“Let come what comes, let go what goes. See what remains.”
– Ramana Maharshi
This is a deceptively simple practice that is so simple most folks write it off without giving it a sincere shot. Like meditation, it can take a while to get the hang of, but it’s definitely worth it once you do; in fact its many proponents argue no other practice can change your relationship to hardship and suffering more radically in so short a time. That’s because it begins with where many meditation practices are trying to get to: the inherent freedom and openness underlying all experience.
Here’s the practice: however underwhelming this may sound, bring your attention not the content of your awareness, but to the fact of it. Awareness of awareness, awareness of knowing (for this post we’ll consider awareness and knowing to be synonyms). Don’t try to find this awareness with your attention, rooting around in the back of your head like a pig looking for truffles. Your attention is made of what you’re looking for. The “action” if you want to call it that, is more of a relaxing backwards into your own gaze.
Try it. Shift your awareness away from the screen for a second, and simply notice your own act of knowing. You can do this while still looking at or thinking about stuff, by the way; nothing in the content of your awareness can prevent you from noticing the knowing of it. Awareness of awareness. It shouldn’t feel remotely exotic – actually, nothing is more familiar. We make this shift a hundred times a day. We just don’t do it knowingly.
Every time you orient in this way, for the duration of the shift, there may be a very subtle diminishment in the intensity of “content” in your awareness. This is particularly true for thoughts and feelings. They seem to occupy slightly less of the bandwidth they occupied a moment before. You may momentarily feel a bit lighter, a bit more open.
And that’s all there is to it.
The trick is repeating it, again and again. Every time you remember – “oh yeah, that weird practice Jeff was ranting about” – you make this tiny adjustment in perspective. Very quickly, you learn you can still think and act and engage with the world without ever losing contact with the broader perspective of your own knowing.
What Possible Reason Is there for Such Bizarre Self-Indulgences?
Why would you want to do this? After all, it can sound a bit oppressive, a version of heightened self-consciousness, the very state so many of us are trying to escape from. But that’s only because the painful part of self-consciousness – of being seen – is the thinking and feeling it can evoke, the inner critiques and tensions and contractions and so on.
In so many different ways, Indian traditions have argued that knowing itself – bare awareness – is “empty.” It has no intrinsic properties of its own, but simply reflects whatever it encounters. You also learn through repetition that there’s a difference in your experience between thinking (rumination) and knowing. This isn’t an intellectual idea to argue with by the way, for of course as an idea it’s subject to any number of legitimate rational critiques. It is, rather, something to explore, something to experience.
Try it again, for just a few moments. Awareness of awareness. You are that empty awareness, that pure knowing. Everything else is a visitor, a cloud passing through an open sky.
There – for just a moment, a flicker, of …. of something. Did you feel it? It begins with these little tastes, little tastes of openness, of freedom. Little recognitions that there is something different about experiencing reality in this way – something peaceful, or maybe, at first, something scary. Because it points to a place in your life not subject to change, a place to orient to – and operate from – that’s outside the shifting circumstances of your life. When you rest your awareness here you’re not dependent on things going “right” in the external world. It sounds like detachment and that can definitely be a temporary flavour. And yet, paradoxically, the longer you rest here, the more you find you’re actually more available, less likely to be hijacked by the previous moment’s concerns. Free to respond. Free to be.
As always, no need to take my word for it. Do the experiment – for the next few days, try it as you walk around. As you order lunch, as you watch the summer sky. Awareness of awareness. Practice living from this place. Practice allowing life to flow through you. Not exotic, takes no effort, no need to buy into any mystical or religious assumptions. Just the direct evidence of your own experience.
In the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, they call this the Direct Path: an arrow into the heart of mystery.