In the soundscape of this remote Guatemalan village, the Lago D’Atitlan, I sit and contemplate the awareness response.
The awareness response is responding rather than reacting to the steady flow of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise from moment to moment.
I sit on a straw mat immersed in the distant cacophony of bird calls, barking dogs, tuk tuks whizzing by, and saws rubbing rhythmically against wood.
Beside me are my mother, aunt, and the neighbours who’ve joined us for this morning meditation.
As I ride my breath in and out, for brief moments the awareness that underlies my experience is palpable.
To quote the great Jimmy Hendrix, “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually”.
The castles are my thoughts, feelings, and sensations that appear and disappear in a constant ebb and flow. The sand is awareness – it can become any castle, take any shape.
Waizer, our brindle coloured Guatemalan pooch, sits at my feet. He rolls over, stretches languidly, and presses his dust ladden paws into my legs.
I’m pretty sure it’s Waizer, and his sister, Perla’s, dust steeped fur that is causing the almost constant congestion that I experience here in this sleepy Guatemalan town perched amidst the volcanic mountains that flank the resplendent, and mysterious Lake Atitlan.
The first time Waizer pushes his dusty paws into me, I tell myself not to resist it.
I go to the root of the sensation, and listen in a different way.
I intentionally notice how the reaction shows up in my body, and invite inner inquiry:
When have I felt this discomfort before?
What is the risk of just letting myself feel this?
When I feel resistance to something that’s happening, when do I let go, and when do I take action?
The last two questions we likely all encounter often.
Perhaps we find ourselves in a situation that feels untenable – we need to take action, but something is holding us back, or maybe we recognize that to follow the same old pattern of reacting will inevitably frustrate and exhaust us once again.
Whatever the situation, mindfulness can help us to unlock the door to the awareness response. Rather than feel overpowered by knee-jerk reactions, or kaiboshed by too many opposing judgements that push us in multiple directions, mindfulness provides clarity, and supports decisive action.
In traditional Vipassana meditation, one sits and allows uncomfortable sensations to come and go without reacting to them. This practice is the opposite of our usual tendency which is to immediately push away, or grasp onto our discomfort.
Simply observing then letting go strengthens our prefrontal cortex which helps us to be present, regulate our emotional state, and be compassionate and flexible in our responses (Siegel, 2006).
Rather than deny or try to control the feeling of discomfort, the awareness response allows us to feel what we feel, and use it as a spring board for deeper self-awareness, compassion, and growth.
As Waizer’s dusty feet languidly stretch into my legs for the sixth time, I choose to act, and taking a firm hold of his collar, I guide him toward his mat.
With Waizer comfortably settled on his doggy mat a couple meters away, I synchronize my attention with my breath flowing in and out. Bird calls, barking dogs, tuk tuks whizzing by, the steady rubbing of saws against wood reverberate. The awareness response allows me to take it all in. Thoughts of future and past impressions, judgements that appear so solid, they rise and fall into the sea of awareness. The awareness response is deeper than these waves. It lives in my body – reminds me that I don’t have to hold onto anything. I know I can let go, and I know I can take decisive action when I need to.