What is the object of meditation in the practice the Buddha taught?
The quality of awareness is the primary though not exclusive object.
I wish this question were asked more often as many people get confused without realizing it.
In my early training, I used the breath as the primary object. Many people do. I learned to love it. The breath can be a very soothing and satisfying because the sensations are so tangible. It’s easy to know when we are "doing the practice right" and when we aren’t.
In contrast, awareness is elusive, especially in the beginning. Awareness doesn’t have "sharp edges"– easily defined markers. At first it’s more nebulous than the breath. What’s more, the quality of awareness flows from one characteristic to another: we’re observing a moving target. Beginners may have less confidence they know what they are doing.
But with a little practice, it works very well. And it is a more effective object because it is at the core of what the practice is about.
Meditation cultivates consciousness that is clear, open, relaxed, and discerning. By using awareness as the primary object we are attending to the core of the training itself. The quality of awareness will shift and change as the mindfulness deepens. We’ll be more aware of this as the meditation progresses.
Let’s look at that progression:
We begin by using simple phrases like "May you be happy," "May you be free," to send uplifted states to a spiritual friend. This gives us three objects: the phrase, the friend, and the quality we are sending. We put only 5% of our attention on the phrases. They are a way to evoke the qualities we want: kindness, welling being, happiness, or any other uplifted state. The phrases are used to "prime the pump" – get the feeling of metta started.
We put about 20% of our attention on a spiritual friend. He or she is someone for whom it is very easy for us to wish well. We use them to help evoke the uplifted states to be sent out.
Meanwhile, we place most of our attention (roughly 75%) on the feeling state rather than the phrases or the friend.
As the practice gains strength, the phrases may seem clunky and get in the way of the feeling itself. So we drop them and enter "noble silence" where we send out metta, well-wishing, etc. silently without the support of mental words.
As the practice goes even deeper, body sensations relax and fade. The tension required to focus on our friend feels less helpful. The mind-heart naturally wants to send wellbeing to more and more beings. So, after a series of practices, we drop the individual focus and simply allow metta, compassion, joy, and ease to flow out to all beings everywhere.
In other words, by the fourth jhana, the phrases and the spiritual friend have been dropped completely leaving just the quality of awareness as the object of meditation as we broadcast peace and kindness in all directions.
From here, the quality of awareness remains the primary object even as it changes and becomes more refined.
As we move through the seventh jhana (the base of no-thing-ness) mind objects other than awareness (or consciousness) become fainter. We’re left with purer and purer consciousness – that is awareness that has nothing to look at but itself.
Eventually (as we enter the base of neither perception nor non-perception) awareness itself fades. In time we go into cessation and nibbana where there is nothing.
So using awareness as the primary object of meditation from the beginning is more efficient because we are focused on the core of the practice: awareness. And, in so doing we don’t have to get acquainted with other objects as the practice deepens. We begin with an object that will serve us along the entire journey. It is a simple, elegant, and effective focus of attention.
However, this "easing awake" style of practice taught by the Buddha has no exclusive object of meditation. Awareness is home base: a place to rest our attention. But we don’t exclude other objects that come into the mind-heart system. Other objects are "six-R-ed." The first R is to recognize where the mind’s attention has gone when it is pulled away. There is never any effort to push something away – just to let it relax.
The six Rs are another topic. But suffice it to say that while awareness may be the primary object of meditation, it is never the exclusive object. Meditation is about learning to observe the movements of the mind’s attention. It’s not about controlling anything. This is insight meditation where we learn to see more and more clearly and precisely what is really going on rather than to dictate what we see or don’t see.