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The Nature of Awareness

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

In a recent workshop on the Introduction to Mindfulness, I was asked to explain the difference between awareness and mindfulness. Safe to say we went somewhat off on a tangent, as there are subtle differences between the two, but it has value as it highlights the different ways which mind-body practises can be used.

In order to explain this we needed to take a deeper look as to what awareness is, how to cultivate it, and why we might want to cultivate it.

Awareness is the ability to know, perceive, feel or be cognisant of events and phenomena. The ability to take in information from our internal and external environment, process and then perceive it. If we cannot sense something we cannot be aware of it. Awareness informs our perception of the world, for it feeds us knowledge about it, which we can process with memories and other knowledge to start to form a picture and create meaning to ourselves.

Increased awareness is undoubtedly useful, for if we are unaware of something how can we know or even begin to understand it. There are connotations to those who lack self awareness of their actions/behaviours, or who are unaware (or not awake, woken up to) of social issues and injustices, and even those who move through life 'blissfully unaware'.

Yet how we perceive things (to create meaning and understanding) is influenced by our current state, memories, experiences and a lifetime of stored information to form a opinion or judgement of the phenomena we take in through the sense. It is important as it helps us to enable survival, by distinguishing phenomena as threatening or non-threatening. However, this perception of phenomena, clouded by the different lenses we see it through, prevents us from seeing things as they truly are.

For example, you’re stuck in traffic whilst already stressed, you've had a busy morning, it leads to thoughts that it’ll ruin your day, when really it might just make you late to your appointment, the whole day isn't necessarily ruined. Or you eat a particular food and become unwell after, creating an aversion to that food. It is here where lies the crux between awareness and mindfulness.

In the first example, the stressed out state heightens activity of the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the stress response, leading to elevated heart and breath rate and a heightened state of alert. The information of heavy traffic is being processed through a body that is physiologically looking out for threats to survival, of which this is deemed one, and creates catastrophic thinking. The second example created a definite judgement about the future based on the information from the present processed through the lense of previous experiences, to create an expectation that the food in the present moment is also a threat. This is separate from pure awareness, or what we can call mindfulness, which would recognise the traffic as traffic, or the food as food of a different day and time - neutral and without judgement.

So can we have pure awareness, a recognition of what is, without a value judgement? This is where practises involving mindfulness start to come in. Mindfulness is a state that we enter into whereby we can witness, on purpose, the present moment with awareness and a non-judgemental attitude. Generally this is done by focusing on an anchor to keep us in the present moment, such as the body or the breath. This on its own can start to make us more aware of what is going on in our internal/external environments.

The state of mindfulness can be entered into at any time, but generally our default when we become aware/notice phenomena is to try to make sense of it and draw a judgement. It is habitual and like any habit takes time to learn a new way of perception, holding awareness without it passing through the lense of past experience, our physiological state, or information from others. Any action or behaviour that someone wants to improve needs dedicated, regular practise, so a consistent mindfulness practise is essential to develop pure awareness of what is.

Mindfulness mediation can in fact help us in several ways. Modern life encourages us to keep busy and generally to keep us focused on working towards something in the future. When we practise mindfulness we are encouraged to sit in the present moment and start to notice all that it has to offer us. We draw awareness to sounds in the environment, our internal experiences through noticing the body and the breath. We start to learn how to hear a sound without experiencing it as a noise or a nuisance, to notice the early signs of stress or feel a sensation whilst recognising its impermanence. We can then start to be aware of our mental phenomena (habitual thinking and reactions) and our even our attachment and aversion to objects. So not only does mindfulness help us to wake up to the things that usually pass us by both external and internal to us, and get us more in tune with our senses, but it also helps us get better at not judging what we notice and to cultivate neutrality.

This is supported by the science of mindfulness, which with regular practise creates a change in the neural pathways between the pre frontal cortex and the amygdala. Regular mindfulness shrinks the amygdala starts and changes the neural pathways between these two parts of the brain, leading to a reduction in emotional reactivity. If we are emotionally unreactive to what we perceive and take in through the senses through pure awareness, then we are being mindful. Futrhermore, Vago and Silbersweig (2012) argue mindfulness leads to changes in self-processing, through the development of self-awareness (meta-awareness), self-regulation (modulation of behavior). These changes reflect changes in neurocognitive networks which can improve intention and motivation, attention and emotion regulation, non-attachment, and decentering,

Yoga asana (the physical movements we more generally define as yoga) generally cultivates an awareness of internal phenomena (the breath, the muscles stretching or activating in certain postures). The practise of combining movement and breathwork supports regulation of the nervous system, which improves our ability to be mindful by strengthening our ability to be calm even when mobilising or under pressure. Furthermore, it can also lead to noticing how our physical and energetic states can influence how we perceive phenomena. You might start a class with a busy list of things you need to do when the class finishes, feeling very stressed, and perhaps finish with a clear mind, realising you’ve not thought about your to-do list throughout the practise, or even just feel ready to tackle that list with ease. This awareness of how our shift in physiology through regulation changes our attitude towards tasks and how we perceive them to be means that we can start to check in when we notice ourselves forming judgements, or physical signs of stress and can start to cultivate mindfulness within our practice. There is huge potential that with right delivery from a teacher, that a physical yoga practise can become a moving meditation.

As a follow up to the question I received on the differences between awareness and mindfulness, I was asked whether any activity, such as playing an instrument, or going for a run, could ever be considered a mindfulness practise. Walking meditation is a common Buddhist style of meditation that is often used as a conduit to entering the state of mindfulness (moment to moment awareness of the present moment as it changes, with a non-judgemental attitude), which I think was what inspired the question. In walking meditation one breaks down the simple steps of walking (lifting the foot, disconnecting it from the ground, moving it, lowering it to the ground, stepping forward) and holds this process and our experience of it in moment to moment awareness as it changes, non judgementally.

I suggested that any activity can be done with awareness, but most activities are generally done to take us away from the present moment, rather than meet it head on. They are done with the purpose and intention of distraction (think of running whilst listening to music) rather than meeting ourselves and our experience with equanimity, and in these cases they can't be considered mindful. However, if done with real, purposeful, present moment awareness of not only the activity but our experience of it, with a non-judgemental attitude, then perhaps it could be considered mindful...but it cannot be a substitute for regularly sitting in a traditional mindfulness practise. Other teachers will definitely have different opinions on this, which makes the practise of guided mind-body techniques so varied!

There is so much more I could go into in this, and I love when my workshops inspire great questions that challenge me to get more nuanced in my explanations. If you're interested in hosting virtual or in person mindfulness or yoga classes, or workshops in your workplace, feel free to reach out and we can discuss your requirements -

I also teach 1-2-1 mindfulness and yoga for the practitioner looking to develop their personal practise in a tailored way. Again, contact me today via email to take the first step!



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