Writing and speaking about the nature of awareness is a humbling process; as the third Zen patriarch said, “Words! The way is beyond language.” Whatever words are used, whatever thoughts they evoke, that’s not it! Just as we can’t see our own eyes, we can’t see awareness. What we are looking for is what is looking. Awareness is not another object or concept that our mind can grasp. We can only be awareness.
A friend who is a Unitarian minister told me about an interfaith gathering that she attended. It opened with an inquiry: What is our agreed-upon language for referring to the divine? Shall we call it God? “No way” responded a feminist Wiccan. “What about Goddess?” A Baptist minister laughed and said, “Spirit?” Upon which an atheist replied, “Nope.” Discussion went on for a while. Finally, a Native American suggested “the great mystery” and they all agreed. Each knew that whatever his or her personal understanding, the sacred was in essence a mystery.
Awareness, true nature, what we are—is a mystery. We encounter the same wordless mystery when someone dies. After his mother passed away, my husband Jonathan looked at me and said, “Where did she go?” I remember sitting with my father as he was dying—he was there, and then he wasn’t. His spirit, that animating consciousness, was no longer present in his body.
Nothing in this world of experience is more jarring to our view than death. It takes away all our conceptual props. We can’t understand with our minds what has occurred. Love is the same way. We talk endlessly about love, yet when we bring to mind someone we love and really investigate, “What is this love?”, we drop into the mystery. What is this existence itself, with all its particularity, its strange life forms, its beauty, its cruelty? We can’t understand. When we ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware?” and really pause to examine, we can’t find an answer.
This inquiry turns us toward the timeless refuge of pure awareness. When we ask ourselves, “Is awareness here?” most of us probably pause, sense the presence of awareness, and say yes. Yet every day we restlessly pull away from this open awareness and immerse ourselves in busyness and planning. Our conditioning prevents us from discovering the peace and happiness that are intrinsic in taking refuge in awareness. Seeing how we paper over the mystery of who we are is an essential part of finding freedom.
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley called awareness “Mind at Large” and reminded us: “Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet.”
From an evolutionary perspective, our brain’s primary function is to block out too much information, and to select and organize the information that will allow us to thrive. The more stress we feel, the smaller the aperture of our attention. If we’re hungry, we obsess about food. If we’re threatened, we fixate on defending ourselves or striking first to remove the threat. Our narrowly focused attention is the key navigational instrument of the ego-identified self.
I saw a cartoon once in which a guy at a bar is telling the bartender: “I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about.” If you reflect on how often you are moving through your day trying to “figure something out,” you’ll get a sense of how the reducing valve is shaping your experience. And if you notice how many thoughts are about yourself, you’ll see how the valve creates a completely self-centered universe. It’s true for all of us!
This incessant spinning of thoughts continually resurrects what I often call our space-suit identity. Our stories keep reminding us that we need to improve our circumstances, get more security or pleasure, avoid mistakes and trouble. Even when there are no real problems, we have the sense that we should be doing something different from whatever we are doing in the moment. “Why are you unhappy?” asks writer Wei Wu Wei. “Because 99.9% of everything you do is for yourself … and there isn’t one.”
While we might grasp this conceptually, the self-sense can seem very gritty and real. Even single-cell creatures have a rudimentary sense of “self in here, world out there.” As Huxley acknowledges, developing a functional self was basic to evolution on our particular planet. But this does not mean the space-suit self marks the end of our evolutionary journey. We have the capacity to realize our true belonging to something infinitely larger.
If we fail to wake up to who we are beyond the story of self, our system will register a “stuckness.” It’s a developmental arrest that shows up as dissatisfaction, endless stress, loneliness, fear, and joylessness. This emotional pain is not a sign that we need to discard our functional self. It’s a sign that the timeless dimension of our being is awaiting realization. As executive coach and author Stephen Josephs teaches, “We can still function as an apparent separate entity, while enjoying the parallel reality of our infinite vast presence. We need both realms. When the cop pulls us over we still need to show him our license, not simply point to the sky.”
Most of us are too quick to reach for our license. If our sense of identity is bound to the egoic self, we will spend our lives tensing against the certainty of loss and death. We will not be able to open fully to the aliveness and love that are here in the present moment. As Sri Nisargadatta writes, “As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, you seem short-lived and vulnerable, and of course you will feel anxious to survive. But when you know yourself to be beyond space and time, you will be afraid no longer.”