The Witness - from Establishment to Collapse
When objects arise, they never come self-identified as "thought" vs. "feeling" vs. "sensation." Even if the "thought" is labeled by another thought, the two actually never cross paths, as you will see in the experiment below. So there is no reason to conclude that what arises is really a thought, feeling or sensation. These terms were helpful earlier on when we used them to realize that physical and mental structures are not real objects independent of awareness. But after we no longer experience the world in terms of physical and mental structures, the terms have done much of their deconstructive work. They can be set aside, and if there is a need for them later, we can turn back to them. This process of using a technique and then setting it aside after it has done its job has a long and venerable history in nondual traditions. It is usually called "sublation."
So when we set aside the notion of thoughts, feelings and sensations, we might benefit from a more neutral term that doesn't imply psychological structures lurking in the background. Sometimes I call the comings and goings simply: "arisings."
Arisings are never experienced to occur anywhere other than in awareness. They never occur outside of awareness for the same reason that in everyday talk, we would say that it's impossible for a thought to appear outside of awareness. Even in everyday talk, it is part of what we mean by "thought" that it is naturally and logically connected to the mind or to a person's local and separate awareness. Thoughts are not separate from awareness even in science fiction movies. This same organic connection goes for all objects of awareness (which can also be called "arisings"). In fact, even if we defined a special kind of arising that occurs outside the scope of awareness, a logical impossibility pops up to prove us wrong. Let's say we define a "special arising XYZ that is able to occur outside of awareness." But here comes the impossibility: as soon as that arising comes within the scope of definition, it comes within the scope of awareness. There is no other place for the arising to be. In fact, since awareness is not geographical, the very notion of awareness as a place or locale dissolves.
When arisings occur, they appear to witnessing awareness in a serial stream. They arise, abide, and subside, one after another. Sometimes there are gaps in between. And through it all, awareness is present. You, as this awareness, are continuous and unbroken even if no arisings are present. The clearest experience of this is deep sleep. No arisings appear during deep sleep, yet it never seems as though you are absent. It never seems as though you stopped existing at the onset of deep sleep, and began existing again upon waking. Rather, it seems in a sweet and subtle way that you are continuous throughout.
Of course your "presence" is not an object. It is not the same kind of presence as an arising has. An arising seems to be able to be present, and then later not be present. But you as awareness aren't present in this way. As awareness, you don't arise, and you can never be absent. You aren't present like a student in roll call. Rather, your nature as awareness is presence itself.
Arisings are inert
Besides coming and going, arisings don't actually do anything. They have no causal power. Higher reason has established that arisings aren't physical or mental objects, because physical and mental things themselves are nothing more substantial than arisings in witnessing awareness. As inert comings and goings, arisings are spontaneous and independent of each other. They don't have any power to do anything. Arisings don't enclose or contain each other. They don't cause each other. They don't see each other. They don't refer to each other. They don't touch each other. None of these actions is ever experienced to happen. They are only believed to happen. But beliefs are themselves only thoughts, which are nothing more than arisings. In fact, all of these relationships, such as containing, causing, seeing, referring or touching, are nothing other than arisings themselves. And all of them appear and subside in witnessing awareness.
Sometimes it seems almost irresistible to think of arisings in awareness along the lines of thoughts in the mind. So it can seem as though certain arisings appear all too often, or that they serve as triggers for other ones. But arisings have no power of their own. Power is a kind of concept which is itself another arising in awareness. So arisings have no ability to go offstage and make plans to do things.
They don't hide anywhere and return. When they are not present, there's nowhere else that they are. In terms of arisings, when it seems like some of them trigger other ones to appear, it works more like this:
1. Arising A comes and goes.
2. Arising B comes and goes.
3. Arising C comes and goes.
4. Arising D comes and seems to make a claim: "Arising A was a trigger, because it came up then caused B and C to appear.”
But notice that claim in D is itself an arising. And but by the time D appears, A, B, and C are no longer in evidence. There is no present proof that they ever occurred.
Witnessing awareness is not personal
The witnessing awareness that all these arisings appear to is not personal. It is not divided up one per person. It can't be, and there are several ways to see this.
One way is to see that awareness has no physical attributes. It simply cannot be divided into pieces. Awareness is what arisings appear to. As such, it has no form, shape, color, texture or location. So there is no way for there to be more awareness in some places than in others. Awareness has no density, so there can't be more of it inside a person's head than in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Another way to see that awareness is not personal is to see that there is nothing independently available that can serve as a dividing substance or principle. If we think that awareness is spatially compartmentalized by the bones in a cranium, we have not thoroughly realized that skulls and bones are physical objects that are experienced as thoughts or sensations (arisings) which appear to witnessing awareness.
Sometimes nondual teachings attempt to account for the world of multiplicity by saying that objectless awareness had a desire to experience itself in a new way, and so created the entire phenomenal world of individual perceivers and enjoyers. This can be an effective teaching early on. It can help the student feel a connection between awareness and world of objects so that nothing seems totally disconnected or alienated from awareness. But later it is less helpful. Notice that this particular creation story gives suspiciously human characteristics to awareness, such as boredom, desire, and production. But our love for awareness has made us want to discover its deeper secrets, and higher reason has allowed us to experience human characteristics as arisings in awareness. As arisings in awareness, they simply have no power of their own to serve as individuating principles that divide awareness. A drawing of a fissure cannot divide the land.
Higher reason comes to realize that any candidate that seems as though it personalizes awareness is instead already internal to awareness as an arising. Awareness is infinitely more subtle than space, and is whole, unbroken and continuous.