The Power of Awareness
Any story you tell yourself about who you are, any belief you have, any feeling you are aware of, is only an object of your larger consciousness. You, in your essence, are always something that experiences all these and remains more complete than any of them. When you realize that you are inherently larger than any feeling that enters your awareness, this very awareness will change the feeling, and it will release its grip on you.
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Similarly, ideas that you have about yourself are relative, not absolute truths. If you simply look at them and do not let them lead you into further thinking, they will give way and leave your mind open and silent. There is always a relationship between who we believe or feel ourselves to be and something else, the Self that is our larger awareness.
In awakening to this Self-me relationship, we begin to be present with our experience in a new way. We learn to consciously hold our thoughts and feelings in our own larger fields of awareness. Then, even if we are troubled and confused, this nonreactive quality of presence to ourselves allows us to restore ourselves to a sense of wholeness. This is the power of awareness.
Sensation and Perception:
Our Original Consciousness
The great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi said that if we want to know our true selves, we must “go back by the way that we have come.” Our original state of consciousness in childhood is not one of being a separate entity with our own thoughts and sensations, but rather is a relatively undifferentiated domain of sensation and perception. Our parents, having already reached the developmental stage of separate-self consciousness, provide the model by which we begin to develop our own sense of the separate self.
But when we take the developmental step into the consciousness of the separate self and leave behind the universe of immediacy and undifferentiated sensations, as a consequence we also become identified with our sensations. Who is happy? Me. Who is angry, tired, frustrated . . . ? Me. Our feelings acquire names, however, and at the same time, we are defined by those feelings.
The same is true with perception: we may not feel that the sunshine on the trees is me, but we cannot identify it without simultaneously existing as a separate me. In psychological and philosophical theory, this level of consciousness is called “subject-object.” It is the level of ego awareness where most human development stops. We are aware as me, we react as me, we defend as me, we desire as me, but we are not aware of the true self. It is the true self that looks at all we think, do, and experience, including our sense of me. In this looking, a relationship is created that has the power to transform our experience of ourselves and our worlds.
Throughout our lives, the moment we bring our awareness fully into the Now, we enter the domain of the true self, and our immediate conscious reality is once again that of sensation and perception. As I sit in the park, the sunlight brightens the leaves and casts shadows on the ground. I have a feeling of contentment. And as long as “I” don’t create stories about what I am seeing or about the fact that I am feeling content, which leads me away from my immediate experience, what I experience remains simply perception and sensation. The same is true for any feeling, any emotion. In the Now, it is just what it is. In the Now, I “go back” to my original awareness “by the way that [I] have come.” When we directly perceive and experience whatever is present in our larger fields of awareness, it is possible to have a relationship with it without becoming lost in it or defined by it.
Exercising the Power of Awareness
We exercise the power of awareness and strengthen our spiritual muscle by bringing ourselves, over and over again, into the immediate present. To do so, we must become present with what we are feeling and thinking. We can turn our attention directly toward what we are experiencing instead of staying enmeshed in a feeling or blindly accepting our beliefs about ourselves.
It makes all the difference in the world whether we are caught in a negative emotion and say, “I am sad, angry, lonely,” and so on, or are able to recognize, at that moment, “Here am I, all wound up in sensations of resentment. Here am I, fuming with anger.” Awareness of our sensations is not the same as identifying with our thoughts or feelings. Every movement back to present-moment awareness grounds us in the body and opens the connection to our larger awareness.
Even the smallest movement toward exercising the power of awareness, instead of collapsing our larger awareness into our thoughts and feelings and thereby becoming identified with them, restores us to a more complete consciousness. It gives us the power to start from a fresh, open, less conditioned relationship to our experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean that our problems disappear. But as we exercise the power of awareness, our reflexive reactivity diminishes. We respond from a state of greater presence. When we collapse into our feelings, we lose this capacity. We default into me, and this limited self seems like the whole of who we are. Then we have no choice but to react because we feel as if we must defend ourselves.
The Fundamental Relationship
What are we actually doing when we bring our awareness fully into the present and realize “Here am I . . . “? We are moving into a more spacious awareness and thus creating conscious distance from what we are experiencing. At the same time, we are opening toward our immediate experience to see it as it is, to see it fully, to invite it to reveal itself more completely to us. We are seeing as objectively as we can, without reacting or judging. This lets us more completely realize what we are actually feeling or sensing; we do not merely remain in our heads, interpreting and analyzing.
It is important to point out that moving our awareness into the Now and thereby gaining distance from our feelings and thoughts is not dissociation. A frequent mistake people make with Eastern meditation practices is to try to rise above and detach from an experience, especially whenever the experience is considered negative. To exercise the power of awareness, we are required to become more present in our experiences without losing our larger awareness. With this quality of attention, we gain true understanding. We naturally begin to respond to our experiences in the most appropriate and intelligent ways.
This intimate viewing of ourselves by our awareness is the most fundamental of all relationships. We create the possibility of a conscious, empathetic connection between me (or self) and our true selves, or what is alternatively referred to as the Self. The personal self that we experience as ourselves is held, seen, and felt deeply by that, which will never reject me, never turn away, never judge me. It can see us judging, attacking ourselves, creating our own misery; but it does not judge even this. It is simply present with me.
This presence need not be merely neutral or indifferent. We can let it be our trusted friend, like the Persian mystic poets Hafiz and Rumi did when they referred to it as the “Guest” or the “Beloved,” to whom they offered themselves and who always received them.
The key to cultivating the healing potential of the self-Self relationship is the quality of our attention — the steadiness, gentleness, and acceptance of the “gaze” we turn toward ourselves. We must be truly willing to experience our feelings and clearly see our thoughts without reaction, allowing the moment to be exactly as it is without defending ourselves against these feelings and thoughts, without our minds moving away into further thought. Then that which transcends our capacity to name or categorize it in any way, is present to us and has the same accepting quality that we present to ourselves. This is also the essence of meditation and prayer. By keeping our attention in the present moment, we can become transparent to what is transcendent. It is the Self’s profoundly empathetic acceptance of self that ultimately sustains us when we face our deepest fears, including even our egos’ primal terror, nonbeing.