A humble attempt to define choiceless awareness

What do we mean by the word ‘to be aware’ ? Is the mind aware, cognizant, knowing, conscious of what is going on within the sphere of the mind? Are you aware of your thoughts, of your feelings? Are you aware that you are fidgeting, scratching, yawning, pushing your hair back?

Are you aware of all that – as you are doing it, not after? So what does awareness mean? I am aware of conflict and violence. I am aware of beauty, the loveliness of a tree, the flowing waters. I am also aware of my responses to the river, to the mountain, to the lovely tree. Are we aware of all this?

This is a long time coming. While I set intentions, I don’t always follow them through or if I do, it takes a while. Within that space, there is aversion, avoidance, judgment, distraction, laziness, thoughts of “I don’t want to do this anymore”, and all sorts of mental qualities that one might just like to push under the rug. So they’re there. It’s something else to be with, experience, get to know intimately. It’s something else to practice with.

Let’s see if it is possible to behold judging without judging. Or, to behold judging of judging without further judgment. Right now as raindrops are splattering on leaves, roof and windows, can the listening and looking free itself of thinking complications? Allowing whatever is there to appear, to unfold, and disappear without any need to interfere. Judgment comes and goes, the judgment of judgment appears and disappears. No need to hold on to anything in the mind. –Toni Packer

So what is choiceless awareness anyway? Chances are, if you’ve done a Google search, you’ve been left dissatisfied. The Wikipedia entry is bare, and suggests that the term is most often associated with the Theravadan and, in particular, Thai Forest tradition. I’ve actually never heard it used in the Thai or Burmese context, though I would certainly argue that Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho, and various others in that lineage have taught “methods” that might be classified as such. As far as I can tell, the term actually originated with Jiddu Krishnamurti (K), from whom the opening quote comes, and was most definitely central to his teaching and his emphasis on meditation as a way of life. The only teachers that I know of in the West who embrace the term are Toni Packer, who studied with Philip Kapleau but was deeply influenced by the teachings of K and subsequently chose to leave the formal Zen tradition; Larry Rosenberg, who considers K his first teacher; and my teacher Doug Phillips. There are a few others who reference choiceless awareness and may also incorporate it into their teachings, for which I’ve included links at the bottom of this article. Finally, although Sayadaw U Tejaniya — and to a large degree the Western teachers who teach in his style (e.g., Steve Armstrong, Carol Wilson, Andrea Fella) — does not use the term “choiceless”, the awareness practice he teaches most definitely fits in squarely here. There are also similarities to shikantaza (literally “just sitting”) in Zen and the formless meditation of the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions.

The Bahiya Sutta (Ud 1.10) is a great place to go to “the source” to find out about choiceless awareness. In this seminal text, Lord Gautama says to the seeker:

Herein, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: ‘In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.’ In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya.

These words may be familiar to you, maybe not. Rather than expound on them here, I will point you to the transcribed talks below from Doug Phillips. One thing that jumps out is that we must train ourselves, in other words, this is a practice. Also, it’s something that doesn’t require particular conditions, and in fact is something we can do all the time. To put the above in simple, lay terms, Doug says:

Are we willing to really listen to our life; to listen throughout the day with our whole being, alert to [thought], feeling, sensation, sight, smell, taste and sound; whatever appears in our awareness?

And to do this without judgment? Even if there’s judgment as Toni suggests?

I’ve been hesitating to write this post because it seems so essential, and needed. But, I also feel like most everything in this space speaks to an effort to put choiceless awareness into action in everyday life and, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while maybe there’s not that much to say. I suppose what I’ve learned through the process of writing here is that the practice speaks for itself.

So, tonight, as I finally sat down to type this out (there was some judgment as well as a sense of relief that the writer’s block had softened), I received a phone call. I had just spent 2 hours with a patient who is actively dying, and having left my number with the nurse saying call me anytime if it becomes imminent, there was instantly a feeling of fear and then perhaps a slight bit of resentment–momentary, but still there. It doesn’t actually matter what the emotions were or how I name them. The awareness of them happening as they are happening is what’s crucial. Then, on looking at the caller ID, seeing no, it’s rather a friend who I’d left the other day while he was in the midst of a distressed phone conversation. I was worried about him, and grateful that he reached out to me. Immediately another feeling of conflicting interests, a “he needs me, but she needs me more” (projecting that that other call might still come) and then thoughts back to my intention to write. The body tensing ever so slightly as I leaned in and then, an answering of the phone and a just being there for my friend. Seeing all this happening, seeing the thought patterns and conditioning, the ego, the relationship between the thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Seeing it all for what it is: nature. Not me.

It’s so ridiculously simple and ordinary. And this is the practice in action.

Whether I’m in the meditation hall with a relatively predictable set of conditions: hearing raindrops, coughs, birds chirping — even jackhammers; most often with eyes open (sometimes closed) receiving light, color, shape and movement; with a shawl or a mosquito net protecting me from the elements. Or whether I’m interacting with other people, or the computer. It’s all the same. The constant is awareness. There’s the intention, there’s an attitude of gentleness and of recognizing that things go at exactly the pace they’re supposed to and show up when they’re supposed to; that I don’t choose the objects that come into awareness but rather meet them when they do; and that all these “impurities” (thoughts, emotions) are part of it, and there’s a real intimacy–a willingness to be intimate with it all. And then sometimes, another experience, say after racing into the old (now vacant) house to do a quick check for leaks with a sense of “I’m late, gotta hurry!”, and then stepping outside — slipping and almost falling on the ice — into the wide expanse and there’s a pause and, hearing only, which also means seeing the beauty in front of me, knowing I’m standing upright, feeling the same cool air on my face. Wind in trees, boughs moving, pines swaying.

In the hearing just the hearing. There’s no separation. The center falls away. Even if for a moment. A seeing clearly.

This is my humble attempt to define choiceless awareness. I’d be grateful if you’d share your experiences with the practice too. I might also share some thoughts on what mindfulness (meditation) is–how it is similar, how it differs–one of these days…

More Reading on Choiceless Awareness

**HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


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24 Comments

  1. Good introducing lines to ponder there.

    Reply
  2. Dear Katherine,

    Yes, so simple. Just being aware of what is.

    marguerite

    Reply
  3. From the time you we breath our first breath and open our eyes for the first time, we see a radically new world that is as if an entire Universe that we had just discovered that is radically different from the amniotic universe we had just left. Choiceless awareness is a very interesting subject, thanks for bringing it into *my* awareness!

    Reply
  4. Thanks, Katherine. I agree with your observation that the term “choiceless awareness” goes back to Krishnamurti, and that it is mostly connected now by those influenced by Krishnamurti, like Toni Packer and Larry Rosenberg. I have been lucky to have both Toni and Larry as teachers over the years. I also agree that it shares much with shikantaza and dzogchen. I once asked Toni about the similarity with shikantaza, and she felt that the envelope that shikantaza occurs in already has certain Buddhist preconceptions, aspirations, and expectations that color it to some degree and make it, therefore, subtly different. I also think there is similarity with some mindfulness meditation practices, at least the way Jon Kabat-Zinn has taught it. Don’t forget, Jon and Larry Rosenberg were great friends going way back before Jon ever developed MBSR. They still are. A few years ago (OK, more than a few years ago….) I was on one of Larry’s retreats at IMS, and Jon was there participating as a yogi. When I did an MBSR internship over at U-Mass, my primary teacher, Ferris Urbanowski, used the term “choiceless awareness,” and she was familiar with Larry’s approach as well. However, mindfulness (as per MBSR) includes a wide variety of practices including the body scan, yoga, and anapanasati, as well as some elements of choiceless awareness. My guess is that some folks come away from it with a good understanding of choiceless awareness, and some mostly understand it through other aspects of the practice. Someone should do something about that Wikipedia article!

    Reply
  5. Katherine,
    Thank you for this informative, well researched, thoughtful and thought provoking article. I’ve been mulling over it over and have a few questions. I hope I am understanding you correctly and admit to not reading all the references. Also, I have only very limited experience of the technique so I cannot share that with you.

    I like the idea of the approach because it echoes what Ajahn Sumedho, amongst others, encourages – awareness of what is here and now along with an attitude of allowing, welcoming, openness of mind and heart, embracing, inclusive etc.,

    I question whether or not awareness is enough? As noted above I believe there is a need to bring an underlying attitude of openness to “what is” as well as “what is”? Also awareness without some wisdom is not enough? Perhaps, as some teachers suggest, “choiceless awareness” is a more “advanced” technique for those with the required wisdom developed by practicing awareness of a chosen single object like the breath or sound? Or are you suggesting that purely through using “choiceless awareness” i.e. awareness of whatever arises, we tap into and draw out the innate wisdom that some teachers say we all have? So I wonder if, as a novice, the technique is right for me? I guess that we need to explore it and find out for ourselves.

    Finally, and somewhat pedantically, I believe the term, “choiceless awareness” is tautological when it comes to ultimate/pure/unconditioned awareness. Isn’t such awareness choiceless? You might say that such all embracing but wise awareness is the goal of practice rather than a practice?

    Thanks again for making us think. I admire the way you tackle these subjects because, as I am discovering, it is not easy to put them into words. Looking forward to your reply,

    Terry

    Reply
    • Terry, thanks as always for your thoughtful feedback. As I’ve said before and is my teacher’s maxim, no, awareness alone is not enough. However, we must start where we are. The reality is, a choiceless awareness approach can be used in conjunction with most any more structured method, because undoubtedly the mind will wander from say a chosen object, and at that point there will likely be some commentary, and there’s an opportunity to just meet that non-judgmentally. We can do this throughout the day, whether in formal meditation or not. The more sustained awareness there is, the more likely wisdom is to emerge. And it’s the two together that really makes this practice worthwhile. Choiceless as a term is helpful when it comes to thinking about this as a “method”, though of course pure being, natural awareness is by its very nature non-judgmental, choiceless, effortless, etc. You could say the same about us (i.e., by our very buddha-nature) though ;)

      Reply
      • Katherine,
        thanks for your kind and helpful reply. I realised after replying to you that I had focussed on the use of choiceless awareness in formal meditation. The approach of choiceless awareness to ALL of life is one I heartily agree with and aspire to – hopefully, as you point out, in an ever more sustained way but with gentleness as you have pointed out in another forum :-)

        Reply
  6. Katherine,
    you may be interested in this quote, Anagarika Munindra-ji defines choiceless awareness:

    “Everything is meditation in this practice, even while eating, drinking, dressing, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking. Whatever you are doing, everything should be done mindfully, dynamically, with totality, completeness, thoroughness, Then it becomes meditation, meaningful, purposeful. It is not thinking but experiencing from moment to moment, living from moment to moment, without clinging, without condemnation, without judging, without evaluating, without comparing, without selecting, without criticizing–choiceless awareness.

    Meditation is not only sitting; it is a way of living. It should be integrated with your whole life. It is actually an education in how to see, how to hear, how to smell, how to eat, how to drink, how to walk with full awareness. To develop mindfulness is the most important factor in the process of awakening.”

    From: “Living this life fully. Stories and teachings of Munindra” by Mirka Knaster; page 1

    Reply
  7. Peter Beck

     /  May 16, 2013

    Toni Packer has several books. Is there one in particular that you would recommend for someone who is familiar with Buddhism and vipassana but a stranger to her?

    Reply
    • Sure, try The Light of Discovery or The Wonder of Presence, both linked to from the Reference: Books page here.

      Reply
      • Peter Beck

         /  August 15, 2013

        Re: choiceless awareness, for your bibliography, there’s a piece in The Best Buddhist Writing 2012 called “Vivid Awareness” by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche that, while it never actually uses the phrase “choiceless awareness,” seems to be instructions for precisely that. It’s an excerpt from a book called Vivid Awareness: The Mind Instructions of Khenpo Gangshar published by Shambhala.

        Reply
  8. Cecilia Blackstone

     /  December 28, 2013

    For Seth Segal and Katherine: Actually, the phrase “choiceless awareness” dates way back to the time of the Buddha and not Krishnamurti. If you will read a passage of “The Great Way” by the third Zen Buddhist Patriarch, also known as “Hsing Hsing Ming: the Book of Nothing”, wherein writes Sosan, in a song of enlightenment about choiceless awareness. Since his precepts are buddhistic in nature, it is correct to assume that this “choiceless awareness” has its roots in Buddhism and not founded by Krishnamurti, however, because long and deep meditational journeys naturally lead to choiceless awareness, we must deduce that all great spiritual masters have reached this state of clarity, contentment and illumination.

    Reply
  9. Silvan Kadera

     /  April 4, 2014

    Thank you. You have made it possible for me to understand ” Choiceless Awareness” in a way that I haven’t before. Thanks again.

    Reply
  10. Nicely written

    Reply
    • Lenore Guillen

       /  October 30, 2014

      For Seth Segal and Katherine: Actually, the phrase “choiceless awareness” dates way back to the time of the Buddha and not Krishnamurti. If you will read a passage of “The Great Way” by the third Zen Buddhist Patriarch, also known as “Hsing Hsing Ming: the Book of Nothing”, wherein writes Sosan, in a song of enlightenment about choiceless awareness. Since his precepts are buddhistic in nature, it is correct to assume that this “choiceless awareness” has its roots in Buddhism and not founded by Krishnamurti, however, because long and deep meditational journeys naturally lead to choiceless awareness, we must deduce that all great spiritual masters have reached this state of clarity, contentment and illumination.

      Reply
      • Thanks for your comment. I don’t think either one of us was suggesting that Krishnamurti originated the practice of choiceless awareness, only the term. If it is used in English translations of the Hsin Hsin Ming, I was not aware, but that’s great! Thanks for emphasizing the deep connection in this meditation with the Buddhist teachings. As I mentioned in my post, the Bahiya Sutta is a very clear description of what could be called choiceless awareness.

        Reply
  11. Octavio vega

     /  November 9, 2014

    Thanks for the wonderful info on choiceless awareness. I’ve been practicing this type of awareness meditation for quit a while not knowing it was called choiceless awareness. I learned it from a talk by the late great Allan Watts, entitled: counciouness and concentration, and it made a lot of sense to me. Thanks again.

    Reply
  12. dgomez

     /  April 19, 2015

    @octavio vega / or anyone else who feels they understand …

    I’m quite in a dilemma at this point of my practice.

    It seems to me that the terms “no mind” “non abidding” and “choiceless awareness” are all the same.

    And that they all point to the same thing – “broad attention”. In terms of vision, its like using peripheral vision as opposed to selective focused vision – where you dissect the visual field into separate things. Hence, there would arise a duality – the subject and the object, the knower and the known.

    In broad attention you would be seeing everything equally – hence no divisions. This being your own existence ( meaning one’s body, thoughts, and emotions ) included in the panorama of awareness. Like watching yourself included in the movie. So – no duality.

    Is broad attention the way to go? Or is this a matter of preference?

    Narrowing attention to instances like light reflecting on curtains, the texture of the car’s steering wheel, the smell of coffee in the morning, the siren of a police car, the taste of beer after at the end of a working day, is also undeniably enjoyable.

    Or is the point just being to see what is – irregardless of what attention mode (broad or narrow) that you would use – and not be fooled with thoughts- like being carried away to talking to yourself. Not exempting thoughts but regarding them as a feature of the panorama of awareness?

    Am I missing the point of these teachers? ( Alan Watts, J. Krishnamurti)

    I hope I’m being clear here.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  13. dgomez

     /  April 19, 2015

    I might have found the answer to my own questions.

    I guess what confused me is the difference of attention and concentration. As per this article:

    http://www.jkrishnamurti.org/krishnamurti-teachings/view-daily-quote/20091102.php?t=Attention

    So it is the focused kind of concentration which produces duality. The kind of concentration that requires effort.

    So as long as one attends effortlessly and choicelessly to sensations physical, mental, and emotionally ( and not even identify these sensations like so but simply as sensations ) then one is in choiceless awareness ( also no mind? also non abiding awareness?)

    It might also have been a mistake to categorize attention as narrow or broad as one might be introducing an unnecessary technicality. But simply there should be attention.

    Reply
  14. Mark

     /  November 20, 2015

    Hello Katherine: Thanks for posting this. I found this phrase in Krishnamurti’s teachings, too, and have been looking around on the Interwebs to see what other teachers are saying. It’s such an incredibly simple teaching that I think our minds revolt. saying “it can’t be that simple! Just being here, noticing, can’t be all there is!” I’ve had some habitual storylines, believed assumptions, flaring up lately that dig at my ideas of self-worth. Just being aware of the storylines, and even using a gentle “what is this?” questioning really helps. Anyway, if you’re curious, your article was the 4th hit in a Bing search on the exact phrase “Choiceless awareness.” BTW, it looks like the Toni Packer article “What is your Innermost Core” has changed to http://www.springwatercenter.org/toni-packer/articles/what-is-my-innermost-core/ Best,

    Mark

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment and for the URL correction, Mark! My teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya always emphasizes interest and curiosity in his teaching of this pure awareness practice, which is of course at the root of a question like “What is this?” So yes!

      Reply
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