I keep coming back to this topic, because it can always be expressed more clearly.
The word awareness can be interchanged with mind (Buddhism) or consciousness. I just find the word awareness more immediate and intimate right now.
Awareness can be exclusively identified with the processes of the body and the personality – the sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This particular conglomerate is also called the small self, in Buddhist terminology.
The processes of the small self are habitual and conditioned, and are so for biological and survival reasons. They give a certain predictability and consistency to our behaviors. Depending on our current situation, these habitual patterns are either adaptive or not in terms of survival. In all cases, they tend to lead to suffering in various ways.
When awareness is exclusively identified with the small self, we have no choice but to engage with the inner processes (sensations, emotions, thoughts) in one way or another. We either fuel them which often lead to acting on them, or we push them away. We may not like what comes up, or our behavior, but we have little choice in the matter. Awareness is in many ways the servant of the processes of the small self, the habitual patterns of emotions and thoughts.
This identification leads to much suffering for ourselves and others. We act on attractions and aversions, we are unwillingly caught up in habitual patterns, even as we see the suffering it brings about. We dull our suffering in many ways. We may also – eventually – begin to sincerely look for a way out. One that truly reduces the suffering intrinsic to this way of operating.
Through various practices, or more spontaneously, awareness may begin to experience itself as distinct from its content.
We may realize that awareness is formless, like space. It is that which is left if we take away the content of body, sensations, emotions and thoughts. It is that which is always there, whether it is identified with the small self or not. In the beginning, we can recognize it more easily as that which is there between the thoughts.
In this situation, we can allow the processes of the small self to unfold within awareness. There is no need to hold onto, fuel or push away anything. We can just allow it all to arise, unfold and dissolve without a trace. This is what is meant with equanimity. The energy in the experiences serve to clarity and expand awareness – as in tantric practice. There is more overview and perspective, and we have a more conscious choice (or so it appears) in how we relate to and engage with the inner and outer situation. There will still be pain, but suffering (getting caught up in pain, attractions, aversions etc.) is optional.
There are maybe three main phases in this process, depending on how we slice it up and the particular process itself – which will be somewhat different in each case.
1. Identification with small self – with the processes of the organism and personality.
2. Awareness aware of itself as distinct from its content.
3. Awareness as distinct and not separate from its content.
In the first phase, we learn how to function as a human organism, and as an individual person part of society and this planet. We learn some of the basic skills to survive and function effectively.
The second phase is one focused on differentiation between awareness and its content. There is a clear sense of observer and observed. Awareness is here beginning to function in a more transdual way. It sees how all phenomena – inner and outer – are part of one seamless whole.
In the third phase, there is still a distinction between awareness and its content, but also no separation. Awareness is functioning in a more transdual way. We are fully and intimately body, energies, sensations, emotions, thoughts, awareness and Big Mind.
There is spacious and luminous awareness, in which all inner/outer phenomena unfold in an intimate, rich and full way. We can – paradoxically – more fully, deeply and intimately be engaged in and participate in life. There is no separation and no holding back – because we deeply know the suffering inherent in separation and holding back.