As meditators, most of us have an object of meditation we’ve chosen that helps us to anchor the mind in the present moment. For instance, we can follow the breath or concentrate on manifesting the energy of loving-kindness. These are very fruitful practices because they make it easier for us to compose and collect the mind.
But there’s also a form of meditation that we call “choiceless awareness,” which points to what I’m talking about here. Instead of choosing a particular object to pay attention to, you focus on whatever is arising in the present moment. You’re simply present with the way things are, thereby allowing them to change according to their transitory nature.
Strictly speaking, this type of meditation isn’t really choiceless, since you’re choosing to abide in the present moment and not localize your attention on any particular sense object. In fact, what you’re choosing to notice is change. If you’re willing to be patient with this kind of observing, you might notice the space between thoughts—that is, the space before a thought arises and especially the space after a thought ceases.
As an experiment, say to yourself, “Tomorrow is …” and fill in whatever day of the week tomorrow is for you. Let a bit of time pass. Then stop your train of thought and just listen. Notice how quickly the space that succeeded the “Tomorrow is …” thought got filled with planning or anticipating the next day’s activities—in other words, with some kind of “doing.” Or maybe you started to question: “‘Tomorrow is ….’ Is that what he means by paying attention to the space? Am I doing this right?”
Even now, the mind is thinking. But you need to stop trying to figure things out, since there’s nothing that needs to be figured out. Once you can get the thinking to stop, you have it. You have the silence, the space. In this way, you begin to emphasize the space and sense of awareness which are the background of consciousness, rather than emphasizing the objects of awareness which are the foreground of consciousness.
This reflection by Ajahn Viradhammo is from the book, The Contemplative’s Craft, (pdf) pp.171-172.