Three Necessary Capabilities for Becoming Aware

Since I wrote a review of Presence (the new book by Senge, Scharmer et al) I have been caught in a maelstrom of debate on the whole issue of whether personal ‘consciousness-raising’ (for lack of a better term) has an important role in equipping us to deal individually and collectively with complex challenges, or whether it is a distraction and detraction from development of a useful ‘science’ of social complexity.

I seem to be just about the only fence-sitter in this debate. So this article is sure to get me in trouble with both sides.

My difficulty with those trying to integrate psychological self-improvement (and even self-mastery) into approaches to complexity, from the authors of Presence to psychologists and philosophers like Ken Wilber, is (a) the jargon used in their arguments, and (b) the arrogance with which they espouse certain (often proprietary) methods and models. There’s something about terms like ‘spiral dynamics’, ‘self-actualization’, ‘meditative spaces of leadership’ and ‘decentered fragile flotation’ that strike me as deliberately obscure, and make me confrontational or (more often) just turn me off from the discussion. And the apparent cliquishness of those who espouse these models and methods makes me wonder whether the objective is not enlightening others but rather cult membership or obscure academic oneupmanship.

At the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that becoming a better listener, learning to perceive instead of always conceiving, and improving one’s attention and relaxation skills, are legitimate steps to becoming more open, aware, collaborative and imaginative, and that that will necessarily make us, and the teams we work with, better able to come up and develop useful ideas and approaches to complex challenges. And I do not think there is any science to this — it’s very soft, difficult, and can only be done through practice rather than book study, and our left-brain science-oriented human languages are decidedly unhelpful.

So I was intrigued when artist Andrew Campbell pointed me to a five-year-old set of eleven interviews called Dialog on Leadership (leadership — there’s another overused word that grates on me: the people who use it the most tend to use it as a euphemism for power, and to be completely clued out about what it really means). One of the interviews is by Scharmer and it’s an interview of Francisco Varela, who wrote, in The Tree of Knowledge with Humberto Maturana:

Cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continuing bringing forth of a world through the process of living. The interactions of a living system with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living itself is a process of cognition. To live is to know.

The subject of the interview is “Three Gestures of Becoming Aware”, and despite the cutesy term ‘gestures’ I was inspired enough by the above quote to wade through this substantive and expansive interview.

The thesis is that (thanks to our brains getting in the way) we are disconnected from our own experiences, and don’t really ‘know’ what is going on. We now objectify our experiences through the numbing filter of conceptualization and language, losing much of their nuance and meaning in the process. We need to (re-)discover the spontaneous capability to be fully aware of our experiences.

Varela builds his theory of awareness on Husserl and Merleau-Monty’s philosophy of phenomenology. I’ve written about this before in the context of George Lakoff’s frames — “abstract concepts are metaphorical; we are only capable of thinking what our embodied brains permit” — and in the context of David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, where he quotes Merleau-Ponty as saying:

Synaesthetic [involving all the senses together] perception is the rule [among all life on Earth], and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel.

Our whole lives have thus become ‘out-of-body experiences’, as we quickly learn to become aware of our conception of the experiences rather than the experiences themselves. To shift back to awareness of the experiences themselves, Varela suggests we need to develop three capabilities:

  1. Suspension (of our habitual pattern of ‘objectifying’ the experience, instead leaving ourselves in the experience); 
  2. Redirection (of our undivided attention to what is really happening, to the whole and not just to discrete objects in it and our conceptions about them); and 
  3. Letting Go (of the terribly human tendency to analyze, interpret, think about meaning, and of our own perspective, so we instead ‘see’ what is happening from inside it, rather than from our traditional position as ‘objective’ viewer).

A lot of this sounds very mystical (and much of Varela’s subsequent exposition doesn’t help dispel that impression) but this is not really different from what Open Space (the process of opening, inviting, holding open and suspending judgement) or meditation is about. And the reason it is so difficult is that it is an unlearning process rather than a learning one — there is evidence that other creatures (like the ones pictured above on our front lawn five minutes ago), and humans until they learn language and conceptualization, do this instinctively: They live in the moment and experience everything synaesthetically as a ‘totally aware’ part of it. But the neurons in our brains form patterns as we grow and learn language and conceptualization and objectivization, and soon this synaesthetic, holistic, totally engaged-as-part awareness of experience is lost. Those neurons are very hard to reprogram once we have been taught and trained that experience is an information-processing activity, rather than a being-a-part-of activity.

Varela, perhaps taking a poke at some of his more arrogant colleagues, says there is no one way to relearn how to be aware, how to ‘do’ suspension, redirection, and letting go, and that therefore it is important to look at alternatives and converse and compare notes to find the commonalities among approaches to doing so “and stop this silly thing about saying my technique is better than yours”.

If we can learn to do so, I believe:

  • We will be able to learn more effectively
  • We will be able to understand and appreciate other points of view and frames more easily and fully
  • We will, by being better observers, better understand what is really happening now, in everything we do and every field of human endeavour, and why things are the way they are
  • We will be better able to imagine what is possible
  • We will become less selfish and more compassionate (because we will actually ‘be’ less ‘self-ish’)
  • We will become more intuitive, more in touch with and trusting of our instincts
  • We will become more committed to making the world, of which we are suddenly ‘more a part’, a better place

These are certainly worthy objectives, and for this reason alone I think we should continue to entertain and explore even the most jargon-laden and arrogant approaches to this ‘learning to be aware’. Its promise certainly explains the fascination of so many people for the subject.

In the conclusion of the interview Varela questions whether a formal set of practices could ever be amassed that would let us all develop the three capabilities. This is because we all learn (and presumably, unlearn) differently. Varela says the learning is all in the practice. I know many who have tried meditation and yoga, spent time in wilderness, taken courses with and read everything by some of the people in the Dialog on Leadership interviews, and who still have not been able to learn to suspend, redirect and let go. In fact I suspect the majority of people who claim they have learned these capabilities are like the majority of day-traders who say that on the whole they are ahead — somewhat exaggerating their capabilities and successes.

I even have some sympathy for the skeptics, including some of those who are pursuing more ‘scientific’ approaches to dealing with complex challenges, who believe that the search for such capabilities is futile and quixotic, that we cannot unlearn. But alas, I’m still on the fence. I can feel the volleys coming, from both sides.

I the meantime I will create a space in the AHA! instrument case for techniques that may help some achieve these capabilities, so that these capabilities can be used in turn as instruments to help us all address the complex challenges of our time.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Three Necessary Capabilities for Becoming Aware

  1. Niran Sabanathan says:

    The budhist concept of mindfulness covers a great deal of this ground.

  2. zach says:

    Good article. I think this is self acceptance you describe. Its not mystical and has nothing to do with complexity. Its simply saying to yourself “you’re ok, I love you, I accept you, flaws and all.” And then really deep down believing this. Try it, see what happens.

  3. Greg says:

    I just finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The subject of your article and the book have a lot of overlap. He uses the shift in philosophy brought by Aristotle to exemplify the shift in the “centre of gravity of experience” you refer to above.

  4. AnotherDave says:

    Valera’s ideas that you present are surprisingly similar to NLP co-founder John Grinder’s model of experience, as described in his and Carmen St. Bostic-Clair’s book Whispering in the wind, Contrary to a lot of NLP literature, Whispering in the Wind is refreshingly scientific, and much more readable than anything I’ve read from Valera.To quote Grinder and Bostic St. Clair’s model of experiencing the now in a few words, they coin the term First Access (FA), which they define thus:We ‘see’ an image of something we take to be in front of us; we ‘hear’ sounds originating from directly unknowable real world events; we ‘feel’ differences in temperatures, textures, moistness … all of which are the complex products of the original stimuli as they interact with the various neurological transforms in the chain of events that occur in our visual, auditory and kinesthetic systems.Then, and only then do we have First Access (FA)Everything else – thinking, naming, associations, knowledge – can be considered transforms of the experiences offered to our brain at First Access.The book Whispering in the Wind also contains the description of some games to achieve what they call ‘high performance state’, a state where human beings experience the ‘now’ as unfiltered and immediate as possible.

  5. Hi Dave:You have articulated the reasons why the practices of opening are important in Open Space and in any process in which dialogue and learning are the primary modalities. The Dialog on Leadership site are the raw material interviews that the Presence bfolks did for their book, so there is a direct correlation between what is there and what shows up in the book. You can see the parts of the interviews that Scharmer bolded and trace those ideas in Presence. Dave, can I use this article as part of an Open Space practice workshop I am hosting next month?

  6. Shaded says:

    To demonstrate the ultimate understanding of perspective would be to replicate it in a machine.This is my life’s goal, not because I wish to do the impossible, but every time I try to quit, I have another idea that brings me closer to the soltuion.Fact and belief are like black and white: Neither exists in reality. Each time we define something as white we leave out information regarding its true from such as shades of gray, or luminosity if we are speaking of a light emitter.So when we talk about religion, we must remember every human bases their belief on facts. When we talk about facts, we must remember every human bases their facts on beliefs.They’re circular refrences therefore inherently inaccurate.So I don’t believe this venture is a purely religious or scientific one. I believe the rhetoric of these domains has left us polarized, and the truth lays somewhere shaded inbetween.

  7. andrew says:

    Fact and belief are like black and white: Neither exists in reality. writes “Shade” ;-) well, ok, though i would rather say that both black and white, fact and belief are parts of reality as a whole, just as metaphysical aspects of reality are reality…not just ‘inbetween’ but before, beyond and after?warm wishes,andrew

  8. Tim Drown says:

    Mark Twain, one of America’s best writers, made extensive use of the Mississippi River as a metaphor of life in many of his writings. In his book, Life on the Mississippi, he wrote a wonderful description of what it is like to be educated. I was arrested by Twain’s idea that we can loose something important in the process of becoming educated if we are not careful. The following excerpt is from his book. He describes his education as river boat pilot: Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I had witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flash was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances, and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring. I stood like one bewitched, I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it inwardly after this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats, that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?” No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river, All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I had pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained or lost most by learning his trade?A beautiful description, right? But also disturbing. In the process of getting an education what have we gained? What have we lost? If the process of becoming educated takes some of the joy, beauty, wonder, and mystery out of our lives, we need to find out why this has happened and do something about it. Mark Twain doesn’t suggest any solutions but the fact that he could write about the view of the river (life) from both a technical and a personal wholistic point of view suggest that he could, in fact, go back and forth. Can we?

  9. andrew says:

    Hi Tim,Whatanice ;-) Twainian insight – i trained as an artist, as such i learned to use ‘colour’ (ie light;-) intwo ;-) ways, one was through the ‘science’ of colour…what we call ‘colour theory’, which is quite complex and incoporated many different ways to ration(n) it, and then there were all the ‘subjective’ or ‘symbolic’ aspects, not to mention ‘aesthetical’ and more purely psychological (mood or emotion based) aspects. Goingback;-) to Twain, in a book i have, he also speaks of being taught how to navigate the riverandboat at night, when – for me – reading it and ‘being there with him so to speak, i felt i saw ;-) lots of ‘complexologists’ and ‘new knowledge management’ experts as fiendishly confused passengers, hard at work praying ;-) on the foredeck as Twain wrestled with what was, what night be and what is not,…For me, personally, i think there is so much lost-to-learn from great writer like Twain and Whitman. Though i profess to be knot an expert, about either. Just a kind of lover of both/and ;-)warmest wishes,andrew

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts, info and links, and of course the wonderful Twain quote. Chris, of course you have permission. I did look at NLP but found the terminology unfathomable. I don’t know if analytical learnings about something irreparable damage our ability to see it holistically — I don’t think they have to, though.

  11. This may sound far-fetched, but I ask you to think openly before you make a judgement, (and given the subject of your post, I’m hoping you will ;->) After years of teaching English in a Community College, and much personal research about learning disabilities, especially dyslexia, I think our educational culture stigmitizes and rejects synaesthetic perception. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences helps analytical sorts understand. Some people are stronger in their visual/spacial intelligence than others. If they are also strong in their intrapersonal and kinesthetic intelligences, and not so strong in their linguistic and mathematical, they may well have the kind of perception you are talking about – BUT – it is unrecognized in the academic world because they don’t speak in the analytic code. These are the folks who are wise and perceptive, but not language fast. And the strong language and analytical people just don’t see or hear what they are trying to communicate. Husserl and other phenomenologists are trying to see the world through childlike eyes.Meditation of whatever sort you can manage helps loosen the fetters of the over-analytic perception, IMHO

  12. andrew says:

    Joan Vinall-Cox,interesting post. please contact me at when you have free time.Thanxandrew

Comments are closed.