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Open Awareness: The Quintessential Practice

In this article, you’ll learn how to do open awareness meditation, a powerful practice that is at the heart of many ancient spiritual traditions and has been passed on into modern-day systems.

Though we look deeply at one key practice here, there are many levels at which you can perform open awareness practice. It can be tricky for beginners since there is no localised anchor for our attention, and usually it’s introduced after the fundamentals such as breath meditation, body scanning, observing thought, and so forth.

Though once you do progress to the level where open awareness becomes accessible, after at least a year of consistent meditation, it’s a powerful vehicle for spiritual realisation.

Let’s start by looking at the practice of open awareness.

Open Awareness Meditation

If you want to practice open awareness in a formal way, choose one of the three meditation positions then follow my steps for perfect posture. As I do in my public classes, I also recommend you integrate this meditation into daily tasks.

Once you’re settled in the posture, expand your attention such that you can hold all sensory arisings at once: all sounds, sensations, thoughts, and sights. It should feel like a great, all-encompassing container that has nothing outside of it. It’s like an ocean with countless ripples in it.

This is your default stance. We allow all these arisings to come and go, and attempt to notice as much as possible, but without staying with any one phenomenon for too long.

When your attention narrows down or gets contracted around any one sensation, open it up again.

You might find this a strain at first, but realise that you are already perfectly aware of everything you are aware of. Sounds silly, but it’s true. If you’re experiencing something, you’re aware of it. So you don’t need to go seeking for anything: just aim to be aware.

It’s useful to keep in mind the three fundamental mindfulness skills because they give us a concise checklist to follow. If you’re working on these three skills, you’re doing it right.

Concentration: Our default object of focus is the entire sensory field. If your attention wanders or narrows, return it to this state of openness.
Clarity: We notice qualities like location, size and intensity of sensory arisings, while remaining aware of the bigger context within which they arise.
Equanimity: Let everything rise and fall, come and go, appear and disappear as it naturally does.

The goal of choiceless awareness is to hold a broad, uncontracted, loose and alert attention that allows everything to come and go with minimal resistance.

Why Practice It?

Why practice open awareness? What makes it stand out from other meditation practices?

Well, for one thing, our tendency is to be contracted around our emotions, thought patterns and self-image. This leads to tightness and blockages in the body, along with a lingering sense of dis-ease. When you open your attention far and wide, your usual contractions tend to loosen, flow, uncoil, be digested in this greater field of perception.

This can become a habitual life practice. Whenever you notice you’re contracted, tight, coiled up or boxed in, open up your field of awareness and rest in that vast ocean that engulfs all the waves.

What’s more, the pure open awareness that “enables” all sensory phenomena to play out on it – you might call it the Ground of Being – is our true nature, and open awareness meditation points us to it. In that sense, open awareness takes us home to our true being, our true home beyond our limited finite self.

[The] knowing of things as they are is called wisdom. It comes from trusting your original mind, which is nothing other than a stable, infinite, open awareness. It is a field of knowing that apprehends instantly when something appears or moves or disappears within its vastness. Like the field of the sun’s radiance, it is always present, but it is often obscured by cloud cover.

John Kabat-Zinn

Open Awareness or Choiceless Awareness?

In the meditation world, terminology is often vague or muddled with other terms. Two such terms are open awareness and choiceless awareness.

This quote from John Kabat-Zinn illustrates the issue. Here, he’s describing a meditation practice that involves opening to all sensory experience. He mentions open presence and choiceless awareness as the same thing.

Finish by sitting with awareness of whatever comes up, not looking for anything particular to focus on, whether it be sounds or thoughts or even the breath. This way of practicing is called choiceless awareness or, alternatively, open presence. You can think of it as simply being present with and receptive to whatever unfolds in each moment as you rest in awareness.

John Kabat-Zinn

I think his definition of this practice is murky. It’s not clear whether we should be aware of everything all at once, or go from experience to experience. I’m not questioning his skills as a meditator, rather his choice of language on this occasion.

To me, choiceless awareness and open awareness are different practices. Let me explain why by introducing a few key concepts:

Aperture: how broad is our attention? This is anywhere on a scale from the tiniest, almost imperceptibly tiny sensory impressions to the entire sensory field.
Non-resistance: often called openness. This is our ability to let whatever happens happen. It’s crucial in all meditation practices, not just choiceless awareness and open awareness.
Stance: do we create or seek particular sensory experiences (active) or let them come to us (passive)?
Object of focus: where are we holding our attention? On one experience (e.g. the breath), one category of experience (e.g. thought), or a mixture of the two, or do we let it float from experience to experience?

In the open awareness meditation I teach, our aperture is as broad as possible (open), our stance is passive (open), and our object of focus is singular: it is the entire field of sensory experience.

In John Kabat Zinn’s open presence or choiceless awareness, our aperture is narrow (not open), our stance is passive (open), and our object of focus is changeable (somewhat open).

In fact, the practice he describes is almost how I define choiceless awareness. That’s not to say his terminology is necessarily inferior: I just want you to be clear on what I mean by each one, and to know you might find both terms used in quite different ways. I think he calls it open presence because you aren’t choosing your object of focus from moment to moment.

The problem is the use of the words “choiceless” and “openness”. I think his “openness” has more to do with having a fluid object of focus and holding non-resistance, rather than aperture, which is the defining characteristic of open awareness as I define it.

Open Awareness in Traditions

It’s fascinating to know that open awareness practice is a pillar of many meditative traditions.

One example is the Soto Zen strand of Buddhism. Here are the instructions for their brand of open awareness:

It is simply the practice of being what we are, of allowing, permitting, opening ourselves to ourselves.

It is simply sitting in the midst of what utterly is, with full participation.

Norman Fischer

Along with the standard meditative instruction of non-resistance (allowing, permitting, opening), he advises wide aperture (“what utterly is” necessarily includes all phenomena), passive stance (“being what we are” implies not choosing), and singular object of focus (“what utterly is” and “what we are” is the only one thing that includes all things: the Ocean).

And in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, they have the practice of Trekchö, an ancient open awareness meditation. For instruction in this practice, look no further than the ancient text The Special Teaching of the Wise and Glorious King, widely regarded as the essential teaching on Trekchö.

There are many more examples of open awareness in the ancient traditions – watch for it on your travels!

The Ultimate Fruition

As I’ve mentioned earlier in the article, open awareness practice is an invitation to step into our true nature. What is that true nature?

In the context of open awareness, it means our body as a container for all subjective experience, and our identity merging with that subjective experience.

When we do open awareness, at some point we realise that our awareness tends to be contracted around our little body and mind, and that beyond this habitual sense of identity, there is a vast ocean of subtle, light, translucent experience that is as much a part of our body as our skin and bones.

As Shinzen Young says:

You begin to notice the spacious nature of sensory experience. Sensory events seem to arise within a vast openness and are pervaded by a feathery thinness. It’s as though the inner self and the outer world are literally made of space.

Shinzen Young

The senses are not outside of you, nor are they outside of the body. They are intertwined with them, and always have been. The trick is that we overlook the obvious, and get stuck in our mental cage, contracted around a false identity.

Realise this, and you realise that the world isn’t accosting you. You’re accosting yourself: you’re maintaining all these emotional and psychic patterns, and pretending that other people are causing them! It takes bravery to realise that nothing is outside of you.

Finally you cut all the ties to other, deeply breathing in and breathing out, through the blockages, denial, hiding and unhappiness, and finally dwell in that lush, open space, holding everything as it comes and goes in your awareness. Everything is you, in every breath, in every step.

The marvel can only be described as the peculiar sensation of freedom in action which arises when the world is no longer felt to be some sort of obstacle standing against one… It is the discovery of freedom in the most ordinary tasks, for when the sense of subjective isolation vanishes, the world is no longer felt as an intractable object.

Alan Watts

It’s so stupidly simple when you realise it, yet it’s profoundly transformative. “Nothing changes, yet everything changes,” to paraphrase Junpo Denis Kelly. Yet realising it once is not enough: this is an ongoing project, and you’re likely to forget many times. This is why we must practice open awareness repeatedly until it becomes our default stance.

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