One simple way to talk about awakening is as a shift from our current sense of self and way of knowing based in conceptual thinking to awake awareness as the new way of knowing and being. Here is a definition of awake awareness and a practice to experience directly for yourself from my book, Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness.
“When our basic awareness is revealed to be the foundation of both how we know and who we are, we can call it “awake awareness.” Discovering awake awareness is key to the transformation of consciousness (which some call awakening) that leads to our ability to live from freedom, wellbeing, and loving connection. Awakening is a shift of our identity and also a shift of our way of knowing. Awake awareness is the essence of both our ground of Being and the source of our mind. This transformation is a simple shift of awake awareness from the background of our consciousness to the foreground.
Because we’re in the habit of focusing on fast-moving thoughts and strong emotions, and of seeking happiness outside ourselves, we don’t notice awake awareness. Our current constellation of consciousness restricts our perception of our wholeness. Awakening doesn’t begin by changing our belief system or improving our external circumstances. Awakening begins with shifting out of the way we organize our current mind and identity, which is what’s creating ignorance and confusion.
We can learn how to shift out of our thought-based mind and into an awareness-based way of knowing. Then, from awareness-based knowing, we can embody, connect, and welcome all experience. The feeling of embodied, awareness-based knowing is similar to being in a flow state, being in the zone, being in love, doing selfless service, or laughing with close friends. It’s being so fully alive in the now that you “forget yourself.”
Awake awareness is invisible, content-less, formless, boundless, and timeless, but it is the ground of our being. When you shift out of your conventional sense of self, there’s a gap of not-knowing. Awake awareness is who we are prior to the personal conditioning we usually turn to for our identity. Rather than looking to our thoughts, memories, personality, or roles to identify ourselves, we learn to know awake awareness as the primary dimension of who we are, the ground of Being. Then, with unconditioned awake awareness as the foundation of identity, we can include our conditioned thoughts, emotions, and sensations as waves of the ocean of our life. When people feel awake awareness as their primary dimension of consciousness, they report feeling an essential wellbeing that is free, loving, and safe.
Awake awareness, as the ground of Being, is the same in all of us, and our individuality arises out of it. Awake awareness is sometimes called “pure awareness,” but it’s also inherent within all forms of our consciousness. At other times, the term “awakened awareness” is used, but awareness is always awake and so has not awakened. Awake awareness is always already here, and it’s only a matter of learning how to directly access it.
One of the most important things to learn is how to separate awareness from thinking. Only then can we see that thoughts and emotions are not the center of who we are. We then discover that awareness is the source of mind that brings the peace that passes understanding. One student said, “This is what it feels like to be open-minded.” It’s our natural wisdom mind, both prior to and beyond conceptual thinking. We are able to then use thinking as needed without being a “thinker.” It is like doing something from a “flow state,” being in the zone, or a continuous intuition. Awake awareness can “know” something without referring overtly to thoughts, but it can also use thought when needed. When we discover the important ability to step back into awake awareness, we are no longer identified with our worried thoughts and fearful emotions. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.
When awake awareness is then experienced as inherent within everything, we feel unity with all life. We begin to move from open-mindedness to open-hearted awareness, the expression of awake awareness that knows unconditional love and interconnectedness with all things. Recognition of awake awareness as the ground of Being is like “returning home” and resting as who you have always been.
Shifting into awake awareness is not like putting on rose-colored glasses; it’s more like taking away our blinders. In the open-hearted awareness approach, instead of trying to tame the wild horses of thoughts and emotions inside a too-small corral, we simply open the gates, discovering the larger field of awareness in which the thoughts can move freely. The most helpful way to be free of disturbing emotional states is not by attempting to “break” or get rid of them, but by realizing that these states are made of awareness itself. Awake awareness, as the primary source of how we know and who we are, can’t be harmed by any strong emotional state.
You will discover that essential wellbeing is not found by calming our minds or by changing our thoughts or attitudes, but actually by shifting out of our chattering minds and into a freedom that is already available. The journey of awakening is a series of shifts and small glimpses. Awake awareness can be glimpsed and directly experienced in an instant, bringing great relief.
A man who helped me with my computer one day asked for an experiential pointer to awake awareness before he left. I showed him one similar to the “glimpse” practices in my book. He emailed me back, saying, “When I came to see you, I had been anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed for weeks. All of that seemed to drop away in minutes and didn’t start up again. I probably had the best week of my life this week.” This is an example of why awake awareness is often called the “ultimate medicine.” The discovery and uncovering of awake awareness immediately opens us to natural qualities of peace, joy, love, and courage.”
GLIMPSE PRACTICE: “Seen, Seeing, and Awareness”
In this glimpse practice, you’ll use your visual sense to become aware of awareness. You can use the words on this page as the object
of focus while you’re reading, or you can learn the exercise first and then try it with another object, like a cup.
1. Become aware of the words on this page as objects.
2. Notice your normal way of seeing the words on the page: looking outward from subject (“I”) to object (words). Notice: “I am aware of seeing the words.”
3. Now reverse the process. Notice the words as the seen.
4. Next, be aware of light reflecting off the page and coming to your eyes as seeing.
5. Now follow your awareness back to rest as that which is aware of seeing.
6. Let your awareness move backwards from the seen …to seeing … and then through the “I” to rest back as that which is aware of seeing.
7. Let awareness move back from the page to discover the awareness behind and within that is already aware and looking.
8. Allow awareness to rest back until it discovers the awake awareness that is effortlessly reading the words.