Mind and awareness are not the same. This may be a truth, but it's something that we have to arrive at through our own experience. We may agree intellectually, and occasionally observe a thought or act with something like that, but for most of the time it remains elusive.
But what are the implications of what it means? If there can be something - call it awareness - that is separate from the mind, but which I still understand to be me, then it must be inevitable that the mind cannot represent me exclusively. Take it a step further and it means my mind and my self are not identical. And it is the awareness that is the means to discover that.
There's a kind of quantum leap that has to be made at some point as we have become fully accustomed to seeing the mind and the self as the same - philosophically maybe we get it, but in practice not really. In meditation inevitably the first attempts to be aware, to be an observer of the mind, seem to be just like the mind trying to watch itself, chasing itself round and round. (It may remind us of a story from another post of the policeman trying to catch the thief who is the same person.)
Accepting that the mind still behaves in its usual way, in meditation we are prepared to let the mind be as it is but take a different position, look at it differently, out of the corner of the eye so to speak, and not give it so much credence, so there will be less inclination to react to it. It's not easily done straight away so the best way to get to it is to be in a calm environment dedicated to that for some time, like on a meditation course.
There is something about continuity in meditation practice - which you get on a course - which almost inevitably brings certain results. Gradually there is a shift, a perceptual shift, which grows out of seeing that there is a choice: between letting the identity remain firmly with the mind and its thoughts, or becoming an observer of your own life situations, which leads to a realisation that, aha, the observer is actually nearer to my self than the mind. It’s this discovery, experientially, of where the identity lies - mind, or through awareness to self - that is at the heart of meditation practice.
It's a skill
And like any ability or skill, it develops with practice. The word practice implies that it is practical. And so it is. Meditation is strictly practical. Anyone who has developed any facility over a period of time will tell you that the first requirement is to really want to do it! Musicians become musicians because they really want to play music, and nothing is going to stop them. And there are stages one has to go through that require effort, dedication and practice, lots of practice.
Your aim may be to play a particular piece of music. But you have to start with scales, chords, simpler pieces, developing accuracy, timing, rhythm, interpretation, etc etc. A musician who has a bad day’s practice does not give up, but suffers the frustration, and returns with renewed determination and uses the mistakes that have gone before to learn from and move forward with greater accuracy. That kind of success becomes an inspiration.
Meditation can be approached in exactly the same way. Every insight will come out of the process of realising mistakes the mind makes – the mistakes of thinking, of past misunderstanding and misplaced insight. We have to become accustomed to realising how mistaken our thinking might have been and to accept that we really know very little about ourselves. Actually to fully accept this is the basis of wisdom - that I know very little about myself, which leaves much I can learn. Wisdom arises naturally as the separation of awareness from mind increases. By observing the mind, we know we know not the mind.
Meditation as training ground
Meditation can be understood as a training ground. For example in a seven or nine day meditation retreat all the circumstances are ideal. The environment, the routine, the practices, and particularly the continuity, all help to develop and sustain a direct relationship with our own inner world. If we can make some deepening connection with ourselves there in an ideal environment, then it also gives a clear indication of to handle the mind and our actions and reactions in the same way in the outer environment in day-to-day life. Of course it takes some time to become as proficient in a challenging environment as we might have been in the ideal environment. But like the pianist at the piano this is cause for determination not discouragement.
And in the outer world dramatic events will overtake us from time to time. We may be the author of these events, we may not be. We may have good cause to blame another for things that have happened. Or we may have good cause to regret our own actions which have had an unfortunate effect upon another. In any case events have an impact. When this happens the calm connection we may have felt in meditation will inevitably get disturbed and possibly disappear. It defines a moment of choice where we can reject our belief, our faith, our practice, as insufficient, as not working, or we can forbear and make a renewed effort to increase our insight and understanding. In the musical analogy we may have to return to practising scales again for a while.
A perennial truth
No matter what the nature of the experience, whether from outside influence or from inside as a distant memory, ultimately the way to become free of it is to take full responsibility for its presence and influence within us at this present moment. We may be fully justified in outer expression apportioning blame or guilt, but really we only ever get free of it when we have accepted that the result of the experience lies within us and that therefore the capacity to release it also only lies within us. We may even wish this were not so, but you will find that every avenue explored will eventually lead back to this.
Returning to mind and awareness. Mind we think we know well. In many ways we do, but in many more substantial ways we understand very little about it. It is for this purpose that we develop awareness. We have discussed awareness at some length in other posts. But awareness is simply the ability to become a good observer of one’s own self, regardless of circumstance. Good observation of my self leads to a greater sense of discrimination, a greater sense of not feeling so attached to the effects of what is observed, and a greater sense of equanimity - meaning not being so much affected by the powerful pull of like and dislike, and pleasure and pain.
So assuming there is some clarity about the distinction between awareness and mind, what will that all mean in practice? Well following the distinction between awareness and mind, if you are to become an observer of your self, you have to understand what it is you will be observing.
What do you observe?
First idea on what to observe in the mind is likely to be just the thoughts, possibly in the form of words that are going on in the head. This, then this then that, no that's not right...and so on. This is a limited concept of mind, which also limits the concept of self. Putting it briefly and simply, observation of mind includes everything that can happen in the mind. Think of the ways the mind has to express itself. It includes literal thought - the words and sentences that go on in the mind - like we just mentioned; but also ideas that float in and out in no particular sequence; imagery, like shapes, symbols, colours, images, patterns, dreams and of course memory; and sound, which is symbolic in its own right, and therefore may not be heard and understood literally.
Any expression in the mind, whether coming internally from memory, or as a result of external events, induces some kind of reaction - something happens to me and I react to it. The perception of the memory or event takes place in the mind, the reaction takes place in emotion - there is also a feeling quality to it. So, for practical purpose, emotion can be included as an aspect or outcome of mind and observed in the same way.
Now becoming an observer of just one's thoughts, literally just the thoughts, will challenge our ability to remain neutral in observation. When we come to the emotions, that challenge increases many times over. In fact the very idea of being an observer of very powerful emotions raging inside can sound quite impossible, superfluous, irrelevant... While emotions rage at this level, this is likely to be the case. But if it is ever at all possible to discover one small shaft of light between powerful emotion and the ability to see it as an experience to be observed, then something wonderful happens.
It’s like standing next to the heat of the fire and finding a way not to get burnt. You just don't throw fuel on your own fire! Watch it burn, feel the heat. Wait it out. Without added fuel, the fire has to eventually burn down. The one who is having the experience finds there is a sense of increased control, not so much of the experience itself, but over the reaction to it. There is a sense of immunity that arises when the awareness discovers that even a powerful experience need not influence something very essential within us.
Emotion translates into sensation. Every experience in life - that is, every experience in life - has an outlet in the physical body. All the time sensations are going on, arising, taking place and passing. Mostly they go unnoticed, or by being noticed they are considered exceptional, but they are there giving constant feedback all the time. Sensation as a monitor of one's own experience is very much underestimated and overlooked.
So, strange to say, you can realise so much of what lies beyond sensation - in emotion, in mind, in energy, in spirit - by close observation of body sensation. Put simply, a sensation connects to a thought, just as a thought connects to a sensation. A little more attention and you can realise this. It’s just joining the dots. If this is not convincing at least you know that emotion translates directly into the body as sensation through the nervous system in the short-term, and the hormonal system in the long term, which as we know affects well-being as well as health.
One of the reasons why body sensations are overlooked is because they are so clearly personal to us - so obviously me, that the idea of separating a quality of awareness to observe seems either ridiculous or impossible. Actually it's not so difficult, once the counterintuitive idea, meaning, first reaction: that can’t be right - to let everything be as it is, however full it is - has been taken on board. Then it becomes possible to discover a place which is still, at rest, from which everything can be observed.
Wisdom is within for everyone
Everything we want to understand is already known within us. This is a risky statement as it can be easily misinterpreted or taken as a springboard for some kind of inaccurate thinking. But it can also be taken as the highest form of inspiration. We have to know where is the ignorance, where is the wisdom; where is the darkness, where is the light; and what thought or action keeps you from the light, and what brings you nearer to it. That knowledge is not in the mind.
Expansion of awareness is simply the expansion of understanding to include more of the knowledge and wisdom that is already within us, but is as yet unknown, unbelieved, untrusted. If we get our own self-observation accurate - and there’s no guarantee how long that will take, or how much effort it will require – but if we can get in there, the peace of mind that everyone is searching for will eventually be revealed to be already present within us.
Until then there will be contradiction and uncertainty, there will be doubt, there will be confusion - in a word duality. There is constant change and we have to live with that. But at the same time practice self-awareness. That can be the constant amid the change. Never doubt you will come to know what you need to know.
May we all find peace within ourselves regardless of any experience of life