Chapter 6 from Presence
Chapters on line: Description and Table of Contents / Chapter 1: Introduction: Emerging Clear Awareness / Chapter 2: Roots of Consciousness: Primordial Affective Emotions / Chapter 4: Spectrum of Awareness / Chapter 6: Magic of Awareness: Enlightened Futility / Chapter 15: Summary: Emerging Consciousness and Twilight Awareness
See simplicity in the complicated.
- Lao Tsu
Now we come to the core of the Buddha’s teachings. This principle is not stated explicitly in the text, but it undergirds all his teachings. It is also not stated explicitly in neural science, but is implied in its findings.
The principle is this: awareness is magic. Awareness is the ultimate healer of all that disturbs us. In the long run it dispels all dukkha.
Why does awareness heal? I have no idea. And if the Buddha knew, the answer wasn’t passed down to us. Ultimately, I suspect there is no answer. Asking why awareness heals is like asking, “Why is there gravity? Why do large celestial bodies pull on other objects?” I have no idea. There’s no explanation. It’s just how human beings are made.
Physics can tell us how gravity works. Mathematical equations eloquently describe its effects. (It varies directly with the mass of the objects and inversely with the square of the distance between them.) But why do those formulas work? There’s no reason. It’s just how things are. Neural science cannot explain why awareness heals any more than physics can explain why gravity attracts.
When I say, “Awareness is magic,” I’m not suggesting that it is supernatural or draws on occult forces. Quite the opposite. The healing power of awareness is as natural as gravity. It does not draw on any other force.
Buddhist practice ultimately rests on the seemingly magical healing power of awareness. The effects are subtle enough that they can be masked. The most obvious mask is tension. But ultimately, the practice is not even about getting rid of tension. It’s about seeing it clearly. When tension and awareness are both present, awareness wins in the long run. Tension wears out and exhausts itself eventually. But with awareness, there is nothing to be worn out. It just is.
It’s also said that awareness can be one insult after another. As we open up deeply, all the messy things we tried to bury rise to the surface, one insult after another. But the solution is to trust awareness: turn toward and relax into it.
Trying to fight, control, or ignore awareness is like trying to fight, control, or ignore gravity. Good luck with that! Gravity is there whether we acknowledge it or not. Awareness heals, whether we give it credit or not.
However, our practice and our living do improve over the long run if we accept awareness as it is. Spiritual practice is less about attaining and more about attuning to a deeper reality. And even if we get caught on the “attainment” treadmill, being aware of the treadmill is healing over the long run. Our lives do become easier if we accept things as they are.
Sometimes the ways we ignore reality can be subtle. For example, somebody attached comments to a Dhamma talk I have on YouTube. The person called me “low caliber, verbose, disgusting, megalomaniac,” and more. I thought it best to just ignore the insults. So, I did. Or I tried to.
Yet in quiet moments, I kept thinking of clever responses I could post like, “If you’d like to say what you disagree with, maybe we can have a conversation.”
I asked a friend, “Do you think that’s a good response?”
She smiled and shook her head. “No. It’ll just enflame.”
So, I did nothing.
A few days later I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about a note Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to his brother Charles during the controversy over Transcendentalism in the early 1800s. Part of it said, “They say the world is vexed with us on account of our wicked writings. I trust it will recover its composure.”
I thought, “That’s brilliant. I could post that quote on YouTube. It would be a good poke in the eye of my YouTube detractor while I pretended to take the high road.”
Then I caught myself: “Poke in the eye? Is this the affective emotion of RAGE?”
It obviously was. I don’t like to admit rage, even to myself. But there it was. In my mind I heard the voice of my old therapist saying, “Doug, it’s only RAGE.”
Suddenly I was smiling. It was such a relief to let the feeling be what it was unconstrained by propriety. When I befriended inner RAGE rather than trying to ignore it, it peaked and subsided even if I didn’t act on it.
“Is there anything hiding beyond the RAGE?” I wondered. Yes. There was a little bit of CONNECTION — or actually the loss of connection. I relaxed into that whiff of loneliness.
“Is there anything beyond the RAGE and missing CONNECTION?” No. Beyond them felt like endless space. Within five minutes, the RAGE and CONNECTION had faded into the distance and there was little except ease and a persistent smile. There was not even a definable self. Just open space.
In the days since, I have thought about my YouTube guy now and again. Each time a soft smile arises.
Clear awareness is magic.
Another way to say “awareness is magic” is “enlightened futility.” We see deeply that trying to get somewhere in meditation can only get us so far. Eventually we hit a wall because of the tension of trying hinders awareness. Trying to get any farther ultimately doesn’t work.
The only option left is to see starkly, sincerely, and unromantically exactly where the mind-heart is at this very moment. This is what I mean by “enlightened futility.”
I was meditating in the wee hours of the morning when I noticed the song “America the Beautiful” was singing softly in the background of my mind. I was a bit annoyed by the intrusion and blocked it out. That left my mind with a stodgy block, not with the sweet stillness I had had earlier.
“Well, that didn’t work so well,” I thought. So, I relaxed and let the anthem sing itself. I let it be as it was. It came back and then slowly faded into a deeper stillness. All was quiet.
That is the magic of awareness. It’s also radical acceptance and enlightened futility. They all point toward clear awareness.
If you have some inclinations toward skepticism or doubt, as I do, there are a few things we can do to take advantage of the magical healing power of awareness.
One is to notice the quiet, subtle effects of clear awareness — the signs that it is there in a relatively pure form. It is always present, though it is often elusive enough to slip by unacknowledged. But if we know some signs of it, it is easier to feel it sitting quietly in the shadows.
The signs are not states to strive for! That doesn’t work. But if we sense them, it does help to relax into them and soak them up. This wears down the cynicism and at the same time helps the sense of self get a little rest.
Clear awareness is not monolithic or something that’s either on or off. Rather, it’s a collection of qualities that wax and wane on their own.
The following are a few signs of clear awareness that I notice. You may notice these as well or observe very different ones. We all have slightly different proclivities. You might want to use my list or make your own.
I have not listed them in any particular order because they emerge differently for different people.
Fading of Thoughts
The most obvious sign of clear mind is the fading of thoughts. Ordinary thoughts may include narratives, vignettes, dialogues, explanations, arguments, complaints, quiet conversations, gentle murmurs, and more. However, they all drift into the background as the mind feels more spacious.
This is not accomplished by intentionally stopping mental chatter. Rather we let the thoughts be without getting tangled up in them. Then they feel less relevant and drift away. We relax. Without tension, thoughts have no fuel and start to thin out.
A Feeling of Dropping
Often the fading of thought happens gradually. But sometimes it can happen rapidly. It’s as if the mind has used up the tension that fuels it and it relaxes by itself. We feel the effects of gravity. It’s a sensation similar to the body relaxing and dropping a little, but it’s serene.
Loss of a Protagonist
Without stories, narratives, and dialogues, the sense of an inner self — a protagonist, if you will, the main character in our internal stories — slowly dwindles into irrelevance. Rather than being front and center, the self recedes into the background. In the foreground is a growing stillness.
It is generally not wise to try to get rid of the stories, narratives, or the protagonist. Such efforts just strengthen the sense of a lead character trying to control the inner space.
Instead we observe them like a field naturalist watching animals without disturbing them. This allows us to see inner phenomena more lucidly. They seem like bubbles, or vortices (to use the Buddha’s metaphors), that have surfaces but no underlying substance. They are constructs around a vacuum or activities around a stillness.
Rather than declaring “I am free,” we see that there is no protagonist to be freed. There is nothing underneath in which to get entangled. That is freedom and disentanglement.
Loss of Solidity
The loss of narratives, stories, and protagonist may give rise to a loss of a sense of inner solidity. There may still be a weak sense of self, but it feels ephemeral. This is anatta — the beginning of non-self.
And it can arise in the opposite order, too — sometimes the sense of a solid self weakens, followed by the loss of stories, inner conversations, and all the rest.
The fading of thoughts often gives rise to what could be called, “nondual awareness” in which logical opposites coexist peacefully. For example, as I accepted the RAGE about the YouTube guy, for a few moments I felt both anger and serenity. Opposites are not hobgoblins. We don’t have to resolve seeming paradoxes. We let the thoughts be there and, at the same time, notice a serenity that feels like it’s been there all along.
It’s like a storm at sea. Trying to calm the waves by beating them down with a stick is futile at best. If anything, it just creates more turmoil. But if we go beneath the waves, there’s already a stillness. It has been waiting for us patiently. And it’s as big as the ocean itself.
One subtle but obvious physical sign of clear awareness is small waves of tingly-ness on the surface of the body. I used to call them “prickles.” More often they are called “goosebumps.” It feels like the skin is relaxing and the pores are opening. These gentle waves of sensation may flow through various parts of the body. If we relax into them, the waves may get bigger or infuse more of the body.
As the body relaxes, the brain often produces small amounts of dopamine and other neural transmitters. Tingly-ness may be one way they are felt. It’s an impersonal, body response.
Content Fades into Process
The mind is constructed to know things that are happening. To give context to these happenings, it also puts them into larger stories.
Yet, as the mind quiets, these contexts and stories recede and fade into the background. Meanwhile, the processes become more prominent. We become more aware of what the mind is doing — e.g., thinking, worrying, explaining, complaining, musing, storytelling, and so on. The content of thinking and storytelling fades. Awareness shifts from nouns to verbs, from content to processes. Content is usually in the past or future while processes are acting in the present. The mind settles more and more into this present moment.
The shift from content to process is part of a meditation strategy (chapter 4). However, sometimes content can fade into process on its own. The same thing can happen with the next three signs of clear awareness.
In the text, this fading of content into process is sometimes called “the realm of nothingness.” But I think that is a mistranslation. It really means “no-thing-ness.” Awareness itself doesn’t stop. But it is relaxed enough that it doesn’t coalesce into separate things. Ironically, there may still be a lot going on in no-thingness. But the mind doesn’t perceive separate objects so much as the moment-to-moment flow of feelings and textures.
Process Fades into Qualities of Awareness
Years ago I noticed times when my mind seemed like a herd of buffalo raising clouds of dust as it stampeded across a distant prairie. The individual animals became indistinct while the feeling of rumbling became more prominent.
Just as awareness of content can give way to awareness of processes, awareness of processes can give way to awareness of qualities of awareness. Qualities include feeling tones or textures: rumbling, quiet, jumpy, smooth, spacious, thick, etc. There is a large variety of possible qualities. Noticing them is like noticing the mood of a story without paying attention to the characters or plot.
The quality of awareness is a phase of the Spectrum of Awareness (chapter 4).
Qualities Fade into the Field of Awareness
Sometimes the qualities of awareness fade into the background, leaving a sense of presence that is open and empty. This is “awareness of awareness” because we sense awareness even as its contents and qualities are drifting away: we are aware of awareness itself even if there are no “things” in it.
Another way to say this is that everything outside the current moment feels less and less relevant. In the moment, there are no stories or things — just a quiet sense of presence.
To see this movement of attention from content to process to qualities to presence, consider another example. There are times in meditation when my mind gets antsy. I used to will up a strong determination to overcome the restlessness. I don’t do that anymore. Now I just notice the agitation as a phenomenon. I notice how the mind wants to daydream and how the daydreaming can feel comforting compared to the agitation. So, I let it daydream.
But here’s the trick. Rather than focus on the content of the daydream or even the process of daydreaming, I notice the feeling of comfort that arises with the daydream.
The comfort is in the present. The content of the daydream is not. So, I let the mind rest in the comfort. I savor it. With this, the mind tends to relax into the soothing feeling. The content drifts away. The daydreaming process slips away. And the mind settles into a comfortable abiding with very little going on.
This abiding is also part of the Spectrum of Awareness (chapter 4).
In clear awareness, a quiet smile often sneaks up on me. I’m sitting in meditation. Suddenly I’m grinning widely though I hadn’t seen that smile come up. At these times, the mind is usually bright, smooth, and a little surprised at how good it feels. When I first started noticing this years ago, I thought, “Where did that come from?” These days it’s familiar enough that I no longer ask. If I relax into the smile, it goes deeper.
Sometimes I call this a “Buddha smile” because it’s like the half smile we see on many statues of the Buddha.
Chuckles and Sighs
Sometimes a quiet chuckle or sigh arises spontaneously. Like the quiet smile, I usually don’t see it coming. It just happens.
The diaphragm that powers our lungs is one of the larger and stronger muscles in the body. When we tense up, a lot of the tightness gets held in the diaphragm. As the muscle relaxes, it sometimes shakes reflexively to loosen up. Chuckles and sighs are the result of this dispersal of tension.
Body Posture Corrections
With clear awareness, the body is more likely to spontaneously adjust posture without comment. For example, if I’m sitting hunched over, the body may spontaneously elongate before I even think about it.
Along with this, the eyes tend to relax. The eyes, like the mind, become less interested in seeking what they want than in receiving what is already here. We may experience this as a physical softening of the eyes and their surrounding sockets.
Receptive Rather than Active
Like the softening eyes, we become content to receive whatever presents itself. We become more interested in attuning than attaining: attuning to what’s here rather than attaining what is not here.
We become more interested in being than in doing. We’re more interested in what is going on than in what we might want. We have less judgment and more curiosity. And eventually we have less curiosity and more presence.
Nimitta is a Sanskrit term for “sign.” A visual nimitta is a sign of a relaxed, attentive awareness. When our eyes are closed, it may appear as a white, fuzzy area in the center of the field of vision. In the center of the retina (the fovea) there is a larger concentration of rods and cones (light receptors) than in the periphery. The nimitta phenomenon is probably the result of neural static from the denser concentration of light receptors in the fovea. We have to be deeply relaxed and receptive to see this effect. If we actively look for it, it will disappear.
When the mind is clear, relaxed, and receptive, faint images may flash through the mind very quickly. The images have little charge to them and seem unrelated to one another.
While a nimitta is probably produced by the retina, the flickering images are probably produced by the brain itself. I suspect that, with 86 billion neurons, these quick flashes are faint static in the brain. Even a small amount of tension will blot them out.
If I’m meditating with an unclear mind meandering in thoughts and realize what’s going on, I’m likely to respond with an inner “Oh no,” as in, “Oh no, my practice is messed up.”
If I’m meditating with a clear mind that wanders into a thought and I realize what’s going on, I’m likely to respond with an inner “Of course.” This is an acceptance that given what my mind had been through that day or in recent days, of course it drifted. I take it impersonally and with a light spirit.
To say it differently, I’m more likely to just let things be and trust the magic of awareness to fine-tune the mind rather than trying to push it into some semblance of a “better” state.
Relaxing Into or Spreading Out
When awareness is clear enough, the “Of course” may not even arise. If a bit of tension comes into the body, it may reflexively relax. The body softens without us even thinking about it.
Without clear awareness, my first response to tension is likely to be tensing up further. But with clear awareness the tightness tends to dissolve on its own.
Emptiness of Time and Space
Emptiness of time and space is a sign that often arises with the other signs I’ve already mentioned. Time and space may not completely disappear at first. They just seem irrelevant. They have no draw.
However, the emptiness of time or space can also be a “leading indicator” that appears first and helps usher in other signs. Particularly if you are working with the expansiveness described earlier (chapter 2), the loss of a sense of time and space can arise all by itself.
The final sign of clear awareness that I’ll mention is subtle and potentially confusing. Sometimes we may experience blank spots in immediate short-term memory. These are part of the “Nothingness” phase of the Spectrum of Awareness. It takes a little effort to remember what just happened. When the awareness gets completely relaxed, it may stop registering experiences or stop putting them into memory. The result is a blank spot in memory. Usually we don’t even notice these. Or if we do, we think we must have fallen asleep. But if the mind is bright and clear rather than groggy, the mind probably did not go unconscious. It just turned off its inner recorder, leaving an empty moment.
Again, these various signs of clear awareness are not separate; they overlap in many ways. Not experiencing them is not necessarily a sign of bad practice. And you may experience other things you associate with clear awareness that I have not mentioned.
By outlining these I do not intend to turn them into practices to be pursued diligently. I describe them in case you have noticed some of them in your own experience. If, like me, you are sometimes skeptical of your meditative skills, you can use these as encouragement that you may be doing better than you think. It’s okay to relax and get out of the way.
And by lightly turning toward your own experiences, you may create the “causes and conditions” in which they are more likely to arise again. After all, they are with us all the time anyway. Noticing them attunes us to them and helps them quietly strengthen. Recalling how they feel without lifting a finger to conjure them up creates the conditions in which they are more likely to arise spontaneously. It makes us more receptive.
High Altitude Meditation
Clear awareness and signs of nirodha are hints of what could be called “high altitude meditation.” They are close to the peak of the metaphorical meditation mountain. As stable experiences, they are statistically rare. There are hundreds of people at lower elevations but few regularly this high up.
Nevertheless, over the years of mentoring meditators I have found that many people have fleeting yet genuine glimpses of these upper reaches. At first the experiences are not stable. They are subtle and may pass through with little notice. However, if they do notice them and know how to adjust their meditation to take advantage of them, they can be a great boon.
Two techniques that leverage clear awareness and glimpses of nirodha could be called “clear mind” or “awareness of awareness” and “empty mind” or “objectless awareness. They are the upper phases of the Spectrum of Awareness (chapter 4) and the higher jhanas, particularly the Base of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. [Footnote 1] They utilize some of the magical qualities of awareness.
An analogy suggests what these techniques have in common and how they differ:
My little home office has a desk in the corner, several chairs, file cabinets, a throw rug, shelves, lots of books, huge dust bunnies hidden behind a computer screen, cough drop wrappers in the waste basket, etc. I could bring more accoutrements into the room until it’s as congested as a packrat’s nest. I could also remove clutter until the room is as spare as a Zen monk’s kuti. But no matter how much or how little is in my office, the room has the same walls, windows, doors, floor, and ceiling. The room itself it not altered by the presence or absence of content.
Awareness of Awareness
Beginning and intermediate meditations utilize the contents of awareness to help settle the mind. Most focus on a single, primary object: the breath, a mantra, metta, equanimity, etc. We are taught to attend to this one object and ignore everything else. This is like putting a little statue on my desk and focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else.
But at higher elevations, the instructions shift. We can ignore all content and just be aware of the room itself. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a lot in in the room or not. We just shift our attention from the paraphernalia (or lack of it) to the room itself. In actual meditation this means shifting awareness from the content of the mind to the awareness that is noticing the content. This often feels like a figure-ground shift as attention goes from a primary object to awareness of awareness itself.
The contents don’t automatically disappear. They just fade into the background as we notice the awareness itself. With more practice, the bric-a-brac in the background may quietly fade completely due to lack of attention. But we are not concerned with whether they are there or not.
This practice has been called “clear mind” or “awareness of awareness.” The clear mind often has a slightly luminous quality. So it’s also been called “clear light awareness” and “luminous mind.” It seems to flow out in all directions.
As practice goes deeper, awareness fades altogether and we can engage the second technique called “empty mind.” It has also been called “objectless awareness,” “meditating on emptiness,” “emptiness of emptiness,” and “nothingness.”
Note: This nothingness should not be confused with the base of nothingness in the upper jhanas. As we saw earlier in this chapter, in the jhanas, “nothingness” might be better translated as “no-thing-ness” because the flow of experience does not separate into distinct things. As perception relaxes and fades, experiences gently blend together rather than present as discrete objects. Ironically, there may be a lot going on in the base of no-thing-ness. But there are no separate things.
However, in empty mind or objectless awareness there is truly nothing, not even a flow of experience. We’re aware of emptiness. The room itself is gone and the mind relaxes in nothingness. When awareness is not perfect (which is most of the time) objects will arise: thoughts, images, impulses, feelings, and more. But if we try to six-R these or even relax them, the effort of trying is too coarse. It brings more disturbance. However, doing nothing lets awareness itself release any tension. The most helpful thing we can do is get out of the way and let the awareness dissolve anything that arises.
In his book Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness (2016), Lama Tsultrim Gyamtso describes five different kinds of practices at this highest level of meditation. He writes:
By the time one comes to meditation based on the Clear Light Nature of the Mind, the investigation stage of the practice has come to an end. All there is to do now is to rest the mind naturally in its own nature, just as it is without any contrivance or effort. … [W]hatever thoughts arise, there is no need to try to stop them; in that state they simply liberate themselves. It is like waves on an ocean that simply come to rest by themselves. No effort is required to still them.[Footnote 2]
Lama Gyamtso’s five meditations on emptiness come from different schools of Buddhism. Each stage goes a little deeper than the one before it. And most stages have sub-stages. I suspect that many of the differences between the five have more to do with differences in cultures, languages, and personalities than fundamental differences in practice. After all, no two brain neural networks are the same. How each of us processes subtle information varies.
It’s as if we were walking through the woods and come upon two trees. Are they different enough to be different species? Or are they different varieties of the same species? Or just different views of the same tree? I suspect Lama Gyamtso’s five practices are different varieties of awareness and emptiness.
What’s most important in all of them is shifting awareness from the objects to awareness itself and from awareness of awareness to emptiness. As we do this, it helps to relax all effort to do anything. We just get out of the way and let awareness do the work of dissolving the last vestiges of tension.
That is the magic power of awareness to relax and heal.
What I find tricky in using these techniques is sorting out when a little bit of relaxation is still skillful practice and when awareness is clear and deep enough to do nothing. If I try to figure this out while meditating, the cogitation activates perception, memory, and cognition. They are coarser and heavier than clear mind or objectless awareness. They create enough disturbance that I fall back into the room of objects at lower elevations.
This is where the signs of awareness described in this chapter can be so helpful. If they are arising, then I know awareness is dissolving tension. There is nothing I need to do. It’s time to simply and patiently get out of the way.
One final note: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche suggests not going straight to objectless awareness. Rather, he recommends going to clear mind. This is where there is nothing but awareness quietly flowing out in all directions. In time, if we simply rest there, in time empty mind or objectless awareness arises on its own.
However, I have noticed that with advanced meditators it is often easy and less complicated to just go to objectless awareness. If the mind does not settle into emptiness, then we can go to clear awareness for a while.
What’s most important is not trying to push, guide, or even gently lead the mind. Instead we attune to it. If we take care of awareness by attuning to it, awareness will take care of us by letting us dissolve.
That is freedom.
1. I describe the jhanas in more detail in Buddha’s Map
2. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and Lama Shenpen Hookham, Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness (Shrimala Trust, 2016), p. 104
Copyright 2023 by Doug Kraft
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