Awareness, or consciousness, is perhaps the most profound and significant aspect of human existence. In every moment of our waking life, we are aware. We are conscious. Yet, because of our habitual focus on the “content” of awareness — the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise from moment to moment — most of us live our entire lives without ever becoming aware of awareness itself. At the core of spiritual awakening is the discovery, in our own experience, of consciousness itself. When we learn how to shift our attention from its habitual fixation on “objects” to the limitless awareness in which all objects arise, we discover that we have always already been free. In this 20-minute audio, Craig guides an experiential journey into your own awareness—how it works, where it “comes from,” and what happens when you learn to identify with it as the primary locus of your own being.
Below the audio is an edited transcript of the talk and a downloadable mp3, if you’d prefer to engage the content in that way.
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To begin our journey into the mystery of awareness, I want to invite you to just sit here with your eyes open. Look around the room, or the space you’re in, and just notice everything that’s in your awareness right now. Notice everything you’re aware of: the walls, the furniture, the windows, the sound of my voice and any background sounds you can hear, your own breath coming in and out of your body. Also notice whatever feelings or emotions are present right now, and the thoughts passing through your mind.
Now I want to invite you to notice who or what is aware of all of those things. See if you can notice the awareness that is registering the walls, the furniture, the windows, the sound of my voice, your breath going in and out, your feelings, your thoughts. Notice the awareness in which all of that is arising and becoming known to you.
Don’t worry about having any kind of spiritual experience of awareness. I’m just drawing our attention to what may be the most mysterious thing in the universe, which is that we are aware and we have no idea how or why we’re aware.
The fact that awareness exists is something that literally has the scientific community baffled. For generations, it was ignored by science because it just seemed like something you couldn’t even talk about or think about scientifically. Now there’s a whole division of science known as consciousness studies.
By the way, we’re essentially using awareness and consciousness interchangeably here. They both point to the fact that there’s an inner reality. Outer reality is the world of things interacting with each other, the forces of nature, the wind blowing, the rain falling, the storms, the forces of geology and land formation, the forces of hydrology and water, rivers flowing, and oceans. There’s this whole world of forces and physical interactions happening.
Then there’s this whole inner world through which all of that outer world can be experienced.
It’s this inner world that we’re drawing our attention to right now. Just look at it. Look at this inner world of awareness. It’s miraculous.
Here you are. You have this body, and this head with these eyeballs that seemingly look out. Of course, if you know how vision works, they don’t really look out. Light gets absorbed by certain receptors, represented in certain parts of the brain and you, as a person, have this visual experience of the world. We’re not looking out windows, but we’re having this full, amazingly rich, three-dimensional visual experience of the world.
The interior of the world is happening. We have no idea how or why or even where it’s happening. In fact, since we’re starting with a little contemplative exercise here, let’s explore what I mean by “where” for just a moment.
Look at an object across the room from you. Pick anything: a chair, a bookcase, a doorway, whatever. We are taught to think of awareness as something that exists in the middle of our head. So when we look over there across the room at an object, without thinking about it, we assume that the thing over there is now represented inside the middle of our head.
But, leaving behind how you’ve been taught to think, just look directly at your own experience of awareness. Allow yourself to really give your full awareness to that apparent object across the room. Where is the awareness of that object occurring, experientially? Where is the awareness happening? It’s over there, isn’t it?
Let’s put it this way. It’s no more inside your head than it is over there. There’s no sense that somehow that object has now moved in between your ears, is there? In fact, if you intensely give your attention to it, you’ll begin to notice that the awareness is where the object is. Move your attention somewhere else. Look at something else. And notice that, miraculously, awareness is now over where the new object is.
Experiment with this a little bit more. If you have a window, try looking out at something in the distance—a tree or a building. Now awareness is there. Just notice the awareness that is registering all of this. Notice that it’s not really locatable somewhere in particular.
I’m not suggesting that awareness is in your head. Nor am I trying to convince you that awareness is or isn’t caused by the brain or correlated with the brain. These are purely phenomenological or experiential exercises. I’m not trying to assert a philosophy or a set of beliefs.
What I’m trying to point out is that if we look at our own experience, awareness is a kind of mysterious, ineffable thing. We don’t really know where it’s happening. Experientially it seems to be everywhere. Wherever we focus our attention, awareness is there. We certainly don’t know why or how. No one’s been able to figure that out. And yet it’s probably the most profound fact of our existence. What meaning would our lives have if we weren’t aware?
This is something the scientists and philosophers in consciousness studies talk about. They try to get you to imagine human life going on without awareness. They have these zombie experiments where they say imagine there’s no inner world. There are just these beings with no interiority going around and living their lives. Some philosophers say that this proves that awareness is irrelevant, and that it doesn’t have any meaning or impact. They get into some very silly places that are really counterintuitive.
The point here is we live in this mystery of awareness. This is really the very center of our universe and reality. The main event of a human life is this fact of awareness and yet we almost never notice its existence. I don’t mean that we’re not ever aware. We’re always aware. We’re always conscious, except when we’re literally unconscious while we’re asleep.
We go through life aware, but our awareness is always focused on things. It’s always focused on objects that arise within awareness. Take a moment to see for yourself. Notice just how your awareness goes from one thing to the next. There’s always something arising and we’re always focused on that.
One moment it might be the thought stream, or processing some event that happened yesterday. Or we’re thinking about what we’re going to do later today, or thinking about something we read in the news. And then it gets captured by a sound that we hear outside. Our attention goes there. Perhaps we get captured by something visually. It could be something beautiful, like the sunset. Our attention is there now. It moves from one thing to the next. We’re always aware of these objects that are happening, inner and outer.
Until we sit down to meditate and consciously notice this mystery, we could essentially live our whole lives without ever becoming aware of awareness. I would argue that most people probably have at least a couple of moments in life when they just happen to notice this mystery.
So, why is this so important? Why does awareness need to be noticed?
On a spiritual path, we want to awaken to our true nature. We want to awaken to who and what we really are beyond the mind—beyond our concepts and our ego stories. And one of the simplest ways of understanding what awakened consciousness is that it’s consciousness that has discovered itself. It’s awareness that has come to know its own nature. Something extraordinary happens to us when we learn how to bring our attention to the seat of awareness itself.
In addition to awakening to the mystery of awareness, we’re also interested in the discovery of the infinite self. Let’s just ponder the self for a moment. When we talk about our “self,” what do we think about? When we say “I” or “myself”, we’re usually referring to a narrative that’s built up over many years about all kinds of dimensions of who we are: how we feel about certain things, what we value, what’s important to us, what we’re doing, what we have to do, and what we have done in the past. They’re all characteristics of the self.
But who really is the self? To put it another way, who is the self that’s experiencing all those
things? What is the self that’s able to have those thoughts and that’s able to pay attention to the narrative that you’re telling yourself about yourself?
When we give our attention fully to the one who is living this life, having this experience, and registering all of this information about the self, something significant begins to happen. From the point of view of awakening, that’s the big event. It’s when you or I can, for a moment, leave behind our fixation on the objects that arise within awareness. It’s when we can drop our relentless attention to things, both inner and outer, and allow our awareness to be captured by consciousness itself. From there all manner of profound and mysterious things begin to unfold. We embark on an exploration of consciousness itself, which is who we were before we had any idea who we are.
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