Seeking Awareness of Awareness

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”
Henry David Thoreau

What is the mind if you take away the thoughts? Your computer monitor shows you words and pictures, but you don’t confuse the monitor with the processor. Your mind projects words and pictures, but you might confuse these projections with mind itself. All these thoughts, memories and sense impressions that we experience are going on inside the bone box that is our skull. As you read this, light enters your eyes, hits some cells on your retina, and bio-electric signals travel to your brain where innumerable brain cells fire in some pattern that induces awareness of the look and meaning of the words. You fabricate the experience of seeing, reading and understanding inside your brain.

As you type on the keyboard, you see letters on your monitor screen. But the keyboard isn’t sending letters to your processor. It is sending code that represents the letter and that code breaks down to 1s and 0s that are represented by an off or an on state that consists of an electrical charge or an absence of one in a circuit. Those excited electrons in a circuit seem a long way removed from the initial impulse you had to press a particular sequence of keys on your keyboard. You don’t often think about the process. You take it for granted. Similarly, few of us really understand the nature of mind. We typically take our awareness at face value. That can get us into trouble, because we confuse this fabrication of experience with reality. We take illusion for real. We mistake the impermanent for the permanent. We mix up what is not important with what is. Consequently, we suffer.

There is more to mind than the thoughts that chug through our awareness. Or perhaps we should say there is less. To live free of the delusion that our mind creates so effortlessly, we need to see beyond the picture show in our head. It is possible to wake up from this common dream, to dissolve delusion and free ourselves from the attachments and aversions that create suffering.

It would be of great benefit for all of us to be able to realize the true nature of mind. This aspect of mind—that which is behind the chattering of our thoughts, is referred to as rigpa in Tibetan. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, describes rigpa as “a primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant and always awake. It could be said to be the knowledge of knowledge itself.” He says that Rigpa, this essential nature of mind is what Christians and Jews call “God,” Hindus call “the Self,” “Shiva,” “Brahman” and “Vishnu.” Sufis call it “the Hidden Essence" and Buddhists call it “buddha nature.”

Sogyal Rinpoche uses the metaphor of the clouds and the sky to illustrate what he refers to as “rigpa” or “buddha nature.” If the clouds are our thoughts and “the confusion of ordinary mind”, the vast open sky is our primordial mind. Clouds may obscure the sky from our earth bound perspective, but they can’t alter its nature.

Those fortunate ones who have realized the true nature of mind have typically done it through quieting the brain. This can be done through meditation. Through practice we can attain a tranquil stability of awareness. There are many ways to attain mental quietude. One useful way is to be mindful of the breath.

Once we have quieted our mind—stabilized our consciousness, we can observe our thoughts without grasping or clinging to them. They come and they go. We observe, but don’t get engaged with the thoughts. Later, we may reach the clear, relaxed, attentive state where we can look into the nature of mind itself. We can practice awareness of awareness. No longer just observing our thoughts, we begin to observe the process out of which they arise. We can look past the mental phenomena to their source. As we observe, we may ask, “who is observing?” Look into the nature of rigpa, the innermost nature of mind. Examine this awareness that is happening. Who is observing? Attend to that observer. Who is attending? What is the nature of awareness? Observe the consciousness of the moment.

Padmasambhava, an 8th century Indian tantric master, taught:

“Steadily place your mind in the space in front of you and let it be present there. Examine well: what is this thing of yours that you have placed here today? Look to see if the one who is placing and the mind that is being placed are one or two…If there is not more than one, is that one the mind? Observe: what is the reality of the so-called mind… Let the one who is pondering, “What is the mind like?” observe that very consciousness and search for it. Steadily observe the consciousness of the meditator and search for it. Observe: in reality, is this so-called mind something that exists?”

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© 2009 Tom Barrett