I'm aware of typing on my laptop right now.
And after writing those words, I'm also aware that I'm aware of typing on my laptop. This second type of awareness is called meta-awareness, a term I came across in a book I'm reading, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body."
The authors, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, write:
When we did our first vipassana courses in India, we found ourselves immersed hour after hour in noting the comings and goings of our mind, cultivating stability by simply noticing rather than following where those thoughts, impulses, desires, or feelings would have us go.
This intensive attention to the movements of our mind boils down to pure meta-awareness.
In meta-awareness it does not matter what we focus our attention on, but rather that we recognize awareness itself. Usually, what we perceive is a figure, with awareness in the background. Meta-awareness switches figure and ground in our perception, so awareness itself becomes foremost.
I consider this a deeply false way of looking upon awareness.
Goleman and Davidson appear to view awareness as a thing, rather than as a process. How else would it be possible for them to say, "we recognize awareness itself"?
But awareness isn't a thing. It is part of what the mind does, and the mind is the brain in action. So how could awareness either be in the background or the foreground of consciousness, if awareness isn't a thing?
Further, the authors seemingly believe in what neuroscience rejects, that there is a "self" somewhere inside our head that looks out upon the world via the senses like a submarine commander looking through a periscope.
I say this because of the phrase they use, "...we recognize awareness itself." Who the heck is "we"? It must be someone or something that is separate from awareness, because if it wasn't separate, recognizing awareness wouldn't be possible.
We can recognize objects in the world, or other people, because they aren't us.
But since awareness is closely akin to experience, if not identical with it, I find it difficult to conceive how anyone could be aware of awareness, or have an experience of experience.
I suspect that Goleman and Davidson are fans of "pure awareness," though so far I haven't come across this term in their book. They do quote Sam Harris in their chapter on Attention, and Harris is a believer in pure awareness. I wrote about this in "Questions I had in Sam Harris' 'Waking Up' meditation chapter."
Talking about himself in meditation, he [Harris] writes:
There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels.
Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses -- and that the idea of a "pure consciousness" apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.
It's hard to believe this passage made it into Harris' book. I guess he didn't have a good editor. Or maybe any editor. It simply is non-sensical.
Sam, you have a Ph.D. in neuroscience. You also go to sleep every night. So you know about dreaming. We are conscious when we dream, but we don't have a "reference point in any of the usual sensory channels."
So who are these scientists and philosophers who supposedly believe consciousness always is tied to one of the five senses? Methinks you made them up. Dreaming proves it isn't.
However, this talk of a "blissful expanse of conscious peace" is very different from "pure consciousness" -- unless that term simply means consciousness that isn't aware of, or paying attention to, external sensory inputs.
Obviously Harris' consciousness was impure in this sense: it contained various internal mental objects. Bliss, an expanse, and peace. Harris also had to feel separate enough from this internal feeling to be able to remember it. So some sense of "I" apart from the blissful expanse of conscious peace must have been present also.
Dualism is hard for us humans to give up when it comes to our own minds.
It feels like consciousness, or awareness, is something ethereal, clear, separate and distinct from matter, even "pure." But almost certainly that feeling is an illusion, since there is no evidence that awareness can exist apart from being aware of something.
Again, awareness is a mental process, not a thing. Alan Watts got this right way back in 1951, in one of my favorite books, "The Wisdom of Insecurity." Here Watts gets it exactly correct, in my opinion:
While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it? Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer? Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it? You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief time stop reading.
The first experience is reading. The second experience is the thought, "I am reading." Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, "I am reading?"
...When you were thinking, "I am reading this sentence" you were not reading it. In other words, in each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never aware of being aware. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience.
To be aware, then, is to be aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires, and all other forms of experience. Never at any time are you aware of anything which is not experience, not a thought or feeling, but instead an experiencer, thinker, or feeler. If this is so, what makes us think that any such thing exists?
Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson should have asked it of themselves before claiming that it is possible to "recognize awareness itself." Actually, this isn't possible, as Watts cogently points out.
Awareness always is aware of something, because awareness is a mental/brain process, not a thing. Awareness really is us, not something separate from us, since without awareness we don't exist as conscious beings.