From time to time, I will post longer articles that go into greater depth. The following post is about a 10-minute read. I will return to my usual short-format posts next week.
“The Anatomy of Peace” is a series that presents a retrospective understanding of the role awareness plays in the pursuit of joy and happiness during times of personal difficulties. The introduction and Part 1 of the series can be found here: https://tim-coats.com/digging-deeper
Part 2: Presence, The Doorway To Awareness (10-minute read)
Socrates claimed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That might be a little strong, but I resonate with the sentiment. At a basic level, we all search for meaning, belonging, and joy. Ultimately, the solutions we find come through our unique view of the world.
Much of our energy is dedicated to things we have to do or want to accomplish. In other words, shaping outcomes. We pursue education, desirable employment, and a comfortable place to live. We search for friends and companionship. We make plans and buy things. We take vacations.
That should be enough!
But life is complicated. We can’t always control circumstances. Despite our best efforts, things don’t go the way we planned. Ernest Hemingway, in “A Farewell To Arms,” famously wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
I’ve witnessed that in some people, but sadly, many remain broken. We are composed of a mixture of fragility and resilience. Sooner or later, we are tested.
As a young man, I believed I controlled the important circumstances of my life. That was naive! What we experience depends on how we see! Ultimately, I found life experience was shaped more by awareness than circumstance. That took a while to learn!
Awareness training plays a critical role in expanding our viewpoint. As such, it plays an essential role in helping us build resilience to face personal setbacks and find joy.
How is it that a talented artist can capture someone’s image in just a few pencil strokes? I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it. I’ve concluded artists see the world differently than me. This is an important clue!
Supposedly we only use 5% of our brainpower. I have no idea if that’s true. However, I am certain that what we are aware of at any given moment is only a tiny fraction of what is available to us! There are many examples of this.
When first exposed to jazz, I didn’t care for it. It doesn’t have a melody. But I love music, so I continued to explore it. I now listen to jazz more than any other genre.
I became aware of what was going on in the music. As my awareness broadened, I experienced what the musicians were playing in a new way.
We don’t experience the world as it is; instead, we experience the world as we are. Art provides a clear example of this.
Years ago, my father was visiting, and I noticed him staring at a large abstract painting above our fireplace. After three days, Dad had a Eureka moment, “I’ve got it!” He exclaimed. “It’s a whale!” Dad preferred pictures of barns with farm animals milling about.
How is it that two people see and experience things so differently?
The physicist Neils Bohr once said, “Consciousness is the singular for which the plural is unknown.” This gets at a universal truth. Each of us sees the world as we are.
Let’s explore that.
If we Google consciousness, we find that it is defined as awareness of one’s existence. From there, opinions differ. British psychologist, Stuart Sutherland, sums it up this way:
“Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”
That was in 1989. The science of awareness hasn’t progressed much since then.
One thing, however, to me is clear. Consciousness and awareness differ. Being conscious doesn’t necessarily mean we are aware. Consciousness connects the brain to our senses. I think of it as a pair of binoculars. Awareness, on the other hand, is the direction in which the binoculars are pointed.
An important part of art education is learning to see what is there. When I suspended my initial judgment about jazz and investigated it further, my appreciation and enjoyment of it increased.
Our life works the same way.
Two factors determine the quality of our awareness. The first is breadth. Using binoculars as an example, this is the field of view. Cheap binoculars have a narrow field of view, whereas high-quality binoculars offer a broad viewpoint.
The second factor is perspective. This is equivalent to the clarity of the lens in a pair of binoculars. The quality of our awareness is impacted by the “filters” we place in front of it. The most common filter is “Self.” We see what we believe, not the other way around!
Where does our unique viewpoint come from?
Early in life, we use sense perception to distinguish one thing from another. Making distinctions is one of the first cognitive skills we develop. Soon we learn names for these distinctions like cat, dog, milk, and Momma. Once we’ve made a distinction and assigned a word, the image is fixed. Future experiences come to us in that context. Language delivers awareness to consciousness. In this manner, we come to see the world as we are. This viewpoint becomes increasingly fixed as we age. Truth, rather than grounded in fact, increasingly becomes what we believe. Politics provide a prime example!
When we practice “Presence,” we remove thought, which in effect removes “Self” from the lens of awareness. What we experience expands. The author Phillip Shepard in “New Self, New World” wrote: “You can either be who you know yourself to be, or you can be present, one or the other, not both.”
“Presence” liberates our capacity for relationships!
Let’s examine that in more detail.
Each of us has an enormous capacity for awareness. To complicate matters, the world offers an infinite variety of subjects of which to become aware. The critical issue is connection. Awareness is like a lightbulb. The room remains dark until the bulb is switched on and an electrical connection is made. What we are aware of in any given moment similarly depends on the connections we make.
Connections define our relationships. The Belgian psychotherapist and couples counselor Esther Perel claims our spirit creates the world we live in. Spirit is revealed in connectivity. When absorbed in thought, we are less connected and hence less aware. By removing thought (and correspondingly “Self”) from the picture, we broaden our awareness, expand our relationships, and grow the felt connectedness of our existence.
“Presence” (discussed in Part 1 of this series*) is a doorway to broader awareness.
How can it be then that awareness is primary to life experience?
Memory and knowledge are actioned by thought. Awareness, absent of thought, is neutral and untainted by opinions and preferences. When “present,” we simply observe. Someone who is smart knows many things. Someone who is wise sees the relationships between things. “Presence” expands our awareness of “inter-being” by liberating us from the confines of thought. It is a font of wisdom that reveals the unity of existence.
That’s pretty heavy, right? So let’s look at a practical example.
Let’s say someone cuts in front of us on the highway, forcing us to brake to avoid an accident. This makes most people (me for sure) angry. When we experience emotions like anger, it is a clear sign that awareness has been filtered through “Self.”
Now let’s bring “presence” to this same situation. The car cuts us off, we feel anger well up inside as we brake hard to avoid the accident, but then we let go of that anger and notice what is going on. We may feel that the shoulder restraint has tightened around our chest. We may notice heat from blood that has rushed to our faces. We notice we are angry and how that feels inside. In short, rather than playing the “leading role” in this drama, we become the Director. We notice the camera angle, the lighting, and the other actors. Removing “Self” from the drama provides the opportunity to improve the scene!
Stoic philosophers called this the “God Test.” They believed difficult circumstances were sent by the Gods to test one’s character. The “God Test” involved immediately recognizing circumstance as a test and acting accordingly, including learning from it.
When “present,” awareness broadens, and we begin to notice things previously missed. This is a new way of “Being” for most of us. It doesn’t change circumstances, but it fundamentally changes how we experience them.
“Presence” puts awareness in the driver’s seat. The more we practice “presence,” whether in mindfulness or in the moment on the highway, the more we find our relationship to life changes. As a witness, rather than the actor, we experience circumstances in a different context. Absent of “Self,” we develop a capacity for acceptance. This is not to say we become passive. We simply recognize that things are as they are, and we can choose our response.
This was the primary message in Viktor Frankl’s seminal work, “Man’s Search For Meaning.” Even under the devastating conditions of Auschwitz, Frankl discovered that one can choose their awareness and response to life.
This isn’t easy. “Presence” requires practice, especially when emotions flare.
Awareness defines our relationships, and relationships shape our lives. When claiming that awareness more than circumstance shapes life experience, I am referencing the transformative power of relationships.
But why is “Presence” the doorway to awareness?
Simply stated, “Presence” removes the filter “Self!”
Nearly every problem we face in life arises from separating “Self” from the unity of existence. For centuries, the “mystics” of Eastern and Western traditions have claimed that the separate “Self” is an illusion.
That sounds ridiculous until we discover it is true. “Self” is, in fact, self-created by thoughts, opinions, and preferences. Absent of thought, the “Self” disappears, yet we remain aware, in fact, hyper-aware. In such moments, we experience that the separate “Self” is indeed an illusion; in fact, it’s worse than that. It is a nightmare. Nightmares create a false reality that terrifies us, and this is precisely what “Self” does! We fear unfavorable outcomes, change, and most of all, death. Why is this? Life is constant change. Death is a certainty. Why the fuss?
The answer, of course, is that these events run counter to the desires of the thought-created “Self.”
An example might clarify the error in our illusion of separation. Let’s say we have a bucket of water sitting on the kitchen floor. In this example, the water represents our innermost “being.” The bucket represents our separate “Self.” Initially, it appears that our “being” (the water) is contained in the separate “Self” (the bucket). But, leave the bucket of water on the kitchen floor long enough, and the water evaporates into the air. The bucket tricks us into thinking that water is separate from air. Actually, water and air co-exist in unity. As proof, the relative humidity of the room I am sitting in right now is fifty percent. Extending this example to life (using the lyrics of Jackson Browne), “We each are a part of one another.”
We often miss the fact that life and “Self” are unified! This is not to say that desires and preferences are wrong; instead, it says that circumstance is a part of life. Sometimes they please us, and sometimes not. Resisting what comes our way leads us to suffer.
Let’s take another example. “Self” feels like something deep inside us that experiences a separate outside world. We experience “Self” as the house that shelters our “Being.” But, this “house” is part of the world. Like water in the bucket on the kitchen floor, “Self” one day merges with the world. We mistakenly refer to this as death when actually it is a reunion. “Self” is a temporary condition. The atoms that constitute our existence will continue on. What is permanent is the unity of existence.
What does this have to do with awareness?
Awareness illuminates this unity. That sounds strange until we experience it!
There is a big difference between a smart person and a wise person. Wisdom comes from seeing relationships. Awareness is our source of wisdom. The illusion of a separate “Self” is life’s greatest obstacle and the root cause of nearly all suffering. Thought fuels separation. Thoughts employ symbolic language that distances us from pure experience. Our ability to distinguish one thing from another is powerful. It is essential to everyday life. But it comes at a price. That price is the substitution of knowledge for awareness, creating blindness to unity.
As we cultivate awareness, we restore balance. Fr. Richard Rohr (whose blog I read daily) writes, “Our outer world and its inner significance must come together for there to be any wholeness and holiness.”
The Persian poet, Rumi, offers a similar sentiment, “Our task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
We are not “Self” experiencing relationships. We are relationships experiencing “Self.”
In “presence,” we gain broader access and a new perspective on the relationships that define our lives.
*”The Anatomy of Peace” is a five-part series presenting a retrospective understanding of the role awareness plays in our lives. Previous articles along with a detailed explanation of the mindfulness practice I use (Silent Fitness) can be found here: https://tim-coats.com/digging-deeper/
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