Trust in Awareness

Awareness is a very common word in meditation, but if you read my blog often then you’ll have noticed that I rarely use some of the more common phrases attached to modern meditation practice, like rest in awareness, non-judgemental awareness, and others of this sort. Some people prefer this kind of language, finding the Pāli terminology too obstruse, whereas others feel using more technical terminology because it is freer from interpretations that might obscure the nuances of the original word. But my own take on this is that if we pay attention to how using techniques that employ these more accessible phrases makes us feel  and how it impacts on our mind states, instead of dissecting them for their accuracy of description, then we can understand what their purpose is – and whether there needs to be so much disagreement about them.

I often tend towards the more technical terminology that is found in the suttas, and I mostly do that because it makes it clear which central concept is being referred to; if I say dukkha you know I mean dukkha, whereas if I say unsatisfactoriness then you would need to understand that was just my way of translating dukkha. But there are a lot of different ways to translate words and phrases, and a lot of different ways of interpreting a word because Pāli words rarely have a direct equivalent in English that conveys their full meaning. That can make it sound like people are talking about different things at times, but often it is actually the same thing, and lots of unnecessary arguments erupt out of this confusion.

A couple of months ago I was on an online retreat being led by  the Canadian monk Ajahn Viradhammo where he used a lot of this more accessible language to frame the practice and he did get quite a few questions from the other retreatants about just what he meant when he was using these terms. But despite normally working in Pāli terms,  I did actually find some of the phrases he used worked well as a very useful reminder to not get caught up in thinking.  It was a very timely reminder for me too. I had started the retreat with a lot going on in my mind, a lot of mental chatter, and I had some doubts about how easy it was going to be to get through multiple long meditation sits over the course of five days.

But I like Ajahn Viradhammo, and his book The Contemplatives Craft is one of my favourites from the teachers of the Ajahn Chah tradition, so I was prepared to face the discomfort of my unruly mind to experience some of his teachings directly. Luck was on my side though, because on the first long sitting of the retreat he introduced the theme of ‘trust in awareness’ which helped my restless mind to settle quite quickly.

Ajahn Viradhammo suggested that a way we could think about how to enact trusting in awareness was to think about how our actions show what we normally put our trust in during meditation. [1] When a thought pops into our mind during meditation we might react by thinking ‘I need to get this thought to go away, how can I make this thought go away?’ Our focus in this scenario is on the thought and not on our awareness of the thought, so we treat the thought as being very real. In other words, we put our trust in the realness of the thought, that is why we think we need to get rid of it. But when we put our focus instead on the fact that we are aware of the thought then that automatically pushes it into relief, there is a bit of distance between us and the thought and we are more able to treat is as an object or experience that we are conscious of happening right now. We put our trust in awareness as being the thing that is real instead, and that makes the thought just something that arises in awareness, so we don’t need to do anything about it.

 When we put our trust in a thought, or a feeling we treat it as something real that needs to be responded to, needs to be dealt with, we are trusting in the object of our awareness as being something more than it is – which is just a sensory experience, or a sense contact to give it its more technical name. To trust in awareness instead  means to put your attention on the awareness aspect of your experience and not on the objects that are contained with your awareness.

I think what a word liked trust can bring out for you in your meditation is particular to you. What I experienced was that the trust it made me aware of  was trusting that whatever I was observing was happening within awareness, within consciousness, it wasn’t happening anywhere else. If a thought came into my mind, I trusted that the thought wasn’t ‘in my head’, it was actually in awareness, in consciousness. What felt like thoughts in my head were actually just sensations I was conscious of.  These also weren’t ‘my’ thoughts, they were objects in the mind, objects in awareness, they were just sensory experiences. Also by trusting in awareness it reminded me to trust that any experience that had arisen was also going to cease, it didn’t need me to do anything to it, it wasn’t a problem that I had to solve.

To put trust in awareness for me meant to trust that everything that was happening was happening in awareness and that there is nothing that I can experience outside of that, everything is only happening in the mind, in consciousness, and there is nowhere else that I can have experience of. That meant when strong feelings came up like aversion, or jealousy, recognising that they too were happening in awareness, they too were just objects of experience, they weren’t anywhere else.

Trust is quite a useful word to drop into your meditation with these kinds of strong feelings, because it really does take quite a lot of trust to let go of those feelings. Our strong feelings feel more real than any of the others and we can take quite a lot of convincing before we believe that they are nothing special, that they fall into the same category as stubbing our toe or hearing a bird singing.

But trust in awareness isn’t a phrase you will find in the suttas of the Pāli canon; while it is inspired by the teachings it hasn’t come directly from one of the suttas. Awareness is a very common term when we talk about meditation practice, but it too isn’t a term that we tend to find in the suttas. That isn’t to say that it is wrong to use this word though, it is most often used as a way to translate mindfulness, but  it also seems to be a useful word that can cover a range of experiences that are common to meditation that the teachings might refer to as consciousness, mindfulness, or clear comprehension. Awareness, to my mind, is just putting these ideas into common language in a way that is easy for people to understand and relate to.

Some teachers in the Thai Forest Tradition talk about a field of awareness or consciousness, out of and into which all experiences arise and cease, and one of Ajahn Viradhammo’s key teaching techniques is to instruct you to be conscious of all sensations as being ‘in awareness’. It isn’t uncommon for the teachers who talk in this way to get asked questions about it because it does appear to contradict the standard way of describing consciousness found in the Pāli canon, which is that consciousness arises in condition of a sensory object and a sense organ. Consciousness of this type is temporary and fragmentary, only arising for the length of the cognition and then ceasing again.

To talk about a continuous field of awareness or consciousness to some sounds like an idea that is dangerously close to  atman – a permanent self –  or something approximating eternalist points of view that hold that we have a permanent consciousness that takes rebirth in life after life, and much closer to the teachings of other religions than to Buddhism.

 But looking to the suttas to resolve this point doesn’t give us a clear answer. While most of the suttas do talk about consciousness as impermanent and conditioned, Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro in their anthology of teachings about nibbana, [2] say that there are two suttas that give mention to consciousness, or a form of consciousness, that isn’t temporary or dependent on conditions.

The infinity or otherwise of consciousness is something of a thorny issue then, and Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro say that rather than try to answer the question definitively they take the tack that:

“Rather than try to put forth the definitive meaning that will settle the question forever, perhaps it’s wiser just to consider the elements of the teaching that are presented… and let one’s own understanding arise from that contemplation”. [2]

When I reflect on my own meditation experiences, I find that I too can’t give a definitive answer to this question. I don’t know if there is a continuous consciousness or only a conditioned one, but I can observe that at times I have experiences that support both possibilities.

When I observe arising and ceasing of phenomena in meditation, I can see how it is possible to understand each thing I am aware of as one single event of consciousness created by the meeting of mind and the requisite sense organ, and I can make use of that observation  by cultivating an awareness of impermanence.

But, when I use Ajahn Viradhammo’s trust in awareness theme and I watch phenomena as arising and ceasing within the field of awareness, then I can have a different experience that feels like there is a continuous consciousness that exists separate to its objects, and I can make use of that to cultivate an awareness of not-self in thoughts and feelings.

These contradictory experiences  aren’t confusing for me though and I think that is because I don’t try to create a model of reality out of them, I just experience what I experience and see what I can learn from it. Many scholars and teachers make the point that in the Pāli teachings the Buddha didn’t ever try to describe reality to us in terms of what the world was made of, or how our minds and bodies worked- he focused only on what it was possible to experience and how misunderstanding our experiences causes us suffering.

Because we cannot experience anything outside of our senses, we cannot know anything beyond what we experience via our senses, so questions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t can’t ever be fully answered. All I can know is what I experience, and sometimes I have one experience when it comes to consciousness and sometimes I have another, that’s just how it is.

Also in my current form as a human being with a human mind and human senses, I’m not sure if I can know if there is or isn’t an infinite consciousness- do I even have a sense organ that is capable of picking that up? But if I spend a lot of time thinking about it or getting into arguments about it then I know  I can most definitely experience unwholesome mind states and suffering.

So I don’t know if there is a continuous field of awareness, nor to I hold to the belief that there is or isn’t, but I do know that I can use these ideas as part of a meditation exercise and that it can have useful results.  It is possible to  have an experience of consciousness that feels like it is continuous – whether it is or not doesn’t stop us from  making use of it in meditation and helping us to train our non-reactivity.

When we talk about seeing a sensation as ‘being in awareness’, it automatically changes our stance to it. We create a bit of distance between ourselves and the object, we feel more impartial towards it, and less like the possessor or creator of it. This is something that I recognise to be a state of equanimity where I neither want to cling to or push away the object.

This training for the sake of developing equanimity, I would argue, is the same principle that we find throughout the teachings. When we observe the characteristic of impermanence, the aim of it is to develop equanimity – why try to cling on to something that you can’t keep? Why spend so much energy trying to get rid of something that’s going to end anyway? We trust in the principle of impermanence and we don’t need to react to everything any more.

It’s the same with  the characteristic of not-self; whatever thoughts or feelings come up we can respond to them equanimously, because it’s not me, not mine, and not personal. We also do the same when we observe the characteristic of dukkha too; something happens that isn’t what we wanted but instead of fretting about it we recognise that you can’t get everything the way you want it all the time, nothing has gone wrong with the world, and we can let it not be a problem for us.

Interestingly, Ajahn Viradhammo’s approach is mirrored by Ajaan Fuang, and I say interestingly because this way of talking is sometimes characterised as being one that’s fairly unique to the Ajahn Chah lineage.

Fuang, who was the teacher of the famous scholar monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, was also from within the wider Thai Forest Tradition but from a different lineage. Like Ajahn Chah’s students he too talked about the importance of focusing on awareness in meditation, and even seems to imply a similar idea of a field of consciousness when he talks about a primal heart that’s aware of everything:

“Whatever you experience, simply be aware of it. You don’t have to take after it. The primal heart has no characteristics. It’s aware of everything. But as soon as things make contact, within or without, they cause a lapse in mindfulness, so that we let go of awareness, forget awareness in and of itself, and take on all the characteristics of the things that come later.” [3]

He also says:

“Whenever anything hits you, let it go only as far as ‘aware’. Don’t let it go all the way into the heart.” [3]

When we read Ajaan Fuang’s words, it is easy to understand that what he is guiding us to is non-reactivity. Allow the sensation to register, but don’t react to it, don’t interfere with it, don’t grab hold of it and make a story out of it, and don’t try to get rid of it, just let it be.

If all of these approaches are about non-reactivity and equanimity  why don’t we just say ‘watch the object equanimously’ then? Well, I don’t know about you, but at the start of my practice that kind of statement would have created more questions for me than answers. How do I watch equanimously? How do I know if I am watching equanimously? What does equanimous watching even look like? I don’t think I would have known where to start.

As a new meditator it was useful for me to have the state I was supposed to be trying to get into described to me in words that were easy to understand – like don’t be the thought, be that which knows the thought. This made it easier to understand the difference between thinking a thought and watching a thought, or the difference between feeling a feeling and watching a feeling.

As I’ve found in my research over the previous weeks on the Brahmaviharas, when we don’t understand what a quality like equanimity is for we can misinterpret it and misapply it. A common understanding of equanimity is often quite a cold, aloof, emotionally distant way of responding. Treating equanimity as meaning something like this can lead us to bypassing our experience instead of allowing it to be fully in our awareness, so telling a new meditator to react with equanimity can lead them to just cut themselves off from their feelings instead of opening up to them.

Talking about it in more accessible ways perhaps acts to help us to understand what it is supposed to feel like, because when we learn how to observe a thought instead of thinking it, we experience a feeling of relief that comes with responding non-reactively and that peaceful feeling is what our practice is supposed to be aiming towards. Once we know the feeling then we can understand for ourselves if what we are doing is taking us closer to it or further away from it.

But any way of teaching is only useful if a person finds it useful; I found Ajahn Viradhammo’s use of the phrase ‘trust in awareness’ useful because it reminded me of some very key points of the teachings, and reminded me that everything was just a sensory experience. Not everyone on the retreat found it so easy to understand straightaway and the Ajahn got a lot of questions from other retreatants asking him to explain it a bit more.

American teacher Joseph Goldstein gave an example of how developing different phrases to  make teachings easier to understand can go a bit wrong when he was teaching meditation in Australia and found that the phrase ‘soft mind’, as in ‘develop a soft and spacious mind’, meant something entirely different to his Australian students to what he had intended and it made him realise that he couldn’t take for granted that the words conveyed enough meaning to not need further explaining, [4] so we have to tread carefully whatever route we take through the teachings.

Personally, I don’t have any particular objection to describing experiences in these more accessible ways, as long as they are still pointing to the same underlying experiences that support letting go of unwholesome mind states and cultivate wholesome ones in their place

Words and phrases are only an approximation of experience, and what is more important to me is not whether we are giving things the same name but whether we are having the same experiences or not. As I quoted in last week’s post from the Samkhitta Sutta, we can tell if we are using the teachings properly by the outcome of them leading to us suffer less, not suffer more, and them leading us to having wholesome mind states not unwholesome ones. [5].  Perhaps we often fall into the trap of putting our trust in a particular technique or approach, instead of putting our trust in what the outcome of it is.

We all need to understand our experiences in a way that makes sense to us, so clinging dogmatically onto one particular way of describing or translating an element of the teachings is counterproductive in the sense that that kind of attitude can generate unwholesome mind states and lead to conceit, pride, arguments, and division .I’d suggest that different ways of describing where to put our attention in meditation aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally, but often instead seem to be to  point us to a particular type of experience – or lead us to a particular type of feeling – that will help us to cultivate the right qualities we need to make progress.

Photo by Martin Lostak on Unsplash

References

1.      Ajahn Viradhammo. Day 2 :: Reflections & Guided Meditation – YouTube. 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaeW6Hnrcn4&list=PLSngZRiHzOKD18lOiZ5SSHI8H9TcT-Dx9&index=3&ab_channel=FriendinDhamma. Accessed 26 Aug 2021.

2.     Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Pasanno. The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbāna: Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation; 2010. https://amaravati.org/dhamma-books/the-island/

3.     Ajaan Fuang, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Awareness Itself. 15/05/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/fuang/itself.html. Accessed 26 Aug 2021.

4.     Joseph Goldstein. Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom: Newleaf; 1993.

5.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Saṁkhittasutta AN8.53. 30/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/an8.53/en/thanissaro. Accessed 31 Aug 2021.

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