Examine the Nature of Awareness

Practice of the Week
Examine the Nature of Awareness

Category: SLOGANS TO LIVE BY: These are for everyone. Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Another "Practice of the Week" is to "See Everything As a Dream." (SEE HERE.) If everything is just a passing memory and you can't really grasp anything, as in a dream, you have to wonder: Who says so? Who knows this? Who is aware of this? Who is reading these words right now?

We know the answer to these questions: "Me! I'm reading these words. I'm aware of the fact that everything is like a dream. I'm a little skeptical of that, but I'm aware that that's what I just read."

Nothing could be more obvious than this. But have you really examined it?

Let me suggest an experiment in awareness. You could even try it right now. Turn away from reading this and find yourself, the me mentioned the earlier paragraph. Find a yourself, find a definite, concrete, identifiable somebody there within your awareness.

I think you will find this is not so easy to do. You can find plenty of thoughts and emotions, sensations, opinions, sense experiences, but I think it's very difficult to find an I.

Imagine that suddenly, for no reason, your mind were to become very, very quiet and there were only a sound, maybe the sound of silence or the sound of wind or water or machinery, and simply a feeling of presence, and there is nobody complaining and there are no stories going on in your mind. There is only awareness. You may well have had such an experience in a meditation retreat or maybe any time, in nature, or in spontaneous repose. In such a moment there isn't anybody there to congratulate you for it. As soon as there seems to be someone to notice or congratulate, the experience passes and the inner dialog resumes. If you should experience a moment like this, it will become instantly clear to you that awareness is something very profound and extremely mysterious and that we really don't know where it comes from or what it is at all.

It's powerful, vivid, and very alive, but we don't know what it is. We have a word in our language -- consciousness -- but no one knows what this word means. It's a word that simply covers over our confusion. To recognize this fact and train in it is the objective of the practice, examine the nature of awareness.

Recent brain science corroborates the point. There is, in fact, no brain area, no combination of areas, that corresponds to our sense of "me." Though the sense of "me" does seem to occur subjectively, it is not an experience and does not exist in a location. It emerges somehow from thoughts and emotions that can be seen in brain scans, but it itself cannot be seen or measured. It both exists and does not exist at the same time.

For Journaling

Perform the recommended experiment: take a few moments to turn away from any distractions and search within yourself for yourself. Give yourself several minutes to search, then pick up your pen and begin writing. What thoughts, emotions, sounds and other sensations did you notice? Where was the self that had these experiences? What did this experiment indicate about what yourself is?

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Watch an Inspiring Movie

Practice of the Week
Watch an Inspiring Movie

The TV and newspapers provide a constant stream of bad news. Our own lives are filled with a constant barrage of stress. With so much negative information overwhelming us at all times, we need an easy and effective way to replenish our souls.

Fortunately, a quick and powerful source of inspiration is readily available: movies!

A good film is truly a remarkable gift of modern technology. In about two hours you can enter a whole new world and become absorbed into its story, characters, and underlying message. When a film touches your heart, it can inspire you to new heights of hope and possibility. It can almost instantly change your attitude and how you feel.

The average American spends about eleven years of his or her life watching TV -- more than any other waking activity, including work! While watching TV can be fun and relaxing at times, the preponderance of violent images and bad news on TV can also be stress-inducing. In fact, studies show that most people actually feel worse after they watch TV.

On the other hand, an inspiring film can have an uplifting effect on people for many hours -- or even days. Research indicates that traits such as kindness and bravery are increased in moviegoers after they watch films whose characters display such qualities.

Since what we watch on TV or in the movies affects how we feel and act, it's critical we become selective about what we expose ourselves to. When you were young,your parents probably prevented you from seeing certain shows. Now that you're an adult, you need to choose which images and stories will help feed the type of person you want to become. Because there is a lot of "garbage" in the media, it's not an easy job to do. To help make the task easier for you, I have come up with a list of thirty highly inspiring films. This list was created by asking approximately 2,000 people who attended my workshops about the "most inspiring movie they ever saw." The thirty movies that got the most votes ended up on the list. In alphabetical order, here are the films:
  1. Being There
  2. The Bucket List
  3. Brother Sun, Sister Moon
  4. Casablanca
  5. Chariots of Fire
  6. Dead Poets Society
  7. The Empire Strikes Back
  8. E.T.
  9. Field of Dreams
  10. Forrest Gump
  11. Gandhi
  12. The Girl in the Cafe
  13. Good Will Hunting
  14. Gravity
  15. Groundhog Day
  16. Harold and Maude
  17. The Matrix
  18. Michael
  19. Network
  20. Out of Africa
  21. Peaceful Warrior
  22. Powder
  23. The Razor's Edge
  24. Rocky
  25. Schindler's List
  26. The Shawshank Redemption
  27. The Ten Commandments
  28. Titanic
  29. Wizard of Oz
  30. Yes Man
[And six more: 1. Avatar; 2. Dead Man Walking; 3. Enlightenment Guaranteed; 4. Inside Out; 5. Life is Beautiful; 6. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. --Meredith]

Of course, there are many other inspirational films. Yet if there are some of these you haven't seen, locate them and give yourself a few hours to soak them in. If you've seen them all, pick some to watch again. I've learned that I often get more benefit from seeing a movie a second, or third, or fourth time, than I did the first time I saw it.

A few years ago, I went to a showing of the classic, Harold and Maude. The first time I saw this movie, I loved it. I was now seeing it for the fifth time. I casually commented to the woman sitting next to me that I had seen this movie on four previous occasions. She looked at me as if I was crazy, and then said, "I've seen this movie twenty-six previous times!" She went on to tell me that this movie had totally changed her life. The main character in the film, Maude, inspired her to leave her loveless marriage, travel around the world, and become an artist. I was amazed. Ever since I heard this woman's story, I have been much more open about the potential effects a movie can have on a person's life.

I often watch a good movie many times. I've learned to "absorb" what inspires me about a particular film so that it never seems "old." For me, watching movies has become a powerful source of illumination and learning.

A truly wonderful film is a blessing. It can make your heart soar, teach you new ways to live, and help you gain the wisdom of the characters portrayed in the script.

What films have inspired you in the past? Perhaps it's time to see them again. What movies have simply given you a good laugh or made you feel good? Like a good friend, a good movie can repeatedly feed your soul and uplift your heart.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"


Live by the Truths of Life, Death, Actions, and Suffering

Practice of the Week
Live by the Truths of Life, Death, Actions, and Suffering

Category: SLOGANS TO LIVE BY: These are for everyone. Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

If you really take these points seriously, if you think about them long enough and hard enough to see how true they really are, it will change your outlook on life, and you will have found the motivation to begin again.

1. The rarity and preciousness of human life

There are more than seven billion human beings on planet Earth, and this seems like a lot. But maybe not. Earth also contains many other living creatures. For instance, every human body is host to trillions of living beings -- various kinds of bacteria, mites, and other microscopic creatures that are, in their time and space scale, just as alive and just as vivid as we are in ours. There are also many other larger creatures we can see and relate to. The number of ants alone, in their various species, is incomparably larger than seven billion, not to mention all the other sorts of insects and other animals that exist in the air and water and on land. You would have to pick over trillions upon trillions of living creatures before you would find one that was human. And this calculation only involves the planet Earth, this tiny water-and soil-laced planet spinning around a small star within a vast universe. Human life is not only, as we would all agree anyway, precious and sacred and not to be taken lightly; it is also, in the grand scheme of things, unbelievably rare.

Having received this rare and precious gift, how is it that up to now you haven't thought about the best and highest way of fulfilling your human purpose, you haven't resolved to go beyond your self-centeredness and self-concern so that you can begin to manifest wisdom and compassion -- or whatever you consider to be the highest of human purposes? Considering deeply the preciousness of human life, you feel inspired to begin to do something more with your life.

The next three points are also awesome, but less pleasant to think about.

2. The absolute inevitability of death

Most of us somehow believe that we are the sole exception to the otherwise universal rule that all living creatures die. If asked we will answer that yes, we do understand that we will die, but in our heart of hearts, in our thoughts and feelings, we don't really believe it.

Check yourself sometime during the day and ask yourself honestly whether right now, in this moment, you truly believe that you are going to die. The likelihood is that you would have to answer no. At that moment, you do not really believe it, you feel as if you are here and are always going to be here.

Yet the reality of death is the most important factor of every moment of our lives, because it is thanks to death that we can cross over from one moment to the next. If this moment doesn't die, totally disappearing, we can't have the next moment. So loss and death are facts of life every moment. But one day one of those moments will not be succeeded by another moment of your experience.

One of the disturbing things about this moment is that you never know when it will come. Most of us believe we don't have to worry about this moment because death comes in old age, and since we are not now so old, it's not a problem for us. But death doesn't come only in old age; it comes at any age, and nobody knows when. And even if it were to come in old age, old age comes much more quickly than you thought it would: you were young, you blinked your eyes, thirty or forty years flew by, and now you are no longer young. How did that happen all of a sudden?

Time -- as it is lived and experienced -- speeds up with age and the accumulation of experience. This means that if you are thirty, your life is much more than a third gone: it is maybe 80 percent gone. If you are fifty, it is 95 percent gone. There's not nearly as much time left as you thought there was.

This is a serious problem, and it's a problem now, not later. We ought to recognize that we are in an urgent situation. We have much less time left than we thought, and we have no idea when our lives will end, so it is important that right now we turn our attention to what really matters, that we don't waste time.

3. The awesome and indelible power of our actions

Each of our actions produces a result. Every action, both large and small -- all of our thoughts, words, and deeds -- have consequences. We may never know the measure of those consequences though they are extensive and powerful. Every moment so far in our lives, we have been affecting the world in some subtle yet real way; every moment, we have been participating in creating the world that now exists for ourselves and others. Everything in our lives is important. Everything matters. There are no trivial throwaway moments.

Most of us think of ourselves as rather inconsequential people. We don't take our own power very seriously. Maybe we think the people we read about in newspapers are important, but we are not important. But this is not so. The actions, thoughts, and words of each of us are important. All of us together are making the world. So we have to ask ourselves: "How am I living? What kind of actions am I taking? Am I a force for good in the world or am I just anouther person doing nothing to help and therefore making things worse?"

If we ask these questions seriously, we will have to conclude that we can do much, much better and that we have to do better -- that there is no excuse not to and that to do better is an urgent necessity.

4. The inescapability of suffering

Although we don't like to think about it, sorrow and suffering are inevitable in any human life, even a happy one. There's the suffering of loss, of disappointment, of disrespect; the suffering of physical pain, illness, old age; the suffering of broken relationships, of wanting something badly and not being able ot have it, or not wanting something and being stuck with it. There's the inevitable suffering of painful, afflictive emotions, like jealousy, grief, anger, hatred, confusion, anguish -- all kinds of emotions that cause suffering. These things are part of life. No one can avoid suffering.

Given that this is so, how can we not take our lives in hand and make a serious effort to develop wisdom, compassion, and resilience? How can we not prepare our minds and hearts for the inevitable suffering that we are going to be facing?

We have insurance for our car or home because we know we need to protect ourselves from the possibility of accident and loss. We go to the doctor because we know our health requires protection. Why then would we not think to guard and strengthen our mind and heart to cope with the suffering that certainly will be coming in some measure at some time? How can we have been so foolish as to have ignored this necessity for so long?


To think long and hard on these four points, first read about them. Second, read about them again and again. Third, write them down and think about them. Fourth, journal about them. Fifth, continue to bring them up in your meditation practice or other times set aside for personal reflection.

Thinking long and hard on these four points will cause you to appreciate the seriousness of our condition and recognize that we have to live as seriously as we possibly can in response to the gift and the problem that is our life.

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