Sharda Rogell
Sharda Rogell

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Wednesday, October 13, 2021
Exploring Awareness and the Way It Leads Towards the Good
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This is an edited version of the Zoom talk I gave for the Wednesday Night Sitting Group on October 13, 2021 in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
 
       How was your day? Anyone on an emotional roller coaster today? Well, if that’s the case I want to assure you that it doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture. All that matters was how conscious you were of your experience as it was unfolding and hopefully not giving yourself a hard time about it. One of my favorite adages from my early days of practice is, Every moment is no more or less important than any other moment. Every moment is an opportunity for discovery. When we are aware, it’s possible to notice if there is any self-sabatoging behavior going on because if so, this needs to be seen and removed if we have the tools to do so. It’s so easy to get down on ourselves, therefore it’s important to remember that acceptance is the first step on the road of discovery. Otherwise, we will be blocked every inch along the way.
 
Tonight I want to explore more fully this concept of mindfulness, and how it pairs with the idea of “being in the present moment”, because I’ve seen again and again if this isn’t understood it can be a trap for us.
 
In my early years of practice during the 80’s, I spent many weeks and months in silent insight meditation retreats and what I understand now as I look back on those times is that they were really concentration retreats and that wasn’t made explicit. I got the sense that practice involved a very focused, specific kind of mindfulness. We were encouraged to make a note of every mind moment: breathing in, breathing out, lifting, moving, placing the foot, tasting, chewing, swallowing, restless mind, quiet mind, that sort of thing. (The practices were influenced by the Burmese Sayadaws.) And since there was little talk of integrating into daily life in those days, it was unclear to me how anyone could sustain this. So it was confusing to me for a long time. Adding to the confusion was seeing that the cognitive mind lags behind awareness so we can only note very little of what is actually happening anyhow. It was obvious that the noting had to be let go of at some point and the understanding of what mindfulness was needed to be explored more.
 
Later on, it became clearer to me that the Buddha taught a mindfulness that was also expansive. In Pali texts, the term sati sampajanna is used frequently. Sati means mindfulness, and sampajanna means clear comprehension. Here we are encouraged to have a broad view and to know the fullness of our experience, not necessarily be focused on a particular mind moment. For example, in one text, the Buddha teaches mindfulness in all four postures — sitting, walking, standing and lying down and sensing the full embodied experience of each one.
 
Particularly in the Thai tradition of Ajahn Cha that Jack Kornfield practiced in, there is encouragement for being aware of a more broad, relaxed and wider context of our experience. I remember when Sharon Salzberg gave an example in one of her dharma talks about mindfulness being like a camera lens that has both a zoom as well as a wide angle lens. After that, I felt my awareness began to have more range, literally.
 
Some practitioners get trapped in a narrow view of what mindfulness is which limits their practice. In the early 90’s, many of us started to practice Dzogchen with Tibetan masters, which is a practice of recognizing awareness as vast as the sky, often gazing at the sky itself. This began to break the habit of a narrow attention and brought in more relaxation and spaciousness in my daily life as well.
 
As we start to open up, we find that there are many layers to our experience — vertical and horizontal; up and down and to both sides, and all around — 360 degrees. And yet, the way we perceive is conditioned. It’s a habit. So like any habit, we need to break it, break up the way we are perceiving and viewing things so that our experience begins to expand and include more dimensions of our experience. 
 
I recently heard this quote: If I’m only mindful of what is, I’ll get more of what is. It’s another way of thinking about the habits of our perception because the way I see and what I see can be a habit. For example, I might love coffee but have I really taken the time to taste it and feel the pleasure it brings, or when I, as a white person interact with people from another ethnicity, what's happening in my experience?
 
Curiosity is the key here. Without it, I think our life would be very dull. Without curiosity, we are just operating within the known. It’s like being in a room in a house and thinking that’s all there is. If that’s all there is then we might get interested in the furniture, in the decor, and in order to not get bored, we just keep rearranging what’s in the room.
 
And then one day to our amazement, we discover another door and we get very curious about what’s on the other side, maybe with some trepidation at first. And as I open the door and walk through, all of of a sudden, my house is bigger. And then to my delight, one room leads to another and lo and behold, I discover I am living in a PALACE! 
 
That’s how it feels as we start to expand our awareness. And what’s amazing about this palace is that it contains everything — every experience that we have ever had. And not only our own, but accumulations from previous generations, as well. Our entire past is here and if we are interested, there is a great deal to discover!
 
In Tibetan Buddhism, they call this the alaya-vijnana, or the storehouse consciousness. It’s the data bank of all our memories. So that means that all of our conditioned patterns over a million years of evolution are stored here. And this patterning gives us a sense of a continuous self. With this stored data, we can retrieve our memories and say, “This happened to ME, over time,” and we can string a sense of self together. Usually that self is felt as separate from other selves because that’s how we perceive our experience. In fact, the alaya consciousness is what filters our perception in this way because we are still looking in the same habitual way. We are patterned to see ourselves as separate until that begins to shift. And when our patterning shifts, our consciousness shifts.
 
A Greek philosopher named Heraclitus famously said,  “One can never step in the same river twice.”  Why is that? Because every moment is a unique moment. In fact, we can begin to sense our experience as a flow, or even as morphing from one thing to another, not continuous in the ultimate sense. The past is gone and the future hasn’t arrived. There is only what is happening now.
 
As we expand our understanding of awareness, it’s possible to shift the way we perceive and this is necessary because it is only awareness that will get us out of that small room of our own minds.
 
This can happen because awareness itself has different qualities; it’s not static. It’s dynamic, awake. It does have the quality of stillness but even that stillness is dynamic. We can know this for ourselves if we are curious about it. I will go through five qualities of awareness and I invite you to see if you can feel into each one as I share them.
 
The first quality is Stillness. It’s the stillness that allows us to see anything at all and allows for the clarity in our perception. A good example that points to this is from Ajahn ​Cha’s teaching on the still forest pool. Without the stillness, we wouldn’t be able to see because there would be too much movement. Something has to be still enough to be able to see everything that’s changing. 
 
Ajahn Cha says: Try to be mindful. And let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings – like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool – and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.
 
The second quality is brightness, or clarity, or light. It’s what illuminates any thing. When we take awareness as our subject in our meditation, like when we do a sky-gazing practice, we can sense the brightness, or the light in our consciousness. We might sense it as clear or translucent light. When we actually give our attention to an external or internal object, the brightness of awareness allows for us to see or know it’s there, like when we shine a light in a dark closet. And we even learn a name for it. This is perception.
 
The third quality of awareness is curiosity or interest. This quality is what connects and sustains awareness to its object, wanting to know it intimately. Without this, we are just in the same old room and not so interested to discover something new. 
 
Take anything we give our attention to. If we are aware and there is interest in the object, we become curious. This quality can be felt as persistence, or devotion, or love. As we stay with something, we begin to be drawn into it. It can feel like immersing ourselves in a warm bath. And there can be a sense of wonder and awe with the whole process. We feel joy and delight to have the capacity for this kind of connection. This is what it’s like when we are so intimately connected with a a person, or an animal, or nature. This is what happens for children in their innocence.
 
What is it for you? I’m thinking of my Canadian friends, Chris and Dana who have been taking time to go camping near the lakes to be close to the birds and the immense joy this has brought for them. For me, I’m a little different — the study of the mind is what I love. It’s good to notice what brings this energy, this life, this joy for you and allow yourself to move towards it more and more.
 
Here is a quote from Sayadaw U Tejaneya that speaks to the way curiosity supports the expansion of our awareness.
 
Most yogis watch the breath only to calm the mind down. As a result, they may watch the breath for years, yet not know much about it. It's because the mind is not interested. It just wants to calm down. In practicing vipassana, the motivation is very different: the mind wants to understand. It wants to understand what is happening, and if it wants  to understand, it can understand.
 
The fourth quality is discerning wisdom and this develops and gets stronger over time with practice. When we speak of wisdom in this case, we are pointing to its capacity to be discerning. In the Buddha’s teachings, it is knowing what leads towards what’s good and towards what’s skilfull and what doesn’t; or, what leads us towards happiness and what doesn’t. This is foundational to the entire path of practice which is why we need to strengthen our capacity for awareness. 
 
When we explore wisdom in this way, we understand that it is associated with mind and the body. We can feel an emotional resonance in the heart, perhaps — a resonance for goodness, for what’s ethically moral and right. And we can feel this resonance in our belly, as well. As wisdom deepens and becomes stronger through experience, it becomes our faithful guide, leading us towards wise and skilfull actions more and more of the time.
 
The last quality of awareness is compassion. Awareness is compassionate because along with wisdom it leans towards actions that support non-suffering, actions that relieve suffering for ourselves and others and for the world. Wisdom takes away everything that obscures our capacity for compassionate action and allows for the heart to expand. When you think about it, where else would compassion flow from. 
 
As our awareness deepens and strengthens, we feel ourselves deepening and strengthening. We feel ourselves being these qualities.
 
      1. Bright, alert, alive
      2. Devoted to the path, or truth, or wisdom
      3. More childlike, filled with wonder and awe
      4. More curiosity, joyful, even playful
      5. Energetic
      6. Wiser
      7. We feel more goodness because our choices are for the good
      8. Compassionate — we care about ourselves and about the welfare of others.
You see, this is why mindfulness is not enough, or just focusing on the present moment is not enough. There is so much more to discover. Mindfulness is the vehicle for this discovery. It’s what allows for awareness, for consciousness to expand. Remember the title of U Tejaneya’s book, Awareness is Not Enough? He used this title because he recognized that what matters is an awareness that is imbued with wisdom. And wisdom is embodied. We speak of being mind-full, but also heart-full and body-full. We are in touch with our senses and the sense of being alive in our bodies. This is what starts to give shape and texture to our lives, empowered by wisdom and compassion (or love) — the two wings of the bird that allow it to soar in the vast, expansive sky. 
 
MEDITATION
 
We begin with stillness, stilling the body in a comfortable posture. And with gentle breathing, we can begin to quiet the mind by sensing the in-breath and the out-breath. Spend some time sensing the breath in the belly, or in the chest. This stillness is what allows us to know our experience as we expand our attention out in a more broad way. 
 
Once you feel settled and aware, begin to notice other aspects of your experience, body sensations, emotions, thoughts that become storylines, and continue to rest back into the knowing, into the awareness itself.
 
When you feel ready, I invite you to explore the five qualities of awareness that I mentioned by sensing into each one, being interested to know these different facets of awareness. In this way, we become more intimately in contact with awareness itself. 
 
Here we are taking awareness as the subject of our meditation. We might say, awareness knowing itself, curious about itself. We can reflect using these prompts that guide us into the investigation.
 
What does this quality of stillness feel like? What can I know about it? What is brightness, or the clarity of mind like? What does it feel like to be curious about what’s happening? Does it have a child-like quality? Can you perceive how discerning wisdom operates in the mind? Notice how it functions, moving towards the good. And how it is the vehicle for compassion. Is compassion arising in any way? Perhaps kindness towards yourself? A feeling of care for another, or for what’s happening in the world? Can you feel the emotional resonance in the heart area?
 
Take as much time as you like for this exploration. The curiosity will support this investigation. If it’s not there for this particular dharma reflection, keep your meditation simple by sensing and feeling the breath in the body, enjoying the stillness.