Awareness is your refuge:
Awareness of the changingness of feelings,
of attitudes, of moods, of material change
and emotional change:
Stay with that, because it’s a refuge that is
It’s not something that changes.
It’s a refuge you can trust in.
This refuge is not something that you create.
It’s not a creation. It’s not an ideal.
It’s very practical and very simple, but
easily overlooked or not noticed.
When you’re mindful,
you’re beginning to notice,
it’s like this.
– Ajahn Sumedho
“Awareness just is.” My teacher said through a crackled, hollow Skype connection half-way across the world. Regardless of the aural challenge, ears alert – in fact, hanging on every word – this simple sentence really broke open a stuckness I had been experiencing for nearly two months.
Ah, yes, awareness – that thing that always is, if we just tap into it. That thing that lies beyond conventional reality, concepts, beliefs, ideas, time and yet is the one constant. The one thing that is always there. As my Burmese teacher says, “just be happy that you are aware!”, even if that awareness comes from realizing that you were previously unaware. (This sentiment was also expressed in a recent post at Mind Deep.)
Awareness is not consciousness; according to Zen tradition, it is rather “the self prior to our parent’s birth”, at least so says Dainin Katagiri in Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life. Katagiri goes on to explain that it’s pretty difficult to know this “self” since consciousness is virtually always operating and carrying us away from one thought to another. The best way to research it, however, he says, is “to sit down and do zazen and let the flower of life force bloom in thusness.”
So, awareness is the essential self, and we get to know it deeply through the practice of meditation. There are Zen ways and Theravada ways of talking about it, and it seems the Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings in Tibetan Buddhism particularly stress it as well. In fact, perhaps the one piece that is consistent — regardless of the method being taught, from what tradition the teaching comes, or what words are used to point to the Dhamma — is awareness. This is the crux of mind training and to realizing meditation as a way of life.
Awareness is something that we can and should be cultivating all the time. However, as Ajahn Sumedho and U Tejaniya both say, it’s not a creation; it’s cultivation in the sense of bhāvāna, the Pāli word for meditation. And while an awareness practice’s potential for deep insight is probably greatly reduced without formal meditation and time for intensive retreat, awareness in daily life has a lot of benefit in and of itself.
Even though I have not fully returned to a conventional life and am to some extent continuing to live in retreat mode, daily life is the core of practice right now. Why? Because the great majority of our day is spent in daily activity and not in formal meditation. And awareness is applicable to whatever situation we find ourselves in – whether we are doing chores, talking to friends, in meetings at work, driving, doing exercise, engaging in social media (that’s a tough one), practicing sitting or walking meditation, etc. There are lots of relevant quotes on what awareness and mindfulness consist of. If you follow the links you can see some of my favorites. But Charlotte Joko Beck, as always, gets right to the point with the following:
There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichū, ‘Please write for me something of great wisdom.’ Master Ichū picked up his brush and wrote one word: ‘Attention.’ The student said, ‘Is that all?’ The master wrote, ‘Attention Attention.’ …
For ‘attention’ we could substitute the word ‘awareness.’ Attention or awareness is the secret of life and the heart of practice….[E]very moment in life is absolute itself. That’s all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future; there is nothing but this. So when we don’t pay attention to every little this, we miss the whole thing. And the contents of this can be anything. This can be straightening our sitting mats, chopping an onion, visiting one we don’t want to visit. It doesn’t matter what the contents of the moment are; each moment is absolute. That’s all there is, and all there ever will be. If we could totally pay attention, we would never be upset. If we’re upset, it’s axiomatic that we’re not paying attention. If we miss not just one moment, but one moment after another, we’re in trouble.
As a part of my own practice – of ensuring that this writing is supportive – in the next few posts I hope to explore different elements of our daily life practice including things like intention, the four right exertions (reflections on effort and wholesomeness), right speech, Wisdom 2.0, and aspects of relationship that serve as fodder for self-inquiry.
Until then, a couple of exercises that may be worth engaging in:
- Notice the state of mind when you first get up and when you go to sleep. What activity do you engage in and what’s the mood and thought content associated with the activity? And how do you engage in that activity?
- Per instructions from Andrea Fella’s daily life retreat, pick a recurring activity throughout your day (standing up, checking email, etc.) and make an effort to be mindful as you engage in that activity. See what you discover. If you realize you’ve forgotten to be mindful, just recognize that you’ve now remembered and see what that feels like…As U Tejaniya says, notice what the difference is between being aware and not being aware.
And some recommended reading / listening on daily life practice:
- Awareness Alone Is Not Enough, “Daily Life” section by Ashin Tejaniya (starts p. 123), an excerpt:
Every time you talk to someone on the phone or when someone approaches you, try to remember to check how you are feeling. What do you think and feel about that person? Throughout the day, whether at work or not, make it a habit to always check what kind of emotional reaction you have every time you interact with another person. How do you feel when the phone rings? Is the mind eager to pick it up quickly? You need to notice these things.
- “Daily Life Practice Retreat” – Audio and Handouts from Andrea Fella, Insight Meditation Center, an excerpt:
I really emphasize this moment of remembering. And what is helpful over time, is that you get familiar with what it feels like to be awake, to be aware — that moment of coming back into awareness. When you get familiar with that feeling, you’ll actually discover it happens a lot. It happens a lot to us throughout our day but we usually don’t recognize it because that moment of coming back into mindfulness is kind of subtle, and we generally leap onto what we’re paying attention to and start thinking about it, so we miss the fact that we’ve become mindful.
- Interview with Charlotte Joko Beck posted at Ox Herding, originally published in Shambhala Sun, and an excerpt from Nothing Special: Living Zen published in Tricycle from which the above quote was referenced