Buddhism A-Z: “Awareness”
Very simply, Buddhism believes in intention over action. Things done with good intent are good, things done with bad intent are bad; the outcome matters little if the intention was genuine. It is the case, then, that to know if an action was right or wrong you must be self-aware enough to understand your genuine intention. Whilst all of us, I’m sure, would like to think that we can tell our right actions from wrong, it is easier said than done when we all know sometimes we can let that awareness slip and act on intentions we weren’t consciously aware were driving us.
We all have moments of awareness but, untrained, these are usually by contrast. People getting ill make us aware of being well; being bored makes us aware of the pleasure of being engaged in activity… but awareness is not something we should be content to drift in and out of. Every time we let it drop, we open ourself up to unmindful actions. The danger with unmindful/unaware actions is, without active awareness, our brains revert to defaults (schemata if you’ve a psychological background at all). Someone nervously steps out to ask us directions in the street and we brush past them instinctively as if they were a salesperson or charity worker. Worse, we brush past the charity worker without being aware of the moment we made the decision whether to donate on that occasion or not.
We can also talk about awareness in terms of being mindful (as well we might if the alphabet began with ‘m’!) Mindful, like hopeful, fearful or wakeful means to posses the quality of ‘mind’. It is, if you like, the opposite of ‘absentmindedly’ (Tangent: Anyone happen to know why we don’t say presentmindedly?)
Buddhism asks us to be mindful and aware at all times so that our actions reflect our intentions. Awareness itself has no moral guidance attached to it (that comes later!) it simply says if you’re going to be ungrateful, be aware you’re being ungrateful. If you’re going to be kind, cruel, optimistic or immature, be aware that is what you are doing. If you are going to eat, be aware of what you’re eating and that you are eating. When you run, be aware that you are running (don’t try and escape into your head) and if you hate it, be aware you hate it! That way when you stop, you can be aware that you are glad you’ve stopped and pleased that you’d pushed through the unpleasant feelings.
And that’s my last point. We tend to hide from awareness when it involves being conscious of something we don’t like to keep in mind. However, it is only constant awareness and mindfulness that give us the data from which to say, accurately, my life isn’t actually that bad. These things I don’t like don’t happen that often / last that long / aren’t that bad, and I really am doing pretty well almost all of the time…
5 Common lapses of awareness:
1) Thinking you still have half a chocolate bar but realising you must have absent mindedly finished it while typing that last email.
2) Missing what your friend was just saying because you’d become distracted by your plans for later that evening
3) Driving on ‘autopilot’ to the wrong destination
4) Reaching for a coffee / cigarette / sweet that you didn’t really want, because it is habit to do so
5) Saying ‘Yes’ to that social engagement / new project because it sounds interesting without checking in with your mind and body to make sure you have the spare capacity