Where is awareness?

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney


At this moment, awareness is occurring for you; it’s creating experience; it’s creating the appearance of sounds inside your head and dancing with pixelated images upon a screen. Perhaps it’s also creating a backdrop of planning or judgemental thoughts along the lines ‘can I be bothered reading this?’ and ‘I’ll skim this and then grab a coffee’. Or maybe it’s creating irritable feelings now because an imperceptible flash of thought came to regard your dancing partner as presumptive. Can you say what appeared in that awareness over the past twenty seconds?

It’s rather complex isn’t it? When we look closely at this phenomenon, using memory or introspection, we begin to see that the intricate nature of awareness almost eludes thorough examination. Unless the mind is in a particularly concentrated state, then awareness is an ephemeral flux of sense representations such that knowing it retrospectively in its exquisite detail becomes almost too much a task. We know that, just then, our mood was such and such, or that, just then, certain verbal forms appeared; yet to know its true intricacy in recall is a problem.

Why should this be so? One answer is that in remembering, we’re creating an artificial locality of it; we’re referencing it internally as if there were some store of it within the cranial cavity. If you ask yourself now what your awareness presented during the first hour of today, you may find your eyes avert to mid-space as attention reaches back into the head to haul out an answer. We close down externality and direct the attention inwards so as to remember. This process indicates to us that we regard awareness as somehow storable, recallable, and localised.

What this means is that we regard awareness as a faculty of a subject. We presume there to be contained within the body a subject with agency – an entity with doer-ship, authorship and a receiver of what comes to be experience. This subject thinks that in some vague way, awareness is successively channelling towards it. Either this, or it loosely conceives of awareness as being able to stretch out into the world from say, the eyes, the nose or the ears, again creating a conduit along which it runs. So we regard this awareness as localised around a central subject of agency.

Sometimes though, it may be seen that awareness is in fact non-local; and when this occurs, it is also seen to be non-dual. To be strictly accurate, this occurrence is an instance of it seeing itself; again, as both non-local and non-dual. That is to say, it knows itself as itself rather than being mediated by an apparent subject. This subject – the imagined experiencer of experience – vanishes as a running aspect of awareness; and with its non-appearance, all notions of otherness vanish too. Now when this occurs, the question of locality is rendered meaningless.

As what’s just been stated may sound rather esoteric or fanciful, then for those who perceive it as such, I propose a little experiment. Whilst far from there being any certainty that this non-locality will be apprehended precisely as such, what will become apparent is that the question of locality is at least dubious. If we are able to arrive at this point of questioning, then dependent upon whatever inquisitiveness is brought forth, further exploration may follow. As the entirety of experience is but awareness, then this experiment is surely worthy of consideration.

It’s important that during this experiment we release all our knowledge, ideas and assumptions about awareness and our own being. So for now, forget about photons and sound waves channelling towards you; drop all that and just be aware along the lines instructed, remaining open to all possibilities as well as impossibilities.  This means allowing paradox to rest in the mind if responses appear to logic as such. Now, enquire what response you may make after very slowly, and with exquisite attentiveness, having read out aloud the following two paragraphs:

“I am very slowly reading aloud the words on my screen. I will remember to remain exquisitely attentive to awareness itself, not to ideas about its location, or where attention is placed, but to awareness itself. Read slower. Can I sense awareness now? I will rest for a few seconds in answering this: can I sense awareness now, without thought, without grasping, can I sense awareness now? Be utterly silent now . . . I am reading aloud slowly once more. I am beginning to feel the intimacy of awareness; as I grasp at it with the mind, that intimacy disappears.”

“I am aware of a blurring in the field of vision caused by the protrusion of my nose and which interrupts the lines of sight of my two eyes. This blurring in my visual awareness disappears in flashes as I concentrate hard on the words; now harder still. Why am I doing this? This is stupid and now I’m starting to feel uncomfortably self-conscious. Never mind, I am intensely aware of the process and am paying exquisite attention. By the end of this paragraph, which I see in peripheral vision is just coming up, I must know where this intense awareness is located. Where is it?”

So, photons were channelling through space; thoughts were channelling within the cranial cavity; sound waves channelled both through space and bodily tissue from your throat to your ears, and feelings channelled within your body and limbs. But awareness was not channelling, and this is because awareness has no locus and is itself not spatially referenced. It references phenomena and entities spatially, whilst being devoid of any locus itself. Eyes, ears, brain and nervous system are necessary causal participants, though are not locations of awareness.