When I first started studying wisdom and philosophy, I came across the concepts of awareness and mindfulness (Eckhart Tolle, the Power of Now, etc). They seemed like vague concepts and I didn’t know exactly what they meant, learned a little bit about them, and moved on.
Like, is awareness just self-awareness, or is it awareness of the outside world, or both, or something else? And mindfulness. Is that the same as meditation and awareness, or something different? Isn’t simple awareness in the moment pretty boring? Like is there really that much power from being aware of the Now?
Based on my recent pivot away from contemplative prayer toward meditation, I’ve come across some great teachings on the mechanics of mindful awareness. I think the future of humanity depends on our ability to live with higher wisdom through mindfulness.
(btw: I pivoted away from contemplative prayer because it’s just not as accessible as Buddhist meditation. I’ve come to the realization that all wisdom traditions lead to an experience of the Divine, or God. My goal is to spread wisdom all over the planet, so I needed a system that didn’t use exclusive religious concepts.)
As I’ve returned to the study of mindful awareness, I’ve recognized that Eckhart Tolle was actually a spiritual innovator. He distilled a lot of wisdom from the more advanced Buddhist traditions like Dzogchen, into an easy-to-understand practice that develops nondual / boundless awareness.
I personally don’t think that many mindfulness teachers in the West explain the goal of meditation very well, and that is resting in pure awareness.
So this article is distilled from teachings by Eckhart Tolle, Pema Chodron, and Thich Nhat Hanh. But a big chunk of what I’ve learned about the psychology of mindful awareness is from The Mind Illuminated by John Yates. He is a neuroscientist that explains the mechanics of mindful awareness on a technical, but easy-to-understand level. I’m a technically-minded, analytical person, so it’s perfect for me.
What is Mindful Awareness?
Mindfulness is simply the conscious awareness of whatever is happening in the moment without judgment. It’s as simple as that.
Through mindfulness meditation, we become aware of everything that is happening in the moment, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, and sounds. But we don’t attach ourselves to them. We just observe them, notice them, then let them go. In contemplative prayer, a sacred word is often used.
This process has been compared to observing the clouds or weather in the sky, or sitting in a boat on a river and watching the boats go by. You could also compare it to driving on the highway and watching the scenery and cars go by (which is why driving on the highway can feel so meditative).
But the goal of all that is to simply rest in the present moment. This is the space between thought, where there is only peaceful awareness.
In this state, the boundary between self and the universe dissolves (creating a nondual awareness). Different wisdom traditions call this accessing the Source or Ultimate Reality, enlightenment, Nirvana, resting in boundless awareness, abiding in God or the Divine, merging the Atman and Brahman, and more.
Surprisingly, resting in simple awareness of the present moment is the source of our greatest bliss and joy (where we experience a “blissful nothingness”, as my IG friend Jessica Rae likes to call it).
Is Mindful Awareness the Same As Prayer?
To clarify even further from an interspiritual standpoint: This blissful awareness is accessible to anyone, anytime, in any religious background. This blissful awareness is the same as contemplative prayer toward God.
People have experienced this enlightened state for thousands of years, in many cultures. Humans have understandably assumed that the joy and wisdom of boundless awareness could actually be a divine being. When answers and ideas and infinite love seem to arise from a meditative state, it is fair to assume that a higher power might be the cause of it.
Which, this enlightened state could be very well be God. But if that’s the case, we need to clearly define what the word “God” means. When I say we can access God through Buddhist meditation, for example, I don’t mean the orthodox Christian God who is wrathful, vengeful, and has human-like emotional reactions. That is a man-made god that is injected with human attributes.
If God exists, God is probably energy. Or to say it another way, God is infinite conscious energy. When we meditate or pray, we are accessing the highest state of consciousness that we are capable of (aka God).
“God is to me that creative force, behind and in the universe, who manifests Himself as energy, as life, as order, as beauty, as thought, as conscience, as love.”Henry Sloane Coffin
It does seem that the energy in the universe has consciousness to it, because it always attracts what it needs to create consciousness, and transcends into higher forms of consciousness.
If we did indeed evolve from primordial soup, that chemical soup would need to exert certain qualities in order to create and grow consciousness: It would need to collaborate with other matter and energy, it couldn’t be overreactive and destroy other matter or energy, and it would need to be open to the possibilities that all types of matter and energy could bring to the table.
In the same way, we are able to access our highest state of consciousness by practicing love, openness, kindness, goodness, and patience (the fruits of the Spirit, in Christianity). These qualities are the bedrock of consciousness, and consciousness cannot transcend itself without them.
So since consciousness tends to have these qualities, it appears that consciousness has purpose built into it. To put it simply, consciousness grows by loving that which is outside itself (people, matter, energy, the universe, animals, etc).
So from the dawn of consciousness in the primordial soup, now to human consciousness, consciousness seems to be programmed for love. And since consciousness seems to operate out of purposeful love, that could mean that the source of all consciousness is intelligent. Which means that the blissful consciousness we experience in meditation and prayer, could actually be God (just not in the orthodox Christian sense of the word).
Either way, we touch “God” by touching and dissolving the edges of our awareness. We can access this state through meditation or prayer. If you look at the mechanics of both, and the states of consciousness they create, you will find they are the same (they all involve a letting go of self and transcending of awareness).
How Does Mindful Awareness Work?
I think it’s helpful to understand the psychology of awareness. If we understand how mindful awareness works in the mind, we can become better meditators and reach deeper states of enlightenment.
Think of awareness like an orb around us that expands and contracts. There is a wide variety of awareness, ranging from merely internal (either selfish awareness or introspective awareness) to universal. Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart has a great explanation of this.
Trauma and negativity shrinks our awareness. They can make us self-centered – afraid to reach out and expand our awareness. Poor nutrition and sleep do the same thing. It lowers our energy, which lowers our awareness, which lowers our effectiveness in life.
Awareness is another word for peripheral awareness. Peripheral awareness notifies us of things outside of our current attention that might be important: a sabre-toothed tiger, sights, sounds, and sensations. Peripheral vision is one form of peripheral awareness, for instance. Cultivating peripheral awareness is what makes mindfulness meditation so beneficial.
That is why most practices start with a grounding meditation, like meditating on the breath, sounds, sights, sensations, or a sacred word. It gets us in touch with peripheral awareness, and peripheral awareness is always noticing what is in the moment (via sounds, sensations, etc). So since mindfulness gets us in touch with our peripheral awareness, it automatically centers us in the present moment.
When we let go of a thought during meditation, and observe it non-judgmentally, we are leaving it outside of the realm of conscious attention, into the realm of peripheral awareness. Peripheral awareness doesn’t analyze or judge, it just notices. So when we leave a thought or feeling in peripheral awareness, that is how we are able to let those things go without judgment.
When we practice mindfulness meditation, we are essentially letting go of conscious attention, and letting peripheral awareness take over. We settle into the moment by noticing sensations, sounds, and more. But then we let those things go, and rest in pure awareness.
This is still peripheral awareness, where we rest in the space between thought in peaceful calm.
The cool part is, this peripheral awareness can be expanded. Our awareness can start with sensations and sounds near to us. But then we can let those dissolve, and expand our awareness past the room that we’re in, to our neighborhood, city, the sky, the whole planet, to the universe, and beyond. The self (or ego) dissolves into all that is, without form or edges.
This is enlightenment – also called boundless awareness, or the presence of God. Enlightenment is when we transcend ourselves to become aware of all that exists.
We touch “God” by touching and dissolving the edges of our awareness.
Why is Mindful Awareness Important?
Everything I’ve described shows the power of being mindfully aware of the moment. Meditation doesn’t just relieve stress and anxiety by creating a sense of infinite peace. It also gives us unsurpassable wisdom with infinite perspective into all the realities and possibilities of life.
“Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”Thich Nhat Hanh
Resting in peaceful awareness is actually the goal of all meditation. Everything we need is in the present moment of pure awareness.
Yes, mindfulness brings us a deep sense of fulfillment, purpose, joy, love, and peace. But it also can give us profound wisdom. We get answers, ideas, insights, and clarity when we let our broader, peripheral awareness touch all of reality so it can find the answers we need.
The broader we expand our awareness, the better answers we get because we have access to a wider net of unconscious information.
“Conscious processing can only handle about 120 bits of information at once. This isn’t much. Listening to another person speak can take almost 60 bits. If two people are talking, that’s it. We’ve maxed out our bandwidth. But if we remember that our unconscious processing can handle billions of bits at once, we don’t need to search outside ourselves to find a credible source for all that miraculous insight. We have terabytes of information available to us; we just can’t tap into it in our normal state.”Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal, Stealing Fire
So by practicing mindful awareness, we are able to make better decisions, analyze problems more effectively, and produce more creative solutions.
In addition, practicing mindful awareness allows us to literally heal ourselves. Dr. Joe Dispenza does some interesting work around this.
But even beyond that, there are many studies which show that meditation decreases stress and inflammation, and that stress and inflammation cause disease through epigenetics. We also can achieve better emotional intelligence, more patience with others, and be less reactive in life.
One interesting benefit of practicing mindfulness: the ability to heal others. When we get to a place of peaceful awareness and direct positive intention toward others, studies have shown that we can heal them (even across great distances). The HeartMath Institute is also doing some incredible research around these lines.
Mindful Awareness Keeps Us Honest
Peripheral awareness always gives us the bigger picture. It makes us open-minded, objective, and honest.
When we’re arguing for instance, we can get so focused on blaming what’s in front of us that we lose awareness of any other possibility (like maybe we are the problem). Developing our peripheral awareness helps keep us aware of all peripheral possibilities.
Mindfulness also helps us make better decisions because we stay aware of more possible solutions, and become less narrowly focused on just one solution. That’s why we get so many ideas and insights in the shower, because we become relaxed enough to let go of our narrow focused attention, and access answers in peripheral awareness.
Developing awareness is also a great way to counteract cognitive biases like confirmation bias or fundamental attribution error. Confirmation bias happens when we do research but only accept findings that confirm what we already tend to believe. Attribution error is when we judge the character of others when they make a mistake, but blame outside circumstances when we make mistakes ourselves. Developing peripheral awareness can give us a wiser, broader perspective in both of those cognitive biases, and more.
The Difference Between Attention and Awareness
Awareness is different from attention. Attention is what we’re focused on, but awareness notifies us of things outside of our focus that might be important. I’m now paying attention to you and writing for you, but my peripheral awareness is notifying me of the sounds my upstairs neighbor is making.
Interestingly, that’s why highway driving can feel so meditative. Highway driving reverts us to peripheral awareness and calms down our conscious thinking mind. Especially when we’re driving in the country, we’re not paying attention to any one thing in particular for an extended period. We’re just watching the cars and scenery go by without attachment. This is exactly what mindfulness meditation is like (and why just “going for a drive” feels so therapeutic).
Misalignment of awareness and attention makes us make bad decisions, snap at others, overreact, and misinterpret reality. This is because we don’t use our broader, peripheral awareness to see the broader perspective. For instance, we don’t overreact as much because we have a broader, more understanding perspective.
“Everything we think, feel, say, or do from one moment to the next – who we are, and how we behave – all ultimately depends on the interactions between attention and awareness. Mindfulness is the optimum interaction between the two, so cultivating mindfulness can change everything we think, feel, say, and do for the better. It can completely transform who we are.”Dr. John Yates, The Mind Illuminated
Another implication of that is we become bigoted or narrow minded when we don’t expand our awareness.
Meditating on the Christian God, for instance, can give us a profound sense of divine love, joy, peace, and wisdom. But our worldview can still be constrained by what Christianity deems wrong based on what was written in a Jewish / Roman context 2,000 years ago (which is why Christians can experience a loving God, but also be bigoted toward homosexuals, women in leadership, and Muslims). American Christians used scripture to justify slavery, for pete’s sake.
So awareness gets constrained by religion, including atheists and scientists (atheism and scientism can both have rigid beliefs and worldviews, which to me is a key ingredient of religion).
Atheists can be hateful toward religion, and not see some of the deeper spiritual value that it has by pointing us toward our higher, wiser selves. Scientists and doctors can be bigoted toward alternative or natural therapies that are sometimes more effective than conventional medicine.
I would know. I beat cancer by skipping chemo, and combining an alternative therapy with nutrition. My doctor was pissed when I told him I wasn’t doing chemo.
Broadening our awareness naturally makes us think open-mindedly and objectively. We lose that ability for open-minded critical thinking when tribes and religion (of all types) constrain us. Tribes meaning the communities we were born into. You’re more likely to be a conservative Christian and be in a conservative family if you’re in Texas, for instance.
Mindful Awareness Automatically Makes Us Less “Judgy”
One interesting part of peripheral awareness is that it doesn’t judge, because it holds such a light attachment to things. That’s because our peripheral awareness only is able to notice things, not focus on them. Focused attention and analysis (judgement) is the job of attention.
When we keep things in peripheral awareness, our brains are literally unable to judge. We can only judge something if we choose to pay attention to it. So if we train our minds to be more aware and less attentive to any one particular thing, we automatically become less judgmental.
That’s why Jesus, the Buddha, and most other wisdom traditions talk about judging less and being more compassionate. That’s because they regularly accessed these deeper meditative states where the attention is turned down, and peripheral, non-judgmental awareness is turned up.
Added bonus: Developing mindful peripheral awareness makes our conscious attention work less hard. By relying so much on our conscious attention (the to-do list, taking care of the kids), and not developing the necessary peripheral awareness to give us access to a broader range of information, we are more likely to get stressed and experience burnout.
Practicing mindfulness is an effective way to conserve the mental resources of focused attention, by combining it with our broader peripheral awareness.
They gotta work together.