Amazed to be Conscious

Amazed to be Conscious

By Gil Fronsdal

I enjoy looking at old photographs of people—one hundred years old or even older. I am drawn to studying the emotional expressions on their faces and, in particular, their eyes. I feel this attraction most clearly when I come across an antique photograph with high enough resolution to show a sparkle of alertness in the eyes. The photo captures a moment—a flash of consciousness—in a person who is now long dead. That moment, so long ago, was that person’s time to be conscious. This highlights for me that the present moment is my time to be alive and aware. Soon enough, my time will pass, as it has for the people in the old photographs, and this motivates me to be attentive to the unique opportunity consciousness provides.

I am amazed at our ability to be conscious. The more this sense of wonder has grown through Buddhist practice, the less I take awareness for granted. I marvel at the awareness that always operates when I’m involved in activities, thoughts, and reactions. At times I may be so absorbed in something that I’m not fully aware of being aware, but I have found that to recognize awareness as it’s operating is enriching. To have this recognition as a regular and sometimes continuous experience brings forth many benefits and marvels. Being aware of being conscious is one of the great fruits of mindfulness practice.

Even so, I don’t know what consciousness actually is. Dictionary definitions don’t offer much help when they define it as “a state of being aware”; that just raises the question “What is awareness?” I don’t view consciousness as a particular thing; instead I consider it an activity or, perhaps more likely, a synchronized interaction of many mental and sensory processes. One reason to think this is that we can be aware in many different ways, sometimes simultaneously.

The awareness needed to thread a needle is very different from the awareness we use to gaze peacefully out across an expanse of ocean. The attention needed to recognize the different fish in a river is different from simply watching the river flow by. Using our hands to find our way in the dark engages different capacities of awareness and perception than solving an involved math problem. Sometimes awareness can feel contracted—when, for example, we are caught in the grip of some intense personal challenge. Other times, it can feel expansive and spacious. Perhaps awareness is like a unit of water that takes the shape of the container it is poured into. To practice mindfulness is to exercise our choice of the form of awareness we use and how narrow or broad its scope.

In the Buddha’s mindfulness teachings found in the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, different capacities of attention are taught for different circumstances. Most commonly he emphasizes a simple cognitive knowing or recognizing of what is happening. For example, when breathing, his instructions are to know when one is breathing a short breath and when one is breathing a long breath. In addition, he teaches the practitioner to recognize mental states that are present, and to know the particular mental processes that keep one attached and that release these attachments. When emphasizing this direct and simple knowing of experience, the Buddha does not teach actively fixing, changing, or judging experience; in a sense, he points to the transformative power of clear recognition that has become calm, stable, and continuous.

In order to be aware of one’s physical body, the Buddha gave instruction in using a form of awareness that differs from simple recognition: the practice of physically experiencing or sensing the body. This bodily attention can reveal the tensions and muscular holding patterns in the body, which a person can then relax, another of the Buddha’s instructions. The more intimate and penetrating one’s ability to feel the body, the subtler and more foundational this relaxation is. Physical relaxation, in turn, gives access to greater sensitivity and unhindered awareness.

The Buddha also taught a higher-level cognitive awareness when he instructed meditators to “clearly comprehend” their simple physical activities as they do them. This can be understood as recognizing the purpose of an activity, its appropriateness, and the absence of delusion in doing the activity. This also includes comprehending the inherent and momentary processes of change and temporariness that characterize all experience, but which are hidden by the stories and concepts often overlaid on experience.

Another form of awareness taught in the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is “observation.” This is a form of non-reactive, non-evaluative, equanimous watching or perceiving. It is observation that in and of itself does not interfere or interact with what is seen. For people who have a strong tendency to react and interact with present moment experience, settling back just to observe can be life-changing. It can show there is an alternative to being entangled in what is happening.

When we have the ability to observe our experience, we can then vary how we observe. Sometimes we can focus attention narrowly; other times we can use a broad focus.

Some experiences lend themselves to a close observation where attention is intimate with the experience and the details are seen. Other experiences are best observed as if we are watching from a distance without emphasis on the details.

Interestingly, the Buddha does not teach observation as something one actively does; rather, he instructs one to abide in observation. Observation is something we allow and relax into when there is adequate mental stability and clarity. In the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness observing phenomena is presented as a result of developing and strengthening awareness by knowing, feeling, and clearly comprehending our direct, present-moment experience. The Buddha explains that one practices mindfulness in such a way that there arises a clear observation of the coming and going, arising and passing of phenomena. In a sense, we settle back and with a relaxed and sharp awareness, we watch the river of experience flow by.

When mindfulness practice becomes even stronger, the activity of watching falls away, and there remains a form of “lucid awareness” (patisati). When fully developed, it is in this lucid awareness that a meditator “abides neither dependent on nor clinging to anything,” having an experience of freedom in which there is neither attachment nor suffering.

One way of understanding what is meant by lucid awareness is to see it as consciousness free of attachments. Rather than believing that the purpose of Buddhist practice is to have some experience of pure or essential or non-dual consciousness, for the Buddha the goal is to be aware without attachment. It is when consciousness has no attachment that consciousness is most wonderous. The old photographs teach me that this is my time to be free.