A student recently made an astonishing discovery. It was not astonishing by virtue of its monumentality, but by virtue of its subtlety. He had practiced mindfulness for several years by examining the different domains of experience in detail, such as physical sensations, emotions, thoughts and perceptions of the external world. Attention and equanimity were the main tools with which he explored. In this year’s course on non-duality, the focus has been more intensely on awareness itself than ever before. He struggled at first with this different emphasis, because he realized his intention to be mindful focused mainly on how he could focus attention. In comparison to attention, awareness seems so ephemeral and intangible.
It suddenly dawned on him that he had practiced concentration and differentiation of experience phenomena without really realizing to what extent awareness itself was available to him. Harnessing the power of attention had been his main focus, and awareness became unconsciously available to him ‘through the backdoor’ so to speak, but not directly and consciously. Awareness being unconscious may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is not, because like tunnel vision we may not have access to the internal reflexivity of awareness. Let me explain.
Awareness has what I would call an internal and external reflexivity. The internal reflexivity is the fact that awareness is aware of itself; external reflexivity means that awareness is aware of anything else.
Let’s begin with external reflexivity, since it is the more familiar and accessible of the two. Awareness being aware of anything else implies that awareness is aware of objects of awareness. Awareness, the subject, is aware of its objects. The knower is aware of the known. We become more closely acquainted with objects of awareness by momentarily focusing awareness on them. This focusing of awareness is how attention is defined. As we pay attention, a subject (me) pays attention to an object (say the chair). This stance is how we are used to facing the world we live in and is characterized by dualism (from Latin ‘duo’ meaning ‘two’), the dualism of a subject apprehending objects of experience. Thus the expression ‘awareness (subject) of whatever we are aware of (object)’. The metaphor of the mirror can be helpful here: The mirror reflects all the objects that happen to show up in front of it. The moment you (the subject) stand in front of a mirror (awareness), there suddenly appears a second you (the object) inside the mirror you now can see and know as an object. The moment an object enters the field of awareness, it becomes known as an object.
Internal reflexivity of awareness is a completely different kettle of fish. When we refer to awareness being aware of itself, it only superficially appears to be a relationship between two entities, awareness and awareness. The limitations of language and conceptual thinking do not afford us any other way of expressing an experiential fact that is difficult to capture in any other way. In truth, when we talk of awareness being aware of itself, we mean awareness being aware as itself. We mean an identity of awareness as awareness, not a relationship between two aspects of awareness. There is no duality of a subject called awareness being aware of an object called awareness. Instead, we denote a non-duality without a subject-object distinction, whereby awareness is inherently aware in a reflexive way both as itself (internal reflexivity) and of anything else (external reflexivity). For easier comprehension this internal reflexivity can be pictured imagining standing and taking a step towards yourself, or the sun illuminating itself. It is only possible by making an orthogonal shift into a new dimension, the dimension of being. The way to take a step towards yourself is to drop into the awareness of yourself as Being. The same applies to the sun, which is self-illuminating and unlike the moon does not require any other source for illumination. To come back to our mirror (awareness), it is self-reflexive in that the mirror can not mirror itself. It simply is itself, and as such inherently reflexive.
We can go through life never having conscious access to the internal reflexivity of awareness. You may wonder ‘so what’? The answer is as simple as it is profound. Without that access you will never know who you really are, and by not knowing that, you don’t know the instrument with which you live your life. You thus perpetuate a profound split in your being, which naturally comes with a lot of suffering and all its consequences. We can go through life only partially aware, meaning that we are aware of all the ten thousand things of the world, of all the contents of awareness that are seen through the dual lens of the subject-object split, without knowing that we are aware, and thus not knowing who we are. Our habit of creating a split between the observer and the observed is so deeply ingrained that the moment we focus awareness in the form of attention, we focus on something, and awareness of awareness is lost and inaccessible. The unified field of awareness, its unity and self-reflexive nature beyond the dualistic subject-object split, remains for most people inaccessible to be realized, even though it is always there. The defining moment for my student was to realize that by focusing attention he could not only become aware of subjective experiences, but that he could also become aware of being aware.
Awareness is a bit like the light in the fridge. Whenever you open it, you are usually hungry and look for the objects inside the fridge. You do not notice that the only reason you can actually see what’s in the fridge is because the light is on. You notice even less that the light is on whenever you open the fridge, and when the fridge is closed you have no way of knowing whether the light is on or not. Whenever you ask yourself whether you are aware right now or not, the answer is always ‘yes’, the same way the light is always on when you open the fridge. If you do not ask the question, or you are not aware of being aware, you have no way of knowing whether you are aware or not, the same way you have no way of knowing whether the light is on when the fridge door is closed. Awareness is more than awareness of things, it is also awareness as Being. Without access to this fundamental aspect of awareness, we lose access to vast swaths of the infinite context within which we exist, of the infinite context we actually are.
Whatever we focus on becomes the object of our attention, and awareness itself, also referred to as awareness of awareness, can never be an object of attention, of its own focusing or knowing. It is always the subject that knows itself as subject, thus eluding us as long as we look for it the way we look for things. As strange as it might seem, we cannot pay attention to awareness; attention being the focusing of awareness, we can only pay attention as awareness. Whatever we pay attention to becomes an object of attention or awareness that can never be awareness itself. The astonishing part, therefore, is that we can be intensely steeped in using awareness through its focusing aspect of attention without realizing that awareness itself is directly available to us. The way it is directly available to us is a highly unfamiliar process this student only just discovered. It is not by focusing on it, but by realizing that we have all along already been it. This discovery made my student realize to what extent awareness is also the defining force for inner peace.
Awareness reveals context to us, the fact that we are intricately interwoven in a vast web of infinite causes and consequences beyond our wildest comprehension. Context gives us a sense of belonging that relaxes us and opens the door to discovering complexity. Complexity breeds humility, because we realize there is an intelligence at work in the universe far greater than what we can ever imagine. Humility leads to wise and skillful action, which in turn manifests as love.
The meaning of our lives may just simply be to seize the opportunity to use awareness as our guiding light. Life is our opportunity to bring awareness into motion, and not let it slumber in the darkness of unconsciousness. Awareness in motion is not about what be pay attention to, but what we discover we are all along. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be love.
Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.