A Zen story tells of an eager westerner who visited a monastery in Japan where a well known Zen master lived. Unfortunately for him, he arrived at a time when the master was observing silence, so he was unable to receive any teachings. Since his visit was very brief he begged the master to at least communicate with him in writing. The teacher reluctantly agreed.

The visitor asked, “What is Zen?” The master quickly scribbled the word “Awareness” on a piece of paper. A bit confused, the visitor pressed him a bit: “Could you elaborate?” The master wrote a second note: “Awareness Awareness.” Again the visitor asked for further explanation. The written response was “Awareness Awareness Awareness.” In frustration, the visitor screamed, “What the hell does ‘Awareness Awareness Awareness’ mean?” Undaunted, the master wrote “‘Awareness Awareness Awareness’ means Awareness.”

It’s difficult to miss the point of this story, but if you are like me you might identify a bit with the westerner’s desire for more instruction. Although the essence of Zen (and Buddhist practices in general) is to “discover the answer for your self through direct experience,” I find that a bit of elaboration can sometimes be helpful. So I will be foolish enough to attempt what the enlightened man refused to do and that is to elaborate on the response, “Awareness Awareness Awareness.”

Awareness itself is natural and effortless but our everyday awareness is usually filtered through a particular psychological lens. This filter is created by our conditioning, which includes our personal history, our cultural conditioning and our biological conditioning. This unconscious embedded history colors everything that we see, hear, feel, and think.

We perceive the world not so much as it is, but as we are! The world that we perceive to be outside of us is largely a projected representation of our internalized history. (There is an objective reality but our experience of it is determined by our conditioning—we don’t see it as it really is.)

Another element that filters our perception of the world is our desires. What we desire is what we look for; what we look for shapes what we see. An old Hindu proverb says that “When the pickpocket sees the saint, all he sees is his wallet.” Our everyday awareness is filtered through the lens of memory and desire; we don’t see things as they are as much as we see a projection of our own unconscious.

In mindfulness (awareness) practice we hold the intention to distinguish between our naked experience of life and the memories, desires, judgments and interpretations with which we clothe these experiences. Without mindfulness we are largely unable to distinguish between the primary experience and the conditioning that we wrap around it.

Mindfulness practice is sometimes referred to as bare attention, which means refraining–as much as is possible–from adding any meaning, judgment or interpretation to our primary experience of seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling etc. We seek to experience life directly without the filter of our judgments and interpretations. If these reactions do arise spontaneously, then we simply notice that without putting any further judgment or interpretation on top of it.

Another element of mindfulness practice is to be aware that you are aware. We practice awareness of our awareness. This is sometimes called self-reflective awareness. Many animals are very aware—perhaps more so than humans—but animals (as far as we know) are not aware that they are aware; they do not have awareness of their awareness.

An important aspect of mindfulness practice is the intention to practice it continuously. We may be aware that we are aware– but for how long? We often do not lose awareness per se, but we often lose mindfulness. For example, we’ve all had the experience of arriving in our car at a certain destination yet having very little recollection of the experience of driving there. We were obviously aware while we were driving–otherwise we would not have arrived safely–but we may not have been very mindful as we were driving!

In mindfulness practice awareness is an end in self. Rather than being fixated on a particular object we are primarily concerned with the quality of awareness itself; the particular object of awareness is relatively unimportant. This practice is sometimes referred to as “choiceless awareness.”

Why is awareness practice so important? An entire book could be written in response to that question; but suffice it to say that mindfulness practice is the most powerful tool for dissolving the trance of the ego. It is this egoic trance that keeps us living in a state of delusion and suffering. Awareness has the potential to free us from the experience of unhappiness.