Who Is It That Is Aware?

As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, you must ask yourself – “Who is it that is aware?” – Zen Koan

Thoughts arise. The human mind is a thought-producing machine. Emotions happen. The human body is a resonance chamber for the energy of thoughts. A thought arises in the dimension of mind, and in the physical dimension of the body, a resonant emotion is experienced. A happy thought creates a happy feeling – expansive, light, energized. An unhappy thought creates an unhappy feeling – contracted, heavy, energy dissipating.

Try it for yourself. Close your eyes. Think of something or someone that is very challenging, even threatening to you. Hold that thought for about five seconds. Pay attention to the feeling state that accompanies the holding of the thought.

Now, think of something or someone that is supportive, pleasing to you. Hold that thought for about five seconds. Pay attention to the feeling state of that thought.

Now, bring all your attention to experiencing the gentle flow of your breathing. Do not accentuate or change the breath. Also listen carefully to the sounds of the world around you. (turn off any TV or talk radio – very soft music helps this exercise – or best of all, go outside and listen to the birds and the wind in the trees) Do this for about 15 – 30 seconds. Now, open your eyes and feel what you feel.

If you are paying very close attention, you will notice that with the threatening thought there is a contraction of the energy of the body and mind into a state of tension. With the pleasant thought there is an opening of the energy, the body and mind relaxes. But with the bringing of your awareness into the experience of your breath and listening to the subtle soft sounds of the world around you, the feeling state becomes expansive, open, relaxed, clear, even happier than the happy thought. This is the experience of no-thought. You are touching the ground of your deepest level of Being.

Every thought is a contraction of the energy of the mind from its original and clear state of awareness into a limited form. With the creation of thought, you are experiencing the creation of egoic separateness and the loss of oneness with undifferentiated Life itself. The more fear-based the thought (a threatening, challenging thought form), the more the mind and the resonant body-emotion contracts into its experience of separateness.

But who is it that is aware of these various mind-body experiences? Ah! That’s the secret that we have not been attending to. We are accustomed to experiencing that we are the thoughts and emotions. We say, “I am happy” or “I am sad” or “I am angry”. But is this true? Zen teaches us that, no, we are not these thoughts and emotions. We have these thoughts and emotions. They are properties of being human, just as we have hands and we have feet. Who we are, is the awareness that experiences these phenomenon of the mind and body. As I instructed you to create a happy thought, then an unhappy thought, how could these thoughts and emotions be you if you could voluntarily create them? So then, how can they be you when they are involuntarily created? No. Who you are is the awareness that witnesses the activity of the mind and the body, but is actually unaffected by this activity.

Do you see the empowerment and liberation in this? This is the secret of meditation. In meditation, as you quiet the talking and emotionally reactive mind (in Buddhism, called “little mind”), you begin to be aware that you are aware. And as you continue to meditate, you begin to be aware that you are awareness (“big mind”). This is the ground of your Being.

Oh, how everything begins to change then. Thoughts and emotions come and go. We begin to realize that they are conditioned patterns of our cultural, societal, family and personal experience. They are programmed reactions to situations. They are certainly not who we are. We can begin to let them come and go without investing our sense of self in them. Defensiveness, reactivity, the need to identify with them begins to dissolve. We begin to realize we can shape and refine them. They are tools, like our hands, that we can train to be increasingly effective in dealing with the situations of life. This is why Buddhism teaches that meditation is “liberation” leading to an “awakening” out of living in “small mind” into the wisdom and effectiveness of a much larger, more adaptable and compassionate mind, the mind of awareness itself. And this is the answer to the question of who it is that is aware. It is YOU, the deepest, truest, sanest you.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at healing@billwalz.com.

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