A mirror is not cognizant of what is appearing in it. The opposite of cognizant would be ignorant, or oblivious, or “unaffected by”


The allegory of a mirror is often used to help individuals understand what awareness truly is like. It is said that, like a mirror, awareness reflects all manner of things and yet is never affected by what appears.

Unfortunately, there is a misleading problem lurking within this allegory which instills a very false understanding of awareness in those that take this allegory to heart, in the absence of direct meditational insights of the nature of awareness and of mind. Granted, the misunderstanding is already held to be the truth by most people who have not yet trained their minds, so they find this allegory very acceptable.

While awareness may be like a mirror which is unaffected by what it reflects, awareness isn’t reflecting anything, and in this important way, it is not like a mirror at all. That unaffectedness that is part of this allegory is ultimately true of awareness, but the image of reflections in a mirror is completely misleading.

It is true that a mirror reflects what is before it; but it also reverses that image relative to the viewer. Perhaps we should focus more on that reversal aspect of a mirror’s reflection than we do on its reflectivity, because describing awareness as being like a mirror — even allegorically — conveys an understanding of awareness that is completely opposite that which is necessarily true.

Awareness is not reflective. Images of things are not reflected in awareness. This would imply a dualism of subject and object, which is ok if we are talking about a video camera, or a set of eyes — mundane things, in other words— but it’s not ok when we are speaking of that which can be directly known (imperienced) as the ground or origin of all manifested phenomena, and which is nothing other than the very naturing of all those phenomena. But most of us miss that rather significant bump in the road to enlightened speech, in part because we are taught the allegory before we can counter its false structure with actual insight.

Yet, even in relation to its unaffectedness, this allegory is contrary to our everyday experience and leads us to a proliferation of reified “minds” which are used as necessary explanatory devices to get around the initial error of holding that awareness is unaffected by what appears “in the mirror.” This whole concept of “mind” is a fundamental error which causes us to impose a dualistic structure on a necessarily nondual reality.

Awareness is essentially the aspect of cognizance of the activity of this nondual reality — its responsiveness — and cognizance is not reflectivity. It is what it says: knowing; but not in the normal sense of someone having knowledge of something, especially something abstract, but rather, as a performance in which what is known is shown in the performance. Knowing how to dance is not a set of instructions on how to move — instead, it is the ability to move in certain ways. And having a trained mind is not the accumulation of facts and instructions on how to train your mind, read from some source text — rather, it is having done the practice for some length of time and thereby having accomplished the training of your mind.

So what is it that reality knows? Well, everything — you, me, this planet and the sense of beauty we discover when we see it for what it is, these words, every living thing, even those that we, because of our misunderstanding of reality, call ‘inanimate objects’. This world is the immediate expression of, and the ‘state of awareness’ of, reality — from the entangled perspectives of what is Now.

That idea of reflectivity splits the naturing of this display into two parts and then asserts that one — the awareness of the other part — is not affected by it; yet both are one and only one activity of naturing all that appears. Of course it is affected by the appearances; they are the natural activity of this naturing. It doesn’t mean that this nondual reality is permanently affected by anything at all, as all that appears is impermanent.

Unlike awareness, a mirror is not cognizant of what is appearing in it. The opposite of “cognizant” would be “ignorant,” or “oblivious,” and even “unaffected by,” and that last antonym is exactly what this allegory seems to convey, and is touted for conveying — thus this allegory illustrates the very opposite of awareness’s essential character and confuses all that hear it and try to make sense of what is being said, by imposing a conceptual understanding in the place of a direct imperience of the truth!

Awareness is affected by what it cognizes; unlike a mirror that is “unaffected by” its reflections because it is not cognizant of them — awareness is cognizance in essence and has no other nature.

We are told that awareness is unaffected by what appears in a misleading effort to convey an important point about what is more properly called “pure presence” and this leads me to the first proof that awareness is affected by what appears:

Pure presence is directly known once cognizance of the Now — the Now that is pure presence — is recognized. This recognition is a breakthrough, and the cognizance that marks its arrival is necessarily called awareness. That is to say, the meta-cognitive state that accompanies the direct imperience of the presence that we normally refer to as Now, is nothing other than awareness of the naturing of the appearances arising in that moment of insight. It is pointed out in Dzogchen, for example, that once we become aware of the Now as nothing other than pure presence we are liberated. What is liberated? The cognizant aspect of our naturing — which is what we are referring to when we say “awareness.” This is what is liberated from our normal absorption in the appearances — our forgetting that which we truly are. So what are these appearances? They are the collection of reifications that we hypostatize into our “self” with all that identifies ourself, and to which we have an emotional (egoic) attachment to (i.e., our thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and perceptions).

This reveals that awareness is affected by what appears. How is awareness affected? Three ways: by remaining attentive in approval; by turning away in disapproval; and by remaining neutral, or unattached, so that neither approval or disapproval arises. These two affective responses, and one neutral state, guide, or condition, what can appear next as the coherent natural display of reality.

The second proof that awareness is affected is more subtle, relying on a clarification of exactly how awareness cognizes.

Awareness is not something other than the “presencing” (i.e. naturing) of appearances in the pure presence of the Now. The Now is not a time, and Awareness is not some thing. Awareness is not part of a thing. It is not even an “aspect” of a process — it is the process.

Fortunately, the very word itself, with its “-ness” suffix, signals that it is a conceptual abstraction of some characteristic of something, and that is completely wrong in structure in this case — a dead-giveaway that confusion reigns.

First, there is no entity to have an aspect, and second, because abstracting awareness away, making it a thing-in-itself (which is the linguistic meaning of “-ness”) completely obfuscates that it is not only the essential character of a process, it is the only character of the process, thus it is the process — not some aspect of it.

This is why when awareness is said to be the “ground” of all that arises a subtle erroneous understanding also arises because it is confusing “knowing” for the unknowable “ground” that stands under (understands) the appearances. This may sound like a word game, but what it means is that we can not know the ground, but only the appearances — because the knowing is the appearances.

Effectively, abstracting awareness removes the natural process (from itself), confusing us into thinking that something substantive has been uncovered. And by giving that abstraction substance in our minds we are led directly away from the Truth.

In regard to “pure presence,” awareness corresponds to the arising activity of “presencing,” which is pointed out to us — our first pointing out instruction — as the “knowing” of appearances. Unfortunately, the concept of knowledge is completely dualistic today, so awareness becomes a subject entity and the appearances become an object entity. This very subtle dualism starts the confusion, which snowballs as we go forward.

Pure presence is not something to be known in a positive sense, and is only recognized via this naturing or presencing of appearances Now — the Now being the perspective that we call “self” and take as evidence of the reality of things, but which is not any thing.

Why? Because the essence of pure presence is that (it) is empty of any characteristics or identity, thus there is nothing intelligible at all about (it), and yet, (it) is the presencing of all that appears (note the deficiency of language with its need for a subject in this last group of statements). And it is this point which does not entail awareness in the sense that is normally meant when we use the word “presence” in conjunction with the appearances — what, after all, would there be cognizance of?

Is this Idealism? No. There is no “mind” that is “minding the store” here. No “mind” creating fantasies, nor realities. Certainly no “mind” that is aware. And yet the word “mind” is so often used; but not to denote any actual thing that can be pointed to — it’s used simply to point you away from your foot, brain, and everything in between.

Thus the “purity” that is pointed to is the unknowable ground, since nothing positive can be said (or known) about it — which most mystical religious traditions refer to as “Godhead.” We cannot know if it is a chimerical artifact of our reasoning when we say or understand “Godhead,” or if it is an absolute Truth.

What we may suddenly recognize, however, is the Now in which all appearances present — the appearances that are ephemeral and are void of any inherent self nature, but which are, however, evidential. That is, evidence that can lead us to recognize — when we suddenly notice the “clearing” of the Now (of pure presence) — that the Now is not a time, but is the venue of all that appears.

“Now” is never affected by what appears — what, after all, is there to affect? But “Awareness” is always affected by what is appearing because this abstraction points to the very essence of cognizance, and thus the very essence of the process of naturing, which is always responsive. Or more literally, awareness is the cognizing of appearances now, limiting and guiding the possibility of what can arise “next,” and this is the sum total of the process.

To conflate awareness with pure presence is a mental crutch that conflates knowing with the unknowable — expressing “facts” about that to which no facts apply. When recognized, the Now is known to be pure presence. But pure presence is not a thing — there is no entity in the naturing — so what could be stained by what appears as cognized?

Thus, the problem is that in making awareness something, in the allegory of the mirror, we subtly separate it from the naturing of all appearances — of which it is the only essential character. Then we find the need to prove that it is unaffected by what it cognizes because otherwise there is no “pure” state. Yet we know that the essence of this naturing is cognizance, and cognizance is not the “nature of the naturing of appearances.” Such a construction is mentation gone wild.

In reality there is no entity; so how could there be any entities in the appearances that arise? And these — appearances and reality — are not two things, so why do we make awareness into something that must be kept clean? Perhaps it is only a lack of recognition directly imperienced that provides the fertile soil for the genesis of this confusion.

And finally, if you are not yet convinced, let me ask you: “What do you think happens when you become conscious of something that you have perceived or thought? Where, exactly, is the location of the cognizance that you are trying to describe and how does it come to be?” For in each proposed solution, you will always already have cognizance implied in the structure of your answer, regardless of what you are pointing to.

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