Sunday, January 27, 2008

Developing and Directing Awareness: The Key to Meditation

If, as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then the journey of meditation begins with the cultivation of awareness, or attention. In fact, awareness is the mental muscle that carries you along and sustains you on your journey, not only at the start but every step of the way. No matter which path or technique you choose, the secret of meditation lies in developing, focusing, and directing your awareness. (Incidentally, attention is just slightly focused awareness, and I use the two terms more or less interchangeably throughout this blog)
To get a better sense of how awareness operates, consider another natural metaphor: light. You may take light for granted, but unless you’ve developed the special skills and heightened sensitivity of the blind, you can barely function without it. (Have you ever tried to find something in a pitch-dark room?) The same is true for awareness: You may not be aware that you’re aware, but you need awareness to perform even the simplest tasks. You can use light in a number of ways. You can create ambient lighting that illuminates a room softly and diffusely. You can focus light into a flashlight beam to help you find things when the room is dark. Or you can take the very same light and concentrate it into a laser beam so powerful that it can cut through steel or send messages to the stars.
Likewise, in meditation, you can use awareness in different ways. To begin with, you can increase your powers of awareness by developing concentration on a particular object. Then, when you’ve stabilized your concentration, you can, through the practice of receptive awareness, expand your awareness — like ambient light —to illuminate the full range of your experience.
Next, you can concentrate even further in order to cultivate positive emotions and mind-states. Or you can use awareness to investigate your inner experience and contemplate the nature of existence itself.
These four — concentration, receptive awareness, cultivation, and
contemplation — constitute the major uses of awareness throughout the world’s great meditative traditions.

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