Filters and open awareness (edited)
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. / I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. / For the time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free
In today’s post I’ll be writing a bit about my own experience with the Wheel of Awareness, the hub of awareness, in particular, while referring to Dan Siegel’s book AWARE and citing an article I read on how to gain freedom from your thoughts and the benefits of meditating and practising open awareness.
The Wheel of Awareness practice helps us focus and direct our attention to different aspects of our experience. It is a metaphor of a wheel and along its rim are places where we can direct our attention and place our focus. Moving anti-clockwise we can place our attention on our five senses, then we can scan our body and rest our attention on breathing, gut sensations, heart, muscles, bones, flow of blood, and any aches, sensations and tension that may arise. Then we focus on things like thoughts, emotions, memories, beliefs, hopes or images that might arise. We then move on to our experience of interconnectedness beginning from our family to other humans, to animals, plants, the planet, the Universe, and any other sense of connection that is relevant for us bringing compassion, kindness and love to the whole experience.
The benefits of practising mindfulness through the W of A and other practices are many. Joan Borysenko, PhD, writes: “Developing mindfulness of the connections between mind and body is a form of intelligence just as important as IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence), or social intelligence. As awareness deepens, bodily sensations provide feedback and guidance about every aspect of your life—from nurturing relationships to enhancing effectiveness at work. By acting on this information you can reduce stress, balance your life, and maximize your innate potential for health, creativity, and spiritual growth.” Summarily, other benefits can be reduced stress levels; increased emotional and mental well being and empathy; better access to intuition; resilience; clarity; reduced inflammation and a stronger immune system. It can contribute to better physical health and slow the process of aging.
In an article on how to gain freedom from your thoughts at:https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_gain_freedom_from_your_thoughts, Dr Dan Siegel focuses more on open awareness. He writes: “If you practice meditation, you probably spend a lot of time training your focus—on the breath, the body, or your wandering thoughts and feelings. Another valuable skill is called open awareness, where we simply rest in the awareness of awareness, feeling what it’s like to be conscious without paying attention to anything in particular.” He writes that according to journalist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, the brains of longtime mindfulness practitioners look different when they are practicing open awareness meditation. Gamma waves—which, for most of us, occur briefly and in one spot of the brain—are elevated all across their brains, corresponding to the sense of vastness and spaciousness they feel. Neuropsychiatric researcher Judson Brewer and colleagues also found similar electrical patterns during a range of meditative practices that are called “effortless awareness”—a state of being aware of whatever arises as it arises.”
So, as I mentioned above in the W of A, we imagine awareness lying at the center of a hub and sending out spokes of attention to the various points on the rim. To practice open awareness we visualize bending the spoke of attention around so it points back into the hub or if we begin the practice with this part we simply rest in the hub. Dan Siegel writes that “while open awareness is one of the most advanced contemplative techniques, my research and clinical experience suggest that it has the potential to offer us more freedom, peace, and well-being in our lives. We can experience a sense of expansiveness. As I captured in a systematic survey, these descriptions share very similar themes of love, joy, and wide-open timelessness.”
When I first began practising I decided to create a W of A journal of what became salient in each segment of the practice, which covered a two year period from 2014 till 2016. I found out that although the rim experiences changed from day to day or from one sitting to another the experience in the hub was more or less consistent at a thematic and felt sense level. The phrasing changed, but basically that which was arising remained consistent. Even if there was grief or fear and aches on the rim, in the hub of awareness or deep beneath the layers of experience was a place of expansiveness and equanimity.
Some of the things I jotted down over time were:
“I expand beyond the pain across time; I am a particle of the universe. I am at peace; I am not fearful of its vastness; peace; clarity, knowing and connection to the one connecting truth; inherent knowing of the essence of self; all is protected; I recognize the essence of me when I stand still; true essence in flow; coherence and equanimity; connected to life; reclamation of my space; clarity beneath the sea of experience; there’s peace under the rubble; below the interference of experience there is knowing and peace; liberty lies within me….”
In the article cited here D. Siegel says that Social neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has also found that these attentional states are associated with neural firing in primitive brain stem regions associated with the most basic life processes. This state of awe and gratitude, this joy for life, is an inner sense of vitality and a relational sense of connection to the larger world around us. We can propose that open awareness naturally gives rise to the subjective experience of joy, awe, and peace—of meaning, love, and connection.
He goes on to explain that without open awareness we see the world through filters that can constrain our experience and keep us stuck in painful patterns of emotion and behaviour and that neuroscientists call the brain an “anticipation machine” because in order to predict and prepare for what is going to happen next, it constructs a perceptual filter that selects and organizes what we actually become aware of, in other words. it influences the information our brains receive based on our past experiences. D. Siegel writes: “Filters shape what we focus on and help us survive: If we are driving a car, we need to be scanning the road ahead for obstacles and primed to step on the brakes rapidly, filtering our options to a select few so that we can react quickly when needed. Filters help us make sense of life and feel safe and secure in an often confusing, unpredictable world. As the military and other organizations like to say, we live in a time of “VUCA”—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In this challenging moment in human history, certain people may be hardening their filters unconsciously in an attempt to make the world seem more predictable and less threatening—one potential way of understanding today’s extreme worldviews and sharp political divisions.”
Unfortunately, filters can reinforce themselves and they give us the impression that what we perceive through them is accurate or complete, in some sense this could be viewed as the basis of confirmation bias, where we selectively pay attention to evidence that conforms to what we believe and anticipate. We also develop filters around our sense of self and value, which are the result of our upbringing and our trying to fit into our social environments. D. Siegel says “Our top-down filters tell us who we are and what our personality is, how we typically behave, and what kind of future is open to us. This may be why, as we move into adolescence and beyond, life can become dulled. We begin to filter too much through the knowledge and skills acquired through prior learning and lose touch with the novelty of “beginner’s mind”—a mind that is open and eager, without preconceptions”; however, being open to new learning and understanding is a source of well being and growth. When our filters are rigid our experiencing becomes limited and we are less present. The sad fact is that without presence and knowing we don’t even inquire as to their existence or validity.
Cultivating open awareness makes it easier for us to loosen filters concerning our sense of self, expectations about life and biases about people. Cultivating access to our hub of awareness beneath the filters of our rim facilitates this process. It is our way to more freedom and as D. Siegel concludes in this article: “You are not a captive prisoner, even though your mental filters will tend to move you into old patterns. Getting lost in familiar places is a natural vulnerability we all have; using your mind and your capacity to be aware is how you can find your way. Patience and persistence will be your friends along this path to greater freedom.”
Image and Download of W of A practice at: https://www.scribd.com/document/328313398/Dan-Siegel-Wheel-of-Awareness-Guided-Meditation