The human mind has a tendency to make everything it takes up more complicated and elaborate than it needs to be. You may have noticed this. The Buddhists even have a word for it, papanca, which means something like mental proliferation.
Meditation moves us in the other direction. It is an attempt to remove, piece by piece, layer by layer, all of the baroque ornamentation with which we embellish our world of constructed experience. Underneath all the drama, the restlessness, the hopes and fears, behind the narratives we weave about ourselves, and even before we’ve thought of ourselves as ourselves, lies a simple, unadorned awareness. It’s not even a thing—just an event that happens, a little burst of knowing, deep in the center of it all.
Experiencing this awareness has more to do with subtraction than with addition or multiplication. René Descartes was on its trail in his Meditations when he imagined all the complexities of our world to be an illusion. Take away everything with which we populate the story, and what is left? Just me, thinking. The Buddha got two steps further than Descartes, beyond the “me,” and beyond the thinking: awareness occurs. Knowing as an event does not belong to anyone, nor need it be constrained by the thinking of thoughts.
This is an alien idea for many in the modern world. Because so much of our mental activity consists of thoughts, images, concepts, and words, it seems inconceivable that the mind might manifest in powerful ways devoid of thought. Yet you can feel this for yourself (so to speak), here and now. It might take some practice, and 20 minutes of letting go of one thing after another, but the simple event that is consciousness, that unadorned episode of awareness, is accessible to direct experience. Like the dimmest of stars in the night sky, it slips away if you try to pin it down. But if you learn to release hold of the clutter and pry the mind out of the grooves and channels in which it is accustomed to run, you can feel it spilling out and spreading formlessly in other directions.
One of the most basic structures of the mind taught by the Buddha is that consciousness manifests in six modes, flows through six channels, or passes through six doors (choose your preferred metaphor). Consciousness is always aware of something, and it accesses six kinds of objects by means of six different organs. The sensory organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body) and the mental organ (mind/ brain) compose an apparatus that is capable of processing information, each being sensitive to a particular type of data. The objects of experience consist of the information processed by the organs, and since there are six of them, there are six kinds of things of which we can be aware (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts).
Notice that thoughts are only one of these six strands of experience. Do we spend one-sixth of our time thinking about things and the rest of the time immersed in sensory experience? Hardly. We tend to operate in thinking mode almost exclusively, cycling through the other senses just briefly enough to provide information for the weaving of our conceptual narratives. Don’t believe me? Try practicing mindfulness of the body.
The first step in establishing mindfulness is to switch over to channel five, the stream of tactile bodily sensations, which serves to disrupt the tyranny of the thinking organ. That the attention wanders so easily and continually off the breath and into the story line demonstrates its habitual dominance. With patient and diligent practice, however, one can train oneself to be intensively aware of bodily sensations for many mind moments in a row. One “knows” the breath directly and intuitively, unmediated by concept, narration, or word.
The mind is now operating just as intensively as when we are thinking, but we are not thinking. We are being aware: not of the cognitive content of our thoughts but of the universe of microsensations that are exploding within the body every moment. Or perhaps we are intently aware of the nuances in the sound of a bird’s call, the rush of a passing car, or the cough of a person behind us in the meditation hall. Once just a data point to embellish our story, these sounds, when attended to without commentary, expand to become a vast territory encountered directly with awareness. The information provided by the senses is no longer of great interest, and serves merely as a support for something far more captivating: the quality of knowing.
Awareness itself becomes the most compelling object of awareness. This simple knowing, so peaceful, so clear, so open, seems diminished by and even wasted upon the narrow confines of mere thoughts. As the thinking about things is gradually squeezed out of the mind by filling the senses with awareness, and as each experience is allowed to flow through the point of focus without obstruction, we begin to get a glimpse of a profound simplicity. Everything is changing, everything is interdependent—and there is no one to whom any of it belongs.
This awareness is nothing special. It’s natural. In fact, it may be the most natural—the only natural—thing there is. There is no need to magnify it by saying it permeates the quantum soup of the cosmos, or to cast it beyond time by calling it primordial or eternal. That is just the proliferation talking. If anything, it feels radically embodied, excruciatingly fragile, and entirely contingent. If a tiny microbe goes awry, or some strand of genetic material gets misread, or even if you delay the in-breath by a few seconds, it can all fall apart in the blink of an eye. This, too, is just another story.
Let’s see if we can keep it simple. If we have to call it anything, let’s call it a gift, and leave it at that.
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