Is Awareness Necessary?

The bird on the feeder is attentive to the seed. She ignores the movement of tree branches in the wind. But when something unusual happens, like a human comes into view inside the circle of danger, the bird flies away to a safe place.

The human sits in an office attending to symbols on a computer screen. The air conditioner fan cycles off and on, a copier nearby makes its productive noise, traffic passes by outside, and the human does not perceive hearing these things. The human has a thought that something is wrong with the symbols on the screen. Her body prepares to run away, but that is not the acceptable option.

When our environment becomes familiar, we tend not to notice it. When the tasks we do become well learned, we tend not to attend to them. When an idea becomes part of our personal or cultural collection of ideas, we normally no longer think about it.

Much of what we do is automatic. It is generated as a reflex, or we have learned how to do it, so we don’t have to be aware that we are doing it. Consciousness seem to be about helping us do what we can’t do automatically. Once a behavior is thoroughly conditioned, it no longer needs to be conscious. When we know a thing, we no longer need to be conscious of it. When we have grasped the ideas in a book, we no longer need to read the book. Consciousness therefore is the leading edge of mind. Ordinarily, we become aware of what we might need to respond to when the unconscious mind is not up to the task.

As a consequence, it is possible to go through life mostly asleep or behaving at the whim of our impulses and fears. Or perhaps we habitually focus on what we don’t want to experience. In that case, we get to have aversive potential experiences in our imaginations. We increase our suffering though a strategy of avoiding experience.

Mindfulness is a way to reduce suffering. When we open attention to the full range of stimuli in our internal and external environments, without trying to push away the experience, we increase our adaptability and our ability to make wise choices. Instead of operating automatically, we gain the option of acting with intention. We become freer in our ability to exert our will. We learn to have pain without generating more suffering.


Sit quietly and just notice what draws your attention. Don’t be drawn away by what you notice, but notice what you notice.

Go for a walk and do the same thing. Observe what draws your attention. Sometimes it may be things outside you and sometimes it may be things inside you. What do you notice?

As you go about your daily routine. Check in now and then to see what you are doing and what you are attending to. Notice how much of what you are doing is automatic. Practice attending to those simple things that you do during the day, like brushing your teeth or buttering a piece of bread. Focus in and observe how complex these  tasks are that you do normally without much awareness of them.

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© 2010-2012 Tom Barrett