What is awareness?
We’re often told that Awareness is the unseen seer behind appearances. We’re led to believe that Awareness is that which is doing the seeing, that which is hearing the sounds, and that which feels sensations. Thus, through every such statement, there’s an implied distinction between what’s appearing to awareness, and awareness itself.
This, of course, then inevitably sets us out looking for that mysterious awareness. We’re trying to locate it, but keep failing at finding it.
“No, you can’t see awareness,” we’re told. “Awareness is what’s doing the seeing. An eye cannot see itself!” Clichés like this keep reinforcing the notion that there’s some kind of mysterious thing in the background that’s watching appearances pass by.
“No, it’s not a thing – it’s formless,” they explain. Again, reinforcing the distinction between awareness and appearances.
And we’re lead to believe that enlightenment is all about finding this unfindable thing; this mysterious principle that’s watching everything – in effect, keeping us searching in vain – because there is no watcher watching appearances. Trying to locate ‘it’ is futile.
Awareness is not some hidden observing principle that’s behind appearances. It’s not some unfindable watcher or witness. Locating and pointing out awareness is easy – if we just understand what it actually is.
So, what is it?
In truth, phenomena, or appearances, are no different from the experiencing of them. What we see and the seeing of it are one and the same thing. That’s why pointing out awareness is easy. Just look at anything, and there it is. That thing you’re looking at? It’smade out of nothing but awareness. It is nothing but awareness.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that, in essence, they’re the same. I’m not trying to say that we can’t find the line where the seeing stops and the seen begins – no, I’m saying that, in our experience, what we see and the seeing of it—that is, the awareness of it—are literally the exact same thing.
I’m saying that the coffee mug in front of me is my seeing of it.
And the first step to realize the truth of the above statement is to understand that my experience of the coffee mug consists solely of colors – in other words, we need to investigate and see that there isn’t a coffee mug and its colors, but that there’s simplyjust the colors.
Just do it, right now. Look at some object in front of you and see if you can find something in that object that is not a color. Perhaps a shape? But shapes are nothing but a particular pattern of color! Investigate thoroughly and you’ll find that there aren’t any objects given in the direct experience of seeing – all that is present is colors.
Secondly, we need to understand that the presence of color is ultimately what wemean by the word ‘seeing.’
Now, this point may be a little harder to realize. I’ve included a passage from my book Refuting The External World to better illustrate this point.
The following passage depicts an ongoing conversation between the narrator of the book, and Walt – the aspiring seeker.
“What is the one and only criteria for saying that I ‘see’?” I ask.
Walt’s thinks for a few seconds. “That I have working eyes?” he says.
“So, it has something to do with your eyes?”
“But you see in your dreams, don’t you?” I ask.
“I don’t know if I would call that ‘seeing’,” Walt says.
“Because when we see something in a dream, we don’t afterwards think that we actually saw it, you know, for real.”
“You mean that whatever appeared in the dream wasn’t representative of anything existing objectively? That it was all in your head?”
He nods. “Precisely.”
“But how do you know that that’s not what’s happening right now?”
He thinks for a few moments. “You’re right,” he says. “I don’t.”
“Nevertheless, something did appear in the dream. And it appeared visually – and the fact that it did is what I mean by ‘seeing,’ regardless of what that appearance meant or represented or indicated.”
Walt nods silently. I keep on talking. “If we by ‘seeing’ mean something like ‘an accurate apprehension of external objects,’ then of course we don’t ‘see’ in our dreams. But since we cannot be sure that we accurately apprehend external objects even when we’re awake, we would have to leave open the logical possibility that we don’t ‘see’ then either – which is kind of absurd, since the fact that we see is a given, simply by how we define it. Therefore, ‘seeing’ can only mean that something is appearing visually, whether or not that something is an accurate representation of a real thing.”
He thinks for a while. “Alright, fair enough.” he says.
“Now, what does ‘appearing visually’ mean?” I ask. “What constitutes a visual experience as opposed to a auditory or a tactile one?”
Walt thinks before answering. “It must be color,” he replies.
“That’s right. When something is ‘appearing visually’ we mean that there’s color present in our experience. And since we have already established that ‘appearing visually’ is equivalent to seeing – the inevitable conclusion must be that the presence of color is what we mean by seeing.”
Walt looks skeptical. I try another angle.
“Pretend for a moment that your eyes were removed by an evil scientist,” I say, “and that your doctor isn’t giving you any hope in getting your sight back.”
Walt chuckles. “Okay,” he says.
“But then, by some miracle, the colors of the world appeared before you, just like before when you still had your eyesight.”
“Everything looks exactly the same as before, except, of course, for the two gaping holes where your eyes used to be.”
Walt chuckles some more.
“Now despite having no eyes, would anyone be able to convince you that you’re not seeing, that you must be imagining things and so on?”
“I guess not.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because the fact that I’m seeing would somehow be self-evident.”
“That’s right, because the presence of color is what we mean by seeing,” I say. “Again, how would you determine that you’re seeing? If there’s color appearing, then you are! If there’s redness or blueness or yellowness or any other color or combinations thereof, their presence in our experience is what we mean by seeing!“
In other words, the presence of color in our experience is ultimately what we mean by the word ‘seeing.’
So, speaking from the point of view of my direct immediate experience: since the coffee mug in front of me is made out of color, and the presence of color is what we mean by seeing, we’re left to conclude that the coffee mug must be made out of seeing.
And seeing is just an aspect of awareness; so, if it’s made out of seeing, then it’s made out of awareness. This is what awareness is – the coffee mug is awareness.
You see how easy it is to point out awareness? It’s what everything in experience is made out of. Look down at your feet. Those visual sensations? Those colors—which is all that they’re made out of—is nothing but seeing. Your feet are made out of seeing. And any tactile sensations you may feel are themselves nothing but feeling. This is the nature of all experiencing! It’s undivided. Consciousness is already non-dual.
So this model of the witness and the witnessed isn’t accurate at all. It just leaves the seeker desperately looking for something that isn’t there. But this path is all about abandoning models; and the one dividing pure non-dual experiencing into a witness and something witnessed, while popular, is merely another obstacle to overcome.
Göran Backlund, is a philosopher, explorer of truth, and cartographer of reality. He’s writing about non-duality and philosophy at uncoveringlife.com. Get his book on how to deconstruct what’s standing between you and reality in its infinite form.