The Anatomy of Awareness

by Loch Kelly

That everything is included within your mind is the essence of mind . . . Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one. Big mind and small mind are one. When you understand your mind in this way, you have some security in your feeling.”
—Shunryu Suzuki

Vortex from DeckWhat we experience is based on our way of perceiving. If we use our eyes, we see one thing, but if we use a microscope or a telescope, we see other realms of reality that have been there all along. I have enjoyed witnessing thousands of people discovering their natural capacity to see in a new way for the first time. People have described it as putting on a pair of glasses, or moving from black-and-white to color TV.

Most people tend to focus on appearances and objects that exist. “Existence” comes from the Latin root word existere, meaning to “stand forth” or “appear.” Our common understanding of existence is “that which is real,” but the word actually refers to appearance: what can be seen or felt. Awake awareness is real even though it’s invisible and empty. There is existence and the awareness of existence, but it is also possible for us to be aware of awareness. There are other dimensions of consciousness that we can experience when we discover awareness-based knowing.

One reason we don’t usually see our basic awareness is that we’re always looking out from it. We can only look from awake awareness when it has recognized itself. Awake awareness is like a lamp that illuminates both itself and objects in the room. Usually we turn our focus outward, becoming fascinated with objects and the interpretations our thoughts offer. Discovering awake awareness means learning how to look back to the source of light and then how to look from the clarity of awareness.

Awake awareness is natural to all human beings. It is not exclusive to any religion, creed, or culture. We’ve all had glimpses of awake awareness. At those times we’ve felt like we’re resting in our true nature—open, loving, connected, free of worry, and yet able to respond to things as they are with curiosity and courage. These experiences of feeling free and alive are our most cherished times.

Awake Awareness, Consciousness, and Thinking
Awake awareness as spacious awareness is formless and contentless, yet knowing. It is the foundation of all types of thinking and knowing. Spacious awareness is what makes consciousness aware. Spacious awareness is independent of circumstances and conditions, thoughts and emotions. Consciousness is the appearances, the formations, the patterns—like a ray of sunshine, a flower, or an ocean wave. Awake awareness is inherent within all types of consciousness. Like a wave, consciousness moves, but it never separates from the ocean of awake awareness, which is inherent within all consciousness. Consciousness is the spontaneous expression and creative activity of awake awareness. Awake awareness is always the ground of being—permeating and connective—like the quantum field from which individual particles or waves appear.

There are many types of consciousness (patterns of experience) such as emotional consciousness and hearing consciousness. Thinking is a form of consciousness. When we say we’re doing something consciously, we’re using thinking consciousness, which uses thought to look to other thoughts to confirm that we know what we know. Awake awareness is nonconceptual awareness. Whether or not there are thoughts on the screen of our mind, awake awareness is the background intelligence we can learn to recognize and trust.

Awake awareness is inherent within thinking consciousness, but when awareness becomes identified with thinking, it creates an “I” consciousness. The witnessing awareness gets lost in the world of thoughts. This type of consciousness is called ego-identification because we consider this identified state to be normal, to be “me.” The purpose of separating awareness from thinking consciousness is to liberate us from the illusory sense of self that is at the root of our suffering. Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, said: “As soon as one can distinguish between consciousness and awareness, the ongoing construction of the self ceases.”

By using glimpse practices, we can discover directly that awake awareness is the primary dimension of consciousness, and thought is secondary. Spacious awareness is like empty space. Not inert space, but knowing space. It is the innate, formless intelligence that exists prior to thought, yet it also exists within thought; it is able to know thought and can use thought when needed.

The Hindu tradition identifies four natural states of consciousness. We know the first three very well: ego-consciousness, our everyday waking state; sleep; and dreaming or daydreaming. The fourth natural state, turiya in Sanskrit, is spacious awareness that is inherent within all four states. It also recognizes a fifth “stateless state,” turiyatita, which is when spacious awareness is realized as the ground of our Being.

When awake awareness is experienced as the source of consciousness, there’s a lack of craving and fear, along with a sense of peace, wellbeing, and clarity. When awareness remains as the primary dimension from which we experience life, other dimensions of consciousness can move freely and return to their natural functions.

When you are abiding in awake awareness, you can experience different essential qualities when formless awareness first contacts different aspects of your consciousness. When awake awareness connects to hearing, you may experience silence. When it contacts thinking, you may feel peace of mind or have an insight. When spacious awareness is embodied, you may experience it as inner-body presence or bliss. When it contacts your emotions, you may feel joy, wellbeing, or a compassionate connection. If it contacts your language center, you might experience a “still, small voice.” When awake awareness experiences your physical senses you may feel it within as stillness. From the visual sense, the experience can be boundless space, emptiness, or clarity. Every experience of awake awareness in touch with consciousness is somewhat different.

Distinguishing conceptual thinking from awake awareness has three steps: first, we glimpse awake awareness; second, awake awareness becomes primary and knows itself; and third, we know from awake awareness within our physical, emotional, and thinking consciousness. As you explore the practices in this book, you’ll find that you can experience spacious awareness just as naturally as you experience the other, very familiar states. The important thing is to recognize that spacious awareness is the source of knowing and to begin to see that it’s not dependent on thinking.

What Is Spacious Awareness?
Awake awareness is like a diamond with different facets that show up at different times. Spacious awareness is the boundless, timeless, contentless, invisible, and yet knowing expression of awake awareness. Spacious awareness is also inherent within physical forms and energetic patterns. It is important for spacious awareness to know itself as the primary dimension, both as the nature of mind and the ground of Being. Then spacious awareness can include all dimensions of consciousness without becoming identified or lost. The journey of awakening does not end with spacious awareness but continues to reveal presence as awareness embodied without going back to ego-identification.

The natural qualities that we search for externally—peace, joy, connectedness—arise from within on their own when spacious awareness is primary. Spacious awareness, though empty like space, is knowing. Getting used to the feel of this new, nonconceptual knowing without checking back with thought is one of the most important transitions for abiding and living from open-hearted awareness. We can begin to understand the feeling of spacious awareness that reveals itself in two ways: through emptiness and knowing. Then we discover embodied awake awareness and its compassionate expression as open-hearted awareness. Spacious awareness is absolute pure potential, the potential to know, manifest, create, or to be anything or nothing.

SPACIOUS AWARENESS IS EMPTY Emptiness, which is so essential in Eastern meditation traditions, is often misunderstood in the West as meaning the “absence of anything,” like an empty cup or a vacuum. The word empty in this context does not mean “blank” or “vacant.” The Sanskrit definition, sunyata, comes from the root word svi, meaning “ripe with possibilities”—like an empty womb. A traditional definition for emptiness is “the invisible life force within a seed that makes it capable of growing into a tree.” Invisible, but alive and real. This invisible life force is not only empty and alive, but also awake and aware.

Emptiness also emphasizes that there are ultimately no independent, separate things; not because everything is unreal or an illusion, but because everything is essentially interconnected and interdependent. The apple on your table does not exist independently from the soil, the sun, the rain, the air, the farmer who picked it, the trucker who brought it to market, the grocer, or the checkout person at the store. None of these things or people is separate from the apple—or from each other. There is no independent, separate apple.

Another important emphasis from Buddhism is the emptiness of self: anatta. One aspect of anatta is similar to neuroscience’s insights: there’s no entity or part of the brain that is the location of a self. Through mindfulness meditation, we see how the experience of “I” is a continuously changing process of consciousness. Having stepped out of ego-identification, spacious awareness is aware but selfless. We also begin to see the emptiness of possessions and accomplishments that we believed would satisfy this illusory self. From spacious awareness, we experience relief from suffering created by the feeling that we should get something or get rid of something.

Spacious awareness is invisible. It’s not solid, nor is it a thing, separate from anything else. Although awake awareness is not a substance and is empty of all relative existence, it is not empty of itself. It is not empty of true nature. While absent of content and form, it’s full of life. Spacious awareness is not energy. It is formless, pure consciousness that precedes the arising of patterns such as thoughts. For this reason, it’s variously called pristine awareness, naked awareness, or contentless awareness. Spacious awareness is vast and infinite, unlimited by boundaries; when we realize the emptiness of a separate self, we feel boundless awareness.

 Spacious awareness has been described as unconditioned awareness because it’s not reliant on conditions. Unconditioned awareness doesn’t change when circumstances or conditions change. It knows without the use of conditioned memory.

Others refer to spacious awareness as unmanifest awareness. The Latin root word mani means “hand,” so unmanifest means that spacious awareness can’t be held in our hands. Importantly, it cannot be experienced by our five senses or thinking.

SPACIOUS AWARENESS IS KNOWING Spacious awareness has been called natural wakefulness because it’s not information-based intelligence that’s created or developed, but is discovered to be already naturally awake and aware. It is also called clear light awareness; however, it’s not energy or physical space, nor is it literally light. Here, “light” is used as in the term enlightenment. Think of a light bulb in an unused attic room. The moment the light turns on, everything is seen—no matter how long the room has been in darkness. Light represents the clarity of the new, nonconceptual knowing that sees things as they are.

Nonconceptual awareness is another term that might be helpful for getting a feel for this expression of awake awareness. Nonconceptual doesn’t mean we’re experiencing a baby-like prerational stage. Spacious awareness is more of a post conceptual, advanced level of intelligence that’s sometimes called wisdom mind, which includes and permeates conceptual knowing. Wisdom mind is the subtlest, most primordial dimension of mind and the source of intelligence, also known as the nature of mind or mind essence.

 Thinking or believing cannot experience spacious awareness, which has been called thought-free wakefulness because it doesn’t use thought to know. However, when spacious awareness is the primary way of knowing, thoughts and experiences continue to arise and are included within spacious awareness. While spacious awareness is free of thought and concepts, it is nevertheless inherent within all human activity, and able to use thought.

When local awareness—the second expression of awake awareness—goes to spacious awareness, then spacious awareness is aware of itself, without subject or object. Thus, it’s been called the “unseen seer.” Spacious awareness cannot be known as an object; it can only know itself.

As pure perception, spacious awareness can see everything directly, as it actually is, without projection. Pure perception sees through delusion to perceive the awake, empty nature within everyone and everything. As poet William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” 3

 When we’re operating from thought-based knowing, we look to thought to know; we think about thinking, ruminating, obsessing, and orienting by thought. When we shift into spacious awareness as the ground of Being, then thinking goes into the background and we don’t see pop-ups and multiple programs running on our mind-screens. Then, our conceptual minds are quiet but, just as we can use our hands at any moment, we can use thought whenever needed. Awake awareness in its fullness is empty, knowing, loving, and embodied.

What Is Nonduality?
The art and beauty of practicing dharma becomes more and more subtle and profound as we learn the dance of the relative and absolute truths . . . When we first start practicing, we are typically at the conventional or relative level, which when practiced well can eventually lead to a realization of the absolute. However, the final stage, which we are speaking about here, is the realization of the inseparability of the two. TSOKNYI RINPOCHE4

 Shifting into freedom is not a matter of transcending the human condition; it’s an expression of nonduality, of formless awake-awareness living that expresses itself as different forms of human consciousness. The goal of awakening is to realize our full potential as human beings. Understanding the experience of nonduality is essential for living from open-hearted awareness. There are a number of definitions of nonduality. My understanding of nonduality is that it encompasses two simultaneous levels of reality: the relative and the absolute. Relative reality is how things appear to us in everyday life, the experience of different patterns of energy and forms that are observable with our senses.

Absolute reality is empty spacious awareness. Spacious awareness as the absolute level of reality is the underlying ground of relative reality. From absolute reality there are no separate or isolated things. On the relative level, a tree is a distinct object. Don’t try to drive through it with a car! On the absolute level, however, a tree is not a separate entity. The tree is made of cells, chemicals, atoms, and quarks that are mostly empty space.

Some people define nonduality as exclusively absolute reality and consider relative reality to be an illusion. Some use the word “nonduality” to mean emptiness only, and others mean “pure” awake awareness only. These two definitions emphasize going beyond perceiving from our dualistic mind. However, if you don’t consider including dualistic thinking, then you’ve created a new duality. My understanding of nonduality is closer to what’s described in the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

When you shift into timeless, contentless, spacious awareness, you’re experiencing what could be called “not duality,” because you’re not operating from the dualistic mind. However, that is not nonduality because it does not include relative reality. Some people use “nonduality” to mean “oneness,” but there are many words in Sanskrit for “oneness.” The word advaita means “not two” and refers to the paradox that the two levels of reality are not separate. That the two levels of reality are inseparable doesn’t mean they’re reduced to one; instead they’re paradoxically experienced as two, one, many, empty, and simultaneously all.

In Buddhism, nonduality begins with distinguishing that there are two truths before seeing that they are simultaneous. Those with the view of relative truth only fall into the traps of materialism, intellectualism, and ego­centeredness. Those with the view of absolute truth only fall into the traps of nihilism, escapism, and world-denying ethical relativism.

Nonduality simultaneously includes both oneness and the many, both empty awareness and all appearances.

Rather than being the opposite of duality, nonduality includes duality. In fact, it includes everything. Nonduality recognizes the inability to conceptually describe reality. It tries to avoid the extremes of nihilism (says everything is really empty), materialism (says that relative reality is the foundation of reality), and externalism (says an essence or oneness is unchanging).

Our everyday thinking mind, our senses, and our ego-identification cannot perceive absolute reality; they can only view the world from relative reality. We cannot live in the world from absolute reality only. Awakening does not change reality. Awakening shifts our view so we can perceive from absolute reality, which is already inherent within relative reality. This is why when you are based in awake awareness, you can drive a car without crashing into that tree I spoke of earlier.

Nondual Wisdom
A high IQ, being at the top of your college class, or winning at Trivial Pursuit has nothing to do with nondual wisdom. Wisdom begins when awake awareness is the primary operating system that organizes information, memory, relationship, communication, and your sense of identity. In Tibetan Buddhism there are two types of ignorance that create suffering. Shifting into the awareness-based operating system clears up the first type, called “conceptual ignorance,” which is when conceptual thinking creates an illusory sense of self. The second type, co­emergent ignorance, is when appearances and forms are not recognized to be spontaneous self-displays of awake awareness, and they are taken to be either illusion or real, separate things.

Nondual wisdom begins with embodied awareness that includes the necessary discriminating functions of the mind, but it leaves behind the internal critic with its fear, sense of separation, and controlling aggression. Self-judging and self-consciousness are absent. Instead, our normal judging functions are transformed into the discriminating wisdom of open-hearted awareness. As we shift into nondual embodied awareness, we feel less judgmental and more compassionate. Then we develop a more mature conscience, along with a humble sense of integrity and compassion.

The wisdom and knowing from awake awareness may initially feel very slow compared to the fast-moving thinking of the everyday mind. Awake awareness doesn’t consciously reference thoughts; instead it rests within a wisdom that’s intuitively connected with all that we know. When the everyday mind looks out through our eyes, the first things we notice are separation, differences, and judgment. In comparison, embodied awake awareness first recognizes that which is the same in all of us, and then sees and appreciates our individuality. From this way of knowing, everything in the world feels interconnected, like dancing opposites or a unified field.

The following glimpse practice will allow you to experience the expressions of awake awareness as four fields of your ground of Being.

GLIMPSE 1 The Four Fields of the Ground of Being
Physicist Stephen Hawking, PhD, says that in order to create a universe, “You need just three ingredients: matter, energy, and space.” 5 These are three of the fields that we are going to experience. However, we are adding a fourth field, awareness, which allows us to be aware of all four fields. The first field of the ground of being is objectless, thought-free, boundless space in which things are happening and appearances arise.

The second field of the ground of Being is energy, the aliveness happening within the boundary of the body. This second field can be called the subtle body and mind. The body at its most physical or coarse level is often thought of as what it looks like: skin, bones, and muscles. But the subtle body is what our bodies feel like from within as aliveness in many patterns of consciousness. In order to feel this second field, we won’t focus on any particular thoughts, emotions, or stories, but directly feel aliveness, energy, and sensations. This second field is where ego-identification could form, but in this subtle-body level of experience, patterns of thought won’t form into an ego-identity.

The third field of the ground of Being is matter, what we see in front of us in the physical world. It includes interaction with people, nature, situations, and activities. The fourth field is awake nondual awareness that is within all the other three fields and perceives a unity without a self-referencing viewpoint.

You can begin this glimpse with any of the three main ways of unhooking awareness: unhooking and dropping into the body, panoramic awareness, or shifting from hearing to spacious awareness. Select the way to begin that works best for you (physical, visual, or auditory). Or just begin with the first step below if that works for you.

  1. Have local awareness unhook from thought and intentionally shift to the space behind your back.
  2. Allow local awareness to surrender and mingle with the formless and contentless space, until spacious awareness is discovered to be already aware by itself.
  3. Take your time until awareness has fully detached from your thoughts and sensations.
  4. Be aware of discovering and shifting into the already-awake field of spacious awareness. Wait here until awareness is aware of itself.
  5. Now, as you intentionally surrender back, feel the field of spacious awareness that is already looking forward and mixing with the aliveness and energy in your body.
  6. Observe what it’s like when awareness is the primary way of knowing your body from within. Feel the waves of aliveness dancing within the ocean of awareness.
  7. Marinate in this embodied awareness.
  8. Now notice that awareness is already unified with all your senses, thoughts, and feelings from head to toe without any effort needed.
  9. Now notice awareness going out from the middle of your chest to connect with everyone and everything in front of your body.
  10. You may feel a connection to everything, or as if everything is alive or lit up from within.
  11. You may see everything as simultaneously connected, empty, and particular, or just simply Being itself as it is, without any thoughts projected onto it.
  12. Now, feel spacious awareness equally behind, within, in front, and all around your body.
  13. You may now feel the three fields of matter, energy, and space as one continuous self-sustaining field of aware presence.
  14. Begin to feel spacious awareness moving from in front into your body and then back to the support of spacious awareness behind your back.
  15. Notice that any information coming in through the senses naturally continues back and through the subtle-body field to be received by spacious awareness.
  16. Notice what it is like when your identity is not centered in the field of ego-identification. Ask: “Where is ‘I’?” Scan the middle field to see if a separate sense of self as an object or subject can be found. Upon not finding any point of view, notice the seamless field of aware presence, both formless awareness mixed with aliveness within and objects in the world in front that are not separate on the essential level but simultaneously are unique appearances of energy and physical form.
  17. Surf the ocean of awareness. Your breath is a wave moving from inside to outside, and outside to inside. Local awareness is the surfboard. Ride your breath back to spacious awareness, then forward through the inner-body field to connect to what’s in front of you; then ride back again through the inner-body field to the spacious awareness behind you without creating an identity in the middle field of your body-mind.
  18. Now feel all four fields at once. Feel aware, infinite, finite, nowhere, everywhere, here, and now.
  19. As you move from the support of spacious awareness behind you, feel the embodiment of love. Go out with open-hearted awareness to connect to all beings.

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Loch Kelly, MDiv, LCSW, is the director of the nonprofit Open-Hearted Awareness Institute. He is an educator, licensed psychotherapist, and recognized leader in the field of meditation who was asked to teach Sutra Mahamudra by Mingyur Rinpoche and nondual realization by Adyashanti.

Loch has graduate degrees in psychology and spirituality from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, where he was awarded a fellowship to study meditation traditions in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. Loch collaborates with neuroscientists at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University in the study of meditation to discover ways to improve compassion and wellbeing. For more information, visit the Open-Hearted Awareness Institute website at

Adapted from Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness, by Loch Kelly. Copyright © 2015 by Loch Kelly. Published by Sounds True, Louisville, Colorado.