What is 'Natural Awareness'?

Awareness is a capacity of the human mind. As we ordinarily understand it, it’s the ability to directly know and to perceive, sense, feel, or be cognizant of experience. We might think of awareness simply as the state of being conscious of something.

Every sentient being is aware, in this sense of the word. But human beings (and, who knows, maybe some animals) also have an additional capacity: to be aware of awareness, or aware that they are aware.

And this is where it gets interesting, because the “awareness of awareness” has been a focus of meditation for hundreds of years.

Let’s try this simple experiment: Right now, look away from the screen for a moment and don’t be aware. Got it? Please stop being aware. I mean it. Ready, go . . .

Are you back? Could you not be aware? No, you couldn’t. Not only that, in this exercise, you noticed that you were aware and that it’s impossible to stop being aware.

What some meditative traditions call “natural awareness” is a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on the things we are aware of. It’s “awareness of awareness.” It is generally relaxed, effortless, and spacious. You can see already why a lot of people are interested in it.

Subjectively, natural awareness can feel very powerful. It can feel like a deep sense of peace, joy, love, contentment, serenity, connection, and much more. It can be evoked through specific practices, and it is a type of meditation in and of itself. It can become a familiar state, accessible in daily life and regularly experienced as you meditate with it over time.

Because natural awareness is hard to define (“awareness of awareness” being quite a mouthful), it is primarily recognized experientially. Let me give you some markers of it. Natural awareness can feel like:

●   Your mind is completely aware and undistracted without you doing anything in particular.

●   Your mind is like wide open space, and everything in it is just passing by.

●   Your mind feels at rest even if thoughts pop in and out.

●   You are noticing that you are noticing, and you are hanging out in that awareness.

●   Everything just seems to be happening on its own.

●   You are simply being—without agenda—and this ‘beingness’ creates a feeling of ease.

Since everyone experiences natural awareness in their own way, you might find some of these markers “land” more for you than others. That’s fine. There’s no need to interrogate whether this is “really” natural awareness or not. If you think you have had a taste of natural awareness, please trust that. Any experiential sense of natural awareness will become a touchstone that you can always return to during your meditation practice or in life.There are many ways to practice natural awareness.

You can also simply turn your attention to whatever is happening in the moment, which we might call “just this.” “Just this” could be anything—thoughts, emotions, sensations, sounds, your breath, the visual field, or some combination of these things. Then drop the following question into your mind and see what happens, as if you were dropping a stone into a pond to notice the ripples:  “Is it okay to be aware of just this?”

Again, see what lands for you.

What are the benefits of adding natural awareness to your meditation mix?

First, it’s really easy for some people. If you’ve noticed during meditation that instead of focusing in on a single point like the breath, your mind wants to open up into a more spacious, open awareness, maybe natural awareness is where your meditation practice wants to take you at the moment. If that seems to vague and floaty, then maybe not. Everyone is different.

Second, you may have tasted it already, and be curious about stabilizing and deepening your connection to it. For example, maybe you’ve had moments of this expansive, calm state of mind in your meditation, and you’ve been curious about how to “go there” more.

Third, natural awareness can be a good counterbalance to mindfulness meditation. I have met many students of classical mindfulness meditation over the years (and, I confess, I was one of them) who exert massive amounts of energy to keep their attention focused, who try to be aware of every moment, and who often feel a disturbing tightness and tension in their meditation practice. When they begin to relax into a more natural awareness, the struggle ceases, and they find they can continue to practice with much greater ease and spaciousness. They don’t have to try so hard to be aware. This might be true for you.

Relatedly, practitioners often judge their meditation practice and themselves ruthlessly. I remember in my early years of practice I told a friend I was a terrible mindfulness practitioner because I could be mindful only about ten times during the day. When I began to practice tuning in to natural awareness, I realized there was nothing really to “get” and that inherently my mind was already aware. The judging inner critic soon went on sabbatical (and now visits only from time to time).

If focusing on your breath is causing you to put in a lot of effort, or judge yourself, or tighten your awareness in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable, natural awareness can be a great counterweight. It can be quite sweet. Sometimes when accessing natural awareness we feel a lovely sense of compassion, kindness, interconnection, joy, and radiance. Think how your embodiment of these qualities can impact all whom you meet!

In this meditation try something different and amazing. Move away from focusing on a particular thing, and instead try to stay with awareness of the mind itself, resting the mind as if resting on a beach chair: with extreme relaxation and ease.

Diana Winston