When we practice anything, meditation, writing, tennis, parenting…we apply our mind to our tasks and to our skills. We might call this “mindfulness” or focus. To be good at anything, we’ve got to learn how to keep our mindfulness on whatever it is that we’re doing. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves distracted and not “100%” in what we’re doing.
While mindfulness is equated with meditation practices, especially ones originating in the West, mindfulness by itself cannot help us from drifting into distraction and losing our meditative mind. Mindfulness needs a sentinel, an overseer, an aspect of mind, to bring it back when distraction takes over.
Enter…..awareness. Here are a few examples of how we already use awareness (but may not be aware of its presence):
When you’re meditating, or bicycling, or working, or parenting, what is it that reminds you that you’re distracted? Perhaps you’re involved in a conversation (deep or not), and you realize that you’ve missed the last – how many?! – minutes of the conversation. Or suppose that you're driving down the road to a familiar location and you suddenly realize that you've been daydreaming and have missed the last five minutes yet have stayed on the road anyway. What is it that noticed that you were distracted? What is it that brings you back to the present? What was it that kept you on the road? Even better, what is it that allows you to read this post, right here, right now? Answer?
”Why of course” you say, what else could it be? But, what is awareness? It’s cognizant, right? It’s aware. And, it’s always present. It’s with us when we are happy, sad, angry, or joyful. It’s with us when we sleep (though we may not recognize it in our dreams; that’s a great practice!) It’s with us when we work, read, or play. Yet for most of us, we forget about it when we start to meditate.
Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to practice meditation and before you know it, you're gone, lost in thoughts, lost in experience, lost in…space! Do you feel like you’ve lost your mind(fulness)! Awareness is what brings you back after recognizing that you've been checked out. How cool is that!?
Awareness is the precious gift of being cognizant which is being “fully informed, conscious” (The Free Dictionary online), fully informed about what’s going on within your mind, your environment, even your body. And, it’s what we tend to forget about when we’re practicing meditation!
Here's a super quick awareness practice that I use at work, in the car, or even...on the toilet! This will take less than a minute but it will give you a sense of what awareness is.
Right now, without thinking about it, you’re breathing. Simply watch your breathing. Watch the breath as it comes into your body and as it leaves. Whenever you notice that you’ve become distracted, gently bring your attention back to the breath, without commenting on being distracted, without giving yourself a hard time. Use your awareness to bring yourself back to your breath. And…relax.
That’s what awareness is, it’s the attention that you maintain over your mindfulness, a way to bring your focus back when you become distracted. Try experimenting with awareness. Notice when you’re being aware during the day, notice the quality of it as distinct from your distracted mind. Notice the quality of it as distinct from your mindful mind, that is, as the guardian over your mindfulness. Notice the clarity of awareness.Awareness is like the lightbulb that goes on in your mind as soon as you realize that you've become distracted. And the light that emanates from the bulb is what dispels the darkness or distraction from your mind. So....keep the lights on!