Recently I came across a helpful distinction (courtesy Swami Sarvapriananda): consciousness vs. sentience.
I had been thinking of myself (and all humans and animals - anyone with a central nervous system) as conscious. This muddied my thinking because we also know that there is only one consciousness, in which all things arise. Fred Davis often points out that without awareness, this body/mind unit is a cadaver. The body/mind unit in itself is no more awake than a can of Coke.
We, as humans, are not awake. And we cannot awaken. The key is not to awaken as a human (nor waste our time trying), but to see that you are not a human being. You are the life force, the awareness, the vastness from which all things arise. You are Oneness, or Noneness.
Awareness gives rise to humans, animals, rocks, trees - all that Is. None of these objects is any more conscious than any other. They are all made of dream stuff. But those objects which are endowed with a central nervous system are a certain type of tool for awareness, for Oneness. Awareness flowing through a rock is a rock, and does what a rock does. It sits around, sometimes rolls, sometimes directs water. Awareness flowing through an animal mind/body becomes a sentient being, and it, too, acts according to its nature. Awareness flowing through the human mind/body becomes sentient, and does as a human does.
All objects – animal, human, plant, mineral – are projections and expressions of awareness. No object is conscious. Some are sentient beings, and can move, think and even appear to awaken, although the wiser sentient beings recognize that no one ever awakens. They simply recognize what they are not. They are not conscious. They are not awareness. They, as individuals, are not That.
They see clearly that they are only That which remains after clearing all of the objects, including the individual person, out of the way. They are awareness; they are the vastness. They are consciousness without limit, infinite light.
The human mind does not give rise to consciousness. On the contrary, the individual mind is the limiting factor. Quiet the thoughts, step back from the mind, distill the pure awareness from the muddle of the mind, and then clarity shines. Pure awareness filtered through the human (or animal) mind creates a sentient being, which is a glorious and marvelous thing, but it is not a conscious thing. It navigates its way through this ocean of consciousness, enjoying its sensory and sentient experiences. But the real enjoyer is not the senses, not the mind, not the individual, but You Yourself, the one looking through your eyes.
Kathleen is sentient, but I am conscious. When Kathleen dies, I remain. If at this point, “I” am still not clear about who I am, then according to the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), I will feel at a loss without a physical body. I will thus seek one out, be born again, and will continue the cycle, until I finally understand that my true self need not incarnate.
So we do our best now to see what we truly are. Then desire falls away and we are equally and absolutely free, in or out of body. A Jiva Muktan, in the Advaita tradition, is one who is liberated while living. That is what we all are. May we see that now – and be that now.