Why Don’t We Recognize Awake Awareness?


A human being is a part of the whole called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

—Albert Einstein

A Shift in Consciousness

When I went to India and Nepal in the 1980s, I met a Tibetan teacher named Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche who freely gave out instructions for immediately recognizing awake awareness. The reason he was convinced that it was possible for us to awaken was because he had awake awareness shown to him when he was eight years old. Then after doing three three-year retreats, he reported that awake awareness was the same, so he generously shared his realization with me and others.

Recognizing awake awareness does not require great intellectual understanding. Instead, we simply learn how to shift out of the optical delusion of our current constellation of consciousness. It becomes as easy as shifting back and forth between seeing a vase or two faces in the image below.

an optical illusion in which you either see a vase or two faces

In the excerpt below from my book, Shift into Freedom, I examine the nature of awake awareness and why it may seem elusive.

Excerpt from Shift into Freedom

If awake awareness is something we’ve all experienced, and if it’s so close and accessible, why isn’t it more familiar to us? How could we have we missed it? Why haven’t we been able to access it intentionally? If awake awareness has so many benefits, why isn’t it primary on our psychological maps? The Shangpa Kagyü Tibetan Buddhist tradition gives us a poetic response to the question of why we don’t recognize awake awareness. We don’t recognize awake awareness because it is…

  • So close you can’t see it
  • So subtle your mind can’t understand it
  • So simple you can’t believe it
  • So good you can’t accept it

We’re so smart and our lives are so complex that it’s hard to believe that simply discovering awake awareness could be the solution to our suffering. It’s also hard to believe that the most important discovery is already here within us; we don’t have to go on an odyssey to find it, earn it, or develop it.

We’re so used to knowing ourselves through our troubles, our dramas, and our obsessions that awake awareness, which is our true nature and our basic goodness, is hard to accept as our true identity.

Many of us have unwittingly glimpsed awake awareness throughout our lives. In fact, we often seek its enjoyable qualities without realizing that awake awareness is their source. From our current level of mind we cannot experience our ground of Being, deep wisdom or open-hearted awareness. Although we may not have known it, whenever we experienced love and wisdom, it has always been because we shifted levels of mind.

Many of us have unknowingly dropped into awake awareness while walking in nature, being creative, making love, or playing sports; some of us have experienced it through crisis that became opportunity. Although activities like nature walks are pleasurable in themselves, they also relax the dominance of ego-identification, allowing awake awareness to emerge from the background.

When we go hiking and get to the top of a hill, our seeking to reach a goal stops. We relax fully, and our identity as the seeker drops away, revealing the awake awareness that was naturally there all along. At times like these, natural qualities of awake awareness show up — among them clarity, boundless freedom, peace of mind, joy, connection, and a sense of wellbeing. Because we don’t know that the source of our joy and freedom is already within us, we might say later, “I feel miserable these days. I’ll just have to wait until I can go back to the top of that hill again next year.”

There’s an old wisdom saying: “Silence is not the absence of sound but the absence of self.” In other words, we don’t need to go to a physically quiet place. We can experience both the deep stillness and the dancing aliveness that arise simultaneously. Silence and stillness are here now within you as you are reading this blog.

Awake awareness and its natural qualities are not connected to any specific place, person, or activity — nor is awake awareness dependent on any internal thoughts or external conditions. If we try to re-create our experience by going back up that hill, our expectant state may keep us from letting go of the seeking mind long enough to allow awake awareness to be revealed again.

Many of us have tried to find awake awareness. We’ve tried to earn it through good deeds, achieve it through meditation, or pray that it will be granted. Some believe that it’s available only to the highly evolved. Others believe it only appears through luck or a kind of grace that is either given to us or absent from our lives. When the obscuration of ego-identification dissolves, it can seem as if grace or awake awareness had been absent and then newly arrives from somewhere else.

The above is an excerpt from Shift into Freedom.

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