Alan Cohen

What Is Awareness?

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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.