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?

From Judith Lief, Tricycle:
In the previous slogan, “Regard all experience as a dream,” we looked outward, at our perception of the world. With this slogan we look inward -- we look at the looking itself.

What is awareness and how does it arise? What does it mean to perceive a world? The question of consciousness is one that has puzzled scientists and philosophers as well as meditators and mystics. It seems to be intimately connected with the physical brain, yet not identical to it -- and when you are aware of something, it doesn’t seem to be the brain that is perceiving, but you! But who or what is that you?

Consciousness can be considered philosophically or studied scientifically, but in this slogan the idea is to examine it personally and directly. It is to look at your own experience. When you look, what do you see? And where does that seeing come from? What is its nature? Where does it abide? Where does it go?

Over and over look at your own mind, and then look again. Don’t think too much but keep it simple, nothing but dispassionate, inquisitive observation. Is it inside you? Outside you? Both?

If the unnerving experience of dharmas being dreamlike is not unsettling enough, when you try to examine the nature of unborn awareness, it is beyond unsettling. These two slogans undermine our attempts to establish inner and outer solidity, and liberate the energy we invest in that pursuit. So whether we are applying slogan practice to meditation and in our daily lives, it comes from a fresher place.

TODAY’S PRACTICE. When you become aware of a thought or an object of perception, notice how solid and separate the perceiver and what is being perceived seem to be, and the seeming solidity of this and that, here and there. Then look at the nature of the awareness itself, before the arising of “this” and “that.” Keep questioning. What is it exactly and where does it come from?
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