As we live in the world and relate, we experience ourselves through our thoughts, our emotions and our five basic senses. We have an individualized but shared understanding of our world, of how we relate to others and understand ourselves. We think about the past and the future, and we compare. The way we live our lives is based on our shared collective way of how we see things, which we experience personally and individually.
And then there is mindful awareness.
Like any experience, it’s not possible to say (precisely) what mindful awareness is, because it’s experiential.
We all know what an orange tastes like, except those of us who have never tasted an orange.
What does a tree look like? How does music sound? What is the feel of a texture, a smell?
You know from experience, but that knowing is memory-based, a concept, a reference point.
We experience thoughts, and we all know emotions such as anger, sadness and joy, but we can only know our own experience of our thoughts and feelings.
When you were a baby, you looked at a tree and knew what a tree was, without really knowing what it was. It was that. Then, as you became a little older, someone told you that it was a tree, so it became a mental concept, information for your mind. Minds desire knowledge, and young children are thirsty for it. A tree becomes something to be referred to as “tree,” so now you understand, you’ve learned something and you have knowledge. Now we can talk about trees and communicate and share.
Mindful awareness isn’t knowledge-based. It’s the newborn looking at a tree for the first time; it’s when we look at something in wonder, the “wow,” the taking it all in, the in-the-moment experience.
We don’t need a concept of mindful awareness to experience mindful awareness. Developing a mental concept, and knowing or understanding mindfulness, can only impede our access to it. The mind gets in the way and claims it, but mindful awareness isn’t a thinking exercise.
Mindfulness and mountain-climbing
I have a mountain-climbing friend, Susie, with a busy mind, and she becomes mindfully aware when climbing a rock formation. Her active mind stops because it’s necessary, essential, as her life depends on it. Then she’s in the moment.
However, Susie claimed that she’d never experienced mindful awareness, and despite downloading many online apps on mindfulness and practicing with a concentrated effort, she couldn’t experience what was described.
I said to my friend that the mindful awareness she was seeking was the very same awareness she experiences when climbing a mountain. She didn’t know she knew!
Susie didn’t realize that what she was looking for in meditation was the very same thing she had found, waiting for her on the side of a rock. The problem was that when meditating, she was looking for something different from her mountain-climbing experiences.
All of my friend’s efforts to be mindful were in vain. She was trying too hard, making too much of an effort, concentrating and giving it her full focus and attention. All that effort was to no avail. Susie didn’t know that concentration and effort were not only unnecessary, but they were also impeding her progress. Susie was looking for something that was wasn’t there, something she imagined. She wasn’t seeing what was there, what is always and permanently here, right now.
The peace that passeth all understanding
Mindful awareness is defined as being fully aware of the present moment, an awareness of what is going on right now, but we can’t focus on everything right now, as there is so much to be aware of, both internally (thoughts, feelings and senses) and externally (our present moment circumstances, and interactions with others and the world).
Western psychology has adapted and developed mindfulness as a grounding technique that’s about refocusing our attention, usually on one of our senses, or using imagery and such as a distraction from unwanted unpleasant thoughts or feelings—or, alternatively, radically accepting what we don’t want.
Indeed, when we focus our attention on a present moment sensory experience or apply other psychological mindful techniques, it can help with alleviating mental suffering and psychological distress, but there is something deeper than that to it, and we can all go there.
I like to think of mindful awareness as the peace that passeth all understanding. This is adapted from a quote taken from the Bible (Philippians 4:7), “And, the peace of God, which passeth (transcends) all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I interpret mindful awareness as a reduction in mental activity: not thinking about the past or the future, and not comparing things.
But even that isn’t true, because all mental activity happens in the present moment. Indeed, when you reflect on or become aware of your thoughts about the past or future, and of your comparisons, it is in the present moment that those reflections happen.
Nevertheless, even though mindful awareness isn’t necessarily a reduction in thinking (as we can observe our thoughts), reduced thought-activity is often a consequence of being aware of the present moment, which occurs during meditation and relaxation practices.
I think of mindfulness as the present moment being aware of the present moment, and of awareness being aware of itself, without thinking about it.
Is the awareness that I speak of, the peace that passeth all understanding, within thought?
Or is it the other way around, that thought is within this peaceful awareness?
The answer, of course, is that thought is within. Therefore, thought is neither separate from, nor bigger than mindful awareness. That isn’t possible.
Mindful awareness is the mind’s alignment with, and the noticing of, the present moment. But what is noticing what, exactly? Is it that awareness is aware of itself? Those are questions for the mind, questions that mindful awareness isn’t interested in.
Everything that happens in the present moment, including thought, is part of the present moment. Indeed, awareness is the present moment. There is nothing outside of the infinite, ever-expanding awareness of the timeless present moment: an eternal, unlimited and unending spaciousness.
So, you are awareness, and you are the present moment.
They’re one and the same, and that is who you are.
There is no such thing as a past thought or a future thought. There are only current moment thoughts, and all thoughts are that, present moment thoughts that are mostly about the past and the future. That is what we are busy doing, thinking about the past (often depressing thoughts) or the future (often anxious thoughts) or comparing ourselves with others in self-critical ways. However, everything, including all thinking, naturally happens in the moment.
Where do we go wrong with mindfulness?
We go wrong sometimes, when we try to think ourselves into mindfulness with concentrated effort, when what we seek is already here. Our thoughts are trying to become mindful, but they can’t, as even our thoughts occur within the awareness that we seek.
The mind is our reflection and communication machine. The thinking mind makes sense of, reflects on and remembers our experiences. Everything is understood, decoded, reflected on and explained through the filter of the mind.
I can tell you about my experiences and say what I think about them. I can find words to describe them, so we can share some common ground and relate, and then we can have an agreed perception and understanding. But I can never know how an apple actually tastes to you, only to me.
The mind is experienced as individualized and personal, or so it thinks and believes, but we can’t even know if that is so. We might all be one and the same, with billions and trillions of individualized experiences.
My memory of the past is a distorted interpretation, with details added, embellished, played down or removed, so nothing happened exactly as I remember it; it’s just how I remember it, how I imagine it.
To say that memories are distorted doesn’t mean that the past didn’t happen. Of course what happened, happened, and is valid, but even shared memories aren’t identical. So, although memories aren’t false, they’re based on the filter of our perception and interpretation of events, and on how we imagine them.
We only have our present moment experience, how it is right now, and that is all there is.
Even then, in a way, we never get to experience right now. In a flash, the brain decodes, interprets and makes sense of right now, and by the time it understands what has just happened, a nanosecond has passed and the now is already in the past.
The present moment doesn’t happen in thought, as what we think is a little behind right now, and we never quite catch up. So, technically speaking, our minds never get to experience the now, right now.
My rock-climber friend, Susie, found peace on the side of a mountain. When climbing, Susie’s life depends on her being in the moment, where there is no time for distracting thoughts. When Susie is on the side of a rock, time stops, and it is now, now, now.
When people are introduced to the concept of mindfulness, they often try to find it and experience it through the intellect. They go the way of effort, concentration, attention and trying hard. Then, when that doesn’t work, they go the other way, of not trying and trying to be effortless—trying hard to not try!
Or, they experience awareness momentarily, maybe for a handful of seconds, and then it has gone.
Where did it go? Now, it’s all about getting it back. We think is it over there somewhere, but why did it leave me, what am I doing wrong?
It becomes all about doing. Doing this or that, or alternatively, trying to not do anything. Concentration, effort, attention, failure, concentration, effort, attention, failure, just stop, don’t do, just be aware, just be, do nothing, failure. There it is, now it has gone, failure, failure, failure.
The irony is that this peace, the peace that passeth all understanding, is always here and available, and it never goes anywhere.
Can we find it, yes, but can we experience ourselves in a permanent awareness? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Perhaps it might be possible for some, the so-called enlightened ones, but for me, it’s not so, or perhaps not yet or not now. Nowadays, I’m not striving for that, and I no longer mind that awareness isn’t always held in my mind.
I gave up on the idea of finding abiding awareness many years ago, but boy, did I try to find a place of permanent peaceful awareness. Now I see that peaceful awareness is already permanently here, just as the present moment is. We are all in the now, whether we know it or not, whether we notice it or not, because that is all there is.
3 essential questions to ask yourself
So, my rock-climbing friend Susie is sometimes bothered by overthinking. Sometimes she wanted it all to stop, but the harder she tried, the worse it got.
Relief for my friend was found on the side of a rock, but that took a lot of organization and effort, and she doesn’t have a mountain outside of her city-centre front door. Being only able to find peace on the side of a mountain is a little inconvenient!
Susie didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t believe that what she found on the side of a mountain is right here, right now, so I asked her these three questions.
- Is it here right now?
- Is it true that you weren’t noticing it?
- Now, try not to notice it?
To the first question, Susie said, “No, it’s not here right now.” (As she thought it was waiting for her on the side of a mountain.)
Together, we then questioned and reflected on her belief that it’s not here, now. Finally, my friend conceded that the peace within, the mindful presence of this moment, the peace that passeth all understanding, must be here now.
Once she’d accepted the truthful answer to the first question, the second question was easy. She agreed that she was indeed not noticing it, but she was now open to accepting that it must be here.
Before her inquiry, Susie would’ve said she wasn’t noticing it, because it wasn’t here and she’d been working hard for it without success. The mind thinks, “As I can’t find it, it’s not here, and I must be doing something wrong.” Frustrated failure and self-criticism usually follow. The mind thinks it needs to create it, and it doesn’t want to think, “It’s here, and I’m not noticing it,” but that is the truth. Most, or even all of the time, we just don’t notice it.
The first two questions prepare the ground for the crucial third question. It seems to me that the preceding questions need to be answered with a yes; otherwise, the third question is irreverent. Yet, perhaps, whatever the answers given to the preceding questions are, the third question can be explored, regardless.
My point is that awareness is here right now, and it’s true that we tend to not notice it.
My friend said she was blown away by the “try not to notice it” question, because she found it immediately—there it was, all the time, right here. The unexplainable present moment peace that she was seeking was already here, but Susie hadn’t been able to notice it. When Susie tried not to notice it, her mind stopped searching, and then she discovered what was there all along.
These days, it’s impossible for me to look for this and not find it. When I look, it’s always there, but 99.9 percent of the time, I don’t see it because my awareness is elsewhere. That’s no matter, for I know that it’s here, always. I also know that I don’t have to do anything to earn it; I don’t have to deserve it and I don’t have to try to find it. It’s just here.
My body is always here, and thought is always here. My five senses are always here, as are my varying emotions, and likewise, the present moment is always here. Everything is always here. Although I’m experiencing all of that at the same time, it’s impossible to consciously notice and be aware of it all at once.
I can’t think about it all through the filter of my limited mind, just like I can’t listen to more than one person at a time, or listen to more than one piece of music, or watch two television programs. It’s one at a time, including one thought at a time. Likewise, we don’t tend to consciously notice another person’s body language or facial expressions, unless they do something unusual or funny or alarming, and then we notice.
As I experience all of what a human being experiences, my attention is drawn one way, and then another, of perceiving myself, others and the world. I think, I feel, I sense, I see and I hear. I experience myself in relation to myself, the other and the world. It’s all happening within the abiding present moment awareness, which is no longer what I’m seeking to become, as it is what I already am. So mindful awareness isn’t mind-based attention, it’s something other than thinking, but thinking notices awareness and awareness is all of it.
Mindful awareness, the peace that passeth all understanding, is the noticing of our connectedness with the present moment, and then we experience a spiritual alignment with how it is, just as it is.
You see, you are the very present moment awareness that you seek.
A final concluding question
My friend practiced the three steps to a mindful heaven for a few weeks, and said that it worked every time, but it only lasted for a few seconds. After that, she found that her mind kicked in, and she started thinking about it, or thinking that she didn’t want to lose it, and then she lost it. But it wasn’t lost, that was just her mind doing what minds do.
So, while acknowledging the grasping and the wanting, and her resistance to allowing awareness to come and go (while simultaneously recognizing that it’s always here), I added a fourth instruction:
Try to not let it stay. What happens, then?
May you realize who you are, and find yourself at peace with the coming and going of it all.
If you asked yourself the final concluding question, what were the results? Feel free to share them with us in the Comments section below.
Dr. Mike Larcombe is a Clinical Psychologist working in the U.K.
image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Pixabay; image 3: Pixabay; image 4: Pixabay