Awareness is the substrate of all experience. If you want to change something, you must first become aware of it. You cannot change something that you are not aware of. However, things that you are not aware of can and do change you, and that can be a problem.
Awareness is value neutral. Simply by becoming aware of something you can increase it or decrease it. By becoming aware of your weight you can increase or decrease it. By becoming aware of your anger you can increase it or decrease it. The rule of thumb is that enhanced awareness changes a behavior in the direction of your intent. If you intend to decrease a behavior, more awareness will tend to decrease it. If you desire to increase a behavior, say dream recall, increased awareness, say by reading over your dream journal, previous IDL interviews, or telling yourself before you go to sleep, “I will remember my dreams when I awaken,” will tend to increase awareness of your dreams.
This does not mean that more awareness is necessarily better; if evolution is a process of enhanced awareness, objectivity, diversification and adaptability, then involution is a process of enhanced subjectivity and submergence into contexts that shrink individual awareness toward zero. There are many reasons to believe that evolution requires involution, and deep sleep is perhaps the best example in the course of any twenty-four hour period in the life of animals, including humans. Therefore, in what follows, it is important to remember that while heightened awareness is a central goal of evolution it is not for life itself, which manifests itself through cycles of evolution and involution.
What does this have to do with meditation? Many people have difficulty meditating for a variety of reasons. Most of them boil down to going to war with themselves. They put themselves into conflict with their own thoughts, feelings, bodies, or environments, with the result being that they fight or capitulate instead of meditating. They make meditation about self-control and life about self-purification, two goals which ignore the necessity of discontrol and impurity in the forms of confusion, ignorance, failure and suffering. Or, they simply capitulate and do some form of self-rescuing: sleeping, problem solving, daydreaming, or visualizing, and call it meditation. Self-medication, self-rescuing, and being stuck in the Drama Triangle is hardly a move toward increased awareness, meditative consciousness, lucidity or waking up. Consequently, avoiding such warfare is critical to successful meditation. But how? How can you meditate outside the Drama Triangle?
Awareness meditation simply notes what is coming up in your awareness at this moment. At first this is done with language, spoken or unspoken: “I am aware of the flowers on the table.” “I am aware that I am uncomfortable.” “I am aware that I am bored.” “I am aware of my breath.” I am aware of an itch in my left foot…” Whatever comes up is named. If you start thinking about what you’ve named, you name that: “I am aware that I am angry.” You start thinking about why you got angry – what that co-worker said to you earlier today. Then you say or think, “I am aware that I am thinking about why I got angry.” If you think or feel nothing you say, “I am aware that I am thinking about nothing.” “I am aware that I am feeling nothing.”
Most people will do this for three or four things and then drift into long periods of thought and feeling before realizing they have fallen asleep and stopped naming things. Then they will try again, only to soon fall asleep into their reflections. This is why naming things out loud can be helpful at first. It keeps you aware of your intention, which is to break up the addictive flow of one thought to the next, one feeling to the next, in an endless loop of subjectivity and involution.
How does naming improve meditation? By naming your thoughts, feelings, and sensations you aren’t saying anything is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, or smart or stupid. You aren’t saying you have to sit in a certain position, keep your eyes closed, not think, not imagine, or not forget what you’re doing. You are not saying that you shouldn’t name whatever comes up while you are in the car or while dancing or while at work. You are simply noting whatever comes up, something you can do any time, wherever you are, and not only during designated periods of meditation. By doing so you create spaces between whatever thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise into your awareness. These spaces are “flaws in the matrix,” wormholes out of the hologram, and contextual awareness of any and all selves, particularly yourself or Self. As you name, decouple thoughts and dwell in these spaces those thoughts, feelings, sensations and images that do arise become less seductive; it becomes easier for you to simply note them as you gain practice. Therefore, naming is cultivating the witness and higher-order objectivity. You are learning to move into and expand spaces where you watch the self-created drama of your life, of you, go by, without judgment, preference, or criticism.
Naming quickly leads to periods of relative tranquility and clarity that are qualitatively different from normal waking experience, periods of genuine meditative awareness. These in turn become part of your normal, waking experience. Instead of creating a dichotomy between meditative awareness and normal, waking awareness, you are expanding and thinning your normal waking awareness with constant infusions of clear, witnessing, meditative awareness. This is powerful, and it is your destiny as an embodied human.
Deepening observation of the spaces between naming becomes a matter of noting more whatever comes up at increasingly subtle levels, without speaking out loud or without needing to name the thought, feeling, sensation or image “out loud” in your mind. As your mind calms and centers you will find that you start naming thoughts, feelings, images and sensations as they start to come up and then even before they come up. At this point, such naming is more properly called “noting,” because the process is much more subtle than language and grammar. However, it is basically the same process, simply refined. This is graduate level practice, but you can do it relatively quickly and easily if you follow these simple instructions with intent and persistence.
Naming is effective for a variety of reasons. It engages your mind in an activity that is productive, supportive, and useful rather than fighting, which only divides you against yourself. Naming enhances awareness of what is present rather than focusing on the past or future. It makes no value judgments. It is simple. Naming can be done to great benefit by both beginning and advanced meditators. It provides you with experiences of quick and genuine shifts and expansions in consciousness, payoffs often promised by meditation but not so frequently delivered. Naming continues to provide these benefits over time; you do not stop having such shifts and expansions just because you have mastered the technique, as can happen with other approaches to meditation. You are doing something that you normally do anyway: observing your experience, only with continuing emphasis on observation rather than on the experience.
Naming is extremely effective at cultivating the witness, increasing acceptance, reducing reactivity, and decreasing personalization because it does not waste time or energy judging experiences as good or bad. It does not deal with preferences. Instead of endlessly fighting over preferences it simply says, “Preferences are beside the point right now. For now I am going to simply focus on awareness itself.”
You don’t need to meditate for years. You don’t have to go to retreats. You don’t need a guru or teacher. All of these things help, and will speed and deepen your practice, but they aren’t necessary, if you follow the deceptively simple instructions above.
For more information, see Dillard, J Waking Up.