As we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, we must ask, who is it that is aware?
– Zen Koan
We have the choice every moment to live experiencing what life is and who we are either from our judgmental, personal, reactive self – the ego – or from our discerning, witnessing, responsive self – essential Beingness – which primarily arises within the clarity of pure awareness of the moment. To recognize when ego is dominating our experience causing us to be in judgment and reactivity and to know how to choose and shift into the discerning, responsive awareness of Beingness is the core of the journey to awakening.
What I have just written is an intellectual concept. It may be intriguing. It may seem nonsensical. I assure you, it is a use of words whose purpose is to point to a felt-sense reality. These words are drawn from a particular vocabulary a person needs to understand if the statement is to make sense, but deeper still, until a person experiences what these words point toward at a level beyond the intellectual, they will be unable to fully enter into the journey of personal evolution these words are pointing toward. These words point us toward the experience that we exist in two dimensions simultaneously as both a personalized, socialized, conditioned ego-self and an ultimate dimension of our true-Self as an individualized aspect of the fabric of the universe unfolding in the eternal present moment.
The ego reacts from its conditioned psycho-social-cultural programming. The Self-in-Being responds to unfolding events from a deep knowing of its flowing connectedness to everything. They are the night and day of the awakening that Buddhism and meditation lead us toward. From within the conditioned mind of ego-identity there is only “me” and everything that is not me. We are trapped in a prison of “me,” struggling with a world that is outside and separate that we hope to master at some level so that we can succeed in bringing the things we want from this outside world to us and in keeping away what we do not want. Fundamental to this task is the ability to judge what it is we want and what we do not want. This “judging” is a projection onto whatever is being perceived and experienced as ideas about who we are and what life is. This is information programmed into us much as a computer is programmed – and as the old saying about programming goes, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Our primary experience of the world then becomes this incessant and compulsive evaluation of everything in this world outside of us into the good stuff and the bad stuff, differentiating “good” and “bad” by thoughts about good and bad, which are unique to every person because of their particular and unique programming. Political opinions or religious identification are blatant examples of this. Most of us hold these beliefs because of the people influencing us through our upbringing and current social context. Give a moment’s consideration to the differences between prevailing political and religious opinion of several centuries ago and today, let alone the variety of such opinions today, and my point is readily grasped. Our ordinary day-to-day lives, however, are conducted at a much subtler level than politics and religion, and while political and religious opinions may be pretty obvious lines of separation, our day-to-day lives are being determined by an imperceptible (to ourselves) matrix of judgments programmed into us about the “good” and “bad” of ourselves, others and what is going on around us. With this understanding, it is pretty easy to comprehend why there is so much confusion and disagreement about proper conduct and values in the human realm.
It is of the utmost importance to realize we are talking about the human realm, not nature. In nature, there is only what is natural. Ego and conditioning are minimal, though, of course, they exist. Every organism has a sense of its separate biological self and the need to interact with the world so as to bring to itself what it needs and avoid that which is danger. This is ego and conditioning at its most basic level. Humans, however, create an idea of self-in-the world, quite abstract and ruled by conditioning that is then projected out onto the world. This is ego taken to an unnatural level and this projection of egoic-self onto the world is the essence of judgment. Only humans live in the world of judgment. All the rest of nature lives in the straightforward discernment of what naturally supports or threatens its existence.
Does this condemn humans to this virtual-reality that creates artificial and subjective levels of suffering, unable to live gracefully and authentically as a human in the way a deer or a fish live gracefully and authentically as a deer or a fish? From within the artificial reality called society and culture, without any sense of our underlying nature, sadly the answer is “yes.” As long as we only believe in the psycho-social-cultural programming and conditioning that creates a very complicated ego-self full of contradictions and conflicts, anxieties and reactivity, we will live, as Buddhism teaches, in dukkha – a word from the ancient Pali language of India – that describes a state of craving, insecurity and sense of dissatisfaction that keeps us reactive, anxious, striving and ultimately unfulfilled, always unsure if we are sufficient.
The same Buddhist teaching that describes dukkha fortunately also prescribes its resolution. It is to release clinging to this artificial-reality-identity as who we are and to realize all these confusing thoughts and emotions arise within and pass through the dimension of witnessing awareness that is not plagued by instability, reactivity and dissatisfaction. As we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, we must ask, who is it that is aware? WE are that awareness. Awareness is the irreducible, unchanging dimension of every person’s experience. It is our original nature – awareness experiencing the world before conditioning and judgment.
Is this universal awareness arising from Beingness then blank and without intelligence? To the contrary. As our culture will lead us to believe that intelligence is a result of thought, we all know immediately upon consideration, intelligence cannot be the product of thought. Thought is only a tool to express a concept. It can be any concept. If we are unconscious of this process, we will allow conditioning to be the source of the thought/emotive process, and – “garbage in, garbage out.” This is why the history of humanity is rife with ignorant, dangerous and even disastrous thoughts.
Contrary to how we are culturally conditioned to believe, awareness is not a faculty of this body and mind. It is far more accurate to say this body and mind are faculties of awareness, tools of the individualized consciousness that is a person. This individualized consciousness directed is awareness. This gives rise to the very inscrutable Zen teaching that actually, we are “nobody,” for while we can hang all kinds of identity onto our body, thoughts and emotions, when we examine just who is awareness, and how is the awareness I experience any different from the awareness you experience, there is no one to be found. There is just awareness. The vessels are very different; the essence, the Beingness is universal.
Intelligence arises from the silent mind of awareness – the discerning mind of awareness. Intelligence, the ability to look deeply and understand, arises from the field of consciousness that is the universe individualized as a human-being in awareness. Thus, our journey into wisdom, into awakening into true discerning intelligence, requires we learn to stop running the program of egoic conditioning, become present in the great what-is that is life. Look deeply, listen closely, feel with subtlety the truths that are whispered. Quiet the cacophony of mind-chatter and you will hear. This moment will tell you what it needs – it is whispering to nobody so that the truth of who you are can hear. It will help you understand with clarity the what-is of the moment. Then the tools of body and mind can function with skill and wisdom, and you will know who it is that is aware. Nobody. And it is who you are – a psycho-socially-culturally conditioned intelligent being who now can use the conditioning with discernment.