Q: A common statement in Advaita is 'Everything is consciousness'. What exactly does this mean and how does it relate to enlightenment?
A: By this you evidently mean that everything perceived or thought or felt is consciousness -- including the perceptions, thoughts and feelings of course. In other words, by thinking about the physical and mental world, you are able to reduce all physical and mental objects to perceptions, thoughts and feelings; and in turn, you are able to reduce all perceptions, thoughts and feelings to something which you call 'consciousness'.
And yet, you feel that this is not quite enough. You admit that this is just an intellectual understanding, and that something more is needed for what you call 'enlightenment'. Well, if you see that "Everything is consciousness", then only one question can logically remain. What is consciousness itself?
You conceive of 'consciousness' as central to your understanding, but are you clear exactly what is meant by this central concept that you use? From your remaining puzzlement and dissatisfaction, evidently not.
Let me try to make the question more specific. When someone is identified as a personal ego, the self that knows is identified with a limited body and a limited mind. Accordingly, by this personal identity, consciousness is identified with physical and mental activities of perception, thought and feeling. But can it be right to identify consciousness like this? Can consciousness be rightly identified as a physical or a mental activity of any kind? Can consciousness be any kind of activity that any body or any mind may perform towards a physical or mental object? Can any kind of perceiving or thinking or feeling be equated with consciousness?
In the witness prakriya, these questions are answered in the negative. The knowing self is carefully distinguished from body and from mind. It is an undistracted and impartial consciousness that witnesses the distracted and partial activities of body, sense and mind. Thus consciousness is carefully distinguished as unchanging and unlimited, quite distinct from perceptions, thoughts and feelings that are each changing and limited.
Here, in the witness prakriya, consciousness is approached as the silent knowing of detached illumination. It is utterly detached from the noisy perceptions, thoughts and feelings that distract the mind's attention as they come and go. It is detached from them, though they cannot exist even for a moment when detached from it. Each one of them completely disappears, the very moment that it parts with illuminating consciousness. That's why they appear and disappear -- while consciousness remains, as their one reality.
Even when a perception or a thought or a feeling comes into appearance, it is not different from consciousness. For it has then been taken into consciousness, where all seeming separation is immediately destroyed. Without consciousness, no perception, thought or feeling could appear at all. But the moment a perception or thought or feeling comes to consciousness, it is immediately taken in and is not separate at all.
So it turns out that the separation of the witness is a separation of appearance only. That very separation leads to a non-dual reality of unaffected consciousness, where no separation can remain. It's only then that consciousness is clearly realized, known exactly as it is, identical with one's own self.
If the impersonal witness is not separated from the personal ego, there remains a danger in your statement that "Everything is consciousness." In order to understand the statement truly, each perception, thought and feeling must be seen as nothing else but consciousness. All differing perceptions, thoughts and feelings must be reduced to consciousness. They must all be seen as appearances or expressions, which show or express the underlying reality of consciousness.
The danger is that the statement may be misinterpreted, by doing the reduction in reverse. Then consciousness is falsely limited, by reducing it to something that has been made up, from perception, thought and feeling. In particular, consciousness may be conceived as some mental totalling, by a mind that puts together all the perceptions, thoughts and feelings in its limited imagination. Or, more subtly, consciousness may be conceived as some further perception, thought or feeling of everything, which yet remains to be discovered by the mind.
In either case, a limited conception in the mind is trying to conceive a consciousness that is unlimited. This is clearly a mistake.
Of course the absence of such thought or feeling would put consciousness beyond the mind's imagination. But could you not step back from mind, to a knowing in identity where consciousness is your own self?
In that knowing, there'd be nothing in between what knows and what is known. And so there could be no mistake. That knowing doesn't have to be remembered from the past, nor imagined as some future goal. It's fully present now; and it is found by merely stepping back from mind and body's seeming acts, into the self that knows them.
The witness prakriya is specially designed to achieve that stepping back from the confusions of ego. The ego's problem is that it sloppily confuses consciousness with limited appearances of perception, thought and feeling, instead of discerning properly the true identity between them.
According to advaita, if there were none of this confusion left, you would have attained to enlightenment. If not, the witness prakriya might help.
There is a quotation which Shri Atmananda made from the poet Alfred Tennyson. It concerns the dissolution of personality into 'the only true life'. And it is relevant to the question we have been discussing, about the dissolution of perceptions, thoughts and feelings into consciousness itself. Here is the passage quoted (from a letter by Tennyson to Mr R.P. Blood, quoted in the book 'Atmananda Tattwa Samhita' which transcribes Shri Atmananda's tape recorded talks):
"... a kind of waking trance, I have frequently had, quite up from my boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me by repeating my own name two or three times to myself, silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was almost a laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life ..."
Here, Tennyson describes a state which was induced by repeating his own name, the name that represents his individuality. This brought about an "intensity of consciousness of individuality"; and out of that intensity, "the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being". This 'boundless being' is of course the 'all', in your aphorism: "All is consciousness." Shri Atmananda remarked that this 'boundless being' still has a taint in it, because it still implies a conception of some world of things that are added up into an unlimited 'all'. There is still there a sense of things additional to consciousness -- either in a world outside, or brought in from outside.
Where it is truly realized that there is nothing outside consciousness, then there cannot be anything that adds conditioning or quality of any kind to consciousness -- neither by sending any influence from without, nor by being brought themselves inside. Without any such addition, there can be no bounds or limits in consciousness; and so there can't be any sense of the 'boundless' or the 'unlimited' or the 'all'. So, according to Shri Atmananda, this 'boundless being' is not the end of the road, but a last remaining stage of transition, with a last remaining taint that dissolves itself into the final end.
The end is described when Tennyson goes on to say that this is "not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was almost a laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life". For now the sense of a somewhat blurred 'all' has given way to a clarity of consciousness that is completely pure, utterly beyond all dying words and conceptions. And there, beyond all seeming death, its shining purity is fully positive, as "the only true life".
When perceptions, thoughts and feelings appear, that pure consciousness is present as their unaffected witness. Each perception, thought or feeling is a passing and a dying appearance. It only shows for a moment, as it gives way to the next such appearance. Thus, as it dies away into disappearance, there follows instantly a timeless moment, before the next appearance has arisen. In that timelessness, consciousness shines by itself, as the living source from which the following appearance comes. That pure shining is the living self, the only true life, from which all seeming things burst forth into appearance.