NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Awareness” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome
Awareness: Breaking the Spell
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
In August, 2003, I attended a five-day, mostly silent retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh (and 900 others). I thought of it as “Buddhist boot camp.” We awoke at 5:30am, did brief exercises led by Thich Nhat Hanh or one of his monks or nuns, and spent the day meditating, listening to dharma talks, participating in discussions of Buddhist thought, and in general embedding ourselves in Buddhist practice.
At that time my close friend Robert, the older brother I never had, was in a very bad way. Like me, he had nearly died years before, and like me had struggled out of his infirmities and, for a long time, appeared to be doing well. But in recent months he had fallen into a deep depression. I, too, was battling depression and it strained my limited resources to be with Robert. In the best of times, our relationship was 70% Robert, 30% David. Lately, it had been 99% Robert, 1% me. I’d been avoiding him. On the way back from the retreat, however, as I drove past his apartment in Gloucester, I realized I felt healed. “Now,” I thought, “I’m ready to see Robert.”
When I arrived home, there was a message on my answering machine from Robert’s ex-wife. “I hope you’re not going to tell me what I think you’re going to tell me,” I said. “I am,” she said. “Robert committed suicide two weeks ago.”
The next day, I came down with a high fever and soon began coughing up thick, gray phlegm. Maybe it was grief. Maybe it was guilt. Maybe it was exposure to 899 other people in relatively close quarters. Regardless, for the next two weeks I was in a delirium of what turned out to be pneumonia.
When I was finally recovered enough to venture outside, I took a walk on Good Harbor beach. As I crested the first dune, I was overcome with the sensation that I, as well as the air, the surf, the sand, the sky, and the people and dogs playing on the beach, were all composed of particles of matter and energy. I experienced everything as a continuum, the boundary between myself and the sand under my feet and the air surrounding me vague and indistinct, as if we were all images in a Pointillist painting bleeding into one another. For the first time in my life, I not only knew but felt and saw that I was part of everything and so was everything else. For the next 45 minutes I was more aware than I have ever been.
After I got home, I remembered how Thich Nhat Hanh had described the beauty of the retreat’s host campus, which had seemed pleasant enough, but not extraordinary in any way. This, I thought, is how Thich Nhat Hanh sees. I was suddenly hungry and greedily ate some vanilla yogurt; it tasted better than the best vanilla ice cream. I remembered Thich Nhat Hanh telling us to chew our food until it was liquid so we could enjoy the delicate flavors of carrots and zucchini. This, I thought, is how Thich Nhat Hanh eats.
Over the next few months, I had shorter but equally intense experiences of heightened awareness, particularly visual awareness and awareness of how people felt. A baseball field I passed through many times on the way from the commuter rail to my apartment shimmered with beauty. My heart resonated so strongly with a client’s feelings that I thought, at first, the emotions were my own. With regular meditation, this awareness waxed. When I slackened my mediation practice, it waned.
Awareness happens in the moment and in the world. It cuts through the tangled thought processes of the rational mind and the projection-prone pull of emotion by placing us in our bodies, in direct contact with our environment, right now.
As a therapist, and in my own personal work, becoming aware has been a slow and sometimes faltering process, but it always yields a shift in the direction of making conscious choices rather than having them made reflexively by unconscious attitudes and beliefs – of responding, rather than simply reacting.
There are many tools to increase awareness. They all facilitate connection between a more aware self and the world as it is, not as we hope it will be or fear it will become. Following are some awareness-enhancing methodologies I have found personally and professionally useful.
Mindfulness. Buddhist teachers emphasize awareness as a means to become free of the illusions of attachment, avoidance, and permanence. Meditation and mindfulness practices open our being to accepting impermanence and breaking overidentification with the ego. They remind us that all we truly have is this present moment and increase our ability to be ourselves in the here and now.
Gestalt Therapy. A basic principle of Gestalt Therapy is that awareness itself can be curative. In sessions with clients, Gestalt-oriented therapists mirror body language, ask perception-based questions, and invite clients to perform “experiments” both in the office and out in the world. Clients learn to perceive themselves and their interactions more accurately, and thereby to weaken the inherited beliefs and patterns that can artificially limit actions and inhibit meeting needs. Through increasing awareness, we make more informed choices and make our contact with the external world more fulfilling.
Focusing. Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing aids in awareness by facilitating attunement with our inner, bodily experience of ourselves and the world. By becoming aware of our fragmented or suppressed “parts” and their needs, we learn to integrate them and increasingly respond to the fullness of the world with our full selves. The process is not unlike what artists do when they create, out of a vague sense of what is there, a work of art that captures its essence.
Spell Psychology. In Jim Grant’s Spell Psychology, we all, to some extent, operate as if under a spell, viewing ourselves, others, and the world through the haze of embedded concepts, feelings, and coping mechanisms. In this unaware, hypnotic state, we behave as if we are following a wizard’s commands: we perceive, think, feel, and act in ways the wizard believes are in our best interest, but which almost always keep us from realizing our true potential. Spell awareness liberates us from these commandments. Recognizing that a feeling or thought may be real, but that it is not a true response to or representation of the world allows us to break our habitual patterns and reactions and respond in a fresh, full way. From that place, we can make aware choices about what we do, how we see, and how we live.
Through increasing clarity about ourselves, the world outside us, and our connections to it, awareness encourages the empowered saying of “yes” when we mean yes and “no” when we mean no; we intuitively know on a deeper level who we are and what we want. Awareness, regardless of the method by which it is achieved, is an essential component of awakening from the many-faceted sleep of illusion to the full and genuine lives that are our true heritage.
Text and images © 2012, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.