awareness

The three qualities of awareness

tara-brachAbout 2,600 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama (the soon-to-be Buddha) sat down under the bodhi tree, his resolve was to realize his true nature. Siddhartha had a profound interest in truth, and the questions “Who am I?” and “What is reality?” impelled him to look even more deeply within and shine a light on his own awareness.

As a Zen story reminds us, this kind of inquiry is not an analytic or theoretical exploration. One day a novice asks the abbot of the monastery, “What happens after we die?” The venerable old monk responds, “I don’t know.” Disappointed, the novice says, “But I thought you were a Zen monk.” “I am, but not a dead one!” The most powerful questions direct our attention to this very moment.

To practice this same sort of self-inquiry inspired by the Buddha, we can quiet the mind and ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware right now?” or “Who is listening?” Then we can look gently back into awareness to see what is true. Ultimately, we find that there is no way for the mind to answer the question—there is no “thing” to actually see or feel.

The point is simply to look, then to let go into the no-thing-ness that is here. The question “Who am I?” is meant to dissolve the sense of a searcher.

Yet, as you might discover, this isn’t what happens right away. First, we find all sorts of things we think we are, all our patterns of emotions and thoughts, our memories, the stories about who we take ourselves to be.

Our attention keeps fixating on elements of the foreground. Maybe we’ve contacted a feeling. But we keep inquiring. “Who is feeling that?” we ask, or “Who is aware of this?” And the more we ask, the less we find to land on. Eventually, the questions bring us into silence—there are no more backward steps. We can’t answer.

The discovery of no-thing, according to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, is “the supreme seeing.” It reveals the first basic quality of awareness: emptiness or openness. Awareness is devoid of any form, of any center or boundary, of any owner or inherent self, of any solidity.

Yet, our investigation also reveals that while empty of “thingness,” awareness is alive with wakefulness—a luminosity of continual knowing. Rumi puts it this way: “You are gazing at the light with its own ageless eyes.” Sounds, shapes, colors, and sensations are spontaneously recognized. The entire river of experience is received and known by awareness. This is the second basic quality of awareness: awakeness or cognizance.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

If we let go and rest in this wakeful openness, we discover how awareness relates to form: When anything comes to mind—a person, situation, emotion—the spontaneous response is warmth or tenderness. This is the third quality of awareness: the expression of unconditional love or compassion. Tibetan Buddhists call this the “unconfined capacity of awareness,” and it includes joy, appreciation, and the many other qualities of heart.

When Siddhartha looked into his own mind, he realized the beauty and goodness of his essential nature and was free. The three fundamental qualities of our being—openness/emptiness, wakefulness, and love—are always here.

Gradually, we too can realize that this wakeful, tender awareness is more truly who we are than any story we’ve been generating about ourselves. Rather than a human on a spiritual path, we are spirit discovering itself through a human incarnation. As we come to understand and trust this, our life fills with increasing grace.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

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What does non-judgmental awareness really mean?

Elisha Goldstein,Ph.D., PsychCentral: Whether you’re new or old to mindfulness, you’ve likely heard the definition that it is a “intentional non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.” There’s a lot of confusion around the term non-judgment. Years ago, before I began being more intentional with a mindfulness practice I had a friend practicing meditation and he told me that he was practicing being completely detached from everything in a non-judgmental way. That didn’t seem too fun to me. Today, many of us can still be confused by this term, so what does it really mean?

A purer definition of mindfulness might be just “awareness.”

Read the original article »

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Transform ill will

Fist of fireGoodwill and ill will are about intention: the will is for good or ill. These intentions are expressed through action and inaction, word and deed, and-especially-thoughts. How do you feel when you sense another person taking potshots at you in her mind? What does it feel like to take potshots of your own? Ill will plays a lot of mini-movies in the simulator, those little grumbling stories about other people. Remember: while the movie is running, your neurons are wiring together.

Ill will tries to justify itself. In the moment, the rationalizations sound plausible, like the whisperings of Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Only later do we realize how we have tricked ourselves.

And often our attempts at payback just get in the way of balls already ricocheting back toward the person who sent them flying in the first place.

As I wrote in last week’s JOT, Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Be Aware of the Priming
Be mindful of factors that stimulate your sympathetic nervous system – such as stress, pain, worry, or hunger – and thus prime you for ill will. Try to defuse this priming early on: eat dinner before talking, take a shower, read something inspiring, or talk with a friend.

Regard Ill Will as an Affliction
Approach your own ill will as an affliction upon yourself so that you’ll be motivated to drop it. Ill will feels bad and has negative health consequences; for example, regular hostility increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Your ill will always harms you, but often it has no effect on the other person; as they say in twelve-step programs: Resentment is when I take poison and wait for you to die.

Investigate the Triggers
Inspect the underlying trigger of your ill will, such as a sense of threat or alarm. Look at it realistically. Are you exaggerating what happened in any way? Are you focusing on a single negative thing amidst a dozen good ones?

Study Ill Will
Take a day and really examine even the least bit of ill will you experience. See what causes it and what its effects are.

Settle Into Awareness
Settle into awareness, observing ill will but not identifying with it, watching it arise and disappear like any other experience.

Accept the Wound
Life includes getting wounded. Accept as a fact that people will sometimes mistreat you, whether accidentally or deliberately. Of course, this doesn’t mean enabling others to harm you, or failing to assert yourself. You’re just accepting the facts on the ground. Feel the hurt, the anger, the fear, but let them flow through you. Ill will can become a way to avoid facing your deep feelings and pain.

Relax the Sense of Self
Relax the sense of self. Experiment with letting go of the idea that there was actually an “I” or “me” who was affronted or wounded.

Have Faith in Justice
Have faith that others will pay their own price one day for what they’ve done. You don’t have to be the justice system.

Don’t Teach Lessons in Anger
Realize that some people won’t get the lesson no matter how much you try. So why create problems for yourself in a pointless effort to teach them?

Forgive
Forgiveness doesn’t mean changing your view that wrongs have been done. But it does mean letting go of the emotional charge around feeling wronged. The greatest beneficiary of your forgiveness is usually you.

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I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about

tara-brachWriting 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.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “If everything … changes, then what is really true? Is there something behind the appearances, something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place? Is there something in fact we can depend on, that does survive what we call death?”

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.”

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Mindfulness: twenty ways to bring it to work

Hands working on shaping a clay pot

Bringing mindfulness to work allows us to:

  • be more focused
  • feel less stressed
  • communicate more effectively
  • bring compassion to the workplace and
  • feel confident at work.

When considering how we approach work, we can ask ourselves:

  • How do I relate to myself?
  • Am I aware of my thoughts, feelings and actions or do I run on automatic pilot?
  • How do I relate to my colleagues, coworkers and boss?
  • Am I kind, friendly and compassionate or do I need to have my own way?
  •  How do I relate to my work? Do I bring curiosity and creativity to my work or is it just a means to a paycheck?

Here are twenty ways to bring mindfulness with you to work:

1. Set an intention for the day .  Ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish today? How will I accomplish it?”
2. Communicate honestly and from the heart.
3. Be friendly.  Not everyone at work is your friend, but we can be friendly to everyone.
4. Bring curiosity to each new day rather than seeing each day as a replica of the past. Look at things in a new way and listen to what your colleagues suggest.
5. Do not believe everything you think!
6. Know yourself.  Be aware when you get distracted and bring your mind back to the task at hand, back to the present moment.
7. Understand the positive effects of teamwork and skillful action.
8. Bring presence, intention and wholeheartedness to your thoughts, actions and speech.
9. Remember to breathe.
10. Be receptive to new ways of doing things.
11. Listen actively.  Focus on what the person is saying, not how you are going to answer.
12. Enjoy your work, find the pleasure in it.  You may not enjoy everything you do at work, but take pleasure in the aspects you appreciate.
13. Let go of attachment to outcomes.
14. Allow creativity to surface by relaxing and being open to possibilities.
15. Ideally whatever we do for work is an integral part of our lives where we incorporate our values, thoughts, words and actions (i.e.greening practices, nonviolence ahimsa).
16. Become a mentor.
17. Be aware of triggers and remember triggers comes from within, not from anyone else.
18. Watch your reactions to triggers and use these instances as opportunities to change, to “let it go”.
19. Remember, we create our worlds and we have the choice to react or respond to a situation. Reacting is an automatic reflex — responding is a thoughtful, reflective response that considers creative alternatives and considering options and consequences.
20. Make a copy of this list and keep it by your desk, and remember to read it often.

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Mindfulness and energy

Vintage gasoline pump

Have you ever noticed that when you are with some people you feel energized and when you are with other people your energy is drained?

Do you have a difficult time saying “no” when someone requests something from you, and then find yourself feeling exhausted and resentful?

Do you put your own responsibilities on hold in order to do things for other people?

Have you been, or are you now, feeling like there are not enough hours in the day to do all that you need to do? Are you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted?

If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, mindfulness can help you to be aware of how, and with whom, you expend your energy and therefore take better care of yourself by using your energy wisely.

There is an organization I have belonged to for eighteen years. I believe in the mission of this organization because it changes peoples’ lives for the better. It has changed my life for the better.

Over the years I have been happy to do whatever I could to see the organization thrive, including: fundraising, listening to people who are going through difficult times, teaching classes, catering for events and attending more meetings than I can count.

Because there were so many things that needed doing, and I believed in those things, and I knew I could do what was needed and do it well, I had a difficult time saying “no”. After so many years of doing so much, my energy was drained.

And I was exhausted. When I woke up in the morning I did not feel rested. I knew that exercising would help me feel more energetic, but I felt too tired to exercise, I just wanted to stay in bed as long as I could each morning.

When I became aware of the decisions I was making, in terms of how I was spending my time and expending my energy, I started to decline “invitations” to take on more and more responsibility  – but it wasn’t easy.

People were used to having me take on more and more work. It was difficult to say “no” but I realized I needed to take care of myself as well as caring for others.

In fact, I realized that unless I took care of myself, I could not take care of other people wholeheartedly.

Is it time for you to become mindful of how you expend your energy in terms of what you do and who you spend time with?

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