DT-Natural Awareness Practice

A few weeks ago, I spoke about the meditative practice of natural awareness, which is described in Diana Winston’s Little Book of Being. Tonight, we will continue exploring this spacious, effortless, objectless approach to being aware of awareness itself. 

To warm up, let’s start with a couple of Diana’s brief glimpse practices: 

First, close your eyes and settle into a relaxed and comfortable position. 

Imagine that your mind is like a mirror, crystal clear, reflecting only what comes in front of it. With no opinion, no clinging, and no aversion, there’s just a pure reflection of reality exactly as it is. Rest your mind like a mirror that reflects the truth of what is right here in front of you….  

After a little while, exhale and let go of the image of the mirror-like mind….

Now, with eyes still closed, imagine that you are sitting on the bank of a flowing river. There is no way to grasp the water as it rushes past you. 

Leaves, sticks, stones and other debris flow by, carried on the current. 

These objects are like our thoughts, emotions, images, and worries—all floating by the riverbank, as we sit, just noticing them. Without effort, simply witness what is passing by….   

Releasing the image of the flowing river, stretch and open your eyes. Sense how these glimpse practices affect your body and mind. 

Diana points to three deliberate mental shifts that we can make during classical mindfulness meditation to move in the direction of natural awareness: 

relaxing effort, broadening attention, and letting go of objects. In our familiar practice of Insight meditation, we make an ongoing effort to note whenever we become lost in thought and to return our attention to the main focus, usually the sensation of breathing. One way to shift into natural awareness is to relax our efforts to focus. Instead, we tune in to the awareness that is already present to simply be with objects as they arise.   

Diana suggests the analogy of pedaling hard on a bicycle, and then relaxing to coast along. Although the bike stays upright and continues to head towards our destination, we’re expending less energy. Just as prior pedaling makes it possible to coast on a bike, diligent practice to concentrate the mind allows us to soften into an effortless state of meditation. 

Let’s try an exercise to relax effort:

Close your eyes and pay close attention to your breathing, making a concerted effort to bring your attention back whenever it wanders … After a few minutes of precise practice, simply pause the effort. No longer trying to be aware, relax your body and notice what is happening … Are you naturally aware of what is arising in your body and mind, without deliberately placing your attention on particular objects? You may sense how you can be present while awareness is occurring on its own…. As you open your eyes, notice how you are affected by practicing effortlessness…. 

The second mental shift that enables natural awareness is to broaden attention. Diana likens the mechanism of attention to a camera, which has a telescopic lens for a narrow focus on close-up details of a particular bird or flower. We use a more open lens for midrange snapshots of people and their surroundings, and a panoramic lens to take photos of wide expanses of terrain like the Grand Canyon. 

Likewise in meditation, we can use a narrow focus to attend to the breath, or we can open our attention panoramically to notice a wide range of inner and outer experiences or to listen to sounds coming from multiple directions. To deal skillfully with physical pain, we can apply a middle range of attention, shifting our focus back and forth between painful sensations in one area of the body, and neutral sensations in another body part. 

In our daily lives, many of us focus our attention tightly on the future and worry that what we imagine might occur. A panoramic view gives the brain a rest and access to natural awareness. 

Let’s try Diana’s exercise for broadening attention:

Close your eyes and narrow your attention to a single area of focus in your body—your abdomen, chest or nostrils … After a few minutes, listen to sounds around you. Start with sounds nearby, and then listen with an expansive ear. Listen to the sounds that are farthest away … 

Now notice your whole body. Can you feel your entire body as it’s sitting here? Relax and unclench your belly. Imagine that your body is expanding, moving out in all directions, including above and below. Be aware of your expanded body for another minute … 

Finally, open your eyes and let your gaze become peripheral—wide open, noticing the space around you. Let your eyes be soft and take in an expansive view. 

With a relaxed belly, rest in visual spaciousness. Notice what happens to your awareness…  

At the end of this exercise, allow your eyes to return to focus on our sangha. 

The third mental shift that leads to natural awareness is to let go of objects of meditation. These refer to whatever is the focus of our attention, such as the breath, body sensations, emotions or thoughts. With objectless awareness, we focus instead on awareness itself as an anchor. We might experience objectless awareness as the vast, sky-like nature of the mind in which everything is contained. Or we might have a felt sense of being aware and fully present, while everything seems to be happening on its own. 

Another way to experience objectless awareness is to notice that which is aware. To illustrate this process, Dr. Daniel Siegel, director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, uses the concept of a “Wheel of Awareness.” The central hub of the wheel is awareness or “that which knows.” Spokes of awareness run from the hub to the rim, on which are all the possible things we can attend to: sensory input, inner awareness, thoughts, emotions, and external objects. If we turn our attention from the objects on the rim to follow the spokes of awareness back towards the wheel’s center, we become aware of awareness itself.  

Diana suggests a guided meditation to help us experience objectless awareness:

Close your eyes.

Take a few moments to practice awareness of your breathing to stabilize and calm your mind… 

Now open your eyes and notice the visual field in front of you. 

Can you shift to a panoramic view, taking in the full visual field around you? 

Notice some visual objects that attract your attention. 

Is it possible for you to become aware of the space around the objects instead of the objects themselves?

Now direct your attention inward.

Imagine that your mind is like the sky and your thoughts are like passing clouds. 

Be aware of the space around thoughts—the sky-like nature of the mind in which everything is contained….  

Shift to a new exploration of the visual field in front of you.

You are aware of sights. 

Now redirect your attention to that which is seeing….

Internally, some part of you is knowing your thoughts. 

Direct your attention to that which knows….

As you continue meditating, awareness is present. 

Can you find the part of you that is aware? 

Notice the part of you that is noticing.

Don’t try to figure this out conceptually.

Consider the question: “Who is aware?” 

Here’s a final exploration.

What would be here if you didn’t have a problem to solve? 

If nothing was wrong? 

What if you were to simply be here? 

No agenda, nothing to do, nowhere to go. 

Trust that everything is happening on its own…. 

As we end this period of inner exploration, sense your feet grounded on the floor.  Be aware of your natural rhythm of breathing. 

As you focus attention on being with our sangha, take a moment for reflection. 

Which of the three methods of accessing natural awareness did you find most effective? Relaxing effort, broadening attention, or letting go of the object of meditation?