Non-Conceptual Awareness

Let's take some time to unpack three approaches that support the flowering of non-conceptual awareness.

Non-Conceptual Awareness

In this course, we're exploring different dimensions of not knowing, and that means establishing and cultivating a willingness to put aside what we might already know, what we think we know about ourselves, about the world, about Buddhism or dharma practice—so as to really engage with what we don't know.

Reflecting on our views about Buddhism

If we back up a little, let's make room for all the things you might think you do know: all the views you might have about dharma practice or about Buddhism, for example. There's a range of views, right? There could be a religious view. A religious view is one that attempts to describe reality and maybe gives us codes of behavior for how to be in that reality. And you may or may not subscribe to a religious view of Buddhism.

Then there's a philosophical view which, rather than just describing reality, attempts to understand reality. A philosophical view, a philosophical way of knowing about Buddhism, for example, is replete with ideas. Those many lists: the eightfold path, the five precepts, the four noble truths, and all the ways we can find those views helpful, illuminating. But they can also just reinforce a knowing about, a knowledge-based view, or a philosophical view.

And then there's a kind of self-help view of Buddhism. That may be the way many of us have first engaged with dharma practice. Rather than trying to merely describe or even understand reality, it's designed to give me a better way to cope with reality; one where I'm hoping to put aside some of my confusions and neuroses and difficulties; one where I'm hoping to cultivate certain mental and emotional skills so as to better meet the life around me, the people around me, the world around me, and the world within me.

There's also what we could call a liberation view, where, in addition to describing reality, understanding reality, better coping with reality, liberation is pointing us to that capacity to fully merge with reality, fully and freely, engage with reality. To know a freeness in being, in the way that we navigate through reality, on the one hand for this one brief lifetime; and, on the other hand, in the immensity, the infinity of consciousness, of awareness. There is the knowing of all time and space and possibility as being available right here, and this right here-ness, then, is the open doorway: the portal to fully meeting reality. And we access this portal, we access an alive engagement with right here through our capacity to not know, to put aside the familiar, the well-worn, the conceptual, the habitual, and instead engage with the immediate, the mysterious, the constantly surprising, the conceptually ungraspable. So that's the territory that we're meeting as we go through this course together.

There are three very primary supports for non-conceptual awareness. The first, which we were exploring in the meditation earlier, is embodied presence. These three supports are all kind of obvious in many ways and simple. And yet their simplicity belies their extraordinary depth. And over the last 30 years or so of my own practice, I've found these three elements keep opening up, ever revealing more of their potency and possibility.

Three supports for non-conceptual awareness
1. Embodied presence
2. Letting go of mental seductions
3. The willingness to not know

1. Embodied presence

So the first support is embodied presence. Like we were exploring in the meditation, it's a way of compensating for the tendency to go up and out, a tendency to be lost in abstraction: the way we can easily go through life half defended, half distracted. Embodied presence is really listening from within. To listen—not with our ears, not with our mind—but to listen with ourselves.

While you're sitting here now, while you're listening and reflecting on what I'm saying, let yourself listen from within. Let yourself listen with the whole of your sensory awareness so that, even though (hopefully!) you continue to listen to me, you're not just listening to me. In fact, most primarily, you're listening to the feel of being here. And that kind of listening we could equally call sensing. You're sensing being here. You're in touch with just how your feet are and the way that they're on the ground. You're in touch with the length of your spine, maybe. You're in touch with whatever physical sensations stand out to you right now.

That means you're also in touch with whatever tension patterns might have formed. We're often holding some kind of unconscious, habitual tension patterns in our jaw, maybe, or your head or shoulders. Embodied presence is a way of meeting our tensions physically. And then we start to join up the dots with the kind of attitudes, mental states, emotional patterns that keep those tensions going. And then, "ah..." softening them. Embodied presence is an invitation, again and again, to soften, to settle, to relax, to open up to what's here. When we're driven along by our habitual thinking patterns, we're holding those tensions. A free body is a relaxed body, an open body.

So I'll be pointing to that again and again as the course goes on. But I want to just lay that out now as the foundation of all of our not knowing, the foundation of all our deeper ways of knowing, the foundation of all of our fuller, freer ways of knowing: body's knowing. Relaxed knowing. Embodied presence.

2. Letting go of mental seductions

The second really helpful support for non-conceptual awareness—and it's a foundational meditative skill—is building the capacity, and the willingness, to keep letting go of the various ways our attention gets seduced. It's normal for mind to think: as normal as it is for eyes to see and ears to hear. That's mind's job: mind is going to continue producing thoughts. So let's not fight with it. But what do you do in the moment where you notice your attention has been seduced in that way? Often we either get discouraged, "Oh, no, I've been distracted again." Or there's the thought, "Oh, I've been distracted. I'm supposed to go back to being present. But in a minute... I'm kind of in love with this thought." So the willingness I really want to emphasize all through the course, particularly in meditation times: in the moment that you see that your attention has gone off into abstraction, absorbed into some idea or image... drop it. Simply—not with judgment, not with blame, not with drama. Just drop it so that the return to embodied presence becomes more and more fluid.

So, mind thinks, because it does, but we notice this because actually awareness is way more potent and luminous and immediate than all of our mental prevarication. And so, however caught up we are, we notice the mind's activity at some point. And in the noticing we unhook, unhook, unhook, unhook. The more you unhook from your familiar modes of thinking, the more you give yourself the chance to land in an unfamiliar mode: an aliveness, a directness, an intimacy of contact.

3. The willingness to not know

The third support is a little less tangible: it's the willingness to not know, the willingness to put aside the familiar, the willingness to meet experience anew. For example, we've been talking about listening from within, sensing the contact of your legs with the ground, noticing the tension patterns that arise, and how easily we could be filtering that through the regular habitual discourse: "These are my legs. These are my shoulders. Here's some tension, I should let it go..." etc. And maybe that discourse is running in the background anyway. That familiar narration, right? That's fine. But you can meet the physical experience of sitting here right now through that narration, those ideas; or you can keep coming to an unmediated contact.

So right now, what if you don't rely on the description of arms and legs, hot and cold, comfortable or uncomfortable, but just come into the direct experience, just the fizzing of all this, the mysteriousness. What's here right now isn't arms and legs and torso. What's here right now is this. This aliveness. This mysteriousness. My usual ideas will tell me what my body is, where my body is, how my body is. But this kind of direct contact is unfamiliar contact. This non-conceptual contact will show me the constant flickering of experience. My ideas will tell me where my body ends, where the world begins, but this willingness to meet experience in an unfamiliar mode actually tells me that experience is edgeless. In the same way that sensations—what I call inner experience—happen here in awareness, so do sounds—or what I call outer experience.

So this third support for non-conceptual presence is about letting experience be here in awareness, letting awareness be the primary ground, the primary reference point, the primary container for experience. And all the rest: inner or outer, pleasant, unpleasant, good or bad, meditatively suitable or meditatively unacceptable... all of that can just be left aside a little.

Like this, we give ourselves a chance to taste the unfamiliar, to taste experience anew. And in that newness we will find more depth, more dimensionality, more insight, more capacity to meet what happens fully and freely. And so it's like this that our practice deepens.

Complete and Continue