The Practice of Awareness

Mohan Bala  •  Feb 12, 2020  •  11 min read

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The Practice of Awareness

The term ‘awareness’ is enshrined in all Coaching frameworks as a distinct stage in the progress of a coaching conversation. It refers to a point in time when the client comes face to face with his/her way of viewing the world and acknowledges the limiting or distorting nature of such a view. This is the high point of any coaching conversation, for, in the act of becoming conscious of such a thing, the client is simultaneously liberated from its influence. Only now can his landscape of possibilities expand to generate options and consider actions that hitherto seemed impossible, at best improbable. This article explores the nature and practice of awareness as a learner’s experience.

The elegance and essence of coaching effectiveness lie in its reciprocity. And by that, I mean whatever I, as a coach, wish to see in my client is precisely what I need to experience in myself. In other words, it is our own awareness level as a coach that creates that elusive quality called Presence, an essential ingredient for coaching effectiveness. I have, in an earlier article on Coachability, explored this at length. In this short essay, I wish to share some of my own experiences in the practice of awareness within myself.

But first, I do wish to distinguish ‘Focus’ and ‘Awareness’.

This is a distinction that I have only recently come to resolve. I have always experienced the words ‘focus’ and ‘awareness’ to be somehow counter to each other, not in the sense of antonyms, but like a magnetic dipole, distinct yet closely inter-bound in the development of our consciousness.

Focus

As children, we are told by teachers & parents alike to concentrate or focus. Now what they meant by concentration is to direct and maintain attention to a single area of study to the exclusion of everything else. Our ability to concentrate has invariably been linked to our performance …in academics, in sports and subsequently at the workplace. Thus, if my daughter reports a certain low score in a subject, the adult diagnosis is, of course, her inability to concentrate. We would say she is easily distracted.

In corporate life, the word ‘focus’ is widely and loudly used…in performance appraisals, in feedback sessions, in the assessment of leadership potential, etc. Invariably a person’s ability to focus is seen as a direct factor leading to job performance or leadership success.  If you sense a subtle note of skepticism and derision in my words, that is not my intention. Focus has an important place in the progress of human achievement. It conveys total absorption, obsession even, with attendant connotations of persistence and strength of will….all of these vital to scientific and material revolution.

The loosely equivalent word in Indian spiritual practices would be Dharana, the 6th stage in Patanjali’s eight-fold path of Yoga. The telling point for me, however, is that Dharana is a stage that precedes ‘Dhyana’ or true meditation. Thus beginners are asked to focus on their breathing, sure enough, all meditative practice begins with focus or concentration. In my inept fashion, I too fell into this practice quite naturally. But over the years, I found the first few minutes of focus diffusing into something else. In my ignorance, I try to bring my attention back to my breathing, not knowing that this very dissolution of focus is probably a sign of progress. This then is focus.

Awareness

The way I look at it, focus is just one end of the magnetic dipole. The balancing factor would be dhyana, meaning awareness, a concept central to Coaching. Awareness is a natural expansion of our senses first, then our consciousness and subsequently our entire being, progressively encompassing all within its reach. It is inclusive and in complete harmony with everything it touches.

Unlike focus, which can be intruded upon, awareness does recognizes neither distraction nor disruption. In this state, all sources of distraction are embraced or included in the growing field of awareness.  In some of my better moments when I am just sitting, I find myself in a place where ambient sounds and smells lose their ability to be a distraction. Yet I hear them well, and if I choose to, I could identify the source some distance away. They do not, however, interfere, because they are now included in my field of awareness. This is of course just an example of sense expansion. Such moments are elevating though not yet exalting for me.

The great insight for me, however, was this… because awareness is fundamentally inclusive, it implies an acknowledgment and acceptance of all that it encounters. This is the start point of ‘appreciation’, a richer and more nuanced term beyond merely ‘understanding’

To use a geometric (and pedantic) analogy, focus may be likened to a point – which is dimensionless, awareness, on the other hand, is an ever-growing field of an infinite multiplicity of dimensions. Focus seeks to control our wayward senses, awareness lies in letting go of our need to control those very senses. Concentration is doing, whereas awareness is being. I cannot ‘do’ aware, I can only ‘be’ aware.

Jesus is believed to have said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven’.  It strikes me that this seems an apt description of the relationship between focus and awareness. The ability to focus is in effect, the concentration of the current of consciousness, a buildup of energy for an expansion, the passing through the eye of the needle, as it were.

In a fundamental sense, awareness operates as a certain separation of the sensory stimulus from the urge to act on our sensory inputs. The absence of this separation is what we would experience or see as impulsive action. This separation is not merely ‘detachment’ (as described in most spiritual writing), in fact at the highest level has been described as ‘supreme indifference’, a quality exemplified by Ramana Maharishi, the silent sage of Thiruvannamalai.

In contemporary idiom, such detachment can be felt within oneself as a decoupling of the sensory inputs in a given situation from our response to it, with usually much happier consequences. This has completely transformed how I respond to road skirmishes while driving. The last time this happened with an auto-rickshaw, I took a deep breath and noticed the absurdity and inevitability of the argument to follow and smiled broadly at the rick driver … and he smiled back!

Insight: When you smile broadly at anyone, they will smile back. Difficult not to! In my experience, the best (perhaps only) way to create this distance is the act of skillful observation, nothing more. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Observing

The state of observing is neither an act of effort nor of will. It is, in effect a non-doing. From a semantic standpoint too, this makes complete sense. I can only observe something if it is outside of myself. Conversely if I can observe something, that implies a distinction between myself and the object. As a trivial example, when I observe the movement of a car, I am obviously not the car itself, but separated from it. When I observe the movement of my mind, I am not the mind. The mind is an incessant stream of thoughts. Observing this stream is very much like getting off a speeding train on to the platform and just watching the train go by.

Just watching … that’s the key. In my experience, the best (perhaps only) way to create this distance is the act of observation, nothing more. The act of observation is the inner equivalent of getting off the mind-train and slowing down. In doing that, we may perhaps encounter a truer, more authentic self. Observation is as simple as it sounds, just watching (not waiting). The actions that arise from this state can surprise you.

The Intrusion of Purpose

What can impede this practice? Which is another way of asking, in what way can the mind interfere with the practice of awareness? In my experience, the only thing the mind needs to do is to introduce anxiety. And it does so very cleverly by attempting to remind us of our immediate goal, intention or purpose. When that happens, it is instinctive for us to take stock and compare our progress against our goal or target. The immediate effect is anxiety. In a coaching conversation, this would be the thought – “It’s been 25 minutes already and we don’t have a goal yet.” OR “I need to ask a powerful question now” OR even “I have just flouted a PCC marker with that statement”. We all have experienced this. We even have a name for this – performance anxiety.

Why talk of coaching alone? I have consistently experienced the working of my mind in a myriad of activities. It shows up for me in 3 forms- anxiety, anticipation, and regret. Either of these instantly causes in me the need to exercise control in some form or the other and I end up vitiating the effectiveness of my actions.

Here’s a personal experience to demonstrate this point. I am a novice runner, covering about 15-20 km a week. As all runners will know, the rhythm of breathing is an important determinant of endurance or how far one can run. In the early days, I used to try and dictate a rhythm to my body, like 4 in-4 out, in time with my steps, gradually trying to work it up to a 5-5 or a 5-6 rhythm. Invariably I finished my run nearly out of breath. With time, I have learned to merely watch my breath instead of controlling it or trying to discipline it. Of late, I can complete a 5-6 km stretch, almost as fresh as when I started.

There is an interesting parallel to this in the sciences too. In physics, the ‘observer effect’ is the fact that simply observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon. While this proved to be a major obstacle in the early study of quantum physics, this is a very welcome phenomenon in our context. Luckily for us, Tim Gallwey (Inner Game of Work) stumbled upon this very concept when teaching tennis.

It is possible to turn almost every commonplace daily activity into a practice of awareness.


On a day to day practical level, I found this distinction between focus and awareness led to greater discrimination in the use of 2 everyday terms. The first is clarity. The second is perspective, deriving from perception.

Clarity implies a sharper picture, a higher resolution, a detailed view. Clarity implies focus. What Kirsten explained about solution led coaching seemed to be well aligned to this. In terms of generating or helping to visualize the goal state, this seems to be a great approach.

Perspective is positional awareness which implies how deep, inclusive or universal my point of view is as well as the ability to shift or choose more empowering perspectives. This balance between clarity and perspective would be something I imagine great leaders, corporate or otherwise, have in abundance.

I-an Chen, a Master from the 12th century gives this advice to his disciples on resolving or better still, dissolving a Koan, “… keep up your concentration until you grow unaware of your whereabouts … as if you were a living corpse … The time will come when all thoughts cease to stir and there will be no working of consciousness. It is then that you will smash your brains to pieces and realize that the truth is within your possession from the very beginning”.

I freely admit that there is some intellectual indulgence on my part in writing this, so I would strongly urge you to try these at home. And should you have an insight, do share. Cheers!

Mohan Bala

Mohan

Mohan Bala is a Coacharya alumnus, professional coach and learning consultant. His describes his life as an inquiry into the unifying principles of 'the way everything works' in the phenomenal and nuomenal universe.

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