It’s the Awareness, Stupid
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The greatest human gift is to be aware, to be in touch with oneself, one’s body, mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations.”– Anthony de Mello
The vast majority of the human race is, and has always been, on a spiritual search, to find greater meaning in life and beyond. We expend time engaging in spiritual practices, going on retreat, visiting sacred sites, attending religious services, watching televangelists, etc. We expend resources supporting churches, temples, mosques, monasteries etc. supporting priests, ministers, evangelists, missionaries, gurus, rabbis, imams, spiritual teachers, and we may even tithe a considerable fraction of our wealth. And we expend cognitive and emotional resources philosophizing, studying sacred texts, ruminating about the health of the soul, listening to sermons, having conversations about spirituality/religion, etc.
Why do humans do this? Why do we feel such a strong pull toward spirituality? On a rational level we would do substantively better in our lives if we invested the time and resources on our careers, families, relationships, secular issues etc. rather than on spirituality. But there is something inside of us that demands attention and makes us feel that there is more to life than just the physical. Most people can’t identify what it is, but they feel strongly that there is a spiritual component of their existence. They sense something about themselves that is more than a biological machine, something enduring, something outside of the earthly realm.
The answer is actually right there and obvious, but they can’t see it. As Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it.” They don’t understand that the one that’s doing the seeking is what they’re seeking. Sometimes I want to just scream out, “it’s the awareness, stupid.” It’s what’s seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, and even what’s feeling that there’s something more. It’s the awareness they experience. It’s so obvious that most people miss it. It seems that they’re looking for something different than what is already present. So, they don’t see the most obvious, constant, and important experience of all; awareness.
It’s our awareness that’s responsible for all the spiritual seeking. But, we don’t seem to see that that’s what we’re seeking. Instead, we look everywhere else for something else. To some extent it’s the fault of spiritual teachings which often promise or portray a realm of existence that is far different from what is currently being experienced. The iconography portrays realized beings as altered and otherworldly, not as someone just like us. So, we constantly look for something different from what we’re experiencing and missing the oh so obvious. “It’s the awareness, stupid!”
Another reason why we miss it is that our nervous systems are programmed to detect change. That makes sense as they adapted to protect us from danger and a change in the environment may signal a threat that needs to be addressed as a priority and immediately, so we do. A change may also signal an opportunity, perhaps prey, and we need to react quickly to take advantage. Attention is grabbed by new things. In fact, we tend to ignore stable stimuli, like the constant hum of a ceiling fan, the feeling of our clothes on our bodies, or a persistent constant odor in the room. The retina of our eye only sends a signal to the brain when there’s a change. So, a constant image on a constant place on the retina disappears. Our awareness has been constant and unchanging throughout our existence. So, it’s no wonder we miss it, the entire nervous system is designed to ignore such things.
Our attention is also attracted by strong stimuli, loud noises, bright lights, strong odors, etc. Awareness is totally quiet, deeply silent, always in the background, never in the foreground. It doesn’t produce anything. It just registers what is. So, there is nothing to bring attention to awareness. How would we ever recognize its significance when it is mostly not on the radar screen?
If awareness is like this, what leads to the conclusion that it is what we’re seeking in our spiritual search? What evidence do we have that it is our true nature? After all, how can something so low key and unassuming be the spiritual key to understanding birth, life, death, and the nature of reality? To answer this question, it is important to look at what would be the characteristics of something that was indeed our true nature. Firstly, the truth doesn’t change or fluctuate. If it’s really the truth, it will always be the same. Secondly, it will always be there. Our true nature can’t come and go. It must be forever present. And lastly, our true nature could not be affected by temporary conditions. It must withstand all nature of changes in our environment, our physiology, and our psychological processes, remaining steadfast, constant, unaltered.
The idea we have of our self doesn’t live up to these criteria. The idea of self has been in constant change from the earliest moments of life to the present moment. It comes and goes depending upon what we’re doing and thinking about. And it is very much affected by our experiences. In fact, it is to a large extent built upon them. So, the self cannot be our true nature. Is our immortal soul, as taught by many religions, our true nature? Well, we can’t tell if it changes, but religion teaches that it does, as it’s blemished by sin. This also suggests that it’s affected by experience. In addition, we can’t detect if it comes and goes as no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found or observed. So, how could an immortal soul that we cannot find or observe be our true nature?
Awareness, on the other hand, has never changed. We are never more or less aware. The content of awareness is forever changing. The sensory stimuli in the environment are in a constant flux as are the contents of our ever changing minds, sometimes in the present moment, sometimes lost in memory or fantasy, sometime planning for the future. But the awareness of these changing mental states and sensory experiences is always the same. It always just silently registers whatever is transpiring. Awareness has always been there, never coming or going. It was there at birth, throughout development, and right now and has always been the same. Finally, awareness, isn’t affected by the external or internal environments. It’s the same when we’re ill as when we’re health, when we’re upset as when we’re calm, when we’re bombarded by intense stimulation like at a rock concert as when we’re in silence, when our minds affected by drugs as when totally sober. It’s always present and never changing regardless of circumstances. So, our awareness fits all of the criteria of being our true nature.
Even with this being true, how can we be sure that it actually is our true nature? Many religious and spiritual teachers and realized beings tell it is. But, if it’s the truth we need not take someone else’s word about it. We should be able to see for our self. Indeed, that is what the Buddha taught, “Do not believe anything, even my teachings, go and see for yourself.” He even told us how to, by meditation and deep contemplation, looking inside, not outside for the key to understanding our existence. It is here that we can clearly see that at the center, the core, of all experience is an unchanging, immortal awareness.
When you go see for yourself, you will see “it’s the awareness, stupid.”
“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.” – Anthony de Mello
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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