I was having a conversation with a non buddhist about consciousness I was struggling to define some key aspects and it kind of led into not self, but I was looking for a concise simple definition.
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Technically, consciousness (viññāṇa) is that aspect of the mind that is aware; it is the qualia of modern Western philosophy.
Colloquially, it is used to refer to the entire mental ensemble that includes sensation (vedanā), recognition (saññā), processing (saṅkhāra), and awareness (viññāṇa). This is because the other three aggregates are always accompanied by awareness. Just as water has colour, temperature, etc., so too, consciousness has sensation and other mental concomitants.
Doctrinally, it is a cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy, which takes an experiential paradigm as the basis of reality (as opposed to the temporospatial paradigm of modern science). Each conscious qualia constitutes an atomic entity in the complex matrix of multi-perceptional reality.
Consciousness in English has a different semantic range than it has in Pali. Westerners have spent a lot of ink writing about consciousness, so I think there is a nontrivial risk of talking about biscuits (British cookies) and biscuits (American little round bread thingies).
Some of the relevant Pali jargon words are:
viññāṇa- awareness, especially the sort that is like a chain reaction starting with the physical senses of sight, touch, etc that leads to thoughts of other things. Sometimes translated as consciousness. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vij%C3%B1%C4%81na#Overlapping_Pali_terms_for_mind
The Buddhas teaching on the Five Aggregates will help you perfectly explain the consciousness!
Here is a passage from the link below:
But physical elements by themselves are not enough to produce experience. The simple contact between the eyes and visible objects, or between the ears and sound cannot result in experience without consciousness (Vijnana). The eyes can be in conjunction with the visible object indefinitely without producing experience. The ears too can be exposed to sound indefinitely without producing experience. Only the co-presence of consciousness together with the sense organ and the object of the sense organ produces experience. In other words, it is when the eyes, the visible object and consciousness come together that the experience of a visible object is produced. Consciousness is therefore an indispensable element in the production of experience.
If you do practice formal sitting meditation, you will experientially see this. When you focus on the rising and falling of the stomach, once the mind wanders to a different experience, you no longer are aware of the stomach, this is because you no longer have the physical and mental duality, so there is no experience of the stomach, there is no existence, but..when the mind returns to the stomach, once again you have contact between the mental and physical, and once again the sensation of the stomach is realized! (just a side note: The changing experience is "rebirth/birth)
Consciousness is simply ability to know or, more complicated, it's property to have object. Pali commentaries define consciousness (citta) in three ways. Agent definition - citta is what cognizes an object (arammanam cinteti ti cittam). Instrument definition - by means of which mental factors (cetasika) cognize the object. Activity definition - nothing other than cognizing (or knowing) the object. Third definition is considered to be ultimate definition, while first two is provisional definitions, all of them are supposed to refute view that these functions are performed by Self.
Probably consciousness could be hard to define in mechanistic-materialistic view (or standpoint), it's because such view eliminate consciousness. So, how to define thing that is fundamentally eliminated? To correct this we should recognize that consciousness is of fundamental (phenomenal) nature and does not need to be reduced to matter or derived from matter. For all of us consciousness is basic fact (phenomenon).