Yosemite-Half DomeDifference Between Thinking and Awareness

We tend to equate a powerful mind with being mentally fit, but this is really a misunderstanding of mental fitness. In fact, our minds will tend to limit us at every turn and drain our power away. We need to “get out of our minds” to see situations more clearly. Mental fitness is not concerned with the mind, per se, but rather with awareness. Someone who is mentally fit is aware. With awareness we don’t fall victim to the mind’s limiting tendencies that rule us if we lack mental fitness.

Our minds will create doubts–escape thoughts–when we are stressed. If we listen to these doubts we’ll tend to react and escape the stress by saying “take” or going down. In some cases like yes-fall zones we need to develop the ability to push through these doubts. Doing this expands our mental fitness. To do this we need to operate from a part of us that is different than our thinking mind. That part is awareness.

What is the difference between “thinking” and “awareness?” Thinking is thought intensive while awareness is presence or simple attention in the moment. “Thinking” is when your mind creates thoughts about the situation you are in. “Awareness” is when your attention is focused on the situation simply observing with your senses. You are aware through what you see, hear, feel, smell, taste. Thinking separates us from the immediacy of the situation. Awareness gives us direct perception of the situation and allows us to perceive it more accurately.

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Robert Montague

    Hi Arno,
    This weekend I experienced the thinking mind in the face of a steep ice climb. To climb this route would have required “awareness.” The day was late and I decided I did not have the energy to become “aware” for this pillar. It seems to me that standing on the ground is a great place to decide that, but it can also be easier to listen to “escape thoughts.” Thanks for the thoughts,
    Bozeman, MT

  2. Arno

    Hi Robert, The decision-making process is something we’ll be getting into later. For now, I can say that decision is “feeling based” rather than thinking based. Meaning, that once you have gone through your preparation then you weigh the risk against your experience with such risks. It is with this information that you “feel” for the appropriateness of the risk.

    Given the lateness of the day the risk probably didn’t feel appropriate. However, to help clarify between escape thinking and true awareness of resistance to inappropriate risks, you can find little ways to engage…by probing the situation. Arno

  3. RJ Christensen

    What I most appreciate about the Warrior’s Way is its application to real-life situations. Reading the blog this week, I realized that my current stressful situation at work is made worse by thinking too much. I am in a yes-fall zone and therefore need only to prepare myself ahead of time and then go to work. Worrying about what to do will only worsen the situation. I will succeed, just as I have in climbing, by being Aware of what needs to happen in the moment.

    1. Arno

      RJ, we’ll be getting into over- and under-thinking when going through preparation. For now, yes you do need to realize that over thinking can cause stress and lead to paralysis. Arno

  4. Robby

    Hey Arno
    I’ve read your new book, and am beginning to put these principles into practice. I have been out climbing the 4 Sunday’s in a row with great weather and new experiences.

    For me, subtlety is the key as I let my intuition bring awareness into being. (Did I say that?) Anyway, I am doing more trad lately, and noticed that I had never fallen on pro that I placed or for that matter ever weighted gear that I had placed. (Except for in your class with a back-up toprope.) Once I did hang on a piece of pro after letting my belayer know, I believe my climbing just kind of opened up. Not an expert, mind you, but able to deal with my fear of falling in a different light. Is this what you mean by awareness?

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Arno

      “Is this what you mean by awareness?” Well… in a way. What you describe is the difference between intellectual and experiential knowledge. You can intellectually know your trad pro is placed well but you won’t fully trust it until you experientially know it will hold. Meaning, you need to experience that it holds by falling on it, as we did in the trad camp. So, instead of thinking about what creates a solid piece you become aware through experience.

      How about others weighing in on how thinking and awareness might be equivalent to intellectual and experiential knowledge?

  5. Robby

    Oh, I like the photos of your classes in the back of your new book. Brings up nice memories of learning and especially helping you teach.

  6. Paul Sweatman

    Recently took your Espresso class and I’ve been reading “Rock Warrior’s Way” meaning I’ve been taking some hard looks at what I’m doing/not doing. I’ve been working on a sport lead project lately. I have gotten to where I can do it but… barely and not clean yet. One thing I noticed last night that I was over-thinking the problem. I’d sit and study… and Think… about what I needed to do. Every time I fell. When I finally just cleared my head, made sure I did the transition, and just did it, I noticed A) that I finished the climb, and B) how aware I was of every little thing around me and more importantly (to me anyway), how my body was moving. It was amazing to me that when I stopped applying my brain in the form of intellectual thought to the problem, I was able to do it.

  7. arno

    Hi Paul,
    Thinking occurs in your head; awareness occurs in your mind and body. You have mental awareness by taking in information through your senses of seeing and hearing, to name a couple. You have body awareness by moving it through the situation. Separating when it is time to think and when to do will help distinguish between intellectual and experiential knowledge. Stop and think to hypothesis, then move and do, using mental and body awareness to test/experience that hypothesis.


  8. EJ

    I’ve noticed recently while climbing at my limit, I’ve climbed through zones between protection without the usual fears causing doubts and pulling me back (making me say: take). Usually I recognize the moments as I go into them, and then very rationally, afterward. I can only say that I become completely involved in the moves — not even thinking about them. More recognizing the next move and doing it, and so on until the next clip. I usually shake out at clips and look ahead. It is after I make the first move the “flow” starts. I’ve kind of marvelled at myself, the thought arising: hmmm, I’m just climbing through. This must be the secret! 🙂
    I don’t feel yet that I can just make this happen. It’s just happened naturally, sort of following from being very focused and determined, I think.

    1. Arno

      Hello EJ, We’ll get into what you describe when addressing taking action. This is when we need to stop thinking and focus on doing. It is in this state that you are tapped into awareness with diminished intrusions from thinking. Arno

  9. Roxana

    The stress appears when I’m confronted with doing things differently. The stress is only when I don’t trust in awareness and trust only in rational thinking. In other words, my rational mind knows what I have already experienced, but awareness is about what I have not yet experienced; my desire to grow, to test my limits. To do this I must go beyond what I have already experienced, beyond my comfort zone. The root cause of this could be my Ego wanting an unchanged image of myself. is this accurate?

  10. arno

    Hello Roxana,
    Awareness does go beyond the bounds of thinking but I’m not sure how it relates directly to what you describe as “what I haven’t yet experienced.” We have touched a little on the connection between thinking /intellectual knowledge and awareness / experiential knowledge. I see a stronger connection between thinking and intellectual knowledge; it is less obvious between awareness and experiential knowledge. However, having said that, it seems a large component of awareness originates with our physical senses (seeing, hearing, etc). There are probably deeper components of awareness that tap into intuition that I don’t fully understand.

    How does this tie to the ego? Ego is an image or identity we create that separates us from the rest of our world. Ego gives us a time-bound and physical (body) bound identity. Awareness connects us. The ego tends to be thought intensive so “thinking” could drive the construction of the ego.
    Perhaps this helps explain some of your questions?

  11. arno

    Hello Roxana,
    Your observations seem to be full of thoughts to analyse what could be causing this or that. Remember to continually practice shifting attention out of thinking and into your body and senses. When you notice yourself thinking…stop…and focus attention on breathing, what you can see, hear, feel. That’s when you will be tapped into awareness and connected with your world.

  12. Roxana

    Tank you for your answers. It take time for me to change but because of that can be more stable when occur. I will do my best to follow your advice.
    Great posts! Thanks. Roxana

  13. Robby

    Yes, I like focusing on my breathing when I climb, and sometimes I need my belayer to remind me to do just that. I’m in the practice now of letting my belayer know that a small reminder to breath and relax helps tremondously. I will also give some practice to counting my moves as in the discussion in “When the Mind comes Forth.” Who knows what will happen when I combine the two methods!

  14. Dan

    You mention that you can easily see the tie between thinking and intellectual knowledge, but that it’s not as clear cut between awareness and experiential knowledge. i definitely agree with you. I’ve been playing around with the notion thats that:
    1) If a true state of awareness is completely free of thinking
    2) and all intellectual knowledge is the direct result of thinking
    3) then experiential knowledge is the only knowledge available to us when we are in a state of complete awareness.

    This knowledge can be innate things like proprioception and the physical size of our bodies to knowing from experience that the rope will hold in a fall.

    Until the experiential knowledge is in place, we must rely on our thinking minds as a stand in, and relying on the our thoughts opens the door to their interrupting our state of awareness.

    What do you think?

    1. Arno

      Hi Dan, “Getting experiential knowledge into place” is a constant process. So, there is a continual cycle between intellectualizing (thinking) about something and then experiencing (doing) it. The thinking mind does what it can to understand a situation but then we clarify that understanding through experience. So, the thinking mind does kinda “stand in” but we quickly set it aside and allow the body to “stand in” when having the experience.

      Yes, the door does seem to be open to the mind intellectualizing about our state of awareness. That seems to be an important part of the process also. I read a book about awareness, get some ideas, and apply them to experience. For example: I read about broadening my attention with soft-eyes or peripheral focus, contemplate it (thinking), and then experience it by walking around with an expanded soft-eyes focus. When I’m experiencing it, I’m not thinking about what I’m doing other than reminding myself when I notice I’m back in narrow focus, so I can get back into broad focus. I’m interpreting my state of awareness when I’m reading. But, when I’m applying that interpreting to actual experience, my attention is simply on doing it, not interpreting it.
      What do you think?

  15. Dan

    I think that maybe we’re agreeing? It sounds like you’re saying that during the learning process thinking leads to intellectual knowledge, and then we test that intellectual knowledge by opening our awareness while putting the new idea into practice to acquire experiential knowledge.

    So specifically, the same way that intellectual knowledge is acquired by thinking through a problem, experiential knowledge can only be gained through awareness. If our attention is interrupted by thoughts (or anything else) and we are not focused on the experience at hand then we will fail to acquire experiential knowledge from the event.

    For example, I have found that more often than not the things that I forget are the things that I wasn’t really paying attention to in the first place because my mind was running around on some other errand while the event was happening.

    Climbing examples of this might include watching another climber attempt a route to gain some insight into how to tackle it, but instead of really focusing on what they are doing, one might be thinking about how they would make the next move them self, or how good one is going to feel once they finish the route,or about the fact that one is thirsty.

    Another example might be getting frustrated with your performance on a route and therefore being unable to make use of the feedback of a climbing partner that would help you through if you could just step out of the mire of frustration and focus on their recommendation objectively.

    The idea that I’ve been bouncing around is that the tie between awareness and experiential knowledge might also work in the opposite direction. It’s that experiential is the only knowledge that is available to us if we are in a state of awareness (because in this state, the thinking mind and associated intellectual knowledge are ignored in favor of the senses).

    However, in writing this response I’ve realized that trying to get to the intellectual root of the knowledge available to us when we aren’t thinking probably isn’t very useful. Anything we decide on is going to be unavailable at the point one would put it into action anyway…

    Thank you for your question though, it helped me flesh out my thoughts on the subject.

    1. Arno

      Hi Dan, Yes, I think we’re close in expressing, in words, the concept we’re addressing.
      Your comment: Experiential knowledge can only be gained through awareness. If our attention is interrupted by thoughts (or anything else) and we are not focused on the experience at hand then we will fail to acquire experiential knowledge from the event.
      Yes, I’d argue that intellectual knowledge can also only be gained through awareness. Without awareness we are, well… unaware. We can thinking habitually in an unaware state, but we can’t think actively or critically in an unaware state.

      Your comment: It’s that experiential is the only knowledge that is available to us if we are in a state of awareness (because in this state, the thinking mind and associated intellectual knowledge are ignored in favor of the senses).
      Again, it seems that you cannot gain intellectual knowledge without awareness, but yes, thinking and intellectual knowledge are ignored in favor of the senses. The senses help keep attention in the moment. If we are experiencing something, then we are aware if we are present (attention in the moment) for it. Senses help keep us present to what is occurring moment to moment.

      Your last comment: Thank you for your question though, it helped me flesh out my thoughts on the subject.
      Yes, this discussion helps flesh out our intellectual knowledge. Were you aware while doing this? If so, then the process of developing intellectual knowledge also requires awareness. Now we just need to put it to work to convert it into experiential knowledge.
      Thanks, Arno

  16. Naz

    You are close but the truth is that awareness is pre-sense level. You can be aware of sense experience therefore you are not those experiences. Senses are still a form of distraction, but I can see what you are getting at with this article 🙂

  17. Vks

    Thank You for the lovely blog. Practicioners of meditation in India have for centuries been talking about ‘Nirvichar Samadhi’. It simply means thoughtless awareness. For many, that is the first state to a higher state of awareness. You may like to try http://www.freemeditation.com.

  18. Dodge

    Thank you very much for the clear explanation.

  19. Elizabeth Hancock

    Hello Arno,

    When I was in Peru, I was asked by a local shaman to set the intention for my trip, I responded, “expansion of consciousness”. This response came because I intuitively know that this world is far more than the five senses and the perceived limitations of physical reality. I wanted my ability to perceive all that is to be infinite; another way of putting this is to be self-realized; fully conscious of consciousness.

    Most people think they are conscious, but they are actually operating primarily through unconscious tendencies and compulsions set forth from past experiences that have colored their way of perceiving, reacting and behaving. To be fully conscious is not to be a slave of the past but to respond with full awareness in the present moment.

    People think that our perception is limited but in fact through the practice of meditation our ability to perceive expands and grows infinitely. This is not to say that we see and perceive everything all at once! It means that when we expand our level of consciousness our energies are not occupied with bodily sensations or mind traffic which opens the space for us to interact in our world in a more conscious and intentional way.

    I recently wrote a post about the virtue’s of paying attention. This describes in detail why someone would want to be “more conscious” or aware in everyday life. You may read the article here if you are interested: https://www.beyondyou.coach/the-virtue-of-paying-attention/

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond and share! 😉

Leave a Reply