What is it that is aware?

“What is it that is aware?” is a question I’ve been turning under my tongue for over ten years now, without ever arriving at a reasonably satisfying answer. When I’d first heard it from an annoyingly admirable man, it was meant to encapsulate the essence of zen Buddhism and higher consciousness, and so it seduced me instantaneously. I kept it as a poetic souvenir and my life’s koan. It returned to me last night.

Over the past few months I have been binging on spiritual texts of all sorts, ranging from self-help, through mythology, anthropology, Jungian psychology and neuroscience to spiritual writings par excellence. Interestingly enough, I still haven’t touched the Bible, but yes it’s on the list.

I have also been trying to develop rituals that would help me write regularly. This blog is an attempt at one such productive habit. Every morning, I want to devote one to two hours to noting down my thoughts on what I had read the previous day, to track my own mental processes. I have some misgivings about this idea, and fears too, naturally, but here I am, more ready than not.

Currently on the agenda are transcripts of J. Krishnamurti‘s public talks, delivered in Saanen, Switzerland, in the summer of 1967, under the collective title “On Love and Loneliness.” In contrast to Alan Watts, another teacher popular at the time, Krishnamurti is no spiritual entertainer. He demands utter seriousness on the part of his audience, and often sounds impatient. There is no charm to his persona (a quality that Alan Watts oozes), and he may sometimes seem irritated at the inability of listeners to grasp his ideas, which he claims are not opinions, beliefs or judgments. He seems convinced to have found the truth, but also to know that truth is incommunicable, which is why his teaching method involves guiding listeners through stages of logical reasoning. He frequently insists on having everybody follow his line of argument with full concentration (or leave the tent), and stresses that not just listening, but full mental engagement is essential. The goal is to arrive at an understanding which is universal and yet absolutely, earnestly individual and particular.

The unity of all being, love as universal power, thought as source of attachment and misery, attentiveness to the present moment, and the necessity to quiet the mind are recurrent themes in Krishnamurti’s teachings. When listed in this manner, they could be attributed to any Buddhist guru, mindfulness coach, or New Age enthusiast, but Krishnamurti is no feel-good preacher. His dismissal of lowly forms of human activity, such as sex or entertainment, reminded me of Marion Woodman‘s characterization of the archetypally male energy:

“[T]he spiritual feminine is always grounded in the natural instincts so that no matter how spiritualized it becomes, it is always on the side of life. In this it is different from the overspiritualized masculine (in man or woman) which tends to seduce us into the sleep that ends ‘the heartache . . . that flesh is heir to.'” (Addiction to Perfection)

Granted, Krishnamurti’s vision of truth evokes anything but sopor, but it does seem rather heavy and ascetic in its disregard for instinct, drive and liveliness.

But what did I read last night? In the ninth talk on love and loneliness I found reiterated the question that has pursued me for so long: “Who is it that is aware?”

Advice given to meditation novices goes somewhat like this: to quiet the mind, do not try to suppress the thoughts that arise, but rather gently acknowledge and push them away, much like you would a balloon floating your way. Watch from the outside, see them as a product of your frantic ego that forever wants, and remembers, and plans, and attracts, and distracts, and rejects what is. Create an observer that brings benevolent awareness to ego’s selfish antics. It is not easy to achieve, but when it works, it brings calm and contentment. Krishnamurti, however, points to the paradox of dividing one’s own consciousness into the observer and the observed. For if the observer is outside the observed, where does it place her in the realm of consciousness? Says the teacher:

When we say we are aware, we generally mean the image becomes aware of itself in relation to the other image – which is part of awareness, but we have gone much farther than that. And we say that when there is this image there is a centre which observes, there is a division and hence a conflict. Where there is conflict there is no awareness at all. To be free from conflict one has to become aware and do so without creating another centre which is aware of the image that I have created about myself or about another. So, is there an awareness without the centre, of this whole of consciousness, with its boundaries, its limitations, its content?

I love this intimation of heaven, or oneness, or ocean of consciousness that belongs to no one in particular but always is, a promise of belonging. I dream of this awareness without a centre, a dissolution that is pure existence, which cannot be reached the way I keep trying to reach it, that is through mind.

I asked my aunt the other day how she understood “surrender,” which is one of the basic ideas in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. She has been member of AA for many long years now and regularly sponsors (offers guidance to) inductees. She said, “It means admitting that alcohol is a power greater than myself, and that rationalizing only took me that far.” Apparently, the smarter, the more intellectual a person is, the harder it is for her to surrender. Highbrows may memorize the whole book, quote from it profusely in the meeting, and hit the booze right after. Their power for self-deception is as vast as their vocabulary. They often want to reform the organization, or to boss over it; they may claim they’ve understood it better than anyone since and so they proffer sophisticated criticisms with their own twist on the issue – but they do not make space for truth in their hearts. “Surrender” means shutting up, listening, and admitting that we are essentially no different, no better from others. That we are all one. It means humility and not striving to impress and achieve. It is the most difficult thing for the kicking and screaming ego, for the intellectual alcoholic, for me.

I am on a quest to understand something that escapes my grasp, and even if this is not the the right way, I will pursue it for a while still, just because I feel that I must. I admit that I binge on spiritual writings to fill my bottomless curiosity, hunger, thirst, and that I am still a smart ass. I will keep on writing and flexing for as long as it takes. Perhaps one day I will find a way of acting from the place of surrender. Bear with me. I will not take advice and I will go wherever I want to, because I don’t feel the difference between being lost and exploring.


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