I will begin with the common mistakes and misconceptions around self-awareness or mindfulness. For example, some people believe that awareness is a type of physical control, and a conscious (self-aware) person is supposed to sit still like a statue, move and speak slowly. For some reason, they believe that self-awareness should slow the body motions and that it takes time to become aware of what is going on; hence practicing self-consciousness should result in one slowing down and becoming less active. Beginners often have this confusion, believing it is easier to practice self-awareness if motionless. People who imitate mindfulness try to look like sphinxes; they mimic mindfulness by controlling their bodies. Some people practicing sitting meditations, i.e., Muraqabah or Zazen, think that standing still and controlling the body are the requirements. But control of the body is exerted by the mind, which has nothing to do with self-awareness. Awareness does not imply that the energy in the body ceases moving and that the body has to freeze. Awareness means being present in what is happening at the moment, and one can sit completely still yet be outright absent in oneself. Or, one can be in active motion and be perfectly self-aware at the same time. For example, a conscious person may have an itchy nose and scratch it, being aware of his action. Those who see consciousness as a synonym of self-control might regard such an action as unconscious, but actual unconsciousness manifests differently.
Another common confusion among those who begin practicing mindfulness is a belief that good memory is indicative of high self-awareness. They surmise that if they are able to recall what they did today in the morning, yesterday, and earlier this week, then they have been self-aware all that time. However, this is yet another common mistake of confusing awareness with the function of the mind. Consciousness does not pertain to memory strength; keeping track of everything you do is important only for the mind and its self-effectiveness evaluation. You don't have to hold the entire range of things you do in your active memory load; instead, being present in whatever you are doing suffice. People who fail to distinguish between awareness and the thinking process also tend to believe that sharp and clear mind that can focus on something without being distracted by stray thoughts is equivalent to full awareness. But it is not. A mass of misconceptions about self-awareness emerges from the fact that people confuse self-awareness and presence in one's actions with improved quality of the mind. Because they fail to separate action from the mind, they conclude that the better, cleaner, and more accurate their mind functions, the greater their awareness. That is a common mistake among novice practitioners, and unless they learn the skill of mindfulness correctly and in time, they may remain delusional about the nature of mindfulness.
Another common misbelief is that self-awareness practice is a means to stop the mind from thinking. The mind is treated as an enemy and a major obstacle to enlightenment; therefore, stopping its activity should greatly benefit the seeker. That is yet another fallacy disseminated by careless teachers. Halting the mind does not lead to enlightenment. There are ways to turn the mind off, but nothing special happens. Thought-stopping occurs naturally due to drawing the attention out of the mind in meditation, for example. Deprived of the energy of attention, it calms down and stops on its own. And, of course, for that, you need to sit in true meditation, not imitation meditation, and it will take time. But no enlightenment comes at that moment, and the mind turns back on as soon as you resume your daily activities. You have to distinguish between being outside the mind and the notorious silencing of thought chatter. In mindfulness, you live outside of the mind, it ceases to be the center of your being, and you use it as needed. Attempts to stop the mind activity lead to the following: first, you slow your mind down to the point that it becomes jammed up, then you run out of energy and can no longer control it; and then it develops frantic activity, dumping all the energy accumulated during the enforced break. That is the result of attempts to stop the mind. Control of the mind over oneself has nothing to do with self-awareness, either.
Now let's talk about the nature of awareness. We wouldn't have the ability to be aware of ourselves if we didn't have Consciousness. Individual Consciousness is an independent body connected with our other bodies through the channel of attention. In fact, Consciousness is an attribute of God, His gift, without which we could not exist. Consciousness is eternal and unchangeable. Its energy never decreases or increases and vitalizes whatever processes it is directed at. In other words, the energy of Consciousness is the main force of our inner world.
Attention is a function of Consciousness, which we can use at our discretion. We control our attention through the mind, which serves as a kind of traffic regulator, directing it either outwardly toward external objects or inwardly toward sensations. If, for example, we want to feel a sensation in our hand, our mind will direct the beam of attention to it. Or, if your hand is sore, your attention shifts there automatically because any strong stimulus instantly draws it, and the mind then stays out of the way.
Consciousness is never, or almost never, present in us in its pure form, unbound because our attention combines with the objects toward which it is directed. We watch an entertaining movie, and our attention becomes absorbed by the action on the screen. Or for example, we experience fear, and our attention dissolves in its energy, amplifying it. Our attention is always identified with something; it is never free. Even if we have nothing to do, it immediately merges with the flow of thoughts and associations. The situation described is, in fact, the epitome of human unconsciousness. We are not present in what is happening; we are absorbed in all kinds of processes with which our attention merges. We live as if in a dream, in a mirage, unaware of the causes of our reactions and mind states because we have no free attention to see them, for it is always absorbed in something. When we are preoccupied with fear, we are not there; we are scared. We think about it, of course, and the mind creates the illusion of our presence in what is happening, but that's just its reaction to fear, which has no reality behind it. The mind gives names to the states but cannot see them because it has no respective innate faculty.
Suppose you experience fear. Your attention is immersed in it, it intensifies, and you are seized by it. You try to distract yourself, but to no avail, because fear is the strongest stimulus at the moment, and your attention gets drawn to it automatically. Your mind reacts to the situation by producing a stream of habitual thoughts and begins to repress the fear, pushing it back into the inner space and the muscles. So repressed, fear ceases to be the main irritant, and attention is released only to immediately identify with the mind and its anxiety. The mind thus thinks in terms of "I," maintaining the illusion that all this was not just another uncontrollable reaction, which you have little or nothing to do with, but that it was happening to you. It means that you are effectively the range of your reactions, which your mind can or cannot control; they just happen to you, that's all. That's why mystics talk about the mechanicalness of people, as people live like machines that produce the same reactions, the same states, and absolutely beyond their will. Most people cannot do anything about their day-to-day recurring states; in fact, they are these states, although the mind fosters the illusion of a consistent "I." But there is no "I" -- so long as the reactions keep alternating, each of them, supported by the energy of your attention, supersedes your "I. And so every strong desire or feeling takes the place of your "I" temporarily while the mind maintains the illusion that some "I" consolidating all these unruly states exists.
There is only one way to break this despair: to eliminate the mechanicalness of your reactions and discover the causes of your states. Reading psychology books will not help here--even correct explanations of the reasons cannot cure your mechanicalness. If you want a radical change in your situation, you have to give freedom back to your attention, which otherwise identifies with and empowers the reactions that arise constantly. The only way to do this is through the cultivation of self-awareness, through the separation of attention from external and internal objects.
In our inner space, the energy of Consciousness has the quality of light. Due to it, we can become aware (in fact, see) of what and why is happening inside us. And due to the power of the energy of Consciousness, we can change the situation by getting rid of our mechanistic reactions and any of our states. But for this to be possible, we must learn to divide our attention.
The Body of Consciousness is connected to our other bodies via a subtle channel through which its energy enters them, becoming attention. In their normal state, people have a limited amount of attention energy available to them due to the narrowness of this channel. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to take and embrace with attention, say, your entire physical body. There is only enough attention to be aware of the sensations of its parts. The point of self-awareness practice is that the stream of attention must be divided into two parts - one is directed toward your external activity while the other remains free and not identified with anything. The effort in dividing attention is executed by the conscious part of the mind, specifically by that layer of the mind where reasoning and problem-solving thinking take place. The technique for dividing attention is quite simple -- at any given moment, we should strive to keep part of our attention always directed toward sensations in the body. For example, you are mopping the floor. Part of your attention will definitely be directed to the outside -- the floor, the rag, the bucket of water, and the washing process. The second part of your attention should be directed to what you feel as you do the chore, that is, the sensations in your body - your arms, your legs, maybe, or your back, which is also involved in physical activity. This way, you become present in what you are doing at the moment. In the state of identification, you mop mechanically, i.e., perform routine movements while absorbed in your mind, caught up in associative thinking. Your attention will partially be present with the cleaning process, to a very small degree though, and only in instances where you cannot put it on autopilot. Your attention would return for a second and then get lost in a flow of thoughts again. You'll be scrubbing the floor in a half-conscious state. And the same happens with all well-known and learned activities that do not require active thinking on your part. These kinds of actions make up most of your everyday life. Developing self-awareness requires a different approach. You need to be present in what you are doing, which means that when you do something and your physical body is involved, you must be partially present in your bodily sensations. That is the key to widening the attention channel and eventually to start moving toward full self-awareness.
The main challenge in dividing attention is mind-related and lies in the amount of energy available to support the dividing of attention. Energy resources are limited; therefore, staying aware in the beginning can be difficult. When you start practicing the dividing of attention, you manage it more or less decently at first; still, a moment comes when you keep trying to attend to the sensations of your body, but for some reason, it becomes impossible. The reason is that your mind has run out of energy that keeps your attention divided. And you won't be able to resume the practice until it takes rest and recharges depleted reserves to be up and ready to navigate attention again.
You must understand that mindfulness grows through dividing attention and nothing else. If, for example, you observe your breathing while doing vipassana, you are training your ability to hold your attention in one particular area of the body. You cultivate the discipline of attention; you drill your mind to hold your attention in a specified area constantly, and gradually, it begins to generate more energy and capacity to steer it. But your awareness only really begins to grow when you continuously observe your breath in your daily activities. Then that very divided attention that I'm talking about will be installed. Your attention split between an external activity and inner observation, together with a sustained effort to keep it this way, will bear fruit. Firstly, you will be able to be aware of yourself for longer because there will be more energy in the mind to do so. The mind here resembles a muscle: exercising builds up strength and stamina. The effort of dividing attention does the same to your mind. Secondly, initially narrow, the channel of attention that links you to the body of your individual consciousness will begin to grow wider, and so will your awareness, respectively.
Anyone who has practiced mindfulness knows that it grows step-wise. One's initial baseline level of self-awareness is zero, i.e., as soon as the mind loses the ability to divide attention, one slips back into a half-conscious state and identification. Then, after you devoted some time and effort to practicing divided attention, you suddenly find that even at times when you completely drop out of the practice, there is still some presence in you; that is, your baseline level went up. For example, I noticed a change in my self-awareness for the first time, when I began to feel a particular point in my chest, a center, that had not been there before. The locus was not related to the heart center or any other center (chakra), but existed on its own and gave me a sense of permanence that I had not known before. Before that, any confusion or emotional turmoil would "demolish" me completely. Now there was a place inside me that remained unaffected by my emotional/mental states. It was my lighthouse in darkness, an anchor in the storm. Even at very rough times, that point-light constant presence gave me the strength to survive and endure everything.
Awareness never grows gradually from week to week. You may have moments when it improves, and you are more aware than usual, but after a day or two, it is back to the way it was. The baseline level of awareness increases spasmodically, and you usually do not catch the moment it moves up. You notice the change retroactively when you suddenly realize that even in troublesome circumstances, you do not disappear entirely and that a certain portion of your attention remains free. That's because your effort in dividing attention results in the channel of attention widening, and the energy of attention increases. Awareness always grows in a series of jumps, and each increase means an expansion of the channel and an increase in the amount of attention available. With each change, less and less effort is required to maintain self-awareness. When full awareness is achieved, efforts are no longer needed. Everything that happens to you is henceforth always in the field of your Consciousness - effortlessly, naturally.
Attention-dividing is a skill to be mastered. Among seated meditations, Sufi muraqabah and Buddhist Zazen are the most helpful. They help one divide attention almost equally between the external and the internal and are perfect for preparing oneself for implementing awareness practice in daily life. In addition, practices of listening, body awareness, or observation of one's internal states, like vipassana, train the ability to hold attention. By themselves, in isolation from the external, they do not improve mindfulness. However, when applied in daily life, any of these practices can lead to a separation of attention and are beneficial. Performed when sitting fixedly, these practices prepare you for the practice of attention dividing but cannot replace it.
When you divide your attention, you can't leave it unbound--at least not in the beginning, when the amount of free attention is small. You have to anchor it to something, i.e., to direct it toward a particular sensation. If you're walking, you can look at the sensations in your feet; if you're doing some handwork, you can look at the sensations in your hands. This effectively is the practice of body awareness applied in daily life. At first, you just want to hold on to some particular sensations within or direct your attention to a specific body part; otherwise, if you leave it as is, it will "collapse," merging back with its counterpart directed outward, and attention dividing will end. In case you work concurrently with the energy centers (i.e., perform a practice for activation of energy centers, or chakras), you may feed two birds with one seed by directing your attention to one of the centers, say, the heart center. The benefit of this is twofold: on the one hand, you are dividing your attention and working with awareness, and on the other hand, you are activating the energy center with your attention, which facilitates its development.
At first, you cannot do without "mooring" the portion of free attention to internal sensations. Later on, as your awareness skills will get firmly established and more energy of attention is amassed, you no longer have to "fasten" it to something. You will be able to hold it inside unchained and free, and then it will turn to what's happening inside you in the here and now. That is when the phenomenon of inner vision may begin to take place, as it can only be created by free attention and nothing else: you begin to see your emotional and mental reactions in real-time. In other words, your attention readdresses from sensations of the body to perception of what has always been hidden from you or has become clear in hindsight. This opens up an opportunity for self-discovery and elimination of the mechanical reactions of the mind and repressed emotions and feelings. Accordingly, it makes way for you to clear your inner space and begin moving inward toward discovering your nature and your connection to God. This is a natural course of development, so long as you divide your attention correctly and work hard with what you face as you grow in awareness.
You want to begin practicing awareness only when you have established the firm intention to become self-aware and to change your inner situation. Attempts to become conscious two or three times a week are useless. The effort in dividing attention must be constant, daily, and hourly. Begin awareness practice as soon as you wake up. Don't put off the effort until later; you have more energy in the morning, so it's easier to practice. At first, the habit of identifying with the mind and slipping out of bodily sensations will be bringing you back into the old rut again and again. Don't despair; no one becomes self-aware swiftly. Setbacks are inevitable and should be treated as such - they will happen, but that's no reason to quit what you've started. You will run out of mental energy needed to share your attention; you will keep forgetting your intention to stay aware all day long - it is unavoidable. Mechanistic habits and reactions don't give up without a fight. Nevertheless, each time you forget yourself or run out of energy to keep your attention divided, start again the following day. Gradually, your downs will happen less, and the times when you are present in your actions will get longer. Sometimes, you will spontaneously propel into awareness without even making any special effort.
Seated mediation practices certainly help. Alone, these practices will not make you fully self-aware unless, of course, you sit in meditation all day long. However, as an aid in cultivating divided attention, they are very effective. Many novice seekers use alarm clocks as reminders to prompt them back to awareness if they happen to forget and become identified with the mind again. Experience has shown that alarm clocks are of little help because the mind quickly gets used to them, and they cease to serve the purpose. Nothing but a real strong desire to awaken, to let Consciousness manifest itself in all its fullness, helps. You can join a group practicing mindfulness, and meeting them will boost your motivation to a certain degree. But if you don't have motivation of your own, there's no substitute for it. If you do have it, all obstacles on your way to higher levels of awareness are surmountable.
Once you have a certain amount of free attention at your disposal, you can bring it to the next level and tackle your inner problems. That would be using awareness potential to your advantage and further honing awareness skills. When awareness capacity is moderate, you may detect the roughest things, for example, intense tension or equally intense anger, but there is only so much you can do. It should be noted here that the amount of attention energy available to us correlates with its power. It is similar to sunlight; consider a beam of sunlight in a room making no big difference versus the same room illuminated by sunlight warming it up quickly. Therefore, as you have more light of Consciousness inside, first, you see subtle things that previously fell undetected, and second, you find it easier to release repressed energies and work with fears, desires, and other inner junk stockpiled over the years of your unconscious life. When you don't have much attention energy, you may observe the fear but can't do anything about it; it won't go away. You spend a lot of time and effort at least to abate it. Conversely, access to free attention resources expedites this process; fear dissipates quickly and you can work in-depth through its root cause. The wider the channel that connects your Consciousness with your lower bodies, the more attention you have in your possession, and the greater its effect on your inner energies.
If you achieve a certain level of awareness and then retire from practicing, you will remain at the same level that you have excelled. You won't have any more progress, nor will you lose your current one. I have seen this effect in many practitioners, and my only explanation is that once broadened, the attention channel never shrinks back. That is a distinctive feature of mindfulness practice. It is possible to freeze practice at any stage, and therefore one can meet those who stopped at the very beginning and those who stopped in the middle of the path. There are two reasons for that: a practitioner has gained the level of well-being sufficient to offset his dissatisfaction with life and loses motivation for practicing further; a practitioner encounters something that he does not want to be aware of and quits, happy to stay in the compensation already earned. Many spiritual coaches and teachers have walked the path of awareness up to the halfway point and even somewhat beyond. They seem to be present within themselves but not entirely; therefore, they sometimes behave quite consciously, and sometimes suddenly fall into a semi-conscious state. This happens because the unconscious part of their minds is not completely purified, and there lie fears, desires, and other repressed stuff that would upwell on certain occasions. Nevertheless, they may well have a certain level of self-awareness, as it is not lost after one gives up efforts and stops furthering within.
The increase in attention volume is not eye-catching, or rather, it's not expended on external activities any more than it used to be. It all stays inside, making your presence in yourself and the world more complete. I already mentioned that the energy of Consciousness invigorates everything, acting as a catalyst. The more Consciousness is present in you, the more alive you become - your perception becomes sharper, your energies move faster and easier. And you feel yourself very differently.
When the attention channel width reaches its maximum, your individual Consciousness descends upon your being. If before you operated with a narrow beam of attention, now the energy of Consciousness permeates all three lower bodies. Now you don't have to attend to the mind to observe its movements because they are already in the scope of your Consciousness, and you see them as soon as they occur. You see everything in yourself, across all three levels. Think of a security camera operator who surveils the premises sitting in a room with a control panel receiving live streaming videos from the cameras. There is a dozen of those little screens sending footage of people moving around the store, he can watch them all at once. He can magnify input from a camera capturing video in the area of interest to see the details better. The state of full awareness is much alike. Your attention is equally present in every point of your physical body, and you feel them equally well. You feel just as well any change in the energies given off or perceived by your ethereal body. You also have immediate visibility to all the movements of your mind across all its layers. Should a need arise, you can give a closer look at something, but essentially your attention is present throughout. I don't think it can be adequately conveyed, but so is the state of affairs with full awareness.
There is legendary advice given to all who wish enlightenment: Observe the witness or - be aware of your awareness. That is nice advice, but unfeasible. To begin with, there is no standalone witness inside, although if you try hard enough, you can certainly make one up. The sensation of witnessing emerges when the mind divides attention into two parts. That is, in the process of practicing mindfulness/awareness. The sensation of witnessing arises in the mind; the mind is the witness. Even when you begin to observe the mind, it is still the mind who does the dividing, there is no other way. Hence the feeling of witnessing. When we observe the mind, our attention sort of rises above it, which can really be the case because the body of the mind has a shape almost the same as our physical body. In this "above" area, a point is formed that can be experienced as a kind of higher self, and from which, in fact, the mind is observed. This point is a temporary auxiliary, and it later disappears after the subsequent widening of the attention channel. You can feel it, but you cannot observe it. It is such a temporary fixture of the attention-dividing point in the mind. Now, imagine that the mind divides attention in such a way that it pushes it back into the channel through which it comes. Even if successful, the next thing that will happen is that no awareness of awareness will occur, but you will probably die. To the point, the advice above is practically useless because the witness appears in the mind and nowhere else. After Consciousness descends in your inner space entirely and fully, the witness is gone; there is presence instead. The witness appears as a side effect of the mind dividing attention, but it does not exist as a standalone entity. All who try to accomplish the impossible should understand that.
There is no center in Consciousness; its energy is uniform at every point. There is presence instead -- uniform and constant. The mind may change, but Consciousness is never affected. By practicing mindfulness, you come to experience that "I" exists only as an "add-on" in the mind to map out the origin of action. And when your self-awareness is low, you have nothing but this imaginary "I", in fact. When the energy of Consciousness fills your being, when its light pierces your whole being, you experience yourself as a presence, which has no center either, although there are lower bodies through which it manifests itself. Everyone who has attained the fullness of Consciousness goes this far. You will, too, if you place forth generous effort in the practice of self-awareness.