This week I would like to start exploring the concepts of open awareness and consciousness. Usually when we practice mindfulness meditation, we start with taking an anchor for our attention, for example the breath, and returning to it each time our mind wands or each time a strong experience like a sensation, sound, emotion or thought distracts us. Once our attention is quite settled, we then can let go of our anchor and simply stay open to all experiences, letting them come and go, witnessing them all, while staying centred in this open awareness.
This training in open awareness allows us to become conscious of witnessing all experiences that arise without becoming entangled or lost in them.
“The One who knows”
We have all had moments when we have got lost in a strong emotion like anger or fear, completely enmeshed with it, and then we might have a sudden realisation that we were caught in the emotion, and this realisation allows us to step back and see what is happening with more perspective. We become the witness instead of being lost in the experience. Jack Kornfield calls this witnessing quality becoming “the One who knows”. It allows us to recognize our experience and then to respond wisely rather than being caught up or reacting to it, no matter what happened.
It allows us to stop identifying with our experiences and identities. We realise that we are this witnessing consciousness that can hold all our experiences.
For example, when you look at yourself in the mirror and you notice that you’ve aged, but you don’t necessarily feel older. That’s because it’s only the body that ages, but our witnessing consciousness is outside of time. We can sense that intuitively. It is as if we can step back and witness our experience with a timeless understanding.
You might remember the old saying that awareness is like a container of water. If you place a tablespoon of salt into a small container of water, let’s say an expresso cup, the water will be too salty to drink. But if you place it into a much larger container, for example a bath tub, then the water won’t taste as salty. We have simply changed the ratio of water to salt.
Awareness is like that container of water. When we cultivate awareness, that is when we increase the mind’s capacity for being aware, we are able to adjust the ratio of our awareness (the water) to the object of our awareness, our experiences (the salt). Our container of awareness becomes larger and larger and can hold all our experiences without being identifying or destabilised by them. What we are doing, is strengthening our mind and integrating our brain: growing the linkages among different regions in the brain, strengthening the brain’s ability to regulate our emotions, thoughts, attention and behaviour, and learning to live a life with more flexibility and freedom.
What is consciousness?
Buddhist psychology describes consciousness as that which knows, or that which experiences. Usually we are not aware of being conscious, just like a fish is not aware of swimming in water. We are too focussed on the contents of experience (the salt), what is happening in our body, feelings, and thoughts.
With open awareness meditation we practice shifting our attention from our experiences to the spacious consciousness that witnesses it all. Our wisdom grows from this capacity to be aware of consciousness itself.
Western science describes consciousness as a product of the brain, as studies show that when different parts of the brain are stimulated or damaged, the mood or content of our conscious experience changes. But this is not the complete picture. Buddhist psychology thinks that the physical body is not the source of consciousness, it merely interacts with it, and consciousness is the condition for life.
You might remember when we practiced the Wheel of Awareness (Dan Siegel) together, at some point I invited you to turn the spoke of attention towards the hub of the wheel, towards consciousness itself, and see what you could witness there. Some people describe an experience of wide openness and space. Others found it very hard to describe. Usually we experience that there is awareness, but it is vague and difficult to grasp.
Buddhist meditation teachers call it the clear open sky of awareness: it is transparent like space and at the same it knows experience, it is sentient. It is a clear, open, awake knowing, that contains all things and is not limited by them. Just like the sky, that remains unaffected by all the clouds and storms that arise and pass, consciousness is not affected by our experience, be they positive or negative. It is like a mirror, reflecting all things and yet remaining bright and shiny, unaffected by what it reflects.
Self-reflection: we will try a short self-reflection to help you understand this concept. Close your eyes and come into presence, sensing your body sitting quietly and breathing… and now try and stop being aware of the experiences around you, sounds, sensations, thoughts, emotions….Try it…
You will discover that it is not possible to stop being aware, you cannot stop conscious awareness…it knows all experiences without choosing one over another…That’s its mirror like nature: reflective, luminous, unaffected and peaceful.
Practicing open awareness
The Buddhist scripture Majjhima Nikaya invites us “to develop a mind that is vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm.”
The invitation of this practice is to rest in consciousness itself. It does not mean checking out of the world and withdrawing or detaching oneself from the world. Sometimes we use detachment and withdrawal as a coping mechanism to avoid facing difficulties in our life or difficulties emotions. That behaviour becomes indifference, which is not the same as true openness. We need to learn to feel everything when we rest in consciousness. So we feel our anger, our fear, our anxiety or sadness, and then we practice resting back in the consciousness that is aware of these emotions.
We become aware of the two distinct dimensions in our life: on one hand, the changing flow of experiences; on the other hand, the consciousness that knows the experiences. We practice being the knowing. Instead of being lost in our experiences, the dramas of our existence, we can practice sensing the space around our experience, letting go and relaxing, resting in open awareness.
Open awareness allows us to hold our experiences with more ease and less reactivity. It is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system or relaxation response, whereas when we are upset or worried about something, we notice a tightness, constriction or closing down in the body, which his linked to the fight-flight-freeze response from the sympathetic nervous system.
To relax into the space of open awareness, we need to be able to let go.
Very often, people experience open awareness as empty space.
However, when we get in touch with consciousness, our experience is also intimate and gives rise to compassion, we can feel our heart’s natural connection with life.
Jack Kornfield in The Wise Heart:
“There is both caring and silence: awareness of all that’s happening, and listening for what’s the next thing to do; a big space and a connected feeling of love.”
“We see the dance of life, we dance beautifully, yet we are not caught in it. In any situation, we can open up, relax, and return to the sky-like nature of consciousness.”
Source: Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart, Chapter 3
Dan Siegel, The Wheel of Awareness