Consider your answer to the following questions: Who is it that experiences suffering? You might say, “Me, the person reading these words on the screen.” But who is me? Point to this person. You will naturally point to your chest. But what makes you sure ‘me’ is located in your chest? I don’t mean to bombard you with riddles, but I’m trying to point out that who we are is not entirely correct. The image of ourselves is a self-constructed narrative. It is wrong because we need self-identification to make sense of ourselves. However, it is only part of the narrative of who we really are.
In identifying with the egoic self, our thoughts become an extension of who we are. We might say: “I am angry” or “I am sad,” but this is a label attached to emotions that are transient. If repeated, our mind identifies with it because we have trained it through repetitive thoughts. Moreover, we intensify our suffering by the pain created by these emotions. Therefore, you are not your emotions but the pure awareness and consciousness behind them. To overcome suffering requires welcoming negative emotions and observing them through pure awareness instead of localizing it in the mind.
To test this idea, I want you to try something. Ask yourself the following question: “Am I aware?” Don’t answer with your mind but observe the peaceful state coalescing in and outside your field of awareness. The veil of the egoic mind tries to hijack this knowingness and obscures pure awareness. This is because the ego needs a voice; however, its intentions are not entirely honorable. They are self-serving and get in the way of identifying with our true nature. Pure awareness is also known as awake awareness because it does not need thought or attention to know itself.
Here’s a simple way to recognize pure awareness. You visit the local park to walk your dog and see another person playing with their dog. Your awareness recognizes this, but your mind adds thoughts to explain what it sees, such as “Isn’t that dog cute” or “What a nice breed of dog,” etc. Pure awareness instinctively recognizes the person playing with their dog and experiences the aliveness of it throughout your nervous system. However, the mind has a habit of adding a narrative and takes control of your experience.
Is this making sense? I hope you’re seeing that thoughts are unnecessary in perceiving reality but become habitual because of our conditioning. Therefore, the psychological pain and suffering we experience results from buying into our thoughts instead of relaxing into the pure awareness of each moment. This is the message espoused by psychotherapist and meditation teacher Loch Kelly in his book Shift into Freedom: “Paying attention to automatic thoughts is simply a habit we can change. When you shift into awareness-based knowing, automatic thinking moves into the background, and you experience true peace of mind.”
I’m not suggesting we ignore thoughts altogether. It requires learning to discern what is useful and putting aside what is not useful. For example, a valuable practice to help recognize pure awareness is through meditation. So, while you are meditating and experience a negative thought or emotion, you acknowledge it without identifying with it. That is, be aware of the awareness observing the negative thought or emotion. This simple practice puts the brakes on the mind, which tries to narrate what it thinks or experiences. It is what Loch Kelly means when he talks about automatic thinking moving into the background. We are disciplining the mind to be less reactive, allowing pure awareness to come forth and experience itself. Pure awareness is not something to be actively turned on or off; it only requires uncoupling the mind to allow its presence to be known.
As an exercise, over the next 24 hours, when a negative thought or emotion arises, instead of allowing thoughts to hijack you, try to observe them through pure awareness. Naturally, thoughts and emotions will arise and fall. Don’t dialogue with them or try to stop them because this is unnecessary. In fact, welcome them and allow them to be present. They are like enormous waves approaching, but as they hit the shoreline, they break and recede into the vast ocean. This metaphor describes what takes place when negative thoughts or emotions rise and fall within the realm of pure awareness. Your job is not to manipulate or force anything but reside in the presence of pure awareness. This requires practice, and I assure you it is something within your power to influence. After all, if we identify with our thoughts, we will continue to suffer, instead of recognizing thoughts are transient. What is permanent is the pure awareness behind our thoughts and emotions.