So what is awareness? Is awareness all you need? Is it already here and now, and if so, is there any need to develop it? Do I have to work at meditation, give up options and possibly fun, plunge into introspective exercises that could be psychologically harrowing, (as well as taxing on my knees and back) in order to move a few inches along a spiritual Path – when just to be aware of that driven attitude and let go of it promises a return to a primary luminescence that is already here?
Yes, the idea of just being aware and letting go of all mental activity seems straightforward, and is a blessed relief for those of us who’ve spent years struggling away at a technique with the hope of mastering the mind and getting enlightened. But speaking personally, I’ve still had to work at letting go. The fact is I don’t always see, or feel, where I’m holding on. Being simply and non-reactively aware of what arises in my mind is certainly a good place to start (if I can be non-reactive, that is). It feels peaceful, and offers potential for clarity and for deepening into direct experience. This pausing from mental activity allows me to witness the cascade and flurries of mental/emotional phenomena, bodily twinges, external sounds and all the responses that they bring up. And to relax the urges to make, do, define, hold onto, or fight with what is arising; to open to and merge with the awareness that unfolds from all that activity – this, surely, is what Awakening is about. Here is the possibility to also be present with others and relax the defenses, the comparisons and the game-plans and be part of a sharing field. Here is the ground for value, stability, empathy and clarity.
Why then did the Buddha advocate so much effort and an ongoing cultivation of many factors, if this simple witnessing is all that’s needed? And how come most of us don’t let go, or even see the need to do so?
Well, to explore that, I’ll report on how things happen: here and now is the steadiest place to start. Now there is awareness of light splashing over my desk, of the faint grumbling of a vacuum flask as it leaks its heat, the cool temperature of the room, the sensations of my feet on the chair, energy moving into thought and so on. This process is what the Buddha meant by ‘consciousness’ (viññāna). As I track that experience of consciousness for a few minutes, I notice that the sights and sounds change, and other phenomena take their place: if I close my eyes, the mental and bodily domains become more apparent. I notice also that the focus shifts. It intensifies around points of interest, and it gets directed to find and hold a sensation, or an idea, memory or intellectual development based on what I am observing through my senses. Whatever is focused on becomes the occupation of consciousness, and the starting point for perceptions, interpretations and mental activities. There is an abiding sense of subtle presence, which seems to be ‘behind’ this changing experience, but that tends to disappear as my mind gets engrossed in its preoccupations and ideas. And so a certain application, an effort of sorts, is needed to regain the balance of witnessing. It's mostly a matter of tuning in to an overview, but it does takes application.
As I sustain the overview, the sense of presence interests me. It seems to be a something in consciousness that stands apart from any object, and is my true nature or self. However, if I don't go into it, I notice that it's also an aspect of this conscious process. There’s an object, such as a sight, sound or thought; an activation in terms of impressions and interest; and a knowing presence. They co-arise. The objects can refine – awareness of subtle energies in the body, or awareness of the act of forming and relaxing a focus, awareness of a still and open sensitivity – and the activations waver from clear and confident to foggy and uncertain, but the 'presence' of consciousness is bound up with an object. So consciousness is not a separate thing. In fact if I assume any aspect of it is, and try to find and distil that sense of presence out of the raw flow of events, that act of will, that wish to find my Self, blocks responsiveness.
Consciousness is then the experience of ‘being with’ a sight, sound, thought, etc. So when there is the movement to attach to or grasp any aspect of consciousness, balance is lost – just as when a tightrope walker tries to grip the wire that they’re walking on. Consciousness – the co-arising of object, knowing of it and subtle presence – is a process that has to be adjusted to. Which is a kind of effort. Yet, if I maintain that balance, if I incline towards resting in that relational sense, I don’t feel bonded to sights, sounds and the rest. I feel less embedded in what’s arising and able to respond, step back, engage or investigate. This understanding of consciousness as a relational act – the stream of knowing that occurs between an active sense base and an object – renders the mind freer, clearer and more able to empathize.
So the difference between just being conscious and being aware (or fully conscious) hinges on paying attention to the conscious flow, as I’ve just illustrated. This engagement of attention, heedfulness, (appamāda) is the introduction to the Path of Awakening:
Heedfulness is the Path to the Deathless,
heedlessness is the Path to Death.
The heedful do not die,
the heedless are as dead already.
Stark, but fitting. When we don’t pay attention, we drift, or are pulled through life along the pulsing current of sights, sounds, fashions, headlines, flashing lights, and special offers that capture our attention. In the public domain, the general disembodiment and entrancement with mobile phones and internet networks is reminiscent of spirit possession. When there is heedfulness, we are more capable of discernment and making clear choices; we might call it ‘being fully aware’ (although it’s actually just the beginning of the development).
And what is the difference between heedlessness and heedfulness? Paying attention, and applying whatever effort is needed to do so.
Awareness as wisdom
So another way in which awareness appears in the Buddha’s presentation is in terms of the discernment that supports a clear response. Dependent on heedfulness, there is awareness of how things are and how they happen. This awareness is called ‘wisdom’ (paññā) – though it might be better to put the English term, with its intellectual nuances, to one side for now. As a direct experience, awareness as wisdom assesses and engages (or disengages) clearly with what arises in consciousness. In other words, rather than responding through a blurred fumble and tumble of reflexes, reactions, desires, prejudices and phobias; rather than relating to the world and others as projections of needs and fears; rather than categorizing events and people into ‘another one of those’ or ‘the same old thing’ – we can meet what arises in consciousness as it specifically is. Receptivity and accuracy of response depend on this paññā faculty, and the key feature of paññā is that, although it supports clear thinking, it’s not about calculation or abstract knowledge. It is the faculty that can meet (rather than grab or reject or react to) and assess what arises. The most immediate effect of this isn’t that we come up with all kinds of conclusions and judgements, but that the mind is suffused with calm and sensitivity. Based on that, wise actions and thoughts, or stillness, can occur.
The point here is that, although wisdom can handle concepts, its salient feature is the handling rather than the concepts. It’s the knowing that a hand has when it picks up and handles a fragile object, the awareness that muscles use when they ‘know’ how heavy something is, the awareness that knows how to listen to another with sympathy but without adopting what they say. And although it is a basic potential, it develops with practice: a child’s hands aren’t skilful with fragile objects; if we’re not careful we strain our backs through lifting things in a careless way, and someone who hasn’t focused on and learnt from the mental domain can’t handle thoughts and emotions – they get snared or fight with them.
The development of awareness as wisdom comes then through application to consciousness; through paying attention and meeting what arises. Then we get to know that the thoughts and moods that occupy our minds about past present and future, and all that stuff about me and you actually arise (rather than make up a bag of solid matter that we carry around, day by day, hour by hour). Through paying attention in a sustained and focused way, through mindfulness and ‘full awareness’ (sati-sampajññā), we also get to know how things arise – what triggers and conditions the arising of moods, impulses and memories. We get to sense directly how we’re affected, how beneficial experiences come to be and how distressing ones can cease.
To summarize: awareness in the Buddha’s presentation refers not to one but to two things: the receptivity of (rather than the object of) consciousness, and the responsive quality of wisdom. They are conjoined and how they are conjoined and the result of that is what Awakening is about. To look briefly at a sutta:
‘Wisdom and consciousness, friend – these states are conjoined…For what one wisely understands, that one cognizes, and what one cognizes, that one wisely understands…
‘The difference, friend…is this: wisdom is to be developed, consciousness is to be fully understood.’ [M43. 5 & 6]
In this passage, the conjoining is the crux for development. As I’ve suggested above, the turning of awareness as wisdom onto awareness as consciousness is the vital initiation. Or, in simple terms, paying attention and maintaining that clear focus on what arises in consciousness is the way of Awakening. It's not an effort that is about changing objects, but about staying whole and connected. Because as long as we’re not clear and balanced about what’s arising in consciousness, our awareness is split: we’re conscious but not wise.
With that splitting there is no aware handling of what arises in consciousness, and our minds, hearts, reflexes and entire nervous system get flooded. Furthermore, with the loss of wise handling, the tide of sights, sounds, moods and thoughts elicits reactions of holding onto or blocking out phenomena. We get overwhelmed, reactive, or numb. In all cases, the result is a heightened sense of a separate self, loss of balance, and the formation of views, preoccupation, fears and obsession. Consequently there is the collapse of the sense of subtle presence which is the hallmark of a balanced consciousness. We ‘lose ourselves’ in the flood or the freezing.
This is why I am critical of any suggestion that the potential for response be seen as secondary to being aware. It’s a stance one can adopt: attend to the sense of subtle presence, one’s true and untroubled nature, and let the rest of the stuff sort itself out. True enough, by doing that one isn’t overwhelmed; and it’s also true that disengaging and letting the most immediate reactions pass is the opening move that allows a wise response to occur. As long as the disengagement isn’t about freezing or losing focus. Because it’s also the case that we can use that move as a defence against feeling the feeling as it arises. Feeling a feeling as a feeling, and being aware of a mind-state as a mind-state is the Buddha’s message, and the encouragement is to allow a response (to engage, investigate or maintain equanimity) to come from that vulnerable point of ‘being with’ what arises. Feeling a feeling as it arises may very well challenge one’s expectations and attitudes. It may put pressure on one’s comfort boundaries. And that’s why there is a requirement for effort as a means to stay in touch and not distract, blame or spin out.
So there is a valid disengagement, but it isn’t about zoning out of touch, but the requirement to let go of one’s avoidance strategies and self-boundaries. This disengagement (viveka), can be felt as a softening of held attitudes, or a relaxation of the need to arrive at a conclusion or get what one wants. Rather than a disengagement that splits awareness, viveka enables a widening of perspective without a loss of focus. Just as in aerial photography, a certain distancing from the detail of what is arising while maintaining the focus, often brings the crucial ‘buried’ aspects to light.
In practical terms, what this amounts to is a ‘lifting’ from the nerve-endings, or the hot-spot of what’s arising. The thoughts are running, powered by emotion, the story (often the same old story) is in full flow – and you notice the overwhelm and the loss of presence. And the first response is to pull out of that trap. Most often this means going to the bodily aspects of the experience, to what’s happening in your face, around your eyes, in your belly, across your chest. You ground yourself by widening your awareness to include your whole body, notably areas that aren’t contracted with defensiveness or flaring with passion. ( the back, the soles of the feet) Then continuing to widen, as you find stability and start to open out of the somatic pattern, you soften around the eyes, in the belly, wherever you need to. With this you turn down the passion, the pressure of what’s bothering you, or the flurry of ‘fix this, I shouldn’t be this way.’ You withdraw energy from the problematic pattern and return to wholeness. This is the response of ‘dispassion’ (viraga).
And just as viveka doesn’t lose the focus on the topic, viraga doesn’t dump the emotional pattern, it just turns down the voltage, or releases the locking, so that you can contemplate the rage, fear, feeling of rejection and so on. Taken in sequence, viveka and viraga represent maturations of wisdom in terms of insight. Widening and softening supports a deeper penetration.
The development of wisdom: widening supports deepening.
The line of development of wisdom quite naturally follows the process of widening and deepening. In order to live effectively with a conscious process that can range between deep sleep through waking and functioning to the more refined planes of meditative absorption, we have to handle the data that arise in our minds. We look towards how we will have a greater capacity and effectiveness of response. This inclination – to widen our perspectives and deepen our responses – is the basis of what Awakening is about.
The effort that supports development is about staying balanced. If we’re able to walk the swaying tightrope of the conscious process without introverting into who is doing the walking, or extroverting into the view beneath our feet, or otherwise spinning out – that will bring the optimal results. However, not all states of consciousness support widening and deepening. In the case of the dream state of consciousness, for example, images and moods arise which may trigger reactions of fear, pleasure or excitement. These responses don’t bring around any long-term benefit. There isn’t the capacity to learn, assess or measure. States of intoxication are also accompanied by ineffectual responses, because what the mind is responding in reckless ways to an impaired perception. Psychotic or neurotic states of consciousness are also unhelpful and painful. Even everyday obsessiveness, fault-finding, vanity or depression severely limit our capacity to widen and deepen and remain balanced. The trajectory of the development of awareness has to be towards greater clarity of perception and skilfulness of response.
This development doesn’t have to be limited to a meditation technique. It’s mostly down to ‘wise’ or ‘deep’ attention (yoniso manasikara). We can use this while we’re sitting still in meditation, but paying attention is the ongoing cultivation of attention to the effects of thoughts, impulses, and attitudes. The wisdom in this is in doing so in terms of consciousness rather than as a definition of self.
Deep attention means picking up the pattern of a thought or an attitude and exploring what mental state it results in. Say I’m fantasizing about some new gadget or item of clothing, or about a sexual partner: right now, what is the effect, what does it feel like to be in that process. Obviously any kind of desire has an exciting lift to it, but if you put aside the thought or the image, what does it feel like to have that energy running through your mind? With deep attention you put aside the assumptions and judgements and check it out – and you do so repeatedly until you have reliable field notes on a psychological pattern. Maybe you challenge your preferences, phobias and addictions by undermining their imagery – imagining what the new and shiny will look like in five years’ time for example. Maybe you just need to ask, as the Buddha reportedly did, ‘Is this [mental pattern] for my welfare, the welfare of others, and does it lead to Nibbana [liberation]?’
So deep attention causes us to widen our perspectives from short-term gains to long-term ethical concerns. Then it refines the ethical view from a simplistic ‘is it good or is it bad?’ into a more sensitive evaluation that takes into account intention, mind-state, time and place. As in: ‘Is this the right time and manner in which to point out someone else’s error?’ So greater development takes in concerns such as the attitudes and views that define good and bad: ‘is mine a kindly or fault-finding mind’ ‘Do I do the same things myself?’ ‘Am I attuned to what is for the other person’s welfare?’ Whereas undeveloped ethics becomes judgemental, a more fully aware attention will acknowledge and discard harshness, righteousness, impatience, and bring forth encouragement towards the good, clear boundaries and compassion towards the bad.
Buddhist wisdom then takes on the quality of what the Christian tradition calls agape or spiritual love. If you follow that as an experience, the flow of consciousness changes in accordance. We become deeper, steadier, more reflective, and able to enjoy the benefits of a calm and boundless heart.
Through this wisdom, consciousness is ‘to be fully understood.’ The term for ‘ fully understood’ here is pariññeyya. It entails an entering into with wisdom, a penetration of the workings of the conscious process in order to reveal how it happens and to clear any obstructions. Check it out: consciousness is moved along by interest, attraction, and preference. These are ‘activities’ – sankhāra (or ‘programs’ as I like to call them). The programming of these activities is what gives them their familiar ‘me’ sense. ‘Here I go again, getting stuck in an opinion, wishing for peace, inclining towards company.’ With wise disengagement and dispassion, we get past that ‘me’ assumption that can crop up in that, and contemplate why, or how, do things arise? What are the causes? And if what arises is caused and conditioned, then it can’t be an absolute. Furthermore, if what arises is caused, then that causal process need not be constantly activated. It could even cease. So neither the causal process – the impulse, the reaction, the attaching – nor what it creates or fixates on are me, mine, or myself. What would it be like without this activity? Can I just play with that suggestion?
Reasoned enquiry into cause and effect is part of that checking and testing. However, in a profound sense enquiry is finally not aimed at producing a more detailed map of who we are. In fact that process would entail holding onto a map of patterns as something that is fixed, unchanging and 'my true self' – and that idea blocks liberation. No, enquiry is about knowing where to bring this dispassionately loving attention to bear. Then comes the effort to resist the power of obscuration or ‘ignorance’ that tips the conscious process over into the mill-stream of compulsion and attachment. And consequently, there is a release through non-activation, or ‘ceasing’ (nirodha) of the sankhara programs. As awareness develops, effort is the condition for non-doing.
So the development of awareness is to permeate the mechanisms of consciousness and release that which gives rise to suffering and stress, to bondage, conceit, self-definition and views about others and the seemingly endless process of fabrication. This is how consciousness is brought to ‘ceasing’ and ‘relinquishment’ or release (vossagga). Ceasing, but there isn’t an absolute end – in terms of phenomena that is. Ceasing stills the conscious process, so that thoughts and images aren’t formed. But they will and have to arise again for functioning life. When consciousness is fully understood, what is relinquished is the inclination to take any aspect of the conscious experience, either the data that flow through it, or the sense of presence which is its resonance, as a separable entity. Our responsive awareness is then freed from bias and the compulsion to act, or to not act. How much effort is needed is in the end a personal matter, but when you get a glimpse of freedom, application is a natural response. Don't you want to rise up and be present for that?