In Shri Atmananda's approach, of 'vicAra' or 'enquiry', he differentiates two aspects of 'reasoning'. The basic use of reason is for questioning, not for description or explanation. Descriptive and explanatory reason is the 'lower reason' - which is merely auxiliary, entirely subservient to the 'higher reason' called 'vicAra' or 'vidyA-vRRitti'.
In the questioning reason of vicAra, its reasoned questions are themselves the practical experiments. No further practice is prescribed to look for truth. The reasoned questioning is itself the experiment that puts ideas and theory into practice. Reason is here used to turn all questions back upon their own assumptions.
When a question is turned genuinely back, upon a seeker's own confused and contradictory beliefs, the seeker is then thrown into a further state, where a fresh understanding is attained. That is the experiment - to find fresh understanding through the test of enquiry, and to keep on testing further, until there's no confusion left to compromise what's understood.
This process of enquiry proceeds through different levels. The questioning begins at a level where confusing contradictions are found mixed, through assumption and belief, into some picture of the world. By admitting to the contradictions, they are brought into the open and there seen as a mistake. The admission leads to a fresh understanding, which gives rise to a subtler picture at some deeper level.
As further examination shows remaining obscurities and conflicts, their admission leads more subtly down, to deeper levels. The process cannot rightly end so long as any picturing is left - to give the impression of a pictured covering, upon a background underneath. The only end can be the background in itself, where no covering remains of any levels or the slightest picturing. It's only there that obscurities and conflicts end.
In short, the reasoning of enquiry is a process that starts with an admission of conflicting confusion; and it proceeds by repeating the admission through a series of subtler levels - until the conflicts and confusions are completely dissolved, along with all the levels and the questioning.
Each advaita prakriya goes through this reflective and dissolving process, including the witness and the consciousness prakriyas that we have been discussing. The witness prakriya is like "using a thorn to get rid of a thorn". The 'witness' concept is like a big thorn, used to remove the little thorn of petty ego. The big thorn must come out as well, to achieve its purpose.
But the same applies to the concept of 'consciousness' and to any other idea. 'Consciousness' is also a big thorn, even bigger than the 'witness'. It is not just the witness concept that must get utterly dissolved, in order to reach truth. So must the idea of consciousness - appearing in any form, signified by any name, intuited through any quality. In truth itself, not the slightest trace of ideation can remain.
Let us look at the consciousness prakriya, considered at its different levels.
At the starting level - of body in an outside world - perceptions, thoughts and feelings are physical interactions, between physical objects and a physical body (with its physical brain and senses and other bodily systems). Such objective interactions are clearly different from subjective consciousness. Here, A is different from B and B from A.
At the intermediate level - of conceiving mind - perceptions, thoughts and feelings are mental appearances, which come and go in a passing stream. These mental appearances have two conflicting aspects.
On the one hand, when seen at the surface of the mind, they are changing acts of the mind that conceives them. As such, they are different from the consciousness that carries on beneath them, as it knows all their comings and goings. In this superficial sense, they are not equal to consciousness. Thus, A is not equal to B.
On the other hand, when they are more deeply considered, it is realized that each one of them is an expression of their underlying consciousness. Each is an appearance of that one same consciousness, which is their sole reality. In this deeper sense, each one of them is nothing else but consciousness. It's what they really are - each individually and all together. Thus, it turns out that A=B, even though B (consciousness) was previously distinguished as different from A (perceptions, thoughts and feelings).
These conflicting aspects are inherent in the way that the mind thinks of itself - which shows that there is something truly and essentially quite wrong with its self-conception. When that is fully admitted, the mind surrenders all its self-imagined ideation, and it dissolves completely in its underlying consciousness.
That surrender leads at last to unconflicted truth. It's only there that consciousness is truly known as identical with its appearances. Its only there that A=B and B=A, unreservedly. But there all perceptions, thoughts and feelings are known utterly dissolved. They do not there exist in any way that can be seen or thought or felt at all by mind.
Just what that means can only be found out by going there oneself. It can't be found by looking on from any armchair, but only by a merciless questioning of one's own assumptions - until all trace of compromise is given up, to a complete and utter dissolution in one's own reality.
Q: Does the word 'appearance' implies some kind of distinction from consciousness itself? Is there a difference between consciousness and an 'appearance of consciousness'?
A: Again, the answer depends on the level at which it is answered. At the level of surface mind, I would answer yes, a distinction is implied and there is a difference. And the difference needs to be discerned, to clarify the mind's inherent confusion of consciousness with appearances that this very mind imagines to be different from consciousness.
The mind is self-deceived and thus self-contradicting in its confusions. Only a clear discernment can sort out the mess. By discerning a persisting consciousness, which underlies the passing of appearances, a sadhaka is able to reflect more deeply back into the depth of mind, right to that consciousness which stays quite unaffected at the final background.
But there, all appearances are taken into consciousness, where all their seeming differences are utterly dissolved. So, at that final background, no, there is no implication, no distinction and no difference. But there is no appearance either.
The question that was asked is thus shown up to be misconceived, based on absurd assumptions. And it's by looking hard at them and seeing their absurdity that consciousness may be correctly understood. Such questions help a sadhaka by turning back upon themselves and thus surrendering themselves to truth.
Relevant quotes from Sri Atmananda
NOTES ON SPIRITUAL DISCOURSES OF SREE ATMANANDA,
Dialog from 24th December 1950, "How am I the witness?"Every perception, thought or feeling is known by you. You are the knower of the world through the sense organs, or the sense organs through the generic mind, and of the mind and its activity or passivity by your self alone. In all these different activities you stand out as the one Knower. Actions, perceptions, thoughts and feelings all come and go. But knowingness does not part with you even for a moment.
1st oct. 1951: 282 "The Mind and the World "The mind is the most essential part of the world and it goes into the make of the world itself.
3rd May 1958: 46 " Q: What is the meaning of inside and outside? [in the spiritual context?] Atmananda: Experience and knowledge are inside - How can their objects be outside? Q: What does 'inside' signify? Atmananda: 'Inside' strictly means not separate from Self. Therefore experience is the self.
Sri Atmananda does not use the word 'witness' in the sense of an 'individual witness':
The "individual self" is a personal 'jIva'. It is a seeming 'jIva-Atma', with a seeming 'jIva-sAkShin'. The 'sAkShin' or 'witness' here not completely impersonal. It is still associated with personality in a way that makes it seem different from person to person. The position here is akin to vishiShtAdvaita and sAMkhya. This is not the witness that is described in strict advaita, at the highest level of Shri Shankara's teachings. That witness is completely impersonal, according to Shri Atmananda. Just as it is the same at all different times in each person's experience, so also it is the same from person to person.
Swami Madhavananda noted: "Although the witness is the same as Brahman, yet since it manifests as possessing the limiting adjunct of the mind, it is considered to be different according to different minds." Here, if you note the words "it is considered to be different", perhaps you can see that they could be taken to indicate a difference which is not real, but only a seeming attribution "according to different minds".
According to Shri Atmananda, the witness is not the discerning intellect (vij~nAna). Instead, the witness is that one same knowing principle which illumines all discernment. It is utterly impersonal, beneath all differences of name and form and quality. Though personalities are discerned to have different names and forms and qualities, no such difference can be discerned in the witness.
There is no way of discerning the witness as different in different personalities. For this very discernment of personal differences implies a witness that stays present through their variation from person to person, just as it stays present from one moment to another. That witness is thus common to all personalities, anytime and everywhere. It is the same universally, as it is individually. It is the common basis of all understanding between different persons, just as it is the common basis of all different memories and anticipations in each person's mind.
That common presence of the witness is illustrated in one of Nitya Tripta's 'Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda' (11th Nov 1952, # 375):
"...Shakespeare, in his dramas, has created diverse characters of conflicting types, each with a perfection possible to perfection alone. A writer who has an individuality and character of his own can successfully depict only characters of a nature akin to his own. It is only one who stands beyond all characters, or in other words as witness, that can be capable of such a wonderful performance as Shakespeare has done. Therefore I say Shakespeare must have been a jivan-mukta."