There are three deliberate mental shifts you can make during classical mindfulness meditation that can help point you toward natural awareness: relaxing effort, broadening attention, and dropping objects.
If you have not read the previous two steps, you can find Relaxing Effort and Broadening Attention on our blog.
When you’re practicing classical mindfulness meditation, probably the most important shift you can make to invite in natural awareness is to move your attention from objects to objectless-ness. Now what on earth does that mean?
Objects of meditation are, simply put, the things we focus on, such as the breath, body sensations, emotions, thoughts. An object can also be something outside us, like another person, sights, or sounds. Any kind of thing can be an object of meditation. Taking something as the object of our awareness is basic to classical mindfulness meditation, as you saw in the previous chapters. Focusing on objects and attending to them is generally how we live our life as well.
Objectless awareness, typically developed in meditation and uncommon in daily life, is when we focus less on the objects of awareness and instead focus on the awareness itself. There will be objects arising in our meditation—thoughts, emotions, sensations, for example—but since they are not the focus, they are less distinct, and we become aware of awareness itself. So instead of our anchor being our breath, for example, our anchor is awareness itself.
People tend to experience objectless awareness in three different ways: that in which everything is contained, that which knows, and that which just is.
That in which everything is contained. Broadening attention from a narrow focus to a more panoramic perception is closely aligned with the experience of objectless awareness as that in which everything is contained. You will notice me using analogies like “Our mind is like the sky, and everything in it is like clouds ﬂoating by.” This helps me convey the idea that awareness contains everything. So when we turn our attention to the sky-like nature of our mind, noticing the boundless space around things, we are noticing the field of awareness in which everything is contained. Some people experience objectless awareness in this way.
Think about looking out a window at a busy street. When we look out the window, we take in the full view in a relaxed way. Rather than specifically focusing on individual vehicles, we somehow are aware of everything that is happening simultaneously, and our vision seems to contain everything.
That which knows. The second idea that objectless awareness focuses on is a little tricky. Most of us are used to focusing on objects when we meditate, but what happens when we make the shift to noticing that which is being aware—to seeking the knower? Oftentimes this shift can feel quite joyful and freeing. Many of the practices in the book move us toward awareness of awareness, as you will see. If you start searching for the knower, what do you find?
The idea is that we can notice things, and we also notice the thing that notices things. We can take our attention from an outward focus on objects and turn it inward, as if we are reversing our attention—trying to move from that which we are aware of, to that which is aware of what we are aware of.
This is excerpted from The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness by Diana Winston.
Diana Winston is the director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) and the coauthor, with Dr. Susan
Smalley, of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. She is a well‑known teacher and
speaker who brings mindful awareness practices to the general public to promote health and well‑being. Called by the LA Times “one of the nation’s best‑known teachers of mindfulness,” she has taught mindfulness since 1993 in a variety of settings, including hospitals, universities, corporations, nonprofits, schools in the US and Asia, and online. She developed the evidence‑based Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPS) curriculum and the Training in Mindfulness Facilitation, which trains mindfulness teachers worldwide.
Her work has been mentioned or she has been quoted in the New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Newsweek; the Los Angeles Times; Allure; Women’s Health; and in a variety of magazines, books, and journals. She is also the author of Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens, the audio program Mindful Meditations, and has published numerous articles on mindfulness. Diana is a member of the Teacher’s Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California. She has been practicing mindfulness meditation since 1989, including a year as a Buddhist nun in Burma. Currently, Diana’s most challenging and rewarding practice involves trying to mindfully parent an eight‑year‑old. She lives in Los Angeles.
For more information, visit dianawinston.com and marc.ucla.edu.
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