Awareness – An Introduction
We have already mentioned the word awareness in the practices previously described. In this topic we will discuss its meaning and implications a little more fully, for it lies at the very basis of yoga and yogic techniques. It is essential to understand what we mean by awareness in order to gain the maximum benefits from the contents of this book. This is the biggest problem for beginners; they are told to be aware but they are not really sure what it means or what the point of it is. As such they miss the essence of their yoga practices. For this reason we will attempt to explain what is meant by awareness so that you can realize what we are aiming at, even if it is only at an intellectual level. Intellectual understanding of awareness is at least better than no understanding. Eventually, as you progress in your practices, you will come to know the meaning of awareness, not through words but by personal experience.
For most people, awareness means mere knowledge. We often say, “I am aware of that,” meaning that we know something. In yoga it also means knowledge but it simultaneously means far more. Awareness in a general sense means to comprehend, to know, to feel what is happening around us. It also means to know what is happening within us. Most people comprehend very little of what is occurring around and within them. This is a low state of awareness. As we realize and relate to more things internally as well as externally, and see the underlying unity in everything, we naturally develop more awareness. As this happens we break down the barriers and limitations of the mind. We understand more aspects and gain insight into the many realms of existence. Before we further expound on the meaning of the word awareness let us first briefly mention consciousness. Every life form is a vehicle of consciousness. Whether it is a cell, a plant, an animal or a human, the underlying nature of all living organisms is consciousness. However, each of these forms express the potential of consciousness at different levels. The cells and plants express consciousness at a very rudimentary level, while man expresses it at a far more complex level. The consciousness is the same – the potential for manifestation is different. Plants have feelings (as has been scientifically proved by various people) but no mobility. Animals have both feelings and mobility. Man also has these, but at the same time he has an extra attribute – awareness. Man has the extra and all important ability to be able to know his consciousness and to allow it to manifest and blossom to its fullest potential. The consciousness does not change. It is the expression that becomes expanded. Man can increase his awareness and transcend limitations (or rather limitations that most of us see and think to be fixed) and realize higher potentialities of consciousness. An animal, as far as we know, is unable to be aware because of its very nature. It contains the potential but it is totally unable to see the potential because of the very way it is made. It lacks the necessary equipment. Let us make an analogy. The atmosphere around us is pervaded by electromagnetic waves carrying programs transmitted from a large number of radio stations. Yet, can we pick them up directly? Can a stone or a tree listen directly to the symphony being broadcasted? No, this is impossible. Our body, the stone and the tree lack the necessary equipment. The waves are there but we cannot tune into them. The potential is there but we cannot use it. We are limited by our structure. Yet a radio can pick up the waves and enable us to listen to the symphony. The radio has the necessary equipment to manifest this potential contained within the atmosphere around us. It is the same with consciousness but in a much deeper and ineffable sense. It is within all life forms. Yet it is only humans (let us forget for the moment extra-terrestrial life) that have the ability to know this consciousness. It is said that consciousness sleeps in stones, dreams in plants, begins to awaken in animals and can be fully realized in man; man can know that he is awake.
Let us be more specific and define what we mean by awareness in yoga. Awareness is the ability to stand back and to observe one’s mental and physical activities. If a man is aware then he becomes a spectator of his activities both internally and externally. Those who have never experienced this will not really understand, but those who have experienced it, even for a few seconds, will know what we are trying to say. Its implications are profound. If you are able to watch what your body and mind do, then this means that your nature transcends the body and mind. It means that there is something that is able to watch what is occurring; there is something in the background that witnesses the actions of the mind and body. This experience alone is enough to alter your conception of yourself. It wakes us up to the fact that there is something in the background – a witnessing principle. Few of us. however, have this experience naturally tor we tend to lose ourselves in the actions of the body and mind. This witnessing principle m man is called awareness in yoga. It seems that awareness is a special privilege of man. Animals perform actions without ever knowing that they are doing them. Man has this ability, though it is rarely utilized. Most of us are totally absorbed in our thoughts and physical bodies. So much so that we regard our actions as our nature. By becoming aware we are able to watch ourselves and see how superficial our personality, composed of our mind and body, really is. Awareness leads us to the understanding that our nature is something else other than mind and body. The mind and body are only our grosser vehicles.
Yoga tries to increase awareness so that a person can actually watch himself, his bodily activities and mental processes. One can watch the thought processes as though he is watching television. The thoughts appear like a television program. Let us take this analogy. If we watch television then most of us know that we are not a part of the program, we are only members the audience. We are not really involved. However, if the program is interesting we can completely lose ourselves in the drama being enacted so that we forget we are watching. We become part of the story. Our thinking process is like a good film, sometimes emotional, sometimes exciting, other times depressing. Whatever its contents may be, it is so appealing that most of us spend twenty-four hours every day totally lost in the absorbing mental processes. We are totally engrossed in the mind show. In fact even those who are now reading these words are most likely caught up in the thought processes. At present are you completely identified with your thoughts? The answer is probably yes. And it is not so easy to break down the magnetic appeal of the mind and to merely watch the thoughts, to be aware. When a television program or a movie finishes we automatically remember that we are only watching and that we are not involved. But from birth all of us have been lost in the mental show so that we never realize its superficial nature. We see the mind, its activities and the body as the totality of our being. Yet we have this ability to stand back from the mental show and watch it as an impartial witness. Each of us has this potential, this ability, yet few of us know it or utilize it. Yoga specifically tries to flower this witnessing principle.
For many people this awareness doesn’t sound very inspiring, even if they believe that it is possible. Why make such a fuss over the trivial ability to be able to watch one’s own thoughts, they may ask. Yet if one becomes more aware and starts to witness his activities then incredible experiences occur. He starts to realize things that are completely beyond present comprehension. It can take him into a new dimension of existence. At the moment most people are trapped by their minds in the same way an actor in a film is limited by his role and the cellulose film. If he could materialize and become a three-dimensional person then he would be able to jump beyond his previous two-dimensional limitations. His whole concept of existence would alter. His role would expand beyond that of the film, beyond that which would even be understandable in his film language and concepts. It is the same with nearly all people. Our identification with the mind and body keeps us trapped in a limited realm of existence. We imprison ourselves, yet we have the keys to become free again. By jumping outside the fetters of personality, mind and body, we can tune in with higher and freer dimensions of existence. The key is awareness.
Consciousness is within each and every one of us. There are no exceptions. We can never create it or develop it. It is already there; all we have to do is to tune in with it. We have to become aware. We have to act from our basic nature, consciousness, which lies in the background of all our physical and mental actions. We actually cannot expand consciousness, for consciousness is infinite and all pervasive. How can we expand something which is infinite and everywhere? What we actually do is to expand awareness. Awareness is the variable that can be developed in all of us. It is the ability that can be developed to tune in with consciousness, the ability to identify with consciousness. This is only semantics, but it defines what we mean by these terms. Other people may use the words in a different context, possibly as interchangeable words, but our meaning is as we have just explained.
It is a common misconception that consciousness is a function of the brain and is dependent on it. Many people think that the brain is the master and that if there is no brain then there will be no consciousness. Nothing could be more incorrect. However, verbally or rationally we cannot demonstrate this, nor do we really want to. If you develop your awareness you will definitely conclude this for yourself, for how can consciousness watch the activities of the mind or brain if the brain is the master or basic instrument. The consciousness must be beyond the brain in order to be able to watch the activities of the brain and mind. Usually consciousness is associated with and tied to the activities of the brain and sensory organs through our ignorance of its nature.
We are never faced with its existence for it is disguised by our everyday activities. If we see a book we naturally assume that it is the eyes that have seen it. This is so obvious we never question the truth of this assumption. But actually this is incorrect. The eyes are only the intermediary instruments between the outside world and consciousness. It is consciousness that actually sees. If we hear we tend to assume that it is the ears that hear, but actually they too are really only intermediaries. It is not even the brain that sees and hears, for this is only an instrument. In themselves, the sensory organs and the brain are no more than receivers, transformers and transmitters. Let us take the analogy of the radio again. The radio picks up electromagnetic waves and converts them to sound vibrations which we can hear. The radio itself cannot hear, it acts as a mediator that picks up the waves and converts them to a suitable form that we can hear. The sensory organs and the brain are exactly the same; they cannot hear, see, taste, smell or feel. They can only pick up sensations, convert them to suitable signals for utilization by the brain from where they are perceived by consciousness. Without consciousness each one of us would be incapable of doing anything; we would be lifeless and would know nothing. For western philosophy the mind is the hub of man; for yoga it is consciousness that is the central and most basic aspect. And this consciousness is not fettered and bound by finitude. It is infinite and unbound. Our deepest nature is infinite, for it is consciousness. It is not mind. The mind is merely the instrument of consciousness and the storehouse of our finite personality.
Man has the ability to tune in with and know this consciousness; he can become more aware. .Animals have the same consciousness yet they are unable to know it. Man has the potential to function from consciousness by liberating himself from the shackles of mind and body. Of course, the mind and body perform the same functions; nothing changes in this respect. But a person who becomes more aware knows himself to be consciousness and nothing else. He identifies himself with consciousness and not mind and body.
Development of Awareness
The first thing to remember is that no indoctrination or autosuggestion is required. If you practise yoga then it will automatically show itself or to be more exact, if you do your practices correctly then awareness will gradually develop. There are many different methods to increase awareness. In fact all the different methods of yoga – karma yoga, bhakti yoga, mantra yoga and kriya yoga – are designed for this purpose. They all use different methods to achieve the same end. When you do asanas and pranayama, as well as meditational techniques, that we will shortly introduce, the emphasis should be on awareness. This awareness implies that your attention is directed to a specific function or activity. It means that your attention is on something specific, perhaps breath, and that you simultaneously know that your attention is on that particular activity. In other words, if you are aware of your breath it means that you know that you are breathing and you are witnessing the breathing process. You are standing back and watching something that is occurring within you. It is the first step up the ladder to higher awareness. You are becoming a witness to all the activities of the body. This will lead eventually to the ability to witness the actions of the mind and then gradually the deeper aspects of mind which you may now think impossible.
This is the essence of awareness – the fact that you know that you are doing something and that you are observing the action. If you move the body and at the same time don’t realize that your body is moving and simultaneously observe the movement, then you are not aware. To be a witness is to be aware. To be totally lost, involved and identified with an action is to be unaware. When one practises asanas, pranayama and meditational practices awareness is essential. Without it these yogic practices lose their significance and ninety percent of their benefits. If you are angry, worried or unhappy and your mind is playing havoc, don’t worry. If you are doing your asanas and you are overwhelmed by streams of thoughts when we have advised you to be aware of breath, don’t by any means become frustrated. Merely watch the stream of thoughts and the breath, witness them, be aware of them.
The practice of asanas, pranayama and meditational practices develops awareness on a temporary basis. They give one a taste of what awareness means at a rudimentary level. From them, it is possible with effort to be a witness to your thoughts and physical actions throughout the day. One can watch, observe the body and mind performing the duties in the way they have been designed. One watches the antics of the body and mind as one would watch a puppet.
So when doing yoga practices be aware of what you are doing. The whole point of yoga is to unfold and make you aware of your deeper aspects.