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Choiceless Awareness: The State & The Meditation

Let’s discuss and practice choiceless awareness, a particular meditation state in which we give up control of our attention. This is also a meditation practice in its own right, and we’ll look at a couple of varieties of it.

I often see choiceless awareness talked about as a philosophy or doctrine. But to me it’s much more immediate than that. It’s a first-person meditative state. You don’t have to believe that it exists: you just need to experience it for yourself.

That said, this work is best suited to people with some experience with meditation, particularly mindfulness or vipassana-style practices. This is a delicate, nuanced art. If you’re a beginner, feel free to check out my free articles on how to meditate and my guided meditations.

Check out my episode on Choiceless Awareness and skip to 11:30 for the free guided meditation.

Let’s start by talking about choiceless awareness as a state or a particular mode of experiencing the senses.

Choiceless Awareness: The State

On one hand, choiceless awareness is a state that we can tap into moment-to-moment, wherever we are. It’s not an endpoint of training, but a mode of experience we can contact if we know what to look for.


Before I describe choiceless awareness as a state or endpoint, we need to clarify something.

There are two terms that are often used interchangably: open awareness and choiceless awareness.

  • Open awareness means paying attention to all phenomena in the sensory field at once, an open embrace;
  • Choiceless awareness means choice-less awareness, or no-choice awareness.

In this article, we’ll talk about choiceless or no-choice awareness and be sure to distinguish it from open awareness.

I also want to remind you that this raw state goes beyond philosophy and intellectualising. Unless you contact choiceless awareness, you don’t understand it. Direct experience is crucial, and everything in this article relies on it.

The State

As the name suggests, this is a state of no-choice.

The body is relaxed and equanimous. This enables inner and outer experience to fluidly appear and disappear, as it naturally tends to, even if it appears limited or dense. We let our attention spontaneously drift from object to object, while fully experiencing each one while it lasts.

There is a breaking down of the sense of solidity and rigidity of being a self that is observing a solid, separate world around you. You see the self as merely another phenomenon, another “choice” in the field of awareness.

It also takes you beyond the tendency of focusing your attention on certain phenomena to the exclusion of others. We tend to single out objects according to our judgments and evaluations of them. We pay attention to what is salient, interesting and useful to us, and ignore the rest.

This is healthy and necessary as a skill in its own right, but when it becomes our only mode of experiencing the world, it keeps us contracted and hinders contact with the higher states of consciousness, in which everything in the senses is part of “one taste”.

Choiceless Awareness: The Meditation Practice

If you have some experience with meditation, this one will feel like a natural extension of your previous work.

Often in meditation, we consciously direct and redirect to a particular object of focus, be it the breath, our body, our thoughts, sights and sounds, or any other sensory phenomenon.

But in choiceless awareness, the object of focus is fluid, and we don’t decide it. It naturally changes as phenomena come and go in the senses.

Follow these steps to do choiceless awareness meditation:

  • Choose your position, follow the steps for perfect posture, and have your eyes open or closed,
  • Let attention freely float throughout the entire sensory field, including the body and mind,
  • When it falls on to a sight, thought, sound or sensation, run these two steps: 1. make it your momentary object of focus, and 2. pour your attention into it, trying to perceive it as fully as possible,
  • Remain with that phenomenon for a few seconds, then let your attention float again, or run the cycles with the same phenomenon,
  • Repeat until the end of the session.

You’ll taste choiceless awareness when you let your attention float freely throughout the senses, fully experience whatever your attention momentarily rests on, then let your attention float again. It feels flowing, open, effortless, spontaneous, even if you’re working with unpleasant material.

Check out my episode on Choiceless Awareness and skip to 11:30 for the free guided meditation.


You might have an objection at this point: I said this is no-choice meditation, but aren’t we still exercising some control?

Yes, we are. We’re choosing to let our attention rest on a phenomenon when we’re drawn to one. We’re also trying to perceive this phemenon as clearly as possible. That undoubtedly involves control and intention, so in a sense this isn’t absolute no-choice meditation.

But within the paradigm of mindfulness, in which we attempt to experience sensations as fully as possible, and repeatedly bring our attention back if it wanders, this is close to no choice. Think of it as no-choice mindfulness.

There is a meditation that gets you as close to absolute non-control as possible. We’ll cover that in a minute. For now, let me talk about labels.

Extra Step: Labels

You also have the choice of using labels in this meditation. You’ll likely find this helps you maintain attention and clarify what you’re experiencing.

There are three possible labels, and we say them to ourselves mentally after we have made a phenomenon the object of our focus:

  • for visual experiences (from the world around you, or a mental image), the label is See,
  • for auditory experiences (from the world around you, or mental chatter), the label is Hear,
  • for body experiences (emotion, muscular, temperature, heartbeat, breathing, facial sensations, discomfort), the label is Feel.

Sometimes it’s not clear what category a phenomenon belongs to. If you’re not sure, go for your best guess. Don’t fret too much!

Let’s look at our second technique.

Absolute Choiceless Awareness

Let’s practice the purest form of choiceless awareness I’ve discovered: Shinzen Young‘s Do Nothing technique. There are only two instructions:

That’s all there is to it. Though there are only two steps, it’s worth explaining a bit more.

There’s no attempt to meditate in the mindfulness sense. We don’t try to clarify what we’re experiencing, or fully experience it, or hold our attention on it. We might fall into ordinary meditation, but we’re not trying to. If you notice that you’re trying to meditate, drop that intention. But you don’t need to deliberately keep track of your intentions, either. Don’t try to notice or realise.

Even if you’re lost in monkey mind for 30 minutes, that’s totally allowed under this technique. Don’t try to control your monkey mind or come out of it. If you notice you’re trying to do that, drop it.

The goal of Shinzen’s instruction is to have us drop (without trying to drop) our continual efforting and manipulating. We let go, and if we realise we are trying to control our attention in any way, to do anything, to get anywhere, we let go again.

The instructions might still seem confusing to you. If so, I suggest you practice it a few times. That way, you’ll glimpse the “state” that we reach in Do Nothing and understand the subtleties through experience.

Why do the “Do Nothing” Form of Choiceless Awareness?

After practicing several forms of meditation in various traditions, I’ve often been left confused. You’re supposed to let go of control, but also have some control at the same time, and often the instructions are given in vague language.

Shinzen has created a technique that is a crystal-clear choiceless awareness practice. That’s no mean feat, because the state of choiceless awareness has various degrees and is tricky to adequately describe. He has gone to the top, to the “most choiceless” form I’ve ever found.

If you contact this Do Nothing state, you’ll find it takes away reference points, frees the tension brought by trying to direct and manipulate your experience, and loosen up the self-contraction. There’s a chance you’ll contact pure, open awareness, but don’t make that a goal.

It can also be deeply purging because you’re disengaging the surface-level, conscious self, meaning hidden material can freely come up from the subconscious.

Ultimately, I recommend you practice these two kinds of choiceless awareness. Perhaps spend a week or a fortnight on one, then switch to the other. Only through practice will you understand this state.