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
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
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.