“Relax. Close your eyes. Bring all your attention to your body. Feel the chair beneath your seat. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice the slight breeze traveling through your nostrils as you breathe.”
These are the words a spiritual teacher might say to guide participants into a meditation. Gently, these words bring our attention back to the present. Back to now – away from the persistent analyzing, judging, interpreting, comparing voices of our egoic mind – voices that keep our attention rooted somewhere other than right here, right now.
We conditioned beings have a tendency to relive the past and worry about the future, overlooking what the mind says is the “boring” present. To put it simply, the mind would rather think about life, than to allow us beings to nakedly experience it.
With awareness practice, however, we begin to cotton on the fact that we are not only our thinking mind. We are something more. We begin to see that our mind is a double-edged tool. On the one hand, habitually labeling our experience helps us to organize our world into a “knowable” and manageable box, a useful and necessary tool for interacting with others. On the other, used unconsciously, it leads us to perpetually analyze our world with an aim to optimize. While on its face, that seems like a good thing, allowed to run without interruption, it keeps us in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with life. It also keeps us from exploring the vast and rich, infinite universe of “now,” which exists without our control or interference, without any label, simply arising and passing away on its own.
Awareness practice teaches us to pay attention to the present – to be curious – about the raw experience of life in this moment.
In any moment, there are a plethora of sensations that arise and pass away of their own accord. We might think of these as visual phenomenon, sound phenomenon, taste, touch or smell phenomenon. We may even begin to separate out thoughts as “mind phenomenon.”
Bringing our attention initially to just one of these at a time, helps us isolate each experience. With eyes closed, it is easier to listen to sound phenomenon – a gong for instance – come into being and slowly pass away. Instead of thinking “gong” and ignoring the experience of hearing it, we pay close attention, noting how the sound phenomenon arises of its own accord and gradually passes away without effort.
One at a time, we pay attention to each of the sense fields, isolating them and taking away the labels. Instead of knowing what something is as soon as it arises, we practice experiencing it without the label. We look closely at the minute detail, diving in and enriching our experience of the sensation. Instead of feeling a fly land on our nose and thinking “dirty, annoying fly—shoo!,” we allow ourselves to experience the tiny feet moving on our nose. As the physical sensation takes precedence over the instantaneous judgment, we may even find pleasure from the gentle whispered massage of a fly’s walk.
Or, if a pain flares up during sitting meditation, we might rush to label it “knee injury,” a phrase that comes along with thoughts such as “I’ll never get better; I can’t stand this.” Letting the knee injury label go, however, allows us to look more closely at it. We might note it is “dull, tingling without a center point,” and notice that calling it simply physical sensation changes our experience of it. Persistent pain initially may seem to be static and permanent, but when we look very closely, we find it is constantly shifting, changing and sometimes disappears altogether. We may question our very understanding of pain.
When we pay attention in this way, we have an opportunity to experience the myriad of phenomenon innocently. Instead of the world being a set of known facts, a more poetic and timeless interpretation is available. A taste experienced fully without sight or knowing can be uniquely different and infinitely more rich as our mind opens to the experience and notices subtleties; hence, the popularity of “wine tasting,” for example. A smell fully experienced in this moment can inexplicably transport us to another time, a distant memory.
In choiceless awareness meditation, we start with systematically paying attention to each of our senses one at a time, consciously removing the labels. Then we relax and allow all sensations and phenomenon to simply arise and pass away of their own accord, no interpretation or manipulation required.
This final “choiceless awareness” practice – a state of deep rest combined with riveting alertness and marked by a sense of timelessness and great stillness – is the marriage of feeling and being. It is what I experience as the “Sensual Art of Now.” And it is a doorway to more; more intimacy, more connection, more mystery, more awe.