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The Elixir of Awakening
Starting with a personal anecdote of a moment of being shocked into awareness by Brugh Joy in 1975, Richard describes the essential need to develop the witnessing capacity of the aware ego — observing and feeling what arises in our bodymind while remaining in non action.
I’ll tell you a story of one of the first times that I was shocked into witnessing consciousness. It was 1975. I was at a long retreat with a man named Brugh Joy, the first retreat he ever gave. I was one of about 20 people there. And in the middle of the retreat, we had a couple of days of silence, quiet.
And I became really concerned that I would be invited to participate in some event that he had alluded to, the teacher. So I began to ruminate about this and think about this and become really quite obsessed in my mind about it. And I wrote a note, a short note, saying that I think it’s really important that I’m there. And I brought the note to him and we were in silence. And he looked at my note.
He picked up a pen and he wrote something brief and he handed it back to me. And what he wrote was, who wrote this? And in that moment, I flipped from identification with what I wanted, with where I was going, what I thought was important, and I became very consciously– I’m sure not for the first time– but, in the most lucid way, aware that a part of me, a needy part of me, an expectant part of me, an ambitious part of me had written that letter. And that moment of that aware aspect of my ego, that conscious part of my ego that could see the, let’s call them subpersonalities, or inner dynamics that were behind this impulse of mine to get myself invited to this event was so vivid. I actually had a moment of shame. It was like, ah, I was exposed, naked.
Well, it becomes essential for us, in our journey, the difference between thinking and losing ourselves in thinking versus being aware that we think. It’s not that thoughts are the problem or that thinking is the problem. It’s that we forget that we are thinking. And we believe that all the urgency, all the importance that we are giving to our thoughts, to what we want, to what we don’t want, to how things should be or shouldn’t be. The whole dynamic of mental constructs of– psychological mental constructs– we’ve become so absorbed in them. And yet, if we want to, we can take a step back and begin to witness this part of ourselves.
Where does this is part come from? How is it that we can be aware of our thoughts and, therefore, not identify with them? How is it that we can experience our feelings, or sensations, the emotional atmosphere that’s present in us. And even if we can’t separate from it, we can at least say, oh, here I am with a kind of anxiety. Or, here I am with a kind of sorrow.
This quality of awareness, this quality of self-observation, which we have to be very clear, is not a judge. It’s not going to be unkind to us for what it sees. And even though I said for a moment I had shame, it was because of the shock of realizing how unconscious I had been, how really unconscious I had been. So the process of developing an aware ego, a witnessing consciousness, is essential to our journey of waking up, our journey of awakening.
And in order for us to do that, we have to learn to give our mind some particular activity. And this is what meditation practice is about. For example, learning to observe your breath, learning to rest your awareness with your breathing, learning to gradually focus your mind. It’s not that the goal is to become– exclude everything and just be able to focus your mind. The goal is by giving yourself something specific to do, it becomes obvious when your consciousness takes you away.
When it takes you away into identification with what you’re worried about or with conversations you haven’t finished with other people or you think need to be done again in some other way. All of the different ways that were pulled into our mind, to be able to have a witness to that, and gradually the sophistication of our witnessing will deepen, and you’ll begin to get interested in the witness itself. And as you begin to get interested in the witness itself, you’ll be moving back closer and closer to whatever we want to call fundamental or a central consciousness.
But it isn’t it that we want to reach some realization of consciousness in its purity, unified consciousness, non-dual consciousness, whatever words you want to use. What we really want to be able to do is approach closer and closer to that essential consciousness, and at the same time, make our mental constructs, the feelings that we’re identified with, the behaviors that we’re unconscious in. We want to make them objects that we can observe. We want to make them aspects of our nature that become clearer and clearer to us.
Because as that happens, they lose power over us and we begin to have more equanimity and we begin to have a sense of calmness. We’re less perturbed by situations. And so, as the witnessing consciousness, the aware ego develops, it’s like an intermediary between whatever we mean by fundamental consciousness– the spiritual literature will talk about it as Rigpa in the Dzogchen tradition. Or it’s even the Dow or– but it has just many names.
But what we’re pointing to is prior to all categories. As we get closer to it, we begin to be able to see more and more clearly what we’ve done to ourselves. So this aspect, what we’ve done to ourselves by identifying with our beliefs, like I did when I walked in with my note, all serious about how important it was for me to be recognized and included.
I could look back and laugh now but that was 40 years ago, more than 40 years ago. And to this day, there is never a day in which some sense of the breathing, some sense of observing, of witnessing, isn’t ongoing continuously. Otherwise like most people in the world, we just drown in our thinking. We forget that we are thinking.
And if we become identified with our thoughts, if we believe our beliefs, then we’ll oppose those who believe other things and are identified with their beliefs and we go down into the pattern of conflict that is so pervasive in human affairs. So the aware ego, the witnessing consciousness– so, so important. Ask yourself the next time something’s really important to you. Who is it important to? Or even right now. Ask yourself, what is it in you that’s making it possible for you to hear me? Thank you for this few minutes together.