Silent Fitness Part 2: Two-Fold Awareness

In Silent Fitness Part 1,  I emphasized the importance of keeping one’s practice free of expectations. 

That’s probably not realistic for beginners. Most of us are goal-oriented, and few have time to place efforts on activities that don’t produce results.

What follows breaks from tradition, at least concerning mindfulness instruction I am familiar with. Writing about mindfulness experience is taboo because it invites aspirants to chase outcomes. Still, I think it might be helpful to explain why we practice the way we do. The following comes from my experience, which naturally may differ from yours.  

To begin, we must go back to the beginning. 

What makes us human is that we are aware that we are aware. Indeed animals and even plants are “aware” of their environment. But, as far as we know, humans are unique in extending that awareness in a self-reflective manner. 

Awareness is the product of three things; subject (us), object (the target of our awareness), and importantly, a connection.  

Awareness is two-fold; it is actioned by direct experience, as well as thought. 

Early in life, awareness centers on sensory connections. The infant sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells in absence of context. Having not yet developed language, an infant lacks the facility for conceptual thought. The infant lacks knowledge of “Self.”

Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment. Imagine if you suddenly found yourself in a situation absent of perspective and context. Everything you hear, see, smell, taste, or touch is new and unknown. In such an occurance, your full awareness would be experiential and void of thought. 

In this context-free environment, what would happen to stress, anxiety, emotions, hopes, and fears? What would happen to dis-ease? 

In absence of physical duress, it would disappear!

For the infant, awareness approximates a pure present state of “being.” Infants are unaware of stress and anxiety imposed by the shadow of an unknown future. Infants don’t mull over past transgressions. 

Watching our baby granddaughter, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be completely present. 

The honeymoon in life doesn’t last long! As the infant develops, she learns to differentiate events. Wet diapers are miserable. Warm milk is good. As development continues, she begins to recognize events previously encountered. She begins to associate the sound of footsteps with welcoming arms. 

Soon she is able to situate herself in her environment. As this happens, she begins to put sensory experience into perspective. At some point, that perspective evolves to “Self” as an entity separate from environment.

Recognition, differentiation, and perspective quickly evolve into preferences. Soon an incredible learning emerges. The developing child begins to equate sounds (words) with different sensory experiences.

Once language is acquired, the stage is set for the emergence of thought. As more symbols are acquired, she learns to string them together in representations of increasing complexity. Symbols referencing experiences are cataloged in memory. The developing child learns to manipulate memories, and in doing so, acquires an imagination. 

There is no going back. The child’s awareness, like ours, has now become two-fold; consisting of direct experience and thought. 

As we mature, awareness is increasingly occupied by thought. Adults live in their heads. 

Where does dis-ease come from? I am not speaking of medical disease, but emotional dis-ease? Unless we are experiencing direct physical pain, dis-ease comes from thought. 

Thoughts share a peculiar property. They are universally situated in time. Thoughts focus on past events, experiences, and learning or future plans, aspirations, and fears.

Direct experience, occurs outside of time, being totally situated in “Now.”

What happens to stress, anxiety, worries, fears, and dis-ease as awareness shifts from thought to the present moment?

Dis-ease disappears!

What happens when we pause, take a deep breath, and slowly exhale? Our focus, even if only to a small degree, shifts from thought to direct experience. Awareness, which was formerly situated in the past or future, is brought to the present moment. As we enter the moment, dis-ease dissipates. 

When awareness shifts away from the moment, dis-ease settles back in. 

We work to keep our mindfulness practice free of expectations because we are never entirely in the moment when we try to accomplish something. 

When I play my guitar, I can lose myself in the moment. But, when I attempt to learn a new chord, half of my awareness hears the chord, and the other half evaluates whether I got it right. New chords are difficult and frustrating to learn. They hurt your fingers and sound muffled. Thought plays a leading role when learning a new guitar chord. 

This “is why “trying” is entirely different than “doing” or “being.”  

Early in life, we live completely in the moment, stress-free. As thought bullies its way in, our awareness becomes two-fold, life gets a lot more complicated.  

Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment. The reason it can be difficult is that we have gotten rusty employing awareness absent of thought. In fact, we find letting go of thought to be next to impossible. 

When we “try” to still our mind, we roll out the red carpet for thought to take over. When we “try,” we evaluate how we are doing against a desired outcome. That is why in mindfulness, there is no “try.” Yoda would be proud! We simply do.

In bringing our awareness to the present moment, we may notice thoughts that occur. That is just fine. We may notice other distractions like sounds in other rooms of the house. That’s fine!

Slowly, we learn to witness a thought versus getting caught up in thought. Rather than an actor in the movie, we become a member of the audience. We learn to  witness life. 

In time, thoughts are allowed to pass, just like puffy white clouds moving across a blue summer sky. 

If our practice is relaxing, that is fine. If our practice is disturbed by thought, that is fine. We practice witnessing. 

When I began my mindfulness practice, I found it very helpful to draw my attention to an inspirational phrase. When my awareness was interrupted by a sound or a thought, which happened frequently, I softly returned my attention to the phrase.

Initially, my mind was like a golf ball hit in a marble room. It bounced all over the place. But over an extended period, I found I was able to focus my attention on the phrase rather than the interrupting thoughts. 

Don’t be frustrated if that takes time, even a long time. After all, your mind has been absorbed in thought for years and years. Suddenly, you are redirecting that “monkey mind” to the present moment. You are asking your mind to witness rather than act! 

That’s a big deal.

As mindfulness becomes more familiar, the aperture allowing thoughts to enter awareness slowly narrows. Distraction yields to focus. “Self,” constructed of years and years of thinking, begins to dissolve. You refamiliarize awareness with the simple feeling of being. 

If you find yourself evaluating progress or comparing one practice to another, you will discover you have invited thought into your practice. When this happens, return to being a witness. Allow thoughts to dissipate, like an ephemeral fog in the presence of a rising sun. 

To read Part 3 of this series, please click

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