Awareness is fundamental to all human activity. It is the basis of all our mental states and processes, creativity, perception, knowledge and culture. Everything starts from awareness. It is the portal between consciousness and the world around us.
The more I learn about awareness, the more I realize how it pervades everything we do and that by learning to focus it, expand it or redirect it consciously, we can transform ourselves by gigantic positive leaps. It’s the key to greater inner peace, happiness and self-mastery. In fact there is no possible way one can walk on the path of self-mastery without learning to direct his awareness.
The Different Faces of Awareness
At a very basic level, you are aware of everything you do. When you walk around, prepare coffee, look for your keys, drive home, read, etc, there is always awareness going on otherwise you do not operate. However, many of these tasks happen on a subconscious level rather than on a conscious one.
When you start learning to ride a bike or drive a car, you are conscious about all your steps and movements. Once you learn the task, it starts becoming more automatic and subconscious. You are no longer conscious of every thing you do while you are driving but you are still aware at some level (obviously so, otherwise the roads would be a catastrophe everyday). This type of awareness however is not very thick and focused.
There is another level where your awareness is more focused. For example, when you are interested in something, you start paying attention to it which means that you slightly focus your awareness on the object or event.
When you concentrate on something or you are totally absorbed in the task at hand (what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called being ‘in the flow’), your awareness is focused like a laser beam on the subject, closing off all signals from the rest of the environment that might distract you. Your awareness intensifies and deepens on the subject in the present moment. There is a strong sense of aliveness in it because your heightened awareness enriches the perception of the world around you and your relationship to it.
This type of awareness, as observed from studies carried out on seasoned meditators such as Buddhist monks, is linked with a certain coherence in brain wave patterns. In our day to day mental tasks, our mind is somehow ‘fragmented’ and our thoughts point out at different directions. Our brain wave patterns are incoherent.
Individuals who have trained their mind through practices such as meditation, have the ability to consciously redirect their awareness to higher levels of consciousness and ‘defragment’ their mind to a more coherent unity. This why meditation promotes calmness, focus, improved memory and heightened awareness, amongst a long list of benefits.
The good news is that this ‘higher-level’ awareness, so to speak, can be trained and developed.
Being aware of your awareness:
The first step to developing higher awareness is being conscious of it. You need to start training yourself to be aware of your awareness. By getting in the habit of observing how it behaves you start learning to redirect your focus from subconscious awareness to conscious and more coherent forms of awareness.
In short, this means being more conscious and pro-active of your usually passive and subconscious actions, beliefs, emotions and reactions to life. This is why awareness is directly linked to self-mastery.
I invite you to try out these short but insightful mental observations. They only take a couple of minutes. They are simple and can be carried out as many times as you like, anytime, anywhere. The more you do the more you grasp the feel and movements of your awareness (don’t do these steps in one go – try them out each at a time at your leisure).
Here we go:
1. Take time to notice what it feels like to be aware. Stop for a moment to be aware of your awareness. Don’t classify it or judge it, just notice it. How does it feel?
2. Now find any object (could be your own body or feelings) and be aware of it for more than 30 seconds without distraction. Is it any different from being aware for just a fleeting moment? Does your awareness solidify with time?
3. Are you at all aware of your internal sensations? Try to be aware of your current state of mind – is it relaxation, boredom, curiosity, impatience? What about your feelings? Your energy levels? Is your awareness more inclined towards internal or external stimuli?
4. How about your awareness of the present moment? The awareness of external and internal sensations that unfold moment by moment in the present. Can your awareness hold on to your present ongoing sensations without drifting off in thought or imagination in the past or future?
5. When you observe your environment, does your awareness shift from one object to the next hastily and erratically? Or is it more gentle and observant of each item? Try to move your awareness from one thing to the next and speed it up then slow it down. How does the difference feel?
6. Try also noticing the difference between expanding and narrowing your awareness of your environment. I find it easy to do this on my body before meditation. I focus my awareness on just my breathing first. Then after some time I expand it outwards to include the other bodily sensations such as my hand, feet, head, etc. I also expand it towards my internal feelings and states of mind then narrow it down step by step to my breathing again.
7. Another thing I do when doing mindfulness meditation is shifting my awareness across sensory modalities. From seeing to hearing to touching to tasting (not always), to smelling, and ultimately internal sensations. This and the previous exercise are the most useful steps in developing and expanding your awareness.
When you start getting closer in touch with how your awareness behaves and affects your everyday tasks, you also start to understand how to give it more space to grow. You start finding it easier to consciously direct it, focus it or expand it. This can have big positive effects that you start slowly observing in yourself day after day.
You become more focused when you do something or you start becoming more aware of things you don’t usually do. Your mind becomes more open to ideas and feelings. You become more in tune with yourself and your environment.You also communicate better because you become more sensitive to the subtle messages in other people’s behaviour. And ultimately you also start feeling expanding as a spiritual being because your consciousness is expanding. Awareness is the food of consciousness. So the more you enrich and open up your awareness, the bigger the natural growth of your consciousness.
In part 2 I’ll be writing about the relationship between awareness and emotional balance and also about how to develop awareness through meditation.