Practicing self-awareness is the essence of what we call spiritual work. Spiritual work is an integral part of the Path and involves techniques that are aimed at changing our state of being with individual efforts—by using the capabilities of individual Consciousness in the first place—as well as by performing expression and energy-based practices, etc. More so, the effectiveness of any spiritual and mystic practices directly or indirectly is related to the level of self-awareness. Therefore, efforts on cultivating awareness, that is, building up the presence of our consciousness in our everyday life, become the fundamental part of the work on the self from the very first steps on the Path.
First and foremost, you need to have a sufficient degree of motivation. Your motivation to invest efforts daily is comprised of spiritual motivation—i.e., the power of your desire to reach the goal on the Path—and of appreciation of the contribution of your efforts in achieving self-awareness. The subject of goal-setting is covered in detail by the Master (refer to the book Practice of Self-Awareness, the chapter Spiritual quest: setting up a goal and the book The path of transformation; Sex and Spiritual Growth, the chapter The benefits of desire). The role of our work in attention management should not be underestimated (see The Keys to Self-Awareness). Therefore, if you notice that your motivation is low, take the time to observe your goal, your desire to achieve it—preferably daily—and work on those of your desires that are stronger than the desire for advancement on the Path.
It is important to note that efforts in self-awareness are perfectly compatible with your everyday life. It is absolutely feasible to apply efforts in self-awareness—to the best of your ability—and engage in external activity, or communication, doing your job or fulfilling a desire at the same time—regardless of your current emotional state. If you prioritize self-awareness, you will find a way to fit it into your daily schedule. In the beginning, it may seem that certain activities performed in parallel with self-awareness deplete your energy but things will promptly get better once you begin to distinguish between awareness and concentration of attention and realize that you perform more effectively when you don’t identify with whatever you are doing. The same is true for strong emotional reactions or clouded judgment –if you feel like identifying with the state you are in, if the sweet taste of a desire, feeling sorry for yourself, or cherishing your hurt feelings is intense, you will keep falling into the unconscious state; on the contrary, when you are persistent in your efforts to draw away from identification, there will always remain, albeit small, an oasis of free attention.
Dividing of Attention
It is recommended to begin with practicing divided attention in everyday life. Divided attention implies that a portion of non-identified attention is present simultaneously in the inner and the outer. Attention is identified when it is merged with the object at which it is directed; non-identified attention is observing attention, there ought to be a certain spacing established between the subject and the object of observation. In the former case, the energy of attention is spent entirely on fueling the process with which it is identified; in the latter case, a share of the energy of attention is pulled and directed on observation and becoming conscious of the process.
To pick up on the skill of dividing attention, as well as to apply it as a solo practice to aid in the growth of awareness, one can use the sitting in the presence exercise (also known as muraqabah): a practitioner sits up with his back straight and eyes closed and holds part of his attention on the inside and another part—on the outside. It is better to begin by holding half of your attention on inner sensations—primarily physical ones—and pull another half out and place it on the outer sensations. At first, it may be challenging to figure out external sensations, therefore you may want to check out the simplest ones first: a sense of fabric on your skin, the air moving around you, etc. Gradually, as your perception becomes more refined, you gain awareness of a larger variety of objects, both external—the energy of a place where you perform a practice, Divine Presence, and other energies—and internal ones—a wide spectrum of physical sensations, sensations in the ethereal body, including the energy centers, inner space, also different levels of the mind, etc.. In the beginning, it is sufficient to attend partially to inner physical sensations, for example, those produced by muscle contractions, blood pumping, breathing, etc..,—and capture the sensations that fall within the area of your attention, while placing the other part of your attention on the exteroceptive sensations.
Very often, beginners can do only as much as shift their attention inward-outward or from one sensation to another; however, with persistence, you will gradually get the hang of how to hold attention on more than one sensation at a time. The effort is similar to the one you apply in an attempt to look with a defocused gaze at two objects at a time, except that in our case, attention stays within the mind boundaries, the spacing between the objects is very narrow, and observation of the sensations of different origins keeps the mind in constant effort on directing attention along two separate channels simultaneously.
My recommendation to beginners would be to practice muraqabah for 20-30 minutes daily, in addition to other practices. Practicing muraqabah in the morning is the best for establishing sort of a reference point and setting up your mood for making consistent efforts throughout the day. A great way to begin practicing muraqabah is through a stepwise body awareness approach, namely, attending consecutively to the left/right leg, then left/right hand, then the opposite leg and hand, then lower and upper torso, then neck and shoulders, and, finally, head and face. After that, you can try to bring your attention to the whole body, sit this way for a bit, and then draw half of your attention out to external sensations.
Once you master the skill of diving attention, you can go ahead and begin implementing it in your daily life, to the best of your ability.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the aspects here.
The inner (internal) and the outer (external)
In muraqabah, you divide attention between internal and external sensations. In everyday life however, these efforts more often than not are to be coordinated and aligned with life activities, therefore the activity performed at any given moment (i.e., reading this text) serves as an outward object/process to attend to, while inward attention rests on breathing, sensations of the whole body (so far as possible) or single body part. It is easier to begin by directing attention on the body part in motion; for example, as you type, part of your attention is placed on the external activity, i.e., expressing your thoughts into words and typing them down, while another part which is directed inward, can pursue sensations in your hands doing the typing. Or, for example, when you talk with someone, one part of your attention follows the conversation while another part stays with the sensations in your facial muscles, and facial expressions.
A common mistake made by many practitioners possessing modest self-awareness is to direct the “inner” part of attention on a thinking process. Such attempts are fruitless because it is the mind with which our attention gets identified most of the time; as a result, such misconceived “awareness” is confused with and leads to engagement in analysis and evaluation, a state of “clarity of mind”, and mental phenomena alike, as well as frequent identification (most likely happens each time the mind hops from one string of associations to another), and self-awareness would not grow, because attention travels along the same route in the mind, and the power of attention is too weak to free itself from the grip of this vicious cycle.
Practicing body awareness as a part of your daily routine is the only correct approach unless of course, you can afford to meditate eight hours or more a day in a monastery or a cave. Physical sensations are relatively stable, available for observation at any time, and are the least demanding in terms of attention-holding. Dividing attention between physical sensations and an external activity creates “spacing” sufficient for starters and stimulates the mind to make use of the entire attention resources available which is the only type of mental effort that leads to the gradual growth of awareness. Physical sensations serve as indicators of the processes that take place in the other two lower bodies, as any emotion or mind reaction manifests itself through physical sensations, and one can easily trace a sensation down to its source, provided that overall sensitivity is sufficiently high. Besides, shifting attention to sensations cuts the mind off of the energy supply, which slows down its unproductive activity and minimizes one’s identification with it, which makes nothing but the most beneficial effect on awareness growth.
One important component of the attention-dividing skill is the ability to continuously attend to an object or stimulus over a long period of time.
As you continue practicing, you will notice that unless you are already proficient in dividing of attention, your attention keeps “hopping around”: back and forth from the internal to the external or across inner objects (from one sensation to another). The problem around volatile attention is that it fails to remain unidentified for a sufficiently long time, as it eagerly flows along with the most powerful stimulus, be it something interesting that happens around, a “charged” associative memory, or just a plain memory, or anything else. You will constantly find yourself either being absorbed in a movie, musing on a problem or, at best, amidst repressing or unconsciously discharging emotions generated in situ, if not after the fact.
Therefore, one of the requisites for applying an effort properly is to develop the faculty for attending continuously to an object—again, preferably, bodily sensations. Whether you choose to observe the sensations in the whole body, a body part, or your breathing, do your best to hold your attention continuously on the selected target and not let the attention get drift off into associations or external activity too much. A constantly held attention has a distinct “taste”; it allows one to gradually learn to pinpoint identification with an object at its onset: imagine a river flowing peacefully inside you; suddenly it grows shallow, and you see a stream branching of and flowing apart from it, and then you see the place into which the stream ends up. Obviously, in cases where a new dominant stimulus develops quickly or unexpectedly this process happens within a few seconds or even less, yet catching the instant when the mind switches to “pump” attention in a new direction is not that difficult, with proper practicing.
This skill also helps with becoming aware of any changes in our inner states. As you stay present with your sensations, you observe real-time changes in bodily sensations, and manifestations of emotions or reactions in the mind, and with time, you also see changes of energy states in the ethereal body and dynamics of mental associations.
In the beginning, you will find yourself “dropping out”, that is, you will keep forgetting your decision to stay in self-awareness. And this will be happening all the time. This fact ought to be accepted, and not only beating yourself up is of no help but it makes things worse, adding up to anger and sadness, and other emotions associated with the unfulfilled desire to maintain self-awareness as long as possible. It is impossible to develop continuous self-awareness at once and yearning for this is pointless, therefore it is recommended to shift the purpose from the goal to the process, resuming efforts on self-awareness over and over again, each time you recall it, and try to hold in awareness as long as you are able. With time, routine bringing oneself back to self-awareness will cultivate a new mindset, and you will notice that you recall self-awareness more often, and “unconscious” states are associated with a slight discomfort resembling the feeling as if you forgot something important. Using “memory tricks” (sticky notes, sending yourself notifications, etc.) is unhelpful: the mind adapts quickly to everything, and such “props” will only impede establishing the right mind frame for self-awareness.
The variety of our inner states can nominally be categorized into two groups: inner states that are devoid of any inner dominant element and inner states in which an inner dominant element is present.
In the states with no dominant element, there are no active manifestations of emotions, desires, feelings, and mind reactions. You find yourself in such states when you feel calm; for example, when you sit idly, walk, commute, or engage in a routine activity (i.e. have a meal, do manual work).
When there is a dominant element, a certain inner energy, obsessive thought, or desire is present. In such states, a gross amount of our attention is consumed by the energy thereof.
Efforts in self-awareness in a state where a dominant element is present are different from those where a dominant element is absent. In the former case, you are able to divide your attention in a conventional manner, as described above. In the latter case, dividing attention effectively from the very beginning is hardly possible, and the optimum approach would be to direct all available attention to the observation of a dominant element while trying not to slip into identification with it. If any external activity is required of you in the meantime, you attend partially to the dominant element and partially to the activity at hand (for example, you observe your unease and keep working on the computer: the bodily sensations can be left “overboard” in case your attention is not mighty enough to process them through awareness concurrently) – this is yet another way to practice divided attention. If dominating elements come up as you sit in muraqabah, you would want to divert part of your attention toward them; in case they become too intrusive, it is better to stop dividing attention and switch to the observation of the dominating elements alone, taking breaks to do expression, as needed.
As the level of self-awareness grows higher, there will no longer be a problem to be aware of say, an emotion in the ethereal body and associated bodily sensations and mind reactions, as well as standalone physical sensations, while paying attention to some tasks at hand. However, in the beginning, quite a few seekers, especially “people on the mind side”, who are accustomed to being in control of everything and everyone, tend to habitually repress their inner reactions in order to preserve the clarity of mind and would attend to their legs when they should be looking at their anger (to be fair, “people of the emotion side” in this case most likely will lose track of everything and identify with an emotion of anger). We will talk about this and other possible mistakes in the practice of awareness in more detail below.
With the improvement of the seeker’s quality of being, dominant elements become more scarce and less dominating, so to speak.
“Clarity of mind”
Clarity of mind is a state in which activity of the first level of the mind remains under control and one is able to maintain a consistent thought process by focusing on a certain subject. Actually, consistency of a thought flow is illusive, because chains of “slow” associations in the first layer of the mind are triggered by stimuli from the second layer of the mind, where “fast” associations live, and the course of the workflow in the first layer veers, no matter how hard you try to control it, as the control in and of itself is the function of the first level of the mind, which has no power over the second level. Therefore, even when you are deeply focused on solving a certain problem, the mind tends to go around in circles, probing into different aspects and getting distracted by other thoughts every now and then.
Nevertheless, many people adore this notorious clarity of the mind, especially “people of the mind”, which is not surprising, as the state of such “clarity” is the one where a person is in total control. As in the state of self-awareness one comes to face quite a few inner processes, the seekers who are prone to self-control rush to placate them. When this happens, many seekers would complain that their mental health is getting worse every day. They believe that the quieter it is within, the better they are at self-awareness, and this is when they make the fatal mistake: they try to cope by clearing up a “tiny safe space” within, where, it seems to them, they know everything about themselves and sweep aside (i.e. repress) all inner manifestations (i.e., dominant elements) which “interfere” with self-awareness, because these manifestations, obviously, are more challenging objects for self-awareness than the states which are free from any disturbances. Such an amiss approach eventually sidetracks a seeker to a dead-end which is very difficult to get out of, because a compensated state of the mind creates an illusion that a decent level of self-awareness has already been achieved and there is not much left to work on (oh, except for definitely adding more self-control, so that “bad” emotions and thoughts stop bothering you). Meanwhile, the amount of the repressed content would continue to build up, unconsciousness will grow stronger, and uncontrollable nervous breakdowns triggered by fear, anxiety, sadness, and different murky states of the mind will happen regularly (the inner space is huge yet finite and needs to be “physically” purged every now and then). Although, the latter can be totally conquered as well, by securing a comfortable living environment and minimizing social activity.
The way out of an inner comfort zone is challenging, and many seekers struggle to understand that working on all these unlovable states of theirs is the only way to begin making any progress in moving inward, that is, becoming aware of the physical body (filled with tensions caused by repressed emotions), ethereal body (packed with those very repressed emotions), and, subsequently, the body of the mind (equally stuffed with repressed desires, ideas, unconscious beliefs, memories of traumatic experiences, and pressure caused thereby). Without working persistently on the self, no transfiguration is possible, and each seeker who has grown accustomed to self-control will have to choose between comfort and the chance to advance along the Path.
Those who are prone to adhering to the clarity of mind, need to learn to redirect their attention to bodily sensations by withdrawing them from the mind, thereby powering down structured and random mental activities alike—thus preventing any self-control and repression. Besides, prioritizing awareness of sensations slowly but surely makes the role of the mind and its states in a seeker’s life less valuable, and, empowered by improved awareness, makes maintaining “clarity” of any kind useless.
We develop a habit of mental concentration in childhood; it is common for us all. Attention handling in kids is similar to that in animals: their attention is identified with and fuels a currently active dominant element for some time and then switches to another one. Therefore, when children are educated to perform a task-oriented activity, they are taught to concentrate, so that they can focus their attention on a task and put their numerous desires on pause for a little while. Motivation is fear-driven—i.e. punishment by parents or caregivers—and desire-driven—usually by one that is unrelated to the task pursued (i.e.“you are not going anywhere until you finish your homework”). Gradually, the concentration skill gets reinforced, and those who successfully graduated a high school definitely have it under their belts, more or less.
Of course, in a broad sense, one can say that attention narrowed to any degree is a type of concentration, but in our context, by concentration, we mean a significant narrowing of attention, namely, when almost all attention available to us at the moment is directed toward an internal or external object. What makes concentration different from awareness then? Firstly, awareness requires the presence of non-identified attention, whereas ordinary concentration implies identification with some external activity or internal object. Secondly, awareness assumes omnidirectional attention—consider a bulb that casts light equally in all directions—opposed to concentration which is more like a single-directional flashlight. Finally, working on awareness requires practicing divided attention, which is not needed for concentration.
The habit of focusing routinely on external things results in losing the ability to divide attention altogether each time you undertake any task. Attention readily follows a well-trodden path in the mind, rushing outside, and any attempts to redirect a portion of it back inward are met by the mind with resistance. The more important the task is, the harder it is to “rip” even a small amount of attention off of it and the more frequently you slide into identification with the execution of the task. Any habit, including the habit of attention focusing, can be overcome by diverting consistently from a routine behavioral pattern, and the more persistent you are in refraining from focusing all of your attention on a task at hand and redirecting a portion of it to the sensations, the better you become at it until eventually a new habit sets in—the habit of continuous dividing of attention. A tendency to concentrate on an internal object is often elicited by a certain idea, for example, a belief that constant attending to an energy center is very beneficial. This belief causes the mind to render other sensations as of lower priority and disregard them; peculiar sensations are taken as a confirmation of spiritual advancement and motivate an unsavvy seeker to double his efforts in pumping attention into the selected area in the physical or ethereal body.
At times, a seeker would resort to this strategy for the sake of compensation—for example, he may try to combat fear or anger by redirecting his attention to the heart (Anahata) or seventh (Sahasrara) energy center. He explains the waning of emotions which follows as a sign of his transformation, but the reason is simpler: regardless of what object you chose to redirect your attention to and away from the actual problem, the outcome is that the problem gets deprived of your attention, and switching attention to any activity that is unrelated to your problem just culminates your fleeing—it is similar to a situation where a person is about to lash out in anger and tries to calm himself down by counting to ten. To overcome concentration on internal content, you need to uncover the underlying idea that pressures you to concentrate, and realize that only scattered (omnidirectional) attention permits you to stay present across all your internal processes, as best as you can: to note shifts in psychological state, the moments of repression, to discern inner problems and work on them. Finally, only scattered attention promotes the growth of self-awareness, as no concentration is able to make the best of your entire attention asset and create the needed internal discord—to further your growth.
As the level of one’s self-awareness rises, the need for concentration decreases, because once the volume of free attention reaches a certain value, it becomes impossible to concentrate all the attention on any action, even if you try hard. There is some evidence that once total awareness is achieved, even a partial redistribution of attention becomes impossible because it is now present in every point inside at the maximum amplitude possible.
Usually, this mistake is made by those practitioners who have already developed a certain degree of self-awareness. As the main goal in the practice of self-awareness for any seeker is to anchor in divided attention steadily throughout the day, once they reach the heights where identification with anything at all is no longer possible, some become satisfied with the success achieved and continue practicing (which becomes much easier by then) without realizing that the level of self-awareness is defined not so much by the stability of divided attention but primarily by the volume of spare attention. Say, you can maintain a state of continuous self-awareness. How many things can you sustainably be aware of, how many internal processes can you hold in the sphere of your attention, and in what depth?
Not everyone accounts for this aspect of working on self-awareness and often starts off strongly only to fizzle out and come to a standstill a few years later. Are you able to stay in awareness of your entire body? Awesome! Take it to the next level and begin allocating part of your attention to the ethereal body and thoughts. Take note of the instances when the amount of attention directed inward decreases—it can happen during some external activity or when a dominant element raises its head—and double your efforts in such moments.
Work with those of your problems, emotions, desires, and mental states, that consume your attention most and prevent you from moving deeper inside yourself. Even when fully aware of your physical body, you still have stiff areas in which you can sense nothing but tension, let alone your ethereal body or the body of the mind. Let me reiterate—it is through leveraging the entire volume of attention available to you each moment that you keep the bar high for yourself, until one day, during one of those spikes in self-awareness, you come to jump over it; think of someone with untrained muscles: at first, he sees an effect from working out with as low as ten-pound weights, and in a little while, exercising with thirty-pound weights becomes barely enough for him to “stay fit”— the only difference is that once achieved, the existing level of self-awareness is never lost.
As they say, “Only one health, and so many diseases”, therefore it is hardly possible to list all possible mistakes in the practice of self-awareness. More of them are explained in the book by the Master “The Path of Transformation: Mystical Experience”, the chapter “Awareness of idiots”.
Growth of Self-Awareness
When working on the self is performed properly, the level of self-awareness gradually raises. As I mentioned earlier, there are two main criteria that define this level.
One criterion is the ability of the mind to divide attention. This ability is no different from any other skill that can be learned by the mind: counting, information processing, spatial imagination, visualization, etc.. At first, you probe it, then practice consistently until you get the hang of it; finally, at some moment, the dividing of attention becomes constant and you are no longer being “kicked out” into identification.
With time, the dividing of attention becomes redundant: once the volume of attention reaches a certain point, the internal and external halves become one, forming a “sphere” of attention. Moving forward, the nature of the efforts applied to manage attention remains the same, except for a somewhat change in the specifics, as “spherical” attention accommodates a higher number of objects, and while in the beginning you were simply thrown out into identification with the external or internal, by the time your master the skill of dividing of attention, setbacks look more like shrinking of the attention sphere: for example, bodily sensations remain in the scope of attention but as if somewhat blurry and shifted off-center, or you may lose track of a part of the mental activity that is usually within sight, yet still keep hold of bodily sensations, and so on. Roughly speaking, the number of objects that can be captured by the sphere of attention decrease, but on the whole, you remain “conscious”. Retaining external objects in the sphere of attention is a point to account for as well; by objects here I mean not physical objects (although more of them begin to fall into the field of attention), but the emotional/mental states of people around you, appropriate assessment of the surroundings, sense of “the right time”, as well as the perception of various energies about which I am not going to go into too many details here. Bottom line is, a reduced attention scope in someone with a well-established skill of dividing attention is equivalent to total identification in someone who lacks this skill—not in terms of the quality of these two states but in terms of the efforts required in order to mobilize the entirety of attention resources.
The second criterion is the amount of attention at one’s disposal. This amount is defined by the width of the channel of attention that connects your individual Consciousness with your lower bodies. The growth of self-awareness is accompanied by the widening of the channel of attention which occurs in a step-wise fashion: at a certain moment you suddenly realize that the amount of your free attention has increased and holding it on a standard set of objects is now easier. Moreover, you may find new elements falling into the field of your attention: some other sensations, for example. It is important to emphasize that such uplifts in awareness are rare, happening maybe three-four times a year, provided that you work hard on yourself. Once widened, the channel of attention never narrows. If that does happen, it means that the growth of awareness was due to things other than widening of the attention channel, for example, due to being unusually invigorated, or due to an impulse of energy from the outside, or simply thanks to you having a good rest, or else due to a successful working through some problem that was killing you and now ceases drawing off your attention, and so on.
The ability to divide attention (and, at later stages, maintaining a “sphere of attention”) promotes the growth of free attention; basically, this skill allows one to use attention for its intended purpose and not feed dim states of the mind with its energy but supply it to awareness and non-identification. In turn, an increase in the volume of attention opens up new opportunities for dividing attention: you become aware of a higher number of objects with less effort for maintaining a divided attention mode.
As your self-awareness develops, your ability for working with your internal state improves. Firstly, there is a beneficial effect of the energy of consciousness by and of itself, that, as we know, dissolves all spectrum of lower energies yet fortifies manifestations of the higher energies together with our ability for the uptake thereof. Secondly, a high level of self-awareness gives us the ability to see which helps us uncover the root causes of problems and resolve them for good rather than incessantly mitigate the symptoms. Working through internal problems, in turn, empowers further growth of awareness by cutting off attention-consuming processes and expanding the volume of free space within in order to provide more room for awareness to function, etc. But this aspect will be covered in another article.
They say that the growth of awareness cannot continue forever, and once the channel of attention becomes sufficiently wide, the individual Consciousness comes down along it into the lower bodies and fully manifests itself. Although even before this happens, awareness helps you gradually discover yourself—opening one door after another for you, until one day, it throws open the door to God, your connection with Him, and His Eternity.