In my view, awareness is a conscious and/or subconscious recognition of ‘what is’. But it’s very easy to confuse ‘what is’ with ‘what we think is’. The difference between awareness and thinking is like the difference between the room you’re sitting in and an artist’s painting of the same room. The former is the reality, while the latter is simply a representation of that reality. Like the painting, thinking can be coloured, but in its case by perceptions, assumptions and biases…and while thinking is of course very important, it can also be very unreliable. The question we’re left with, then, is how might we train to build our awareness?
A common way to start is with exercises that draw attention to the breath. For example, sitting quietly, we bring our attention to our breathing, focusing on the mechanics and quality of diaphragmatic breath control. Each time the mind wanders, we gently bring it back to our breath. While this is a great starting point, though, my preference is to develop the quality of my attention in the course of my daily life by practising ‘noticing’.
My Shinto Muso-ryu teacher advised me to recapture the state of mind that seamlessly brings ‘noticing’ back to the forefront of our daily life. As he says, the reason we are alive today is because our ancestors were survivors — they survived for millennia in very hostile environments. Built deep into us is the mindset that was innate to them and that we require, but it has become increasingly dormant as a result of overexposure to the illusion of safety in the modern world. He suggested we tap back into the mental state of our ancestors; the human engaged in the hunt for its survival, balancing the search for food and resources with the equally important task of not becoming food for another predator. We know this state — it sits deep within all of us and needs no learning, just ‘remembering’. It is not a reversion to animal instincts, but quite the opposite: it’s a reminder of how the human distinguished himself from other animals.
Try this simple game: as quickly as possible, determine whether people are left- or right-handed. How? There’s the watch, of course, or, from the rear, the pocket containing the wallet. Or the direction the belt tab faces, or the direction of their tea cup handle. And when in doubt, you can pass them something. You can also simply watch people with a view to understanding what’s on their mind. Are they happy, stressed, impatient, waiting for someone, busy or even teeming with latent aggression? (Naturally, try not to be conspicuous when observing people in case you draw the wrong kind of attention to yourself.)
You could also play ‘spot the difference’ as you walk or run around your area, or the local shops. Is that car always in that driveway? Do they mow the park every second Thursday? Was that shop window set up like that yesterday? This encourages us to study people and places, to be alert to our environment and to be aware of its rhythms and patterns.
If you want to extend your awareness training, consider the following. The fire brigade recommend that we install smoke alarms but also practise fire drills regularly. How many people actually do that at home with their families? Try this: Crawl as fast as you can from your room to the nearest exit with your eyes closed, or maybe to your children’s rooms, locate their beds and then crawl to the nearest exit. If you have a fire escape plan, do you have a home security plan? Have you assessed your home to maximise the safety of its occupants? Does it include strategies to survive a home invasion? Do you practise them?
External awareness must be complemented by inner awareness. In self-defence courses we talk about the need to know your ‘bottom line’ — how far you are willing to go to survive. Don’t confront this question when a real crisis arises; consider it now, make your plans and then regularly rehearse them mentally, if not physically.
To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if you know your enemy and you know yourself, you will never be defeated. Is the enemy the violent drunk outside the pub, or is it the lack of outer and inner awareness that put us there with him?
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