One way to notice our thoughts, emotions and sensations during meditation practice is called “choiceless awareness” meditation, or “open awareness” meditation. This is contrasted with what we might call “focused awareness,” “single-pointed awareness,” or “anchored awareness.” Choiceless awareness means we are not choosing one particular thing to focus our awareness on, but are allowing whatever comes into our awareness to be there.
While sitting on a cushion (or whatever you practice meditation on) with your eyes closed, rather than focusing your awareness on something specific you’re simply sitting and being present to whatever is arising. It could be sound, thought, emotion, a sensation in the body, anything that comes into your awareness. You’re allowing things to come into your awareness and allowing them to leave again. You’re working at remembering to not follow a storyline, not to grab onto an emotion and start to ruminate about it, not bring anxiety in when you’re thinking about or experiencing an emotion. You’re aiming to avoid that second arrow, that story, the suffering that comes with dwelling on an already painful experience. The fear of fear; anxiety over anxiety; sadness over sadness; irritation at irritation – we double up our suffering when we respond to our existing pain with an emotional response to that pain, as if it shouldn’t be there and there is something wrong with us for having the initial emotion. As the Buddha said, pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional. We can’t avoid having difficult emotions and feelings, but we can avoid exacerbating them with rumination or worry.
When noticing a difficult experience within an Open Awareness with Self-Compassion practice, you have some options:
- If self-compassion is embedded in your mindfulness practice – if, when you bring mindfulness to your experience, you automatically feel tenderness toward yourself and your experience – you might simply bring loving awareness to that difficult experience. You allow it to have its own manifestation in your body, and your automatic self-compassion infusion warms your being as you do this.
- A second option, if you are new to self-compassion practice or your self-compassion infusions need to be introduced intentionally, bring a self-compassion response in to the open awareness meditation. When you become aware of an emotion, a physical sensation, or a thought, firstly you consciously allow it to be there. This can be tricky because ordinarily we don’t want difficult emotions in our experience. We want to get rid of them. We don’t want to be with that part of ourselves. But in this practice, allow that difficult emotion to be there and then bring in a simple somatic self-compassion technique, something that works really nicely for you, to actively tend to that experience. Soothe yourself through a physical gesture or through gentle, supportive words; comfort yourself with warmth, a soft texture like a blanket, or sunlight on your skin; or simply allow your heart to melt as you’re being aware that you’re having a difficult emotion (just as you would if a friend told you they were having difficulty). You deserve for that difficult emotion to be validated, acknowledged, and tended to, and you deserve to bring warmth to your experience. You might feel an experience a bit like a butterfly opening and closing its wings – you open to the spaciousness of choiceless awareness, and then close in with warmth and attention to bring in self-compassion when it’s needed, then open again, then close in again.
Any emotion has a time limit. Any emotion will come and it will go in its own time. If you don’t get involved, ruminate on it, or project it into the future, if we don’t try and own it, any emotion will rise and fall away again.
Moving between open awareness meditation and the closeness of self-compassion practice is simply another option for meditation practice. There is no one right way to meditate: we are all unique, and it’s worth our while to test out different meditation techniques to find those that work best for us.