Diana Winston: The Big Bang of Natural Awareness

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.
Today my guest is Diana Winston. Diana Winston is the director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, known as MARC. She has been called by the LA Times one of the nation’s best known teachers of mindfulness, and she has taught mindfulness since 1999 in a variety of settings, including hospitals, universities, corporations, nonprofits, and schools in the United States and Asia. She’s considered one of the early founders of meditation programs for youth, and she taught on the seminal mindfulness and ADHD research study at UCLA in 2005.

Diana is a member of the Teachers Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, where she was trained to teach meditation by Jack Kornfield. In this conversation with Diana Winston, we talk about her new book that’s called The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness. And listen carefully to this conversation. She offers lots of what she calls “glimpse practices,” these little practices that deliver a lot. Here’s my conversation with Diana Winston.

Diana, your new book, The Little Book of Being—whenever I say that I want to say something like “. . . that packs a big punch!” or something like that, right after saying the title. The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness, takes an area of meditation practice that I think many people find complex, difficult, out of reach. You know, I’m doing my regular mindfulness of breathing practice, and natural awareness practice, that’s very advanced, isn’t it? And yet in the book, you say very clearly that you don’t believe there’s a hierarchy when it comes to meditation practice. Let’s start there. Why do you not believe there is a hierarchy of practices?

Diana Winston: Well, from watching my own practice for so many years, and from teaching many, many students over that time, I’ve seen that people’s practices tend to go back and forth into all sorts of territories. Even in the course of one meditation sitting, you might find that you’re just staying with your breath, and even if you’ve been . . . myself, I’ve been practicing for 30 years, and yet I really feel comfortable staying with my breath. And then there might be a point in my practice where it opens up, and I connect with a more spacious awareness, and rest in a sense of ease and well-being, and it’s not like one is better than the other. They connect with each other, they influence each other, and they’re all positive. All states that we’re encountering when we’re practicing meditation can have a beneficial and useful effect.

TS: Why do you think natural awareness practice has been taught for so many years as an advanced practice? Why is it presented that way if, as you’ve just described, that’s not actually how a lot of people practice?

DW: Well, I think there are a number of different reasons. I think, in some ways, it requires a certain amount of stability of mind to access natural awareness, in an ongoing, stable way. What I point to in the book quite a bit is that natural awareness is present for all of us at various times in our lives. Maybe we’re in nature and we have an access to natural awareness, or in the midst of the day, in a very simple way, and it’s not like a full on, stabilized, mediative, natural awareness, but it’s something that we can all connect with.

But in order to access it in a deeper and, as I’m saying, “stable” way, we need to have a bit of experience under the belt—a little more concentration, a more stable mind. And once we have that, then it’s easier to stay in this territory longer. That’s one reason. It relies on a certain amount of beginning our practice in a certain way, like a more concentrated way.

Then secondly, I think that there’s a lot of . . . I don’t know how to say it, but there’s a lot of dogma around it, right? It’s taught in all sorts of ways that involve, oftentimes, a lot of ritual, or “this is special,” and you can only get here if it’s the esoteric teaching, and you only get here because you’ve gone through all the preliminary teachings. And I absolutely understand it, and it’s relevant within different religious traditions in that way, but I actually think it’s not . . . the states themselves are accessible to any of us at any time.

TS: OK, so for the person who’s listening and says, “I don’t even know if I know what the two of you are talking about when you say natural awareness. I mean, I know what awareness is. I can be aware of thoughts, and emotions, and sensations.” Why add this word “natural” to it?

DW: When I’m talking about natural awareness, I’m talking not necessarily about probably the kind of awareness that most people are familiar with in their meditation practice, which is pay attention to your breathing and stay with it, and that’s a great way to be aware. No problem with that. Natural awareness is more of an effortless, spacious, relaxed awareness. It’s connected to awareness of awareness itself, and it often is accompanied by a sense of resting in our own being. Resting in the awareness that’s already present, and that’s different than a deliberate awareness that we might have with paying attention to our breathing, for instance.

TS: OK. Awareness of awareness. I don’t want to lose anybody at this point, Diana. Help people sense into what that is.

DW: OK. I do my best to not make this complex, and sometimes when we say awareness of awareness, it can sound complex. One way to think about it is: Can we be aware that we’re aware, right? Can you be aware that you’re aware in this moment? And I’d maybe just invite everybody for one second to try a little, almost an awareness game, to just stop for a moment, and for the next 5 seconds, 10 seconds, don’t be aware, OK? Willing to go with this?

TS: Yes, let’s try it.

DW: OK. Ready, and when I say three, don’t be aware. One, two, three, go.

What you probably just saw is that it’s impossible, that we’re always aware. But in that moment of trying not to be aware, maybe you saw that our mind is aware. In that way, you were being aware of your awareness. Here’s another way to talk about it. Usually when we’re meditating, we’re aware of what’s called the objects of awareness, like you’re aware of your breath, you’re aware of a sound, you’re aware of an emotion arising. These are the objects of awareness. But what I’m inviting you to do with awareness of awareness, is to notice the awareness itself. Everything is arising in awareness. Can you turn your attention there? Can you turn your attention to awareness, as opposed to the objects?

Some people experience it as a kind of space around everything, like if you were to look—and if everyone can look in the room that they’re in right now—and you can see lots of objects. There’s a desk, or a table or something. Looking at the space around the objects is analogous, in some ways, to noticing awareness itself. Some people experience this as kind of like the container of everything. Some people experience it as they notice that they’re just here, that they’re just aware, and that’s how people talk about it. I’m trying to, when I’m looking at all of this, I’m trying to think about how students over the years have talked about being aware of awareness, and a lot of people just say, “I’m just aware, and I know that I’m aware.” It’s an interesting territory because it’s hard to talk about and it’s hard to practice, but when you get it you’re like, “Oh, right. I’m just resting in awareness, as opposed to the objects of awareness.”

TS: Now, it’s interesting that you called your new book The Little Book of Being. I notice that the word “being” has a different quality for me than the word “awareness.” And these are just words, but when I’m aware of awareness, I feel very big, open, spacious; and then when I hear a word like being, I feel more sort of warm and present. I wonder how that goes for you and why you decided to call the book The Little Book of Being.

DW: Believe it or not, the title just emerged in a meditation practice, and I just went, “OK, that’s the title.” I don’t have a great, intellectual reason.

TS: I think that’s a great reason.

DW: OK. But yes, you may have different qualities connected to thinking about it in this way. Awareness for you felt spacious. Being felt maybe warm, restful. I just like to use whatever words can help people connect with it, because what I’ve discovered is that it can have different qualities. It can have qualities of openness, of spaciousness, of just here-ness, of joy, of love, of compassion. There’s many different facets of the way that it can manifest itself, and so it’s just interesting to . . . My hope with the book, really, is that everyone will find their own doorway in, and it might be just the language has to be tweaked in a particular way that allows each person to access it.

TS: OK, so let’s say someone’s listening at this point, and they’re like, “Aware of awareness. Why do I care? Why is this important?”

DW: Well, it’s fine if you don’t care, but if you’re interested, there’s a lot of different reasons. The first is that being aware of resting in your own sense of well-being creates a quality of well-being that we can have throughout our lives. If we can rest more and more in our own natural awareness, it’s like these qualities of rest, ease, connection—they’re kind of like the meditation goodies that we can get through practicing in this way. Then also, resting in awareness has an aspect of it that’s really about letting go. It’s about not being caught in the dramas that we’re caught in most of the time.

A mind that’s resting in awareness has to have dropped whatever it’s holding onto, and the analogy I often use, the one that I talk about in the book, is about how they catch monkeys in Thailand—it’s kind of a horrible thing about monkeys, but just go with it for a moment. It’s a trap where they take a coconut, and they hollow out the coconut, and they put a banana in it, and then they have a hole that’s big enough for the monkey to put his hand in but not pull it out if he’s holding the banana, and then it’s secured to the ground. The monkey grabs the banana, and then they’re stuck, and they’re holding on, they’re holding, probably really miserable, and there’s a very obvious solution, which is that the monkey just needs to drop the banana.

This is what’s happening much of the time with many of us. We’re just caught in our stories and our desires and our dramas and our fears, and when we can learn to drop the banana, there’s a sense of release, and a resting of our mind in this present moment. It’s no longer about trying to make something be a different way or being in resistance, but there’s a resting in this moment, and really that’s what it is. This natural awareness is just coming into a place of ease and well-being that’s accessible here and now, in any moment that we turn our attention in this direction.

These are some of the reasons why we might want to do it. Another reason might be that if we’ve been striving, we’ve have a meditation practice where we’re really working so hard, and never good enough, and I just can’t keep my attention on my breath any longer, you know, or I’m not . . . You know, that sort of judgmental mind that we can get into. Often when people shift over to a more natural awareness practice, there’s way less judgment, more sense of ease and connection to themselves, and less of a comparing mind. These are some of the reasons we might want to give it a try.

TS: Now, one of the things about your own personal journey that I found particularly interesting was that, when you were in your younger years, and very committed to meditation, that you found that your inner critic was very involved in your meditation practice, judging how you were doing and pushing you harder and harder. And it was this discovery of more of a relaxed, letting go, natural awareness approach—you describe it as a healing balm for you in your practice. And I’d love to know, now that you’ve been doing natural awareness practice for many years, how your own relationship with your inner critic goes. How does it work now?

DW: I would say, at this point, the inner critic rears its head from time to time, but is mostly something that I kind of acknowledge and, oh hi. You know, hey, you’re back. OK. But it’s not like someone that lives with me all the time, at all, which I think it was as a younger person. It’s something that I kind of can laugh at, that I can see, oh, there it is. But mostly there’s a feeling of self-compassion, kindness, a general sense of goodness toward myself, certainly compared to how it used to be.

TS: Let’s say someone’s listening, and they do have a harsh inner voice toward themselves, and maybe even to where they are on the journey of discovering—being aware of awareness, you know? I should be further along. How many of these podcasts have I either listened to, or hosted, in my case? I should be further along, yet I’m still asking these questions. How could we apply this healing quality of natural awareness to that state we find ourselves in, potentially?

DW: Well, I think working with the inner critic is a journey, and there are so many practices that can work with it, and I’m a big fan of the self-compassion model that involves—you know, that Kristin Neff and others have created, Chris Germer—that involves mindfulness for working with the challenging thoughts and self-judgmental thoughts, and cultivating states of kindness and compassion for yourself, and the recognition of shared humanity. And I’ll borrow from their work, and share it and teach from it, but I often add . . . and then there’s this other piece, and this piece is that of recognizing our own natural goodness—like, the inner goodness inside ourselves that’s always present. And when we can connect with it on a regular basis through our practice, through natural awareness practices, through these other practices, when we can start to see that, at the core, there’s a goodness. It’s like the inner critic doesn’t have to run the show. That we realize that we’re much vaster, much more profound, far beyond just these stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that are blatantly untrue, honestly. It’s this resting in our awareness that is . . . it’s like we teach ourselves. Our brain kind of learns new neural pathways, in a sense. We’re staying in this territory that is more loving, more connected, more at ease and at home with our self.

TS: Now, just if you can help connect the dot for somebody, how is it that resting in awareness will lead to this knowing of my inherent goodness?

DW: In some ways, it’s experiential, and I partially want to say to the listener to try it and see what happens. To explain it a little bit, from a place of natural awareness, the duality of good and bad sort of disappears. It’s like we’re connected to ourselves and to the world in a way that the sense of “me, me, me” is very thin, very transparent, and it’s often infused with these qualities of just kindness: kindness for our self. I’m trying to describe a state and a way of being that one can access experientially, but there’s less me, less sense of me, and so often the me is the one that’s going, “I’m not good enough.”

TS: Now, throughout The Little Book of Being, you’ve sprinkled in these practices that you call “glimpse practices.” I want to introduce to our listeners a few of them, but before we do, just talk a little bit about glimpse practices and how they work.

DW: Sure. The glimpse practices are practices that you can do in the middle of your meditation or you can do it in the middle of your day, and they’re intended to be really short practices that just give you a glimpse of natural awareness, and so there are a lot of different ones, and a lot of them are ones that I’ve kind of come up with myself, and have used over the years and taught students, and some of them I’ve learned from various teachers. They’re just like a little—it’s like turning our mind towards natural awareness through a suggestion, a quote, a way to practice. There’s lots of different ways to do it.

TS: Before I bring forward a couple of them from the book, I’m curious if you have a glimpse practice that’s kind of your go-to practice recently, these days, like, “This is the one I’ve been using for the past few weeks that really seems to work well.”

DW: One that I always fall back on is, and I don’t know why in particular this works well for me, but it does, is just to connect with the back of my body. I think we’re so forward-focused all the time. Obviously our eyes are moving forward, but when I settle back, and I just kind of relax, and then soften my belly, and connect with an awareness of the back of me, and then open more externally out from there, there’s a sense of expanded-ness, relaxation, ease, and rest that comes.

TS: You mentioned in the book that people could choose a quote that helps them as a gateway or anything, and what I thought of, I’m just going to share this with you, is there’s a title of a Sounds True course. It’s with Mickey Singer, who wrote The Untethered Soul, but the title is Living from a Place of Surrender, and it’s strange, I just say that. I’ve been using this in bed at night. I’ll wake up and I’ll be like, “I should be asleep, but I’m not asleep, but I want to be asleep,” and I’ll say that, “living from a place of surrender,” and your talking about the back body reminded me of that. It’s like sort of an invitation to let go into the mattress.

DW: Yes.

TS: You have one in the book that you offer that I really liked: “Melting back like chocolate.” Tell me about that.

DW: Well, it’s just the idea. There’s a lot of rigidity that we have in life, right? We’re tight so much of the time, so the idea is if we can soften. Soften your body, soften your belly, soften the rigidity of our minds, and so I like the image. I mean, I like chocolate. You know, who doesn’t? But I like the idea of when chocolate . . . you know, if you’ve ever melted chocolate, and you just watch the way it goes from a hard, congealed piece of a chocolate bar, into that soft, melty quality, and that’s the invitation for us to kind of play with, with our mind. Like, oh, can I soften in that way?

TS: OK, so I’m not going to say a couple of these really good questions that are glimpse practices from the book, but I’m going to let you offer our listeners a couple of these questions that you can drop into your experience, and you talk about it in the book, like dropping a pebble in a pond, and just drop it into your mind and see what happens. Let’s go ahead. Let’s try a couple of glimpses here, Diana, whatever you’re inspired to.

DW: Sure.

TS: Yes.

DW: OK, and the ones that are specifically questions, or any particular practice?

TS: Well, just open it up. Whatever you feel inspired.

DW: OK. All right, so with all of these practices, it’s helpful to have a little bit of a calmer, focused body and mind. You don’t have to, but if you have a moment to just take a breath or to just kind of settle. I’ll start with this one, because this one seems to be easy for many people to access. I just invite you to think about a time in your life where you may have had access to what Tami and I have been talking about. When have you felt at home, relaxed, at ease? Maybe this was out in nature, or sitting and petting your dog, or with a good friend, laughing, and really connected and joyful. Just see if you can recall a little bit about what that was like. As you’re remembering the situation, whenever it comes up, notice what’s happening in your body. Noticing what’s happening in your heart and mind, and really let that be here.

That’s just a simple doorway in for people, because it’s really my belief that most everyone, maybe not everyone everyone, but most people have experienced something that is in this territory, especially when we were kids. I think kids are kind of accessing this quite a bit. That’s one glimpse practice that people can play with. I’ll give you another one. How about . . . OK. We’ll do a question one. As everyone, again, just settles in, taking a few breaths. A question you can ask yourself right now: What would be here if nothing was wrong? What would be here if there was no problem to solve? Then just see what emerges from inside you.

The question ones sometimes work better when we have more time to meditate a little bit with them, but those are just examples of how we might play with it. And I’ll give one more that’s more a physical one. For wherever you are at the moment, just see if you, and I hope … I know I listen to your podcast while I’m driving, so everybody be careful if you are driving, but anyways. Just, again, settling back, and noticing. Just listen out as far as you can listen. Listen. Listen to the sounds around you, the ambient noise, obviously the sound of my voice, but just listen, and listen. What’s the farthest away sound?

Now also notice your body. You can feel your body present here, but now imagine that you could feel your body extending out, expanding out, and if your eyes are open or you want to open your eyes, you can even see if you can see in the periphery, and just relax and soften, and notice that all of these sense fields, the hearing, the sensing, the seeing, that can be quite expansive, and yet we can be present right here in the midst of it without trying too hard. See what that’s like.

That’s another one, and just to say, with all of these, as I mentioned earlier, you can do them in your meditation practice or you can try it just in the middle of the day, you know? I’ll sometimes be working at my desk, and I’m sucked in to some email thing, and then I’ll just pause, I’ll look out the window, I’ll expand, I’ll notice the back of my body, I’ll maybe put a few together. It works really well for me, and it just shifts my attention. It just shifts my attention away from my problems, my stories, my worries, into a place of rest and well-being, and that’s kind of getting at your question. Why would we do this?

Well, it can completely change your experience in any moment, you know. It can change your day, and it’s these qualities of well-being—because so many of us, you know the statistics of anxiety and depression in this country. And for good reason, for good cause that people are anxious and depressed—but if we can take these moments to get out of our stories and our drama, and into the capacity to be aware, to rest in natural awareness for a moment, it can completely change the way you live in each day.

TS: I think definitely doing the glimpse practices will help people who are listening connect to this sense of well-being, and also, when I asked you to explain more, how does doing this practice help us know our inherent goodness? When you asked the question, “What if there wasn’t a problem?” That, you know, “What would it be like to be here without a problem to solve?” It was so good. There was so much goodness just in the beauty of the beige wall in the small little studio room that I’m in. I hope people also maybe had a sense of that in their own experience.

DW: Beautiful, and just to say, that one I borrowed from Loch Kelly, who’s done a lot, as you know, in this territory. so I like to attribute to people who [inaudible 00:33:33]. Yes. So glad it was helpful.

TS: The question that arises for me is, at one point in The Little Book of Being, you talk about how, with time, natural awareness can become our default state. And I think, for most of us, it’s a shift when you do a glimpse practice. You mean there’s not a problem I need to solve? That’s a new way of being for five seconds here. You know, for most of us, our default state is thinking in problem-solving. I mean, we’re problem-solving what I’m going to get at the grocery store, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How do we make that journey from having these glimpses to natural awareness actually becoming our default state of being?

DW: It’s not a quick, overnight fix, for sure. It’s something that takes time and devotion to putting your energy into practicing. And the glimpse practices, when you do them over the day for a number of times, people start to report that there’s a kind of small shift that’s happening. It’s like it kind of begins to bleed together, like you’re doing it one hour, and then another hour later, and you start to feel like it’s more present for you than absent. Then there’s the meditative way, which is—I really encourage people to practice these approaches. I mean, I’m a big fan, as I mentioned, of long retreats, and to go on a retreat and practice it over days, and work with . . .

On retreat, we have more opportunity to, one, deepen the concentration, and the concentration creates stability of mind, which can allow these practices to stabilize more. It’s this combination of practicing daily, both in meditation and in daily life, and then also longer retreat practice that, in my view, can lead to more of a stabilization in life.

TS: Let’s talk about retreat practice for a moment, because I myself have done a lot of retreat practice and have found it incredibly valuable, and, gosh, I don’t even know if I could have really learned to meditate if I hadn’t started out on some long retreats. But I was talking to someone who’s in his 30s, and he said to me, “Tami, look. People in my generation, we’re not interested in retreat practice. We want to do this in the midst of our everyday life. We’re not going to go to these retreat centers where most of the people are older, and blah, blah, blah. This is going to have to happen right in the midst of our urban lives,” and I’m just curious what you think about that.

DW: You know, I can see his argument, and I also will tell him try a retreat and see what happens, because they are, as you know, they’re profound, and so tremendously supportive of being able to do it in daily life. For me, it’s an in and out experience. Throughout my whole life, I will go into retreat, and then come out with the insights and the shifts in my own conscious and being that then help me to live with my life with more awareness, and then I get to place of, OK, it’s time to go back into retreat and out. I think that it’s really just I’m very biased, you know, that both are necessary, and it would be a shame.

I mean, there was a really interesting period of my life in my 20s where I was the opposite of him. I was living my life to go on retreat. I would basically go on a three-month retreat, and then come home and waitress for nine months so I could make the money to go on my next three-month retreat, and life seemed not very interesting compared to what was going on in the retreats. I’m a long way away from that now, and I don’t feel that way at all, but in fact I love the application of my meditation practice in daily life. And I love living these practices and trying to wake up and be aware right in the heart of it, but I am so grateful for those years, and all the ongoing years of retreat, for what it’s given me to support this.

TS: Now, Diana, in your work at UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, called MARC, you train mindfulness facilitators, and one of the things I’m curious is, as you’re training mindfulness facilitators, if you’ve come across what we could perhaps call some of the common misconceptions. These are common misconceptions that people who are saying, “I love mindfulness practice, and I can’t wait to be a teacher, a facilitator.” What are they?

DW: You mean for someone who’s just starting out and wanting to be a teacher?

TS: Yes. Yes.

DW: Yes. You know, mindfulness is funny. I mean, it’s gotten so much popularity in the last, well, decade or so, and I’ve watched it. When I first started practicing, nobody was public about it, right? People had their kind of secret meditation practices, and now it’s just become, at least certainly here on the West Coast, everybody’s very familiar with it, and it’s incorporated in schools and hospitals. The problem with that, of course, is that people then think, “Oh, I want to be a mindfulness teacher.” It’s sort of become a career, which it never was, and people are not so aware of what it takes to become a mindfulness teacher.

I mean, if you want to teach history, you don’t have to have lived through that particular part of history, but if you want to teach mindfulness or any of these awareness practices, you obviously have to embody it, and you have to have years and years of experience practicing it yourself. The biggest thing I run into are people who are just like, “Oh yes, I took a weekend workshop in mindfulness, and now I want to start teaching it in this setting.” There’s a lot of me telling people, “Well, wait. Why don’t you spend a little time practicing before you get there?”

TS: OK, so that’s interesting to me, and those are misconceptions about the path of becoming a teacher, and what’s required, and that perhaps a lot more is required than people might think. But what are some of the misconceptions about the journey of mindfulness itself, the journey of mindfulness and natural awareness?

DW: You mean not necessarily related to teachers, or to . . .

TS: Not necessarily related to teachers, but just that you find in your role as an educator. The kinds of questions you get, and the kinds of places where people seem to be stuck in one perspective, and they seem to be missing a broader view.

DW: Yes. Well, there’s lots of places. People get stuck. I mean, I think that, in early-on stages, when people begin a mindfulness practice, people think, “OK, my mind has to be completely clear all the time, blank,” that nothing’s supposed to be going on, and that’s, of course, a huge misconception, because for most people, that’s not what happens, and that we’re learning to redirect our attention back to our breathing or to whatever is our main focus. I think one of the things that happened with the mindfulness movement, and forgive me for not exactly answering your question, but one of the things that I’ve seen is that most of the teachings about the mindfulness movement center around this more focused awareness practice. The way that you practice is you bring your attention to your breathing. Your attention wanders, you bring it back, and that is mindfulness. And as I’m pointing to in my book, and having taught for years, is that, no, there’s a whole range of practices that can come under the category of mindfulness practices, and so that’s what …

The intention with my book was to kind of lay out the more expansive side that’s not just about working hard to pay attention to your breathing, but also that there are many ways to be aware, and flexible ways, and choice-less ways, and natural ways. I think that’s something I see all the time when people get stuck. They get stuck in their practice, and like, OK, I’ve been paying attention to my breath for the last five years. But there’s so much more to explore.

TS: Now, in the book, toward the beginning of the book, you offer this spectrum of awareness practices, which is what I think you’re referring to here. I thought it was incredibly pithy, encapsulated, and important. Share with our listeners this spectrum of awareness practices.

DW: Thank you. I appreciate that. We can think of awareness practices on a spectrum, and one end of the spectrum is very focused, and where we use a lot of effort and we focus on objects, right? That would be a focused awareness practice, so that’s what I was describing before, when you’re paying attention to your breath, your attention wanders, and you come back. Then there’s this next area. Let’s say you were to move along the spectrum, and you would find there’s a more what I call flexible awareness, and that’s when you’re paying attention to your to your breath, and then your attention gets pulled away into something, and instead of immediately snapping back to your breath, you investigate and see what’s happening. Oh, there’s an emotion here, and it’s warm, and it’s moving through my body, and you’re investigating whatever the experience is.

Then, as we move slowly toward natural awareness, the next phase is what I would call more of a choice-less awareness, where there’s no central focus, and you’re just noticing things, tracking your experiences as they arrive. Then the furthest along, which is effortless, objectless—which I can explain—and expansive, is this natural awareness that we’ve been talking about at the beginning of this interview, where we’re not focusing on any particular object, we’re noticing the space around the objects. We’re noticing the awareness itself.

We’ve moved from very narrow and focused to more flexible, and into this natural awareness, and that’s how I see the spectrum, and I think when you . . . I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I think that you could take any awareness practice, and you can map it onto that spectrum and say, “Oh, that one sort of fits right here,” and what I also have enjoyed about teaching this is that—it goes back to what I said, what you mentioned earlier, about no hierarchy. It’s not like there’s one really fancy, special practice, and that’s the last one: natural awareness. It’s on a spectrum, and they’re all useful, and we move through different parts of this practice. I’m sorry, we move through different stops on the spectrum all the time in our meditation practice. Maybe if I give an example it might be helpful.

TS: Sure, sure.

DW: I think I was writing this story for you or for Sounds True, but when I take my dog—I have a new dog. I rescued a dog. I take him for a walk, and I go out in the morning with him, and my mind is wild, right? My mind is just, oh, I just got up. I have so many things to do, and as I’m walking along, after a time, I’ll start to focus my attention, and I’ll notice my steps. Step after step after step. I’m practicing a focused awareness, and then, at a certain point, I might open up, and I’m mostly noticing my steps, but then I’m noticing, oh, there’s a tree. I’m noticing what he’s up to. I’m noticing a person walking by. I’ve moved towardsa more flexible awareness, and by the end of my walk, I’m delighted to discover that I sort of walk into a more natural awareness.

I don’t literally walk into it, but my mind begins to just rest, and it’s less about noticing everything specifically, and more about resting in a sense of well-being, resting in the awareness, letting all the things happen as they move through me and move past me. And that’ll happen over the course of my 20-minute walk with my dog, and it’s not like one’s better. They’re all necessary, and all useful, and all really beneficial, but they’re just different ways of knowing that are happening.

TS: I’ve never heard anybody describe quite this spectrum of awareness practices that you do. I mean, you have your own language for it. I have heard it introduced as sort of levels, with this idea that when you reach this completely open, natural awareness, that’s the peak. That’s the highest. That’s the greatest, and you’re the advanced meditator, which is why I started our conversation, Diana, asking you about that, because the idea that these are all just different ways of meditating, and also useful and valuable, it gets rid of this natural awareness superiority syndrome, which I have noticed in myself and others.

DW: Absolutely. No, I’m so glad you’re saying that, because I really have seen now, with my practice, that our practice is really endless. My practice, it’s continuing to evolve, and I’ll get to these places where I think, “This is it. I made it. I got to the end. I’ve reached this specific thing.” And then it’ll evolve again, and then sometimes it’ll seem like, whoa, I’m going back, and is that bad? But I realize now that is the nature of the way meditative practices work—at least a live practice, one that seems to be joyfully evolving, and that natural awareness is beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing. I wrote a whole book about it, you know, but it’s just part of that evolution. I think that’s one of the main messages I want to get across to people—because I don’t want people to think, “Oh, my practice isn’t good enough because I can’t reach this state or that state, and I’ve been trying and it’s not working”—but it’s all good. If you’re practicing awareness, period, it’s great. Practice whatever kind of awareness you want to practice.

TS: Now, one of the chapters in the book that got my attention, I really liked it, was Chapter 14, and it’s called “A Caveat.” And you then continue to say, “Don’t be a bliss-ninny,” and I wanted to talk about this, because I think we’ve been talking about well-being, and when you can rest in awareness, you can discover your inherent goodness, and I think there can be this idea that I’m always going to be—if I’m becoming more and more anchored in natural awareness as my default state—I’m always going to be in a great mood. Nothing’s ever going to bother me. Talk a little bit about this idea of not being a bliss-ninny.

DW: It’s such a kind of funny, old term, but I love it. It’s this idea, as you’re pointing to, that we’ll get to this state, and we’ll always be perfectly blissed out or something, and everything’s good. I think that it’s just problematic, because number one, my experience with most people is that doesn’t stay. It comes and goes, and so we don’t want to make it into something really like, “Oh, this is what I’m aiming for.” But also the world isn’t like that. The world, and our own experience—we’re not going to be living constantly in bliss and joy, and never have bad things happen. Everyone suffers. I mean, there’s always something going on in people’s lives that is challenging, and so if we aspire to some state of spiritual bliss, it’s like a disconnect from the embodied reality of being a human being. So that’s why my encouragement is to—great, practice in this way, enjoy it—but also don’t forget that we can be living this paradox.

It takes a certain kind of maturity to live with the paradox of knowing that there is this inner goodness, and there are the steps of well-being that we have access to, and there’s also great suffering, both internally and externally. Because I would never want anyone to be like, “Oh, yes, it’s all good, and so therefore I’m not going to work for social justice,” or something. I mean, that would be insane, right? I’ll just live in my peaceful bliss. That’s what that’s about.

TS: Where do you think this idea has entered the culture of spiritual practitioners—that I’m going to reach some state and I’m not going to suffer, I’m just going to be . . . you know, I’m never going to suffer again.

DW: It’s pervasive. I don’t know where it came from. I mean, I know that I felt it. When I was practicing, I read about it a little bit when I was practicing in Burma, Myanmar, and I was just . . . I really wanted to get enlightened. That was my goal. If I could get enlightened . . . and I thought maybe I could do it in three or four months. Like if I just practiced really hard, I would get enlightened, and then I wouldn’t suffer anymore, and then I would never be mean to anyone, and I would be completely, perfectly ethical, and I would be completely loved. You know, I had this story, and I’m sure it’s kind of embedded in a lot or religious ideologies, and kind of . . . But yes, I don’t know where it comes from.

TS: You know, recently I was having dinner with someone who I’m not going to name, but somebody who I have the deepest respect for, and somebody who teaches a lot about spiritual freedom, and abiding in natural awareness, using the language that this person uses. And I said, “I’d just like to know, do you ever suffer? Like, do you ever suffer?” And the person responded, “Hell yes. Let me tell you a story about what happened last week,” and proceeded to tell me the story, and I was like, wow. I still needed to ask that question, and I was still kind of surprised, too, and yet this person’s sense of inner freedom and knowing their inherent goodness is so indisputable to me, and yet this person suffers.

DW: Well, I’m glad that they were really honest, and, I mean, of course. I mean, how can . . . I don’t know. I mean, maybe there are people who never suffer, but even the Dalai Lama, he talks about . . . You see it. I mean, he cries sometimes about various things. Yes.

TS: OK. Now, here’s another question I have for you that you address in The Little Book of Being, but I want to hear you talk about here, which is the difference between resting in natural awareness and spacing out, and how do we know the difference in our own experience?

DW: Well, it’s a hard one, because this is the hazard of doing this practice. We can delude ourselves, and think we’re in natural awareness, but we’re actually just sitting around thinking about something. Partially, it takes a certain kind of vigilance, but we also, with natural awareness, we don’t want to get too serious about it, and we don’t want to work too hard. OK, now I have to see: Is this actually natural awareness or is it something else? There’s a relaxed quality that I’m inviting in general, but then you don’t want to relax too much because then you’re just thinking about things.

How do you figure that out? You’ve got to kind of look. If a little warning bell goes off in your mind and says, “What’s happening now? Is this it, or is it something . . .” Then investigate. Is awareness present? Does my mind feel bright and alert? Does my mind feel at rest? Is there a storyline that I’m sort of hooked onto? You can kind of just do . . . In fact, in the book, I give a couple of little checklist of things to look for. It just takes a bit of tuning in.

TS: Now, when I asked you this question, you jumped to, “Is this natural awareness or am I just thinking?” But for me this category of spacing out, it’s a little different. I just want to get clear here.

DW: Sure.

TS: Sometimes, when I feel I’m not exactly bright and alert, but I’m not really thinking, either. It’s something else. I’m not quite sure, but I’m staring out the window or something, and I probably look a little bit like a zombie, and I don’t think I’m necessarily thinking, or at least I’m not aware of thinking, but it’s not bright and alert, either. It’s something else that I would call spacing out.


TS: What’s that?

DW: Those are these kind of subtle sleepiness kinds of states, or . . . I mean, they are spacing out, and we can just call them that. They’re often restful but dull, sort of, and so that’s something you can look for. If you feel a dullness, then it’s not natural awareness. It’s like this sleepy state. I mean, that’s part of . . . It’s not a bad thing, right? When you think about meditation, there’s this balance between concentration and energy. And so when you get concentrated, if the energy is really low, you can get really dull and sleepy. If the energy’s really high but you don’t have much concentration, you can get really restless. You can kind of play with that balance of concentration and energy.

TS: OK, we’re going to end with a glimpse practice, but before we do, I want you to tell us a little bit about the International Mindfulness Teachers Association, the IMTA, that you’re very involved with, which is helping to provide oversight and standardization for mindfulness teachers. This seems so important as the field is emerging. Tell me a little bit about the work of the IMTA.

DW: Sure. I’ve been working for a number of years to help create an independent body that can offer accreditation and credentialing for programs that teach teachers how do to be mindfulness teachers—sorry, who teach . . . excuse me—teach anybody to be mindfulness teachers, and then credential individuals who have gone through those programs. And then it’s also a membership organization that has membership benefits. The reason we’re doing this is because of what I talked about earlier.

There are no standards. There’s no quality control right now in the larger mindfulness field, and, as I said, anybody can kind of put up a shingle and say, “I’m a mindfulness teacher,” but becoming a teacher takes a huge amount of practice and embodiment of what they’re teaching. We really want to work to ensure that there are standards for the training programs and for the individuals, and ultimately an ethics board for grievances, continuing education—just to really develop the field, just like any other professional field.

TS: I love it. I wish a lot of the types of teaching and counseling that people who are interested in Sounds True content—whether it’s people become shamanic healers, or energy healers, or mindfulness teachers—we need this kind of standardization to make sure that the people who are teaching and working professionally have a standard of excellence behind them. It’s so important.

DW: Exactly. That’s the intention.

TS: So important. OK, let’s end with a final glimpse practice of your choice.

DW: OK. I’ve got to think of a good one. Alright. I just invite you to, again, settle back and take a breath or two, and as I talked about, we have this capacity to be present in any moment, just by recognizing that we can be with just this, be with just this. Just this being your breath, your body, sounds, the thoughts, the memories, emotions. Just this. It’s all happening, so just the invitation right now is to ask yourself this question: is it OK to be with just this? Just this. Then you feel it happen.

TS: I love that practice. I’ve been talking with Diana Winston. She’s the author of the new book, The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness, and, as I said at the beginning, The Little Book of Being delivers a big punch, big bang. A big bang of natural awareness. Diana, thank you so much for all of your good work and good teaching. Thank you.

DW: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks, Tami.

TS: Thank you everyone for listening. Soundstrue.com: waking up the world.

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