Small detail. Great importance

During my avid martial arts phase I was blessed to train with some true masters. And often on the razor’s edge where something may be working —yet for minutely wrong reasons— they would straighten me out. A technique I thought I understood would reveal hidden facets or covert flaws that, once corrected, took it to another level. Without such a guidance the technique would not have developed to its full potential. Or at least its potential attainable with my limited skills.

When I left Japan, my teacher told me the path was mine; I’d learned all I needed to continue, the rest would be revealed in practice. Budo. The way.

Last night my dream reminded me of something discovered only through practice. It was a small detail of great importance.

I have been exercising more daily mindfulness. For a few reasons, but one of them was in the hope it would carry over into my dreams. That I would become mindfully aware while dreaming. And last night it worked. I was watching a comedy act in a club. The comedian wasn’t funny, but hey, I wasn’t there to be entertained, I was practicing my “mindfulness.” Mindfully listening to the comedian, mindful that I wasn’t enjoying it very much, and aware of thoughts and dialog happening in my head without getting caught up. Yet the critical missing piece: I wasn’t mindful of the dreaming.

A minute but crucial detail. And a subtle flaw in implementation I often gloss over in daily practice. A flaw of omission which became readily apparent when put to the test in the dream world.

Mindfulness has become the darling of pop psychology. But a teacher in the older traditions once said something, almost as an aside, that is not usually reflected in the contemporary self-improvement approaches. He said it’s not enough to sit and be aware of our thoughts and feelings, we must also be aware that we are doing this. That we are in this place, aware of this awareness of things. When we do this, awareness becomes less of an “I” or a who and more of a “what.” As in, “what the heck is this no-thing that is aware?” Because it seems very strange to call it “me” which is just a collection of things that this no-thing is aware of and untouched by.

Words are poor containers for this point, but the point was this: simply noticing thoughts and feelings can be a type of introspection rather than a type of awareness. And introspection is just another flavor of sleep so one cannot expect lucidity from its practice. Introspection could just be an identification with the idea of detachment. With an idealized “objectivity.”  In contrast, there is an alchemy that comes with awareness of being aware.  “Self-remembrance” as fourth way1 practitioners call it. The mindful dream that was not lucid seemed to be speaking directly to this flaw in my practice.


  1. A great book on the fourth way is Self Observation: The Awakening of Conscience: an Owner’s Manual by Red Hawk. 

6 thoughts on “Small detail. Great importance”

  1. Terrific topic, and reminds me of so much. It’s the singular thread that unravels so much when we keep going into it. I agree, words are poor containers and yet we try with the tools at hand. There is so much to consider here, I had to add to the conversation on my own blog. Thank you for the inspiration and taking me back to so much.

  2. Thanks for the comment Michael. I’m going to have to ping-pong a conversation about YOUR blog in my next post, as you raised some interesting points…

  3. Lots of great ideas here. Of course, we’re using words and thoughts and concepts based upon assumptions stemming from underlining philosophies inherent in our starting points. Using words to find a way to escape words or structured thinking to find a way to escape having a philosophy will always be a paradox, one that seems crazily unavoidable if we want to talk to one another about potentially esoteric things void of such things. Although there may be awareness of thought without it (awareness) being a thought (i.e. being “about” anything), the very fact that some talk about that state and wonder how to formalize it into a repeatable method for their meditative practice shows the double bind we’re in. Suddenly we’ve brought it down from being a pure experience into the realm of mindful ideas so sticky with concepts and, once again, philosophies. The prospect that we may be more than thought is best experienced, not discussed. It sounds great that when we (aka this awareness) separate a little from our thoughts, for a short period, even a few seconds…we sometimes make an earth shattering discovery that we aren’t our thoughts. Yet what becomes of the follow-on question, “what the heck is this no-thing that is aware?” Perhaps being aware is usually where the buck stops – unless we begin wondering about who is aware. Realizing you’re not your thoughts doesn’t answer who the heck is the one separated from those thoughts. Just as we can delude ourselves that we are awake, maybe we can also delude ourselves that we’ve truly separated from our thoughts. How is such thing verified? By mind? By the very thing under inspection? The wonder remains — who or what is the “I” that’s doing all of this? Find it, present it, wake up to it, separate from your thoughts to see it, whatever you’ve got to do, it remains elusive — unless we convince ourselves we’ve managed to get one-up on it. And of course, when that happens, we know that’s true. How, I’m not sure. It’s begins to sound like merging upon that realm where magic and awareness converge, as if there was a difference to begin with. But it’s a fun attempt, even if we both know we’ll never get the definitive handle on it by words or what we interpret with concepts or limited experience as our awareness. As you said, words are poor containers, and pursuing them too seriously leads, as Watts chuckled, “…to endless games of spiritual one-up-manship, and Guru competitions.”

    “Though I try to find the answer
    To all the questions they ask
    Though I know it’s impossible
    To go living through the past
    Don’t tell no lie
    There’s a natural mystic
    Blowing through the air
    Can’t keep them down
    If you listen carefully now you will hear
    Such a natural mystic
    Blowing through the air.”
    –Bob Marley

    1. “natural mystic” … I love that phrase! As Adyashanti says, “This life is not about winning the spiritual game; it’s about waking up from the game.” But what fun is that?? 🙂 I think my next post is going to be on games to play in the waiting room heheh. Thanks for the comment and lyrics!

  4. Hmmm, Interesting tricks these. Being aware of being aware eh? String upon words upon words to suggest/teach/file-off-a-size that words won’t do? A Universe Circle closing in on itself perhaps. Joining together to snap that latch-key holding the sphere together and a whole. Small details. Sheesh, now i gotta pay attention to me paying attention to me paying attention to …. yikes, another vector venue to gaze into, and center, between parallel opposing mirrors crafting their representation of infinity. Oh yeah that reminds me, gotta go back to the barber and lighten the load on my head…

    1. Thanks for the comments Señor! Your comments remind me of an interesting experiment I saw on youtube recently —stacking polarized filter upon polarized filter and rotating their angles; and while one might think they would just block more and more light, because of some quantum shenanigans certain configurations allowed more light through than our linear models of realism and localism can explain. Semantically, these conundrums with reflexive thought (which I distinguish from awareness) were lyrically explored in social and philosophical contexts (double binds, etc) by Scottish psychoanalyst R.D.Laing in his brilliant book called “Knots”

      “They are playing a game. They are playing at not
      playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
      shall break the rules and they will punish me.
      I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game”

      This is the poetry of madness! As one reviewer says “It’s the ultimate book for people trapped in their own heads.”

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