So much seeking is misguided. Many get hopelessly lost in the impression that somebody else “has it” while they do not. Awakeness is made into something extraordinary – something outside the one longing for it. Yet the only difference between someone who’s steadily awake and one who’s not is this: the awake person has discovered what always was within, and has come to dwell there. For others, the discovery is yet to be made. If something life-altering occurs at awakening, it’s got to do with perspective only.
Yet it seems some kind of change (or acquisition) needs to occur. As if the reality of stripped-down beingness weren’t already within, accessible to any who will pause long enough to let it be felt – to touch what’s beyond the reach of the mind.
Nearly all spiritual effort engages the mind. The mind can never take you anyplace but another part of itself. It cannot deliver you to what’s beyond all thought.
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To be awake is to be consciously aware in the moment. It’s to be attuned to what’s occurring here and now, both around yourself and within – without mental filtering, without resisting or assessing. This is as true of a fleeting moment of awakeness (experienced by many) as it is of a stable condition.
During the long intervals of unconsciousness, instead of attention being on momentary reality itself, it’s on ideas about what’s happening. Or it’s on a mental image of the past, or on some imagined moment (occurring elsewhere or later). The mind’s content is endlessly absorbing only because it’s so good at convincing you of its reality. A person doesn’t realize, mostly, that this impression of reality is entirely a homemade production. Hence the vast majority of life is “lived” inside the head. Meanwhile, you’ve lost touch with that part of yourself that’s purely alive: awareness itself.
Learn to mistrust the assumption that any moment of self-examination is useful to your spiritual life.
Yet what do seekers tend to focus on? They try to change themselves, discouraged by lack of “progress.” Mostly it goes unnoticed that all of this engages the mind. Meanwhile, people constantly fail to question the fundamental delusion on which everything depends: that the familiar self (with all its exotic mental lenses, its drive to improve) has an independent existence outside the head, and that it’s capable of awakening. They neglect to ask What is it in me that experiences suffering – that wants it to go away? The result is that people filled with longing constantly by-pass what’s always available, inside themselves. It’s just that they keep looking in the wrong place.
The greater part of any life’s attention is on the wish to attain happiness. (It’s this desire that draws many to spirituality.) In the attempt to figure out how to be happy, how to reduce suffering (often via some imagined spiritual “attainment”), people miss the fundamental reality.
The wellspring of equanimity is as palpable as bodily warmth. But it isn’t perceived because it exists at a level deeper than the one typically drawing attention – the level where suffering and hope flower, where seeking occurs. Only unfiltered attention to present-moment reality can bring equanimity, the kind that’s subject to nothing at all.
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Rarely does a person grow still enough to feel himself simply being. Being aware, sensing aliveness. How many times in a typical day does someone see that she sees, feel that she’s here? This noticing – or its absence – is the only difference between sleep-walking and really living.
Whenever it occurs to you, pause and ask, Where’s my attention? Even a brief noticing can shift the usual way of perceiving, opening the door to a new orientation to the moment – to yourself. Asking this question attunes you to what’s real. It stops everything, locating you (consciously) in the present. Next, ask this: What is it in me that’s capable of seeing where attention is? This question gently moves you into the “part” of you that’s been awake all along.
This is not a “method” to waking up. It is being awake (however fleetingly). It’s the thing itself.
This momentary shift in awareness has been celebrated by a well-known writer: “Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be?”
That passage appears in a book not about spiritual awakening but about what it’s like to be a child. In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard is describing a kind of knowing that’s innate to the human being. To sense the living reality of conscious self-awareness is truly thrilling, especially when it first occurs, which is likely in childhood. (Not that a child could articulate it; that remains for the restless adult she’ll turn into. Is it any wonder we’re often wistful for childhood, pained by the sense that something precious has been lost?)
Is it lost? Or is it just obscured? As the child develops, other things begin to seem more important than the attunement to timeless being. Things like making friends and being well thought of, like self-esteem, doing well in school, obeying one’s elders, learning to belong, to achieve (and for some, to survive). On and on it goes. After an early immersion in the now, we learn to believe in time and its exotic promises. The primal sensation of conscious awareness is buried beneath the rubble of things we’re taught to believe matter more. Is it any wonder that along the way we inevitably lose track of our dearest selves? Yet what each of us most deeply is moves along with us, always, however obscured it may be. As if patiently waiting to be discovered anew, fresh as it was in childhood.
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Attention is always somewhere. You’re a physical being, perhaps in motion, located in a particular space. Something observable is going on “out there,” and inside as well (in body, in mind). You’re equipped with sense receptors, capable of attunement to the immediate surroundings and to the inner condition. Yet seldom is a person self-aware enough to notice where attention is at any given moment. Pausing to see where attention is, you find it’s on something: the red light you’re waiting to turn green, the button being buttoned, the thing being said to you, the pain in your back. Most often, attention is absorbed by the apparent reality of whatever story is currently playing on the mental screen, sapping all attention from immediate reality (so that you’re paying no attention to the outer activity). The mind has convinced you that its production is as real as whatever’s going on in front of you. Having no access to reality, all the mind can touch is its own content.
Thinking and attention are capacities innate to every human being. They are not the same. Each has its own terrain.
Thinking is the processor – not the experiencer – of reality. Although it occurs at a remove from life, thinking and its content take on the feeling of the real. The result is the generation of dissatisfaction, fear, anger, judgment, and resistance. In the mind dwell all identities, all ideas and beliefs – including spiritual ones. These are especially potent in their capacity to delude, to keep a person trapped in the head, wondering (most ironically) why awakening never occurs. The most deeply-entrenched beliefs and identities are often not even seen, because they appear to be “simply true” or “just who I am.” They are the building blocks of the rigid structure that constitutes the personal prison.
Most essential to see is this: the I (being quite literally made of thought) exists only inside the head, which spawns and maintains it at extravagant cost to a life. However real it appears to be (and however off-putting or unnerving this may be), the self has no independent reality, outside the mind’s impression of it.
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While the mind can know only its own creations, attention has access to life itself. It tunes into what’s happening in the immediate field of awareness, engaging at a more primary level than thought. Absent the conspicuous tension of mental processing, attention is simply tuned in. It feels alive, present, really here. It doesn’t generate ideas (including spiritual ones), or set intentions. Learn to recognize these impulses as coming from the mind.
Simply tuned into the now, attention doesn’t attach labels or project to what’s next. Of course, the mind will be eager to step in with its busybody ways, and it almost always does. But it’s key to notice that attention precedes processing, always. It’s possible to really be here for the moment without mentally handling it at all. Imagine that! (In order to discover this, you need first detect the split second that separates sensory perception from mental engagement.)
Thinking and attention function all the time for everyone. But seldom are we encouraged to notice them, to distinguish one from the other. Nobody teaches us about this in school or at home, and at terrible cost. (It’s never too late to learn.) Learning to recognize the difference, in a moment of self-awareness, leads you to that “part” of yourself where insight – and a potent shift – can occur.
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If I ask, “Where were you born?” what capacity is engaged? It’s the thinker that turns on. Attention doesn’t have access to stored information. That’s the mind’s terrain.
If I say, “Can you tell in this moment that you are alive, aware, here?” what do you use to tell? Clearly it isn’t the same capacity as the one that knows where you were born. Yet in an instant you can tell. See how the reality of being is a felt thing – not a mentally “known” one. Nothing requiring mental engagement can deliver you to that level of bodied recognition. Mental recollection of a bird’s name cannot hope to approach the effect of the nameless creature’s song on your interior.
This is what being awake is about.
If I ask, “Where has your attention been, the moment before this one?” often what you’ll realize is that it’s been on the content of your mind, having mistaken it for reality. But now, suddenly conscious, you can recognize it as mental content. And you can discover (most usefully) that during the interval of being “lost in thought,” you’d been largely unaware of the immediate scene. Since attention has now been re-directed from the real-seeming mental drama to the phenomenon of thought, you have arrived in the now, no longer distracted by what was masquerading as the real.
Contemplate this clear-eyed observation by Red Hawk: “Thought gains its dominance and control by a simple device: not being observed” [in Self Observation: The Awakening of Conscience]. The transformative power of observing the mind at work cannot be overestimated. This applies equally to an obvious stream of thought and to more subtle forms of mental content – real-seeming things such as identification, attachment, belief, and memory.
See, for transformation to come about, you don’t need to make yourself stop thinking. You need only recognize thought for what it is. This seeing drains the energy right out of a mental movie, changing it from three-dimensional color (with you inside it) to a pencil sketch you’re looking at.
Perspective is everything.
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In a moment of dissatisfaction or desire, ask yourself, What capacity is engaged here, in this moment? Learn to mistrust the assumption that any moment of self-examination is useful to your spiritual life. Simply notice what’s happening in the head, and then invite attention to attune to what’s actually real in the moment: the sensation in the body, the look and feel of the immediate scene. This simple gesture can teach you more about freedom than all the spiritual ideas in the world. More and more you will find yourself living not in your head but in the now – really alive! Any time you’re self-aware enough to notice where attention is (even if the moment just prior was missed by being lost in the head), you’ve just arrived in the present. Which is, of course, the whole point.
You may be surprised to notice, along the way, that the fierce drive to awaken has quieted down. (It was, after all, a thing of the mind.)
As you grow ever more aware of how much is mind-based, don’t get discouraged. The growing attunement relieves you of a crippling delusion. Say goodbye to the habit of self-judgment. Set down the exhausting attempt to change, to exercise vigilance. Instead, with great kindness to self, observe the compelling nature of the mental content. Discover how things of the mind manage to draw and hold your attention. Explore – ever more deeply – the fullness of what is mind-generated. There is much you’ve yet to recognize as mind-made. To the extent that you’re willing to see it all, you will become free of its tyranny. Thought gains its dominance and control . . . by not being observed.
Present-moment awareness is where the breakthrough shift occurs. Simply hold still. Look and feel. Be here. Attention itself becomes the teacher.
Rediscover what came so naturally in childhood. It wasn’t lost after all.