Awareness and the College Experience

The first rays of sunlight fall through your dorm window and pull you from a deep and dreamless sleep. For just a moment, the world is utterly silent and your mind is as clear as the azure November sky. Immersed in the silence and the warm glow of morning, you relish in the peace of a pre-conscious mind.

In the mere flash of an instant, however, the clouds creep in. You recall that it is a Tuesday morning and you have a biology exam in just a few hours. It’s your sister’s birthday. You can’t forget to call her. The forms for the tutoring position you’re applying for are due tomorrow. You didn’t do your laundry.

The thoughts strike you like pelting drops of rain, forming a stream of dialogue that runs through your mind unceasingly, until the moment that you slip back into sleep.

Often, the voice inside our heads is like elevator music. We are so accustomed to it that we are not even aware of its presence. Because this mental narration never ceases, it is easy to feel as though our minds alone constitute who we are—as though the very essence of our being can be reduced to the chatter inside our minds.

Of course, we are better off identifying with our mental faculties than purely with our bodies. Nonetheless, I believe that there is a secondary danger that comes with identifying only with our thoughts as well.

In a Psychology Today article, “How Negative is Your Mental Chatter,” Dr. Raj Raghunathan writes that up to 70 percent of our thoughts are negative.

This statistic struck me. If our minds are more inclined to think cynically, and if the majority of our thoughts are merely recycled notions from yesterday, then we do not have as much control over our mental skies as I once believed.

Just as we cannot prevent an impending storm from occurring, we cannot resolutely decide which ideas and beliefs will become ingrained into our minds. Often, our thoughts feel totally arbitrary and seem to arise from a force that is beyond our reach—whether we believe that force to be the will of nature, the grace of God, or something entirely different is of course subjective.

In any case, there is a profound sense of freedom that comes with stepping back and distancing ourselves from the thoughts in our mind. In doing so, we allow ourselves to recognize that though we may be immersed in a stream of mental dialogue, we are not the stream itself. Though the waters of our mind saturate every aspect of our being, we have the ability to lift our chins above the rapids of thought and to gaze upon the ever-present shore.

According to advocates of mindfulness, the key to this practice is not simply witnessing our thoughts, but rather asking ourselves who that witness is. Who or what is it that silently observes the racing mind—who is the presence that dwells both within and beyond the bodies that we call our own?

I recognize that it may seem slightly fanciful to suggest that college students—in the thick of their homework assignments, job searches, and social lives—should devote time to reflecting on such seemingly abstract questions, but in my opinion these are some of the most important inquiries one could ask. Every element of our daily experience, from the conversations we have with friends, to our midterm exams, to the runs that we take around the Res, stem from our awareness. If we do not have the awareness to witness our thoughts and actions, then we do not have a medium through which to experience reality. If our sheer awareness necessarily precedes all elements of reality, then it seems logical to suggest that we identify with that awareness, rather than with the experiences which emanate from it.

In his book The Nature of Consciousness, spiritual guru Rupert Spira writes, “Awareness rises in the form of the mind to know the body and the world, but to know itself it need only rest in and as itself; it need only be itself alone.”

Too often, as college students, we become fixated on “doing.” We deceive ourselves into believing that our self-worth is achieved through constant activity and movement, forgetting that beneath all the “doing,” we are beings. I do not mean to suggest that we should become inactive, slothful philosophers but rather, that we should learn to identify first and foremost with the light which illuminates the objects of our experience, rather than with the objects themselves.

It is not until we do this that we can free ourselves from constant self-judgement. When we make a mistake, find ourselves in a terribly bad mood or simply don’t like the way that we look on a particular day, we can separate ourselves from that emotion or impression. We can witness the mental activity within our body without attaching ourselves to it and becoming swept away by its irrational rollercoaster.

Let us remember that we are the silent observers who watch the experience unfold. We may express our awareness in the context of the finite mind, but I believe that the essence of our being goes far beyond the streams of our interior dialogue, the fog which obscures our mental skies, and the horizons of our physical bodies. We may never know what constitutes this so-called space of “beyond,” but if we can allow our minds to grow quiet—if only for a moment—I believe that we can feel it, alive and pulsating within our every breath.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor