Awareness is the central element in any approach to psychotherapy or human behavior, but it is likely the most neglected aspect when it comes to our inquiry. In psychoanalytic theory, “awareness” was seen as being synonymous with “consciousness”, but was not defined as a phenomenon. Instead, focus was put on two other elements: the defenses against awareness (resulting in “the Unconscious”); and “insight”, which was seen as an illumination, an understanding of the explanation for the problems or life issues of the patient. Insight was a focus on content, even though it might be accompanied by emotion. But awareness itself was not discussed. In cognitive therapy, focus, again, is put on the content of thought. The effort is on illuminating irrational content and substituting functional content. Awareness itself, however, is taken for granted. It is as if we are so concerned about where we drive, and how we drive, and the route we take, that we forget that we are in a car! While our daily destinations may be important, attention to the vehicle itself may prove to have some significant impact on all of our journeys! Gestalt therapy was devised as a therapy which placed a focus on awareness. This brought our focus to the transient present moment – which is the only time that awareness can occur. We speak of contacting the present moment, through a flow of ever-changing objects of awareness. I may be aware of a need, and as soon as it is satisfied (and I am aware of the experience of satisfaction), I become aware of the next “figure”, or object of awareness. Awareness is constant, even though what we are aware of is constantly changing. Regardless of the content, regardless of the vibrancy (what Gestalt therapy calls “good contact”), regardless of the emotion, awareness itself is constant. So, what is awareness? Curiously, even Gestalt therapy neglects to be clear about that question. It is taken as a fact, as something that “occurs in contact”, but is not defined beyond that. But, this is where meditative traditions have much to offer us: awareness is the constant energy that underlies our consciousness, regardless of content, regardless of functionality or irrationality, regardless of culture. Awareness itself is the constant in a field of constant change.
As you read this page, you are experiencing. You may be experiencing interest in what may unfold before you, or you may be experiencing skepticism about the value of what this person has to say. Or you may be experiencing your sore back. Or hunger… In all of these cases, there is a focus of interest or need that both draws your attention, and serves as a lens through which your experience is formed.
In this forming of awareness, the way you experience yourself and the way you experience the world is created. The external object of perception is not the primary shaper of experience, since the same object can be experienced very differently by different people. What creates the meaning of the experience are the attitudes, beliefs, needs, and world view of the perceiver. So, in the process of contacting the present moment, awareness is brought to some object of awareness (figure), which may be external (e.g. this blog entry) or internal (e.g. hunger) and is given meaning by the background (e.g. personal history, biases, cultural environment, zeitgeist, etc). Our emotions, then, are felt responses to the relationship between the figure and the background. So, a glass of water would have very different meaning, and would evoke a very different emotional response from a man struggling in the desert, than from a man sitting in a restaurant. And their response to the water (figure) would be a function of the degree of need or interest that the figure/ground relationship elicited. We are constantly forming such figures in relation to a (personal, environmental, cultural, economic, etc) background. As soon as that particular figure (object of awareness) passes, it is replaced by another. More likely, there are numerous figures occurring simultaneously, and “competing” for primary focus. This process allows us to address the dominant need of the moment, whether in relation to physical survival, emotional safety, pleasure, or whatever, and to thereby maximize the survival and growth of the person.
I have been developing an interest, both theoretical and experiential, in what I refer to as Presence over the course of the past forty years. In this blog I would like to begin to elucidate some of my clinical, theoretical, and personal findings regarding Presence, and it’s relationship to awareness and growth. I will be speaking to a conceptual framework for understanding this, a means of addressing direct experience, and clinical examples of the role of Presence in psychological stuckness and growth. I am eager to enter into dialogue with any who take an interest in my entries, and hope that such dialogue will further facilitate the development of understanding the nature of Presence and how it informs our selves.