In Tara Brach’s True Refuge, she writes:
Looking back through history, and across many religious and spiritual traditions, we can recognize three archetypal gateways that appear again and again on the universal path of awakening. For me, the words that best capture the spirit of these gateways are “truth,” “love,” and “awareness.” Truth is the living reality that is revealed in the present moment; love is the felt sense of connectedness or oneness with all life; and awareness is the silent wakefulness behind all experience, the consciousness that is reading these words, listening to sounds, perceiving sensations and feelings. Each of these gateways is a fundamental part of who we are; each is a refuge because it is always here, embedded in our own being.
As she goes on to point out in more detail, Tara Brach has here re-ordered the classical Buddhist Three Refuges (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) to make more sense of the order in which most meditators encounter them. But awareness is more than meets the eye of anyone casually reading the words above. As Brach herself points out, in Radical Acceptance:
With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.
We are in very strange territory here, approaching metaphysical assumptions that may not be easy to justify. But it has seemed to me, as long as I have been intentionally investigating these things, that open awareness is of more than our own personal being. Unconditioned awareness is, axiomatically it seems to me, not restricted to the personal. We come close to the ground of being itself, the luminous presence beneath all existence whatever, and we see it for a moment as it is. Even Sam Harris, who is not known for flights of metaphysical fancy, wrote, in Waking Up:
Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.
[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”
But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…
The beauty and power of this cannot really be described, not least because words like beauty and power imply some kind of comparison with some thing which might be less beautiful, less powerful, and “no-thingness” is not any kind of thing, but the source of all that is. Lao Tzu was surely thinking of this when he wrote, “The unnamed is the source of everything in heaven & on earth. Not wanting anything to be different, [w]e see the inner essence.”