Conscious awareness is often confused with vigilance, an enforced self-observation having the goal of catching oneself at something “unspiritual,” so a correction can be made. Growing ever more aware of mental (and emotional) trouble-making, some seekers adopt this kind of vigilance, supposing it’s a good thing. There’s an intention to be less judgmental and resisting, to be alert to the starting up of a story in the head. To exert control over the inner life.
An underlying assumption is that to drop one’s guard is to invite unconsciousness to take over, to become overtaken by story, belief, judgment, denial. Which means becoming lost in circular thought patterns, consumed by uncomfortable emotions.
This orientation to the interior introduces a subtle exertion, the never-resting machine of self-measuring, of holding self to a standard. The fuel of the machine is an underlying idea of the “right” (and wrong) way to be, if one is to move ever closer to awakening. There is effort involved, a straining to exert control. To force change.
It’s a colossal waste of effort.
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What’s important to see is this: the one engaged in this vigilance is the very ego that’s in the way of awakening. What, after all, is it to awaken, but to realize you never were your “imperfect” self?
Yes, it is the ego, dressed in spiritual clothing. This is the one that thinks there’s a problem in the first place – above all, a problem with “me,” hoping to do better, all the way to enlightenment.
To practice the exhausting rigorous self-examination, with an eye to doing better, is to reinforce the seeming reality of the self that seems capable of awakening.
The one engaged in this vigilance is the very ego that’s in the way of awakening.
That self is not going to wake up. If awakening blessedly occurs, it will be because something occurred to cause you to realize, in a bodied way, that you are not that self. All the ego knows to do is judge, fail, improve, living in an idea of a future in which it will finally have become free of itself.
To attempt to “get there” via spiritual vigilance (however well-meaning the effort ) is to give the ego a role in dismantling itself. As if it would willingly participate in its own demise.
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There’s another way to orient to the inner life, a fruitful way that involves no strain. It’s to rest in awareness itself. Conscious awareness allows for complete transparency, the willingness to see whatever is there. It occurs naturally, without tension or movement of any sort. The mind is not engaged. The ego is not stirred to action.
How profoundly restful it is. How illuminating of the ways in which the ego-mind keeps convincing you it’s what you really are. There is no judgment of what’s seen, no attempt to change anything, no intention to do better next time.
You’re thinking Okay, how do I do that?
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For starters, you stop mistaking vigilance for conscious awareness. When the habitual self-improvement machinery tries to start up, you notice it for what it is and decline to indulge it. As soon as you’ve recognized it for what it is, you’re already at a little distance from it. Something in you has seen it occurring. That “something” is awareness itself. There’s spaciousness around the familiar habit. See if you can “back up” to sense the larger space around it.
(When awakening occurs, what’s happened is that you’ve come to know you are that space, NOT everything that’s been happening “in” it.)
But here’s the real heart of the matter, the answer to the question “How can I bring conscious awareness to momentary life?”
Awareness is already a natural part of our human endowment. It isn’t about some heightened spiritual state, something granted at awakening. Awareness “happens” all the time, throughout every day we live. We constantly notice what’s happening – in outer life, inside ourselves.
Awareness is plain noticing, before the mind gets hold of the thing being noticed and makes something of it (a story, a problem, a reason to get lost in the head). You notice you’re sleepy, or tense, or hungry, or afraid. You notice a sound in the distance, a car coming into your driveway, an expression on someone’s face. You notice it feels good at the end of a taxing day. This is a bodied sort of awareness, primarily sensory. Something registers in the body. Yes, the mind generally rushes in fast and starts labeling what’s been seen, deciding it’s a problem, starved to make a story about it. But awareness – that bodied “registering” of a thing – happens first.
It’s just that mostly we don’t consciously notice awareness “happening.” Typically, we’re aware but not conscious of being aware. This is primarily because we hurry into the mind with whatever’s been tuned into. Awareness so swiftly yields to mental handling that we almost never linger in those primary impressions, in whatever the attuned body has detected is happening inside or out.
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It’s crucial that you not confuse conscious awareness with ordinary thought. Awareness is just seeing. It can see, for example, that thought is occurring. It can see that you’re feeling anxious. But awareness doesn’t experience (or bring about) anxiety. Whereas thinking involves movement (and all manner of trouble), awareness itself is entirely still. Peaceful. Unlike thought, it’s untroubled by whatever it sees (even if what’s being seen appears less than wonderful to the egoic mind).
Don’t expect this to be automatic, to tease these things apart. We’re not accustomed to making the distinction between thinking and being (plainly) aware. Be patient in this exploration. It’s not immediately obvious that there’s a difference between plain awareness and mental processing. But do devote yourself to the exploration of the two, the qualities of each, in your everyday experience. Notice how in a given moment of life, awareness precedes mental processing. Discover how plain awareness feels different from the way thinking and emoting feel.
Ask yourself where each capacity “lives” in you. (What are “you,” anyhow? For this is the enduring question beneath all the exploration.)
A thing is seen before you make something of it (deciding it’s a problem needing fixing). Every single time. When you dwell there – however infrequently, however briefly – whatever is seen bears fruit. All on its own. This is where revelation occurs. This (not vigilance) is the environment of transformation.
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If you’re asking yourself how can I notice awareness more of the time? realize this is (once again) the egoic mind posing the question – and therefore not worth pursuing. Trying to be conscious more of the time, to be steadily in conscious awareness, would seem a worthy approach to the inner life: it feels so much better to be conscious, after all. It locates a person in the now. It feels alive to be really here. Waking up from an episode of unconsciousness, you realize how miserable it’s been to be so lost in the mind and its emotion-generating misery. You’d be crazy not to try to be conscious more of the time . . . or so the argument goes.
Awareness is either noticed, in a given moment of life, or it’s not. Among the things we’re not in control of is the matter of how and when moments of conscious awareness occur. Give up the illusion of control. (Talk about restful!) But when you do notice what’s happening on the interior, in a more spacious way than the usual vigilant wish to improve, for goodness’ sake pay attention. See everything that’s there to see, for as long as the awareness sustains. (You cannot “make it last.” Rest from that attempt too.)
A moment of unconsciousness – or of consciousness – comes all on its own. You did not “cause” either. Trying to be conscious, or lamenting the repeated lapses, accomplishes nothing. Just welcome an episode of consciousness when it does come, however briefly. Just be there. Be glad of it. Look around.
The vigilant seeker-self means to “catch yourself” at thinking, at attachment, story-making, being lost in belief. At denial, avoidance. A thousand ordinary human twists and turns. The thing is, when one of those is occurring, it’s already happening. See it! Just see it. You cannot undo it. You didn’t cause it, and you can’t prevent its next occurrence. But you can . . . when awareness remembers itself . . . observe it. You can see deeply into what it’s about.
That’s all that needs to take place. So simple, really. And vastly more restful than the other way. Not to mention likely to yield liberating insights.
Vigilance is exhausting, useless, and reinforcing of a multitude of delusions: that you can control (improve) yourself; that the “you” being vigilant is real; that the problem has to do with what goes on inside you, rather than the problem being what feels like you in the first place.
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Why bother even paying attention to what’s seen in the light of clear awareness? What’s the point, if not to set about trying to change anything (which has been the focus of all the vigilance)? It’s simply to enable you to become more deeply acquainted with what you are not. To come to understand how the whole thing keeps itself going, entrancing you in its seeming reality. So you can stop assuming its impulses are worthy of any attention. All of this leading you to the enduring, fruitful question What am I, really?
What becomes ever more clear is this: the one that’s doing this seeing is what you really are.
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When awareness is the guiding light of inquiry, in favor of vigilance, you don’t walk around with a preconceived idea of a “good” way to be. No scrutinizing eye is running over the inner landscape. Just a spacious, relaxed noticing of whatever’s happening inside. Something happens and it’s seen. It’s neither anguished over nor pushed away. It feels a certain way in the body. That too is observed. There’s no attempt to vanquish the thing, to wrestle it to the ground. No strain to replace a negative thought with a positive one, to “rise above” whatever is happening.
Awareness itself has never experienced mental/emotional movement. Not once in its uncomplicated life. Imagine that. (This is bewildering at first, because we mistake awareness for thinking. Explore that assumption.)
A person (even a “spiritual” person) is not a self-improvement project, an imperfect being needing whipping into shape by the internal task-master, on the way to enlightenment. Give it a rest. See what happens when you relax into spacious awareness.