Knowing, awaring, seeing through

Shwedagon Pagoda seen from Bojoke Park

Where to start? Six weeks on retreat, some insight to share perhaps. Hard to organize the thoughts around them. Experience is experience, wisdom is wisdom; but when it’s not actually happening, it becomes something else. A memory, knowledge informed by conditioning, assumptions…the momentum of our ordinary perception starts to creep back in if we aren’t vigilant with awareness. If we take the practice into our daily lives, however, then there is the opportunity for the momentum of awareness to continue to strengthen and for wisdom to grow incrementally.

Talking about it all seems kind of silly sometimes. But I continue to want to use the act of writing and dialoguing to be part of it all. In the retreat center there are Dhamma friends, speaking the same language, approaching the practice in the same way, to be both silent with and to talk and learn with. It’s a little harder out here. Alone in the woods. So, the trusty Internet. Here goes.

In general, the experience of retreat was relaxed, effortless. Gone was the mind’s striving for continuity of awareness, for experience, for insight. Instead there was a real settling in to everything that was happening just as it was happening, learning at whatever pace. What’s there to force really? We can only set an intention, to create the proper causes and conditions for insight to arise. There was a shift from a trying to be aware to a remembering that awareness is already there – because in the act of remembering, awareness is. It was pretty revolutionary for one who was plagued by greed and anger (pain) on her long retreat last year. That’s not to say I didn’t experience defilements, or sense desire, I did! But all in all, it was much more subtle. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion. Of course in the middle, there’s nothing there…

As the causes of mental discomfort come into awareness, there are different levels at which the mind really knows that experience. I hesitate to talk in systems or models of thought, because of the mind’s tendency to attach to a fixed idea around it, but sometimes it’s helpful to do so.

First, the mind knows. This is the basic function of consciousness (viññāṇa). At one point, a friend and I were talking about the act of recollection, remembering – and how recollecting one’s meditation experience, as the American teacher Jason Siff makes central to his teaching method, fits into an approach of just pure experiencing. Undoubtedly, when there’s a lot of interest in the mind, there is active reflection happening all the time, and it’s happening concurrent with direct perception. If you think about experience in terms of the five aggregates, it helps parse out the different functions of the mind that are actively working all the time in tandem. As I sat at one point when the mind was really stable and calm, the realization came that if an experience is not known by the mind, then it cannot be recollected. And that if it’s not directly experienced it can’t be known in the first place. It may seem obvious and mundane at an intellectual level, but as bhāvanāmayāpaññā, experiential wisdom, this is pretty powerful. In other words, can the mind ever not know awareness (the kind of all-encompassing or boundless awareness that falls outside of the five aggregates)? It’s only possible to not be aware of awareness. Yet, the mind is already aware because it is nowhere, no-thing, it is space itself. It IS the awareness. Yes, I’ve completely fallen into the nondual camp. I don’t think there’s any other direction it can go.

So, there’s this basic knowing that’s happening all the time. The mind is registering all sorts of experience, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s like the peripheral vision that’s keeping tabs of all these things that aren’t directly in view. When we have to go back and remember what was in the field of view, we may be able to recall more than we realized immediately. This is one of the reasons it’s really important to think about the practice. When we continue to develop the kind of awareness which is more than just this basic knowing, we are bringing in wisdom, and that’s a direct effect of this investigative process (dhamma-vicaya). So first there’s knowing or mundane awareness, and then there’s the big kind of awareness, you could say awareness with wisdom.

An example of how this process operates in our daily life. Say I notice a feeling of envy after reading something about someone else. The knowing is just in the experience, the registering of the feeling (ugh, unpleasant), the perception of that feeling (knowing it’s envy), and the mental activity around that feeling – the thoughts that are the big red flag to me that envy is occurring. Depending on the mind state, understanding may stop right here, which really isn’t understanding. It’s just knowing. If there’s a remembering to be aware, then, instead of layering aversion on top of the aversion (envy is in the anger family), i.e., “how petty of me!”, then there’s just a being with that emotion. There’s a going into it, an opening up to it. As well as to any additional thoughts that might pop up around it. If the commentary continues, then, defilement is winning out over wisdom. And that’s okay, but it’s probably best to stick with knowing what is happening and not try and understand why. Just keep seeing it for what it is, remembering awareness. And if wisdom gets the upper hand, then you might see the whole thing dissolve, because there’s a seeing through, there’s an understanding of cause and effect. And there’s an understanding of the insubstantiality of it all. The five aggregates are not me, there’s nothing to cling to. It’s just stuff happening.

In getting to know these different functions of the mind, one also gets closer to understanding the true nature of the mind. And it is through this direct observation, and sustained and vigilant remembering, awaring, that we create the causes and conditions for wisdom to emerge. And really, it’s possible any and every moment to be awake, for the mind to be free, through this clear seeing.

So this was a big theme for me over retreat. Each time a strong emotion emerged, or even just a subtle defilement, there was a wanting to understand. Sometimes the attitude was good, and there was a seeing through; other times, there was a lot of selfing going on (such deep conditioning and identification), and so then the wisdom was in knowing that I could only recognize what was happening and not explore why at that moment. You can always bring wisdom into it. It’s a matter of knowing what the attitude is and thus what’s most skillful at that time for your practice. It’s a recognizing things as they are, not trying to make them something else or a trying to hold on. Having an interest in the mind like this means all of life is meditation. Which is pretty awesome indeed.

Leave a comment


  1. doug

     /  January 20, 2011

    wow, that’s a lot! hope to see you tomorrow. D

  2. Katherine,

    Thanks for sharing this informative, thought-provoking and insightful perspective with us. I am glad that your experience on retreat was helpful to your practice.

    As a Dhamma novice I do not feel particularly well qualified to comment but here goes:

    (i) your point about moving from ” trying to be aware, to a remembering that awareness is already there – because in the act of remembering, awareness is.” is most helpful because I get caught into thinking and desiring to become more aware.

    (ii) I have reflected on and agree with most of what you write because it echoes the teachings of Ajahn Sumedho which I have been exploring. In his last talk before retiring, “Goodbye forever”, his main theme is the five khandas. I intend to listen to it again soon.

    (iii) Of the khandas, vinnana is the one I find hard to understand. What is the difference between vinnana/consciousness, awareness and mindfulness? (by the way you did not use the term mindfulness in the above – deliberately to avoid confusion?). A way out of the confusion which occurs to me is this simple model of two types of awareness:

    Type I: “everyday”/conditioned awareness or vinnana which is awareness in the conditioned realm. Such awareness as for all conditioned things arises and ceases. That is why it is to be let go of along with the other khandas

    Type II: “pure” unconditioned awareness (perhaps sati-sampajanna?) which is unconditioned and therefore permanently available. Because it is permanent, as Ajahn Sumedho advises, you can take refuge in it – trust in it.This sort of awareness is beyond words. It seems to me that a lot of confusion can be caused by trying to describe the ineffable. I believe The Buddha never described Nibbana/The Unconditioned other than that it was the end of suffering.

    A thought occurs regarding the division in Buddhist theory between the unconditioned and conditioned. Isn’t it dualistic? You know far more about non-dualism than me. Perhaps the answer is that the unconditioned embraces and includes the conditioned – or in other words is aware of the conditioned?

    My comments raise more questions than answers but I believe that is an essential part of the practice/journey. So thanks again for sharing your experience and opening it to discussion,

    With metta,


    • Terry, glad that sentence was helpful. I’ve seen a lot of striving and efforting for awareness, both in myself and others. Very helpful to keep in mind the “not forgetting”, “remembering” meaning of awareness. I don’t use the term mindfulness too often and the reason for that deserves another article in full, as opposed to a comment reply ;) So, along with defining choiceless awareness, I have a post on mindfulness/sati to explore and deliver…Your descriptions of the two kinds of awareness seem good to me – that’s what I was trying to convey with the terms mundane awareness and all-encompassing awareness. Same word, but pretty different concepts. Yes, language fails us miserably. And intellectual knowledge is no substitute for wisdom.

      One note on Nibbana: the Buddha most often described it in terms of what it was not. And that was a long, long list of things, i.e., the deathless, unbound, unbecoming, extinguished… (for more, see The Island). Thanissaro Bhikkhu says of Nibbana, “The Buddha insists that this level is indescribable, even in terms of existence or nonexistence, because words work only for things that have limits. All he really says about it — apart from images and metaphors — is that one can have foretastes of the experience in this lifetime, and that it’s the ultimate happiness, something truly worth knowing.”

      It has been said that the only difference between nibbana and samsara is how you look at it. Because of ignorance there is samsara, and because of samsara there is liberation. Buddha-nature is the basis of both. If you recognize clarity, the unborn, then the ignorance is removed and freedom is right there. The dualism is only in the conceptual mind. Thought is inherently dualistic unfortunately.

      • Thanks for your reply. The last sentence bothers me. Do you have any evidence that thought is inherently/innately dualistic? I’d like to think that it arises from conditioning – societal, educational, parental, religion – and can therefore be observed and seen through.

        • Hmm, evidence. Every time I observe the mind there’s ample evidence. Subject – object. Let’s see. Thought is dependent on language, language defines and thus divides by its very nature. Yes, the concepts are hardened by conditioning, but no, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a seeing through. And it certainly doesn’t mean that thought can’t be used skillfully or that concepts are useless. They are highly functional! It’s just that we believe them and thought to be more than they actually are – just tools.

          This article is a reasonably good brief response to your question and this discussion might also be helpful. I particularly like the last two responses (both links discovered by a quick search on “thought is inherently dualistic” so can’t necessarily vouch for them other than the immediately relevant content).

  3. ebe

     /  January 23, 2011

    You are not “Alone in the woods”. Thanks for another interesting post, which cleared some things to me.

    Welcome back to the real jungel :)


  4. Wow, Katherine! Thank you so much for teaching me . . . so much.

    I especially resonate with two things:

    1) the greediness for continuity of awareness that can get in the way of being at ease with oneself, and the whole experience of just being – I have definitely experienced that and seeing it expressed so skillfully is such a gift!

    2) the role of wisdom and reflection in purifying the mind – yes, pure awareness is not enough, it is actually rather dumb . . .

    So glad you are back, and we can benefit from your teachings again. You really ought to expand your role as a teacher. You have much to give.

    With metta,


    • Glad for the resonance Marguerite. It is quite incredible how even something wholesome such as continuity of awareness can become something to achieve, to go after and to be related to by the mind in an unwholesome way. All the selfing and efforting that results! I suppose it’s to be expected given the mind’s habits.

      I do really appreciate your sharing with others what you find helpful here. My goodness, though, you are too kind. As far as teaching is concerned, well, I have all sorts of ideas and opinions about that which you may or may not have read about here. Anyway, it’s just borrowed wisdom. And I have had some pretty good guides along the way…

    • Marguerite,

      I would appreciate it if you could kindly elaborate on what you mean by pure awareness being actually rather dumb?

      With metta,


  5. doug

     /  January 28, 2011

    more please

  6. ebe

     /  February 2, 2011

    Thank you so much for this post. I read parts of it several times, and every time I find a new point of view, a new thing to notice.

    I just noticed in the second paragraph the issue of effort, or better to say effortless. That point where the effort to be aware becomes just “remembering” sound to me as a fruit of your practice. Wow! Thats wonderful!!

    Now, when it becomes effortless, do you think that the previous effort was reqiured? Do we need it or can we just “jump” to effortless if we get the correct teaching?

    • EBE, I’m so glad that you find the article rich and rewarding. Thank you. The understanding of effortless effort is some sort of combination of moving in that direction intellectually and then having some experiential understanding, which was backed up by a change in the way my teacher talked about the whole concept of awareness. He, himself, had made a subtle shift to saying “recognize”, “remember”, as opposed to “BE” aware. It’s an amazing coincidence that you asked this question just now b/c I was looking into the subject of effortless effort because of another reader’s question, and I came across this fantastic article from Ken McLeod. I relate to so much of what he says here. And the one line: “I came to appreciate that all my efforts in previous practice had built the capacity so that I could now rest and just recognize” is spot on. There are certainly reports of spontaneous awakening, but it seems to me that it’s an unending, unfolding process, and probably most people are going to have to do a lot of formal practice to get to a place where they can relax into a true not-doing.

  7. Somehow I am just getting around to reading this, and the link drawing between memory and being aware was particularly enjoyed. It brought to mind this quote from Michael Olds in regards to the Satipatthana Suttra:

    “What we are talking about here is the word SATIPATTHANA. SATI=memory, PATTHANA=factory, manufacture. This word has been translated two ways that come down to “Paying Attention”: “mindfulness”, and “awareness”. ”

    Awareness as the wise manufacture of true memories, on which proper understanding stands was quite a shocker for me when I first read this. Perhaps it is helpful/enjoyable for you as well. In any case, it is from here, a rather unique translation from the Pali (quoted part’s all the way down at the bottom).

    Also brought up this post from Whiskey River which I had enjoyed and coincidentally bookmarked.

    Anyway, I am off to read the other two post-this-post-posts. Nice to see you back at the blogging (and nice that I finally have a chance to sit down, focus, and read these!)


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