled then that led me to write Ten Zen. You have found what we did – lots more questions. Many people would say that the space you found is objectively there in some way, but I suspect (as you suggest) that it is probably just one more kind of content. But the only way to find out is to keep going!
    In his comment yesterday, John Crook seemed surprised at my persistence but I think the questions are powerfully motivating memes – some people just can’t throw them off.

  9. mrealg Says:

    Hello Sue. EalG pointed me to this and I read all your thoughts so far with interest. I always find your ideas and conclusions on this subject sensible and convincing. However the thing I found about this particular exercise was that from the start, and no matter how often I tried, the answer was always ‘I don’t know, probably not really’. I know that’s not very helpful to you. I have been interetsed in zen ideas for quite a while now because I tend to agree with the underlying ideas being presented (the philosophy rather than the religious side of it anyway) but I always find I don’t understand the point of all the struggle and questioning and doubt. To me it all seems rather plain and obvious. I don’t know whether this is fair or if I am completely stupid and spectacularly missing the entire point. And yes I am aware that 99% of people I meet dont think this way. Looking forward to your next installment anyway.

  10. banoffi Says:

    This is fascinating to me, as I’ve had these “just woken up” experiences at random times throughout my life, and recently quite frequently when sitting.

    In my uninformed view, perhaps it isn’t surprising that being aware of being aware feels qualitatively different than, say, being aware of an ache in my left foot. If there is (unconscious) content [C], and “everyday” consciousness is content with an intentional relationship to that [C’ -> C], then becoming aware of C’ produces [C” -> C’ -> C]. So C’ has indeed “woken up”. There’s a new layer in the hierarchy of content. And when C” gets distracted, C’ will “go back to sleep”.

    Anyway, can’t wait for the book – what a cool and original idea!

  11. tenzenbookblog Says:

    But who is C’ ? I think your description is good, but it doesn’t fit with how most people imagine things – that there is a stable and persisting “me” who is the one who has “just woken up” and is the same one who wakes up next time.
    Perhaps you’ve managed to let go of this assumption. If so, you might then like to see whether you can catch the “going back to sleep”.
    Or you might like to try the next question “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” I’m going to post that chapter tomorrow.

  12. banoffi Says:

    I haven’t managed to let go of the sense of a permanent “me” at all (I haven’t done nearly enough zazen) but it’s not something I believe in any more when I think about it. What I don’t have is the slightest sense of where “I” or “me” comes from. None of “my” mental content seems to have “me” in it, but somehow a bundle of it seems to compose “me”. The cataloging process, if it’s any such thing, seems to be completely inaccessible. Is this something one can observe, with enough practice? (and then, who is observing it?)

    Will certainly try the “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” exercise. This is fun!

  13. banoffi Says:

    mrealg, “To me it all seems rather plain and obvious” – this was exactly the attitude of a friend of mine who admitted to having had these “I’ve only just become conscious” experiences throughout his life, but never regarded them as strange. It’s possible we weren’t talking about the same experience at all, but it seems unlikely. But maybe it’s of no more significance than our different tastes in music.

  14. sgthomas601 Says:

    And the questions keep coming!

    My previous observation that the shift from being aware of the content of consciousness to the container when asking myself the Question has been bugging me since my last post. Saying that there’s a separate something (Awareness? Observing Self? Myself? I? Consciousness?) that contains everything I’m aware of doesn’t make sense. It seems to create a separation, a kind of cartesian dualism of container and content, which doesn’t in fact exist.

    To say it’s a convincing illusion is an understatement. I know that everything I see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think and feel is created by my brain operating as a kind of wetware Matrix, and that it’s all I know or will ever know, but it never ever feels like neurons firing in patterns inside the bone dome that is my skull. Instead, it seems like there’s a me in here that’s aware of everything. But I’m sure that can’t be true.

    Maybe the next question will be easier. I hope not though. As banoffi says, it’s fun!

    Stan, Melbourne Australia

  15. banoffi Says:

    Stan, I keep falling into the Cartesian trap too. “Cataloging process” indeed! [hangs head in shame]. If there’s no magical inner observer, then there’s no stream of mental events, and no need for any special background process to sort them into “me” and “not me”. It’s just a decision we make when necessary. (I’m a big fan of Dennett if it’s not obvious.)


  16. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I agree with sgthomas601 that thinking of a separate observing something, or a container of the things I’m conscious of, leads only into dualism – and dualism does not work. The idea of consciousness as a container is pervasive in neuroscience and consciousness studies. People talk about “the contents of consciousness”. Yet many readily admit this does not make sense. Dennett refers to people who think this way as Cartesian materialists (a term people hate to be accused of!). But how do we get out of thinking this way?
    As you can guess, this is part of my motivation for asking these questions in meditation – maybe if I sit still long enough, and watch carefully enough, I will see a way out of the temptations of dualism.

  17. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Hey Banoffi – I’m so glad you think it’s fun. Sometimes I think I must be mad doing this, but if other people think it’s fun too I’m greatly encouraged.
    You might like to listen to me talking about the next question – and chapter 2 is now up.

  18. queerninja Says:

    It feels to me as if consciousness is like frequencies…Like I can turn the knob on the old radio and get a more tuned in or tuned out feeling. The frequency can narrow or widen so that I become more or less focussed on the things happening around me or inside my body, or inside my mind. But, there is nobody turning the dial…It’s more like a sub-routine, a self-activating virus but surely there must be something there?

    I sat last night after some herb and found that by letting go, I entered the familiar non-observation state of meditation that I like. And then the question popped in quite by accident and I don’t remember asking it deliberately…”Am I conscious?” There was a narrowing as ‘I’ asked it. There came to my perspective a pinpoint of focus. Out went the dream and in came the dreamer. The quale of my consciousness changed immediately upon the question. Wow, how hard is it to describe a feeling in words?

    Through meditation and martial arts, I’ve learned to bend my consciousness. But through psychedelics, I’ve experienced states where I felt that consciousness is just a complete illusion, part of the cosmic giggle: that sitting quietly far behind the computer terminal and production line of consciousness, there is something there…But what? As soon as I am aware of that something sits behind the curtain, the thinking takes over and the entire flaming curtain is gone again…

    I am not the dreamer, I am the dream. I am not the observer, I am the observed.

    It’s all quite mysterious really 🙂

  19. brucehood Says:

    Dear Sue,
    I was reminded by your description in the sample chapter of the technique of the post-its to “re-mind” yourself to ask the question as the same distinction drawn between endogenous and exogenous shifts of attention. They seem to me different mechanisms and one has to ask the question of whether the exogenous “re-minder” is the same endogenous “minder” initiating the question in the first place? Operationally they both lead to the same output, asking yourself if you are conscious now but I would contend that they may have different origins.
    Still good cerebral stuff!

  20. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Bruce – I do agree, and have played about a lot with both of them. Most people find it really hard to remember, from inside, to ask the question. But the external reminders gradually lead to an increase in the endogenous ones. If the aim (and, yes, I know it’s a pretty weird aim) is to keep asking yourself the question so as to keep being more awake, then this shift is what you want. It may be that the stickers create associations between, say, your kettle and the question, or going to the loo and the question, and so trigger you to ask. In this case would they still be a different mechanism?

  21. felisophia Says:

    I like the question. When I ask it it gives me a heightened sense of consciousness. I find that calming and pleasurable.

    Asking the question is a way of meditating. I have meditated sporadically for relatively short periods of time (5 – 20 min) without much persistence or effort for years. When I do I find it calming and pleasurable.

    I never go farther than that, and I won’t be very persistent in asking the question “Am I conscious now?” I’m not motivated to do so. Why?

    To me the most important question is “What should I do?” “Am I conscious now?” has some relation to the more important question, but I am only motivated to ask the latter insofar as it helps me to answer the former. When I focus on the former I often lose the pleasurable heightened state of consciousness induced by the latter, and that sometimes causes me to lose my way in figuring out what to do. It is then time to meditate once again, which helps me figure out what to do (well, it does in the way I meditate), and the cycle repeats.

    Might I be missing something by not being more motivated to be persistent in asking the question “Am I conscious now?” Yes, perhaps. Perhaps I will never know. Would it matter? Not unless it makes a difference to what I do.

  22. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Your question is another core koan – some might say it is more foundational than any of the ones I’ve asked.
    As to your last paragraph, I would say that you know when a question is right for you – when it really gets to you. I wrote about the questions that obsessed me, some still do, some now don’t. You keep on with yours.

  23. trackingmyself Says:

    I have tried a variation of the “am I conscious now?” question occasionally for a couple of months – it is the “try to be conscious for three breaths” approach promoted by Ezra Bayda. I have obviously not worked as hard on it as you/your students have, perhaps I will give it a go. With regards to meditation, I have started it in earnest about 20 months ago, after having dabbled with it a couple of times when I was younger. I now sit nearly every day for 30 minutes, and it seems to have given me more of focus, more continuity. Trusting your opinion I attended a couple of WCF retreats which I really enjoyed. But returning to your question 1, it got me into philosophising a bit about correspondences between computers and mind. There are probably proper treatises on this, but if you are interested, see
    Thanks for publishing your thoughts on the web.

  24. tenzenbookblog Says:

    There are indeed treatises – lots and lots of them, and lots of arguments. Even so, your comparisons are worth thinking about. Very few of those treatises mention meditation or use what we know about artificial systems to think about what is happening in the calmed mind, or in bare awareness.

  25. radek123 Says:

    The memeplex “Me” was very reluctant initially. After some time I developed a “switch”. This very useful memeplex allows me to operate in two modes. The analogy comes from physics where light is a wave and a particle at the same time.
    The first mode is the one about information flow and I am in this mode when I analyse how things work. I think memeplex “I am conscious” is a part of memeplex “Me”, so it is a kind of an illusion that lasts for some interval of time.
    I found it interesting that you can send the meme to me so it increases a number of intervals of time in which this “I am conscious” illusion happens.
    The “switch” mode allows me to think that in fact I have no free will, and all things I do are triggered by information coming to me from different sources.
    What more I think there is no me just illusion of me. Still it is better than nothing 
    Well in the end I am a social creature so switching back to “normal” mode helps in terms of psychical health.

    Good bye

  26. scuddy1 Says:

    Dear Sue, I have enjoyed your books , especially concerning memes, but I am stuck on the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of Ten Zen Questions.
    If I ask the question “Am I consciousness now?” am I supposed to feel something odd happening, as though waking up.
    I have tried this many times, with stickers around the house etc. but I don’t feel anything strange and there always appears to be a “stream of consciousness”.
    The rest of the book appears to depend on understanding this first question. Any advice would be appreciated.

  27. seanholland Says:

    I came across a trick in Sekida’s “Zen Training” that I have adapted in my own practice. When sitting, at the start, and then periodically when you find yourself having drifted off into busy thoughts, consciously fill the lower end of your lungs with air, expanding the diaphragm to its maximum capacity, which is much more than you would normally do. Hold it, but not in the usual “holding your breath” way that involves some kind of locking mechanism (I don’t know the physiology of it). Rather, just wait for a significantly long moment before exhaling. Then, when exhaling, empty the lungs, being particularly aware of the bottom end, more completely than you would when breathing normally. Wait before inhaling again. In each of those pauses, you might find that you are “conscious”. It’s quite delicious.
    By the way, most of the rest of Sekida’s book I found a bit perplexing. But this simple little breathing exercise made it worth the price for me.
    Thanks for the “Am I conscious now?” idea.

  28. wi2rd Says:

    Hello sue..

    what you seek is the result of being a human structure..

    Who Am I?
    Am I Conscious Now?

    What is consciousness in the first place?
    How can you answer these questions?

    Life is a reaction upon a reaction..
    What you are.. your ‘conciousness’ is no more then your loved memes..
    It’s an idea.
    A pattern generated by the universe through you..
    Conciousness is a result of this..
    an end and a beginning..

    Picture an infinity..
    This is where we are I think..

    ‘I’ Am no more then a result.. just as gravity pulls planets together.
    Being in this configuration that I am.. a so called HUMAN being.
    I see things in the way that my separation reacts to the whole..

    All is one..
    Reality is..
    Pure understanding..

    Our thoughts are a separation of the infinity..
    Our existence is a seperation..
    The interaction between everything is a result of being seperated.

    We are one.. yet we are apart..

    If I rip a piece of paper into a million small pieces.. the pieces are still the paper.. but they are also pieces of paper..

    Consciousness is like this..
    its a name.. an idea.. an interaction in our brains and the universe..
    A way to connect..
    A path to find balance and become one again..

    The question.. am i conscious.. will only be answered by the logical result..
    Yes i am at first as you stated yourself..

    You are separating yourself from your old pattern.. transforming into many other new things.
    You train yourself (by repetition) that you can be conscious and not conscious..
    You see something new now.

    You can see from outside your own earlier consciousness.

    And all of a sudden you can see more pieces?
    There are more?.. consciousness is just one way of BEING?

    I find it hard to explain this in words.. for words are merely another pattern
    A way to make our brains ‘move’ through reality.. to cause action/reactions over and over..

    Our human life is like an infitine drop.. we blast through the universe.. interacting with everything that is..
    we talk to other humans… pattern like ‘language’ arrise..
    we interact with the stoned we bump into.. the planet we stand on.

    Every action will result in a reaction in a never ending drop through infinity.

    Consciousness.. being aware.. is merely a result.. as the patterns find more and more ways to connect and more and more ways to separate we move along.. become blind to some.. see out of nowhere like new other..

    Consciousness is as much a ‘thing’ as a thing is a thing..

    like your memes..
    replicators.. forever replicating..growing?.. inevitably evolving/learning.

    You are no more then a pattern.. a result
    and no less then this

    in this infinite web of infinite webs..

    If you are interested then talking would serve us both more then you reading this babble i think:).

    Words are only words.. no more..

    every step you take.. every movement you make..
    they are all results of what was before..

    this darkness..
    Am i concious?.. all that results is another result.
    The I that you seem to seek does not exist..
    You are not a thing as you understand ‘Thing’
    Because you are also everything..

    You are everything..
    Yet you are nothing..
    everything is nothing
    nothing is everything…

    harmony :).. seek harmony for the smoothest way to flow..

    well.. that was that.. hope i make at least a little sense:)

  29. jacques79 Says:

    wi2rd – thx for a nice piece of everything… or nothing? *:)

    They say every droplet of water contains whole ocean.
    Ocean is the water.

  30. siriuspeter Says:

    What phenomenological speaking is the ‘I’, the feeling or perception of ‘self-awareness’? The identity we identify with as the ‘self’, is it only a ‘thought-plexus’ that is automatically created by the mental process,
    whenever we ask ‘who’ is conscious now? Is it a pseudo entity an artificial mask, that hides the void, the emptiness, behind ‘you’? Every time you look, this inter-face (of mental smoke and mirrors) pretends to be you ‘being conscious’. You can never see behind this curtain of ‘false self-awareness’, because if you do, ‘you’ disappear, into something that forgets ‘you’ perfectly. As real ‘self-awareness’ is not aware of anything. As far as I am aware! (-:

    The false self-awareness known as
    sirius peter

  31. luisnunesalberto Says:

    Hello Susan

    Tell me if the following text make any sense for you

    There’s a “little something” that makes the diference between life and inert material.
    The life forms, any of them, carry that “little something” thru the generations. To do so they have the possibility to adapt and evoluate. This capability guarantees the best conditions to carry “little something”.
    However there is a permanent research to increase the chances of survival by multiplying the number of carriers and diversifying their capabilities evoluating for new forms more and more sophiscated.
    A life form, vegetal or animal, is a very complexe device. To survive it needs to work perfectly. It needs systems of regulation to keep all the functions stabilised at any level . For that it needs sensors of all kind, light and temperature for extense, to detect the changings and react to them at once. All the sensors (and their software) are coordinated forming the instant general status of the device. If all the sensors are equilibrated there is no action, if they aren’t the required actions are implemented
    The instant status of the device is the consciousness.
    When a device start all the sensors are set to 0 at the initial conditions and they are going to try to keep that way for ever considering that those conditions are the perfect ones. If they can’t keep at the initial level the sensors reset on midway of the gap between the two conditions and so on. At each instant all the sensors are reset on the new medium values if they can’t avoid it.
    The human have an exceptional system of memory, they have access to diferent frames of the instant status, making a sequence of the past and projecting an image of the next instant status to come.

    It’s dificult to put all this in a few words


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