On Being Aware

D.E. Harding

Awareness is what life’s all about. At least, it’s what I’d like my life to be about. At the end of it I want to be able to say, truthfully, that I was aware - awake, attentive to what’s going on, not dreaming or ‘out to lunch’.

I don’t mean aware all the time of course, but often, increasingly, to the best of my ability. Naturally I like having lovely feelings, enjoying peak experiences when they arrive, perhaps even taking off into mystical realms. But when they don’t include experiencing who is in receipt of all such goodies, why then they’re a sort of lapse into unawareness and (at best) pleasant vacations from the main business of my life - namely being really aware. Which means self-aware, and ultimately Self-aware.

Such were my first reflections on hearing of AWARE [the name of the magazine that first printed this article]. I was reminded of those talkative birds in Aldous Huxley’s ‘Island’, who startled the forest-walker by squawking out “Attention!”, relentlessly. They had come under Buddhist influence. And indeed their message is central to that religion.

Mindfulness, or attention, or awareness lies at the heart of Buddhism. It’s not only the path to enlightenment, but enlightenment itself - that “state” which could be described as total awareness.

Awareness of precisely what?

Obviously not of just any old thing. The object or content of awareness matters as much as its intensity or steadiness. What yellow-robed monk could be more mindful (less absent-minded) than the thrush that at this moment is hauling a worm out of my lawn? What holy man can become more one-pointed than he was as an infant, playing with a ball on the grass? The absorption of bird and baby in what’s going on is just about total - while it lasts.

But neither is enlightened. True, it isn’t, like most of us grown-ups practically all the time, deluded. On the other hand it certainly isn’t self-aware - even to the limited extent that we’re self-aware. (That bird overlooks its presence; the sage sees his absence - a very different way of life, as we shall presently observe for ourselves.) And certainly the infant and the bird aren’t for imitating, even if we knew how.

But this is jumping ahead. Let’s proceed step by step, and distinguish in more detail the three stages in the development of awareness - stages which apply equally to the evolution of humanity in general, and of the individual in particular.

Simply for convenience I’ll call them: (1). Primitive (infrahuman) Awareness,
(2). Human (lack of) Awareness, and (3). Enlightened (suprahuman) Awareness.

Primitive (infrahuman) awareness

To the examples of the thrush with the worm and the baby with the ball, we could add the worm itself (before its fatal encounter with the thrush), patiently edging and nosing and fitting a fallen leaf into its hole. (How the dear thing does it with a body like that, is a miracle of dexterity - and attention. You or I would have a job, using all ten fingers!) And why not add the example of one of that gifted creature’s nerve cells (all unknowingly involved in that same delicate task of leaf-work) as it minds its own cellular business of attending to each incoming neural message and passing it on to the right quarters?

In fact, I’d go much further, and suggest that the inside story of each of the worm’s cells, and each of that cell’s molecules, and so down to whatever the ultimate units or building blocks of the “physical” world might be, is nothing else than awareness. Awareness of its companions, of its world. How otherwise could its responses to them be so accurate, appropriate or consistent? Each particle ‘knows’ its job to perfection and does it superbly: it takes in (note that expression) and adjusts minutely to the mass and position and motion of all the other particles, everywhere.

Now there’s awareness for you! No electron, no atom, no molecule, no cell, no bird, no animal is ever “out to lunch”, or found guilty of driving (or flying, or swimming, or creeping, or whatever its favoured mode of locomotion) without “due care and attention”. But my message isn’t addressed to that overwhelming majority of the universe’s citizens - the careful and conscientious sort who don’t need it - but to us cosmic delinquents and scatter-brains who need it badly. To the only absent-minded creatures in the known universe.

Human (lack of) awareness

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happened to us, of the second stage:

Suppose I’m a keen bird-watcher, and find myself fascinated by that thrush’s goings on. I set myself the task of counting how many worms it manages to get down per hour.

Intrigued and even horrified though I am, I find that, after very few minutes of attention to that guzzling, single-minded creature on the ground, I’m up and away. I’m off on some flight of the imagination - planning, perhaps, this article I’m writing which features the thrush, or about the tummy ache it’s surely going to have if it carries on like this. Or wondering what it feels like being a worm, tugged at and stretched as if it were an elastic band, and then being carved up into wriggling bird-helpings.

Meantime, of course, the bird carries on unobserved. I leave even the garden behind, as I’m carried away into exalted reflections about dear old Mother Nature - so “red in tooth and claw” and beak; and even more exalted reflections about the problem of pain in the universe. I end my morning’s stint at “bird-watching” by wondering what I’ve got for lunch - vaguely hoping it isn’t spaghetti!

Bare attention to the scene that’s presented right now, stripped clean of memory, anticipation, judgement: let’s face it, for us humans this is practically impossible. We see what we’re looking for, what we’re told to see, what language allows us to see, what we can make some use of - even when, ever so briefly, we’re staring hard at the worm, the bird, the baby, the flower, or whatever, doing our best to see it as it is. What’s more, I fear that the older and better informed we grow, the more scatterbrained (not to say scatty!) we become. The absent-minded professor is no mere story put around by rude students. Didn’t Isaac Newton himself boil his watch, timing it with his egg?

There is a sense, of course, in which Newton was one of the most aware people of his time, of any time. He was a giant, taking in… but what didn’t he take in? And no doubt we all become aware of more and more as we grow up. The field of attention and its topography widen wonderfully. But, offsetting this gain, our awareness becomes increasingly contaminated by verbal comment, by superimposed mental stuff which blurs and almost obliterates the scene. We see the world through a thickening fog. For some of us the visibility is reduced to the point when we are certified “mad”. We come to live in a dream world of our own, altogether out of contact with “reality”, and in need of institutional care. Buddhists tell us we’re all somewhat crazy like this - until we are enlightened.

They go on to say that it is this failure to attend to what’s so, which is our undoing, our basic trouble. “The way,” says the Buddha, “to resolve trouble and disharmony, get beyond bodily and mental suffering, and tread the path that leads to Nirvana, is by practising mindfulness” - mindfulness of the body, of sensations, of mental states, of conceptions. Which indicates how practical is the subject under discussion. We all want to suffer less, to get our deepest anxieties cleared up. Awareness, they tell us, is the way.

What to do? One thing is certain from the start: we can’t revert to infancy, and certainly not to the one-pointedness of non-humans. But we can go on to train ourselves in mindfulness, precisely as people train themselves in figure skating, or chess, or singing, step by step under the guidance of experts.

Theravada Buddhism consists, very largely, of this training in mindfulness. For example, the exercise of mindful walking - walking in very slow motion, when every little sensation of touch, tension, and muscular adjustment is carefully noted. (To the irreverent spectator, one appears to have reverted to the reptilian stage of our ancestral history; but who cares when the advertised rewards are so great?) Or mindful breathing, when perhaps for hours the trainee "watches" and counts his in-breathings and out-breathings. At first he quickly forgets what he’s supposed to be doing and stops counting, but with long practice he improves. And so with all the chores of the day - mindful dressing and undressing, mindful eating and defecating, and so on, till every moment is rescued from unawareness.

Costing so much in time and effort, it’s as well that the advertised benefits of such discipline are impressive. Here are five of them. First, what’s done attentively is done better. Notice your visitors helping by washing the dishes: the mindful ones do twice the work of the others, with no breakages, and (bless them!) leave all tidy afterwards. Second, they actually enjoy washing up. For it isn’t the repetitiveness of a job which makes it boring, but inattention. Third, how much of our fear and pain come from importing into the present moment what doesn’t belong to it! How much actual pain do we suffer at the dentist’s? Fourth, the long-term rewards of this training are serenity, detachment, self-knowledge. The more of ourselves we can bring to consciousness, the less it bugs us.

The fifth and chief reason for the practice of mindfulness is to graduate from what’s being experienced to WHO’s experiencing. In a word, enlightenment.

Theravada Buddhism insists on this long and hard preliminary training. It allows no short cuts to Nirvana. Rather discouraging for people like me, and I dare say like you, who are shy of paying such a price for what must be unknown goods! I’m mean, when it comes to buying such an expensive pig in a poke.

But let’s take heart. There are other ways. The great Japanese Zen Master Ummon has words of comfort for us: “Zen places enlightenment first; get rid of your bad karma afterwards.” Take delivery of your TV now, start viewing today, pay later. And what’s specially attractive about this bargain offer is that the viewing is the paying! You get enlightened by doing it. Another great Master, Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai, never tired of telling his incredulous disciples that enlightenment or liberation is the easiest, simplest, most natural thing in the world: Who you really are is plainer than a fruit held in the palm of the hand.

Well, if the ultimate Awareness is as available as these and many other acknowledged experts claim it is, let’s get it before we reach the end of these pages. No, I’m not having you on! Ten minutes should be more than enough.

Enlightenment (suprahuman) awareness

Allow me to direct your attention to your present experience, to how it is with you at this moment when (as far as possible) you drop memory and imagination and desire, and just take what’s given. Will you please be childlike with me, just for a few minutes?

You are taking in a page covered with lines of black marks (these printed words), and held by two hands - of which the fingers are mostly not given. While continuing to look straight at this printing, notice how those two hands connect with arms that grow fuzzy and fade out altogether well short of your shoulders (what shoulders?). And now observe how, between these fuzzy arms stretches an area of chest which itself gets fuzzy and then disappears well short of any neck (what neck?). Try tracing with your finger now the “neckline” where your chest stops, and notice what’s your side, the near side, of this permanent décolletage.

(Strange - isn’t it? - how completely we overlook these near regions, refusing to see what we see where seeing matters most, and dishonesty is disaster.)

Another example: are you now, in your own first-hand experience, peering at these black marks through two (repeat, two) small windows in a globular, hairy look-out called a head? If so, kindly describe what it’s like in there - congested? Dimly lit? Sticky? Small?

Or is it a fact that, going by present evidence, you find nothing whatever right here where you thought you sported a head, nothing but space? Space containing what? Space filled with these words, these pages, these arms and chest? Speckless and boundless capacity or room, alive to itself as empty - and filled with those things, taking in the ever-changing scene? Space, sometimes, for your face and head and shoulders also - where you find and keep them - over there behind your looking glass, quarter size, the “wrong” way round, and three feet adrift from your torso?

Yes, you’ve got it! You see with total clarity Who and what you’ve always been, namely this Disappearance in favour of others, this Emptiness which is aware of itself as no-thing and therefore all things. How could we not see this most obvious of all sights, once our attention is drawn to it?

Congratulations! You’re enlightened! You always were.

But now comes the hard bit. Seeing what you really are is just about the easiest thing in the world to do, and just about the most difficult to keep doing - at first. Normally, it takes months and years and decades of coming back home, to the spot one occupies (or rather, doesn’t occupy - the world does that) before one learns the knack of remaining centred, of staying indoors, of living from one’s space instead of from one’s face. Nevertheless, now you know how to get there, you can visit home whenever you wish and whatever your mood. And, once over the threshold, you’re perfectly at home: here, you can’t put a foot wrong. Practice doesn’t make perfect here: it is perfect from the start. You can’t half see your facelessness now, or see half of it. There are no degrees of enlightenment: it is all, or nothing.

Naturally there are many, many ways back to the home you never really left.

Let me tell you about those which I find particularly useful. Among them you will find some that are right for you.

How to keep it up

Any face there is enough to dissolve the illusion of a face here above my shoulders, taking it in. How could I receive your face in all its colourful detail if it were blocked at this end by anything at all? I find I’ve never, never been face to face with anybody. This permanent asymmetry is the beginning of love and the end of fear. Imagining I’ve any shield or wall here to keep you out with is rejection ofyou, separation from and fear and even hatred of you. The remedy is to see that I’m built open, built for loving.

My mirror confirms this wide-openness right here where I am. The very thing which long ago put a face on me now relieves me of it. Now I look in the glass to see what I’m not like!

And if it occurs to me that all this is very visual, and that I can actually feel this solid thing here, filling up the seeming void at the centre of my world, why then I start stroking and pinching and pummelling this thing. Only to find it still isn’t any thing at all, let alone a pink and white and hairy and opaque and all-together-in-one-piece thing. Instead, I find a succession of touch sensations that are no more substantial than the sounds and smells and tastes and so on, which also come and go in the same space.

And if I start wondering how on earth one could explain this to a blind person, why then I “go blind”. Shutting my eyes (what eyes?) I start seeking my shape, my boundaries, my height and width, my sex… indeed all those things I’d identified with. And I discover that not a single one of them can be found now. I am still boundless space for sensations to occur in, alias silence for these passing sounds, alias no-mind entertaining this parade of thoughts and feelings. I’m nobody, cleaned out. Yet I feel no sense of loss. Quite the opposite: I’m aware of myself as unhurt, comfortable, relieved of a heavy load. It suits me just to be. I AM feels incomparably better than, more natural than, I AM SOMEBODY.

And if I suspect that it’s not in passive contemplation but in action that I shall re-discover that missing somebody, why then I get on the move. Only to find I never move! It is the countryside that walks, jogs, runs, drives, dances through me. The space here is for things to move around in, not for moving. May I suggest you check this by standing up now and rotating on the spot. In your unedited experience, are you going round and round, or the room?

But how to reconcile that moving, headed, bounded, opaque human you take me to be, with my denial of all that? Who is right?

We’re both right. What I amount to depends on where you’re looking at me from. At six feet from this centre, you find a man. Approaching, you find a face, a patch of skin, and then (given the right instruments) tissues, cells, molecules… till, at the point of contact, I’ve vanished - and you confirm my view of myself right here. Or, retreating from this centre, you find a home, a city, a country, a planet, a star (the Solar System), a galaxy (the Milky Way); and again, in the limit, nothing at all. Your view of me, and my view of me, confirm and complement each other.

End of the dream

Well, having now seen your true Nature, and valuing what you see, you will find your own reminders to go on looking, till the looking becomes quite natural and effortless. Some of the experiments and pointers I’ve mentioned will surely work for you too. If you really want to live the aware life, to wake up from the social dream, to be Who you are, everything will spring to your aid and push you towards that supreme goal.

Attaining it is realising you never left it. Rather than becoming aware, you experience Awareness as your very being.

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