Many of us attempt to practice meditation as a useful tool, without really understanding how the Buddha intended for us to use it. In Western Buddhism, we sometimes use meditation terms too loosely, without really understanding what they mean. A case in point would be the terms “bare awareness” or “bare attention,” which can confuse would-be meditators, depending on how or by whom they have been taught.
Some may explain that “bare awareness” means detached focused observation of arising phenomena, in the moment and empty of reactive associations. This seems sound, but others might wonder if contemplative observation might better be designated as “bare attention,” understood as getting in between bare arising phenomena and the mental reactions to them—the term “bare attention” thereby being more specific and active than the more general term “bare awareness,” suggestive of simply standing back and seeing without reacting.
Yet others will note that as long as the conventional self-perception element is present, the mind will be incapable of seeing wholly and clearly. Some may contend that this is just a question of loosely translated Pali terms, while others may say that “awareness” and “attention” are interchangeable synonyms, so this should not be seen as a problem. But a problem does seem to exist—at least for interpreters, who become confused by what they perceive as a lack of clarity in terminology—so let’s examine more closely and try a more investigative approach.
Some will explain that (because it is hard to start off being pure and perfect) in order to keep language simple, “bare awareness” should be seen as the watching/observing of one object only, such as the in-and-out breath, free from anything else. Others will assert that “bare attention” actually means being conscious of what is going on in the mind at any given moment and focusing on purifying arising mental actions. Yet others may remind us that anything defined using conventional, worldly words, labels, and concepts will contain conceptual distortions, so we remain stuck with an uncomfortable paradox.
When one is confused in the face of such a paradox, there is no harm in looking further into the question. The above options may all be said to be right, as far as they go, but maybe not quite right when they do not go far enough.
Complex? Perplexed? Indeed!
Let’s examine so-called cognition more closely. Certainly, most will agree that “bare awareness” means focusing on “one thing in one moment.” However, that “one thing” need not be the same for everyone. For example, what is happening (mentally-corporally) in the moment may be focus on the breath (as an initial, calming process), or it may be focus on de-energizing the fire of the mind (to cool it so it can concentrate).
Certainly, most will agree that watching the mind straying from the breath is a helpful activity, as long as we see where the distracting impulse is coming from, where it is going, and why we don’t want follow it to its ultimately, unsatisfactory end. Most would agree that the mind needs to cool down and come to rest. But how do we do that?
One way is concentration on the breath, remaining focussed on the in-and-out breaths until it becomes so refined that conscious awareness of the breath eventually ceases, leaving only a state of bare awareness. This method of practice is explained in well known passages in the suttas, for example in the Anapanasati Sutta.
Another way, which may be somewhat less well known and less commonly practiced, is the process that the Buddha described of observing, analyzing, and understanding the mental process from the moment thoughts are consciously arising in the mind. This is known as vipassana or insight meditation.
Today’s generation, which feels full of fear and restless anxiety, would do well to learn about insight meditation—an investigative, analytical method of observing the workings of the mind as a basis for right concentration, for insight, and resultant mental contentment, which is probably not as widely known and practiced as it should be.
Too often, when we are trying to concentrate on the breath, the mind will try to charge blindly about like a wild elephant on a rampage, tearing through the tangle of the jungle in a state of raging abandon and maybe even in pain, and even when we are not feeling physical pain, the mind will habitually wander to points of mental pain in the form of disappointment, dissatisfaction, irritation, anger, distress, anguish, and so on.
Even when we are trying to make the mind calm, cool, and collected, a part of the mind-within-the-mind will resist being made to hold still in a potentially clear, cool pool of inner tranquillity, while trying, perversely, instead to stir-up mischief and continually create and promote mental instability.
On both the conscious and subconscious levels, the mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Even when we think we are cultivating bare awareness on an objective level, covert impulses of the mind may be working on dangerously deceptive, delusional, or even savage primal subliminal levels of which we are only vaguely unaware.
Once we have learned to discern where, when, why, and how the deceptive mind enjoys being carelessly naughty, we need to develop counter-strategies to constrain its capacity for creating mischief, harm, and havoc. We must always be on watch to catch the hidden, shadow intentions of the covert enemy within the mind, to discover what strategy our “imp of the perverse” is up to, and then contrive ways of not allowing him to act out obstinately and aggressively in order to get his way.
Devising a discipline of the “mind watching the mind” requires slow, heedful, rigorous training, but when we consider the harm and damage an untrained mind can commit when left unrestrained, we realize that, because there is no easier way out, the arduous, strenuous energy thus expended will certainly prove to have been a wise investment once it has begun to bear fruit.
If we continue learning through practice to see through the subliminal intentions behind arising consciousness, we will be more mentally balanced and healthy in the end. However, since getting to the point of uncovering our own unsavory, unconscious motives only occurs toward the end of the middle of a long, arduous process leading toward an unknown and unrealized end, we should always keep the Buddha’s teachings in mind on the gradual training and resolutely continue observing and regulating and modifying our own meditation practice for consistency and purity.
At some point, we begin to realize that there is more to the Dhamma than just learning from books and following conventions, and we begin to look more closely at the Buddha’s instructions on what to do, especially once we recognize that Dhamma practice is based on understanding the tenuous and vulnerable relationship between the body and the mind.
At some point, we begin to understand that to proceed on the path as best we can, we have to devote our full energy to developing a mental culture of observation and investigation from the moment we awake in the morning until we sleep at night and, sometimes—once we have become firmer in our foundations—maybe even in our sleep.
“Bare awareness” implies a detached focus on one thing at a time, but what that one thing is can vary. In breathing meditation, it normally means focusing steadily on the in-and-out breath, while “bare attention” in insight meditation may also focus on any phenomena, both coarse and refined, which arise in the mind in the moment, so that any potentially arising unwise intentions that would lead to unwholesome mind-body actions might be skillfully caught by the scruff of the neck and curbed and moderated beneficially as a result of heedful observation, wise attentiveness, and wholesome action.
In breathing meditation, we may focus on bare awareness of the breath without bias or judgement. In insight meditation, we direct attention to the mental formulation in the process of arising to disturb the focus of the mind thereby attempting to displace the original meditation object.
“Bare awareness” may be taken to mean concentrated perception focused merely on one arising sense experience alone, prior to any other association or reaction; whereas “bare attention” may be taken to mean a state of attention focused on the reaction to arising phenomena, in the process of changing, within the mental thought moment, in order to understand how and why and what is happening.
For the purposes of this discussion, “bare awareness,” then, may be said to mean bare observation of mind-body sensations prior to any arising mental associations. “Bare attention,” meanwhile, may be taken to mean an act of observing a mental action, while heedfully watching mental thought moments for arising mental intentions, leading to mental reactions—while standing back with detachment and analyzing potential energy sources as causes in the processes of arising mental associations, then catching and cutting them off, if they are unskillful, thereby avoiding the development of unwholesome attachments that will lead to reactions and effects that will habitually upset mental balance and equanimity.
In meditation, we realize that a pivotal problem is consciousness of a “supposed-self”—intending and trying to nourish and protect its interests and thereby satisfy itself. So what we need to do is to penetrate through the conscious intentions directed toward selfish gratification and bring the mind back to the level of bare, non-active sense awareness. This awareness is prior to any arising associations to external elements, in what may be seen as nothing more than an organism contacting but not yet reacting to external impulses. While this may make intellectual sense, it is not so easy to do.
Moreover, if mindfulness is the quality of bare attention that knows what is here in the moment, there are, in fact, many possible mind objects that may be observed and analyzed. And which we may see, if we closely examine and practice the steps of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path (the Way of Mindfulness), which, if practiced properly, may serve as a guide and beacon through the treacherous shoals of the inevitable, previously uncharted, perilous waters through which we must navigate in order to survive in the course of our lives.
Indeed, if we are to save ourselves from the devious designs of our own uncontrolled, unrestrained minds, our meditation practice must always be heedfully observed with the determined aim of clearly seeing where its strengths and limitations lie.
In this context, it would be appropriate to review the steps along the path, as explained by the Buddha in the Pali texts, particularly in the Satipatthana Sutta, as translated by Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera and discussed in his famous book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. In this way we can avoid the dangers of self-gratification by double-checking and watching our motives, following the Buddha’s instructions about how to hone the knife of knowledge and using it to discover our way out bondage, thereby cutting ourselves free from dangerously deceptive hidden mental hindrances and attachments. Instead of running into obstacles based on self-consciousness and arising out of our vainly anticipating gratification at an always-unreachable end, let’s instead go back and review from the beginning what the Buddha said about The Path to Deliverance, following the outline as translated and authoritatively rendered by Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera in his well-respected book of that name. *
All of the titles below are available for free download.
Nyanaponika, Mahathera. 1962. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. London: Rider and Co.
Nyanatiloka Mahathera. 2000. The Buddha’s Path to Deliverance. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Nyanatiloka Mahathera. 1967. The Word of the Buddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.