August 31, 2015
It seems there is a lot of buzz around these two words these days, but what do they actually mean? And so what?
Consider all that you can be aware of in this moment. You may notice sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. There’s also emotion, memory, thought, and intuition. The sum total of all the sensory information that we can access in a particular moment comprises our awareness.
We’re not often consciously aware of all these senses at once, nor would that make sense. For example, our sense of taste is most important when we’re eating, and not as much when we are painting or dancing. Our sense of smell generally does not provide information appropriate to watching a movie or playing an instrument.
Awareness is amoral; it is neither good nor bad. It is simply information. The smell of vinegar is simply the smell of vinegar. We may have our individual reactions or interpretations of that smell, but the smell itself is simply information. Information has no agenda; it doesn’t care how it is used. The words on a page in a book don’t care what the reader does with them (the author might, but the words themselves don’t).
On a larger scale, when we mapped the genome, it was a step forward in human awareness. We now have more information about life at our disposal. Yet what we do with that information is up to us. We can use it to prevent disease and save lives. On the flip side, we can take that same information and develop incredibly devastating biological weapons which would target people at a DNA level. Awareness itself doesn’t care how it is used; the growth in awareness growth is simply a growth of information.
How, and how much, we use the information in our awareness is a measure of mindfulness.
Consider the act of walking to your friend’s house. There is information available to you while you walk from all the senses – sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch, as well as thought, emotion and intuition.
However, you may leave your place and be familiar the route, so along the way you check your phone to see if you have any unanswered messages, and then start rehashing your day, thinking about what happened earlier with your boss, or even what items remain on your to-do list. So of all the areas of information available to you during the walk, you are mindful mainly of the mental and emotional.
A more mindful walk to your friend’s house will more consciously incorporate other sources of input. This walk will include noticing the sensations as your feet hit the ground, the visual input of your immediate area, thought of your overall route, as well as ambient noise to know if there is oncoming danger. There still will likely be thought and emotion on this walk as well, but those two are placed in context alongside all the other input.
It is easy to see that the more mindful a walk you take, the more consciously aware of your surroundings you are, and the less likely you are to trip and fall. In addition, you more likely to notice the simpler joys of life, including birds singing and the sun shining. Put together, a more mindful walk provides the opportunity for a much fuller experience of life during the time you are traveling to your friend’s place.
It is important to note that being mindful does not mean there are no thoughts or emotions. Instead, being mindful means that when thought or emotion comes up, we don’t give in to it entirely, minimizing, or even completely ignoring, all other sources of information.
Increasing Awareness and Mindfulness
Naturally, there are ways to increase both your awareness and your mindfulness. These are different processes with different effects.
To broaden your awareness is to increase the information available to you in a particular moment. To do this, you must step beyond what you already know. Expanding your awareness is tasting food you’ve never tried before. It’s listening to new styles of music, exploring other facets of culture and life which you haven’t experienced before. It also means deepening your understanding of who you are – learning more of the inner workings of your mind, of your soul, of your consciousness.
Increasing your awareness simply provides you a greater pool of information from which to select as you navigate your life. If you have never had Korean food, for example, that will almost assuredly not come up for you when you are asked, “What kind of food are you in the mood for?” Having had Korean food, having expanded your awareness to include that style of cooking, provides that as an option for your conscious self to consider in response to that question.
Increasing your mindfulness is different. Here, you are consciously considering more sources of input, and more sensations, when performing an activity. To do this, you must recognize which areas of awareness you are engaged with, and then practice untethering yourself from them, to allow room for other information to have a seat at the table.
Perhaps your walk to your friend’s house begins with you engaged in thought. The practice of increasing your mindfulness is training yourself to notice that you are heavily associated with thought in that moment, and then intentionally draw your awareness to another sense, or senses.
Increasing mindfulness does not eliminate the chaos of life. It simply helps us limit our identification with the chaos, so we can be more selective of which stimuli we choose to interact with.
We will look more specifically at answering the question, “How do I get my mind to stop?” in a separate post.
Awareness and mindfulness are important concepts to understand on the path to personal empowerment. When you begin to draw your attention to what you are paying attention to, you begin to separate yourself from the habitual patterns of your conditioning, and begin taking steps to personal freedom.