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What is Awareness Meditation?

These blogs are reflections on processes I have been exploring in my 20-plus years journey experimenting with awareness meditation and visual art practice. They are experiential rather than academic or theoretical, as I personally learn more from experiential practices of being and doing. This includes long-term training with meditation teachers in Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudra and Dzogchen, Sufism, non-dual practices and secular Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

Mixed media monoprint, collage, painting by Zangmo Alexander

Lots of people say to me, “Oh I can’t learn to meditate! However much I try, I can’t stop my thoughts, so what’s the point?” A common misconception that causes a lot of frustration like this is the expectation that to meditate one has to stop thoughts, sit calmly with one’s hands palm upwards, be blissed out and be completely non-judgemental. Oh, and relaxed.

It took a long time for experienced meditation teachers to drum into me how meditation was not about getting rid of thoughts or trying to calm down, or not be anxious or depressed. It was quite a relief when I finally ‘got’ it.

There are hundreds of meditation techniques. Some involve developing highly focused concentration, blocking out experiences that arise, which is great for some people. I was never very good at this because my mind would automatically go into awareness of what was happening, along with a sense that none of what was happening was really solid.

Initially I thought I had a dissociation or other mental health problem. I spent a lot of time and money with therapists. This was useful but did not help me deeply understand the nature of self or of what I was experiencing.

Training in awareness practice helped me understand how thoughts and other experiences were not conceptually controllable in the long term. The bottom line was making friends with any experience by being aware, whatever happens, or however awful one feels. Then it became more workable. This included being aware of judgements, story lines, endless internal chatter, uncontrollable feelings, anxiety, depression and everything else that arose in my experience. Nothing was excluded.

I have also been exploring ways of using art activities to enhance meditation practice. This is not about being a good artist, as the focus is on process of being and doing rather than creating an end product for others to see - unless of course one is taking looking at an end product as an awareness meditation in itself. The product is an interesting outcome of process, but criteria of aesthetically pleasing, good or bad art, or a picture OF something are not relevant. Art in this context is about discovering who we really are, what the nature of experience is and the place of mind and awareness in this.

Drawing simple lines with awareness of mind, not just focusing on the 'external' material activity, is a common practice in Zen, and can be applied in any meditative tradition or approach, both secular or religious. It is a mindful, meditative awareness process of observing the relationship between movement and stillness in my mind and noting how this affects drawing the lines.

Personally, I sometimes find it easier to observe mind while I am moving rather than sitting, especially if meditating for a long time. Also working intuitively and spontaneously with a fluid medium is a way to allow inner mindsets to be organically expressed and externalised. When the artwork is viewed, it becomes like a mirror into my inner world, giving me insight into my mind. This helps me more clearly understand what I cannot conceptually name and label.

For example, this can be a way to raise awareness of not only narrow, conceptual naming and labelling processes by which which I try to solidify and control experience to fit in with what is familiar. It can also be a way to connect with natural openness, playfulness, spontaneity, compassion, love, humour, energy in a way which is different from other forms of movement: it is tactile. Practising art making is also a way of sharpening awareness of changing relationships of the elements with creative processes involving chaos, emptiness, materiality, flux, fluidity, change, interdependence, chance, creation, preservation, destruction - this process fascinates me. Of particular interest are luminosity, ambiguity, liminality, palimpsest, space, wabi sabi, self/non-self.

Dharma art, I love doing it! Eh ma ho!


Zangmo Alexander 2024


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