Awareness is key to everything. Without it, nothing would exist for us or any other sentient being. The universe might go on, yet it would be like a homeless person who squats on the sidewalk unnoticed. Awareness alone allows us to reach out and touch our surroundings, as well as all that’s within us.
Although we may not think about it that much, everyone who is conscious is aware. Yet, we tend to take awareness for granted though. Then when we begin a practice like mindfulness meditation, awareness takes on new meaning. We realize it’s something that’s pliable, something we can work with and develop. Something that ultimately serves us.
There are at least three levels of awareness we might notice: ordinary, mindful, and pure. Let’s take a look at each.
First, there’s just what we’ve been talking about: ordinary awareness. This is the innate ability of all sentient beings to be cognizant of themselves in their surroundings. Paying attention to our thoughts and emotions and how they drive behavior is an important and distinct aspect of ordinary awareness known as self-awareness. Within the realm of ordinary awareness, there’s a whole range of inner and outer information that’s being processed every moment.
Mindfulness meditation is a starting point in learning how to take the raw ore of ordinary awareness and turn it into pure gold. In the process, we develop what we might call mindful awareness. Mindful awareness arises when we pay attention in a particular way.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it in his book Full Catastrophe Living, we pay attention:
- On purpose.
- In the present moment.
- Without judgment.
Paying attention like this helps us bypass the usual way we approach the world. As the Buddha observed over 2500 years ago, we tend to:
- Grasp what we like
- Reject what we don’t like
- Ignore just about everything else
Conversely, when we develop mindful awareness, we can learn to pay attention to experiences without judging them as good, bad, or otherwise. We intentionally allow sensations and experiences to come and go without hanging on to them or pushing them away. Maintaining open curiosity in the changing landscape of the present moment retrains our habitual tendency to grasp some parts of our experience and reject others.
Furthermore, mindfulness meditation helps us develop greater awareness of everything that’s happening presently, including all that data we habitually ignore. Being in the present moment means being fully present with our senses wide open taking it all in. That’s what mindfulness teaches us.
The end result is a new way of perceiving and approaching life. We become more curious, more available, less clingy and resistant. When this happens, the world opens up for us in new and meaningful ways. Mindful awareness is ordinary awareness extremely amplified. It takes what we already possess and makes it stronger, wiser, and more kind.
There’s a third kind of awareness we might speak about as well. This quality of awareness typically arises after longer periods of mindfulness practice. In the esoteric traditions, it’s referred to as pure awareness. Other terms used are bare knowing and direct knowing.
Pure awareness is basically what’s remains when self-referential thought processes drop away. It’s the opposite of the way we typically process information in reference to ourselves: How does this affect me?
Let’s put it this way. Most of us tend to label sensations as my sensations or my pain. Or, we sit in a chilly room and ruminate about how it’s making me cold. Or, we hear our partner express her frustration and make it all about what’s wrong with me. (I’m afraid I do that last one a lot, but I’m working on it.)
Bare knowing, on the other hand, occurs when there is little or no evaluating or proliferating of experiences in reference to self. There is only clear, objective noticing: pain, cold, frustration.
Pure awareness is often a byproduct of extended periods of mindful awareness practice. It’s a co-mingling arising within everyday practice as well. In fact, the more we practice, the closer we get to simply attending to our experience without making it about me. Then our experiences are pure gold.
As you might sense, mindful awareness is a refinement of ordinary awareness. Clear awareness is a further purification of mindful awareness. What this indicates is that awareness is pliable or workable. With practice, it develops progressively.
Do understand that what I’ve outlined here is a very broad analogy of how awareness may be polished and refined. Namely, we take the raw material of our ordinary awareness, purify it through practice in order to become more mindfully aware. Eventually (and often in glimpses right away), we discover how to simply rest in clear awareness beyond judgment, beyond self-referential thinking, and beyond story-making.
At that point, we have, as the Heart Sutra indicates:
GONE, GONE, GONE BEYOND, GONE ALTOGETHER BEYOND, O WHAT AN AWAKENING, ALL-HAIL!