In part 1 of this series, I defined the term meditation object and discussed why, and when, we might choose a single object for practicing meditation. In part 2 I reflected on using sound as an object for practice. In part 3 we covered using the broader object of other body sensations (besides the breath) while sitting or in activity. And part 4 discussed the art of including distractions into our meditation to help support continuity of mindfulness. I suggest reading those posts before this one if you haven’t read them already.
When we completely release paying attention to a single class or category of object (e.g., breath, body, sound), we have entered the realm of choiceless awareness. This type of practice allows attention to go wherever it’s drawn. We may be feeling the breath for a time, then feel another body sensation, then notice a mood in the mind, watch a thought develop, return to the body, and so on. This shifting of attention between objects may happen quickly at first and then may settle on objects for longer periods as the mind relaxes and calms. Unlike “single-object” meditation, there is no preference as to object, but there is just as much diligence called for in maintaining awareness in the present moment. Also like “single-object,” we do build up continuity of mindfulness by repeatedly returning to the present, even though we may be returning to different objects. Eventually we may find ourselves in a kind of “field mode” where we’re resting with the awareness as it watches the objects of experience change, condition new experiences, arise and pass away.
This means that in choiceless mode, we can easily start to see the interactions of different aspects of our experience. For example: a sense experience (a pain in the body) followed by the mind’s reaction to it (“ouch, that hurts! Is something wrong with me? Am I permanently injuring myself by sitting in this position?”), followed by noticing the body gripping in tension under influence of those fearful thoughts, followed by another surge of pain related to the tension, and so on. In other words, we see the cause-and-effect chain of experience rolling on. It can’t be hard to imagine how seeing the causal chain so clearly can also reveal where in the chain we can experiment with intentionally turning our mind and body in different directions. For example, recognizing the fictional nature of the catastrophic/fear-based thinking around body pain can help us stop believing in those thoughts, which in turn relaxes the body, which lessens the pain, etc.
So in terms of cultivating the conditions for this sort of clear seeing, it doesn’t matter what object we’re seeing, what matters is that we’re mindfully aware, moment after moment. For some of us, choiceless awareness can be a more effective way to develop this “continuity” of mindfulness because we’re not forcefully corralling our attention into staring at the same object for ages. We all need interest to keep our attention engaged. Some people find interest in the breath—and in particular the calm and bliss they experience during breath practice. Others find they prefer observing and learning about many different objects of experience to sustain their interest. You may find yourself in one or the other camp at different times of your practice life, or even in one day (for example when on retreat). There are skillful times to deploy each technique. Besides the interest factor that supports continuity of mindfulness (we’re interested in what we’re seeing, so we want to keep looking), I have found that choiceless awareness is a very relaxed practice, because we’re not directing our attention anywhere in particular, and a relaxed and contented mind also supports continuity of mindfulness. There’s literally no way you can fail, as long as you’re noticing something!
Technically, even with choiceless awareness we still have an “anchor” that we return to again and again, but instead of the anchor being an object like the breath or sound, it’s the recognition of whether or not we’re aware. To stimulate the recognition of awareness in choiceless awareness mode, I might periodically internally ask myself “Am I aware right now? What am I aware of?” (Or if you prefer, use the passive construction of “Is awareness present? What is being known/seen?”) So it’s the “am I aware?” question/intention that is our anchor, what we return to when we wake up from being lost in thought. For example, in the moment I wake up from a planning storyline—“Ok, I was just planning and unaware of the present, now I’m aware again. What am I aware of? What is happening right now?” And then just watch and feel whatever presents itself—sound, sensation, breath, emotion. Let awareness show you everything you ever wanted to know about yourself, and stuff you maybe didn’t want to know, but is necessary to see if we want to learn how to free ourselves from suffering and stress.
This mode of practice can be confusing, especially if you’re used to single-object awareness, or if you’re new to mindfulness are still learning to notice when you’re aware and when you’re unaware. You might be confused about what to do, or what to pay attention to. If you’re trying out choiceless and find yourself struggling with confusion, just drop the open mode, and go back to attending to a single object, like the breath, to get clear and stable in your awareness.
Choiceless awareness done unskillfully can also lead to drifty, spaced-out mindstates, where we think (or pretend) we’re being mindful but we’re really just zoned out. This can be related to not knowing what to pay attention to, and is often a low-energy state associated with “sloth and torpor,” or laziness of attention. So part of developing an effective practice is to honestly assess how it’s going for you, and skillfully respond. If the state of your mind right now is low energy and disinterested, wanting to just loll about, then choose a single object to practice with to increase your energy and presence. Some walking practice could also help in that case, paying full attention in the movement and feeling your feet connect to the ground. Get present, grounded and embodied, then open up again to choiceless mode.
Also, if the state of your mind right now is that you’re getting lost thinking a lot, it might be better to choose a single object to practice with for a while until your attention steadies in the present. Then try releasing the object and shift back into choiceless awareness. You can continue switching every few minutes between single-object & choiceless modes as needed. Eventually, the aim is to rest in choiceless awareness for longer periods, once you get the hang of it.
When to use choiceless awareness
- When your meditation and/or your mind or body are tight and tense
- When you’re trying too hard to achieve, see, get, or do in your practice
- As an insight/wisdom practice
- to observe your mind responding to stimuli moment after moment, thus understanding cause & effect and the nature of your habitual responses. This paves the way to choosing wiser responses.
- to see the nature of your experience as changing, compounded, contingent (the 3 characteristics of reality)
- To cultivate more mindfulness during your daily life. It’s difficult to practice single-object or walking meditation while interacting with people and doing your job and driving. But with a choiceless awareness practice you can watch your mind and body all day long!
- When you don’t have time to do “formal” sitting practice on the cushion. Practice choiceless in daily life to continue with your mindfulness training even if you can’t find your way to a cushion. (Note daily life practice is not a replacement for formal practice—they compliment each other.)
To reiterate from another post, clearly seeing the causes of stress is what teaches us how to let go of those causes and experience freedom from stress. It’s an easy formula: more mindfulness = more freedom. A choiceless awareness practice makes every moment in your life an opportunity to develop continuity of mindfulness and insight; not just when you’re sitting on the cushion or practicing at retreat. Imagine how much insight and wisdom you might cultivate by watching your mind all day long!