Mindfulness & Awareness
[This article is composed from a letter Venerable Nanavira Thera wrote to Mr. N.Q Dias in 1962 – L 2, Vol.II, ‘Letters’, BCC, Nedimale, Dehiwela, 2002. Mr. Dias was a senior civil servant and former High Commissioner].
The Pali word for ‘awareness’ is sampajanna. It is frequently linked with ‘mindfulness’ or sati in the compound word sati-sampajanna. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the section on mindfulness of the body includes awareness of bodily actions from which we conclude that there is a subtle difference between mindfulness and awareness.
Mindfulness is general recollected-ness or not being scattered-brained or discursive. Awareness is more specialized. Here, one keeps oneself under constant observation, not letting thoughts, feelings actions pass without being noticed and recognized as such.
To begin with, below are three Sutta passages to indicate the scope of the practice of awareness in Dhamma.
(a) Here monks, in walking to and fro, a monk practices awareness. In looking ahead and looking aside he practices awareness…
(b) Here, monks, feelings are known as they arise, feelings are known as they endure, feelings are known as they vanish; perceptions are known…thoughts are known…as they vanish…
(c) Here, Ananda, a monk is mindful as he walks to, he is mindful as he walks fro, he is mindful as he stands, he is mindful as he sits, he is mindful as he sets to work. This, Ananda, is a mode of recollection that, when developed and made much in this way, leads to mindfulness-and-awareness. [Abbreviated].
It is now necessary to sort out a verbal confusion. Habitual actions are actions done without thinking. They are automatic, such as blinking the eyes, breathing. It is a misunderstanding to regard them as ‘unconscious’ action. In Dhamma, ‘action’ is defined as cetana or ‘intention’. The so-called unconscious action is no action at all. It is simple movement like a stone rolling down a hill when dislodged, a tree swaying in the wind. In Dhamma, all consciousness is action of mind, speech or body, and every action is conscious. The Freudian & Jungian concepts of ‘unconsciousness’ and ‘sub-consciousness’ are not found in Dhamma.
A conscious action is a deliberate action, an action requiring some thought to perform. When we do them, we have to consider what we are doing – such as taking what is not given, seducing your neighbor’s wife. It is this considering what we are doing that constitutes ‘awareness’. Please note this point. People sometimes object that it is not possible to both act and be aware of action, at one and the same time. This is pure prejudice. I am now typing this letter and breathing and I do not interrupt one to do the other. What is not possible is to give equal attention to them at the same time. When walking, for example, I can ask myself: What am I doing? It is not necessary to stop walking or run or fall down to answer: ‘I am walking’.
So long as we are awake, there is always some degree of awareness and we are obliged to consider what we are doing or thinking in order to deal with them efficiently. Awareness is in abeyance when we dream. We are not aware that we are dreaming. A nightmare is a struggle to wake up, a trying to remember or become aware that we are dreaming.
In our normal life, most of the time, we are absorbed in what we are doing or feeling. We are immersed in say, affection, hate, aversions, boredom. It is difficult to be detached when there is so much routine work to do and be done with. It robs us of personal relationships and emotional satisfaction. So, we like to keep awareness of what we are doing to a minimum. But we cannot avoid it altogether. We use awareness to overcome obstacles in our day to day life, to get through routine work or perform tasks expeditiously.
Practice in Dhamma
The practice of awareness in the teaching of the Buddha has a different purpose. It is taught to get release from living, leading to liberation from dukkha. These two purposes – overcoming mundane problems and getting release from everything – are at right angles to each other. There is competition between them.
The Buddha says, in the Itivuttaka, that three things harm the progress of a sekha [Bhikkhu under higher training who has attained the Path]: fondness for work such as sewing robes, fondness for talk, and fondness for sleep. In the first two, there is much awareness and in the third, no awareness is possible. A Bhikkhu cannot avoid working and talking but he is required to do them mindfully and with awareness. Drive and initiative in one seeking release are not recommended. They are impediments to progress. While the ordinary uninstructed may not habitually practice satisampajanna, a Bhikkhu is instructed by the Buddha to live in that mode always, noting even the time to get up when going to sleep. It is imperative for a disciple of the Buddha to train to live in the mindfulness-and-awareness mode.
How to practice?
How does a person practice satisampajanna for release? All that is necessary is a slight change of attitude, a slight effort of attention. Instead of being fully absorbed in what we are doing, without ceasing to act, we observe ourselves in action. We ask: “What am I doing’? Since all actions are done consciously, we already know the answer. I now know that I am typing this article on my computer, scratching my arm, adjusting in the seat etc.
We can do this endlessly every time we are doing something or thinking. If I now want to train to be always in the mindfulness-and-awareness mode, I must go on asking myself this question until, with practice, I am answering the question without having to ask it. The satisampajanna practice is now automatic. When this stage is reached – aware when reaching for the cup, pouring, stirring sugar in the tea; opening the toilet door, sitting down, defecating; having lustful thoughts, etc – awareness is successful and all one has to do is not let it slip through neglect or forgetfulness; it should be cultivated and developed in the case of all physical and verbal actions, feelings, perceptions and thinking.
What is the point of it? Of what use is it to be in the satisampajanna mode? There are three good reasons why everyone should practice it. It develops sila [virtue], samadhi [concentration] and panna [wisdom]. In the first place, it leads to self-criticism and self-correction. Next, you will develop a powerful control over passions. With constant practice they shall arise less frequently and you shall be trained to abandon them when arisen. In the third place, mindfulness-and-awareness is an absolute requirement for understanding the essence of the Dhamma.
The reason is this: the Buddha is not concerned with any particular or single experience – feelings, perceptions, etc – as such. The Dhamma is about ALL experiences, about the general underlying nature of ALL experiences. We do not need a Buddha to tell us how to escape or cope with a particular pain, feeling or misfortune or with a cancer. We need the Buddha to tell us how to escape and get release from ALL pain, feelings, misfortune: dukkha.
When we have trained ourselves to be always in the satisampajanna mode, we become aware of what we are doing, feeling, perceiving, thinking; and we are also observing and watching them reflexively with detachment. That is, we are aware twice, the immediate present thing and the thing again in the reflexive mode. Then, the general underlying nature of the experience comes to the fore. The immediate, particular activity or feeling or perception or thought is now regarded as a mere sample of the general.
We can hence ‘see’ the general nature or the essence of things, of things that are dependent on other things. With guidance of the Buddha, we shall then be able to see anicca, dukkha, anatta: all things the Buddha speaks about.
The Dhamma is now, well understood truly as being about the Nature of Things.