I'm an easy sell when it comes to books about meditation. Especially when they have a title like Opening Awareness: A Guide to Finding Vividness in Spacious Clarity.
Hey, give me some of that vividness, especially if it's found in spacious clarity, leaving aside the minor problem that I had no idea what those lofty words meant. So I sent $15 off to Amazon.
The basic meditation approach presented in the book is what I think of as open awareness. Not focusing or concentrating on anything specific, just being aware of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, breathing, whatever, without seizing on any of these contents of consciousness.
Here's a description of the approach in the online version of the book.
The method is simple: sit and remain uninvolved with whatever arises.
Ordinarily, we remain involved with experience. For example, an itching sensation arises on the skin and we scratch it. We tend to cognitively elaborate what is occurring, with ideas, thought-stories, imagination, even the focusing of attention. Remaining uninvolved is to experience whatever is happening without engaging, elaborating, or acting in response.
Remaining uninvolved is not ignoring.
Imagine lying in a tent, hearing the sounds of the night outside. They take place in your field of experience: you are neither straining to hear them nor actively shutting them out. So long as you remain aware of experience as it arises, potential for involvement is available, even while it is suspended. While lying in your tent, if you heard an animal in distress, you could decide to become involved and help it. By contrast, ignoring experience eventually shuts it out of awareness completely, until there is no potential for involvement.
Without involvement, conceptual elaboration of experience tends to subside. As elaboration subsides and awareness remains, immediate, unelaborated experience becomes more apparent. This unelaborated awareness is sometimes called “direct experience” or “as it is.”
Remain uninvolved … with what?
With anything, with everything.
Well, this makes sense. Sort of. Because the printed version of the book also says:
This may seem paradoxical at first. The overall aim of the path is passionate engagement with the fullness of life. That is the opposite of uninvolvement. However, opening awareness leads to spacious clarity, within which we perceive all of life with new, more vivid accuracy.
We can find that spacious clarity in every other activity. Opening awareness trains us, through remaining temporarily uninvolved during practice sessions, to find clarity even when fully involved.
I've got some problems with this, because I've come to view meditation and everyday life as being pretty much the same thing, since mindfulness is my current way of meditating and I aspire to mindfulness during the rest of my day.
However, otherwise I'm enjoying the book. It takes a relaxed approach to meditation.
Whatever works for you is the basic advice. And in a section called "Scaffolding practices," familiar methods like remaining aware of the breath, or counting breaths, are recommended as adjuncts to the sit and remain uninvolved approach.
What I definitely resonated with in an early section was a discussion of two basic views of what meditation is all about: renunciative and life-affirming. For about 35 years I was a member of an India-based organization headed up by a guru whose teachings were definitely in the renunciative camp.
The goal was to leave this physical world behind and find a better one in higher realms of reality. To do that, it was necessary to beware of the Five Deadly Foes, lust, anger, greed, attachment, egotism. So really serious stuff. Vows were taken of no sex outside of marriage, no use of alcohol or recreational drugs, no meat, fish, or eggs.
Nothing wrong with all that if that's what you want in life. But I observed many instances of fellow initiates becoming rigid, moralistic, judgmental, holier-than-thou, and generally not pleasant to be around. Stifle normal urges and emotions and you've got a textbook renunciative theology.
Here's what the book says on this subject.
A meditation system's view profoundly shapes its goals, and so its path, and so then its methods. "View" is a term for an overarching collection of assumptions about how the world is and what meditation is for.
Contemporary society has inherited many different, sometimes incompatible views from multiple eras and cultures. Ancient views may remain implicit in a meditation system, informing its attitudes and goals. Making views explicit draws attention to potential internal contradictions. It may reveal unexpected ways a path is incompatible with your own views and purposes.
In Evolving Ground we draw attention to two broad categories: renunciative views and life-affirming views.
Many religious systems are renunciative: they see everyday life as inherently impure, and so to be abandoned. Most meditation methods originally evolved for renunciative purposes in renunciative settings.
They were designed to help you sever human relationships, in combination with a life of celibacy and abstinence in a monastery. Meditation was meant to enable a metaphysical escape from a cycle of suffering and rebirth by withdrawing from all connection with the defiled and defiling world.
The aim was enlightenment: a state of eternal perfection, free from the emotional turbulence of ordinary life.
Opening awareness is not designed for cloistered, monastic life. It is accompanied by a life-affirming view, and is designed to help you experience aliveness and connection in relationships.
A life-affirming view regards emotions and self, suffering and enjoyment, relationship and involvement in practical affairs as natural and pervasive aspects of human experience. Opening awareness practice prepares you for spacious involvement with all life's circumstances -- work, family, and society. This spacious involvement is the basis for enjoyable, useful activity in the world.
The renunciative view accompanying a meditation method may sometimes go unnoticed. How do you know when a worldview is implicitly renunciative? If emotions, self, and suffering are seen as inherently problematic obstacles, and it aims to overcome them with meditation, that's a sign of a renunciative view.
Most widely-available meditation methods, ancient religious ones and modern secular ones, were devised to subdue emotions by detaching from them altogether. "Non-attachment" and "letting go" commonly describe such renunciative methods. The purpose may be to "calm the mind."
"It wasn't until I realized how lonely and frustrating it was for my wife being married to the equanimous, distant version of Jared that I started to wonder if there was a different way to approach my meditation practice." -- Jared James, Evolving Ground cofounder
By contrast with renunciative methods, opening awareness clarifies the mind so that the full range of physical and emotional experience is available without conceptual elaboration. With a life-affirming attitude any experience you encounter is welcome.
Spacious clarity includes everything that arises in experience, without ignoring, rejecting, or cutting it off. No sound is distracting, no thought is bad, no experience is wrong. Emotions and sensations come and go in awareness. Disturbing thought-stories and images gradually dissipate when they have space to do their own thing.
As your mind clears while maintaining awareness of everything you perceive, you feel more connected with the world, not less. In this experience of vivid connection, everything seems immediate and fresh.
Developing this friendly attitude towards everything that arises in your sitting practice will have positive repercussions in your relationships. Although opening awareness is most often a solitary practice, its aim is relational transformation, and beyond that social transformation.
This is a path of celebration, of down-to-earth realism, of uplifting courage, of gentle precision, and of open hearts.