Awareness and its Apparent Objects
You comment that awareness is observing appearances as though there are two things, one, awareness and two, appearances. Does not this admit an element of duality albeit one that is subtler than is conventionally the case?
The suggestion that there are two apparent things, one, awareness and two, appearances or objects is said to one who believes him or herself to be a separate self, located in and as the body, looking out at a world of objects that are considered to be separate from and independent of themselves, awareness.
In this case, the terms in which the question is expressed (that is, the belief in a separate entity, object or world that have independent existence) are granted provisional credibility in order that we may proceed from what seem to be the facts of experience. In this way an attempt is made to really connect with questioner’s felt experience rather than take refuge in what may seem to some like an ivory tower of non-dual perfectionism.
So, we start with the conventional formulation that I, inside the body, am looking out at an objective and independent world of objects. This is a position of dualism, that is, I, the body (the subject), am experiencing the world and others (the object). From here our attention is drawn to the fact that the body (sensations and perceptions) and the mind (thoughts and images) are, in fact, experienced in exactly the same way as the world (perceptions). In other words, it is seen clearly that the body/mind is not the subject of experience and the world the object, but rather the body, mind and world are all objects of experience.
We then ask what it is that knows or experiences the body/mind/world. Whatever it is, is what we call ‘I.’ And what is this ‘I?’ It is obviously not the body/mind because at this stage the body/mind is understood to be experienced rather than the experiencer.
What then can we say about this knowing or experiencing ‘I?’ It cannot have any objective qualities because any such qualities would, by definition, be appearances or objects and therefore known or experienced. However, this ‘I’ is undeniably present and aware. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as aware presence, awareness or simply presence.
At this stage the awareness that I am is said to be ‘nothing,’ ‘empty’ or ‘void’ because it has no observable qualities. I am transparent, colourless presence. I am nothing conceivable or perceivable. I am present and aware but am not-a-thing, nothing.
From this point of view awareness is sometimes described as the witness of the appearances of the mind, body and world. I, awareness, know all appearances but am not made out of anything that appears. This position is still dualistic for there is still a subject (my self, awareness) and an object (the body/mind/world). It is, as it were, a halfway stage. It is one step closer to a truer formulation of the nature of experience than was the previous one in which the body/mind was considered to be the subject of experience and the world was considered the object. However, upon closer exploration, this idea of the witness is also seen to be a limitation, superimposed on awareness by a mind that still believes in the separate existence of objects.
It is valuable to make this distinction between awareness (the knowing or experiencing subject) and the appearances of the mind, body and world for two reasons:
One, is that it establishes that there is something in our experience that is not an object and yet is undeniably present and aware. In other words, it establishes the presence of awareness and that this is what we are. And two, it establishes not just the presence but the primacy of awareness. That is, it establishes that for any object of the body, mind or world to come into apparent existence, our self, awareness, must be present first, so to speak, as its background.
It establishes that first and foremost we stand as objectless, transparent presence or awareness that illumines and knows all appearances of the body, mind and world. That is our ever-present experience whether it is recognised or not.
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Now we can go further than this. If we explore this awareness that we intimately know ourselves to be, that is, that knows itself to be, we discover that there is nothing in our experience to suggest that it is limited, located, personal, time or space-bound, caused by or dependent upon anything other than itself.
Now what is it that could know that awareness is not limited, located etc? Only that which knows or is aware and is at the same time present, could know this or indeed anything else. In other words, only that which is aware and present could know awareness. Therefore, it is awareness alone that knows itself to be unlimited, un-located, independent, uncaused. This recognition of our own impersonal, unlimited, ever-present being is sometimes called awakening or enlightenment. It is the most simple, obvious and intimate fact of experience but usually overlooked as a result of imagining our self to be something other than awareness, such as a thought, feeling or sensation.
Now we can look again at the relationship between awareness and the apparent objects of the body/mind/world that appear to it. How close are the body, mind and world to this witnessing presence of awareness? How close is the world to the knowing or experiencing of it? If we look simply and directly at our experience we find that, whenever an object appears, there is no distance between our self, awareness, and that apparent object. They are, so to speak, touching one another.
Now we can go further again. What is our experience of the border between them, the interface where they meet or touch? If there was such an interface, it would be a place where our self ended and the object began. However, we find no such interface in experience. There is no place where we end and our experience of the world begins. There is no border there. Therefore, we can now reformulate our experience in a way that is closer to our actual experience. We can say that objects do not just appear to this awareness but rather that they appear within it.
At this stage awareness is conceived more like a vast space in which all the objects of the body, mind and world appear and disappear. Previously we considered our self to witness all appearances from a distance but now this distance has collapsed and everything is experienced as being intimate. It is no longer just our thoughts and feelings are experienced inside our self but also sensations and perceptions. However, this is still a position of dualism, a position in which this vast knowing space is the subject and the body, mind and world are objects that appear within it, rather like objects appear in a room, relatively speaking.
So, we again go deeply into the experience of the objects of the body, mind and world and see if we can find in them a substance that is other than the awareness that knows them or in which they appear. It is an exploration in which we come to see clearly that the body, mind and world are made of thoughts, sensations and perceptions; thoughts, sensations and perceptions are understood to be made of thinking, sensing and perceiving and the only substance present in thinking, sensing and perceiving is understood to be our self, awareness.
In other words, there is nothing present in our experience of an object, other or world, other than the knowing of it and knowing is only made of awareness, our self. In fact, we don’t know our knowing of an object; we just know knowing.
However, even in this formulation there is still a reference to a body, mind and world albeit one known by and simultaneously made out of awareness. It is still a position in which the body, mind and world don’t just appear within awareness but as awareness. That is, they are known to be made out of that which knows them. They are experienced as being made out of our self, awareness.
However, in this formulation we are still starting with objects, even if we concede that they are made out of awareness. But if we look closely we find that awareness, rather than objects, is our primary experience. So now, if we start from actual experience, that is from awareness, we find that it is awareness that takes the shape, as it were, of the mind, body and world. Awareness takes the shape of thinking and appears as the mind. It takes the shape of sensing and appears as the body. It takes the shape of perceiving and appears as the world, but never for a moment does it actually become anything other than itself.
At this stage we not only know but feel that presence or awareness is all there is. That is, it knows itself as the totality of experience. This could be formulated as, ‘I, awareness, am everything,’ or simply ‘Awareness is everything.’ At the same time, we recognise that this has, in fact, always been the case although it seemed previously not to be known.
So, we have moved from a position in which we thought and felt that I am something (a mind and body) to a position in which we recognised our true nature as aware presence and which we expressed as ‘I am nothing, not-a-thing.’ Then we come to the experiential understanding that I am not just the witness, the knower or experiencer of all things, but am also simultaneously their substance. In other words we come to feel that I am everything.
However, even this is not quite right, although it may be a truer formulation of our actual experience than the ones we previously suggested, for what is this ‘everything’ that is being referred to? We have, by this stage, already realised that there are no objects, others, selves, entities or world that are ever actually experienced, as such. So it does not now make sense to say that awareness is the totality of all non-existent things. There simply are no things for awareness to be the witness, substance or totality of.
How could we express this? We cannot! Language collapses here because understanding has literally burst out of the conceptual framework that it is designed to contain. However it is still legitimate to try! Instead of saying that awareness is everything, we could say just that awareness is. But even then, what is this awareness that is being conceptualised as being present? To conceptualise awareness as such is to make implicit reference to something else that is not awareness. It is to ascribe to awareness a name or form in contrast to other names and forms and, as such, to suggest a limitation. So, we could just say, ‘is ‘ or ‘am.’ However, such a word on its own is meaningless. Words can go no further. We fall silent.
If we were at a meeting now rather than writing and reading, there would probably be a long period of silence. In fact, as the meeting went on we may notice a subtle shift from experiencing periods of silence that punctuate the conversation, to experiencing periods of conversation that punctuate the silence. And in time it may be seen clearly that the words, whether spoken or written, do not, in fact, punctuate or interrupt silence but rather that this silence is ever-present and the words are simply a modulation of it.
In other words, we may discover that true silence is not simply an absence of sound and thought but rather the presence of awareness that pervades and yet is prior to both sound or thought and their absence. Even that is not quite right because in experience there is nothing prior. ‘Prior’ requires time and time is only in thought. Experience is eternally now.
However, such are the limitations of language and if we are to speak about these matters we have to be willing to accommodate them. So we find ourselves again using the same terms that have evolved to describe the abstract and conceptual conventions of dualistic thought. We find ourselves again speaking or writing about that which cannot be truly spoken about and which, at the same time, is the one thing that truly deserves our words because it is all that truly is.
So, to summarise, we move from the formulation, ‘I am something’ to ‘I am nothing,’ from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything,’ from ‘I am everything’ to ‘I am’ or ‘Awareness is,’ from there to simply ‘I’ and from ‘I’ to…..we truly fall silent here.
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What has just been described above could be seen as series of stages in the progressive unfolding of understanding from the belief that experience consists of a succession of objects – the body, mind and world – to the understanding that experience is only awareness eternally knowing and being itself alone. However, it would be a mistake to think that an entity passes through these apparent stages or even that experience itself undergoes a series of transformations. Such a position would only be the case if our initial assumption in the separate and independent reality of entities, objects, others and the world were true.
Rather, having arrived at the understanding that there is only awareness or presence, it becomes simultaneously clear that this has, in fact, always been the case, even if it was not noticed. So, looking now from this new perspective of presence, we see that what was an apparent unfolding of understanding from the point of view the separate self was, in fact, an apparent dissolution of ignorance from the point of view of the mind.
In other words, instead of starting with the apparent reality of entities, objects, selves, others and the world, and looking towards awareness, we now take our stand knowingly as awareness and see how the mind, arising within awareness, has built up a series of abstract and conceptual beliefs that confer apparent reality, solidity and independence on objects, others, the world etc.
As we abide knowingly as awareness, that is, as it stands knowingly as itself, un-seemingly-veiled by the abstract concepts of the dualising mind, we discover that it is not a void, an emptiness. It is not ‘nothing.’ It is only referred to as ‘nothing’ at times, in contrast to the belief in the reality of ‘things.’ From that point of view it is nothing, not-a-thing, in contrast to ‘something.’
However, from the point of view of experience, it is fullness itself – full of itself alone. This fullness is known as love for there is no room there for any other. In other words, we could say that love is the substance of all seeming things and, once it has become clear that there are no real things, as such, we could simply say that love is.
The movement in understanding from ‘I am something’ to ‘I am nothing’ could be called the path of wisdom or discrimination. The movement in understanding from ‘I am nothing’ through ‘I am everything’ to simply ‘I,’ could be called the path of love.