Awareness, from the Moment You Wake Up

We’re often encouraged to bring meditation “off the cushion” and into our everyday lives—Sayadaw U Tejaniya shows us what that really looks like.

By Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Photo by Gastão Fiandeiro.

A meditator’s job is to remember to be aware.

Whether you are standing, sitting, lying down, or walking, if you remember that you are aware, then you are meditating, and you are cultivating the positive qualities of the mind.

We always start with awareness. It is that quality that grounds us and allows all the wholesome mind-states to arise, especially the quality of wisdom. When awareness and wisdom are working together like this, we gain the confidence and the motivation to keep exploring and moving into the uncharted regions of our minds, where suffering gets started at a subtle level.

What the mind is aware of—the objects of awareness such as sensations, thoughts, perceptions, and emotions—isn’t really important. What’s important is the quality of the observing mind that is always working in the background to be aware. The more we remember to be aware, the more we nourish the wisdom that dissolves stress and suffering.

Every day we wake up, we open our eyes, and seeing begins to happen. But how often do we consciously notice this?

Wisdom is what this practice is about. It is the quality of mind that understands the true nature of reality. It becomes the compass that points the way as we try to understand and remove the mind’s three unwholesome roots of craving, aversion, and delusion.

As individuals, we don’t really know how to deal with the three unskillful root qualities of mind. That’s why the right thing to do in practice is to grow the wisdom quality of mind, which knows how to remove the unwholesome roots. Awareness grows wisdom. So, rely on wisdom; it will stand by you.

Forget the idea that meditation happens only on a cushion or in the meditation hall. Meditation is so important that we need to do it all the time, whenever we can remember. We should meditate from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep.

It is the nature of mind to arise and pass away every moment, but each moment leaves a legacy for the next moment. That’s why it’s important to cultivate the mind’s wholesome qualities such as patience, perseverance, joy, and equanimity—so that they become the legacy that is passed on. Once we learn how to be continuously aware with wisdom, all of the positive qualities of mind will naturally follow. Cultivating the wholesome and positive qualities of mind is the aim of meditation. These, not “I,” are the qualities at work in meditation.

Five of the mind’s positive qualities, called the “spiritual faculties,” are especially important to cultivate in meditation. When these five qualities are in balance, they develop wisdom, the fifth quality of mind, considered the foremost because wisdom dissolves suffering.

The five spiritual faculties are:

Confidence (trust in the practice)
Energy (continuous effort)
Mindfulness (remembering to be aware)
Stability of mind (calmness, stillness)
Wisdom (understanding the nature of reality)

When meditation is going well, these five qualities work together in a virtuous cycle that strengthens the mind’s wholesome qualities over and over again. First, confidence in the practice supports continuous effort, which in turn strengthens mindfulness, stability of mind, and wisdom. Each new glimpse of wisdom further strengthens confidence in the practice, and the cycle continues.

The qualities of our mind—whether they are positive or negative in any given moment—will grow stronger and stronger if you allow them to remain. We must practice nonstop to make what’s in the mind positive in every moment, because if it’s not positive, it’s going to be negative. Practicing in this way, we incrementally displace the old cycle of craving, aversion, and delusion with a new cycle of natural awareness, clarity, and wisdom.

Now let’s consider three basic principles of meditation practice: right effort, right view, and right attitude.

Right Effort: Be Aware Continuously

Right effort is continuous effort. Continuously reminding yourself to be aware is right effort.

Every day we wake up, we open our eyes, and seeing begins to happen. But how often do we consciously notice this? When we do, that is awareness. It is the realization of our present moment experience. That’s all.

Simple awareness isn’t tiring at all. Do you need to concentrate or focus to know that you are seeing? No. So long as you are aware of something in your being, you are aware. Whatever you know is fine. It can be any of the six sense perceptions—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, or thinking.

In the Buddha’s teaching, thinking is considered to be a sixth sense perception. Each time a sense is perceived, a “sense door,” which is an organ of perception (eye, ear, nose, body, tongue, mind), meets the object that is perceived (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, thought). Each meeting at a sense door gives rise to a moment of consciousness in which the object of perception is known.

Be cool and calm. Be interested. Accept, examine, and study whatever is happening as it is.

Effort directed at remaining aware does not require much energy. It isn’t difficult to be aware—it’s just difficult to do it continuously! You do not need to know every detail of your experience.

Just be aware and know what you are aware of.

How much effort do you think it requires to be aware? Let’s try a live demonstration with ourselves as guinea pigs. You are sitting. Are you aware that you are sitting? You are seeing. Are you aware that you are seeing? Yes? Are you sure? When did you begin to notice that you are seeing, that seeing is happening? It was just now when I asked you, wasn’t it?

When we aren’t skilled enough at practicing with right effort, we will either put in too much effort or not enough effort.

It is important, especially when you are beginning a meditation practice, that you don’t overexert, such as by trying hard to focus on an object or to create a pleasant state of mind.

Relax the Mind

The meditating mind must be relaxed. We should never focus too much or try too hard. Right effort isn’t about intensely focusing attention on something.

Whenever we strive to experience something pleasant or to avoid something unpleasant, we get tired. The meditating mind, the mind that is doing the work of meditation, must be a wholesome mind. In a wholesome mind the qualities of confidence, energy, mindfulness, stability of mind, and wisdom are at work replacing desire, aversion, and delusion, at least to some degree.

However, sometimes when we make an effort, we do so unskillfully. At these times, one or more of the three unwholesome roots come into the mind, and our effort becomes wrong effort.

Whenever craving, aversion, or delusion is present and motivating the practice, we begin to overexert. When we want experience to be a certain way, that’s craving, and we start to strive and to put in too much effort. When we are dissatisfied with something, that’s aversion, and we try to avoid it or make it go away. Focusing hard makes us tired. It’s happening because of craving, aversion, or ignorance of the practice. We need to soften our focus and relax. There should be continuous effort but not exertion.

Be Cool, Calm, and Interested

Instead of using energy to focus, use intelligence and wisdom by waiting and watching. Right effort is called “right” because there is a lot of wisdom present.

Be cool and calm. Be interested. Accept, examine, and study whatever is happening as it is. Don’t interfere with what is happening. Don’t try to make something unwanted disappear or stop. Don’t try to create preferred experiences.

Notice that the mind is doing its own work through recognizing, being aware, knowing, thinking about the practice, and being interested. We’re just seeing and acknowledging the work that the mind is already doing.

Right effort is to keep reminding yourself to be aware.

It’s easy to be aware, because all we can truly be aware of is our six senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, or thinking. So in any moment, all we need to do to be aware is to ask questions like “What is being seen now?” “What sounds are being heard?” “What thoughts are being known?”

You should meditate in this way all day long.

Conserve Energy

Don’t put in big bursts of effort, or you will run out of steam. Conserve energy so you keep going all day.

It is very important to keep trying to maintain the intention to remain aware all the time, whether awareness is actually continuous or not. This points to another quality of right effort: persistence. It’s not a forceful effort but rather an inner determination to sustain the tiny bit of energy you need in each moment to know you are aware and to keep that going.

Keep up the intention and the commitment, and don’t give up. Persevere throughout the day. It takes some practice because in order for awareness to become constant it needs to become a habit. For something to become a habit, we have to keep after it all the time.

In the beginning, awareness is always on and off, on and off, and we just persevere. When we remember, we keep going. We forget, we remember, we keep going. We need to be aware of ourselves continuously in all postures, whether standing, sitting, walking, or lying down.

When we lie down, we must exercise the mind more, otherwise we’ll fall asleep. The mind doesn’t have to support the body in an upright posture, so all the effort must be geared toward being aware. If we become too relaxed, we’ll doze off. It certainly is okay to practice lying down—just be careful not to fall asleep! Check in frequently to notice the energy you are using and to make sure you are practicing with right effort.

Check Frequently for the Unwholesome Roots

Automatic liking and disliking of objects in awareness tends to compel most of the actions in our daily life. It’s the habit of our minds. So it’s not a surprise that this habit shows up in meditation and tries to run the show there too.

We need to thoroughly understand how much the three unskillful root qualities of mind are torturing and tormenting us. We haven’t learned this lesson fully yet. We don’t learn our lesson the first time, the second time, the third time.

When the unwholesome roots arise, we usually welcome them into our homes as guests and serve them tea and biscuits. Isn’t that true? Our lists of likes and dislikes, for example, form a large part of our personalities that we are attached to. We’ll only turn for help from wholesome qualities when we realize the unskillful qualities are running our lives and we can no longer stand them.

The unwholesome root qualities are tough to understand. That’s why you must always, always be interested in the mind and continually learn about it. We’re not trying to get rid of unskillful qualities; instead, we’re working to notice them and to learn about them. We want to know their true nature.

Meditation is the recognition of gross and subtle forms of craving, aversion, delusion, and all of their relatives that are present in the mind while it is observing objects.

Check the mind frequently to see if the unskillful qualities are pushing your practice.

Right View: The Mind is Nature, Not “Me”

Right view is the understanding that the mind is nature, not an “I” or “me.”

The mind is not a self. It is not personal; it’s not me, not mine. No one is there. This is right view, and we practice to discover this nature.

Right view needs to be present in the mind even before awareness, because if your awareness lacks right view, you will become entangled in craving, aversion, and confusion.

When we look clearly at “what is” by practicing awareness with right view, wisdom begins to arise. This begins to give us a clear picture of the way things are, which is the nature of reality toward which the Buddha pointed. This is how to develop right view.

Our conditioned and habitual view of our world is that the process of mind and matter is “me.” I’m looking at “me.” I know “me.” But we can’t meditate to develop wisdom using this point of view.

If we think of the body or the mind as “me,” then craving, aversion, and confusion will arise. If we think we are having a good experience, we will start attaching to it or try to create more of it—that’s craving. If we think we are having a bad experience, we will start denying it, avoiding it, or pushing it away—that’s aversion. If the mind is spaced out and missing everything or busy rationalizing and defending our craving and aversion, that’s confusion.

When we practice awareness with right view, we come into intimate contact with life. We begin to understand what it is really like to live life as a human being. Understanding right view cannot be achieved by the ego, the sense of “me.” Instead, with a calm and clear mind, we simply watch every experience just as it is. Then the understanding of right view—the not-self nature of experience—will unfold.

What Knows vs. What Is Known

When we are practicing, there are always two things involved: objects that are known and the mind that is knowing these objects. Together these two—what is known and what knows—form a unity of experience that arises moment after moment. This is important to remember.

The mind is that which knows. We call things that are known “objects.” Objects include any of the five sense perceptions, such as sights, sounds, tastes, touch, smells, and thoughts, which are objects of mind, usually in the form of words or images.

Objects appear spontaneously. When we know an object, we don’t have to change it or improve it, nor could we do so anyway. An object doesn’t have to be anything other than what it is. It is just what it is, and it can’t be altered or changed.

But what we can do in the present moment is work with the mind that knows. We can make sure the mind has right view and that it is working in the right way. We can bring these qualities of mind to bear in the present moment by being aware.

The work of meditation is thus the work of the mind that knows all objects of awareness. Meditation is the work of the mind.

Investigate Thinking

When we meditate, do we think it is good to have a lot of thoughts in the mind? Or do we think it is better to have only a few thoughts, or even no thoughts in the mind?

If we believe it’s better to have few or no thoughts in the mind, then we are likely to resist thinking whenever thoughts arise in the mind.

But thinking is just nature. Can we stop nature or avoid nature? It’s impossible. Instead we merely need to see that thinking is nature. That is right view. With this view we can start to skillfully live with thinking instead of resisting the nature that is thinking.

You need to be able to recognize when the mind is thinking, but not get entangled in what is being thought. There is no need to get caught in the story your thoughts are telling. There is no need to automatically believe that the story running in the mind is true.

Rather, be interested in the fact that the mind is thinking. It’s a process that is happening. If you are not used to acknowledging that the mind is thinking, go back to whatever else you were being aware of, such as the breath or sensations in the body. Don’t stay just with the mind, because you can then get lost in thought.

If you frequently give yourself the opportunity to acknowledge the thinking mind, you will get to the point where you begin to see that this is mind. Then you can know it and not get lost in thought. There is a difference between being lost in thought, which is wandering mind, and being aware of thinking while thinking.

We begin to recognize that we can objectively know “this is mind.” We realize “this is mind, mind is thinking.” Once we learn how to see the mind objectively in this way, then we don’t get lost in thought. It won’t happen.

Notice the Intention to Think

When the mind is thinking continuously and we become aware of it, it’s not enough to just know the mind is thinking. We should try to notice the intention to think. The mind wants to think. We want to become able to see this desire clearly. Sometimes when we ask ourselves, “Why is my mind thinking so much?” we are able to detect the desire to think.

When we look at thoughts in this way, we become able to understand certain processes such as cause and effect relationships between the mind and body, or how the mind labels “right” and “wrong.” We’re not interested in the content of the thoughts. We want to understand the phenomenon of thinking, especially in relation to the unskillful qualities of wanting certain things to happen (for example, wanting certain kinds of thoughts or images to arise in the mind) and other things not to happen (such as certain thoughts we don’t want to arise).

We can observe these processes clearly in relation to sounds we hear during meditation. See how the mind immediately labels such sounds as “good” or “bad.” We enjoy “good” sounds that we hear, such as the sounds of bells chiming, birds singing, or leaves rustling in the wind, and we grasp at them in the mind. We like them and want to experience them more. We don’t want them to stop. Likewise, we try to block out the “bad” sounds we hear, such as car traffic or construction noise.

It doesn’t matter how well you are concentrating. You could be in the depths of concentration, but when you hear a sound and you think it shouldn’t be there, you lose concentration instantly. You resent that the sound broke your concentration.

The moment we have wrong view, we have wrong thought, which is a thought of liking or disliking, or of evaluating an experience as good or bad. Then, instead of continuing to see reality clearly, we get entangled in desire and aversion. We start trying to manipulate nature instead of seeing it clearly and working with it skillfully.

In this way, our likes and dislikes hinder the mind’s work.

Use All Senses to Develop Wisdom

A meditator uses all the experiences of the six sense doors to develop awareness, stability of mind, and wisdom. People who aren’t meditators still have the six senses but tend to develop desire, aversion, and apathy toward them. So use every moment you have with the six sense doors to develop awareness, stability of mind, and wisdom, and you’ll be meditating.

Whatever you notice of your experience in the moment, acknowledge it for what it is. Let yourself continue to know that, and then continue to recognize whatever else you can know. You are not trying to change your experience.

What are we doing as we go through our daily life—sitting, standing, walking, or whatever? We are trying to know. We are being aware of whatever is happening in the body and the mind.

Now, if in any moment you begin to feel that you are knowing three or four different things at the same time, don’t be alarmed. This can happen, and it’s not a bad thing. Don’t think you are distracted. Don’t judge it. It is a good sign.

Meditate with Your Eyes Open

We are so used to thinking that meditation is something we do with our eyes closed that we may have never considered that we can be aware of seeing. Yet seeing can be an object in the same way that we can be aware of the objects being seen.

It is very important to learn how to practice in this way—when seeing, to know that you are seeing. It’s important because the mind’s habit of immediately liking, disliking, or ignoring every object it perceives interacts extensively with the process of seeing, and this causes suffering.

It’s really not difficult to understand what seeing is, yet generally we do not grasp it. The habitual tendency of the mind is to think of what is being seen—I see a Buddha picture, I see a coffee cup, I see the floor. But the seeing itself— that’s a different thing—and that’s what you want to know. Just acknowledge that you are seeing.

When you see, recognize that seeing is happening. Whenever the eyes are open, seeing is happening. Because of seeing we are able to look, and every time we do something, we look. Before we turn a door handle, we look at the handle. We look at the door as we move toward it. We look at something before we pick it up, before we do anything.

I want you to be able to bring this practice of dhamma into daily life so that life itself becomes the practice of dhamma. One of the ways you can bring dhamma into your life is to be aware that you are seeing and looking, because then you will be meditating with your eyes open.

Seeing and thinking have similar natures. Just as we want to notice not what we are thinking about, but rather that we are thinking, we want to be able to observe and learn about the process of seeing, in particular in relation to liking, disliking, and ignoring.

Just as we can get lost in our thoughts very easily, we can get lost in what we are seeing as well. With practice and perseverance, we become able to objectify seeing, just as we learn to objectify thinking, and in this way, we don’t get lost in it. As you go about your day-to-day activities, try to make yourself conscious of seeing and looking as much as possible.

Right Attitude: Accept Experience Just as It Is

Right attitude is accepting your experience just as it is.

This is the right frame of mind to meditate. It is a mind that is free of compulsive liking and disliking and therefore is able to clearly see things as they are.

Right attitude allows you to accept, acknowledge, and observe whatever is happening—whether pleasant or unpleasant—in a relaxed and alert way.

It is very important to have this attitude in meditation, because if you are trying to have a different experience from the one you are having, you will never be able to see the present moment clearly, and in this way learn about the nature of reality.

Just reminding yourself to be aware is not enough. In order for awareness to become stronger, you also need to have the right attitude, an observing mind free from the three unwholesome roots.

Whatever you are experiencing in this moment is the right experience. There is no need to be happy or unhappy with what is happening, and there is no need to like or dislike the experience. This is the right attitude for meditation.

Whether what is happening is judged as good or bad is irrelevant. With the right attitude, you learn from every experience. You’ll be able to notice how the mind judges good or bad and then see the reactions that go along with these judgments.

There’s no need to go around trying to find an object of choice to follow like the breath, thoughts, or emotions. In this meditation, we pay attention to the meditating mind and to cultivating wholesome mental qualities. As such, we can use any object to cultivate awareness, develop stability of mind, and gain insight into the nature of phenomena.

No experience out there is better than the present experience. An experience is an experience. An object is an object. It is neither wholesome nor unwholesome!

Here is the more important question: is the mind observing with wholesome or unwholesome mental qualities?

Know the Whole Experience

The objective is to know the whole experience: the thoughts, feelings, and sensations surrounding an emotion, and how the mind is behaving whether with or without the three unwholesome roots.

There is a natural progression in the growth of awareness. You might start off with noticing just one object—say, the breath. After a while you will become aware of several objects in the body—say, of sensations in the belly, hands, and chest. Then you may notice your feelings while being aware of all these objects in the body.

Later on you become able to be aware not only of objects and feelings but also of the mind that is aware, plus of the attitude that is behind this awareness. Once you are able to see this whole picture, you will begin to understand how all these objects interact with one another to create either more stress or more ease in the mind. This is understanding; this is wisdom.

It therefore is essential that you allow the mind to expand, to become aware of more and more objects. If the mind stays on one object only, it cannot gather much data, and awareness and wisdom cannot grow.

Let What Happens Happen

My teacher, Shwe Oo Min, gave concise right attitude instructions in three short lines: “Don’t try to do anything; don’t try to prevent anything; but don’t miss what’s happening.”

It is a wrong attitude to judge meditation practice and become dissatisfied with how it is going. The dissatisfaction arises from the idea that things are not the way we think they should be, or from ignorance of what right practice is. These attitudes close the mind and hinder the practice.

The three unskillful root qualities prevent you from living your life fully. They prevent you from finding true peace and freedom. Look out for them. As you stop attaching to or identifying with them, their strength will slowly diminish.

When you wait and watch with awareness and intelligence, you will see that experiences are just happening according to their own nature. Let whatever happens happen. There is no need to be happy or unhappy with what is happening, and there’s no need to like or dislike any experience. Be happy that there is knowing and awareness, as this in itself is already wholesome.

At this point you might feel overwhelmed by all the information that you have been asked to bear in mind while you meditate. All these suggestions basically serve one purpose: to give you the understanding that will help you to meditate with the right attitude.

When you have the right understanding, you will naturally develop the right attitude, apply the right effort, and develop right awareness and wisdom.

When we pay attention to our experiences in meditation, awareness collects what you could call raw data. Once we have gathered a lot of data, we could call it information. In this way, a meditator keeps feeding several information streams: data about the body feeds the information stream about the physical processes; data about the mind will accumulate as information on feelings and emotions, and so on.

Putting all this information together enables the mind to understand how physical and mental processes interact. At this point, information becomes knowledge.

Wisdom then uses this knowledge about the interaction of physical and mental processes in skillful ways in order to positively influence events. The mind does all of this on its own. It is not “I” that meditates; it is the mind.

Meditation is the work of the mind. We help the mind do its work by paying attention to our experiences with right attitude in order to learn about the workings of the three unwholesome roots, which wisdom ultimately dissolves.

Once you have seen the benefits of working in this way and have become skillful at maintaining all these processes, you will keep expanding them and keep growing in wisdom. When you keep practicing in this way, awareness and wisdom eventually will always be present, and insights will continuously arise as needed.

Are you practicing with right attitude? Check frequently.

From Relax & Be Aware: Mindfulness Meditations for Clarity, Confidence, and Wisdom, by Sayadaw U Tejaniya (Shambhala 2019)

Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Sayadaw U Tejaniya began his Buddhist training as a teenager with the famous Burmese monk Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, eventually ordaining at age thirty-six. Today, he teaches at Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Forest Meditation Center in Yangon, Myanmar. He is known for his distinctive approach to meditation, which deemphasizes form and places heavy emphasis on paying close attention to greed, aversion, and delusion. His most recent book, Relax & Be Aware, was published by Shambhala in December.