Being aware of what is happening in and around oneself enables optimal performance. Optimal performance is getting what you want to get done in the most effective way.
The kind of awareness we are interested in is not a reflection on what has happened after it has happened. It is bare-awareness, a simultaneous knowing that allows the natural flow of effective action. Mindfulness practice is a method to cultivate bare-awareness.
Does Mindfulness Get in the Way?
Mindfulness practitioners make an effort to cultivate and enhance their own mindfulness. As their practice matures, they experience the development of witness - a natural aspect of mind that observes. It is this aspect of mind that develops into bare-awareness.
Practitioners often ask whether mindfully observing their experience gets in the way of being in flow in the moment. One found that a body scan meditation that he had been doing no longer had the same results. He was not feeling fully immersed and totally present in his body; not getting the experience of oneness that he'd been experiencing. Another found that she was not as fully engaged in interactions with others. Over the years, many mindfulness practitioners have faced the same issue - mindfulness getting in the way of being fully present.
The Witness and Stepping Back to Create a Gap
Reflective self-consciousness in the form of the "witness" appears both in meditation and in everyday situations. The witness is non-judgmental. The witness is a natural aspect of mind that simply observes what is happening. Once it matures, this simple, objective observing does not get in the way.
Witnessing provides a gap, space, between an experience and the reaction to that experience. For example, a person steps on your sore foot. You feel pain and there may be a knee jerk reaction of anger and a desire to somehow punish the uncaring, clumsy oaf who caused the pain; that desire may result in taking action to "get even." Or, with a gap, you might observe the pain and take a breath before reacting.
Knowing without Thinking
Witnessing is being aware of your own thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and everything else that arises and passes away in your experience. Witnessing is just noticing, objectively, without judging; being present, here and now. Witnessing is the awareness part of metacognition. Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of one's thought process. Analysis, study, and inquiry are the parts that enable understanding. Witnessing is simply being aware.
Some experts think of metacognition as "thinking about thinking." In the context of mindfulness, witnessing goes beyond thinking to knowing. Thinking about your hand is different from knowing or being aware of your hand. Proprioception is the scientific term for sensing the orientation of your body in its environment. You don't have to think about your hand to know where it is.
Knowing is a body-mind experience. Thinking is all mind. Knowing is bare awareness, without concept or judgement.
Thinking gives knowing a name, "witnessing," and a doer, "the witness." Thinking lets witnessing interrupt the flow of conversation or meditation in the moment. There is thinking about what has been experienced by the witness. There may be thinking about the witnessing itself. Thinking takes the thinker out of the experience of the moment.
Witnessing Settles in to Bare-Awareness
By cultivating witnessing using mindfulness methods, new neural pathways form. Witnessing settles in, it witnesses everything, including the naming and thinking about witnessing. There is a stepping back to a new standpoint. As practice matures, the witnessing becomes natural and the witness blends into the background. There is witnessing without a witness; bare-awareness; knowing without a knower.
Bare-awareness occurs more frequently and effortlessly. Its duration increases. When witnessing detects thinking and that the mind is submerged in some train of thought or feeling, the recognition signals a return to bare-awareness. The recognition occurs more frequently. It occurs before a train of thought gains momentum.
Bare awareness does not get in the way. Action and awareness fold into one another. The quality of being in the moment, in flow, brings with it the subtle joy of just being present. One is the eye of the storm while simultaneously being in the wind and the rain. One objectively knows things as they are, with all their beauty, ugliness, pleasure and pain; able to respond rather than react. Bare-awareness enables the letting go of the attachments that are at the root of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
How does one cultivate bare awareness?
Practice mindfulness meditation techniques. Begin by training the mind to be able to stay with a chosen object, for example the breath. This cultivates the calm stability needed to be able to handle distractions. When the mind is calm and stable notice the arising and passing away of physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, sounds, visual images and anything else that occurs within or around you. Notice the noticing.
Practice challenging and engaging activities that give you a sense of being in flow or in the zone - fully immersed, enjoying the process, energized and focused in the activity, absorbed to the extent that the sense of time and space is lost. Afterwards, reflect on the "taste" of bare-awareness that allows you to be fully engaged AND aware. Note how you optimally perform when you are in that state.
Commit to breaking old habits and overcoming distractions. When you find yourself caught in thought, relax your shoulders and let your chest open; stand, lie, move or sit comfortably, breathe naturally and let things be as they are. How do you know you are caught in thought? You know it by sensing the scrunching up of your forehead, the tension in you eyes, or any of the other sensations that tell you that you are dwelling in the past or projecting into the future. How do you know that you are not caught up? You know it by feeling the fluid peace, clarity and energy of being present and aware, at one with your experience.