I’m coming to the end of writing the book (about meditation) I’ve been engaged with for the past couple of years. In writing the conclusion I’ve been reflecting on the process of writing about awareness and wisdom and why it has been important to do so. I have been practising with mindfulness as a key aspect of meditation and life practice for twenty years now, and teaching for more than three quarters of that time. I sometimes ask myself (as I believe is healthy and helpful to do so) why do I continue to practice in this way? What have I gained, how has my practice developed?
What comes to mind is a phrase that doesn’t immediately answer the questions above but is more of a spontaneous utterance; awareness is transformative. Such simple words, they are almost a cliché. So what do I mean by them? How does awareness transform, and what does it transform? It transforms through the power of ‘knowing’ and the scope of that which is known.
I believe that awareness can ‘know’ anything. Not everything, of course. I’m not saying awareness is omniscient. There is a lot that awareness can’t know – it can’t forecast the weather or predict an election, or even sometimes recognise what’s in front of it, like the Maori people who literally didn’t see Captain Cook’s ships approaching shore as the huge structures were so unfamiliar their eyes and brains.
There may well be things happening in us or outside of us that we don’t know. We miss hearing part of a conversation because we have some hearing loss, or we bang a door shut accidentally through not being aware or mindful. Once again, it’s easy to confuse the capacity of awareness to know ‘everything’ with knowing ‘anything’. Awareness means knowing anything that is already happening, what is actually happening, and already registered somewhere in our experience, although perhaps only dimly. I can be aware that ‘hearing’ is happening even as I register that I’m straining to make out what I’m hearing. I can become aware of the beginnings of tension in my shoulders or a fleeting thought zipping by. The more awareness there is, the more clearly these things can be known.
To be aware of anything means that nothing is excluded from awareness. There are no exceptions or things that we can’t be aware of. Typically the mind will prioritize thinking about something rather than being aware of it, often in its desire to either prolong or get rid of whatever it is worrying about like a dog with a bone. Experiencing with awareness, rather than thinking about a compelling inner story, or an overwhelming emotion such as fear or rage, means that in a small corner of my mind I know what’s happening. If I can recognise and inhabit that space, scrunched down waiting and watching patiently while the rest of the picture plays out, awareness will grow and expand out of its corner to influence what ever else is happening. Once awareness has grown, even a little, there is some ease and spaciousness in the mind. Awareness helps the mind begin to recognise where it is ‘caught’ and identified with what is happening.
Recognising identification is what awareness and wisdom do best. While the thinking mind will unhappily tie itself in knots trying to fix what is happening, in order to put it down, awareness and wisdom are willing to just ‘know’. As well as knowing what’s going on we can also know how we are relating to the experience. If that is with identification, the wisdom element recognises that this is what’s happening and knows it is not necessary to struggle. Naming something helps; this is fear, this is what rage or jealousy or longing feels like. But what’s crucial is to notice the identification going alongside the feelings.
Awareness transforms by illuminating any aspect of my experience it comes into contact with; whatever I’m experiencing can be known in a way that (eventually) allows it to be stripped of clinging, and, therefore, of suffering. Nothing is outside the scope of wise attention. When I look to why I still practice in this deceptively simple and yet profound way, what comes up are the memories of many moments of relief when the mind puts down what is causing it to suffer.