Monday, July 18, 2011

THE AWARENESS OF AWARENESS

Awareness – choiceless awareness – is an integral part of mindfulness, but mindfulness (sati) is not simply awareness (viññāna), but awareness of awareness. Yes, awareness of awareness .. a ‘two-dimensional awareness’.

The Pāli word sati literally means ‘memory’. The word sati comes from a root meaning ‘to remember’. So, mindfulness is ... remembering what is present ... remembering to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next ... as well as remembering in the present moment what has already happened.

In other words, mindfulness is all about remembering the present ... that is, 'keeping' the present in mind. Put simply, mindfulness is remembering to be 'here' ... and to stay 'here' ... now.

In an interesting article cited at the end of this blog Dr Dan Siegel writes:

Mindful awareness entails more than sensing present experience as it generates an awareness of awareness and attention to intention [sic]. These fundamental aspects of mindfulness can be seen as forms of meta-cognition ...

There it is ... an ‘awareness of awareness’. Mindfulness remembers awareness ... as well as the object of awareness. The work of being mindful, of practising mindfulness, is the work of reminding ourselves, not just to be aware, but also that we are aware ... indeed, that we are already aware.

Many psychologists refer to this activity as being that of a so-called ‘witnessing self’ ... a special relationship of ‘self’ to ‘self’, whatever that means. I have trouble with the whole concept of ‘self’ my power-not-oneself is the power of ‘not-self’ (anattā) so I like to keep things simple. (Ha!) In any event, 'un-self-consciousness' (wu-hsin / mushin) or 'no-mindedness' is, for me, the 'holy grail' of all meditative practice – 'a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club' (the immortal words of the ever-quotable Zen Buddhist Alan Watts).

Now, back to keeping things simple. First, there is the person who is aware. Secondly, there is the object of awareness. Thirdly, there is the act of being aware. It just so happens that the object of awareness can be awareness itself. Remember, it is the person who is doing the awareness ... not some supposed illusory ‘self’ or 'second mind' ... and mindfulness is all about the person that you are paying attention to that person ... and not to a 'self' ... within each unfolding moment and from one such moment to the next.

Yes, there are simply different ways of seeing. That is what the word vipassanā means. The word is composed of two parts vi, meaning ‘in various ways’, and passanā, meaning seeing. So, vipassanā means ‘seeing in various ways’ ... as well as seeing things as they really are.


Buddhist meditation teacher, and renowned authority on Vipassanā (insight meditation), Patrick Kearney has written:

Mindfulness, in other words, implies not just awareness, but reflexive awareness, awareness bending back to itself. Normally, we are aware. We don’t have to make any special effort to be aware; we are already aware. We see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think. Technically, we can say that it is the nature of mind to contact an object; to be aware of something. So far, so good. We are already aware. But are we aware that we are aware? And of what we are aware?

Have you ever had the experience of driving a car along familiar streets and suddenly realising you have no memory of the previous three blocks? Clearly, while driving through those city blocks you were aware, for otherwise you would now be dead or seriously injured. But did you know you were aware? Were you aware of your awareness? Or did this understanding occur only at that moment when you remembered you are now driving this car?

This is mind blowing stuff ... not so much what Kearney has written, which is illuminatingly profound in its own way, but the bit about mindfulness being awareness of awareness. Is there a ‘three-dimensional awareness’ ... an awareness of awareness of awareness? What about a ‘four-dimensional awareness’ ... an awareness of awareness of awareness of awareness? Stop, I’m feeling sick. It's all too much.


Resource: Siegel D J, Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2007) 2 (4): 259-263. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsm034


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