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Intrinsic Awareness and Phenomena:
The “Cognitive” Difference

Someone once asked: how can one know the difference between intrinsic awareness and phenomena? Is intrinsic Awareness known in the same way that the 'external' world is viewed and known?

This question brings up the issue of the means by which awareness is known. I have a friend who used to play devil's advocate regarding dharma issues. When someone would express any spiritual term, be it fairly new or traditional, he would ask, “What do you mean by such-and-such”, to identify the actual meaning of what the person was trying to convey. If someone would assert some point of view, he would ask, “How do you know that…?”. What this did was eventually to expose the underlying view that the person truly had, stripped of as many symbols as possible. This question regarding awareness would always get some very interesting responses. How does a person know if witness consciousness or intrinsic awareness is true in their case? People can make all sorts of assessments, and not all of them may necessarily be correct – people may mistake witnessing for ordinary subject-object awareness (though it is not necessarily separate from ordinary awareness), formless experiences for the Ground of Being, etc.

This issue of exposing the underlying view of people is vital in many ways, such as for the purpose of determining that what they are labeling a particular experience or insight is valid, or that their view or underlying set of concepts is characterized by limits. There's a Gelugpa Buddhist axiom that states, ”Realization according to View”, that even one's realization may be colored by the particular world-view, or core belief/assumption concerning spirituality and existence (Pali: 'dhitti'). In my opinion, the potential for errant assumptions concerning one's experiences and insights underscores the need for study as part of a practice, as understanding the spiritual process and the nature of mature spirituality can uproot mistaken views, expand or clarify current ones, and form a foundation upon which real fruits can flourish over time with practice and heart-felt dedication to freedom.

What Intrinsic Awareness is Not

First of all, any perception, gross or subtle, is still in the realm of subject-object dualism - anything that can be perceived is objective phenomena and therefore cannot be the context or space of intrinsic awareness. In the Nirvana (Nibbana) Sutra of Buddha Sakyamuni, he made it clear that even the "perception" of infinite space, and even non-perception, was not it.

Phenomena has three basic characteristics:

  1. All phenomena have form. The form may be gross, as in physical existence, or extremely subtle, such as a pre-verbal intuition, idea, or 'gut'-feeling. All form is bound by and defined or 'shaped in' space and time.
  2. All phenomena can be perceived. It is the very space and time bounding that allows object to be perceived. They must stand distinct and in contrast to other forms and awareness itself in order to be perceived.
  3. All phenomena are impermanent. The time 'boundedness' of very subtle phenomena is perhaps their most distinctive characteristic: they come into awareness and then subside. This also includes experiences such as formless samadhis, experiences of the void, etc., in which the most prominent characteristic is that the experience had a beginning and end. And of course, it is the desire for, grasping of and attachment to all things 'time-bounded', personal and impersonal, that is the basis of suffering.

Intrinsic Awareness, in contrast to phenomena, is not bound by these three basic characteristics. Obviously, awareness cannot be seen objectively, because one is not capable of standing outside of awareness in order to see it as an object. And Awareness never has been an object.

Then How Can Intrinsic Awareness Be Known?

The question of intrinsic awareness is along the metaphorical lines of how can a mirror know itself? It has no content - it is not a "thing" or an object to be perceived. It is empty. [Being more of a transcendent subject than anything else, how can it be known?]

“Recognition” is a form of insight, and is the only way that can be known - initially. But this is not ordinary "aha", or "oh I get it" mental insight of nerve synapses coming together. It has to be a radical or "root" insight, one that goes down to the bone marrow, penetrating and affecting all of the subtle bodies. It is akin to having all the blood in your body stop and reverse its flow in a second, or waking up one day to find the world is spinning in the opposite direction. The distinguishing quality of this insight is that it rocks your world completely, and you stay rocked for good. Recognition is the appropriate term for the understanding that comes about by directly knowing what has been Obvious all one's life, but overlooked.

In a moment, the entire direction of one's being, which has always been turned to objective phenomena, seemingly turns around 180 degrees and one's awareness becomes aware of itself, stands in itself and as itself, in 'no-where'. A flash of “Recognition” occurs. You and the world are never quite the same. Any semblance of locality is destroyed.

It is far more basic than a conceptual insight, as it goes beyond the realm of even subtle ideas and affects the cognitive aspect of personal being. The results are:

  • the effect of modifying the assumption and cognition of the self-position
  • the effect of modifying the perception of the phenomenal world

These two must go hand-in-hand, but the recognition of intrinsic awareness may first cut into the assumption of a separate self residing at some internal locus (usually assumed by many westerners, being sense-bound and mentally oriented, to be somewhere in the head). The "obscurations" or "false assumption" of a separate "entity" or self somewhere posited in the body-mind is "cut through" in a flash. But this is an intermediate stage: the effect of transforming the perception of the phenomenal world must occur for a true non-dual realization to dawn and flourish. Various names for this insight-awareness have been given, and these are most expressive, in my opinion:

  1. Self-aware-ness
  2. Awareness Awareness
  3. Self-Knowing Awareness
  4. Instrinsic Awareness
  5. Non-dual Awareness

When the non-dual nature of Awareness dawns, this event of recognition eventually 'expands' to envelope the entire objective world. But the key is that this insight-recognition is spontaneous, effortless and non-dual always.

Maturation of Intrinsic Awareness

Because this insight is not superficial, the "false view" of self is released at a deep level (in the anandamayakosha, or causal body), and the energetic changes (in the prajnamayakosha) result in the cognitive sensation shift of what and where the self is. The energetic sensation of a self contracted in the head or heart is released. Over a short or long period of time, this energetic shift is registered in the nervous system, resulting in the loss of a perception of a "fixed self" point in the body. This provides additional ammunition to further the release of errant assumptions about self and other (as we often assert a View of self and reality based on the data received from our nervous system). This insight affects the nervous system more profoundly if work has been done in preparing the body-mind and its subtle channels through various forms of preparatory yoga.

However, even the subtlest notion of a 'me' 'having' or owning Intrinsic Awareness is a fundamental error; the very nature of dawning of Intrinsic Awareness cannot be contained in the limits of a fixed or substantive self – this would be like trying to stuff infinity into a physical or conceptual box. This Awareness also cuts through the mode of ordinary subject-object perception, but does not exclude it: things can appear to be ordinary and separate but realized to be not separate, simultaneously and easefully. This is a paradox that can only be known by direct experience. The juggling act of absolute and relative is held effortlessly in any moment: one lives as an ordinary self, but the space of Intrinsic Awareness moment by moment relinquishes any notion of self as a fundamental or basic subject.

This recognition, if real, and not a fleeting satori, will establish itself in the body-mind as a new paradigm of cognition of self and the apparently objective world. Over time, this insight will grow "louder" to further clarification into the non-dual nature of self and other, and the fundamental context of Intrinsic Awareness.

And over time, the fruits of this initial and fundamental root insight enter the perceptual field. The "space between thoughts" is enhanced over time to greater lengths of time and more profound depth (eventually covering periods where there are seemingly no spaces between thoughts). In more profound silence, the possibility for deepening elucidation is possible. The maturation of Intrinsic Awareness will result in the transference of identification to a greater context than the assumed fixed self. Over time, this shift in accordance with the transformation of identification will have effects on the physical body-mind such that it directly experiences the bliss of spacious, unbounded awareness and a non-localized self-sense. But the key to all of this is the dawning of awareness to know itself directly in a non-objective and non-dual manner.