As we settle into our meditation, we can come face to face with our own consciousness if we don't get misled by the traces.
When we first sit down, we are as aware of what we are doing as we are during any other activity - no more, no less. But in every other activity, our awareness is focused on the activity at hand and not on the actual awareness of the activity. But the very first indication of consciousness, our awareness of the activity, is right there in front of us, and yet we don't yet see it at first.
It's like looking for an ox that got lost in the forest. We start looking for the ox but only see the roughest indications that it's passed this way - the trampled grass, the bent branches, and so on. Our awareness of our actions is like these signs - general indications of the presence of the ox, but most certainly not the ox itself.
As we sit a little longer, our mundane, day-to-day thoughts appear in our minds, the very same daydreams, memories, and anticipations of what may (or may not) happens later in the day. These thoughts, as we start looking at them, are obviously signs of a conscious mind ("I think, therefore I am"), but are not the conscious mind itself. They are like the footprints of the ox - definitive indications that the ox is near, but still not the thing we're seeking.
With longer sitting, we're able to brush away these thoughts, either by focusing the attention on the breath, or by not engaging the thoughts and just letting them drop away. But as this happens, there's still an awareness of the dropping away of thoughts, and then thoughts start to emerge about the dropping away of thoughts. More footprints.
Eventually, odder mental formations may start to emerge - subconscious memories, little intuitive insights and ideas, even suppressed emotions, not always pleasant. We are getting past the active, "thinking" mind, and entering the realm of the subconscious. These are like glimpses of the ox through the foliage, closer, but still not quite there.
The breakthrough starts with a sudden inversion of the very nature of observation. An intuitive realization emerges that we're looking in the wrong direction, as if we've been searching for the ox while looking into a mirror or through the wrong end of a telescope, but not directly at the very thing that we're seeking. Instead of looking at the output of consciousness, instead of examining the thoughts, ideas, intuitions, and emotions, we should just turn around and look at what's perceiving those thoughts, ideas, intuitions, and emotions. Don't look down at the footprints, scat, and broken twigs, but look up at the very ox right in front of us, right where it's always been. Don't look at the product, don't look for the producer of the product, stop "looking for" anything - it's right there and always has been.