Buddhism praises awareness, especially awareness of presently arisen states. There is a value in being aware of what is arising, being aware of what is persisting, what is fading away. Thus I might notice that a feeling of sadness is arising, or that sadness is persisting, or that the sadness is fading, or that happiness is arising, or that happiness is persisting, or that the happiness in me is melting away, and so on.
As with all exercises, there are good ways to do this and there are also pitfalls. Let us firstly consider the pitfalls. If one does this as a deliberate meditative exercise, it is at first interesting, but after a time one will tire of it because it does not, in itself, lead anywhere. One observes one thing after another and then one’s mind wanders off onto more interesting topics.
Secondly, there is a danger of over-doing. If one is ardently trying to be aware of every arising state then one observes. Let us say, one observes sadness. One is now in the state of observing sadness, so one should observe this. One is now in the state of observing oneself observing sadness, so one should observe this. One falls into an infinite regression, observing oneself observing oneself observing oneself observing sadness and so on. It become absurd. So there is the danger of fatigue and that of absurdity.
So what is the better way? It is not enough to be ardently aware. One also has to be mindful of one’s purpose. If one’s purpose is to live a life of faith, then noticing states takes place within the frame of this purpose. Thus, on the one hand, one investigates how what one observes relates to one’s faith and, on the other hand, one realises how one’s faith transcends what one observes.
How does what one observes relate to one’s faith? If I notice sadness or happiness or anger or joy or envy or sympathy or whatever, then I know that I am a creature that is of the nature to give rise to such things; I am a vehicle for them; they pass through me. Knowing this, I also know that it must be thus for other beings also, and this is the foundation of compassion, the grounding of love. We are all here together in the same boat. The alloy of this observation with faith is courage. Seeing things as they are gives confidence. It permits joy when things go well and equanimity when circumstances are adverse. These are some of the ways that awareness of states relates to faith. Much reflection is possible in this area.
How does one understand that faith transcends what one observes? The states one observes come and go. They are like visitors, whereas faith persists. One’s refuge in Buddhadharma encompasses all states. We should not think that Buddhist practice is matter at arriving at one particular state and remaining there permanently. The flow of states cannot be arrested. Yet when one has discovered one’s faith, it does not wash away. It is not a conditioned state, but participation in what is unconditioned. It is of eternity.*
Awareness is not, in itself, a factor of enlightenment, but it is a contributor. Correctly used, the development of greater awareness of the flow of consciousness brings insight, therapeutic gain, and a degree of liberation. Wrongly applied it merely leads to confusion or fatigue. Awareness rightly used deepens understanding and strengthens one’s capacity to be of benefit to others. It is a wonderful enhancement of one’s precious human life.
* [Digression: A person might object that his faith wavers. This is not true faith. This is probably merely belief. Beliefs are always subject to doubt. There has been much confusion caused by equating faith with belief. I do not know whether the heavens and hells exist or not. I do not know whether gods exist or not. If I think they do or I think they do not, these are beliefs and they are open to doubt either way. Faith, however, is something more fundamental. Faith is the deep intuition that enables one to recognise Dharma when one encounters it. One may express one’s faith in formulations, but really faith transcends them. I may say that I have faith in Buddha but my faith would remain even if the word Buddha had never appeared in my experience. Buddhism is a vehicle for my faith. It is a good vehicle, but if it were not available there would be others.]