by Eric Harrison
Focusing keeps your eyes on the road, but awareness lets you enjoy the
scenery. Almost all the satisfaction of a sitting comes not from watching the
road but from those sideways glances at the scenery. The physiological shifts,
the bodily tranquility, the pleasure of mental freedom are all part of the
scenery. When you're focused, you only see the breath.
Since awareness is already part of every meditation, the instructions are
unique to it. In an awareness meditation, you don't have any new object to focus
on. It's more about shifting your emphasis when you meditate from focusing to
watching, from spotlight consciousness to floodlight consciousness. You become a
In most meditations, you focus inwardly on the meditation object. When
practicing awareness, you do the opposite. You still have a focal point, which
could be anything at all, but most of your attention goes outward, "just
watching" the passing thoughts and sensations.
When doing a formal breath meditation, for example, you would only notice
other thoughts and sensations when they grab your attention. When practicing
awareness, however, you may still be focusing on the breath, but you allow other
thoughts to surface. You deliberately watch them pass through consciousness.
You try to keep the mind neutral. You aim for a bland, mirrorlike mind. You
don't think about what is happening. You don't chase good things or resist bad
ones as you usually would. You just notice what has walked in the door this
minute and let it walk out again. As you can imagine, this doesn't come easily.
Some visitors are very seductive.
A Typical Awareness Meditation
Let's assume you are meditating at the end of a busy day. You start in a beta
state, tangled in thought. You soon realize you're thinking about Sally and work
and money and a bunch of other stuff. These semiconscious irritations won't go
away if you try to ignore them. They have to go out through the front door. As
you name each thing, you break free somewhat and the breath is easier to focus
Then you realize Sally is back. Naming wasn't enough to get rid of her. This
isn't surprising since she's been bugging you all day. The tangle of irritation,
sadness and recriminations behind your inner dialogues now become obvious. Once
you register your feelings and can see that further thinking isn't going to
help, it is easier to let them go. Notice that awareness doesn't solve the outer
problem. It just changes your reaction to it. You stop fighting the
imperfections of the moment and just let things happen. You feel a twinge of
back pain; a motorbike goes past; you notice annoyance (you can't help it), and
feel the annoyance fade; your breath feels soft and lovely; you feel anxious
about money; then you realize you're thinking about the earthquake in Peru. And
it's all okay if it just flows by.
On a larger scale, awareness means being comfortable with an uncomfortable
world. You may tend to feel that you can't relax until the problems are all
sorted out, but this is an unhealthy attitude. Issues around relationships,
identity, money and so forth will go on for decades. You can't plan to relax
when you're sixty-five, because stress will probably kill you first.
Not All Distractions Are Equal
Awareness is complicated because of the huge variety of things that go
through consciousness. Some have a high emotional charge and some have a low
one. It's easy to watch the pain of a slight headache. The pain of a bitter
divorce is a different matter. It's even harder to just watch things that are
gnawing at you unconsciously.
Each time you get distracted, you have a little challenge. Can you tolerate
this without annoyance? Can you stay passive? The first strata of distractions
are usually sensual things such as pains in the body or noises outside. Pretty
soon you realize these don't need to be a problem. Being sensual, you can focus
on them temporarily without breaking the meditation. If a tickle in the throat
or a plane going past is the most obvious thing in the mind, why not focus on it
for the time it's there?
However, you can't focus on thoughts this way. You can safely go into sensory
things, but you have to pull back from thoughts. At the same time, you can't
block out or ignore them. They do carry important messages and need at least a
moment's attention. Usually by the time you label them, the mind has already
assessed their importance and whether you can afford to drop them or not.
Being able to name your thoughts -- "Stephen, TV, work, Paris" --
will disarm most, but not all, of them. Often a thought won't let you go till
you face the feelings behind it. If you chronically overeat, "food"
can be too superficial a word to identify what's going on. Or if you're worried
about a drug-addicted daughter, saying "Angela" doesn't encompass the
If naming the content of a thought doesn't do much, then try naming the
feeling behind it -- despair, or desire, or misery or contempt, for example.
This will give a fuller picture. Often you can't think of any single word that
fits. However, just to let the feeling register in consciousness usually quiets
Notice that naming the thought or feeling is not complicated at all. It's
just putting single word labels on to the dramas. Also, you're not avoiding
them, as you do when you try to focus on an object. Since naming a thought is
much cleaner than endlessly running stories around it, it saves energy and the
From Focus to Awareness
After you break the dominance of thoughts, awareness becomes quite easy and
natural. In the alpha zone, you can balance focusing and awareness. You can be
with the breath half the time and watch the stream for the rest.
You still have to be vigilant, but as the body settles, you get even more
freedom. It becomes possible to watch the show as a spectator. This is how
focusing, which is so important at the start, gradually gives way to a tolerant
and versatile awareness.
As you watch what flows downstream, you become familiar over time with its
huge variety and the way it changes as you relax. This is actually
"you." It is the texture and contents of your mind. You become able to
watch every last thought, sensation, feeling and image, just as it is, without
being entranced by it. You also see how it connects causally: how a thought
leads to a feeling, which leads to a response in the body and often to action as
well. These are some of the fruits of awareness that make it worth cultivating.
Meditation: Awareness, or "Just Watching"
Naming is the basic technique when you practice awareness, but you do it
sparingly. Don't try to name everything. That would keep you very busy. Don't go
looking for anything. Just name what is obvious and notice the rest without
Nonetheless, naming isn't essential. It's just a device to help you watch
things with detachment, which is the real purpose of this meditation. If you are
watching dispassionately, you don't need to name. Many things are too complex
and subtle to be named anyway. Originally I didn't enjoy naming and rarely did
it. It felt like an unnecessary imposition. Only in recent years have I
discovered how useful it is to precisely identify what is happening. Being able
to name what's in the stream, even if you rarely verbalize it, can greatly
refine your awareness.
• Relax and focus on any meditation object.
• Make good contact with it. It is the seat from which you watch the
• Every few seconds, name the most obvious thing in the mind, whether it is
important or not: "sore knee ... hungry ... TV ... money ...
• Don't lose contact with your basic meditation object. Spend at least half
the time with it, and check that you're actually relaxing. In fact, go as deep
into the object as you can without ignoring the peripheral thoughts and
• Notice how the scenery changes the deeper you relax.
• Notice that when you wait for thoughts, they often don't come!
• Enjoy the bland, impersonal quality of the clear mind.
article is excerpted from Teach Yourself to Meditate, ©2001, by Eric
Harrison. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Ulysses Press. http://ulyssespress.com
About the Author
Trained in the Buddhist traditions of Burma and Tibet, Eric Harrison has
practiced meditation for more than thirty years. After one particularly
intensive retreat, Harrison was encouraged by the monks to begin teaching
meditation to others "in his own way." Over the years he has developed
a method adapted to Western culture, one that eschews mysticism while
emphasizing meditation's practical effects. As the director of Perth Meditation
Centre, Harrison has worked closely with local doctors and patients to develop
appropriate meditation programs for particular ailments. He lives in Perth,
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