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Awareness Watching Awareness
Dean: Hey, Ram. Just wondering if you’ve heard of the Awareness Watching Awareness method. The guy who developed the site shows how Ramana, Muruganar, Sri Om and Nisargadatta all encouraged this as the most direct means to Truth-realization. What are your thoughts on this approach?
Here’s the website, in case you’re interested: Albigen.com/uarelove/
Ram: Yes, its a good method, an old technique. It works. I’ve been teaching this for almost forty years. But whether or not it works depends on the eligibility of the practitioner. You need to be very sattvic and have a very sattvic lifestyle. In other words, the non-binding vasanas need to be eliminated. If they are not eliminated it will give insight and temporary removal of ignorance – which is not the kiss of death – but it can be frustrating when the mind becomes rajasic or tamasic. And if this happens it will not result in the permanent destruction of ignorance. The key is the sattvic mind. This is why Ramana and others lived a very simple, contemplative lifestyle.
Below I’ve copied some of the instructions and made comments. One should carefully analyze the instructions before one proceeds because the method itself does not necessarily lead to moksa. It suffers certain problems.
“When you are observing your awareness, just remain with that. No need to do anything else. Awareness is empty, so there is no object you are trying to observe.”
One should be aware of the basic contradiction in the instructions. First you, the doer, is asked to observe awareness. This is a dualistic state. The one who is observing is already awareness. It says there is no need to do anything else. Whether you do this or “anything else” it is still duality. So by doing this practice you are reinforcing your concept as a doer, a limited being. Any practice you do repeatedly builds vasanas.
Then it says awareness is empty. This is true, but it needs to be understood properly. Awareness is also full. So what does it mean to say awareness is empty? It means that it is free of objects. This is true, but it does not mean that awareness, I, am insubstantial. In fact it is the substance of the whole apparently existent creation. If awareness is only empty then I’m only empty, and is emptiness what I actually want? But if I’m at the level of practice where I need to somehow negate my attachment to objects this instruction is valuable.
But there can be a problem with this statement too. If awareness is empty, then the doer, the one practicing the method, is empty also because this is a non-dual reality and there is only one awareness. So how is this empty doer going to practice awareness watching awareness? The last statement – “there is no object that you are trying to observe” – is a contradiction that needs to be resolved. You are told to be aware of awareness, in which case there is an object – awareness. If there are no objects there is no subject.
“It is just awareness being aware of itself. Also, it is no special kind of awareness, it is just your ordinary, everyday awareness that you normally go through the day with, looking at itself.”
There is an important point here: it is no special kind of awareness. This should eliminate the craving for spiritual experience that is so rampant in the “spiritual” world.
But there is a lot more to this than meets the eye because this method often leads to many powerful epiphanies, i.e. experiences, which are easy to confuse with the awareness in which they occur. This is a problem for doers because doers are looking for results and epiphanies are very pleasurable results which are easily confused with moksa, i.e. self-knowledge. But this basic bit of knowledge is very important. Awareness and the realization “I am awareness” is nothing special. You are still going to have to eat, sleep and pay the rent after you realize “I am awareness.” Fortunately, it will not be a problem.
I don’t mean to quibble, but the way the first statement is formulated is imprecise. It says, “It is just awareness being aware of itself.” The problem with this formulation is that it makes it seem as if “being aware of itself” is just one of the things awareness does. It would be better to switch to non-dual language here and just flatly state “awareness is self-aware.” The reason the self is called “not two” and not “one” is to eliminate any ignorance that may arise from implication.
Another problem is that the instructions don’t tell you explicitly that you are the awareness that you are trying to be aware of. If you do get this there is no need for the practice and if you don’t you will build an “awareness being aware of awareness” vasana through your practice – which can be a problem. Presumably, when you realize the identity between the one practicing awareness and the awareness that you are observing, this will destroy the ignorance “I am a doer” which should result in the hard and fast knowledge “I am awareness.” When this happens the practice of being aware of awareness stops and one simply realizes “I am self-aware.” This may not fit in with people’s fantasies of enligtenment, because it is so obvious, but the implication – freedom from change – is huge. When you are a doer you think that your life – your awareness – comes from someone or something else. So you are always insecure. But when you realize “I am the light” and you see that the light is self-aware, meaning it does not require another light to reveal itself, you “become” immortal. The “becoming” is just the realization of the fact that you have been and always will be immortal.
“Shut your eyes. Notice your awareness. Observe that awareness. Turn your attention away from the world, body and thought, and towards awareness watching awareness. If you notice you are thinking, turn your attention away from thought and back towards awareness watching awareness.”
In this set of instructions you see the problem of doership clearly. It points to the struggle that is going on inside, the work involved in this technique. This indicates the presence of extroversion due to the vasana load. This is why the method only works for very advanced seekers. These instructions should be prefaced by the caveat that one needs to have the karma yoga attitude, clear knowledge of the self and the not-self and the bhakti necessary to keep up the fight until the mind is permanently fixed on the reflection of the self in the sattvic mind. If these factors are in place and one practices this method there is still no guarantee that this method will work because of the doer-vasana generated by the practice and because there is no cause-and-effect relationship between action and moksa. Action, practice, is limited and will not produce a limitless result, i.e. moksa, or self-knoweldge. It may produce the conditions in which the akandakara vritti, the “I am the self” thought, arises but even then there is no guarantee that the seeker will understand the significance of this thought and take it as his or her identity.
An important point not to be missed here is the phrase “reflection of the self in a sattvic mind.” You cannot be aware of awareness, because you are awareness, but you can experience the reflection of awareness as silence when the mind is sattvic. If the self – which cannot be objectified – is objectified in this way it is possible to make an inquiry into its nature and if an inquiry is made it is possible to gain the fruit of inquiry – which is self-knowledge. Self-knowledge does not give you the self, but it might as well do so because it destroys your notion that you are not limitless awarenesss, everything that is.
One problem with the last sentence in the instructions is this: thinking in no way obscures or is in contradiction with awareness. Thoughts can only arise in awareness. In fact the thoughts are awareness apparently moving. To be fair, the instruction says “turn the attention away from the thoughts” and this is the crux of the method. But to what end am I turning my attention away from the thoughts? Presumably, the thoughts are a problem. But why are they a problem? Because somehow they are not understood to be awareness in form. If they are awareness in form, how can they be a problem? My hand is me, but I am not my hand. I don’t need to chop off my hand, because I am not it. In fact my hand is a very useful tool. So are the thoughts – if they are known to be non-separate from me, awareness. What is being suggested here – but not overtly stated – is that thinking is a problem. It can be a problem, but it need not be a problem – if the proper relationship between pure awareness and awareness as thought is understood.
Another problem with the instructions is that it says that you should practice hours a day. This is true if you use the technique to exhaust vasanas – which is will if you stick to it – but if you have the right understanding of karma, i.e. spiritual practice, you will immediately negate the doer in favor of awareness and save yourself the trouble of the practice. Why? Because the doer, the practitioner, is already awareness. Or as scripture says, “The seeker is the sought.” And of course the more you practice and the more the practice bears fruit the more practice-vasanas you develop. It is often very difficult to give up this practice – which you will do if it gives rise to knowledge.
“Shut your eyes. Just remain in awareness aware of itself. If there are not many thoughts, just ignore them. If there are many thoughts, then bring your attention back to awareness aware of itself.”
I’m not dissing this technique, just asking for careful analysis, inquiry on the technique itself. It’s not enough to just say that it is recommended by the sages and take it up mindlessly. The doership issue shows up in this iteration of the instructions in the form of the words “remain in.” Who is remaining in what? What kind of maintenance is involved? It this an act of will? Is this abidance an abidance in understanding?
And in the third sentence the vasana problem rears its ugly head. If there are many thoughts it means that there is too much pressure from the causal body and one should do inquiry on the reason for the pressure of the vasanas. Simply turning one’s attention back to the awareness “aware of itself” is not going to bear fruit. One needs to find out what vasanas are operating, analylze their cause and remove the cause. This will remove the pressure and the thought flow will become light, in which case the practice can fruitfully continue.
The beauty of these instructions lies in their simplicity, but their simplicity can also create a problem. The problem with doers – and techniques are for doers – is that they are generally not thinkers. And in the spiritual world thinking has a very bad reputation owing to thousands of years of bad press from the doer/yoga community. They have it that thinking is the enemy and most somehow believe – without a nuanced understanding – that doing can result in enlightenment and that the ego will be killed by doing, like “surrender.” So if they are going to do something they want simple clear instructions, like the ones at this website. But as I’ve attempted to show by my comments, there are other factors involved in the practice of this technique and these need to be understood to give the technique a chance to succeed.
I need to repeat that this is just one method for very advanced, sattvic people, people with a monastic tendency, i.e. sanyassis. It will not work for rajasic/tamasic types, those with activating and dulling vasanas. For them there is the karma yoga attitude (surrender of the fruits of the action and glad acceptance of them to awareness) which Ramana says is equivalent to self-inquiry.
This “awareness aware of awareness” technique is one of many forms of self-inquiry. The purpose of this technique is not specifically to “kill the ego” but to develop viveka, discrimination between pure awareness and awareness as thought and to understand the relationship between the two. This will “kill the ego” if the ego is anything to be killed – which it isn’t, because it isn’t real in the first place – but only as a consequence of self-knowledge which is the positive fruit of the practice. Self-knowledge is the understanding that “I am awareness with or without thought, that I am whole and complete, not a doer,” etc. If this is a non-dual reality and there is an ego (to be killed or not) then the ego is the self. Moksa, liberation, is freeing it of its sense of limitation through identification with awareness. An ego with self-knowledge is a “dead” ego.
Finally, this technique assumes that reality is dualistic and the nature of the self is unknown. In a non-dual reality awareness is always aware of itself, even when it functions through the apparent individuals. You may think that the world and the mind are something other than yourself, but you would be wrong. A simple analysis of the locus of experience debunks this belief. One would only be interested in such a techinque if one believed that what one was experiencing was something other than awareness. On the other hand, since 99. 999% of human beings belive that the gross and subtle objects that they experience are other than themselves, they might benefit from this kind of self-inquiry – assuming that it revealed that “everything is awareness and I am it.”
Dean: I’d like to say that for me, AWA is identical to Nisargadatta’s encouraging instructions to stay with the “I Am.” By staying with the “I Am” as much as possible (i.e. practicing AWA), I make myself available for grace. If I do nothing, the best that will happen is I will stay where I am (the worst is that I will backslide into the thick and dense consciousness of the dream state). Either of these options being fine, by the way. So we can say with certainty that doing happens both before and after enlightenment. The only difference is that after enlightenment one has realized that there is no doer. One may have a strong suspicion that there is no doer before enlightenment, but it’s only that, a suspicion, an idea, a concept, until it’s not! It’s only life happening, life living me, not me living life, both before and after. In the one case this is clearly seen as an abiding truth, in the other it is not.
Ram: I can’t argue with this, Dean. The belief that enlightenment is some kind of event, something to be achieved rather than as one’s nature, is usually accompanied by the belief that karma, action, stops when one gets it. But karma is no respecter of enlightenment. In the apparent reality action continues before, during and after enlightenment. Shankara says that even once one knows who he or she is, the practice of knowledge – like AWA – should continue. If it doesn’t until the last limited identity vasana is rooted out, there is danger of a fall. I agree with the footnote to this letter in which you said that you can’t do anything to attain enlightenment, one reason being that no action done by a doer could produce a limitless result. The self is limitless and already accomplished; you are already enlightened, i.e. the light, i.e. awareness. Any action meant to achieve or produce or experience the self would be the result of ignorance of the fact that the doer is actually the self already.
The problem with seeing enlightenment as an event is that there are so many fantasies attached to it. As you point out, it is simply the realization that one is not the doer. A bit of ignorance has been removed – which has important ramifications – but basically life goes on as it always has. Yes, the loss of ignorance is a very subtle event, but it is noteworthy only on account of its lack of drama. It’s just a simple knowing that takes place in the mind/heart.
Dean: The “I Am” is the bridge between the temporal and the eternal. By my reckoning, the more I hang out on the bridge (i.e. doing the AWA), the higher the likelihood that I will stumble and accidentally fall to the other side. This is all a result of grace of course.
Ram: I agree with this too. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. The more you invoke the self by meditating on it via AWA or other practices, the more likely grace will happen. There was a time during my sadhana when I realized that the self had no choice but to yield to my entreaties. There is a beautiful saying in Vedic culture: bhakti bhaktiman. It means the self is the devotee of the devotee. It has to reveal itself. Why? Because the one hanging out on the bridge is the self. How could it deny itself?
Dean: To me, doing the AWA practice does not preclude studying the important non-dual teachings (Adi Shankara, Ashtavakra Gita, Yoga Vishishta, etc.) that have been left for us by the great masters of the past nor does it preclude self-inquiry; all of these can be included in a balanced and unified sadhana. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive. If one has any modicum of intelligence, one can see the usefulness of each and apply them in a balanced and effective way. This balanced kind of sadhana is useful until it isn’t, i.e. post-enlightenment. As for the power of AWA specifically, please allow me to leave you with a direct quote from I Am That by Nisargadatta: “Just keep in mind the feeling ‘I am,’ merge in it, till your mind and feeling become one. By repeated attempts you will stumble on the right balance of attention and affection and your mind will be firmly established in the thought-feeling ‘I am.’ Whatever you think, say or do, this sense of immutable and affectionate being remains as the ever-present background of the mind.”
Ram: Actually, Vedanta is very clear about the importance of practice before, during and after enlightenment, as I mentioned above. There is no contradiction between the self and action. Action is the self, but the self is free of action. They are apparently different orders of the one reality.
Dean: The result of AWA, or staying with the “I Am,” is this immutable and affectionate… ever-present background, which in turn results in an immutable knowing, not of something per se, but simply a deep, internal knowing that is self-affirming. It is what I (and others) refer to as Presence/Awareness. Pure Awareness – Pure Existence (naked Presence) – which just so happens to result in Pure Bliss: SatChitAnanda! This perfect marriage of Pure Awareness and Pure Existence is the perfect marriage of Shiva and Shakti, thought and feeling, resulting in Presence/Awareness as an ever-present background, which is our True Essence.
Ram: Yes, indeed!
Dean: I should add, however, that I do not feel that this is the end of one’s work.
Ram: I suppose it depend on who one is. If you are the self, you are not a doer, and if you are a doer, you will work.
Dean: Beyond the “I Am” of Presence/Awareness is the “I-I,” as Ramana referred to it. The “I-I” is beyond feeling, beyond the mind, beyond all concept; it is the natural state. From this place of existence/non-existence, which contains all potentiality, the first sign of movement begins: this is the “I Am.” When one awakens to “I-I” then one can say without a single doubt: “I am just an ordinary fellow whose work is done.”
Ram: I don’t disagree, but one could equally say, “I’m the self. I never did any work.” I love the verse in the Gita which says, “The one who sees action in action and inaction in action is indeed wise.”
~ Love, Ram