“Let come what comes, let go what goes. See what remains.”
– Ramana Maharshi
This deceptively simple practice is so simple most people write it off without giving it a sincere shot. Like meditation, it can take a while to get the hang of, but it’s worth it once you do. In fact, its many proponents argue no other practice can change your relationship to hardship in such a direct and uncompromising way. That’s because it begins with where many meditation practices are trying to get to: the inherent freedom and openness that apparently underlies all experience.
So, here’s the practice: 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. 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 computer screen for a moment, 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 subtle diminishment in the intensity of “content” in your awareness. This is especially true for thoughts and feelings. They seem to occupy slightly less 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. Sort of.
The trick is repeating it, again and again, for … an admittedly frustrating long time. Or perhaps for a short time. Whose to say? Every time you remember – “oh yeah, that strange practice Jeff was talking about” – you make this tiny adjustment in perspective. It’s possible to continue to think and act and engage with the world without ever losing contact with the broader perspective of our own knowing. This is where it starts – further reorientations and recalibrations await.
Why would you want to do this? After all, it may actually sound a bit oppressive, a kind of heightened self-consciousness, the very state so many of us are trying to escape. But that’s only because the painful part of self-consciousness – the being seen part – are the thoughts and feelings being seen evokes, our own inner critiques and tensions and contractions and so on.
In 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.
It begins with these little glimpses (“small glimpses, many times” says Loch Kelly), little tastes of openness, of freedom. Short recognitions that there is something different about experiencing the world 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 operate from that’s outside the shifting circumstances of your life.
When you rest your awareness here, you’re no longer dependent on things going “right” in the external world. It sounds like detachment and that can be a cul-de-sac some practitioners find themselves in. However, most experienced teachers and students report that, on the contrary, the longer they rest here, the more connected and available they seem to be. It allows them to be truly in the moment, and thus less likely to be hijacked by the previous moment’s limiting ideas and 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. Aware of awareness. Practice living from this place. Practice allowing life to flow through you. It isn’t exotic, it takes no real effort, and there’s no need to buy into any of my mystical assumptions. See for yourself what’s true, using 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.
PS – For further reading, my two favourite contemporary teachers of the Direct Path, each with their own inimitable style, are Rupert Spira and Loch Kelly.
I wrote an article about Spira and some other “nondual” teachers here, and I guide a “rest as awareness” meditation here.