by CSA Accredited Supervisor and UK Programme Lead Will Medd
“To know and cultivate the truth we need to differentiate what we are aware of from the experience of awareness” (Dan Siegal quoted by Jon Prendergast In Touch p.23).
“In being aware of being aware – the knowing of our own essential, irreducible being – the mind loses it agitation and the heart of is relieved of its yearning. What remains cannot be given a name, for all the names refer to the objects of knowledge and experience, and yet it is that for which all minds seek and all hearts long” (Rupert Spira Being Aware of Being Aware, p.102).
“Each of us is a vantage point within one all-encompassing field of awareness” (Christopher Wallis Tantra Illuminated p.57)
Awareness is one of those words that we often use quite freely along with its close relatives of being present, mindful, open. Whether we’re dropping down the “U”, sailing the seven eyes, moving through a drama triangle, or sitting in relational presence, cultivating awareness is at the heart of our supervision work. Yet rarely do we turn attention to the very nature and qualities of awareness itself, to our being aware of our apparent experience of being aware. I want to suggest that being aware of being aware is the ultimate lens of supervision, one we often ignore to the detriment of the qualities of creativity, beauty, compassion, love, joy and the deeper wisdom unfolding beyond this immediate illusion of egoic ‘self’.
I admit this could start to become quite an abstract exploration and to stop that, let’s bring the focus right into this moment and your experience. As you are reading this, notice what you are experiencing, right now. Be watchful here – we habitually and typically start to label experience, which is already an afterthought. Can you close your eyes, put any thought or image of your body aside and ask, what is the experience of sensation right now? Before labelling it. Then ask: what is ‘it’ like to be aware of this experience you have noticed? Where is this awareness? What happens if you sense into that awareness? What does it feel like? Does it have a location?
My suggestion is that the awareness of being aware of what you are experiencing – including while reading this - is neither another thought nor some kind of inaccessible transcendental state. If it were another thought we’d have an infinite regress of thought after thought; yet, we’d be aware of those thoughts. We might also start to become aware of the spaces between thoughts. If it were a transcendental state, this would suggest it was somehow separate to this experience right now, and somewhere to be attained or reached in the future. Such a notion doesn’t quite get to the experience of being aware of ‘this’ which we are experiencing right now.
Ancient teachings of meditation through to contemporary claims of neuro-science point to understanding “I” is an afterthought, that is to say, the label I comes after the event we experience. We impose a narrative of self as part of a selective process of bringing coherence to the world, to feel we are making decisions, to feel we are in control. And we need to do so – the experiences of people with strokes or dementia shows how disorienting it can be when we lose this faculty. The mistake we make is when we take those narratives to be the truth or indeed a way to access the truth. Consider the notion of ‘being in control’. Coaches often refer to a very useful model for the locus of control, inviting people feeling overwhelmed to identify what is in and out of their locus of control. So far so good. It can be really helpful. Except for one thing. None of us know what is about to happen. We are not actually in control. Not only are there events happening beyond our control, we are not even in control of what our next thought will be. Yet we can be aware of this experience.
Asking questions about ‘awareness’ offers something different to developing another narrative . What I’ve noticed in my experience and when working with people, is at first, when asked what is it like to be aware of what one is experiencing, the answer tends to involve more detail about that which they are experiencing. This is often true when coaches and supervisors bring in a meta perspective – for example a view from the helicopter or the view looking down from several floors up a tower block. Such perspective is powerful in generating reflective insight and enabling people to lift out of habitual patterns of thinking and perceiving. What seems to be overlooked is the next question: what is it like being in this place? Now we’re in the helicopter, how would it be to take a look around, to dwell here? This means letting go of the content of the topic we were exploring – we’re no longer looking down – rather we are asking, what is it like to be in the helicopter? What is it like to be in this awareness? What is the nature of this awareness? What are the qualities it brings? When we do allow ourselves to be aware of awareness, qualities start to emerge that invoke something that is not possible to fully capture in words. Spaciousness, timelessness, a sense of not needing to know, do, or have anything more – a sense of being enough. An absence of duality, of non-separation. The presence of love, beauty, creativity, emergence. And – which I think is most important in our contemporary world - a different understanding to dominate notions of ‘I’ and who ‘I’ thinks ‘I’ am.
What might this look in supervision? Well, we could make this really complicated and bring in a multi-dimensional model, or we could go straight to the simple beauty of this question: who is aware of this? You can ask this of yourself, your supervisee and indeed of the relationship. Of course an immediate answer will be ‘I’ am. Interesting. And who is aware of this ‘I’? Perhaps, ‘well me, it’s I’. And what if we pay attention to that as a thought, this ‘well it’s me’. So the answer is a thought, a thought we are aware of. Again then, who is aware of this ‘I’ thought? The moment before the thought ‘I am’, who – or what is aware? This is the awareness that knows you are experiencing in all its forms - thinking, sensing, feeling. It is the awareness that knows you have been asleep.
Try this. Take anything that is in your mind right now – a physical sensation, a feeling, emotion, thought, image, belief, anything. And notice you are aware of it. Then ask, can you describe this experience of ‘being aware’ of the thing you are noticing? What do you notice when you turn attention into awareness itself? What is here? Where is this awareness? What is this awareness like? Can you notice from this awareness how thoughts images, feelings, emotions, physical sensations come and go? What is the awareness which is aware of our experience, including the experience of thinking ? And does this awareness have a location, a duration, a boundary of any kind – where is it? When you pay attention to this awareness – the being aware of being aware – what comes to light, what insight, what knowing?
It makes no sense to answer these questions for anyone! I’d encourage us all to explore more expansively ‘awareness’ in supervision, to see what we find there … It is one way we might find space to hold even our most hidden blind-spots and from which supervision can be truly in service of the work coaches do. It means being truly open and in deep curiosity with all that is arising, including the ‘messy stuff’ and our resistance to it.
Will Medd July 2023