We wrote recently about the differences between mindfulness and meditation, as they’re often used interchangeably. Another combination of words we hear often are awareness and mindfulness. Although they may seem similar, we actually can understand these two words as different aspects of the path.
What is Awareness?
First, let’s consider what awareness actually is. It’s a word we may throw around, but what does it actually mean to be aware of something? I think the answer is rather simple. It means to be conscious, or cognizant of something at one of the six sense-doors.
A lot of stimulation comes in through our sense doors, but the only a small portion comes into the conscious mind. The nonsconscious mind processes information we are never aware of. That’s because it is much more efficient, and only feeds the conscious brain what is important or necessary.
When we are aware of something, it is present in our conscious mind. It may be a smell, a taste, a physical feeling, a sight, a sound, or a thought. We are aware when these experiences come into our consciousness. And, we can train in this ability and encourage awareness in and out of formal meditation practice.
I covered the idea of awareness triggers in the post 17 Ways to Be More Mindful in Everyday Life, and also cover a few ways to encourage awareness in my book Practicing Mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is another great way to dedicate some effort to opening our awareness and seeing what is present.
Here’s an example of awareness… You are sitting at your desk working during the day. You’ve had a sore knee for a few days. Although it is there and sore, it’s not present in your mind and you are unaware if it. When you stand up, you notice the pain in the knee. In that moment, it has come into your awareness.
That description of awareness may have sounded like mindfulness to you, but it’s not. It’s missing an important piece. We discussed this a bit more in-depth in our post What is Mindfulness?, but the idea is that present-time awareness is just the first step toward mindfulness.
The other piece to make mindfulness complete is recognition. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on establishing mindfulness, there is a section on “clear comprehension.” In this section, the Buddha instructs the monks to know the purpose, the suitability, the resort, and the reality of the action or experience.
What this means is that a core part of mindfulness is a recognition of the usefulness and consequences of what we are experiencing. We can recognize reactions in ourselves, how something may impact others, and how an experience relates to other experiences.
Let’s go back to the sore knee example. You stand up and notice your knee hurts. This is awareness. Recognition is seeing that the act of standing up made the feeling come into your awareness, recognizing the unpleasant nature and that you immediately fall into aversion, and perhaps seeing that self-compassion is a response that will lead you away from suffering and toward some freedom.
Awareness Isn’t Enough
The reason I write about this topic and share quite a bit in my talks on this is that it’s crucial for our practice. I so often hear that mindfulness is just about being present. It’s not. Yes, it’s an important part, and often where we start with our practice. But it’s just an incomplete way to practice in the end.
As the subheading above suggests not-so-subtly, awareness is not enough on this path. I often use the example of violence. If we slap somebody across the face, but are present and aware we are doing so, does that make it good or skillful? Of course not. Here, bare awareness fails us.
Awareness, on its own, is useful. But what happens when we’re aware and behaving unskillfully? Or when we’re aware and in intense pain? We need other qualities and practices in order to respond skillfully to what we are experiencing.
We may need to cultivate some compassion for when the pain is present, or some mudita for when there’s joy. We also need the mindfulness to know the wholesome way to respond. If we are truly aware of our pain in a given moment, but have no tools to use, we aren’t really progressing.