The Many Faces of Awareness

Awareness is a (some would say) unique capacity of the human mind. As we ordinarily understand it, it’s the ability to directly know and to perceive, sense, feel, or be cognizant of experience. We might think of awareness simply as the state of being conscious of something.

What some meditative traditions call “natural awareness” is a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on the things we are aware of. It’s “awareness of awareness.” It is generally relaxed, effortless, and spacious. You can see already why a lot of people are interested in it.  And quite frankly, you can see why it may turn off some skeptics of meditative practices.  “Awareness of awareness?  Meta-awareness? Please.”

Because natural awareness is hard to define, maybe a better way to speak about it is through the experience of natural awareness.  Markers for natural awareness can feel like:

●   Your mind is completely aware and un-distracted without you doing anything in particular.
●   Your mind is like wide open space, and everything in it is just passing by.
●   Your mind feels at rest even if thoughts pop in and out.
●   You are noticing that you are noticing, and you are hanging out in that awareness.
●   Everything just seems to be happening on its own.

Some of these indicators may seem too “flowy” for you, and others may hit the mark.  The experience (like the human experience) is an individual one.  If you’re interested in the practice of natural awareness, here’s an extremely short version to try…click on this link in one of my favorite mediation apps, Insight Timer, and you’ll hear a series of bell tones (seriously, it’s 15 seconds long).  Instead of focusing on the bell tones fading away and the next one coming into focus, cast the mental net wider and simply be aware of the bells, in their entirety.  It can be a much different experience than hyper-concentration on an anchor point such as the breath.

I think natural awareness can be a good counterbalance to mindfulness meditation. Lots and lots of people (myself included) exert massive amounts of energy to keep their attention focused; we often feel a disturbing tightness and tension in our meditation practice. When we begin to relax into a more natural awareness, the struggle ceases, and we find we can continue to practice with much greater ease and spaciousness. I don’t have to try so hard to be aware. This might be true for you.

So, if the classic “awareness of breath” meditation style is causing you to put in a lot of effort, or judge yourself, or tighten your awareness in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable, natural awareness can be a great counterweight. Sometimes when accessing natural awareness we can feel a sense of compassion, kindness, interconnection, joy, and radiance. If you exhibit these qualities, you could very well impact the people around you.

I now hear colleagues, friends (or my husband) saying, “I don’t want to feel comfort, ease, joy, peace and radiance.  I have to go to work this afternoon as a patrol sergeant.  How in the world can this translate into my need to click into situational awareness?  Letting go of concentration can increase my performance? This seems like a contradiction.”

We know there are differences between awareness, concentration, and situational awareness.  Situational awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend information about how to survive in an situation (possibly an emergency). Put simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you. It is dynamic, hard to maintain, and easy to lose.  In its un-evolved form, it’s closer to hyper-vigilance.   In its evolved form, it could be considered the gold standard for (law enforcement) performance. Situational awareness is extremely difficult to maintain, and lots of people don’t even plug into the concept.  I’m thinking of the lady in the grocery store, reading a tabloid magazine, who’s holding up the line…or the driver who fails to signal in front of you because his actions can’t possibly affect anyone around him…or the hipster on his cell phone that walks in front of the MAX train.  You get the picture.

Situational awareness is taught in law enforcement realms as a foundation of tactical methods; it can be considered one of the most important aspects of high performing individuals in crisis situations.  Learning to predict events, identifying elements around you, trusting your feelings (instincts), avoiding complacency, being aware of time (and elapsed time), actively preventing fatigue, consistently assessing the situation, and monitoring the behavior of others are all cornerstones of situational awareness.

Can natural awareness be the next step in the evolution of awareness?  Can natural and situational awareness exist in your high-performing brain at the same time? Maybe not at the same time, but I think the ability to practice both is there.  I also believe that both can be considered tactical in nature.  In my opinion, you don’t have to have a kaftan on and burning incense to be in a state of natural awareness.  It does take practice, though.  In addition, you don’t have to be carrying a firearm and driving a patrol car to practice situational awareness.

The common theme that would elevate both practices, and that I invite you to consider, is bringing compassion into both concepts.  Compassion is the key to high performance (yes, I can hear Lt. Rich Goerling’s voice as I type that).  Here’s the bottom line: how evolved could we be if we not only were aware of the lady in the grocery store line, but we held her in compassion?  How bad-ass could you be if you just gently let go of the animosity created by the guy who cut you off in traffic?  The ultimate act of compassion exists when you place your hand on the arm of the hipster, before he steps onto the MAX tracks.

So there’s the answer…I think you can have both the compassion and the concentration; the crisis and the calm; the warrior and the monk.  It’s practicing both that makes for a lifetime of growth toward a different state.

Just a few thoughts as we head into March…new videos and training links to be uploaded next week…stay tuned! Keep smiling, Nici