I like it when a consistent theme seems to arise that leads to a deep investigation of some elemental teaching. Much of what follows below emanated from a video post by Fred Davis in which he discusses both the sense of being and the “I am” thought. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuW4A_G4P5w&feature=youtu.be)
And because multiple pointers seemed to arise following a viewing of that video, there has been a compelling energy to write about it. However, in preparing my written thoughts, there was the realization of the importance of using precise language. And so, in a Satsang earlier this month and a private talk with Fred, he and I explored the razor’s edge of consciousness while simultaneously refining the precision to which language is used to communicate these teachings.
Part 1: Sense of Being
In order to discuss the sense of being, we must first discuss consciousness. Just briefly, Fred and most other non-dual teachers equate consciousness with the spacious awareness that exists prior to language. Consciousness has also been referred to as awareness, spacious awareness, the awake space, awakeness, and oneness, among many names.
Consciousness is not the same as thinking that there is a ‘me’ or a ‘self’ that is conscious. Rather, it is the pure awareness that senses light, sound waves, pressure, temperature, etc., and converts that energy into perceptions. Consciousness exists prior to having a sense of a witness observing an object of perception: it is non-dual.
Conversely, being conscious is dualistic: it implies that there is a witness and an object, even though the truth of the matter is that there is only one consciousness.
However, recognize the difficulty of language: using the phrases “awareness” or “spacious awareness” or “awakeness” as synonyms for consciousness can easily be misconstrued that there is someone that is consciously awake. However, it is not the ego or ‘me’ that wakes up to its true nature; rather it is awakeness itself that wakes up to the illusion of the ego.
Fred talks about the sense of being often and it is one of the key aspects of his teachings as well as the teachings of other non-dual teachers.
The sense of being is a sense of being alive. It is the sense, conscious or not, of the environmental conditions in which an organism operates.
For example, a baby has a sense of being even though they might not be consciously aware of the sense of being. A baby will, for example, respond to its mother’s voice, grasp a finger, smile at a dangling set of keys.
A bird also has a sense of being. So too does a tree. A bird is aware of its surroundings, such as the location of its flock, other animals, and the sunflower seed inside a hanging bird feeder, although it knows none of those objects by their name. A tree is sensitive to sunlight, to nutrients in the soil, and as research now shows us, responds to signals (via chemicals) from other trees.
Notice that in the examples above, a self-referential “I” that is aware of the sense of being is not required.
However, in many non-dual practices, an individual is often asked to direct their attention toward the sense of being. In doing so, it appears that there is a someone in charge who directs their attention toward and becomes conscious of (aware of) the sense of being. However, although it might seem as though there is an agent involved, it actually involves awakeness paying attention to itself. As Fred often states: attention paying attention to attention.
This is a practice that is designed to shift one’s attention away from the ideas and beliefs that trap us into thinking that we are who we think we are. It is an inquiry process that involves directing attention or awareness back on itself; sometimes asking questions, such as “Who or what am I?” “Who or what is even asking the question?” “Who or what is noticing the thoughts that arise.”
And for many, it is a necessary and important step in waking up and in clearing up. Clearing up refers to a lessening of the identification with our ‘me’, the stories we tell about ourselves, the roles we occupy, the belief systems we adopt, etc., and toward the awake space that we really are (i.e., our true nature).
Becoming consciously aware of the sense of being is the closest an individual (or, more precisely, the mind of an individual) can come to knowing his or her true nature. And that is because becoming consciously aware of the sense of being is to wake up to the reality of one’s own consciousness.
This is why Zen teachers often refer to ‘waking up’ in the spiritual sense as realizing one’s true nature. There is the recognition of being exactly this experience right now; an experience, that at its most fundamental, is consciousness having an experience of itself.
In summary, the sense of being is present in all living things whether conscious or not. The latter includes just about all organisms, including most human beings, who, for the most part, live in their minds. Not being conscious of one’s sense of being is akin to being spiritually asleep. And yet, it is precisely because we have minds that we are able to wake up and realize our true nature.
Recently, Fred stated that consciousness is prior to the sense of being. When he stated this, it didn’t feel quite on target to me. However, in a private conversation, he agreed with my assessment; that is, consciousness and sense of being are really the same thing.
Consciousness and the sense of being co-arise together: simultaneously. Without a sense of being, there cannot be consciousness; and without consciousness, there cannot be a sense of being.
However, because the phrase sense of being can sometimes be misconstrued as being dualistic, I prefer to differentiate between having a conscious awareness of the sense of being and not having a conscious awareness of the sense of being.
Instead, I prefer to use the terms being (as a verb, not a noun) or beingness to describe the non-conscious sense of being that all living organisms are born and, for the most part, live their lives with.
The distinction between having a conscious sense of being and having a non-conscious sense of being is that the former involves the appearance of separation: it seems to involve an observer; a witness; an ‘eye’; or an “I”. Conversely, the latter does not involve separation or an observed, which is why I like to use the being or beingness instead, rather than sense of being. Beingness does not involve a sense of “I am” or a conscious sense of a witness.
So, using a baby again as an example, the baby is beingness itself or as Fred uses the phrase, has a sense of being. However, a baby, although having a sense of being is not yet consciously aware of that sense of being, at least not until the ego arises sometime around 2 or 3 years old; but at that time, the baby begins to lose its sense of being and develops instead its sense of ‘me’. And it’s all downhill from there.
As Fred explained to me, because people often convert the verb being into a noun, he tends to avoid its use. Perhaps over time I will also. Fred has been a spiritual teacher for a while, whereas I’m just beginning my journey as one (pun intended).
(A spiritual teacher, by the way, actually has nothing to teach: we are just ordinary people who have realized our true nature and continue the journey of dissolution of the conditioned patterns that form the basis for the character with which we call ourselves; and in doing so, embark on a simultaneous journey of assisting others in seeing the truth for themselves.)
But for now, I feel the verb being or the word beingness more closely captures the raw experience of life in all its forms.
And so, to conclude this post, Fred stated that consciousness is prior to the sense of being. Later, because he prefers to use the phrase sense of being, rather than being or beingness, he modified his original statement as follows: consciousness and the sense of being coarise simultaneously.
However, if we differentiate between being (or beingness) and sense of being, as I did above, then (a) consciousness and being are the same thing and (b) both are prior to the sense of being. So, using language in this fashion, in the end, Fred was correct after all when he originally stated that consciousness is prior to the sense of being.
Ultimately, the language used is irrelevant. More important, have you realized your true nature for yourself?