What is Awareness?
The most elusive wellness skill is awareness.
In terms of your body, awareness refers to an innate sense of your body schema, the “internal map” that enables you for instance to lift your right knee by engaging active muscles in the hamstring, and to use muscles in the neck, trunk and ankle for balance. It’s sometimes defined as “somatic awareness,” as in this NIH article. “Somatic awareness involves directing a patient’s attention to interoceptive or body experience and associated feelings for the purpose of self-healing and achieving health.”
We all have awareness of this kind to one degree or another. We experience difficulties when we do something that requires resources outside of our awareness. Take as an analogy someone who always knows how to call 911 when there’s a problem. One day they can’t find their wallet. Well, they can’t call 911! Do they have other ways to solve the problem or are they going to run around in circles getting more and more stressed?
This example, ridiculous as it is, mimics what happens in our body when we try to move and yet leave out key muscle groups solely because they’re not in our awareness. We try to lift our right knee using only the muscles in our hamstrings and we have to strain and do some kind of crazy convolution to balance, because we’re not actually using our neck and trunk muscles for stability.
Sometimes we lose connection to vital parts of ourselves through habit, for instance, as when an elderly person retreats more and more into a curved and bent posture. Other times, we can lose awareness as children as a result of conscious suppression of movements and postures brought about by abuse or maltreatment. In each case, it’s possible to recover.
How Do We Increase Our Awareness?
There are approaches designed specifically to increase awareness, such as The Feldenkrais Method, which I use to help clients overcome stage fright. Awareness can also be cultivated through soft martial arts and yoga. No approach, however, will increase awareness on its own.
What’s required is a particular mindset: a curiosity, a neutral look at everything we do, devoid of criticism. Rather than thinking, I’m lifting my knee all wrong, we begin to ask, How do I lift my knee exactly? Coaches trained in awareness can direct our attention to specific aspects of the movements we’re trying to make, while engaging strategies that help us turn off the critical voices that create our habits in the first place.
Here’s a little game you can play to experience an increase in your awareness.
Please sit in a wooden chair with the soles of your feet resting on the ground and your hands resting on your knees. If possible, this activity is better with shoes off. Please do every movement simply and avoid any effort or pushing.
Before you do any movement, please notice where you are more comfortable in your body, and where less. What places feel relaxed, and where tension is being held. Please leave these places exactly as they are and take careful note so that later you can see if anything has changed by itself.
Please turn your head to the right only as far as it will go with ease. When you begin to feel resistance that you would have to push through, please stop before going any further. Make a note of what your eyes can see based on how far you turned your head.
Please repeat this movement a few times, always going slowly and gently. After a few repetitions, rest for about ten seconds. Then mirror the activity by turning your head to the left and returning several times, again noticing how far you go, what your eyes see, and whether you can turn farther or not as far on the left as the right.
After another rest, stick out your tongue. Please take it to the left and back to center a few times. The movement is smooth, as though you are painting a beautiful, clean line with your tongue on a wall in front of your mouth.
Rest for a few seconds. Then take your tongue to the right and back a few times, using the same gentle slow movement. How difficult is it to move your tongue in this way, and is it easier on one side than the other?
Now do something strange. Take your head smoothly to the right while taking your tongue to the left, and then bring both back to center. It may take you a few seconds to figure out exactly how to do this, and if you find it too challenging, try to imagine doing it in your head while you remain physically still.
Please reverse the movement by taking your head to the left while taking your tongue to the right, and then bring both back to the center. How elegant can you make this movement? What if you were to receive your favorite reward depending on how carefully you coordinated the tongue with the head?
Rest for a few seconds. When you’re ready, once again bring your head by itself to the right, letting your tongue alone. Do your eyes see more because your head is turning further?
Please turn your head to the left, again leaving your tongue alone. Has the extent of this movement increased? Are the two sides more even?
Sit quietly and pay attention to yourself. Think back to how you felt at the beginning of this game, what was tense, what was relaxed. Has anything changed?
You used your awareness actively in the game as you followed the instructions, being careful to respect the constraints of going slow and gentle with the head, and to paint a beautiful line with your tongue. Your awareness was challenged by the coordination of the opposite turning of the tongue and the head. Finally, you may find that your passive awareness of yourself in a sitting position has increased, and you may even feel a greater sense of well-being as a result.
Awareness Goes Beyond the Body
Awareness can extend beyond the physical. Asking exactly how we do anything, from dieting to walking to marketing, can give us a more helpful, outside-the-box view. The results are usually helpful and occasionally astounding.
Awareness is still gaining parlance among those whose job it is to improve people’s health and well-being. Working with awareness is nice because it’s such a joy to get out of that critical mindset. When we find out that we can improve our health by doing so, we end up with a win-win.
Meet Our Contributor — Adam Cole
Adam Cole is a Performance and Confidence Coach who helps clients overcome stage fright naturally. He is the creator of the Podcast “Away With our Fear” on the TruerMU YouTube channel. You can learn more about Adam here.