Four Approaches to Bare Awareness
In my last piece I quoted Russian ballet star Nijinsky’s comment, “It’s really quite simple. I merely leap and pause. Leap and pause.” Without the pause, the leap loses its connection with reality. We might say that Buddhist meditation is nothing more or less then learning how to pause, so that we are not swept away by a mind that goes on and on and on.
In my piece I also talked about various forms of focused meditation and how important focusing is so we can move to bare awareness (unfocused meditation). Some common places of focus include breath, specific bodily sensations, counting, mantra, lower abdomen or hara, hand position, or phrases of self-compassion or loving-kindness.
Now I would like to touch on four ways to practice bare awareness. They include: 1. Letting go, or just letting be; 2. Opening through the center; 3.Expanding our field of attention; 4. Cultivating a full awareness of feelings.
First, Letting go, or just letting be. Most of the time when we are practicing bare awareness, since we have no activity to distract us, we layer one story one top of another. Often several vie for our attention simultaneously. Some are more colorful; some are juicy, others are drab and repetitive. As we begin to let go, we discover a realm within our consciousness that is bigger, wider, and deeper than our incessant chatter. If we just let go a little bit, we can experience it a little bit. Or we can let go a lot and experience it a lot!
But sometimes when we try over and over to let go of our stories and broaden our awareness, the noise just becomes louder. Then we may think we are a failure as a meditator. But it’s not possible to “fail” at meditation. Instead, we can follow Paul McCartney’s advice, “Mother Mary comes to me whispering words of wisdom, let it be.” Evidently, Paul was referring to his own mother, who was non-judgmental and accepting regardless of what he did. If we just let our incessant chatter talk itself through in a non-judgmental way, in most cases, we can begin to experience a wonderful spaciousness that surrounds and engulfs it.
Second, opening through the center. Sometimes we can’t let go of our stories and when we try to let them be, they just gain power and momentum. Then we can practice opening up through the center of both the story and the emotion, which keeps it revved up. We might notice how strong the pull is to get away from the emotional core. We might also notice all the different ways thoughts and feelings reverberate to keep whatever story we are telling ourselves vibrantly alive.
After I had been practicing at San Francisco Zen Center for a little over three years, our teacher replaced the American style eating we had been doing with nested eating bowls, called oryoki, which are used in Japanese Zen monasteries as part of a highly ritualized practice. I was not happy about this and wondered how such a thing was even relevant to Zen. We were told there was no latitude in how the ritual was performed—left-handers like me had to do it in the prescribed right handed away. I was particularly annoyed, because I had been slightly traumatized in the first grade, before my parents’ intervened on my behalf, since my teacher insisted that I learn to write with my right hand. The leaders’ at the Zen monastery changed their minds and decided left-handed people could do it differently, but it was still very hard for me. I couldn’t get my corners straight and seemed always to be the last one finished. Time after time, I opened to the center of my frustration, staying close both to each movement. I gradually opened to the center of my frustration until it disappeared completely!
The seven-day retreat, called Rohatsu, is coming up shortly, as I write this and many people will experience boredom at some point as they sit facing the wall hour after hour. If they can’t find a skillful way to face our boredom, they may spin through one new daydream or thought pattern after another. But they can short-circuit all of this, by merely open up through the center of the boredom, itself. Here’s a poem by John Berryman, which I am particularly fond of:
Life, friends, is boring, we must not say so. After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, and moreover my mother told me as a boy (repeatedly) “Even to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored. People bore me, literature bores me, especially great literature, Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes as bad as Achilles, who loves people and valiant art, which bores me. And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag and somehow a dog has taken itself & its tail considerably away into mountain or sea or sky, leaving behind: me, wag.
―”Dream #14,” 77 Dream Songs
Here, Berriman recognizes that boredom manifests itself as a self-centered dream in which he is caught. He recognizes that there’s a picture of how things ought to be and how we’re supposed to respond to them: great literature, great art. Bored by it all. Even bored by his alter ego Henry, with all its plights and gripes and complaining.
At the end of the poem, boredom suddenly drops away, and he ends with an exclamation of radical acceptance, a moment of Zen: Me, Wag.
Third, expanding our field of attention. So often in meditation we are stuck in one dimension, whether it be pain in the body, or some feeling we have, or some thought. Here’s an example from a woman, who an Insight Meditation Teacher worked with several years ago:
“During retreats Jan was often physically nauseated. I coached her to expand her attention beginning with her body and moving beyond it to her feelings. As she opened to those, she began to notice feelings she had never been aware of which were accompanying the nausea. As she OPENED INTO CENTER she realized the nausea was covering up her fear of abandonment, had never dealt with the pain of losing him. Gradually, she was able to stay longer in retreats, close to the painful emotions of loss and grief. As the intensity of her strong emotions increased, the nausea decreased.”
Jan realized later that her general attitude had been that she had no one to love and that she herself was unlovable. She had not even been aware of this attitude. It was covered up by the feelings of restlessness and worry that she held in her body. Expanding her field of awareness beyond her body enabled her to see it. I have helped many practitioners over the years do a similar expansion.
Fourth, cultivating a full awareness of feelings. We can move from the actual sensation to experience a panoply of feelings connected to a sensation. It’s possible to fully experience the feelings and sensations involved with each of the places of stuckness that come up in our meditation practice. Lets focus on the sensation of desire. We may cultivate a full awareness of feelings surrounding and underlying a specific desire. As we become more aware of the uncomfortable, even painful, sensations associated with a given desire, we can experience the stillness that is also present and not be tossed away by the desire, regardless of how strong it is.
If we practice each of these four ways of broadening and deepening our awareness in our meditation, we can begin to enjoy the pauses that Nijinsky is referring to without even one lesson in ballet. The more we are able to appreciate and enjoy these pauses, the more we will also be able to enjoy lead after lead after leap.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher