Introduction to Meditation
Class Six Notes
Awareness—Review and Exploration
Awareness is the capacity to know or be conscious of our experience. We are aware all the time when we are awake. By awake I simply mean not being asleep in our beds or physically unconscious. We know we are awake because we are aware of what is happening. If we are having surgery performed, we are given drugs so that we will not be aware of the physical pain and trauma that would otherwise be known during the procedure.
We are aware of what is happening through our five senses—sights, sounds, bodily sensations, tastes, and smells. We are also aware of the thoughts that arise in our minds. All of what is happening falls into these six categories. Again, as Joseph Goldstein says, these categories of experience are like a six piece orchestra and the music is your life. You are aware of these elements, and together they make up your lived experience. Put another way, there’s what’s happening and the awareness that knows the “whats” that are happening.
Awareness is how our waking lives unfold. Whether we are up on the screen mindlessly or mindfully in the seat in the theater, we are, in both cases, aware. The question is—do we have a mindless awareness that leaves us imprisoned on the screen, or have we taken the seat of a mindful awareness that allows us choice and freedom? When we are aware, we know the “what’s” that are happening. When we are mindfully aware we actually know that we are knowing those “whats.” Or rather, we know that we are in our seat knowing (watching, hearing, and understanding) the movie that is happening.
The “whats” that are happening can be likened to clouds that pass through the open space, or sky, of our awareness. We notice that the sky does not judge the clouds. It simply is the space through which they move. It doesn’t make up stories about them. It doesn’t get upset about them. It allows them. When we attend to our experience from the seat of mindful awareness, the awareness does not become contracted onto the screen by identifying with the “whats” that are happening. It remains off the screen, open and spacious like the sky.
Some clouds stay for a longer while. Sometimes they are stormy. The sky just lets them all pass through. No matter how big, or dark, or persistent, or thunderous the clouds might be, the sky is not damaged or stained by them. It is free. Which means we can be free. If we truly, deeply learn to stabilize our orientation to life from the seat of mindful awareness, we can be completely free. Not with a cold, disinterested, passive, dead, clinical observation, but with an attentive engagement that offers us choice, wisdom, and an aliveness unconstricted by crippling mountains of stories. We can be fresh, and open, and helpful, and caring. We can hold our humanness tenderly. We can learn, as the title of a meditation book by Phillip Moffett suggests, to “Dance with Life.” All this simply because we took the seat of mindful awareness and stayed in it.
At this point in the course, we have now developed and explored this useful conceptual framework of the sky and clouds as a vehicle for our exploration. The intention has been for you to have an initial intellectual understanding that can then deepen from the idea level to the experienced, and ultimately, embodied levels as practice unfolds over the course of years. You don’t have to have directly experienced awareness by this point (as if you could). We hold the framework and allow a process to unfold. We plant seeds that will continue to bear fruit in wondrous ways throughout our lives. We allow heartfelt insight into mystery to emerge—not factual, intellectual definition to be exhaustively compiled (as if it could be).
Tonight, we ask further questions about the sky-like nature of our awareness. We are not here to answer these, but to explore them.
We can feel and see the clouds, but can we see the sky itself? Can we see open space? We know it is there, but can we actually find it? Pick it up? Hold it? Define it? Can we even call awareness “space” or “sky?” Perhaps we could say it has a certain groundless quality. An “unfindableness.” The looking for awareness and not finding it, is actually the finding of it. It sounds crazy, and yet, there it is. We can’t find the most basic aspect that makes our lives lived, yet we know it is there. We are so immersed in an unfindable awareness that Einstein offered the analogy “Fish will be the last to discover water.”
We’ve noticed that the clouds are always changing, but does the sky? We look in the mirror and see a face and body that have changed over time, but what is aware of the seeing—has that changed? If the clouds are changing in time, but the space of the sky is unchanging, is awareness outside of time? Is it timeless? There is a saying that the greatest matter is not the future of humanity, but the presence of eternity. Wow.
Perhaps the most readily explored aspect of a sky-like awareness is the question of whether it is inside of us or outside. If we close our eyes and a bell is rung, the sound of it arises in our awareness. We may have a perceptual understanding that this sound did not arise from within our bodies, but, in terms of the sky of awareness, it is just another cloud. Sensations that occur within our bodies are still clouds in the sky of awareness. Thoughts, tastes, smells, sights, emotions—all clouds. Knit them all together and, like virtual reality on steroids, we have a sense of ourselves and our world. And when we focus directly on these clouds, as we did with, for instance, sensations, they start to soften, change, and ultimately disappear.
Our culture takes for granted that awareness is generated by the interaction of billions of nerve cells in our brains with their trillions of connections and array of neurotransmitters. Because of our sky/cloud framework, we can now ask this question—if everything is arising in the open sky of our awareness, is my sense of me and everything else also arising in that same sky. Am I generating my awareness or is awareness generating a very real sense of me and the universe within itself. A multiplicity within a unity. No separation between the subject and observer because it is all just awareness dancing with itself. Wow! This orientation aligns perfectly with the many spiritual traditions, such as Taoism, Vedanta, Christian Mysticism, Jewish Kabbalah, Sufism, Buddhism, etc. These all point to non-duality.
Non-duality has been illuminated by the study of quantum physics and the double slit experiment that shows that simply observing the state of a subatomic particle causes its behavior to collapse from a wave of possibilities into the behavior of a particle. (Check out this short Dr. Quantum video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwXQjRBLwsQ ). What begins to emerge is a picture of reality as a self-interactive, unified field of possibility.
Let’s just recognize that these are all just words and that we ultimately can’t describe reality using them. These are concepts that are being introduced to stimulate interest and exploration. Their value is in helping us orient and open to our life as a mystery. Like a newborn, we then have a fascinated, open-minded, friendly, wonder-infused connection with our beingness. The term beingness is really helpful because it points to this sense of being a being, but can we really say that we are anything? Softening up our sense of self is so valuable because when we stop trying to control things for “Me, Wonderful Me,” we have so much more energy, and we are freed from fear. Cool!
In classical Theravada Buddhism, in each moment of experience (of which the Buddha said there are seven trillion in the blink of an eye!) the object arises with its consciousness as an aspect of it. In a moment of hearing, there is a sound as an object, sound consciousness, and the sound sensing capacity of the ear all wrapped together. You cannot separate the three aspects; they are part of a whole. Each enables and “makes” the other. This opens the possibility that the object and the sense capacity are actually made of consciousness themselves, which points to non-duality and a self-interactive field of awareness yet again. Awareness could be said to be the experience of all of these many moments of consciousness knit together—like the spinning blades of a fan becoming a solid looking circle or the moving picture frames that become a movie.
From another perspective, the Thai Forest tradition points to the same relative or instantiated object consciousness just described as part of a broader uninstantiated consciousness. The objects with their consciousness arise and pass endlessly, but the uninstantiated consciousness always remains acting as awareness. Whatever the case, we don’t now try to identify with awareness as ourselves—as the new “Me.” We let go into the mystery of our being-ness and enjoy freedom from having to struggle or figure it all out. We drop out of our intellects into our hearts and bodies and feel clearly the wondrousness of—what?