Dissolve stressful thoughts and enhance mental performance with one simple skill – opening the aperture of your awareness.
Written by Jevon Dängeli
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
– Albert Einstein –
(Free Open Awareness audio and video resources below)
A majority of my clients (in coaching and therapy) have suffered from the symptoms of stress, anxiety and burnout. In listening to how most of these clients have described their personal issues in their most challenging contexts, I consistently detected a particular pattern that was almost always present. After a careful and long-term assessment, I established that this pattern played a crucial role in how these individuals were being negatively affected. The discovery was that this pattern involved a particular way in which these individuals focused on their situations or how they were focusing on a specific object of reference in the challenging context. This focus was always narrowly fixated, thus these individuals were usually unaware of what else was possible or achievable in those situations or contexts. Even if they were aware of other possibilities, their locked in ways of approaching the situation prevented them from establishing more resourceful perceptions and responses. In one sense, their problems remained problems largely because of tunnel awareness.
Through learning and integrating open awareness, these individuals have (to varying degrees) been able to shift their perception of themselves in relation to the challenging situation. This was brought about through the establishment of a more expanded sense of self from where the issue could be seen and approached from a more holistic perspective. The experimental process that I used in these sessions (which has become the open awareness technique) would then include guiding the client to embody their broader perspective and from that expanded as well as interconnected sense of self, address the stressful situation as or if required.
Over the past several years, my clients and course participants have reported that open awareness not only enables them to deal with stressful situations more resourcefully, but they are able to establish a calm and mindful state with relative ease, sleep better, concentrate for longer, overcome mental blocks. Additionally, through becoming less identified with a limiting self-concept, they are less controlled by negative thoughts and reactions. Those who have integrated open awareness through practicing it regularly have told me that they feel a deep sense of connection with other individuals. Some speak of an enhanced connection with nature and the spiritual realm, while others refer more to a sense of oneness in which there is no real separation between self and other (or between subject and object). With this comes inner peace and meaning in life.
Open awareness (aka “peripheral awareness”) is a particular mode of perception in which individuals are attentive to both their own thoughts and feelings as well as those of others, including the context that connects them. It is a type of attention that is close to being simultaneously inward and outward focused, thereby making one more conscious of the interrelatedness of phenomena. The earliest tracings of open awareness appear to stem from Buddhist origins (Gunaratana, 1996) and it was possibly first introduced in the West through the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff in the early nineteen hundreds (Ouspensky, 1971). These days, open awareness has been integrated into some of the techniques of NLP (Bandler & Grinder, 1976; Overdurf, 2013) and other forms of personal development, although it has received only nominal attention from the scientific community (Farb, et al. 2007; Hanson, 2011).
Opening the aperture of awareness
The process of open awareness reframes one’s current experience of self, placing phenomena within one’s field of awareness, as opposed to these being experienced outside or separate from oneself. Open awareness involves the intentional observation of one’s thoughts, feelings and sensory perceptions in the present through opening the aperture of one’s awareness. This type of opening is facilitated by means of expanding one’s mode of perception to include the aspects of each unfolding experience that usually occur in or beyond the outskirts of conscious awareness and which are therefore usually unconscious or disregarded. In addition to identifying the subtleties of one’s internal experience, open awareness includes becoming receptive to the energetic and relational links between oneself and others and the environment. Depending on the individual and their reason for practicing open awareness, the experience of self fluctuates and is therefore not an ultimate state, but rather one in which the individual experiences a felt sense of expansiveness and interconnection resulting from dis-identification from their limited self-concept. Open awareness is more than a technique, it is a natural mode of being, one that we, as humans, find ourselves in when we are completely free of burdens on every level – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (Finlay 2013).
The recent work of Olpin and Hesson (2015) suggests that stress is proliferating, with more people being negatively affected by it today than ever before. This points to the probability that we, as a society in general, are far from being free of burdens, which in turn may underlie why open awareness has become a largely forgotten trait or ability. Indeed, in an attempt to deal with the new or intensified types of challenges that the predominantly high-tech and fast paced lifestyles of today demand, we are, to a certain degree, being forced from open awareness into tunnel awareness in order to fulfil many of our functions in the workforce. A potential resulting effect on us as a collective may be that we have become tuned out of what was, in past times, a more common state for us, in exchange for being tuned in to the devices that many believe make life convenient in this era. Society has never before had the technical means to capture and narrow our attention, as it does today. With our online broadcasting devices readily on hand, the media and the medium have merged, and the result is, to some extent, that we have become the victims of attention slavery.
With our attention locked in by the gadgets (smart phones and other media devices, for example) that we have become accustomed to use in order to operate in this world, we may find ourselves unable or less able to release our attention when appropriate in order to relate with each other and our environment in ethical ways. The result may be a rise in inter human, relational and personal problems, as well as elevated stress levels, which if unresolved can lead to burnout (Brühlmann, 2011; Cartwright & Cooper, 1996). This phenomenon may in turn further convince one to retreat into a virtual world and to favour interacting with virtual friends for the sake of convenience, quick fixes and immediate gratification. This hypothesis suggests that as an increasing amount of the world’s human population becomes more tuned into a virtual reality, our ability to tune back out into the rest of reality may become jeopardised. In a mode of tunnel awareness, one may be less able to think creatively and deal with life’s stressors resourcefully (Farb, et al. 2007; Finlay 2013; Hanson, 2011; Overdurf, 2013; Rossi, 1993; Ouspensky, 1971). On the other hand, if one is able to counteract such a narrowing of awareness, through applying a means to reopen one’s mode of perception, then one may find that one is better equipped to navigate the multi-dimensional challenges of life beyond the flat screens of our electronic devices (ibid.)
The open awareness technique
Open awareness is a particular mode of perception that can be established through various means. These means generally begin by identifying one’s present experience of self, through first focusing attention through the senses, then noticing thoughts and emotions, and then bringing awareness to the context or relationship that allows for one’s current experience.
When learning the skill for the first time, it is useful to first focus on the more apparent experiences and then progress to the more subtle experiences that occur to one in the present. Most often the process begins through focusing either on the visual, or auditory, or somatic experiences as they unfold moment to moment. One of these three sensory modalities is selected and paid attention to, then that particular sensory field is extended to include more of what is occurring in the background. This process continues as a steady progression until the periphery of that sensory field is extended as far as it can naturally and effortlessly go.
For example, if one’s intention is to establish open awareness somatically, then a useful starting point is to focus on the rising and releasing of the belly with each inhalation and exhalation. The individual then extends the rising and releasing experience to include their entire torso for a few breaths and then the entire body. After experiencing the rising and releasing of the entire body for a few breaths, as if the entire body was breathing, the individual then extends their awareness to surround their body (like a permeable cocoon) while being aware of how the body feels at the same time. The breathing entity is then felt as both the body and the field of awareness that surrounds it. This breathing field of awareness is then extended progressively with each inhalation, until it includes other people and objects in one’s immediate environment. Following that, one can extend the awareness to include people and objects that are anywhere at any time (past, present or future). While this extending of awareness is imagined and therefore subjective, the object here is not to pretend that one is having any particular kind of experience, but rather to prime one’s consciousness in order to bring forth more of what is present in the background of awareness. In this manner, one’s awareness can continue expanding toward the extremities of space and time until eventually there is no identification with any form at all.
Although one’s experience at any stage or level remains subjective, the process of establishing open awareness (as outlined above) can have a profoundly healing or transformative effect on the individual. After extending the awareness outward, it is embodied in the physical form once again through re-focusing awareness back into the abdominal area. In this way, insights arising from the expanded mind become integrated in order for inspired ideas, or solutions to problems, or empowered states to be present – as and when required.
It should be noted that this kind of consciously chosen starting point followed by a progressive extending of the awareness, which denotes a separate interior and exterior to the individual, is only one means of establishing open awareness. After some practice people are able to “drop into” peripheral awareness at the mere intention to do so. What is dropped into is a calm state where one experiences oneself as fundamentally interconnected with the rest of life, which in turn cultivates compassion. The outcome of my MSc research project suggests that open awareness enables one to deal more resourcefully with stress, prevent burnout, enhance resilience, improve mental performance and establish a positive flow in one’s endeavours.
The skill of open awareness may well be a practical antidote to the attention slavery that we are all subject to.
- Open awareness is a fundamental skill taught at our Authentic Self Empowerment Facilitator Training and related events.
- Watch a free open awareness training video
- Listen to a free open awareness audio recording (guided mindfulness meditation)