What Is Natural Awareness?
Awareness is a capacity of the human mind. Awareness is the ability to directly know and to perceive, sense, feel, or be cognizant of experience.1 We might think of awareness simply as the state of being conscious of something.
Every living being is aware. We usually don’t think much about awareness, but in order to function, humans have to be aware. Not only do humans have the capacity to be aware, but they also have the ability to be aware of awareness, or aware that they are aware.
Let’s try this simple experiment:
Right now, put down the book and don’t be aware. In the next minute, please stop being aware.
Ready, go . .
Are you back? Could you not be aware? No, you couldn’t. This capacity to be aware is a function of the human mind. And in this exercise, you noticed that you were aware and that it’s impossible to stop being aware.
However, being aware is not natural awareness. Natural awareness is very hard to explain.
But here’s the synopsis: Natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on the awareness itself rather than on the things we are aware of. It is generally relaxed, effortless, and spacious.
Natural awareness can feel like:
- Your mind is completely aware and undistracted without you doing anything in particular to make yourself aware.
- Your mind is like wide open space, and everything in it is just passing by.
- You are aware but not identified with the part of you that is aware.
- Your mind feels at rest.
- You are noticing that you are noticing, and you are abiding in that awareness.
- Everything just seems to be happening on its own.
- You feel a sense of contentment not connected to external conditions.
- You are simply being—without agenda—and this beingness creates a feeling of timelessness and ease.
You can experience natural awareness in one of these ways or some combination of them. Everyone experiences it in different ways, and how you experience it can vary from day to day.
One of the simplest ways to access natural awareness is through memory. Let yourself remember a time when you felt awake, connected, peaceful, expansive—in a state of “beingness.” Recall this time. Don’t try too hard; let it come to you in a simple way.
Perhaps you were in nature, in the midst of athletic activity, in the creative flow, lying at rest in bed, with a lover, or laughing uproariously with your best friend. Can you remember where you were? What did you see? Hear? Now remember how you felt at the time. What did your body feel like? How about your heart? See if you can invite in a full-bodied experience of the memory. Recall details: sight, scents, sounds, any other sensory experience.
Now notice what is happening in the present moment. See if a sense of beingness is present for you, just by your imagining a past experience. What does that beingness feel like? Connectedness, ease, presence, relaxation? Let yourself rest here.
Ask Yourself . . .
Try this practice at any moment. In meditation you might want to focus your mind before you employ it. In daily life, try it when you feel drawn to.
Turn your attention to whatever is happening in the moment, which we might call “just this.” “Just this” could be anything—thoughts, emotions, sensations, sounds, your breath, the visual field, or some combination of these things. Then drop the following question into your mind and see what happens, as if you were dropping a stone into a pond to notice the ripples:
“Is it okay to be aware of just this?”
Natural awareness can sometimes be evoked with phrases that remind us of our own luminous awareness. It can be helpful to have a stable, concentrated, and somewhat receptive mind before you state the phrase in your mind and notice the impact (as if dropping a pebble into a pond and noticing the ripples), but it is also fine to use a reminder phrase at any moment. Here are a few you can try (attributed, when applicable, to the meditation teachers who taught them to me):
“Rest in the way things are.” (Guy Armstrong)
“Mind luminous like the sun.”
“Mind of no clinging.” (Joseph Goldstein)
“Everything happens on its own.”
“Aware of awareness.”
“Our mind is like the sky, vast, open, and spacious; thoughts are like clouds floating by.
One of Diana’s favorite ways to access natural awareness is through quotes or poetry that point to the state. Sometimes just reading or repeating a quote can allow a softening in my body and a relaxation into easeful awareness.
Once you are settled, drop the following quote into a receptive mind and notice the effects. You might repeat it several times during one meditation session.
Having purified the great delusion, the heart’s darkness, the radiant light of the unobscured sun continually rises. – DUDJOM LINGPA RINPOCHE
Bank of a River Analogy
This practice is an invocation of an analogy. Read it slowly and let the image sink in—not to dwell on it, but to see how it impacts your consciousness. Take in the analogy as you settle into your own sense of being. Keep it in the back of your mind throughout a meditation session or at any point in the day.
Imagine you are sitting on the bank of a flowing river. The water is rushing past. You can’t put your hand in and grasp the river, because it is ever flowing. Leaves, sticks, stones, and other debris flow by, carried on the current. These objects are like our thoughts, memories, images, and worries—all floating by as we sit on the bank, just noticing them.
Ask Yourself . . .
Here’s a question to ask yourself to help you access natural awareness. It is not meant for you to analyze and ruminate on but, rather, for you to simply drop into your receptive mind.
So get centered, relax, and try some breath awareness to calm your mind in meditation. Or in daily life, take a breath or two and then drop the following question into your mind, as if dropping a stone into a pond to notice the ripples. Listen deeply and see what emerges.
What is here now if there is no problem to solve? – ATTRIBUTED TO LOCH KELLY
For most of us, our attention is usually focused forward. We see what is in front of us, and unless we have back pain, we might ignore the back of our body. This glimpse practice has us notice our back body. By opening our senses in a way that is not typical for us, we can often find ourselves dropping into a more aware state.
Take a few breaths to stabilize your mind. Become aware of your body, noticing whatever sensations are obvious to you in this moment—heaviness, lightness, tingling, warmth, and so on.
Turn your attention now to the back of your body. What can you feel along the back of your body? Similar sensations of warmth, hardness, pressure? Soften and unclench your belly. Rest there with an investigative mind, letting yourself feel sensations with curiosity. You may find that a simultaneous awareness arises in your full body. You may find yourself relaxing more as you begin to include your back body in your awareness. Notice if your awareness settles or expands. Observe what happens for you.
Notice the Noticer
Who’s being aware? This is the perennial meditation question. You can explore it experientially. Additionally, any of the glimpse practices can be supplemented with a shift of awareness to see if you can notice that which is aware of all things.
To notice the noticer, instead of looking outward, look toward the looker; notice that part of you that is noticing. You can ask yourself, “Who is aware?” At first you might identify a sense of a person looking out at things or noticing your experience, but then what is aware of that looker? You might even look forward and then flip your attention to the sense of being aware of what you’re looking at.
Really have fun with this practice, because it’s challenging and there’s not a right way to do it. Try not to get caught up in theories, but keep returning to the experience. Be open to whatever you find.
Open Your Eyes
Opening our eyes while we meditate or opening our eyes in a relaxed, meditative way in daily life is a wonderful doorway into natural awareness.
To try this glimpse practice in meditation, when your mind feels stable, open your eyes. Let your eyes cast their gaze on whatever is in front of you. Look with awareness. Try not to get lost in the story, thinking about the visual object(s), but simply let your eyes rest on the visual field. Let your eyes be soft. Keep your belly soft.
In daily life, decide at any moment that you want to shift into an open-eyed, relaxed, broad viewing of whatever is in front of you. This practice may be slightly easier to do when the view is appealing. You can even try looking out the window at nature. Instead of being sucked into the stories, thoughts, and reactions to sights, as we usually are, settle back, soften your gaze, soften your belly, and simply look.
In both cases, see if you can let your peripheral sense dominate. Can you not only look at what is in front of you but also take in what is happening from multiple directions? How expansive can your visual field be?
Don’t strain your eyes; try to keep them soft. If they feel tight or itchy or as if they are full of sand, just relax them or close them for a while, then open your eyes again if you wish to keep going with this practice.
Sense the impact of this practice on your awareness. What happens to thoughts when you rest with this visual field? Who is seeing?
A Mirror Analogy
After settling your mind a bit, read this analogy slowly and let the image sink in—not to dwell on it, but to see how it impacts your consciousness.
Imagine your mind is like a mirror, crystal clear, reflecting only what comes in front of it. No opinion, no clinging, no aversion—just pure reflection of reality exactly as it is. Rest your mind like a mirror that purely reflects what is right here in front of you.
Several of the glimpse practices invite us to broaden our attention in atypical ways. While having a broad awareness is not technically natural awareness, it often can evoke a more expansive and relaxed feeling that can ignite a fuller resting within natural awareness.
When you are settled, turn your attention to sound. Listen to the sounds around you as they come and go, without getting caught in a story about them. Just notice the changing sounds in the room or outside the room, as if you were listening to music.
Now begin to expand your listening. Listen out to the distance. What is the farthest away sound you can hear?
Let your attention open to the full array of sounds, near and far. Sustain this listening for a little while and notice how your mind feels as it expands as far as possible. Then rest with what you discover.
Fake It till It’s Real
Sometimes natural awareness seems miles away. So just for this moment, let’s pretend it’s here. Right now, give it a try. You are naturally aware. You are not separate from natural awareness. Imagine it’s right here.
You can repeat the phrase “It’s already here” or “I’m already aware” and notice what happens. Once you try to look for natural awareness, what do you find? Rest in the way things are. Can you trust whatever is here (even it it’s not exactly here)?