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TWO TYPES OF AWARENESS

The essence of every thought that arises is pristine awareness. —Pengar Jamphel Sangpo, Short Invocation of Vajradhara, translated by Maria Montenegro

Actually there’s no great secret to understanding the difference between pure awareness and conditioned awareness. They’re both awareness, which might be roughly defined as a capacity to recognize, register, and in a sense, “catalogue” every moment of experience. Pure awareness is like a ball of clear crystal—colorless in itself but capable of reflecting anything: your face, other people, walls, furniture. If you moved it around a little, maybe you’d see different parts of the room and the size, shape, or position of the furniture might change. If you took it outside, you could see trees, birds, flowers—even the sky! Whatever appears, though, are only reflections. They don’t really exist inside the ball, nor do they alter its essence in any way.

Now, suppose the crystal ball were wrapped in a piece of colored silk. Everything you saw reflected in it—whether you moved it around, carried it to different rooms, or took it outside—would be shaded to some degree by the color of the silk. That’s a fairly accurate description of conditioned awareness: a perspective colored by ignorance, desire, aversion, and the host of other obscurations. Yet these colored reflections are simply reflections. They don’t alter the nature of that which reflects them. The crystal ball is essentially colorless.

Similarly, pure awareness in itself is always clear, capable of reflecting anything, even misconceptions about itself as limited or conditioned. Just as the sun illuminates the clouds that obscure it, pure awareness enables us to experience natural suffering and the relentless drama of self-created suffering: me vs. you, mine vs. yours, this feeling vs. that feeling, good vs. bad, pleasant vs. unpleasant, or a desperate longing for change vs. an equally frantic hope for permanence.

The truth of cessation is often described as a final release from fixation, craving, or “thirst.” However, while the term “cessation” seems to imply something different or better than our present experience, it is actually a matter of acknowledging the potential already inherent within us.

Cessation—or relief from suffering—is possible because awareness is fundamentally clear and unconditioned. Fear, shame, guilt, greed, competiveness, and so on are simply veils, perspectives inherited and reinforced by our cultures, our families, and personal experience. Suffering recedes, according to the third noble truth, to the extent that we let go of the whole framework of grasping.

We accomplish this, not by suppressing our desire, our aversions, our fixations, or trying to “think differently,” but rather by turning our awareness inward, examining the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that trouble us, and beginning to notice them—and perhaps even appreciate them—as expressions of awareness itself.

Simply put, the cause of the various diseases we experience is the cure. The mind that grasps is the mind that sets us free.

 


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