“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” —Henry Miller
Are you aware of all the thoughts in your mind at this moment? One research study revealed that humans experience as many as 60,000 thoughts each day, one for every second of waking life. Thoughts are like corn kernels popping in our consciousness one after the other. Most of our thoughts are transient and many are recurring. But thoughts are only one thing that occupies our attention. Feelings, sensations, memories, and perceptions all intermingle with our thoughts. Behind all of this activity in the mind is an infinite stillness. Being aware of this stillness can have a profound effect on our lives.
Out to lunch
Each part of nature knows what its job is, usually performs it to perfection, and amazingly, knows to do it. Take, for example, a worm patiently edging and nosing and fitting a fallen leaf into its hole for a later meal. It’s totally present to its experience and doesn’t dillydally. The worm ultimately may become lunch for a robin, or be consumed by lesser creatures after it dies naturally. Either way, it’s lived in simple awareness and purposely fulfilled itself. Worms, robins, and the rest of the animal kingdom live purposeful lives, are never absent-minded or “out to lunch.”
We humans are an exception to most of nature. We are born as fully present, curious creatures wholly absorbed in each moment. As we grow and adapt to our world, we learn to create boundaries and determine where to direct our attention while the outside world bombards us with way more than we can possibly focus on. At the same time, a continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions floods our minds, keeping us separate from our present circumstances.
While working on writing this article, I watched YouTube videos of a worm going about its business and then a robin snatching it up, and my imagination took flight. I wondered what it might feel like to be the bird and the worm in these circumstances. I was repulsed by the worm’s demise but immediately felt a pang of hunger and wondered what I would have for lunch, and then I thought about what I needed to prepare for a picnic/concert I was going to that evening. Then the phone rang. Confronted with something of more urgency, my writing project got pushed aside. At that point I realized that I’d been unfocused and “out to lunch” for a good part of the afternoon.
When I was growing up we didn’t have many activities to engage in outside of school, though we had lots of free time to play with friends, be creative, and explore. By contrast, the lives of today’s children are often highly structured with many activities. For most kids, school is demanding and parents and society push them to achieve. Beyond school, they may play sports and take music and dance lessons, where the performance pressure can also be intense. In what little spare time they have, a large majority of youngsters are engrossed in social media, playing video games, texting, shopping online, or surfing on the web—oblivious to the presence of family and friends. Spending time just being, playing for enjoyment, or just thinking is virtually unheard of among youth today.
Of course, adults are not immune to this busyness obsession. We are conditioned to be constantly doing. Even practicing yoga can become just another form of doing rather than being a way to experience inner peace and awareness. The idea that our happiness and fulfillment are only achieved through engagement with the outside world has become the norm. We don’t know how to tap in to an internal sense of being, much less be aware. And why should we?
Realm of awareness
The truth is that true peace, happiness, and love can only be found internally. Searching outside always falls short and never offers long-lasting joy. Recall any situation that brought you happiness or exhilaration—a roller-coaster ride, first kiss, landing the ideal job. The feeling—real as it was at the time—eventually faded.
Take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I aware?” You may be mildly aware of your body, the flow of your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and the sights and sounds around you. But what is the source of that awareness? Free yourself to be an observer.
Being aware, said philosopher and writer D.L. Harding, is “living from one’s space instead of from one’s face.” Living from one’s space means bringing attention and presence to everything we experience in life. The result is that we do a better job with whatever we engage in, and with more ease and joy. Fear, pain, and life challenges lose their intensity. We experience more peace and serenity and heighten our capacity to meet whatever life presents responsibly.
Becoming divinely aware
Let’s face it, it’s practically impossible for us humans to eliminate our thoughts, memories, and perceptions, which cloud our true awareness. In fact, we don’t need to get rid of anything. Instead, we can welcome whatever shows up in our awareness. At the same time, we can learn to move our attention beneath the veiled surface of the mind and body to a place where we find stillness that is changeless.
There are many ways to get to that stillness. Formal mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation help us align with this deepest core of our being. We can also practice by simply listening with all our senses. This can be done while walking or practicing pranayama (breathing techniques). Slipping into a warm bath helps to access awareness. I find that the Chicago Botanic Gardens is a good place to practice cultivating stillness and awareness, especially in the wonderful Sensory Garden. There you experience being fully aware while seeing, touching, and smelling everything you encounter—plants like soft furry lamb’s ear and fragrances of curry and dark-maroon chocolate cosmos! You experience how deeply rooted nature is in stillness.
Try this exercise: Look at an object in front of you. See it in its entirety—shape, color, texture, etc. Then soften your gaze and take in the whole landscape before you without paying attention to any one thing. Try this with your eyes closed, concentrating on hearing just one sound, and then allow the whole spectrum of sounds to permeate your awareness. When thoughts and feelings arise, set them free. As a witness, experience all that is present, and then allow deep stillness and peace to encompass you. See your core of awareness shining out as your true Self–God’s infinite being.
Broaden and deepen your awareness in all you do—work, play, experiencing solitude. Rupert Spira, spiritual teacher, author, and potter, has written, “When doing slows down, the thinking that is at its origin is exposed; when thinking dissolves, the feeling that is behind it is uncovered; when feeling subsides, the Being that is at its heart is revealed.”
Being aware is like inhabiting a home built for living and loving, which has no room for hurts, fears, or regrets. Inhabit this home and let yourself become joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware!
I invite you to attend my free iRest meditations on Sunday morning or Thursday afternoon.