Awareness can neither be perceived by the senses nor known by thought. It is not a “thing” in the usual sense. It has no identifiable location, shape, form, texture, color, or weight. However, it is the ever-present basis of all we experience. Awareness is our fundamental nature, already and always. It is our true self. We must know and dwell in it to live our full humanity.
It can only be known by direct experience. All that another can do is point you towards that experience. If you follow that pointing you will certainly, when the moment is ripe, know it for yourself. Experiencing your natural, unaltered, and simple awareness is experiencing precisely who you are and have always been. This awareness has no purpose, intention, expectation, or attachment. It just is.
It’s actually quite simple to experience. We are born into a pure and simple awareness. A young child naturally experiences one thing after another without interpretation and commentary, without separation into “I” and It.” The Buddhists illustrate this with the metaphor of a complex tapestry. A young child enjoys the diverse sensory experiences, leaping with delight from one visual impression to another.
However, that is no longer how it is for us. We have lost the natural unfiltered awareness of a child. Instead, we superimpose memories, stories, and meanings onto the perceived images. We are constantly interpreting and commenting on the tapestry. Rather than experiencing the tapestry as it is we alter it, experiencing instead as a conceptual abstraction. And these mental elaborations rapidly take over from our brief but natural experience, affording little if any time to experience what’s actually there.
There is neither good nor bad here, but merely the observation that direct unfiltered awareness is our natural state. The problem is not that we acquire the capacity to add meaning and context but rather that we forget and lose the capacity to experience directly what is as is. We get meaning, context and perhaps functionality by superimposing existing patterns of perception, but lose the creativity, freshness, and possibilities of a beginner’s mind.
How does this happen? Early in childhood we lose touch with unfiltered awareness. It fades from view as we develop the sense of a personal identity. We are given a name and then fill that container with life experiences, which in time are formed into fixed patterns of perception – templates through which we see the world. Our world becomes narrower, familiar, fixed, and increasingly abstract. Simple awareness goes underground, as we develop a conditioned, selective, and preferential awareness.
A tree is no longer a simple sensory experience. It is a certain kind of tree with specific characteristics, uses, and preferences. Another person is no longer an unknown to experience and discover, but rather quickly categorized – liked or disliked. Nothing remains quite as it is. We create a fictitious world, no longer experiencing life as is, but rather what we have made of it with our conditioned mind. Our adult life is thus circumscribed and limited by the past. Seven billion people on our planet and seven billion worlds.
I would like to stop here and offer the words of T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In the same poem he offers us a more specific instruction:
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
What are we told? First, that what the seeker seeks is what we have always been from the very beginning, before the process of individuation and separation. Our journey, the end of our seeking, is a homecoming. To accomplish this return requires awareness of the process of individuation, its assets, and liabilities. We begin from the fragmented disconnection of our personal self, which still holds a subtle remembrance and longing for our natural essence, our wholeness. We become humble pilgrims walking the path that returns home, to the place from where we started.
The most insidious liability of individuation is our conditioning – the habits of perception and reactivity that unknowingly shape and influence all our experiences. We learn to acknowledge their presence with neutrality and detachment. We then let these ghosts of the past dissipate from lack of further attention or elaboration. The past, we observe is merely a mental pattern laid down long ago whose significance, if any at all, is long gone. So, what is it like to experience a natural and unconditioned awareness that is free of the past?
Consider the following. When you first awaken in the morning notice what enters your visual or auditory field. It is not yet named, valued, or in any way altered from its actual presentation to consciousness. It is simple unconditioned awareness of a sensory object. When absorbed in meditation you can similarly observe mental activity come and go without adding a mental commentary. This is unconditioned awareness of a mental object. It may only last a moment before your usual conditioned awareness takes over. Observe that as well, as it is essential that you come to know the entire process – how unfiltered awareness re-boots as conditioned awareness.
Why is this glimpse of unfiltered awareness so important? It’s the beginning of a new freedom, or perhaps I should say an old freedom. We now have the choice of experiencing and responding to how things actually are rather than experiencing and reacting to a self and world shaped by our past. We are able to discern and observe our mental process and act free of the influences of the known.
The final step occurs when our attention shifts to awareness itself. We become self-aware rather than object-aware. Unlike the child we know our unconditioned awareness for the first time, as well as our conditioning. We are aware that mental and sensory objects appear in consciousness – we acknowledge all that arises in awareness – but we know them to be only transient appearances on an unchanging ground awareness. Our natural awareness, the ground of our being, does not come and go. It is ever-present now and always.
Challenges and difficult circumstances will continue. But they will be experienced by a stable and unmoving awareness. They will be held in a ground of serenity, peace, wisdom, and gentleness. No fear. No anxiety. No suffering. Just presence and being. Some say this is a passive state that’s incompatible with worldy life. This is not so. That is merely the statement of an ego caught in ordinary life. Those who touch beyond know better.
When action is necessary it spontaneously arises from the clear knowing of unconditioned awareness. That action will not be a reaction to our interpretation of an event, but rather a precise and accurate response to the experience at hand as it is. There is no thought process involved, just a natural knowing and natural responsiveness. We slowly gain trust and confidence in living from this center of our being. And we gain inspiration from knowing that those great ones, as well as ordinary individuals who have lived from heart and soul, are remembered for their lasting noble contributions to mankind
We will also discover that this simple awareness is the great healing elixir. The mental and sensory appearances that once seemed separate from awareness will be recognized as the dynamic expression of awareness – formlessness and form each an expression of consciousness. No longer a separation. No longer fragmentation. Finally, the knowing of wholeness, of oneness, of the sacred union. We return home and know it for the first time.
In the Western tradition the wise Oracle of Delphi expresses it this way:
Once you have touched it
There is no division:
No tearing your heart away
For it knows no separation.