Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.
In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate.
The development of awareness, personal, ethical, and social, is an essential, lifelong project. It can spell the difference between happiness or unhappiness, life or death. And awareness is no less essential in Zen practice, where it is seen as the foundation of morality, insight, and compassionate wisdom. But the term awareness, as used in Buddhist teachings, means something rather different from the concept summarized above. From the Buddhist perspective, awareness is not something we can turn on or off at will or channel in one direction or another. It is not an aspect of thinking. Rather, it is a changeless, luminous presence, common to us all, which embraces our sensations, feelings, thoughts, mental states, and other transitory phenomena. As the Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche puts it, awareness is “something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place.” The background to whatever we’re experiencing, it has been likened in various contexts to a womb, the ocean, and the open sky.
“Awareness,” writes the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, “has no form or color. It is beyond presence or absence, coming or going.” Void of those distinguishing characteristics, awareness also defies description. However concrete or refined our language may be, and however skillfully we may deploy it, it can do no more than point in the direction of awareness, like a finger pointing toward the moon. As with other ineffable mysteries, the nature of “pure awareness,” as it is sometimes called, lies well beyond our words and concepts.
At the same time, the salient qualities of pure awareness, as directly experienced in our minds and bodies, can be concretely described. In her book True Refuge, Tara Brach, another Vipassana teacher, identifies three such qualities, the first being “emptiness,” or openness. Awareness, she observes, is “devoid of any form, of any center or boundary, of any owner or inherent self, of any solidity.” A second quality is “awakeness,” or “wakefulness,” which Brach describes as “a luminosity of continual knowing.” And a third is tenderness, or “warmth,” which she defines as “the expression of unconditional love or compassion.” This general term also includes sympathetic joy, appreciation, and the capacity to heal.
Awareness of this kind is sometimes called natural awareness. It stands in no need of being heightened, broadened, or increased, being always present and always sufficient. Buddhist teachers sometimes speak of “cultivating” awareness through continuous mindfulness, but the challenge, in my experience, lies less in cultivating awareness than in gaining access to its healing presence. One proven way to do that is take the “backward step that illuminates the self,” as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253 CE), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, exhorts us to do. By sitting still and letting “body and mind fall away,” we relinquish all striving for attainment. We rest in the spaciousness of open awareness.
For those inclined toward a more active practice, an alternative may be found in the teachings of Bassui Takusho, a 14th-century Rinzai Zen master. When you encounter a thing, Bassui advises, ask, “What is this?” When you hear a sound, ask, “Who hears the sound?” By asking those questions, over and again, we can pierce our layers of social conditioning. We can see through our delusions, our dualistic thinking, and our constructed identities and awaken to the boundless dimension of our being. And suddenly or gradually, in a moment’s intuition or after years of practice, we can come home to our natural awareness.
Sogyal Rinpoche, quoted by Tara Brach in True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013), 252.
Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology (Bantam, 2008), 44.
Brach, True Refuge, 261-263.
Photo: Skaneateles Lake, by Robin Howard.