On Awareness, pt. 1

by Evan Edwards


There’s a zen koan about master Nan-in and a younger monk, Tenno, who had been studying with his teacher for ten years. Tradition went that a student had to study this long before they were qualified to begin teaching, and Nan-in had invited Tenno over for tea to celebrate his pupilship coming to an end. Since it was raining that day, Tenno wore clogs and brought an umbrella, and left them by the door when he entered Nan-in’s home. After his guest had sat down, Nan-in asked Tenno, “I assume that since it is raining, you brought an umbrella. Correct? And did you put it on the left or the right of your clogs?” When he didn’t have an immediate answer, Tenno stood up and returned to the monastery in order to continue as a student for six more years.

The story is usually interpreted as an illustration of the value of attention and, more importantly, what we might call ‘awareness.’ Because Tenno was unable to recall the position of his umbrella, or perhaps better, because he was unaware of how he had arranged his things in the other room, he was not practicing “every-minute zen.” In other koans, the theme of the significance of attention and awareness return again and again. A student asked Master Ichu to write him something of great wisdom. Ichu took up his pen and wrote “attention.” The student asked Ichu what “attention” meant, and he responded that “attention means attention.” This theme seems to be so recurrent because, as individuals in the Vipassana school argue, nirvana, as a kind of “Budda-consciousness,” has to do with a particular state of vijnana, or “consciousness.” This kind of consciousness is a state of perfect awareness.

Certain strains of ecology and western environmental philosophy, also, stress the importance of awareness. In the work of Henry David Thoreau, we see an intense attention to nature that has been described by several commentators as an attempt to integrate himself more fully, and therefore live more authentically, within the web of life.

Jane Bennett describes the importance of this integration, or harmonizing, with nature for Thoreau’s ethical and political project, and it is awareness that ultimately allows us to see more fully and thoroughly the nature of these relations. In a recent interview, she explains:

Was his move to Walden a retreat from the public? Or was it a retreat from a human-centric public and a move into another, let’s call it polycentric, public, one consisting of plants, animals, landscapes, the sounds of birds and locomotive trains, and people? As I read it, Thoreau’s “experiment” at Walden was less about apolitical solitude than it was an attempt to engage more fully with a set of nonhuman interlocutors and to participate in a public that included them.

In a series of letters exchanged between Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, this same relation between awareness of natural processes and political/ethical thought is acknowledged from the perspectives of Zen Buddhism and a kind of eclectic Christianity, respectively. Thinkers like Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari also acknowledge this relation, but do not stress its aspect of awareness, and focus more on the nature or logic of the relation. Nevertheless, one must presume, to a certain extent, that the point of understanding the nature of the relations is to somehow adjust our conscious apprehension of them. As Jane Bennett puts it in the same interview from above:

I keep returning to the figure of sensibility. Maybe I should just tell a quick story about teaching environmental politics at Goucher College. For years, my course followed the “sky is falling! danger, danger!” storyline. As I saw students get more and more passive, more and more demoralized, I realized that my strategy of critique-exposé was not producing the desired mobilizing or energizing effect. I started to think about how to encourage an ecological sensibility rather than just an increase in knowledge. How to feel more intensely the natural world, how to cultivate the ability to see, smell, touch it, and ourselves, differently? How to remind ourselves that we too are material bodies, along with trees and waterways—each “part and parcel,” says Thoreau in “Walking,” of a larger, fractious process of natura naturans. That was the sensibility, the mood, I wanted to encourage.

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Mind cosmosI, for one, am often incredibly unaware of many things, particularly my surroundings. When cooking, I don’t notice when I drop bits of food on the ground until my dog comes by and picks them up. In the time just before and after a recent apartment move, when our keyrack was packed away, I lost my keys a total of three times each day. I put articles of clothing on furniture that are covered in dog fur because I don’t notice until it is too late. I don’t remember meetings, appointments, what I was even doing a minute ago. I would be a grave disappointment to Nan-in.

But I’d like to be more aware, more conscious, more attentive. At the very least, it would mean that I could be more respectful of those around me. Knowing, recognizing, and attending to the needs, desires, and motivations of my partner, my son, my colleagues, neighbors, parents, and so on, just seems like good practice. Trying to be nice is great, but there’s only so much kindness you can spread around if you don’t know where it is needed. On another level, being more aware seems important for appreciating and understanding other parts of one’s environment. I’m often better at this part of awareness: noticing flowers growing through the concrete, the way a tree bends around power lines down the street, the elegant and coordinated bustle of a cloud of gnats in the vespertine light, the moon making weird shadows of the buildings at night, etc. Awareness seems to stretch a poetic muscle in our spirit.

Memory seems to be bound to awareness as well. Strong impressions, those that we attend to fully, beauty pressing itself into our consciousness, the pain we see in people’s faces on the train, these are recalled more readily than the impressions that we don’t invest ourselves in as fully. When I skim through a book, or only attend half-heartedly to a conversation, I can often recall nothing about the information I should have. I’m convinced that it isn’t that my memory is terrible, but that I am not great at attending to details as thoroughly and committedly as some of my friends and colleagues. Proust’s madeleine is such an emblem of the secret conspiracy between attention and memory; the cookie, the object of Marcel’s whole being as a child in Combray, recalls not just his memory, but the feeling of an infinite transcendence beyond the particulars of the taking of tea. Perhaps this is what memory is, the afterimages of those things which most fully grasp our attentive powers, be they traumatic or ecstatic.

Finally, forethought, and therefore preparedness, seem to be associated with awareness as well. This is another thing I am quite poor at. Being conscious of what I will need means being aware not only of the present; nor only of the past, in memory; but of the likely state of the future. Being aware of the likely state of the future means linking an invisible and purely speculative reality to the solidity of the present, and thereby transcending space and time once again. This aspect of awareness was so important to the ancient Greeks that they named the creator, the progenitor, and therefore the essence of mankind, after it. The fire-bringer Prometheus, whose name Plato explains is derived from pro – (before) and methos – (related to “learning,” or “knowing”), is in many myths not just the savior but the creator of humanity. Forethought, the ability to plan not just days or seasons in advance, but entire years or generations ahead of time, is what distinguished man from the animals. The ability to conceive of a future, rather than just act, is what made humans capable of both rational and poietic thought.

Awareness is, in this account, extraordinary in its capacity to ground a unified concept of time: past/memory, present/attentiveness, and future/forethought. Being aware, and by turn, integrated into space, time, ecological interconnections, and consciousness, embeds the individual in a matrix of significance and, as I’m learning, helps keep the apartment clean at the same time.

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What has struck me about my concern with attentiveness, however, is this: when I read a text extolling the importance of attentiveness and the difficulties surrounding being aware—most of what I’m into is from before the 20th century—I’m reading the work of someone who has no concept of a smartphone, television, or computer. No, they’re concerned with the difficulty of being fully immersed in one’s environment without digital technology. I’m baffled every time I realize this. If it was so difficult to be “fully aware” before the internet then what hope do I have?

Of course, previous generations had their own technology, and each period of innovation saw a cadre of nay-sayers heralding the end of real human consciousness. Gutenberg’s press, the novel, steam engines, etc. But surely there is something unique about the last ten years of technology. Or even the last three. IBM claims that since 2014, we produce more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of information a day, which means that since then, we’ve generated 90% of all information in the history of the human species. A recent study found that young people spend approximately one third of their waking hours on their phones. This is, at best, one third of one’s conscious life that is spent in a solipsistic demi-world, an idios kosmos half-connected to the koinos kosmos. At worst, it means that two thirds of our days are simply the time between the time spent on visual technology.

For us, children of the iPhone, attention is focused, of course, but not on the environs, human, animal, floral, lunar, or otherwise. Rather, awareness is directed to a vast and ambiguous ‘elsewhere.’ This elsewhere can very well be the absolute antithesis of the description of the object of awareness I described above. Rather than unifying the present to the past and future, the vaporous elsewhere is an utter disconnection from the surroundings of my immediate body. But, on the other hand, in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter what is happening at my desk right now? An empty take-out box, a voided check, my sister’s birthday card, some wires whose purpose I’m not entirely sure about, all these things could very well not exist and nothing would change in the course of universal history. They have significance only insofar as they make up the fragile fabric of my brief existence, which isn’t going to last that long, or be that important.

Perhaps what is more significant is the U.S. positioning of troops near Russia’s western border, or the discovery of a planet only a few light years away that may teach humans about interplanetary colonization. These events could alter the course of human history. They could alter my son’s life irrevocably. I may not have ever known about these events until they had already shifted life as such if I were not connected to social media. Or perhaps I would have never noticed their influence on my life. This seems to be the only redemptive possibility of the internet. Although I’ve been smartphone free for nearly a year now, I still get most of my news from social media. I’m aware, of course, of the way that algorithms shape my news feed, and so know that I’m only getting a sliver of the information available.  But because of the network that I have cultivated on facebook and twitter, I often know about news that would otherwise slip by in an age without the global interconnectedness of the web. Turkish colleagues posted all sorts of articles about the events of earlier last year, Colombian friends fill me on on the particulars of their country’s now-failed peace deal, bombings in North African cities, which don’t make CNN headlines, populate my newsfeed, as well as magnificent reportage of the latest science, art, music, etc. Perhaps our world’s awareness is not extinguished, but undergoing a sea change.

Perhaps awareness will, as our lives becomes more enmeshed in the internet and the technologies associated with it, continue to become a sort of attention to new environments, electronic ones through which we will have to learn to tread softly. Perhaps, for better or worse, awareness is subject to evolution just like any other aspect of the human being. Perhaps the memory associated with pre-technological awareness—Proust’s memory—is not as necessary in a world where information can be recalled by accessing an external hard-drive (the internet). Perhaps Prometheus will be bound again to make room for new gods as we find that technology provides us with more opportunity to plan on the fly, rather than be a slave to planning ahead. Perhaps the conscious subject, the Tenno that is mankind, will become attuned to a novel kind of everyday zen.

Next month, I plan on returning to this train of thought, because I’ve already gone over my word limit, and I’m afraid I’ve lost your attention.