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
- Choiceless Awareness by J. Krishnamurti ** (also at Google Books)
- “What Is My Innermost Core?” by Toni Packer ** (and any of her books of course)
- The Sutta on Bahiya, Part 1 and Part 2 by Doug Phillips **
- Larry Rosenberg Talks at Dharma Seed
- “Cultivating Choiceless Awareness” by Matthew Flickstein
- “Reflection: Choiceless Awareness” in Introduction to Insight Meditation, Amaravati Monastery (not so sure about this description…)
- “Choiceless Awareness” (MP3), a talk by Ajahn Viradhammo
- Urban Guru Cafe Episode 84 – Jiddu Krishnamurti – Choiceless Awareness
- EDIT (3/2): Forum: Formless Meditation. A panel discussion with Ajahn Sumedho, Reverend Patricia Dai-en Bennage, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Gaylon Ferguson, Buddhadharma, Spring 2004 **
- Pure Awareness Retreat Notes from Tejananda John Wakeman (for more of a non-sectarian overview as well as specific instructions for the practice)
- EDIT (2/15): “Choiceless awareness as inquiry” by Moe at the wonderful blog Mystery of Existence **
- “Shikantaza, self-inquiry, choiceless awareness” (Ramana Maharshi discussion forum)
- Mulapariyaya Sutta (similar message as the Bahiya Sutta, alternate translation)
- Posts tagged “Bahiya” and posts tagged “choiceless awareness” at it’s all dhamma.