This is a concept the importance of which is difficult to overestimate as far as practitioners of spiritual path techniques are concerned. Because most persons think that they know the meaning of the word “awareness,” they may misunderstand the use of the word in the special context. To be aware, according to the dictionary, is to be watchful, on one’s guard, informed, cognizant, and conscious. It is in the sense of being “watchful” that it is used in spiritual practice, but watchful in a special way.
From our earliest years each of us undergoes a process of conditioning, or in modern parlance, programming. This is an essential part of our development, since we could not survive in any sort of society without conforming to the expectations of that society. Thus, without giving it thought, we respond in an appropriate fashion to everything that is happening around us. Not only do we respond automatically to happenings, but we tend to think, to a large extent, automatically. In the extreme, an individual who responds automatically in action, thought and emotion to all situations (highly unlikely), is not open to meaningful change nor receptive to possible input from “higher” sources. A number of references to the “automated” individual occur, such as: “Men who are living here, are in a dream; and when they die then shall they be awake” Hadis (A) — The Sayings of the Prophet Mohammad; “He who seems now awake is in deep dream; his wakefulness is false and worse than sleep” (Sūfī saying); “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh . . . lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping” St. Mark, ch. 13, v. 35.
Awareness technique requires that we develop the art of watching what we do, what we think, what emotions we experience from an uninvolved and non-judgmental center of observation. To do this effectively demands one-pointedness. The usual method of achieving this condition is through the practice of meditation, although there are other ways that are perhaps less well-known.
Raja-Yoga is a system that can lead to a condition of all-day awareness. Its procedures are calculated to modify the actions of the mind and hence the emotions; the work on oneself to accomplish this produces the watchfulness of which we speak.
All-day awareness is a condition that facilitates response to input from other levels of consciousness and leads to a positive change in consciousness.
Spiritual awareness is central to Buddhism, but is usually termed “Mindfulness” or “Right Mindfulness.” Nyanaponika Thera, in his book, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (pp. 23-7), deals extensively with mindfulness. He defines three stages:
The most elementary form is simple attention, particularly in response to external stimuli.
Next is close attention. Many mental activities come under this heading. Here we compare the present perception with past experience; it may be the attention to detail of a craftsman or the ponderings of a philosopher or scientist.
Here we have “Right Mindfulness,” termed samma-sati (P). Right Mindfulness performs the same functions as the first two stages, but at a higher level. Here the perception and attention are unconditioned.
The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti, makes frequent reference to awareness in its self-cultural context as “Choiceless Awareness.” He states, “It (awareness) comes into being only when we are passively aware of the whole process of our consciousness, which is to be aware of ourselves without choice, without choosing what is right and what is wrong. When you are passively aware, you will see that out of that passivity — which is not idleness, which is not sleep, but extreme alertness — the problem has quite a different significance which means that there is no longer identification with the problem and therefore there is no judgement and hence the problem begins to reveal its content. If you are able to do that constantly, continuously, then every problem can be solved fundamentally, not superficially” (The First and Last Freedom, pp. 96-7).