“Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.”
– Anthony de Mello
Are you awake or asleep?
Most people if you ask them, ‘are you aware’, will look at you like an idiot and say, ‘Of course I’m aware!. I’m alive aren’t I?’
But just because we’re alive, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re aware. Awareness is mind AND body together as one. Awareness is felt, not throught. As such, it’s a ‘now’ experience. Awareness does not think or react – those mental events always come later in review of what we have been aware of.
In our distant history awareness was the most fundamental aspect of living, an essential aspect of survival. We needed to be immediately aware of everything around us – sounds, changes in the weather and seasons, signals of approaching danger. We also had to be aware of each action we made – to walk carefully for fear of holes or snakes. To pick things up and put them down with care to make sure we didn’t disturb hidden spiders or break precious tools. As such, we spent more time in our senses than in thinking. We were truly awake – to use the cliché, in tune’ with our immediate world.
But in the modern world our needs have changed. Now, most of our concerns are not to do with being aware – of sensing or intuition. They are to do with paying attention and thinking.
Our work, the business of life and the machines we need to use all run according to a false, man-made logic – an orderly logic we invented. So these days all we need to survive and function in this world is to pay intense attention to our orderly patterns of thinking, and which buttons to click. Only very rarely, if ever, are we required to be aware.
So in this orderly world we have created, our mind and body being the creatures of habit they are, they learn how to live our life without us being there. All the processes involved in our daily activities, skills and thought patterns – they learn all these habits, and obediently store them in the unconscious so we don’t have to think about everything we do.
So the child, having learnt to ride the bike, is no longer aware of the doing of it. The teenager, having learnt to read and write, is no longer aware of doing it. The adult, having learnt the skillset required to make a living, is no longer aware of doing it. Having committed our lives to memory so to speak, and no longer having a habit of being aware (as our ancient ancestors had) we leave what needs doing each day to our ingrained habits, while we think about other things.
In this lack of awareness, we are effectively allowing the unconscious mind and motor memory of our body to take us through our life, while being only barely present with what we’re doing. We’re quite capable of running through our day from waking to sleep, without the slightest idea of what we’re doing or how we’re feeling at any one time – dreaming and projecting forward and back in time in our head while unconscious mental programming and muscle memory do the things we need to do in every moment. Like long distance pilots on a plane, we sleep while the plane of our life flies itself autopilot, taking us through each day, and eventually our life.
And because everyone is doing the same thing it’s ‘normal’. And aside from occasional the feeling of being profoundly disconnected and numb, we don’t notice how unaware we have become until one day an extraordinary event wakes us up and we realize we’ve been asleep.
There are many stories about this waking up, but none more so than among people who’ve been close to death. I met a man once who’d survived being drowned – that is to say, he’d died and been brought back to life. He told me his last thought as he sank down into the water was, ‘oh my god, how sweet life is’. But more than this, he said, ‘I realized in death how I had wasted my life – that in the cause of money and security I had sleepwalked through almost all of it. And the regret I felt in that moment was overwhelming.’
We have all tasted moments of awareness, mostly accidental occurrences. Awareness consciousness happens when self-consciousness is forgotten and mind and body come together in a union that always feels timelessness and incredibly tranquil. Perhaps it happens one day while lying half asleep on a beach, being lulled by ocean waves, or while deeply absorbed in a creative act. Or perhaps in meditation when we eventually reach that state of grace where mind finally forgets itself and the attention merges back into awareness and stillness appears. In those moments our sense of body-locality disappears and we become fully aware. And that’s when we realize that the awareness we always thought was ‘my awareness’ is in fact, not specific to only us at all, but is ubiquitous – common to everything.
Or, as it says in the Beatles song, ‘I Am the Walrus’: ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.’
However they come, awareness experiences are always sweet. So imagine how wonderful it might be to live that way. Once this knack in living in awareness is practiced and learnt, we can then say we are living mindfully.
Because that’s what mindfulness is. It happens naturally once we have learnt the habit of knowing what you are doing in each moment – when the attention and awareness are acting together in equal parts, such that awareness know what attention is doing, and attention has the wider context of moment by moment awareness to act within – that’s mindfulness.
The path to mindfulness is through meditation practice. In meditation practice, we are building new habits simply by practicing them in meditation. That’s what the meditation methods are there for. We practice constantly joining our attention with what we’re aware of – that is, our sensations.
In this, even thinking is simply another sense – simply activity in the mind, like any sensation in the body. In this way, as we practice, the attention slowly learns to let go of its obsession with turning everything into thinking, and begins to calm down. And as it calms, it recedes back into awareness and joins with it. And the more we practice, the stronger this new habit becomes.
And we become mindful.
As we become mindful we notice more and more, that our body is continually speaking to us with sensations – not just the basic sensations of pain and pleasure, but many more subtle sensations as well – many of which do not even have a name. Our body warns us when something is out of balance by sending unpleasant sensations – aching, burning, chilling, itching, stinging. And it tells us when we’re doing something right by giving us pleasant sensations – tingling, glowing, warmth, cooling, rippling, and so on. At all times our body is making suggestions as to how to adjust what we’re doing, by sending us sensations.
Have you ever seen someone with a bad stoop, or terrible posture, or some other dysfunctional habit? And have you wondered why they don’t adjust their habit – stand up straighter?
Well, the reason is most likely they are not even aware of it – long ago they ceased to be aware of the aching muscles their posture was creating, such that now they’re not aware of where their dysfunctional body habits have taken them, because they are ‘asleep’.
The more mindful we become, the more we become aware of subtler and subtler sensations – sensations which we previously have not been aware of. And we realise that even in the simple acts of sitting, standing and walking, we have developed dysfunctional habits – habits which, as we age, will intensify and cause us problems. We also become aware of sensations inside the body – in every organ, we can feel how they are, and know if something is wrong.
By far, the most useful aspect of mindfulness is we become aware of what we are doing, and the cause and effect consequences of what we do. Because the life-reality we create is made from cause and effect. What we do and how we do it creates the life we then have to live in. And if we are not aware of how we’re acting – just allowing our entrenched habits, bad or good, to have free reign, then we are living mindlessly.
And the consequences are obvious.
Anger mindlessly unleashed will create a life of rage – attracting other angry people, who will perhaps unleash their anger on us. Same with mindless melancholy, laziness or whatever. If we are mindful, we can feel these habits that don’t work for us. That is to say, we can feel the urge of the habit and in that instance, choose not to enact it.
That is mindfulness at work – the skill of being what you do, as you do it, and knowing yourself as you are, so you can change if you choose.
Now, for those who have bought the audio course, I will be recording a very simple meditation exercise pointed toward mindfulness and I will be sending the download links to you in an email. It should be in your inbox right now.
NOTE: If you have not received your email with the exercise, please let me know at email@example.com
It is a simple meditation exercise to help you develop a habit of mindfulness. About 20 minutes long, it can be practised either sitting, or lying down. Once you’ve practiced with this exercise, try using the same method in as many ways as you can – when walking, running, swimming or even as you go to sleep – or doing a repetitive activity – the more you can practice in course of daily life, like any habit, the more innate mindfulness will become.
For casual readers, the mindfulness meditation exercise is available HERE …… the cost is a $10.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)