Diana Winston on 3 ways to bring natural awareness into your mindfulness practice—and your life.
Having taught mindfulness for twenty years, I’ve observed that a specific type of meditation practice has dominated the field for decades—classical mindfulness. Pay attention to your breathing, and when your attention wanders, bring it back to your breath. It’s great to practice this narrow, object-focused, and effort-based mindfulness, but there is also a mindfulness that is wide-open, objectless, and effortless. I call it natural awareness.
Natural awareness is a way of practicing in which your focus is on awareness itself, rather than on the things you are aware of. It is generally relaxed, effortless, and spacious, and it can elicit a profound sense of well-being. The term natural awareness invites you to notice or rediscover the awareness that already exists and is available to you at any moment.
Because natural awareness is hard to define, it is primarily recognized experientially. Let me give you some markers for it. Experiencing natural awareness can feel like:
- Your mind is completely aware and undistracted, without doing anything in particular to make yourself aware.
- Your mind is like wide open space, and everything in it is just passing by.
- You are aware, but not identified with the part of you that is aware.
- Your mind feels at rest.
- You are noticing that you are noticing, and you are abiding in that awareness.
- Everything just seems to be happening on its own.
- You feel a sense of contentment not connected to external conditions.
- You are simply being, without agenda, and this beingness creates a feeling of timelessness and ease.
How to Shift into Natural Awareness
If you have an existing mindfulness practice, let’s look at three deliberate shifts you can make during your classical mindfulness meditation that point you toward natural awareness. Once you have evoked natural awareness, you can then try natural awareness meditations to prolong and deepen your experience.
1. Relaxing Effort
Effort in classical mindfulness meditation typically means you rigorously and faithfully return your attention to our main focus, typically your breathing. Relaxing your effort to shift into natural awareness is a little different. It means you rein in the tendency to put your attention on your breath or other objects, and just be with the objects as they arise.
Many meditators fear that if they stop trying, nothing will happen. Or their mind will wander all over the place if they’re not making any effort to do something with it. But just sitting down and not doing anything wouldn’t be natural awareness practice—it would be sitting down and doing nothing. Dropping or relaxing effort is very different because we are tuning into the awareness that is already present, and so we don’t have to try hard to get there.
Also, you won’t necessarily have a wandering mind because you relax your effort after having worked hard to pay attention. Think of shifting into natural awareness like riding a bicycle. You pedal really hard, but then at a certain point you can stop pedaling and coast. The bike stays upright, you’re still heading where you want to go, but you’re not working so hard. In fact, it’s quite exhilarating.
So what does relaxing your effort feel like when you’re meditating? It feels like stopping the attempt to wrestle with your unruly mind, fighting to bring it back to the present. Instead, you are resting, relaxing, and exploring the awareness that is already present. It feels immensely joyful to stop the struggle.
2. Broaden Your Attention
In meditation as in life, your attention can be narrowly or broadly focused. You can think of attention as like a camera. Sometimes you use a telescopic lens to focus on something quite narrow, and sometimes you use a panoramic lens to take a wide landscape.
When you meditate, you can apply narrow or panoramic attention. An example of narrow focus would be attending primarily to a single object, like your breath. Panoramic attention is wide open—you notice many things at play or just have a general wide view.
Broad, panoramic attention tends to be the type of attention present when we do natural awareness practice. It doesn’t equal natural awareness, but it does point us in the direction of natural awareness. Because most of us gravitate toward focused attention in both meditation and daily life, opening up panoramically can invite in natural awareness. It counteracts our usual forward-focus tendencies and allows our minds to rest and reset, kind of like a brain vacation.
3. Drop Objects
As a practitioner of classical mindfulness, probably the most important shift you can make to invite in natural awareness is to move your attention from an object to objectlessness.
Objects of meditation are, simply put, the things you focus on, such as the breath, body sensations, emotions, thoughts, or sounds. Focusing on objects and attending to them is generally how we live our life as well.
Objectless awareness is when you focus less on the objects of awareness and instead focus on the awareness itself. Objects will arise in your meditation—thoughts, emotions, sensations—but your focus is on the awareness itself.
Experiencing Objectless Awareness
When people tune into objectless awareness, they tend to experience it in three different ways.
It is that in which everything is contained. “Our mind is like the sky,” it is sometimes said, “and everything in it is like clouds floating by.” When you turn your attention to the sky-like nature of your mind, noticing the boundless space around things, you experience a field of vast awareness in which everything is contained. Some people experience objectless awareness in this way.
It is that which knows. Most of us are used to focusing on objects when we meditate. But what happens when you make the shift to noticing that which is aware—to seeking the knower? If you start searching for the knower, what do you find?
As you notice things, you can also notice the thing that notices things. You can take your attention from an outward focus on objects and turn it inward, as if you were reversing your attention. You move from that which you are aware of to that which is aware of what you are aware of.
It is that which just is. Sometimes in objectless awareness you experience a deep felt sense that you are aware. You are here, fully present, and everything seems to be happening on its own. It may feel like this awareness is unshakable, that it is spontaneously present, and that there is nothing you can do to stop being aware. No matter what is happening, including thoughts, you are fully and uncompromisingly aware.
Practice: Experience Your Natural Awareness
I invite you to give natural awareness a try. Bring to it a spirit of experimentation and curiosity. Enjoy the process. And trust yourself—if you think you are entering the territory, you probably are.
Here are a few “glimpse” practices that you can insert into your classical mindfulness meditation. I recommend concentrating your mind for a while by noticing your breathing and then shifting over to one of these practices:
One of the simplest ways to access natural awareness is through memory. Let yourself remember a time when you felt awake, connected, peaceful, and expansive—in a state of “beingness.” Don’t try too hard. Let it come to you in a simple way.
Now remember how you felt at the time. What did your body feel like? How about your heart? See if you can invite in a full-bodied experience of the memory. Recall details: sight, scents, sounds, and any other sensory experience.
Now notice what is happening in the present moment. See if a sense of beingness is present for you, just by your imagining a past experience. What does that beingness feel like? Connectedness, ease, presence, relaxation? Let yourself rest here.
Expand Your Field of Awareness
Begin with expanded listening—listening out to the far reaches of your hearing. Once you’ve expanded your listening, open your eyes and broaden your vision. Let your field of vision be expansive, noticing the space between things and viewing peripherally. Then expand your body awareness. First notice your back body. Then begin to expand further out, sensing the field around, above, and below you in 360 degrees.
At this point, your senses of hearing, sight, and feeling should all be expanded. From here, you can begin to play with that expansion. Can you stay expanded but also feel embodied? Can you have simultaneous inner and outer awareness? What predominates?
When you notice yourself tensing, just relax your body. It might be possible to stay connected to only one field (sight, sound, feeling), or perhaps you can feel them all simultaneously. Rest in this awareness for as long as you wish.
Mind Like an Ocean
Imagine your mind is like an ocean. On the surface are choppy waves and turbulence. These are the dramas you get caught in: thoughts, fears, emotions, and stories. Imagine sinking below the surface into the infinite depth. Deep in the ocean is a boundless stillness that is completely undisturbed by the turbulence above. Can you connect with this deep tranquility? Once you can sense it, see if you can rest there for a while.