Three Levels of Awareness

Bird Flying Over Mountains

The basis of mindfulness meditation is awareness. So, what’s the big deal about awareness? In this post, I talk about ordinary awareness, how important it is, and how it can be refined into pure gold.

Awareness is the key to everything. Without awareness, 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 and all that’s within us.

Everyone who is conscious has awareness, although we may not think about it much. We tend to take awareness for granted. When we undertake a practice like mindfulness, however, awareness takes on new meaning. We realize it’s something that’s pliable, something we can work with and develop. Something that serves us.

There are at least three levels of awareness we might notice: ordinary, mindful, and clear. Let’s take a look at each.

Ordinary Awareness

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 we call self-awareness. Within the realm of ordinary awareness, there is a whole range of inner and outer information that’s being processed every moment.

Mindful Awareness

When we practice mindfulness meditation, we learn 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, and ignore just about everything else.

Conversely, when we develop mindful awareness, we 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. We maintain open curiosity in the changing landscape of the present moment. This 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. Being mindfully aware is about being more curious, more available, less clingy, and less resistance. When this happens, the whole world opens up in new and meaningful ways. Thats why mindful awareness is ordinary awareness times a thousand. It’s taking what we already possess and making it stronger, wiser, and more kind.

Clear Awareness

There is a third kind of awareness we might speak about as well. This quality of awareness typically arises after longer periods of intense mindfulness practice. It has been called pure awareness or clear awareness. Other terms are bare knowing and direct knowing.

Clear 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.

As mentioned, clear awareness is often a byproduct of extended periods of mindful awareness practice. It is a comingling arising as well. In fact, the more we practice, the closer we get to simply attending to our experience without always making it about me.


As you might sense, mindful awareness is a refinement of ordinary awareness, and 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 and become more mindfully aware. Eventually (and often in glimpses right away), we discover how to simply rest in clear, open awareness, beyond judgment, beyond self-referential thinking, beyond story-making.

At that point, we have, as the Heart Sutra indicates:


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Kimberly Holman

Kimberly is a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Maine and an M.A. in Religious Studies from Naropa University. She has been practicing Mahamudra Meditation since 1996 and studies Dzogchen with her teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.
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