The question is, What am I? What is the thing I don’t want to have missed? What is life really about?
When someone has stopped suffering, when the mind has grown quiet, as the default, and is no longer generating angst, why is that? What has changed?
It’s that you no longer feel — literally feel, in a bodied way — that you are all the things you thought you were. Your history, your opinions, your efforts, your fears and hopes. Your body, even. Some of these things still are in the picture: the body looks the same; the history did occur. But the opinions have grown thin to nil, and fear and hope no longer drive you. You’ve stopped identifying with the contents of your head, or your gut. Because all of that has stopped feeling like you, it loses juice, and pretty much ceases to function in that automatic way it always has.
Awareness is the primary — the original — encounter with life.
If all of that doesn’t feel like you anymore, what does? Awareness. Consciousness itself feels like the real you. Here it is: the visceral answer to What am I? The answer to the question doesn’t come via the intellect. The ordinary mind has no access to this. It’s a felt thing. On the order of this: you can feel when you’re hungry, or tired, or awake as opposed to sleeping. The sensation of consciousness is like that.
(There is no perfect word for this. Here, “awareness” and “consciousness” are being used to suggest the same thing.)
When awareness is the primary reality, you don’t experience that you’re separate from your immediate surroundings, from the sensation or movement of your body. It’s as though you are whatever you’re aware of at the moment. Consciousness and whatever’s “in” it are a unity. All you have of your “self,” ever, is momentary experience. None of life is run through the familiar mental filters (I like it, I don’t like it, This is stupid, This is unfortunate). Nothing is resisted.
Awareness is the way you know something is happening. It isn’t different from person to person. There’s nothing personal to it. It doesn’t change over the course of a life. Aware is aware. The way you can tell you’re here, that you exist, is the same now as it was when you were five, and it will be the same just before you lose consciousness at the end. None of your life experience has altered awareness and it never will.
Consciousness is not affected by anything “in” it. It’s the same, moment to moment, regardless of what’s happening in it. It’s like space.
If you wake in the night with your calf muscle starting to cramp, you are aware of the start of tightness and pain. The awareness watches the pain get worse, the tightness more so. The leg is changing, maybe the thoughts are intensifying (God, I wish this would stop), but the awareness watching it all is its same self, moment to moment.
The fact that consciousness can notice the thoughts happening (and does not generate emotion) is vivid evidence that thinking and consciousness are not the same.
As the pain reaches its greatest intensity and gradually begins to unwind, the awareness is still there, watching, unchanged. When finally your calf is entirely soft and comfortable again, consciousness notices the absence of pain and tightness.
From start to finish, the consciousness has been its same self, unaffected by what’s been happening in it.
What’s happening in any moment — whether it’s outer activity or physical pain or thinking or emotion — is just the momentary expression of a life. The content of life comes and it goes. This has been true of every shred of your life experience, and so it will continue. Change is constant, in the realm of content. None of it is “you.” It’s real, in a momentary kind of way. You’re really there for it. It’s just that you don’t mistake it for you. The only continuity is the part of you that’s aware of whatever’s happening.
The reason you were born is to live life as that. As awareness.
Consciousness itself is where peace flourishes. It’s where life is tingly and delicious, regardless of the particulars of what’s happening in it. Strangely, maybe, it’s through that very thing (the form life is taking at the moment) that consciousness experiences itself. Even when the particulars are what we may think of as difficult. Their unpleasantness or the challenge life presents is not the primary thing that impresses. What’s front and center is that this is what is. What-is shimmers with life. Because the mind isn’t dropping everything into categories, subjecting it all to the familiar assessments, awareness is left with encountering the plainness and the purity of reality.
From the point of view of the familiar self, this is incomprehensible. That self cannot encounter reality as it is, because the self is made of desire and opinion and self-image.
But if you watch what happens, in any moment of encountering anything at all (including something on your interior), you will see that unfiltered awareness occurs prior to judgment, prior to analysis and story-making. First, you see, you hear, you feel. Then the mental and emotional processing occurs. Awareness is the primary — the original — encounter with life.
Ask yourself what a moment of experience would be like — what it would feel like, how different it would be from the norm — if you lingered in plain awareness. If the next part didn’t happen. If you didn’t need to know what you thought about the thing. What it meant. If you didn’t give it the power to put you in a certain kind of mood, or frame of mind.
The awareness is here all the time. It functions constantly. We can’t not experience it. Awareness is the door to the world, to our lives. It’s just that we don’t usually pay attention to it. What gets our attention is all the stuff “in” awareness: what we’re aware of. Which, more often than not, is the content of the inner narrative.
But as soon as your awareness shifts its focus from the story’s content to the fact that thought is occurring, everything changes. Then, you know what you are.