What’s the difference between consciousness, watching (or witnessing), mindfulness and awareness?
Thinking and feeling are activities of the mind. As we noted in The Role of the Mind, having a fully functioning mind is a wonderful asset. Problems arise when we identify with our thoughts and feelings and forget – or never discover – our real selves and the peace of simply being.
The ability to do, think or feel are functions of our mind – activities about which we may be unconscious or have varying degrees of consciousness. As we become more conscious – often referred to as ‘waking up’ from our metaphysical sleep – we can begin to notice what we are conscious of. We observe ourselves as the subject, the observer, and that which we’re observing – whether that’s a thought, a feeling or another person – as the observed.
This step, of seer and seen, is known as inner witnessing, watching, or observing. From here it is possible for a jump into awareness. In awareness, the dualistic attitude of subject and object disappears, all separation subsumed in a state of simple awareness, of isness, or beingness. Then we are able to know direct experiencing.
‘Sammasati’ and ‘Mindfulness’ are Buddhist terms for noticing our actions, our thoughts and our feelings without being lost in them, without being so identified with them that we forget ourselves as other than them. For example, we think we are our achievements (or failures!) our clever or our uncharitable thoughts, our jealousy or our lovingness.
Sammasati can be translated as ‘right remembering’ – the recalling of who we are… none of those passing aspects but a being of awareness.
‘Mindfulness’ is something of a misnomer and can be confusing because the mind is made up of unconsciousness as well a consciousness, so, technically, being mind-full encompasses both those aspects. The Zen expression for our natural state of being, for awareness, seems closer the mark: ‘no-mind.’
Osho explains it like this: The three steps of consciousness, witnessing and awareness
‘Thinking about’ or ‘Being aware of’
There are many instances in our day when we don’t need to think our way through a situation or potential problem; instead, we can simply bring our full awareness to it.
A friend describes a small incident that brought home to her a major understanding about the difference between the two. She explains…
I was walking hurriedly along a narrow path, about to turn the corner as it veered to the right. Just as I was turning I saw, coming towards me from the opposite direction, several people positioned behind a large trolley, pushing it, and some others on both sides of it, pulling. The path was lined either side with bushes, so there was little leeway in which either they or I could manoeuvre ourselves.
My mind began thinking, ‘They are heading straight towards me. Obviously they’re not going to make way for me – or are they? Can I squeeze by on the right side, or on the left? Are they planning to shift to one side? They’re talking and laughing together: have they seen me, or are they so engrossed that they will run into me?’
Completely focused on what was happening my mind became increasingly tense. How was I going to solve this? Then suddenly my mind stopped; I felt myself expanding and relaxing. The stress bubble had burst and I moved towards the people and their trolley mindlessly and yet fully conscious — of my body, my movements, and those of the trolley and its attendants.
With the wordless harmony of dancers, we passed each other. All that mental mish-mash that had preceded the magical moment of mind-on-hold had been totally unnecessary (though it had led to a really significant insight)!
Usually, if we’re very relaxed we’re unconscious – asleep in front of the television for example, or dozing off while sunbathing at the beach. Alternatively, when we are ‘paying attention,’ we’re tense (literally at-tension). In meditation, in being aware, these two seemingly opposing states meet, so you are conscious and yet completely relaxed.
For example, right now, as you continue to read, allow your awareness to gently glide to your breathing. You are not changing your breathing in any way but just being aware of it. You know how to breathe; you’ve done a lot of it in your time, so you don’t need to think about it. You don’t need to bring in your mind at all as you observe, from inside, the breath moving in and out of your body. And we’re not talking about focussing or concentrating, but about a soft, very laid-back kind of observing, a passive internal watching….even more passive than looking…. That’s all there is to it!
Changing your relationship to the problem
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.(Albert Einstein)
One characteristic of the mind, as Einstein points out, is that it manufactures complexities and difficulties.
For example, you might think, ‘How is this illness going to progress? Will I make it? This not knowing is so scary. I hate being out of control, and if that’s already bothering me now, how will it be further down the line? What if people take advantage of me? Where will my dignity be?’
Anyone who has been ill has probably had similar thoughts. Just, tackling them through thinking – that is, on the same level – only compounds the issue. Instead, simply notice such thoughts whenever they come up, without condemning them or yourself for having them. Don’t engage with them but only observe them – as the watcher on the bank, observing the stream pass by. Then, as the mystic J. Krishnamurti, explains ‘…the problem has quite a different significance; which means there is no longer identification with the problem and therefore there is no judgment and hence the problem begins to reveal its content. If you do that constantly, continuously, then every problem can be solved fundamentally, not superficially.’
In fact, it can turn out that the problems we tussle with don’t need solving. We just need to change our relationship to them. The remembrance that we are not our thoughts – they are as separate from us and as transient as flotsam on a river – helps us let them move by. It’s our holding onto them, not their leaping out of the river into our laps, that creates the trouble.
The observer as your default position
We’ve been led to believe we are our thoughts and feelings and that the mind is the only faculty we have to deal with them. So be patient with yourself as you experiment with a different approach. By and by, as you remember yourself as separate from your thoughts and feelings, this will become your experiential knowing.
Particularly if you are low in energy, are confined to bed and/or are in some pain, the method known as Vipassana or Insight meditation is the most simple way to move from thinking to being, from the one who is caught up in thoughts to the watcher. The method is simply to observe your breath as it enters your body and then leaves again.
Breathing is a physical activity and a felt experience. You can feel the entry and departure of the breath – that subtle sensation at the nostrils, the rise and full of the chest and belly. It also requires minimal energy, and only the presence of your breath and your ability to watch it.
Then later you might watch yourself showering (or being showered) and doing other activities in your day such as, preparing breakfast for your children; walking through the city, watching the movements a phone call involves, and so on. As these are tangible experiences, watching is easier.
Watching the mind, the traffic of thoughts and feelings, is generally more challenging. Thoughts are more ephemeral and tend to move rapidly; to disengage from them requires patience. Feelings can register so rapidly and may be habitually so all-encompassing – whether they are of love or of rage – that they too provide a greater challenge.
If you want to become more aware around your thinking-feeling, start with minor irritations, for example, rather than plunging into the deep end – for instance attempting to remain cool, calm and collected when your jealousy is in full flight!