Meditation for awareness

By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts

Every time we meditate, we are training in awareness. But what does “awareness” actually mean? This is a deep question. Becoming aware of our awareness is not straightforward, mainly because the untrained mind likes to latch on to whatever object or sight it sees, or whatever thought, emotion, or sensation that arises; in short, whatever we perceive.

When we step away from all of this — without ideas, judgment, inner-dialogue, or the need to define — we step into a space of awareness; a space where we merely observe how the mind behaves, and where we experience the present moment ... without thinking, without distraction.

We meditate to develop a stable awareness over time, to the extent that we are not so easily caught up in, or thrown by, thoughts and emotions. Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe says there is ultimately only awareness or non-awareness. Or, to put it another way, distractedness or non-distractedness.

When in a state of awareness, we’re able to zoom out and observe the mind “a little like looking at the earth from the moon,” says Andy. Awareness affords us a whole new perspective, and through this perspective, we gain a whole new understanding. By practicing awareness — not identifying with what we think, what we feel, what we believe, or what we know — we get to create a spaciousness of mind that sets us free from the impact of our thoughts and feelings; it allows us to be more at ease with the moment-to-moment unfolding of life itself.

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Sure, but I still don’t totally get what awareness is ...

Dr. David Cox of the National Health Service likes to use a simple analogy to explain awareness versus non-awareness. “Imagine watching a horror movie alone, at home, with the lights off,” he says. “The movie owns you. It’s terrifying. It’s all you’re aware of and so it has complete control over your emotions.” Similarly, when you’re experiencing thoughts in a state of non-awareness, they can be scary and all-consuming.

In contrast, awareness is like watching that same scary movie by yourself, but this time with the lights on. “With the lights on, you have more context,” explains Dr. Cox. You can see that the movie is in fact just a movie playing on TV, and that there are other things around you like your dog and your favorite pillow. “It’s still scary, but it’s not as bad as it is with the lights off because you have a bit more perspective.”

Another way to frame awareness, as suggested in this Headspace article, is to think of small mind, big mind. “Small mind” describes the thinking mind — our intellect, our analysis, our decision-making — but that same mind is prone to being easily distracted or overwhelmed. “Big mind” on the other hand steps into a spaciousness that sees, acknowledges, then lets go of thoughts, emotions, and sensations without involvement.

How do you practice meditation for awareness?

Meditation helps us train in two types of awareness: awareness with an object of focus, and awareness without an object. When we refer to awareness with an object of focus, that might mean resting our attention on the breath; each time the mind wanders, we simply bring the attention back to the breath — and our awareness is restored. The breath acts as our anchor to the present moment.

Awareness without an object is a little tougher, and probably for more seasoned meditators, because we are asking the mind to rest in awareness itself, without focusing on anything. We are just present with the silence and quality of spaciousness.

Through practicing meditation, we’re able to train the mind to expand the amount of time it can rest in awareness. But is all this effort worth it? Yes, because an awareness of thoughts and feelings, and a better understanding of why we think and feel the way we do, allows for more choice in your responses and actions, which in turn, leads to reduced stress, increased happiness, improved relationships, and an overall richer existence.

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What’s self-awareness meditation?

When we use meditation to look inward and gain insight into our thought patterns, we are practicing meditation for self-awareness. Psychologist and author Tasha Eurich describes self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly — to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.”

One positive side effect of practicing awareness meditation is that we begin to see ourselves more clearly through the process. By quieting the noise and witnessing our thoughts without judgment or inner commentary, we can become more intimate with ourselves, our needs, our desires, and our limitations. With this self-knowledge comes the ability to make smarter choices that positively impact our lives and our world. According to Eurich, “There is strong scientific evidence that people who know themselves and how others see them are happier.”

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