Let me be clear. This article is about freedom. Freedom from habit. Freedom from fixation. And most especially, freedom from a painfully narrow experience of ourselves, the world, and others.
The key to this kind of freedom is awareness. When we see only the “good” in ourselves, or the “bad” in others, or vice-versa, we have narrowed our awareness. When we see the world primarily in terms of how much pleasure we can have, or pain we can avoid, we have narrowed our awareness. Further, we have narrowed awareness by identifying with some story about ourselves or the world. Examples could be, I can’t make it in the world. I (should) succeed at everything I do. People are just out for themselves. I give and give and others only take. I work hard, but others are lazy and irresponsible.
“Identity” means we are that set of beliefs. “We” are identical to that story.
In this identification, we no longer question the reality of our story – it is true, and thus our attention and awareness only take note of experiences that are consistent with that story. Or if something isn’t consistent with our story, we might feel pain. For example, I don’t do something well when I believe I should – which leads to pain and/or a struggle to rationalize our failure, blaming others, or working harder to be successful. And our cycle of pain and pleasure continues.
Awareness practices help us wake up from the dream of our identifications, self-definitions, and worldview. Awareness practices help us to have a different experience of ourselves and the world.
In this article, I want to talk about two traditions that offer ways to find (and remember) this freedom, ways to wake up from habitual self-definitions and worldviews. They are the mindfulness and direct awareness (nondual) traditions. We might call them meditation traditions, but that can be an unnecessarily narrow perspective that carries too much baggage. However, it’s also true that mindfulness and direct awareness “practices” are themselves meditation practices.
In another article (What Gets In the Way? Awareness, and Obstacles to Living What You Already Are), I gave brief examples of some traditional instructions that characterize nondual traditions and mindfulness traditions. They bear repeating here…
Be aware, of the present moment, with acceptance. This is something of a standard instruction for practice in mindfulness traditions. An example of this is learning to bring awareness to your sensing, thinking or feeling – and accepting without judgment whatever enters your awareness.
Rest as awareness. This is a pointing out instruction in nondual traditions. In a sense, this is an instruction to rest in our natural state – to rest as the awareness that we fundamentally are. In nondual traditions, we don’t manufacture awareness through practice, we just keep losing track of the awareness that is always there.
In upcoming articles, I’ll have concrete and more detailed instructions for mindfulness practice and for the discovery of direct awareness. But, let’s look briefly at what they are, how we might experience them, and how they can support our freedom from a too-narrow experience of life.
A good set of instructions, (and a concrete definition) for mindfulness is (1) be aware, (2) of the present moment, (3) with acceptance. For a taste of mindful awareness, all you need to do is, for the next minute or two, bring your awareness to where your body is touching the chair, ground, or whatever is supporting you. Let your awareness be right there where your body touches that support. Gently rest your awareness right there, over and over. If it wanders, gently bring it back. Notice the “edges” of the sensation, the depth, the changes in pressure. This is mindfulness of sensation, and the particular sensation of where your body is supported. Thus, we’re training your attention, too, because we’re keeping your awareness in a particular place. If you stay with those bodily sensations, you’ll notice that they change and morph. Staying with the present moment means being aware of how you sense it now. And now. And now.
On a broader level, mindfulness practice helps us take our attention and awareness back from habitual preoccupations and begin to see experience for what it is, for what is really happening. I often teach mindfulness practices in the context of working with physical pain. When we bring our awareness up close to the discomfort of a headache for example, and if we can explore the experience of the discomfort with acceptance (i.e., what is happening is what is happening, and not something else), we begin to have a different experience of the physical pain. We discover that pain is not just a black block of experience with no nuance. In fact, discomfort changes from moment to moment. Experience moves. Mindfulness can acquaint us with physical and emotional pains in a way that helps us realize a different experience of them. By the way, there is an enormous amount of research on the use of mindfulness in working with physical conditions (pain included). You’ll get, too, that working with discomfort in this way means we are no longer identified with the pain. There is pain, AND there is more to us than the pain.
When we can be mindfully aware of our thoughts and feelings with acceptance (e.g., “I’m afraid I won’t be able to do this.”), we have more freedom. Things become a little more workable. That little window of freedom where we register that we are not our thoughts or feelings gives us more space to work and live. Mindfulness – as awareness of the present moment with acceptance – can help free us from narrowed and identified experience because we can experience our thoughts as objects that pass through our awareness, and register that they are not US. When we can let pleasurable and painful thoughts and feelings be in our awareness/experience, and accept them, we have gone a long way toward freeing ourselves from our fixations.
Mindfulness (meditation) has very clear and measurable benefits. Learning to be mindfully aware of one’s bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, and experiences is a very powerful practice that has both therapeutic and real-world applications. Most all of us could benefit from being able to bring mindful awareness to ourselves, our experience, and our lives. Mindfulness practices can serve us in our emotional intelligence, physical well-being, as well as our academic, athletic and business performance. I worked as an organizational consultant for many years, and mindful awareness was a fundamental skill I taught for helping people increase emotional intelligence. In this way, mindfulness can provide us freedom from reactive patterns, and the freedom to have a different experience.
Direct awareness (nondual) traditions go to the “root” of our struggles by working with assumptions about the very nature of the self, awareness, experience, and reality. For a “taste” of the direct approach, sit quietly for a minute or two, letting your breathing and experience be as they are. Now, let things be as they are without interference. If a thought, feeling, sensation, memory, or anticipation comes up – just let it be there and move through. If you feel/hear yourself judging yourself for how you’re responding to your experience, let that be there too. Here comes the essential task – ask yourself, “Who is experiencing this moment right now?” This is not an intellectual question and you are not looking for a conceptual answer. Let the question turn over in your awareness and sense-feel-settle into what it is that is experiencing this moment, right now. Enquire and rest. Enquire and rest.
That’s a flavor of the direct (nondual) approach. In the nondual tradition, you’re working with your assumptions about the nature of self and experience. This direct approach, this nondual tradition, has been at the core of many psychospiritual traditions and practices – for many hundreds of years. It is of particular interest to transpersonal psychologists, and is increasingly being studied using the methods of cognitive and neuroscience.
In one sense, in terms of “practical” effects, it’s easy to point to mindfulness as offering useful tools for therapeutic work. And it’s true that there are very practical techniques in the mindfulness tradition that help us work with therapeutic tasks (e.g., working with painful feelings, not getting caught up in old stories, working with chronic pain). Many current psychotherapeutic approaches integrate mindfulness practices.
Still, nondual approaches have sometimes been referred to as “the ultimate medicine” in that they work at the very root of our pain and unhappiness – i.e., the sense of separation and the assumptions about being a separate self. We’ll go into the topic more deeply in another article, but it bears saying that in nondual approaches, it’s not that the “self” is gotten rid of, but just that the self/no-self duality no longer holds us fixated. This is freedom of an entirely different order. But still as close as our immediate experience.
I sometimes shy away from using the word “practice” when referring to nondual approaches. But rather than engage in a bunch of unwieldy verbal gymnastics to avoid this, I’ll just acknowledge that even though nondual awareness is fundamentally always present – and that it is always already us – there has been in the history of nondual traditions a whole lot of practice and a number of practices! For example, enquiring into “Who am I?” is a traditional practice in nondual traditions. Although the enquiry is not intellectual, there is a something that is happening as we ask this question and slowly let go of our identifications. Nondual traditions, in a sense, do not have “techniques.” However, letting things be as they are (another common instruction in direct awareness approaches) can be quite difficult and feel like a lot of work! It also bears saying that there is a difference between not meditating and meditating without a technique.
This is not the moment to go into it, but I would like to note that mindfulness teachers and nondual teachers sometimes appear at odds with each other in their approaches to awareness, freedom, and awakening. But, in practice, mindfulness and direct approaches can work quite nicely together, and help us steer away from some of the pitfalls of each approach alone (as they are often taught).
People may intuit that awareness (practices) are important, but they may say that “meditation is not for me.” I’m a pretty physically active person, and can understand how one might feel that meditation practices are not consonant with one’s sense of being dynamically engaged with life. I can also tell you, from personal experience, that this is not inherently the case. A movement away from life is not what defines awareness practices. Certainly, one could engage in awareness and mediation practices in a way that takes one away from life. That is very much not my orientation!
There is very much a space that has room for action and stillness – and awareness has room for both.
As an aside – and as a counter to the idea that awareness practices take you away from life – I’ll note that people who engage in something at the edge of their competence, and are focused and keep moving (any number of athletes know what I’m talking about), can be very much immersed in the present moment. And they are simultaneously in that free space that integrate going with the flow and choosing. This kind of flow state involves living in the present moment in a way that is related to the present awareness described in meditative traditions. I’m saying this because mindfulness and direct awareness – while often cultivated in the slower more controlled moments of quiet meditation – is fundamentally about living life fully.
The idea that that one cannot be engaged with life while living a life of awareness is itself a belief that keeps us trapped. Perhaps because we’re identified as a person of action who has no time for navel gazing, or as a person in control of their life who isn’t interested in going with the flow. The article What Gets In the Way? Awareness, and Obstacles to Living What You Already Are) gives a brief look at how such habits and identifications of personality (character) are fixations that interfere with awareness, with our true freedom. Because we take our thoughts about ourselves and the world to be true – and we identify with those thoughts – our attention and awareness are not free to take in all that is there in ourselves, the world, and others. Freedom is not simply the liberty to do what (our fixated sense of self) wants. Freedom is also the liberation from a too-narrow view of one’s self and the world – and therefore a broader sense of what one’s options are.
In the work that I do as a therapist and coach, we integrate awareness practices with bodymind (somatic) work. And as a psychologist with transpersonal interests, there is decidedly room in our work for engaging with mindfulness practices AND the direct awareness approach – even as we engage the bodymind.
Nonduality leaves nothing out – or in!Psychotherapy, counseling, and coaching work that integrates both mindfulness and direct approaches may be of particular interest to clients who have psychospiritual interests or who view themselves as being on a path to awakening. Please contact me if you have questions, or if you’re interested in therapy or coaching work that integrates psychological work with awareness practices! Awareness is a path not just to liberty, but to liberation as well.