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Woman's face looking at clouds and cliffs - The elusiveness of mindful awareness

It’s all about noticing

Mindfulness is noticing. When we “do” mindfulness, we’re trying to obtain something, to change something, to make it better. But when we simply notice our experiences in the moment, we’re truly practicing mindfulness.

When we notice ourselves trying to change how it is, because we don’t want “it” to be how it is, that’s mindfulness. When we notice that we’re deliberately not trying to change how it is, because we like it, that’s mindfulness, too. When we don’t like how it is, but are trying to accept it with hope that acceptance will be our salvation, that’s also mindfulness.

Mindful awareness is all about noticing. We’re able to notice the constant changing of our internal self and external world, and when we become aware of our experience or perspective, we notice that our experience or perspective can change. We’re also able to be mindful of what lies beneath our surface experiences, and notice the natural stillness and peace that’s always here. When awareness becomes aware of awareness itself, then we really have found something: a peace and stillness, a “not-knowing” and “not-doing.” We can’t keep this, but paradoxically, we can’t lose it, either.

A common trap we fall into is desiring a permanent sense of peace and wanting to be mindful all the time. A taste of mindfulness can create a hunger for more. However, we find that we want what’s actually already here, permanently, since we don’t create inner stillness, we discover it. You can’t “have” inner stillness, you can’t possess it, and you can’t own it, because it already “has” you.

You can only have it when you’re not trying to get it

Sometimes we want to experience mindful awareness because we remember a time we did that was amazing, so of course, we want that again. But the rule is, you can only have it when you aren’t trying to get it. You can only connect with the peace within when you’re not trying to connect with the peace within. Mindfulness is all about allowing yourself to notice what’s already here, and not about trying to get something that you’ve lost or don’t have.

Waves in the ocean - The elusiveness of mindful awareness

When we desire (but are not experiencing) peace within, that peace is still there underneath, although our attention is elsewhere. We’re like the sea, putting its attention on the surface, on the waves, which are sometimes calm and sometime rough, and are constantly moving and changing. But the deeper the sea is, the calmer it is. Stillness can be discovered at the bottom of the ocean, even while a storm rages.

Similarly, for a human being, life is sometimes calm and pleasant, and sometimes turbulent and rough, but the peace within is always there. It’s the focus of your attention and your acceptance of how things are that’s constantly changing. Our lives can never be permanently tranquil and still. How do we know that? Because they’re not. Nevertheless, the peace within is unchangingly still, and always here.

The desire for a permanent connection with our inner peace plays out in a way similar to this:

I want the peace within. I’ve experienced it before, and I want it again. When I get it, I don’t want to lose it, or I at least want to be able to access it whenever I want or need it. However, instead of getting what I want (the peace within), I now experience a “me” wanting the peace within, not a “me” connecting with the peace within. So now, I try not to want it, because that might be a way of getting it. But still, I don’t find internal peace; I experience a “me” trying to not want the peace within (with hope that I’ll get it), which is a complete failure. I now feel frustrated in my failure to re-find the peace within that I so badly want. I have frustration, and I don’t want that, so I try to accept my frustration with hope that it will go away, and on and on it goes.

When we want, we experience wanting, and when we try not to want, we experience ourselves trying not to want. We get whatever it is we already have.

Unchanging stillness is everywhere and in everything

Unchanging, peaceful stillness isn’t separate from us, and isn’t only what lies beneath the surface. It’s within everything. It can be found within our turbulence, our distress, our suffering, our dissatisfaction, our frustration, and our unhappiness. It’s everywhere and everything.

You can be mindfully aware of the words you read, and also of the space between each word. You can be aware of what you see and hear. You can notice when you weren’t aware (after you become aware), and your desire to become aware more often, more deeply, and for longer. You can notice what you feel, what you experience, and what you don’t feel, and you can realize what you don’t know. You can notice what you like and want, and what you don’t like and don’t want. You can notice the gaps between thoughts, and you can notice thought. You can see that all this is everything and nothing.

What I’m talking about can never be explained completely, and can’t be spoken of. I can’t say what it is, as it can’t be put into words, and I don’t know if I really know what it is. It’s the present moment, it’s breathing, it’s aliveness, it’s life itself. It’s here, it’s now. It’s pain, it’s joy. It’s what was here before birth, and what will remain beyond death. It’s not thinking, and it is thinking. It’s always both and neither, nothing and everything. It’s not conscious thought, and it’s not unconscious thought. It’s not thought, and it’s not “not-thought.” It’s all and none of the above.

The awareness that we’re sometimes mindful of, and are more often unmindful of, is always here. It can’t and doesn’t go away, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Conscious awareness occurs when unconscious awareness becomes conscious of itself, of an awareness that was always here and never leaves. It’s always the same awareness, whether we’re mindful of it or not.

We act as mirrors reflecting awareness

It really doesn’t matter whether you’re mindfully aware or not, or whether you’re conscious of awareness or not; that’s just something a mind might think about and decide upon, until it changes its belief again. Although you can realize that awareness is here, now, you can never know exactly what it is. Awareness is aware of the mind, and of thought, but on the other hand, the mind and thought can’t understand awareness, no more than your reflection in the mirror can figure out who you are.

Awareness doesn’t require you to become aware of awareness, or to understand what it is. You can only know that you don’t know, and be in the moment right now, however that is for you. Be with the turbulence, or be with the deep stillness and peace within you, or be with both, or see that they’re one and the same—all is possible.

You don’t have to draw a line to separate the peace within from your turbulence, as the greatest peace can be found within the most difficult and devastating experiences. You don’t have to be permanently at peace with all and everything. Stillness and your awareness of it is unconditional and permanent, so there’s nowhere for you to go, and nothing for you to do beyond noticing when you notice it. You don’t have to get anything, keep anything, or be in any way different from how you are in this moment.

All there is to do is notice, become aware, and become mindful of how “it” is for you right now. Noticing how it is—however it is—that’s mindfulness. You can try and change how it is, or accept it, or try not to change it with hope that it’ll stay or hope that’ll it’ll change, or try not to change it without hope for change. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, all is allowable. The important thing is just to notice how you are and what you do.

Noticing how it is, and noticing the wanting and not-wanting, or noticing there is no wanting and no not-wanting, or noticing that you want there to be no wanting and no not-wanting, is what mindfulness is really about. Mindfulness is just noticing what’s going on in the world and with others in relation to you, and of course, it’s always in relation to you. It’s simply noticing what’s going on for you, here, now.

Learn more about getting in touch with “the peace within” in LEARNING TO BE ALONE: Accessing your inner stillness through meditation»

image 1: Alice Popkorn (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND); image 2: George Lenard (Creative Commons BY)

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