DT-Natural Awareness re Diana Winston

Tonight’s theme is natural awareness. I’ll be referring to The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering your Natural Awareness by meditation teacher Diana Winston. 

On Monday nights, we have been practicing Insight or Vipassana meditation. We attend to present-moment experiences, usually starting with the breath as an object, and whenever the attention wanders away, we gently and firmly bringing it back to focus on the main object. As the mind becomes stable, we gradually expand our attention to investigate other objects of awareness that are arising in the here and now, such as bodily sensations, sounds, thoughts, and emotions. 

Decades ago, Diana was so dedicated to this kind of classical mindfulness meditation that she ordained as a Buddhist nun in a Burmese monastery. Driven by perfectionistic zeal to attain enlightenment, she deprived herself of sleep to practice for long hours until she was exhausted. She felt like a failure. In despair, she walked to a nearby lake. Sobbing, Diana imagined her anxiety and perfectionism flowing away with her tears into the lake. 

At the monastery’s library, she found some books by Tibetan Buddhist masters. Their message was that the essential nature of human beings is awake, loving and compassionate. In her words, “It was time for me to relax, stop trying so hard, and recognize the natural awareness and goodness already inherent in my being—and in all beings. It was time to simply rest in awareness itself.”

Diana finds that Insight meditation and natural awareness practices complement each other. Vipassana practice stabilizes the mind and cultivates concentration and equanimity. This kind of classical mindfulness is especially useful for witnessing distracted thoughts and charged emotions without becoming caught up in them. When the mind is somewhat stable and receptive, an alternative practice is to stop and tune in to the natural awareness that is always present.

Awareness refers to our ability to be conscious of directly knowing, perceiving, sensing, or feeling what we experience. All sentient beings are aware, and we human beings have the added capacity to be aware that we are aware. 

*Try not to be aware. 

Awareness is a function of our mind, and it’s impossible to voluntarily stop being aware. 

There is a broad spectrum of meditative approaches: from effortful to effortless, from narrowly focused to wide open and spacious, and from awareness of objects such as breath, sounds, or body to objectless awareness of awareness itself. 

Diana is drawn to the effortless, spacious and objectless end of the awareness spectrum. She uses analogies to compare different meditative practices: Focused awareness practice is like a sailor’s attempts to keep a sailboat on course, continuously adjusting the tiller to navigate towards a particular destination. 

For example, in Vipassana or insight meditation, whenever the attention wanders, we bring it back to the present moment by focusing on the breath or another anchor. 

Flexible awareness practice is more like a scuba diver’s shifts in attention. Sometimes the diver adapts to different depths and oxygen levels for close observation of particular fish or plants. Other times the diver floats freely while noticing whatever sea life drifts past. For instance, once the attention is focused and stabilized, a meditator can let go of the anchor and turn attention to whatever object is arising. In moments of distraction, the anchor is there to use again. 

Finally, natural awareness practice is fluid like being the water itself. In this case, a meditator relaxes effort, drops the focus on objects, and opens to a broader awareness. 

Diana defines natural awareness as “a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on the awareness itself … It is generally relaxed, effortless, and spacious.” The mind is resting in awakened awareness and wide open, while everything seems to be happening on its own. In this state, we are at ease, simply being, without an agenda. 

Different religious and spiritual traditions refer to natural awareness as “Buddha nature,” “true nature,” or “luminous mind.” Joseph Goldstein calls it “mind of no clinging.” Other meditation teachers describe a “mind luminous like the sun” or a “mind like the sky, vast, open and spacious [with] thoughts like clouds floating by.” Diana uses the metaphor of a multi-faceted diamond. Each time we practice natural awareness, we illuminate a new facet of the diamond.

This kind of awareness is natural because the sense of “just being” is innate for all people, and it’s available whenever we drop the dramas of ordinary mind. Meditation teacher Loch Kelly likens natural awareness to a radio station that is always playing, but most of the time we are tuned to a different channel such as KPF Judgment or WNC Anger. After regular practice tuning in to natural awareness, it becomes our default channel. 

There are many reasons why natural awareness seems hard to access. We often operate on automatic pilot, or we’re lost in stories and habitual reactivity. Our modern lifestyle is speedy and full of external distractions like TV screens and devices. We never seem to reach the end of our to-do lists. News reports about war zones, polarizing politics, economic woes, and environmental crises contribute to our chronic sense of stress and unease. 

To counteract impediments to accessing natural awareness, Diana suggests some short exercises called glimpse practices. Let’s try one called “Ask Yourself.”

*Pause and close your eyes. Turn your attention to whatever is happening right now. Focus on “just this.” “Just this” could be anything—your breath, thoughts, emotions, sensations or sounds. 

Then drop this question into your mind, as if you were dropping a stone into a pond and observing the ripples: “Is it OK to be aware of just this?”

Of course, natural awareness is a lifetime practice. We tend to flow in and out of it. Even with a clear intention to access it, we go through cycles of understanding, practicing and embodying spacious, timeless states. Gradually, we learn to trust in our innate goodness, which underlies our mistakes, our anxieties and our doubts. Recognizing our inherent ability to be mindful and aware builds confidence that we can handle life’s challenges and difficulties. As Diana says, the process is “in keeping with how life works—bumpy, unsystematic, mysterious, and always surprising.” 

The glimpse exercise was a warm-up for a longer guided meditation to help us experience natural awareness: 

Sit comfortably with eyes closed.

Let the body and mind settle. 

Be soft, curious, and interested. 

Receive whatever arises in the field of awareness.

We’ll practice “choiceless awareness,” being aware of whatever life brings, moment to moment—noticing thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories.

Sit in the midst of it all, witnessing what comes and goes.

Now we will open up further and practice natural awareness. 

Sense spaciousness all around your body, the space behind the back, in front of the torso, around both sides, above the head, and below the feet. 

Feel the space extending outward all around your body. 

Let that awareness expand out in all directions. 

While sensing the body in this expansive way, listen to sounds as far away as you can hear. 

Notice spaces in between sounds. Breathe and soften. 

Relax. Let go of effort. 

If you wish to open your eyes, you can expand your field of vision. 

Looking from the periphery, notice space in between objects in the visual field. 

Be aware of expansion in the body, in listening and in visual perception.

Rest in wide open, spacious awareness like the sky—vast, expansive, boundless. Marinate with the body resting in the midst of natural awareness. 

There is nothing to do, nowhere to go. Notice thoughts coming and going like clouds in the empty sky of the mind. 

Consider “Who is aware?” “Who is noticing?” 

When your attention is caught in a thought or sensation, release it and reorient back to awareness itself—connecting softly. Sit without agenda—just being. 

Quotation from Dudjom Rinpoche: “Having purified the great delusion, the heart’s darkness, the radiant light of the unobscured sun continuously arises.” 

Reflect upon what would be here right now if there were no problems to solve, if nothing was wrong, if you were fully present? 

When the bell rings, notice the transition between meditation and post-meditation and if there has to be a difference. Awareness is still here. Just the form has shifted.