Beyond Meditation: Discovering Awakened Awareness

The practice of meditation teaches you how to let go of your preoccupations with past and future and instead develop the capacity to be present in the moment for whatever life brings. As with any sport or other skill-based activity, the more you practice, the more your capacity grows. Mindful awareness is like a muscle you build through meditation and use throughout your life.

But the world’s great spiritual traditions offer another, slightly different approach to the development of awareness. From this perspective, often taught to more advanced students, you don’t need to cultivate awareness because it’s already natural and innate: The moment you open your eyes, awareness is functioning without impediment. It’s not a muscle that benefits from building; it’s more like eyesight, an ability you’re born with and can use from the outset.

In this view, often called the direct approach, practicing meditation to achieve some special, mindful state is like putting another head on top of your own — it makes no sense, because the head you have is perfectly good as it is. Instead, you need to recognize the awake awareness you already possess and practice resting in it and allowing it to guide you. Sometimes this innate awareness is called effortless mindfulness, in contrast to deliberate mindfulness

Of course, the people who are drawn to the practice of effortless or innate mindfulness have often practiced deliberate mindfulness for years and are eager to take the next step. Having already spent a long time cultivating the capacity for present-moment awareness, they want to let go of the effort and learn to rest in the inherent wakefulness they already possess.

In addition, they may have discovered that, on the path of spiritual awakening, deliberate mindfulness can pose certain limitations because it emphasizes the separate meditator who’s actively trying to be mindful. This emphasis accentuates the separation — between self and other, inside and outside, subject and object — that the spiritual seeker aspires to move beyond.

If you’re drawn to spiritual awakening, you may want to begin with mindfulness meditation just to learn the basics of being in the moment. This will also make it easier for you to recognize your natural state of inherent wakefulness.

Then you can begin exploring the many books on the direct approach, which is based largely on the Buddhist traditions of Zen and Dogchen and the Hindu philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. Awake awareness is your birthright — you just need to recognize and claim it.