Awareness or Mindfulness
The mind is the faculty that enables us to think, feel, analyse, compare, and to draw conclusions. We have another faculty, called consciousness, which enables us to be aware.
Buddhists make a distinction between these two by referring to mind with a lower case ‘m’, and to consciousness as Mind – that is, mind with a capital ‘M’. Hence, ‘Mindfulness’ is the Buddhist term for awareness. Because this can give rise to confusion my preference is to refer to ’mind’ and ‘consciousness’.
Instead of always functioning from his mind, his head center, the meditator knows how to function from his center of being or consciousness. There are many instances in our day when we don’t need to think about a situation; instead we can simply being aware of it. Some years ago a small incident brought home to me very vividly the difference between ‘thinking about’ and ‘being aware of’.
I was walking hurriedly along a narrow path, about to turn the corner as it veered to the right. Just as I was turning I saw, coming towards me from the opposite direction, several people positioned behind a large trolley, pushing it, and some others on both sides of it, pulling. The path was lined either side with bushes, so there was little leeway in which either they or I could manoeuvre ourselves.
I began thinking, “They are heading straight towards me. Obviously they’re not going to make way for me – or are they? Can I squeeze by on the right side, or on the left? Are they planning to shift to one side? Am I going to get run into?... They’re talking and laughing together: I presume they have seen me, or are they so engrossed...?”
My mind managed to get itself into quite a stew. At that time it was a fairly common situation for me – to be under so much internal pressure that, when I perceived something coming between me and what I wanted to do, I reacted with irritation. Stressed out, to me the most minor incidents, such as this one, took on a complexity, appearing as yet another problem that I had to solve.
But what was different this time was that suddenly, for a short time, my mind stopped in its tracks, its crazed commentary momentarily suspended. My perspective, instead of remaining narrowed down to the situation, magically relaxed and expanded.
Rather than thinking about, I was now simply aware of all the facets of the situation, and found myself moving ahead, not with any planned action but just continuing to be conscious of myself, my body, my movements, and those of the trolley and its attendants. Between the six of us we managed to get past each other without any trouble at all. All that mental mish-mash that had preceded the magical moment of mind-on-hold was totally unnecessary (though it had led to a significant insight)!
Being conscious or aware is also known as ‘witnessing’ – an inner watching of our inner world of thoughts, of feelings, of physical sensations, and of our outer world. In witnessing, we experience reality not 'through a glass darkly', that is, not through the smog of thoughts or feelings, but directly.
Awareness is a significant key for inner growth so it’s worth taking a little time to understand exactly what it is. (As well as the terms ‘watching’ and ‘witnessing’ it may also be referred to as observing, self-remembering and disidentifying.)
Usually, if we’re very relaxed we’re totally unconscious – asleep in front of the television for example, or dozing off while sunbathing at the beach. Alternatively, when we are ‘paying attention,’ we’re tense (literally at-tension). In meditation, in being aware, these two seemingly opposing states meet, so one is fully conscious and yet completely relaxed.
For example, right now, as you continue to read, allow your awareness to gently glide to your breathing. You are not changing your breathing in any way, but just being aware of it. You know how to breathe; you’ve done a lot of it in your time, so you don’t need to think about it. You don’t need to bring in your mind at all as you observe, from inside, the breath moving in and out of your body. And we’re not talking about focussing or concentrating, but about a soft, very laid back kind of observing, a passive kind of internal watching….even more passive than looking…. That’s all there is to it!
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Albert Einstein
One characteristic of the mind, as Einstein points out here, is that manufactures issues and difficulties.
For example, I might think, “I’m a terribly jealous woman. Jealousy is so ugly! I’m so ashamed; I don’t want anyone to know about it. How can I stop being this way? And how did I come to be so jealous in the first place?” etc. If I try and solve the ‘problem’ of my jealousy through just thinking about it, I might only succeed in tying myself up in knots.
Conversely, if I am simply aware of or see my jealousy, as the Indian mystic, J. Krishnamurti, explains “…the problem has quite a different significance; which means there is no longer identification with the problem and therefore there is no judgment and hence the problem begins to reveal its content. If you do that constantly, continuously, then every problem can be solved fundamentally, not superficially.”
Awareness as an ongoing faculty
Vipassana (aka Insight meditation) is a technique that requires us to be aware of the inward and outward movement of our breath as it enters and leaves our body.
What is significant is not so much breath – its role is simply to provide a convenient object of awareness – as the ongoing ability to witness or watch. So when our awareness wanders, as it certainly will, when we notice that, we simply bring it back to watching the breathing.
A breath-watching technique can be a helpful introduction to the state of awareness, because breathing is a physical activity and a felt experience. You can feel the entry and departure of the breath – that subtle sensation at the nostrils, the rise and full of the chest and belly (which can, alternatively, be noticed from the point of the Hara, just below the belly button),
As this becomes easier you might watch yourself showering, preparing breakfast for your children; walking through the city, watching the movements a phone call involves, and so on. Again, because these are tangible experiences watching is easier.
Watching the mind, the traffic of thoughts and feelings, is generally more challenging. Thoughts tend to move rapidly, and so to disengage from them requires patience. Feelings can register so rapidly and may be habitually so all-encompassing – whether they be of love or of rage – that they too provide a greater challenge. Rather than plunging into the deep end – for instance, attempting to remain cool, calm and collected when your jealousy is in full flight – it may be best first to watch minor irritations, for example,