ARTICLE 4 minutes


June 13, 2023

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What is Awakened Awareness?

Dr. Lisa Miller describes how we have two modes of awareness available to us at all times and leads us in the "three doors exercise" to show how awakened awareness can appear on the road of life.

By Lisa Miller

Achieving awareness is the perception that our purpose is to organize and control our lives. When we live through our achieving awareness, our foundational concern is How can I get and keep what I want? This mode of awareness is useful—and often necessary. It gives us the focused attention and commitment necessary to attain goals and enables us to direct our attention and energy into a particular task—to study for an exam, complete a project, get someplace on time, practice a skill. It allows us the focused drive and undistracted execution we need to implement and achieve our goals. It’s a highly necessary and helpful form of perception.

But when overused, or exclusively used, achieving awareness overrides and changes the structure of our brains, carving pathways of depression, anxiety, stress, and craving. When out of balance, achieving awareness is narrowly focused, unguided by the bigger picture, obsessed with the same track or idea, never satisfied, and often lonely and isolated.

And it doesn’t help us face undesirable outcomes. If we navigate life through our achieving awareness alone, we are often frustrated or distressed when things don’t turn out as we’d planned or hoped. And even when things appear to be working out for us, we perceive that it is up to us alone to make good 
things happen, or prevent bad things from happening. Life is an inert stage we act upon, trying to move everyone and everything toward our individual goals and desires. This can leave us isolated, stuck in rumination, or mired in a persistent feeling of dread, stress, or even emptiness.

When out of balance, achieving awareness is narrowly focused, unguided by the bigger picture, obsessed with the same track or idea, never satisfied, and often lonely and isolated.
Lisa Miller, PhD

When we live only through our achieving awareness, we develop a perceptual problem. We have a much-inflated sense of control, even as we become disconnected from the heartbeat of everyone around us. This is a lonely, atomistic, and inherently empty way to be. Even having everything can feel like having nothing. This perception of emptiness just makes us want more and try harder—and so we’re trapped in the cycle of motivation and reward. Overblown, it becomes craving and addiction: we need a bigger and bigger dose to feel good—but no amount of control or success will extinguish the craving.

Awakened Awareness

When we engage our awakened awareness, we make use of different parts of our brain, and we literally see more, integrating information from multiple sources of perception. Instead of seeing ourselves as independent makers of our path, we perceive ourselves as seekers of our path. We look across a vast landscape and ask, What is life showing me now? This awakened awareness allows us to perceive more choices and opportunities available to us, feel more connected with others, understand the relationships between events in our lives, be more open to creative leaps and insights, and feel more in tune with our life’s purpose and meaning.

In awakened awareness, we don’t lose or forsake our goals. But we take off the blinders. We surrender our tight grip on a goal. We understand that life is a dynamic force that we can attune to and interact with. It’s no longer me against the world, or me treading upon the world, but me hearing what life has to say, aware that life is meeting me where I am. I still have wishes and desires and goals, I still experience disappointment and hurt—but I lean into the flow of life, paying attention to where doors open and close.

As a result of this awakened awareness, our eyes move to meaningful events. In achieving awareness, the stranger who starts talking to us on the bus might be annoying or intrusive, or just invisible. In awakened awareness, we might hear what he says—and even see how it’s relevant to our own lives. Life is no longer inert, a platform on which we try to have our needs and desires met. It’s a living, conscious dialogue that includes some interesting surprises. When we engage our awakened awareness, the hard things in our lives don’t go away. But we have the capacity to perceive our sorrow and struggle in a new way. Knit into the fabric of life, there is a felt knowledge that we are never really alone.

Achieving awareness is necessary. It helps us move and chase the ball up and down the field. But to decide where the ball needs to go, to see the bigger field of play, to be aware of the other players, to understand the consequences and impact of our choices—and to perceive why we are playing the game in the first place—we need our awakened awareness. In other words, our most important decisions can’t be made from achieving awareness alone. Every day we make thousands of choices, and we make better ones when we engage the perceptual capacity that gives us the widest, most valuable and illuminating view. 

We had already seen that the spiritual brain is a healthier brain. Now we could see why—we could see the neural ingredients of awakened awareness. And we could see that spiritual awakening is a choice we can make at every moment—a choice of how we perceive the world and ourselves.

The Three Doors Exercise

I created this exercise called Three Doors to help show that when we’re using the lens of achieving awareness alone, we see boulders blocking our path, but when we engage our awakened attention, the boulders are actually stepping-stones that show us the path forward. The exercise is equally relevant and effective for everyone, because it calls our attention to the road of life.

  1. On a sheet of paper or in your journal, draw the road of your life.
  2. Identify a place on the road where you faced a hurdle: a loss, a disappointment, a death; a time when the thing you wanted—a job, a relationship, an award or accomplishment, an acceptance letter from a particular school—seemed lined up, in reach; and then somehow, unexpectedly,  the door slammed, and you didn’t get what you wanted or what you thought you were going to get. Draw the slammed door on the road.
  3. Now consider what happened as a result of that loss or disappointment that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Because the door closed, and because you didn’t claw ahead trying to force it back open, because you stopped and looked around, you saw a new door you hadn’t noticed before. What new insight or connection or path emerged, what new doorway opened, when the first door closed? Add the open door, leading to the new landscape along the road.
  4. Next, can you locate a messenger or helper who showed up and, with or without knowing they played a role, somehow supported or guided you? Perhaps it was someone you’d never met before or someone you knew well; someone who showed up in person or called you or sent you a letter, or someone you thought of at a crucial moment. Who were the messengers or helpers who pointed you to the open door? Draw the messenger(s) on the road.
  5. Repeat steps 2 through 4 twice more, so that your road of life shows three doors that closed and three that opened, and who showed up along the way to point you on your path.

The exercise helps us identify three concrete examples of times when our ventral attention network afforded us new vision. And when we observe how doors have closed and opened in our lives, and notice who showed up on our path, we are better able to see that loss and disappointment are often experiences that deepen, not threaten, our lives.

As Walter Earl Fluker said, “Sometimes when we’re not open to guidance, guides still show up. And if we’re stubborn, they have a way of letting us know.”

Ultimately, he says, synchronistic experiences are “moments of ecstasy when I’m most myself.” The more we open to the guidance of synchronicities, the better we can engage life as a creative act, living in a way that allows life to reveal itself.

Excerpted from The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life by Lisa Miller. Copyright © 2021 by Lisa Miller, PhD.