DT-Natural Awareness as a Refuge
Tonight, I’ll conclude a series of dharma talks about Natural Awareness. In The Little Book of Being, Diana Winston describes this relaxed and expansive meditative approach, which can become an inner refuge.
Let’s dip into natural awareness by trying an adapted form of her glimpse practice called “360-Degree Body Expansion.” I’ve incorporated elements of a spacious “groundless ground” meditation suggested by Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray.
Sit comfortably and take a few easy breaths.
Close your eyes and sense your body settling.
Notice whatever physical sensations are obvious right now: tingling, itching, heaviness, lightness, movement, warmth, etc.
You may perceive these sensations occurring one after the other in sequence.
Experiment with having a global body sense, aware of all the sensations simultaneously, including those along the back and front of your body.
Now begin to expand your awareness out from your body, moving outward in all directions.
Sense the space around your body.
Enjoy inhaling cool air into your nostrils. As you exhale in front of you, imagine a stream of energy flowing away and disappearing into open space.
(2 more times)
Now imagine that your nose is where your left ear is.
Breathe into the left side of your head.
Exhale a stream of energy until it dissolves into space far away on the left side.
(2 more times)
Imagine that your nostrils are breathing where your right ear is.
Inhale into the right side of your head.
Exhale a stream of energy until it dissolves into space far away on the right side.
(2 more times)
Now imagine that you can breathe into the back of your head.
Exhale a stream of energy backwards until it dissolves into space far behind you.
(2 more times)
Take an enjoyable inhalation.
On the exhale, let a current of energy ripple out simultaneously in all four directions, in front, behind, and to the sides, as far as possible until the exhalation dissolves all around you.
Let yourself fall into a big open field of groundless ground.
Notice if it’s possible to sense rootedness in open space.
Now be aware of 360 degrees around you, including above and below your body.
See if you can be aware of outer expansion at the same time as you sustain inner body awareness….
Slowly open your eyes and notice how you are affected by this expansive experience…
This exercise helps us to feel embodied while accessing natural awareness. Just as consciousness is not limited to our brain and sense organs, awareness is not located in the head. At first, most people experience natural awareness as only directly in front of them. But it is actually directionless and can be accessed in all directions, including behind, above and below us. And it is not only outside the body.
To move beyond a purely external experience of natural awareness, Diana recommends that we sink attention into the body and pay attention to sensations of spaciousness, softness, warmth and relaxation. It’s possible to sustain natural awareness externally and internally simultaneously. With enough practice, we can learn to embody natural awareness in our daily lives.
This relaxed, open type of embodiment counteracts our tendency to be stuck in the head. Diana reminds us that in the short story “A Painful Case,” James Joyce describes the main character as living “at a little distance from his body.” Any of us who spend long hours working at a computer screen can relate to that image.
*One way to feel reconnected is to turn inward and imagine that your mind is like the ocean.
Distracting thoughts and upsetting emotions are like choppy waves on the surface of the water.
If you imagine sinking far below the surface into the depths of the sea,
deep in the ocean is a boundless stillness that is undisturbed by the turbulence above.
As this profound tranquility permeates your mind and body, you may notice your awareness shifting.
Slowly let go of the image of the ocean.
Ironically, it is when I most long for the spaciousness of natural awareness that I find it most difficult to access. Instead of grasping at the experience and trying so hard, Diana counsels softening and relaxing into the absence of natural awareness. With that acceptance comes a kind of freedom. She says it’s as easy as learning to drop a banana.
In Thailand, monkey hunters cut a small hole in a coconut the size of a monkey’s hand and place a banana inside the hole. They leave the rigged coconut tied to a tree in the jungle. When a curious monkey reaches inside the coconut to grab the banana in his fist, he can’t pull his hand out through the small opening. The monkey is caught because he won’t release the coveted banana.
Like the trapped monkey, we become attached to our fantasies and desires. Even though we could free ourselves in any moment, we resist letting them go. The key to dropping our attachments is awareness that we are caught in creating our own suffering. We can use that awareness to loosen our grip on whatever is limiting our freedom.
I’ll give a simple example. I’ve developed a habit of eating a few slices of dried mango at the end of lunch. If I’m mindful, I notice salivation and a hint of mental craving as I anticipate this tasty snack. Occasionally I forgo my daily mango fix and decide, “I don’t need to satisfy this desire right now.” The pang of disappointment is worth experiencing a moment of freedom from attachment.
It’s like a rehearsal for letting go of more significant desires that cause suffering.
Often, we become caught in thoughts and emotions. If we believe our thoughts, we can be trapped in fears, opinions and assumptions. Natural awareness may be especially hard to access when we are caught in difficult emotions. Diana uses the analogy of dissolving a tablespoon of salt in a glass of water, which is far too salty to drink. If we pour the same amount of salt into a vast lake, though, the salt dissipates and becomes undetectable.
Likewise, if we react to an emotion by contracting tightly, the emotion permeates our mind like salt infuses the glass of water. When our mind is spacious and open, the emotion is merely one aspect of experience moving through the boundless nature of awareness, just as a small amount of salt dissolves in the lake.
On a practical level, when a strong emotion arises, we can give it space to bubble through us by shifting into the wider viewpoint of natural awareness.
It is possible to be aware and spacious while allowing the emotion to be there. Diana calls this practice “casting a sidewise glance” at difficult emotions.
We can visualize challenging emotions like heavy, storm clouds passing across the vast, open, transparent sky of the mind. If we identify with these clouds, they seem to obscure the sky-like nature of our mind. We can be caught in believing that clouds of self-judgment, anxiety, grief, or rage are the only reality. We forget that those clouds are just part of the sky or our field of awareness.
Our awareness encompasses so much more than any one emotion no matter how intense it may feel at the time. Once we recognize and release our identification with the clouds, we are free to return to resting in the vastness of the sky and observing clouds passing by.
Diana gives the example of feeling utter boredom during meditation. If she identifies with the boredom and believes in its solidity, she reacts with aversion and restlessness. Her struggle continues until she remembers that boredom is a merely one of the clouds moving across the sky-like nature of the mind.
In meditation practice, we learn to notice our physical reactions when the mind is hooked or lost in emotions, thoughts, and stories. We pay attention to our tight jaw, clenched belly, raised shoulders or closed fists. As we breathe into those contracted parts of the body, we can soften and settle back into a place of ease. Once the body relaxes, the mind tends to let go of its dramas. Then we can move away from rigidity, hardness, leaning forward, and focusing outward towards gently returning home to our true nature in the present moment. Diana uses the image of melting chocolate to convey that transition.
Often mental contraction has to do with our harsh inner critic. We forget that we are already fundamentally whole. Buddha nature refers to the innate goodness in each human being. Of course, that goodness can become warped or obscured due to trauma, strong conditioning, or ignorance. Indeed, daily news reports bombard us with stories about acts of greed, hatred and violence.
Yet no matter how disconnected we may be from our essential goodness, it lies waiting to be revealed. When we take refuge in natural awareness, we connect with this goodness. As Diana says, “Over time we actually start to believe in our goodness, and our life becomes its expression.”