We often hear of the expansion of awareness in various mystical traditions like Buddhism, Sufism, Yoga, and many others. In our everyday experience, it may be difficult to conceptualize what this means exactly. We may feel that an expanded awareness is only possible after many years of spiritual pursuit and perfecting certain esoteric practices. But in fact, an expanded state of awareness is accessible to us all.
Let’s try a little experiment. Sit comfortably in a reasonably quiet space and take a few deep breaths to relax. Now, note that you are aware. Awareness is always present in your waking experience. Now take your awareness to your toes. Can you feel your toes? That is the ability of attention to focus awareness. Your toes never stopped feeling, all the nerves remained operational, but now your awareness was focused there. Next, sense the top of your head. Awareness is now focused there. Switch back and forth – from your head to your feet – can you sense a movement of awareness?
Consider this – the movement of awareness that you are sensing is a contraction and expansion of awareness. First it contracted to focus on your toes, then it expanded, and contracted to the top of your head. You can sense, and direct, the contraction and expansion of awareness. To illustrate this, have you ever been so focused on some activity that you did not hear someone call out your name? Your ears never stopped working, but your awareness was highly contracted, laser focused, on one task.
Now you know that you can take conscious control of your awareness – it may seem obvious but it’s surprising how we often take that power of attention for granted and do not exercise it. Without conscious management of attention, it goes on autopilot and veers towards the thought stream forever coming out of the brain. And so, this is what is meant by mindfulness – taking conscious control of one’s awareness instead of allowing it to be carried on the waves of thoughts that the brain generates.
We see that awareness can be contracted to one object and can also be left on default mode to go on mental autopilot. But it can also be opened up or expanded. Let’s try another experiment. Again, sitting comfortably and relaxing into a few deep breaths, can you sense into your feet and the top of your head at the same time? Can you feel both simultaneously? Now bring your peripheral vision into your awareness as well. Hold all three areas in your awareness. At the same time, you hear sounds in the background – perhaps a car or the refrigerator or a neighbor. Now, also notice your breath moving in and out. You are simultaneously aware of all of this happening in the moment. Continue to sit like this for a few moments. This simple demonstration shows what an expanded state of awareness feels like. There’s wider openness and fewer contractions.
Now let’s think about how that felt. You may describe it as feeling softer, and quieter inside. Note that you will say that, even though you heard noises. Consciously opening your awareness like this does feel quieter – so let’s ask – what’s absent? What makes it quieter? Did you notice some level of normal agitation that was not there? What was curiously missing? Can you come to it?
Thoughts were missing. The mental chatter was missing. The more we can open our awareness, the more we can include everything inclusively experienced, the less attention goes into the stream of the mind and its thoughts. We can practice this natural awareness of our senses to hone in the practice, then we can move this awareness inward in meditation. Thoughts may come and go but we are not engaging them – awareness remains wide open. And eventually it opens wider.
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