The Issue at Hand


Chapter 27: Receptive Awareness

See the world as a bubble;
See it as a mirage.
The King of Death does not see
One who so regards the world.

– Dhammapada 170


Our awareness is like the air around us: we rarely notice it. It functions in all our waking moments, and a form of awareness may even continue in sleep. Some people don’t recognize the functioning of awareness because it has never been pointed out to them. Even when we know about it, we easily take it for grant- ed and don’t appreciate it fully.

Perhaps the prime reason we don’t notice awareness is that we are caught up in the content of our awareness, that is, we are preoccupied with what we think, feel, and experience. Usually daily life entails negotiating our way through what awareness knows, the content of our thinking and perception. An important part of Buddhist practice entails being aware of the other half of perception, receptive awareness itself. Becoming aware of awareness itself is a capacity we all have. Meditation offers a powerful opportunity to discover and rest in a receptive mode of knowing.

Receptive awareness is very close to the idea of a witnessing consciousness. Beginners in meditation often assume that our ability to witness means that there is someone who is witnessing; a particular, unique, and lasting subject or agent within us that is the witness. We have a strong tendency to dichotomize our world, especially between the perceived and the perceiver. Similarly, we often make a distinction between the doer and the action: I’m the doer and I am doing something, I am the speaker who is speaking. Most of us consider the idea that there is a perceiver or a doer to be simple common sense. Buddhism challenges this assumption.

These dichotomies are the cornerstone of the huge edifice of self. As soon as we have a perceiver, we have a concept of self, which becomes a magnet for all sorts of culturally conditioned ideas about what a self should be like. Our sense of self can be closely and painfully related to ideas of what is worthy, what is good, and what is required from the world around us.

Emotions can arise directly from the way we conceive our “self.” If our self-image is threatened, we can easily get angry or fearful. Guilt can come from relating a self-image to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong. Both praise and blame can energize us when they affect the way we define and represent our- selves. And when our sense of self is neither supported nor threatened, some people get bored – bored with the people they are with or bored with the situation.

Resting in receptive awareness is an antidote to our efforts of building and defending a self. As this capacity develops and we begin to trust it, the assumption that there is “someone who is aware” falls away. Self-consciousness falls away. Sometimes this is called an experience of non-dualistic awareness: the distinctions between self and other, inside and outside, perceiver and perceived disappear. There is no one who is aware; there is only awareness and experience happening within awareness.

Part of what we learn to do in practice is to steady our attention, to develop a simple, receptive awareness. We aren’t necessarily abandoning the world of ideas or even the idea of self. Instead, we learn to hold our lives, our ideas, and ourselves lightly. We rest in a spacious and compassionate sphere of awareness that knows but is not attached. In this way our response to life can arise from our direct experience rather than from our abstract ideas and attachments.


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