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Chapter 4 of Resting in the Waves

Fluidity of Awareness

Chapters on line: Description and Table of Contents / Introduction: Welcoming Fluidity / Chapter 4: Fluidity of Awareness

[The items in brackets are inquiries you can try out.]

Buddhist meditation is about awareness.[1]

What if awareness is a primary property of the universe? A more common assumption is that awareness is secondary. We live in a materialistic culture that sees physical stuff as fundamental and awareness as a by-product of sense organs, neural networks, and brains. When the body shuts down, we assume awareness disappears.

We haven’t always thought this way in the West. To the medieval church, for example, the unseen realms were more important than the physical world. Heaven and hell, angels and demons, God and the devil were more significant. They were the puppet masters and we humans were their marionettes on strings.

Modern science turned this on its head, concerning itself only with what we can verify empirically. Arguably, science has done more to relieve suffering than any other human endeavor: Infant mortality rates dropped, life expectancy rose, diseases were cured, food production increased, and technology made life cushier with everything from airplanes to cellphones to hearing aids to artificial hearts.

Scientific materialism is so pervasive today that we assume that the tangible stuff we can see must be more real than the invisible awareness that does the perceiving.

What if that assumption is wrong? What if awareness does not arise out of our bodies? What if it preexists?

The Buddha did not take a stance on this. That was not his style. He advocated a middle way that sees reality as more nuance, without taking a stance on which is more real.

But as a practical matter, he proceeded as if awareness is primary. He was not interested in philosophical or metaphysical discourse. He was interested in direct experience — in exploring phenomena without intellectual bias. He was a phenomenologist whose spiritual practices tacitly asserted the importance of pure awareness. If we can see our actual experience accurately without distortion, that is enough to liberate us from suffering. He promoted direct, unmitigated, clear awareness as the bedrock of spiritual practice.


Unborn Awareness

Today, a growing collection of data suggests that awareness may not require physical bodies at all. Perhaps our bodies pick up, amplify, and distort awareness, but they don’t create it any more than the lungs create the air we breathe or the eyes create the light we see. Awareness might be inherent in the universe itself.

The Buddha referred to this as “unborn awareness.” Awareness is not born, manufactured, or created. It has always existed. It can’t be born because it’s already here. And it can’t die.

This is a working hypothesis I’d like to explore. I would not ask anyone to accept this blindly; the world has enough dogmas and theoretical stances already. But if awareness is more fundamental than neurology, this has practical implications for how we engage spiritual practice and life. Knowing these implications is helpful whether or not this working hypothesis is true.

We’ll get to the implications in a few chapters. But first we need more context. To provide this, first we’ll look at “born awareness.” We’ve already explored our multiple selves and how our biology magnifies and distorts awareness by placing an emotional charge on threats, enticements, or confusion to highlight and draw our attention to them (pp. 46–49). In this chapter we’ll look more deeply at the most persistent distortion: the notion of a separate, independent self. The Buddhist story of Bahiya of the Bark Cloth offers insights into what he meant by selflessness — the lack of an autonomous self-essence.

Next, we’ll explore awareness without distortions. Over the past fifty years scientists have scrutinized the reports of people who were brain-dead for a short time and then resuscitated. These reports are relevant, provocative, and inspiring.

Finally, we’ll look at the spectrum of awareness that runs from highly distorted awareness, to clarity, to the fading of awareness into nibbana.

After exploring these topics, we’ll be in a better position to reflect on the implications that fluid, unborn awareness has for spiritual practice and deep living.


True Self?

Perhaps the most pervasive source of tension is the sense of a separate, independent self. Have you ever tried to find your true, authentic self? We assume it must be inside us, but we rarely actually look for it.

One way to do this is to close your eyes, take a deep breath, relax, and look for an experience of “self” within moment-to-moment awareness. Perhaps you notice sounds, but those aren’t the self. We naturally deduce that a self must be there somewhere to do the hearing. But all that’s actually there is sounds and hearing.

Similarly, we can experience touch sensations, but we can’t touch a self that is separate from the sensations. We reason it’s there to feel the hardness or softness, warmth or cold. But touch sensations are tangible, while the self is not (see Majjhima Nikaya 148).

Contemporary psychologists have studied these sensations in depth. In the middle of the twentieth century, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget broke new ground while studying the development of intelligence in children. He recognized that we are not born with a sense of self or even an understanding of separate objects, but that, instead, these are learned.

Piaget carefully observed his three young children. For example, he held a brightly colored ball in front of his infant son. His son looked at the toy and reached out. Then Piaget covered the ball with a blanket. It was within the child’s reach, but temporarily hidden. His son turned away as if the ball didn’t exist. Out of sight was literally out of mind.

Piaget found that children younger than eight months were “perceptually seduced.” It takes a while to develop “object constancy” — the cognitive ability to know something exists when it is not in immediate awareness. Without object constancy there can be no self-constancy — no sense of a self as an object in the world.

Piaget discovered that intelligence (the capacity to process and make sense out of our experience) begins at the point of contact between an organism and the environment. Those sensations are all that we know directly. From them we deduce what is “out there” causing the sensations and what is “in here” perceiving them. “Self” and “other” are logical deductions, not direct experiences.[2]

[Close your eyes and look for the flow of actual awareness. See if you can see how there are only phenomena. Can you see self and world as logical deductions, but not tangible experiences?]


Bahiya of the Bark Cloth

One of my favorite Buddhist teachings about self revolves around a character named Bahiya of the Bark Cloth (found in Udana 1.10).

The moniker “Bark Cloth” suggests Bahiya was a follower of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Brihadaranyaka literally means “the great forest.” Followers of this Vedic scripture revered trees: They communed with them, wore them as clothing, and so on. Wearing bark may make Bahiya seem like an eccentric kook to us, but he was actually a well-respected teacher with a large following.

The central practice in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad was searching for the true, higher self or atman. Bahiya had pursued this practice unsuccessfully for years.

The Buddha recognized Bahiya as a sincere yogi searching for an inner self he could not find. So the Buddha said, “Bahiya, in seeing there is only seeing.” In other words, Bahiya could experience seeing, but couldn’t experience a self that is seeing because it does not exist.

The Buddha made a distinction between the relative world and absolute reality. In the relative world of social conventions, of course we have a self and want to behave wisely, take responsibility for our actions, and so forth. But in absolute reality, there is no atman, no higher self, no soul essence, no separate self of any kind. In direct experience there is only the flow of phenomena.

To drive this point home, the Buddha continued, “In hearing, there is only hearing. In touching there is only touching. In smelling there is only smelling. In tasting there is only tasting.”

It’s difficult to translate the Buddha’s words accurately and gracefully into English because, as noted in chapter 2. English has a higher percentage of nouns than most languages, while Pali has a higher percentage of verbs.

The Buddha is saying that selfing arises out of many, many processes in the web of life (or, more accurately, “webbing of living”), and that these processes interact lawfully through causing and conditioning — or we might say, processing within processing. But there are no independent objects. There is sensory experiencing, but no self doing the experiencing. There is thinking, but no self thinking the thoughts. There is selfing, but no self doing the selfing. There is just interacting flux and flow.

He concludes, “Knowing this fully is the ending of suffering.”

Suddenly, Bahiya got it! He had been unable to find his absolute, higher self because it was not there to be found. And he knew this not as just a philosophical talking point. He knew from years of searching unsuccessfully to find it.

In that moment, Bahiya woke up. He became fully enlightened.

In the next moment, a bull gored Bahiya as it ran by and Bahiya died.

The Buddha said Bahiya died liberated. He had completed his search by realizing, with direct unborn awareness, how life was.

[What if self is a by-product of experience rather than experience being a by-product of self? What if self is only a practical tool and not an absolute reality? A moment in time that fades into eternity? When you relax into any experience, does it lose its solidity?]


Near-Death Experience

Bahiya awoke a few moments before he died — that is, he became enlightened just before his body failed. Some people wake up after they die. Perhaps, as our bodies and neurology shut down and only unborn awareness remains, it is easier to see life without the biases of emotion and conditioning. It is easier to wake up partially or entirely.

This may sound like pure speculation. But there is a growing body of empirical evidence that points in this direction.

One type of evidence is so-called near-death experience. “Near death” is a misnomer because many of these experiences are not close to death. They are death. Science describes death as the absence of respiration, heartbeat, and brain function: the lungs stop, the heart stops, and the brain shuts down, leaving a flat EEG.

When these three processes quit, the body dies but does not instantly disintegrate. It takes a while for tissue to break down. Under ideal conditions, a person can be dead for as long as a half hour and still be revived without residual damage. Such situations involve a nearby medical facility that can lower the body temperature and artificially keep blood oxygenated and moving until organs are repaired and everything is restarted.

A significant number of people who die and are resuscitated have memories of the time they were dead. Sometimes they report events taking place in their immediate vicinity, like conversations doctors and nurses where having in the operating room when they were dead. Sometimes patients recount events farther away, like what loved ones were doing in the next room or across town.

Science currently cannot account for how a person can remember events that occurred while they were brain-dead. Yet the accuracy of many of these memories has been verified for people of all different ages, religions, education levels, races, socioeconomic positions, and more.

Over the last forty years, hundreds of researchers have scrutinized these reports. Many conventional explanations have been proposed, including oxygen deficiency, seizure, carbon dioxide buildup, endorphins, psychedelics, brain cell disinhibition, hallucinations, dissociation, wishful thinking, personality disorder, dreams, birth memory, medication, deceit, psychosis, hypnotic induction, and religious conviction. All these possibilities have been studied and discredited. [3]

The emerging consensus is that awareness can exist without a living body.

People who die, get resuscitated, and remember being dead usually emerge changed. They have more depth, less fear, greater clarity, more compassion, broader equanimity, brighter energy, opened hearts, natural generosity, and a deep sense of social justice. They have taken a long step down the road to enlightenment.

This suggests that if we want to wake up, one strategy is to die — which is obviously not what I’m advocating. The problem with “death as a spiritual practice” is that the vast majority of people who die stay dead. There is a whole spectrum of approaches to metaphorical rebirth that have a better track record than literal death. To get some perspective on these, let’s look at the spectrum of awareness itself.


Spectrum of Awareness

Distorted awareness, a sense of self, unborn awareness, and beyond can be thought of as a spectrum from coarse to subtle types of awareness. They are not separate and distinct but instead relate to one another fluidly, as shown in the table on the next page.

Let’s step back and look at this entire spectrum. Knowing where we are in it can be interesting. But knowing how different types of awareness flow from one to another can deepen our lives and heighten our well-being. So we’ll look at the various forms of awareness with an emphasis on what helps each one transition into its neighbor. We’ll explore the differences between content, process, qualities, and more. And we’ll examine what facilitates the natural flow between them.

From Content to Process

The coarse end of the spectrum is dominated by the content of awareness without recognition of awareness itself. One of the complaints of meditators is the difficulty of stopping thoughts and stories from traipsing through the mind. If we believe we are supposed to be in charge of the mind, then these bands of wandering stories and marauding ideas are unwelcome invaders.

On the other hand, if we don’t identify with them, seeing them as no more than a passing parade, they aren’t a problem. They are just phenomena. We shift attention from “What?” to “How?“ — from “What is going on?” to “How do these thoughts arise?” We shift attention from the contents of the mind to the processes active in it. Rather than getting entangled in the plot line, we start to notice that the mind is thinking, worrying, explaining, complaining, bragging, dialoguing, berating, or whatever.

As we notice the activity in the mind, the content may fade into the background. Processes are subtler. As we notice them, awareness gets clearer and less encumbered.

At the same time, tension (tanha) in the body, mind, and emotions subsides. So another way to move up the spectrum is to relax tension. The “Six Rs” is a technique that softens tightness wisely by Recognizing what’s in the mind, Releasing it or just letting it be, Relaxing any tension, Re-Smiling or bringing up uplifted qualities, Returning to our home practice, and Repeating these six as often as needed. In the next chapter (pp. 89–92) we’ll look more closely at meditation practice and explore this technique in detail.

[When the content of the mind predominates, relax and notice the process generating the content: reflecting, describing, arguing, etc.]

From Process to Quality

As we notice the activities in the mind, we may start to notice the qualities of awareness behind the actions. The easiest qualities to notice may be tension and ease. It’s helpful to watch for them. As we see them, they may differentiate into more nuanced qualities.

Tense qualities are traditionally called “unwholesome.” They are tight, or tend to generate tension. They come in many varieties: fear, anger, worry, mental thickness, agitation, liking, disliking, dullness, and so on. They feel sticky.

Relaxed qualities are traditionally called “wholesome.” They have little tension or move in the direction of relaxation: openness, kindness, compassion, generosity, joy, peacefulness, ease, and so on. They don’t feel sticky.

As we continue to relax and open awareness, the unwholesome qualities recede and the wholesome qualities become more apparent. It’s tempting to identify with the qualities. They seem so personal that we may fashion a self out of them. But we didn’t create unwholesome or wholesome qualities. They just appeared when the conditions were right. So it helps to see them objectively as “anger” rather than “my anger,” “fretfulness” rather than “my fretfulness,” “longing” rather than “my longing,” “peacefulness” rather than “my peace,” or “joy” rather than “my joy.”

As we notice the qualities, the processes may fade into the background. Seeing qualities and moods impersonally is the beginning of selflessness (anatta) or seeing the impersonal nature of experience.

[When you are aware of the processes in the mind, relax into them and notice the qualities of awareness: tension, ease, thickness, flightiness, speed, sluggishness, etc.]

From Quality to Awareness of Awareness

As attention moves from content to processes to qualities, the object of awareness — what we are attending to — gets subtler and more refined. If it keeps moving in this direction, all objects begin to fade into the background or disappear. We could call this “pure awareness,” because it is awareness without anything in it. Without an object, awareness turns back on itself: awareness of awareness. It’s hard to describe because language is too coarse.

It’s as if we’re walking through a large field. There’s such a cacophony of life to observe that, at first, it helps to focus attention by noting: “oak tree,” “butterfly,” “flower,” “grass,” “ladybug,” “blue jay,” etc. As we relax, seeing, hearing, and feeling become more nuanced. The labels that helped steady attention become unnecessary — even distracting. So the naming fades into the distance. There is an easy stream of phenomena without commentary. The observed and the observer (us) merge into an unnameable flow of suchness. This is a taste of pure awareness of awareness.

[When you are aware of the qualities of awareness, relax into them and be aware of awareness itself.]

While it’s possible to describe awareness of awareness poetically, it’s not easy to recognize experientially. We’ve been bred not to notice it.

From the perspective of evolutionary survival of the fittest, the function of awareness is knowing the external world — recognizing threats to avoid and opportunities that help us thrive and reproduce. In a rough-and-tumble environment, the more alert we are to our surroundings, the more likely we’ll pass our DNA along to the next generation. Awareness of awareness itself is mostly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, since pure awareness is a silent partner supporting all awareness, it still lies within us. We retain the capacity to discover it. It undergirds all wholesome mind qualities. The Buddha found that it is quite healing: it is wise, soothing, uplifting, and clarifying. He designed practices that point toward this fluid, infinite presence.

While there are many practices that can help us become more aware of awareness, many meditators aren’t familiar with them. So, to give a feel for what they can do, let’s go into how two of them work: absence of thought and micro-gaps.

Absence of Thought

When pure awareness first became noticeable in my meditation, I did not find it inspiring or uplifting. I found it confusing and befuddling. I didn’t know what was going on.

At that time I had been meditating several times a day for twenty-five years. Yet I still quietly believed that “good” meditation should be free of thought. Nevertheless, no matter how I practiced, the mind kept chatting, gurgling, whispering, sputtering, yelling, and otherwise spinning out stories, concepts, and ideas. I couldn’t make it stop.

Finally, I capitulated — I resigned myself to never being an adequate yogi. I adopted what years later I learned was an old Tibetan practice. But at the time, I wasn’t guided by Buddhist teachings, Tibetan or otherwise. I was guided by a growing desperation and sense of futility. Thoughts were the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Since I couldn’t win, I decided I might as well learn more about my adversary. Rather than trying to stop the thoughts, I observed them to see what I could learn. Rather than pushing them aside, ignoring them, or trying to relax them into oblivion, I’d just be with them. I wanted to know what thoughts were — not their content but their substance. What was the essence of thoughts? How did they start? Where did they come from? How did they arise?

I retreated to quietly observe, like a naturalist hiding in a tree with binoculars and a notepad. And when I did …

… nothing happened …

For the first time in my life, there were no thoughts. They disappeared. I sat looking at a blank inner landscape. I waited for thoughts to poke up their heads. They didn’t.

Gradually, my mind dulled. Immediately, the countryside was populated with stories and commentaries running all over the place. But I never saw them arrive.

I brought clearer awareness to the menagerie. They disappeared. It was like playing whack-a-mole, but rather than whacking furry critters, I was trying to see thoughts and where they came from. But when I looked closely, they vanished.

I spent two years at it. Every time I relaxed and opened up, the thoughts hid under rocks. When my attention dulled or tightened a little, mental images, songs, and paragraphs popped up. The irony of this was not lost on me; when I wanted to be rid of thoughts, they appeared; when I welcomed them, they disappeared.

Finally I got it: The thoughts were triggered by subtle tension. Without tightness, mental processing stopped. The core of all thinking — the ingredient without which it could not exist — was gross or subtle holding, tightness, or thickening of awareness. The Buddhist term for this was tanha. The Buddha’s second meditation instruction (the so-called Second Noble Truth) was “Tanha is to be abandoned.” When I abandoned tension (i.e., relaxed), thinking disappeared and there was nothing left but awareness itself. Without something to grab hold of, awareness turned back on itself: awareness of awareness.

I had not gotten the full benefit of this because I had been quietly convinced that I was doing something wrong.

Yet, even somewhat pure awareness is soothing. It soaked into my practice over those two years. I lost interest in evaluating my progress as I enjoyed the emerging peacefulness.

As the mind settles and moves up the spectrum of awareness from content to processes to qualities, we needn’t be surprised if moments of pure awareness emerge spontaneously. This knowingness is always present within coarser experience. It has no ax to grind, no agenda to promote, no inclination to jump up and down or draw attention to itself. As we relax, the activity in the mind dissipates, leaving behind only awareness. We can’t find pure awareness by trying to find it. Yet it can emerge at any moment. It may be much simpler than we suspect. It doesn’t seem holy or esoteric. It seems ordinary. It feels beginningless and endless. It is Lao Tzu’s untranslatable Tao. (“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.”) It is unborn awareness. It is presence without a self. It is everything and nothing, transcendent and mundane. It is unpresumptuous. It is empty of itself but can hold anything. It may feel both still and alive.

[Gently turn awareness toward thinking— not the content of thoughts or the thinking process but the qualities of thinking itself. Do you notice any tension? If so, invite it to relax. See what happens.]


Another way pure awareness of awareness arises is through noticing gaps in awareness. We usually think of awareness as an ever-changing stream of phenomena. But in reality, there are breaks when the flow is interrupted.

The most dramatic of these is dreamless sleep. We slumber unconsciously for as much as a third of each day. During these times, there is no awareness and nothing with which to identify. Without identification, there is no self. It’s a mini-death: What we know ourselves to be vanishes. And it’s perfectly safe. We do it every day.

There are other, more frequent micro-gaps in which thoughts disappear but awareness itself remains without content. For example, when we sneeze, thoughts, stories, and all the rest stop for a second. The next moment, they start up again. Without content or even discernible qualities, the mind has nothing to hold on to. So it barely notices the gap. It picks up where it left off without recognizing the break.

Yawning may also create a split-second break. Being startled can also do this. Something comes into awareness that is so novel that mental processing quits for a moment. Awareness is wide open, but there’s no content or story, no processing, and no qualities. Then the processing starts up again: “What was that?”

Even more to the point are times when there are no distractions — no sneeze, no yawn, no startle — but content vanishes for a microsecond.

We blink an average of fifteen to twenty times a minute — more often than needed to keep the eyes moist. All totaled, our eyes are closed roughly 10 percent of our waking hours. Normally we don’t notice it. But now that I’ve pointed it out, you may notice blinking for the next few minutes.

There are analogous gaps in our thinking. A thought arises, morphs, and fades. There is a microsecond — maybe less than a hundredth of a second — of pure, undistorted, empty awareness. Then the next thought arises.

As noted earlier, from the perspective of evolutionary selection, there is no advantage in noticing these gaps. So the mind stitches the end of the last thought to the beginning of the next without recognizing it jumped.

Micro-gaps are difficult to see only because it doesn’t occur to us to watch for them. But just as we can become aware of eyeblinks, we can cultivate an awareness of thought-blinks.

To do this, we don’t try to see the gaps — the effort of trying creates tension and distortion that encourages the mind to attend to the contents and processes rather than to the empty spaces. Rather than going into doing mode, we relax into receiving mode, which notices blank spots without trying to do anything with them.

For example, we can stop, close our eyes, relax, and notice thoughts arise and pass without trying to control them. If we do this with the lightest of effort, we may observe those tiny gaps between the cessation of one thought and the beginning of the next. It’s a tiny moment of release. It’s pleasant. And it’s over so quickly that we usually ignore or dismiss it. But if we are open to receiving it, these gaps may bring a hint of a smile. Then they’re gone. But sometimes the touch of well-being lingers.

[Be receptive to micro-gaps. Notice if there is a tiny gap between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next. Don’t search hard for it — you’ll scare it away. But be gently receptive to noticing any tiny breaks in awareness.]

As we notice these micro-gaps, the mind learns to stop skipping over them so quickly. Those little fragments of well-being filter into conscious awareness. In our daily life when nothing is demanding our attention, we may even notice them as we walk around.

From Awareness of Awareness to Fading of Awareness

If we relax deeply enough, awareness starts to fade. It becomes dreamlike: We may wonder if we’re asleep or awake or both. We seem to be noticing something, but we aren’t sure what. In the text it’s called “neither perception nor non-perception.” We aren’t fully perceiving. But we aren’t exactly not perceiving either.

Perceiving requires a little tension — enough to identify what we are aware of. Memory also requires a little tension — enough to push the perception into memory banks. If, rather than tightening up to see what’s going on, we just relax, then awareness may shut down completely. We stop perceiving and forming memories. I call this “winking out.” We aren’t aware of winking out at the time because there is no awareness.

When memory and perception come back on line, there is a blank spot in memory. We don’t know what was going on a few moments before. It’s as if we had nodded off. However, when we wake from sleep, the mind is usually fuzzy or groggy, whereas in this case, the mind is completely clear and lucid.

In the text, this winking out is called cessation (nirodha) — the cessation of perception, feeling, and consciousness.

[If you’re aware of awareness, relax the awareness itself.]

From Fading Awareness to Nibbana

If we wink out deeply enough, then when awareness returns, the mind is not only clear and lucid, it is luminous. Everything is fresh and different. We’re so energized that we may not sleep for a few days. And the sense of self is gone. We see the interrelatedness of life as primary and the idea of a separate self as a convenient social convention, but nothing more.

These are the markers of nibbana. Nibbana is not an experience because there is no awareness. We recognize it only by the aftereffects: clarity, energy, and loss of a sense of a separate self.

We don’t stay in nibbana forever.

There is a story about the Tibetan saint Milarepa, who was traveling with a student. They stopped by the road to eat, laid out food, and closed their eyes to meditate for a few minutes before their meal.

When Milarepa opened his eyes, his student looked thin, tired, and bewildered. The food was dried up and mostly eaten by insects. Apparently Milarepa had been in nibbana for a week, but hadn’t noticed.

In nibbana there is no experience. We don’t even feel the passing of time. It is rare to be in nibbana for long. Tension comes up and pulls us out. Unless we are a buddha or a Tibetan saint, it’s unlikely that awareness will be off line for a long stretch. When awareness reemerges, it’s helpful to gently look inside, see what pulled us back, and release it.

In the spectrum of awareness, we have gone up into nibbana and come back down into the “Fading of Awareness.” However, on the return trip, it might be called “Emerging Awareness.” There had been no awareness, and now there is. As before, it feels timeless and empty.

We can see why the Buddha called it “unborn awareness.” We didn’t create it or conjure it up. It seems to have been there — we just hadn’t noticed it for a while. “Unborn” is not a metaphysical declaration but a phenomenological description. The Buddha was interested in describing experience as accurately as possible. “Unborn” is a good fit.


Jhanas and the Spectrum of Awareness

The Buddha talked about many styles of meditation. However, in the Theravada Buddhist text, the most common style by far is described in a series of jhanas. Jhanas are stages of consciousness that unfold in a specific manor.

Not coincidentally, the spectrum of awareness and the series of jhanas parallel and overlap. The spectrum is more detailed in the beginning stages while the jhanas are more nuanced in the subtle end of the spectrum.

If you are familiar with the jhanas, your familiarity may help you understand the spectrum. If you are unfamiliar with the jhanas or have difficulty getting into them, the spectrum may help guide your practice. The greatest challenge many meditators have with the jhanas is initially engaging them. The jhanas start with wholesome qualities — pretty far up on the spectrum. Engaging the early stages of the spectrum may offer an easier way to move into the jhanas.

In previous books, I’ve gone into great detail about the jhanas, what they are, and how to cultivate them. I won’t repeat that material here. But it may help to quickly review parallels between the jhanas and the subtle aspects of the spectrum of awareness.

The Buddha’s map of the jhanas can be viewed as a systematic way of using micro-gaps as a tool for awakening.

The first jhana is a brief, spontaneously arising joy or feeling of well-being that corresponds to the uplifted qualities in the spectrum. As our meditation deepens, these moments may appear without warning. A tiny upwelling of joy may cause us to smile quietly. This joy may have been triggered by a micro-gap that was too quick to be noticed consciously, but hung around long enough to create a moment of relief.

As we relax into that joy, it settles into happiness (the second jhana); equanimity (the third jhana); and deeper equanimity, in which body sensations fade into the background (the fourth jhana).

As we relax into that peacefulness, the mind can feel quietly spacious (the fifth jhana). As we spread out into the sense of limitlessness, we may notice periods where awareness is much stiller for a moment (the sixth jhana). Awareness often will skip over that stillness. But if we let awareness go into the gap, the flow of awareness stops coalescing into a series of objects. There are no discrete things (the seventh jhana). These are nuances of awareness of awareness.

As noted earlier, as we relax more deeply, awareness starts to break up into a dreamlike state that is neither perceiving nor non-perceiving (the eighth jhana and fading of awareness). The eighth jhana in turn fades into nirodha and nibbana and non-awareness.

We can imagine moving gently through these jhanas or through this spectrum from the content of awareness up into nibbana and back down. But in the real world, we rarely move smoothly up or down this road. We shift back and forth, leap from one place to another, or remain in several places at once. Resting in the waves means being open to all of it. It means welcoming the natural fluidity of experience.

We’ll look at some of the practical ways to do this in the next few chapters.

[Notice the fluidity of awareness. The body is always in flux (no two breaths are the same). The mind is always in flux (no two moments are the same). The qualities of the mind are always in flux (they never remain static). Awareness of awareness is fluid and always shifting.]




[1] Consciousness is about interpretation of what’s in awareness: labeling and cataloging our experience. But Buddhist practice is grounded in raw, uninterpreted awareness.

[2] To see how modern neuropsychology has clarified the physiological mechanisms that underlie these deductions, refer back to footnote 1 of chapter 1 of the printed version.

[3] For an overview of these theories see David O. Weibers, Theory of Reality (2012).

Copyright 2020 by Doug Kraft

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