Choiceless awareness as inquiry and devotion

Choiceless awareness (aka shikantaza) is mainly a resting as what we already are.

We mimic what we are, as well as we can, until we notice that we already are just that. That which all happens within and as. The Ground of all, and all as the play of this Ground.

Choiceless awareness is also wordless inquiry. What happens when there is a shift into choiceless awareness? What happens to the sense of a center? The sense of a doer and observer? Is the center, doer or observer content of experience, as any other content of experience? Is it what I really am? What happens when I identify as a center, a doer, an observer? What happens when identification is released out of it? How is it to function from here? How is it to bring this into daily life?

Choiceless awareness is devotion. It is a devotion to truth, to kindness, to what we are and everything is, to Ground, to God. Devotion to living from this in daily life.

Choiceless awareness also includes stable attention. An attention stable enough to not (so easily) get absorbed into images and stories, and to catch itself when it does.

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Flavors of allowing

I find it fascinating to explore the different flavors of allowing experience: Shifting into Big Mind or headlessness. Choiceless awareness. Asking myself can I be with what I am experiencing right now? Shifting into gently and quietly meeting experience as it is. Bringing in a sense of kindness and the heart. And so on.

When I shift into allowing experience, I see, feel and love it as it is, for its sake. And the emphasis on each shifts between and within each form of allowing.

In Big Mind, headlessness and choiceless awareness, it seems that the seeing of experience is in the foreground, with feeling it anywhere between background to foreground, and the possibility of loving it is there are well – coming and going.

When I intentionally bring in the heart, the love for experience as it is comes into the foreground.

And there is also a way of being with experience where the felt sense is in the foreground. The sensations are invited in center stage, and welcomed there as they are.

Each one has its own flavor, and each one can be a helpful and valuable exploration. What happens when experience is resisted? What happens when it is allowed and welcomed? What happens when the seeing of it is in the foreground? The felt sense? Love and kindness?

In each case, a shift from (being caught up in) resistance to allowing is a shift from a sense of separation to that field which holds it all. When the felt sense is brought in, I “get it” with the body. I feel the difference. When love comes in, there is a sense of appreciation and gratitude for experience, as it is and for its sake.

And in terms of healing and maturing as who I am, this human self, that seems to be invited in when the felt sense and kindness is in the foreground.

Thoughts as sense field

When I first learned the labeling practice, differentiating the six sense fields of sensation, taste, smell, sound, sight and thought, thoughts came up saying thought, that is not really a sense field, but OK, I can see it can be called that to not make it too complicated.

But the more I explore thought, the more I come to see it as a sense field, similar to the others in several ways.

The thought field is similar to the other fields in that it…

  • Is content of awareness, just like sensations, sight, etc.
  • Comes and goes on its own, lives its own life on its own schedule, as the other ones
  • Really just mimic the other fields, with visual thoughts (visualizations), auditory thoughts, and so on.

So in immediate awareness, the thought field is not so different from the other sense fields.

Yet it is also different in an important way.

Thoughts create an overlay onto the other sense fields, sometimes making it difficult to sort out what is what unless we look. This is how conglomerates are made, or gestalts taken as solid and real and “out there” in the world if not noticed as gestalts, or as simply an appearance made up of for instance sensation and thought when they are.

This is how an emotion comes to appear as real and substantial in itself, when it is really just a sensation and a story.

(Most obviously, the label, the story of which emotion it is. Then, possibly stories saying it shouldn’t be there or go away, which creates resistance which in turn makes it appear even more substantial and real. And then also, initially and often fueled throughout the process, the stories of how what is or what may be should be different, which triggered the emotion in the first place.)

And also a sense of extent, of perception spread out in space and each one appearing in a different location in space. Of continuity, a stitching together of thoughts such as memories of what was, thoughts of what is (which is really just a memory of what just was), and scenarios of what may be. Of an inside and outside, formed by an imaginary boundary which lassoes certain areas of the sense fields saying it is inside (a selection of sensations, sounds, sights, tastes and smells, which thoughts say comes from this human self, and also most or all thoughts.) Of a center and periphery, with the center located in a specific place in space. Of subject and object, with the subject often located in space at or close to the center. And finally, of an I and Other, which is created through imaginary boundaries such as inside/outside, of an overlay of center/periphery, and subject/object.

Subject and object

When I explore content of awareness these days, and especially the content centered in the head area of space, I can more clearly see how a sense of subject and object is created.

In short, the sense of subject and object, or seer and seen, comes from thoughts (ideas of subject and object), placed on or oriented in relationship to sensations, all overlaid on ideas of space and continuity, in turn overlaid on pure perception.

It sounds hopelessly abstract when expressed that way, but is something that can be seen directly as it happens.

For instance, there are sensations in the forehead area, and these serve as an anchor or location for the idea of a subject or a seer. Anywhere else in the field then becomes a potential seen or object. And when something comes into a conscious focus as an object, there is a polarity between seer (located somewhere in the forehead area) and seen (located somewhere else). And it all unfolds on top of an image of space, distributing it all in space, and also of continuity, memories of what was.

I also see that the image of a seer is often located a little out and above from the sensations in the forehead, so these sensations serve as a reference point for this image, more than an identical location for it. Since what is seen, in these explorations, happens mostly within and around the head area, placing the sense of a seer just outside of this area makes sense. It creates more space and distance between the idea of seer and seen, so they can more easily be kept apart and distinct from each other.

And that is, of course, exactly how the whole impression of a seer and seen, and the separation between the two, is created and maintained. And when the gestalt of it all is taken as real and substantial, and not inquired into this way, the sense of a seer separate from the seen appear very real and substantial as well.

Exploring perceptions and overlay of thoughts

Exploring perception and the overlay of thoughts can yield a great variety of insights, and one of the most effective ways of exploring this that I have found so far is the choiceless awareness practice, differentiating the sense fields and thoughts through labeling.

The practice helps me see how thoughts are overlaid on perception to create a sense of extent and space, continuity and time, a center and periphery, inside and outside (not in my case, but I see how it can happen), and related ones such as seeing and seen, seer and seen, a doer, a chooser, and so on.

The practice also helps me in seeing how these thoughts come in different forms.

In general, I notice how thoughts mimic the sense fields. There are image thoughts, sense thoughts, sound thoughts, smell thoughts, and taste thoughts. Thoughts create a whole imaginary sensory world, and make up its own sense field.

Then there are the discursive thoughts, the ordinary self-talk (“I wonder how the presentation tonight at Luna will be. At least the beer will be good.”)

There are also image thoughts overlaid on perception. One type of these are interpretations and suggestions for what the perceptions are, such as in image of a car put on top of a particular sound. Others are overlaid on perception and create a sense of extent, continuity, center and periphery, and so on.

This noticing is in real time, as it happens, during more formal practice sessions and also daily life.

And this differentiation of the sense fields, and particularly thought, also helps me see how gestalts are formed through the combination of sense fields.

For instance, what may appear as an emotion is just a sensation and a story about this sensation. And what appears as a separate self emerges from the combination of perceptions in a particular area of space (bodily sensations, and sights and sounds from this human self) and image thoughts of a separate self. The image thoughts of extent (space), continuity (time), center and periphery, seeing and seen, seer and seen, doer, and so on, helps flesh out this particular gestalt, making it appear very real if not see directly as this conglomerate of components.

Imagining a world

As I continue to explore the thoughts through choiceless awareness practice (labeling the six sense fields, including thoughts) it becomes easier to directly see thoughts, and their effects, as they arise here and now. The jumble of perception and thoughts mixed in with each other is differentiated, which makes it easier to see what they are in their selves, and also how they combine to create gestalts.

It is especially interesting to explore the image thoughts, thoughts mimicking the visual field. These are overlaid on most perceptions in different ways, and serve as cues for emotions and reactions, and as a source of material for discursive thoughts.

The basic image thoughts include…

  • Space, a visual image of space overlaid on perceptions, creating a sense of space and of perceptions spread out and located in particular areas of space.
  • Continuity. Or rather, an image of time (past, future, present) with memories of perceptions overlaid onto it. Without this, no sense of continuity.
  • Body image, which serve to map bodily sensations, smell and taste, and other perceptions. Body images also serve as a guide for identifying sensations that can serve as an anchor for a sense of a separate self, and then amplify these sensations when needed through tension, so they are more prominent and even give a sense of solidity to lend to the sense of separate self. And body images also serve in locating thoughts in and around this body, even thought they arise nowhere and everywhere in immediate perception, prior to this particular filter.
  • Separate self image, and an image of a center here and periphery our there. This one is usually anchored to the body image. The body image serves as a guide for where to place the separate self image, and where the center is located in space. Space image > body image > separate self image > center/periphery image > identity images > etc.
  • Identity images, defining how this particular separate self is different from other ones. As soon as there is a sense of separation between this separate self and another, I can find an image to go with it, and see how this image is taken as real and identified with. For instance, there is physical attraction, and I see that images of me as man and the other one as woman is there, triggering the sense of attraction (along with other images saying what is attractive). And in seeing that, the solidity of it falls away (although it is still available to play with).
  • Boundary images, as permeable or more solid, creating an I and Other, and an inside and outside.
  • Metaphors we organize our world by, such as up=good, down=not so good, etc.
  • And even the archetypes in a Jungian sense…. the wise old man, the hero, and so on.

They are all image thoughts, organizing and mapping perception, serving as cues for emotions and reactions, providing material for discursive thought, and much more. And they are all directly seen as they arise, overlaid on naked perception.

Labeling practice is very helpful, which helps me see how image thoughts are placed on top of just about any perception. A sound, then an image of a crow. A sound, an image of a car on the road. A sensation, an image of the ankle. A taste, an image of the mouth and tongue, and an apple.

Simple experiments are also helpful, such as first visualizing my left hand with eyes closed, then move the hand and notice how the image of the hand moves with it, then opening my eyes and notice the perception of the hand with the thought image of the hand overlaid.

Lately, as I go about my daily life, I can especially see how identities only come from image thoughts, overlaid on pure perception.

Visual on visual

During the most recent CSS retreat, the teacher mentioned how thoughts are most embedded in the visual field, as opposed to the other ones (sensations, taste/smell, sound).

When I explored it for myself, I found that thought seems equally “embedded”, or rather laid on top of, each of the sensory fields. In my case, and I assume this is somewhat common, there is a layer of visual thought images put on top of each sensory field: There is a sound, and a faint image of a car is put on top of it. A taste, and an image of the nose/mouth/throat area and an apple. A sensation, and an image of an ankle with a mosquito bite.

This is the same for each sensory field.

What is different, is that with the visual field, visual thought images are put on top of visual perceptions. There is visual on top of visual, which can make it more difficult to differentiate the two.

One way to differentiate, which we did during the retreat, is to close the eyes and become aware of, for instance, the visual thought image of the body, particular body parts, and how they move in anticipation of a movement of the body, or to keep track of current movements of the body. Then, we can open the eyes and get a sense of how the visual thought images are placed on top of the visual perceptions. With some practice, they become quite distinct.

Working with Choiceless Awareness

At the two CSS retreats I have been to, Choiceless Awareness has been the main practice, and I can see why. It can be a finely tuned tool for exploring the workings of the mind, the mechanisms of samsara, and what is (already) more true for us.

The main progression, over the course of the retreat and also within each session, is from stability practice (focusing on an object such as the breath or a mantra), going through the sense fields and noticing what arises in each (sensations, sight, sound, taste/smell, thought), and then inquiring into a particular process or area in more detail.

When we go through the sense fields, we can do it one by one (seems useful to get into it), then label whatever attention goes to (sound, sight, taste, thought, etc.), and we can also move into just noticing which field something arises within without the self-talk, and finally shift into Shikantaza, just sitting, or true meditation as Adyashanti calls it.

Some of the inquiries we can engage in using this tool…

  • We can notice impermanence in each sense field, how everything arises and passes away within this timeless now of awareness. We can also notice how this impermanence is alive in immediate timeless awareness, while any other forms of impermanence comes from a story and happens within time. In other words, this is the only one outside of thoughts, and the other ones are only found in the inside of thoughts.
  • We can explore thoughts specifically.
    • We can explore image thoughts put on top of perceptions.
    • For instance, without the visual field (eyes closed), we can explore how the body and the space within and around the body is represented in thought, and how movements of the body is mirrored in changes in these visual thoughts. The visual thoughts are laid on top of perceptions, identifying what arises, and also giving rise to a sense of a body (overlaid on sensations) and space in general (body+wider world). For instance, a sensation arises in space, in the area where the body-image says a foot is, and it is taken as an itch on the side of the foot. A sound arises, and it is taken as the sound of a bird just outside the window.
    • Bringing in the visual field again, we can actually see the image thoughts superimposed on the pure visual perceptions, and the difference between them. We can also notice how anticipation of a change in the visual field is actually a change in the visual thoughts superimposed on the visual field. For instance, I see the teacher sit there with the stick for hitting the gong, and the visual thought shows me him moving to hit the gong while the visual field shows him sitting with it in his lap.
    • In exploring impermanence within each sense field, we can see how image thoughts create a sense of continuity. Perceptions arise and fall away within timeless awareness. Any thought about them is a thought of what was, a memory. And in this way, a sense of continuity is created. Without thought, no continuity.
  • We can explore emotions, and see how they are made up of sensations and a story about these sensations. When this is seen, and the story is not believed in or engaged with, there are no emotions anymore. There is not the label of emotions. And also, we see that what arises as an easily recognizable emotion from the gestalt of sensation+story (when its components are not clearly seen), now is something quite different, often something that we couldn’t label very easily (beyond simply “sensation”) even if we tried.

This is obviously a very limited list, mainly because I have a quite limited experience with it so far. It strikes me that this form of inquiry is quite similar to in the Big Mind process, with choiceless awareness with a more narrow focus, and the Big Mind process spanning a much wider range of areas of inquiry.

CSS retreat and thought images

I just returned from another excellent CSS retreat, this time led by Todd who brought a wonderful fullness of heart and emotion into it along with the usual (unusual) clarity about Ground awakening that any of the teachers at CSS express.

Some of the things that came up for me using the choiceless awareness practice (labeling the six sense fields, then in this case exploring thought specifically)…

First, the new stuff…

  • There is the very familiar layer of discursive thought (self-talk), and also the layer of labeling images, labeling whatever arises in the sense-fields. For instance, something arises (bird song) and an image of a bird is placed on top of the sound. Or I close my eyes, and can still see a pale vaguely defined image of my body there, and any body part. There are sensations (swallowing) and an image of the swallowing mechanism placed on top of the sensations. A sound (lawn mover) and a vague image of a person pushing a lawn mover placed on top of the sound. These images provide a preliminary suggestion or interpretation of the perception, and serve as a fertile ground for discursive thought to arise and draw from if discursive thought arises related to that perception. These are interpretive labeling images.
  • A particular type of labeling images seem to provide cues for emotions. A perception arises, an image label suggesting what it may be is placed on top of it, and sometimes, another image label is added which provide emotion and mood cues. For me, these have color and texture as cues for what emotions and moods to trigger. (I need to explore this more to see how it plays itself out, and am also not sure if this is the same for everyone. I tend to associate words and concepts with color and texture anyway, a mild case of synesthesia, so I suspect this may be different for many others.)
  • Another type of labeling images seem to do the same for the truth content of a thought, either as really believed in or as conventional (relative) truth. For me, thoughts seen as true appear as yellow, while those less true as pale and neutral. The ones really true (believed in and taken as true) appears as bright slightly orange yellow. And those with only conventional truth as a more gentle yet still bright yellow. Weird, I know, but possibly due to synthesia.

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