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A Technique of Living
Leonard A. Bullen
The fourth month
THE PATH OF INCREASING AWARENESS
FROM certain viewpoints it can be said that the evolution of the mind consists largely in the intensification of awareness on the one hand, and, on the other, the expansion of awareness.
Let’s consider it in this way. In some situations awareness needs to be intensified but not expanded. If you’re carrying out a difficult repair on a delicate piece of mechanism, such as a watch, your consciousness needs to be concentrated and you need to be aware of only a limited range of sense-impressions, covering only those relevant to the work in hand and excluding all others. That is to say, your awareness must be intensified but not expanded.
In other circumstances your consciousness needs to take in a very broad field of sense-impressions. If you’re driving a car in heavy traffic, for example, it is very necessary to be conscious of a large range of sense-impressions without generally concentrating on any one of them. You need to be aware of the car ahead, of pedestrians crossing the road, of vehicles coming towards you or darting out of side streets, and of anything and everything that could conceivably constitute a hazard. You may have a chattering passenger or a back-seat driver, or perhaps a restless child in the car.
All these factors and sometimes others as well demand that you spread your attention over a broad sphere of awareness: your awareness needs to be expanded, not concentrated. It must be intensified in a certain sense as well as expanded, also, in that you must keep at a high pitch of alertness, but it is not intensified with regard to any one object or at any one point to the exclusion of others.
Now while some things that you do demand some degree of alertness or awareness, either in a concentrated form or in an expanded or diffuse form, there are many other activities that you carry out with little or no awareness. These activities are largely the things that you do by habit.
In any habit, your awareness tends to sink to a lower level, and because of this you give little or no thought to the purpose of the activity or the exact manner in which you carry it out. It takes on a mechanical character.
In many cases this mechanical nature of a habitual activity is a good thing, for it leaves you free to devote your awareness to more important activities. It is true also that if too many of your general activities are based on habits, both of thought and of action, your whole life tends to sink into the unthinking drift; but in its sphere habit has a real function. That function is to set the consciousness or awareness free for more important things.
When you set out to work on the problem of breaking a bad habit – a habit that gives rise to adverse consequences – you must first realise that you probably retain some of your habits, good and bad, largely because they yield some form of satisfaction; and this is true, very often, even if they also cause dissatisfaction of another sort.
Before you begin to use self-discipline on a habit, then, it may be as well to make some attempt to analyse it in order to find out whether or not it yields any satisfaction, and then to find the nature of the satisfaction it yields, a satisfaction that in some cases may not be apparent on the surface. And if you are successful in doing so, it may then be necessary to find a way to gain the same satisfaction in another way.
In this matter it is not possible to do much more than generalise. The main point is that you may I find that self-discipline alone is not always adequate in attempting to break a bad habit, and in many cases it is necessary to develop an increasing mindfulness of your own mind – its hidden motives, its half-recognized greeds, hatreds, and delusions – in order to clear a field in which self-discipline can work more effectively.
In any form of mental culture it is generally better to work for an all-round improvement in the mental operations as a whole than to devote too large an effort to one isolated characteristic. There are exceptions, of course, as for example when that characteristic , is so bad that it justifies concentrated effort.
In any case, no single trait can rightly be considered on its own; it must be considered in relation to or as a part of the whole mental structure considered as a totality.
Many of your habitual activities have no special moral significance and play little part in strengthening or weakening the mental functions.
In driving a car, for example, your habitual response to situations encountered on the road – traffic signals, a dog darting across the street, and so on – have no moral significance. But sometimes, perhaps, you habitually respond to traffic jams by impatience, or you thoughtlessly become angry with pedestrians who foolishly wander into the road without looking. Impatience and anger are habitual responses which need to be dealt with, not only because they are of an adverse or retardant nature in themselves, but also simply because they are habitual.
There are other examples of unmindful or habitual responses which may need to be handled, largely because they are habitual. There is the habit of complaining about the weather, about the rising cost of living, and about what other people do or fail to do. The point is that when you complain about these things it may be that you do so as an automatic or mechanical release for your adverse emotions. In the present context, it is in the mechanical or habitual nature of these complaints that the fault lies; your complaining may be justified, or it may not, but that’s another matter of secondary importance from the present viewpoint.
You need some sort of release for these emotions, of course; but habitual and unthinking releases are retardant because they come about without mindfulness, and because your mind is then in a rut.
The thing to do is to try to develop an awareness, a watchful attitude towards your own responses, and to try, whenever the situation allows it, to act in a manner directly opposite to the old mechanical way. If you want to raise your voice in anger, try to speak quietly. If you feel a tendency to turn away without speaking, try to make a courteous reply. If you feel a desire to strike out verbally or otherwise, try to react in a kindly way.
In all such situations, the thing to do is to react in a manner directly contrary to the automatic, mechanical, or habitual response. This will help to weaken and break down the adverse mental factors involved and also make the mind keener.
Building up new habits involves the use of increased awareness or attentiveness. One habit worth cultivating in most cases is the habit of observation, and this forms the subject of the practical work for this period.
Mindfulness has many aspects. That is to say, there are many things towards which you may direct increased attention and many directions in which you may cultivate greater awareness. From the Buddhist viewpoint, the chief value of mindfulness lies in directing the attention inwardly and in cultivating a penetrating awareness of the physical and mental phenomena that together constitute your own "current of existence", your own self.
However, from the viewpoint of greater efficiency in the workaday routine, there is generally some scope for increased mindfulness with regard, to external things as well as for inwardly-directed attention. Some of us need to cultivate a penetrating awareness not only of our own mental state but also of the things around us.
This applies more to the introvert than to the extraverted type of man or woman. If you are naturally an extravert, you will tend to have an inherent tendency to take notice of things around you and of events going on in the external world; you will have an acute power of observation together with a retentive memory for all such things.
You may then conclude that you have no need for increased outwardly-directed mindfulness. But this practice, although primarily one in which. the attention is directed to things and happenings outside you, doesn’t stop there; it is meant to be linked up with self-observation as well. In other words, you can use your observational powers to take notice of your own emotional reactions to things and happenings around you as well as of the things and happenings themselves.
If, on the other hand, you tend to be a little too introverted, and if you feel that your powers of external observation need to be developed, you may feel that the cultivation of attention towards external things would help you, not only towards greater efficiency in your workaday life, but towards a better standard of general mindfulness. It is quite possible that an increased attentiveness towards your outer environment would reflect itself in a greater awareness – and thus in a greater control – of your emotional biases and faulty perceptions.
To undertake this practice, then, you make up your mind to observe the various objects in your immediate environment in greater detail and with greater care. If your powers of observation are already good, your primary objective would be to pay special attention to your own emotional reactions to the things, people, and events that affect you.
Some things will stimulate your desires and start trains of thought in your mind. Some people will irritate you and arouse resentment and other forms of aversion. And some events will bring out your self-assertive tendencies.
The three basic mental factors that most retard progress, according to Buddhist psychology, are selfish desire, aversion, and self-assertion; and to deal with them the essential step is to become aware of them.
If your powers of observation are already well developed, you can give primary attention to your own reactions. If, on the other hand, your powers of observation are not as good as you would like them to be, you should use this practice to improve them. In that case you can make the detailed observation of external matters your primary aim in this practice.
In any case, it will help considerably if, whenever you can, you slow down your own activities in order to observe or to perceive things more carefully. For most of the time you will probably be unable to do this, but if you set out to slow down when you can, you will establish better habits of observation which will carry over into the more hurried periods.
At first, perhaps, you would do well to restrict your increased observation to one small sphere; for example, to the people you meet in the course of the day’s work and other activities. At some convenient time recall several people and jot down the colours of their hair and eyes, their facial characteristics, and some details of the clothing they wear. Or if you prefer if, take the houses you pass on your way to the, railway station and set out to observe them in greater detail; then, later on, see if you can describe them in yourself in detail.
It is worthwhile to take an occasional walk with the specific objective of observing the details which you normally miss.
The essence of this practice is pure observation; it is not meant to be a form of memory training, although, of course, the memory will benefit. There are systems which employ various tricks of mental association; the rhyming and alliteration of words, acid the building up of vivid and sometimes ludicrous mental images as aids in memory-training; but these tricks – useful and beneficial as they are – should play no part in the present practice. You are, in this connection, interested in pure observation as an aim in itself and not as a memory aid.
Apply the self-contract method of self-discipline to the practice, and when you find you have neglected to use an opportunity for pure observation impose on yourself some small penalty.
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last updated: 03-04-2005