Defrosting Awareness

There was a lovely moment on a recent retreat I was leading where one of the participants was trying to describe her experience in the previous meditation. This is something I’ll occasionally ask people to do to help develop a vocabulary for things that they haven’t noticed directly before.

She talked about a feeling of paralysis in the mind where it didn’t know which way to go because of a degree of over-whelm. “It was like awareness itself was frozen”. We all laughed a little at the image and it was the laughter that says ‘I know what you mean’! There was some resonance with her experience, even if we wouldn’t have thought about it in those terms.

Of course logically we know awareness doesn’t get frozen. But there is a watchful, overly vigilant mind that gets a bit stuck. Or I can relate to it as the mind that tries to go in too many directions at the same time. It’s like the cartoon figure which, when feeling all those pulls, is rooted to the spot.

By asking people to describe their meditation, what I’m after is to get away from talking about experience, using concepts that take us away from what actually happened. There is often a high degree of interpretation or evaluation in our ideas about what happens in our practice. For instance:

“It was good” or “I wasn’t very calm and there were loads of thoughts like there always are”.

By trying to describe our direct experience we can circumvent our own judgements and come to the experience afresh.

Many years ago I worked on a project that required me to spend significant amounts of time travelling around Spain, meeting estate agents and property owners. The trouble was, I didn’t really speak much Spanish!

My best and most successful communications were with those people – be it Spanish friends, or local builders – who were prepared to play with me. We would mainly speak in the present tense and supplement it with charades, drawing pictures and looking words up in the dictionary. I would often feel like a three year old child; my language was simple, ungrammatical and frequently involved made up words.

Describing direct experience can be a bit like this. Mental and physical processes are often so subtle and mysterious that normal language doesn’t quite work.

On a recent retreat I spoke in a small group setting about my practice feeling being quite undefined. Although initially I’d wondered if I should be doing something about this, I’d come to the conclusion that this lack of definition was actually OK. Letting go of the subtle agenda about what shouldn’t be happening and with a fuller acceptance of what was actually happening, I was able to watch my mind with interest and more accurately convey what I’d noticed.

When I attempted to describe a particular process I’d observed, it went something like this.

“There’s a particular sort of searching that makes a ‘thing’ out of ‘not a thing’. It makes a ‘thing’ come into being, a ‘making’ that is unnecessary and a bit tension producing.”

And later.

“More and more I can be with the ‘un-thingness’ which feels very flotsam and jetsam-y. And there is a feeling of significance around it.”

And later still, some understanding of the experience.

“There is too much effort to be aware, which brings ‘things’ into being. And there’s a view around ‘seeing things clearly’ which makes more effort seem necessary. Yet, less effort allows for more subtle perceptions to be known in awareness, and to see the process by which experience becomes more solid, and a ‘thing’.”

Don’t be shy about describing what’s happening. You might feel a bit self-conscious stepping out of grown up sentences, but it is tremendously helpful to meditation to allow awareness to describe experience in its own terms. We then have the possibility to see beyond what we already know.

The American Dharma teacher Andrea Fella says it neatly.

We are not going to find our way to Nirvana.

We have no idea what we’re looking for.

We have to allow the mind to go beyond what is known to it, to just have no idea.

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