The Case Against Awareness – A Little Blasphemy Goes a Long Way
I only refer to awareness as a pointer, not as a foundational truth or a basic essence of life. As a pointer, awareness can be immensely helpful to assist in no longer identifying with thoughts, emotions and sensations as they come and go. I use those pointers quite often during talks, private sessions and at the Kiloby Center. But every now and then (fairly rarely) I meet with someone whose own realization has gone so deep that the pointer stops working. They are already making the “case against awareness” in their own experience. So we talk more about that. This can be tricky territory because, even after an initial awakening, an individual might be dealing with unconsious trauma still. Moving too quickly into “the case against awareness” can be detrimental (a form of bypassing) if there is still unconscious identification with traumatic memories or bodily sensations and emotions. And if the individual is stuck in an intellectual idea that there is no awareness, they might lose the opportunity to use awareness pointers to uproot that deeply unconscious material. One of the first things I do before making the “case against awareness” is check for trauma and other unconscious material. If an individual seems pretty clear on that front, the “case against awareness” starts to unfold.
It feels almost blasphemous to write about the “case against awareness” because a large majority of nondual teachings talk about awareness as being foundational. Even some physicists have gotten involved in explaining how awareness is foundational to experiencing. But the proposition that awareness is prior to or beyond all thought would never pass muster in a court of law, because it is based on inference only. The notion of inference is a critical area of law. Every lawyer learns about it and also learns about how unreliable inference can be. It is ripe for speculation and must be supported by direct evidence. An inference happens when you cannot directly prove the existence of a fact so you infer it from other facts. The term “inference” is often absent from nondual teachings. Instead, inferring awareness is built into many of the teachings.
Here’s how the teachings normally go: if you sit quietly and begin to notice the arisings of thoughts, emotions and sensations, you see that they come and go. By the coming and going of all phenomena, you begin to know that there is an awareness prior to all that. How do you know it? Well, that’s the tricky part. That’s where inference comes in. When I first developed the Unfindable Inquiry, through my work with Greg Goode, I noticed that when I turned that inquiry towards awareness, it could not be found. Everything that seemed to be awareness was actually still either a thought (including an image or shape) or an emotion or sensation. Awareness could not be found directly no matter how deeply I looked. This was incredibly freeing. I highly recommend that inquiry to anyone reading this. There can be a sense of a space in which everything is happening. That can seem like awareness. But as you look more closely, you start realizing that even the space is being perceived. It too is part of the realm of phenomena. How do you know? You know, quite simply, because you are noticing that space. Whatever you are noticing is not the noticing awareness. It is something noticed.
But there must be a foundational awareness, right? Well, don’t jump too quickly on that bandwagon. A while back I was listening to an interview with Tony Parsons on Batgap. Tony is known as a “neo-advaita” teacher. And people generally love or hate him because he is so adament that there is no awareness. There is “only what’s happening” as he puts it. Most of the folks who criticize Tony do so not because his basic message is “off” in any way. In an absolute sense, they believe his message comports with the great traditions. They criticize him because of his assumption that the use of the pointer awareness is not helpful to someone first hearing the nondual message. Many, many teachers see the value of using awareness as a powerful pointer. Apparently, Tony does not. He claims that pointing to awareness merely creates a duality between awareness and what is arising to awareness. He says that, as long as there is awareness, there is something you are aware of and this is duality. Critics believe that this is too much, too soon and that this style of pointing can lead to bypassing and dogmatic thinking. I agree with those critics. Often those who begin to repeat what Tony says have not truly realized what he is saying in their direct experience. They have intellectualized the viewpoint – “too much, too soon.” The mind takes over. The realization just isn’t’ there. Then we are left with talking heads, people who spout absolutistic nondual pointers before they have truly realized what the pointers are pointing to.
But in the final “analysis,” the “case against awareness” is very strong, especially if one takes the idea out of the intellect and begins to explore experience directly. This brings us back to inference. If awareness is unfindable, then we are inferring its place in experience. We cannot see it, feel it, touch it, taste it, smell it or think it. Everything we see, feel, touch, taste, smell or think is something being perceived. Therein lies the inference. Even though we cannot find it, it is inferred. And in the legal world, all inferences are of the mind. They are thoughts – imagination if you will.
Here’s how inference works in the legal world: Imagine you find a dead body, with blood all over the chest. There is an open door leading outside. You walk outside to the alley and you find a man. As you approach the man, you see a knife and perhaps a small drop of blood on his shirt. In order to convict that man, you have to use inference. You have no direct evidence that the man walked into the house and killed the person. You didn’t see it happen. And so you must infer the fact that the man committed the murder. For many juries, this inference is enough. But we now know through the development of DNA technology that many people have been wrongly accused of murder and other crimes based on wrongly-imagined inference.
Could awareness hold up in a court of law? If you took each juror through the process of noticing thoughts, emotions and sensations coming and going and then asked them to find awareness through the unfindable inquiry or by some other means, each juror would likely come to see that awareness cannot be perceived. Inference would have to come in at that point. Each juror would have to infer that awareness is what is perceiving all phenomena. Would absolutely every juror find that awareness is foundational to experience, beyond a reasonable doubt? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
Meanwhile, let me get back to the “case against awareness” in your own experience. In order to even get to the “case against awareness,” you might want to assume or infer that it is there. Stop for a few minutes and really investigate your experience. Notice that everything that you notice is something being perceived. Then notice how your mind infers that there must be an awareness perceiving all of that. In the realm of nondual pointing, the standard is even higher than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the true nature of nonduality is that there is not “two” then how can you rest upon the notion that there is awareness and then there are the phenomena being perceived by awareness? This divides reality into two realms, which is certainly a breach of the notion that reality is not two. Now, take away the inference. Stop inferring that there is awareness behind or prior to it all. At that point, the notion of awareness merges with all phenomena. There is no longer a division between awareness and what is being perceived. It’s like that imaginary line collapsed. How can it collapse? Because there was never a line or division between awareness and all phenomena. It is only the mind – it is our imagination – that makes the inference. The inference itself comes and goes. And as soon as you say, “well, it comes and goes to awareness,” you are making the inference again. Notice that the inference comes and goes again. Once you stop making the inference, you stop being able to say that awareness is prior to or behind all experience. All you have is experience. All you have is “what’s happening.”
The emptiness teachings from which the Unfindable Inquiry was developed hold a beautiful place for the seeing that nothing is findable ultimately, including a self, others, the world or even awareness. They say that all things are empty. This keeps one from landing on extreme views. It helps with nihilism and dogmatic thinking. But does this mean nothing exists? No. The entire reality arises, with all of its relative things, people, events, circumstances, thoughts, emotions, relationships, etc. But everything is ultimately unfindable, meaning it doesn’t inherently exist. In order to really see this, one could use the Unfindable Inquiry on anything that they perceive to exist separately and objectively. When taken deeply, things just aren’t found at all in any ultimate sense. Even unfindability is not findable. They are all arising by way of thoughts, emotions and sensations. They are definitely perceived but they have no ultimate existence. In a sense, everything is being inferred. Go look for the self. When you realize you can’t find it, you can still talk about a self but you then know that it isn’t what you thought it was. It is empty and unfindable. And this helps you to stop taking that self so seriously, with all of its drama, seeking and suffering. You can point that inquiry on anything and realize that you were misperceiving everything, including awareness. You can even look for thought and realize you cannot find it. You can only find the label “thought” and some mirage-like arisings. You can see that even the word “arisings” is a label.
When taken very deeply, unfindability is incredibly freeing. Reality stops making sense, in the best way. There is peace, love and compassion in this seeing. There is relief from suffering. And yet all of those things are ultimately unfindable. You have not only made the case against awareness, you have made the case against everything, leaving only a mirage-like, illusory, conventional reality that is infused with impermanence. We suffer because we think things are permanent – life, death, stories, identities, awareness, suffering, labels. When none of that is seen as findable and permanent, all suffering around those things relaxes. All of that “I know how things really are” kind of thinking falls away. All of your absolutes fall away. Your relience on the inference of awareness falls away. This is a joyful way to live. Highly recommended!
Is there a place for awareness as a pointer? Yes! Again, it can be incredibly helpful to infer awareness to help loosen the identification with thoughts, emotions and sensations. It can help one realize a deep and quiet rest in the midst of whatever is arising. But somewhere along the way, if your investigation is diligent, you can go deeper. You can leave your training wheels behind and stop inferring the true existence of things that cannot be found. Immerse yourself in this unfindable joy!
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