The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on August 30th, 2023.
*** Feel free to just read the bold points and skip the rest ***
In the newsletter from last month, I talked about the major takeaway from my recent three-month retreat — dropping into a fundamental okayness of being. Today’s newsletter is part two, where I’ll look a little more at some of the “how-to” behind that fundamental okayness. Some of you will find this reflection really fascinating, and others probably a little too technical. In turn, please just take whatever feels useful, even if only a little shot of inspiration, and discard the rest. The North Star
Similar to how long-ago sailors would navigate the seas by using “The North Star” as their orientation point, for meditators, it’s helpful to have a “North Star” that serves as an ongoing orientation point for our practice. What Exactly Is Awareness?For starters, similar to my teacher, I use the words awareness, mindfulness, mindful awareness, presence, paying attention, present-moment-awareness, observing, witnessing, noticing, and recognizing to point at the same basic experience. As he had to tell me many times over, don’t overcomplicate it — awareness is the most simple, basic thing imaginable. Most people associate present-moment-awareness with focus on a particular object, like being aware of sensations of the breath, or noticing/feeling the sense of contact of their feet touching the ground. You could easily do either of these right now — and in the very moment you do it, you are present. However, it’s also possible to be aware in a more general way, as if you were relaxing back into a “symphony of the present moment,” letting the overall medley of right now wash through you. This second style goes by names like “receptive awareness,” “open awareness,” “choiceness awareness,” “natural awareness” or “restful awareness.” At the end of the day, whether you are aware of one particular object, like the breath, or aware in an open way, really doesn’t matter that much. The important thing is simply whether or not you are actually aware. All methods and techniques are simply tools to help you actually do this instead of just thinking about it.Here is one meditation I recorded that highlights the precise experience of being aware. How To Be Aware To start with a metaphor, when in a manual/stick shift vehicle, one gets the momentum of the car going by placing the automobile in 1st gear. Once it picks up speed, one shifts to a higher gear, which allows the vehicle to move faster while doing less work. Similarly, I applied a “gears” model on my retreat for how to be aware:For me, my North Star is “non-clinging awareness,” or as my teacher would put it, “awareness with right view.” It’s mostly about getting a tangible feel for that state, maintaining it when it’s present, and prompting oneself back into it whenever they realize they’ve lost it. In part one, I focused a lot on the non-clinging part — the ability to have a fundamental okayness no matter what is happening. The idea is that when we can clearly see what’s happening as just nature or as not a problem, our reactivity & clinging drop away. We start to see that even inner happenings like anxiety, frustration, despair, or clinging itself, are just as much nature as the wind moving through trees. When we really “see” this, we find peace not just through difficult states disappearing, but through learning to not get entangled with them. In any case, today, I’ll be talking much less about non-clinging or right view, and much more about how to be aware. Present-moment-awareness is referred to by the Buddha as the direct path to Awakening — this is because it’s the basic ingredient that shifts all happenings are just nature from a good thought to a lived experience. The more steady our presence, the more we see reality as it is, and in turn, the more we release clinging and step into a fundamental okayness of being.
- 1st gear — Troubleshooting — i.e. deep breathing, self-compassion, inquiry, etc.
- 2nd gear — Intuitive body awareness
- 3rd gear — Open awareness
I usually started with Intuitive Body Awareness, but when it was pretty rough going and the mind was extra scattered or despondent, I would “downshift” to 1st gear. Inversely, when awareness felt particularly stable & effortless, I would relax into 3rd gear.meditation vehicle” had a “turbo” button that would supercharge any gear, I would occasionally bring in different verbalization techniques, like counting, noting, directing, or inquiring. Overwhelmingly, these verbalizations were direct pointers into non-clinging awareness & best applied in a relaxed and moderate way. Body AwarenessLayered on top of this, as if my “
On this retreat, I was really interested in developing a more stable body awareness. There are three basic reasons:
- In the Buddhist meditative tradition, the body is considered to be the first foundation of mindfulness; aka, the most reliable & universal meditation practice, since body sensations are always in the present moment and rather obvious.
- My primary training & practice is in the open awareness style; however, in recent years, I’ve been realizing that while sometimes this works really well, other times it leads to me being a little more spacey than is helpful. In turn, I wanted to learn more about how to adjust my method depending on conditions, especially using the body as a skillful means.
- In my fairly active daily life, between work, quiet time, and relationships, the body is an excellent tool to maintain a steady across-the-day awareness.
As a preliminary note, there are two basic ways to be aware of the body; what I call a “laser focus” and a “gentle focus.” a fundamental okayness of being. Basically, steady awareness is the key ingredient that helps maintain peace amidst all the ups and downs of a day and a life. I spent this retreat practicing with intuitive body awareness, but to say it again, really anything that helps you actually be aware is the path.The laser focus way is a bridge to absorption — it looks really closely at the body, tries to detect subtler and subtler sensations, mostly ignoring the periphery, and developing a pleasurable & peaceful absorption in the body. The gentle focus way is a bridge to open awareness — it just keeps a light attention with the body, not looking too closely, and inviting into awareness the background thoughts, emotions, sounds, and peripheral body sensations. While both are excellent choices, I was mostly practicing the gentle focus style, as this provides a more natural bridge into my primary practice of open awareness. I started with the most popular & universal body awareness practice: mindfulness of breathing. I ended up getting quite concentrated pretty quickly, but I couldn’t manage to be consistently aware of the breath without some sort of tension going along with it. Perhaps this tension stems from a childhood of asthma attacks or who knows what other twisted conditioning, but after many years of experimentation and trying many approaches to mindful breathing, I’ve yet to crack the code on reliably doing it without tension. In turn, after a couple of weeks, it felt more useful to pivot to other forms of body awareness. When Body Awareness Goes Intuitive The retreat teacher gave one instruction that I really loved: “don’t do anything that takes you out of your body.” This pithy instruction empowered me to use one of my great meditative strengths, curiosity, to fuel stable awareness. It became the focus of my retreat and led to what I’m calling “intuitive body awareness.” I did quite a lot of experimentation to “keep my attention in the body,” including focusing on particular body parts, a half dozen different styles of scanning the attention throughout the body, resting the attention in the sense of the whole body, and various combinations of the above. What I came to like most was relaxing into a vibrant, whole-body awareness. I would give myself a light probe into “being sentient.” As in, rather than just sitting there passively, I held a very gentle intention to feel the aliveness of the body sensations; to feel the ever-changing tingles, pulses, vibrations, and pressures of the body. At times, especially when the mind was foggier, I would intuitively lean into one particular sensation, like feeling the pressure of the sit bones on the seat. At other times, especially when big swaths of the body weren’t being perceived / were dull or not observable, I would bring in a little movement to the attention, gently sweeping it through the arms, legs, torso, and head until I had a little more sense of the whole body. Importantly, I wouldn’t spend time thinking about “what in the body should I focus on?” I instead relaxed into the felt sense of the body and let my intuitive wisdom guide my attention within that container. It was also important to notice when I would want to pivot attention due to restlessness or frustration, as opposed to that intuitive wisdom. The practice was to just see those mindstates as nature, and not get entangled with them. This brings us back to The North Star of non-clinging awareness, where the body is ultimately just a backdrop to noticing the ways the mind creates suffering for itself — i.e. via craving, aversion, and other forms of reactivity and clinging. A big application of this was noticing even the littlest threads of resisting certain sensations, like knee pain or the cold, or grasping after other sensations, like spaciousness, clarity, or lucidity. Seeing not just the sensations, but the grasping too as just nature, and then relaxing around it & not getting entangled with it. Another advantage of the intuitive body awareness approach was that it was possible to do it every single moment of the day — from the moment of waking to the moment of sleeping. It became a fun challenge to intuitively figure out how to maintain body awareness while eating, flossing, walking, showering, doing laundry, laying in bed, practicing yoga, making breakfast, talking with the teacher, and so on. Even now as I write this, months later, feeling the body in space! Anyhow, if you’re wondering where this all leads or what’s the point, see part 1 on
Upshifting & Downshifting
As I shared earlier, there were times on the retreat when I downshifted into “troubleshooting” mode, and times when I “upshifted” into open awareness.There is a lot that could said about how and when to skillfully shift one’s method — either due to the practice not going so well, or conversely, to it going really well. Even the teachers who say “pick one method and stick with that” tend to slightly alter their instructions at the far ends of going really well and going not so well.
However, rather than get too in the weeds here, I’ll mostly say that getting this perfectly right is significantly less important than remaining with the North Star of non-clinging awareness.
In the Buddhist meditative system, mindful awareness is considered the “direct path to freedom.”The body is an excellent tool for establishing this mindful awareness, not just on retreat, but all life long. However, it’s ultimately the awareness itself that’s important, not the particular tool used to establish it. If you really commit yourself to being more and more aware, you will know intimately what it is to be free. Right now, can you feel your body in space?