To be aware is to witness. And our witnessing selves are always there when we dream, in daily activities, when feeling emotions, and in states of excitement or distress. We are constantly aware, though our focus may be clear or muddled. Without awareness, there is no consciousness. But awareness is hard to see. It is ever-present, like the air we breathe.
Although always present, awareness may not be remembered. For example, we may walk around a table while moving from one room to another. But we let our perception of the table recede from consciousness without storing memories that are easily retrieved. The encoding of memory depends in part on the intensity of experience, whether this intensity is influenced by the strength of a sensory perception or an emotional response.
We are self-aware when we attend to representations of experience – whether drawn from memory or visualizing a possible scenario. In psychotherapy, we train awareness on our lived experience to realize our hopes and goals and live more satisfying lives. Every form of psychotherapy has methods to enhance awareness.
“Know Thyself” is a maxim that dates back to ancient Greece, where it was inscribed at the temple of Apollo at Delphi and central to the teachings of Greek philosophers. Mindful awareness is key to the enlightenment traditions of the Far East, where it is the central component of meditation. Contemplation, or the training of awareness on essential matters, has a rich tradition in Christian mysticism. These are just a few examples to demonstrate that throughout history, enhancing awareness is recognized as a fundamental value.
Knowing oneself is the start of a healing process. With self-observation, we encounter discrepancies between our ideal selves and the lives we are living. This challenges us to develop the capacity to remain aware despite strong emotions, so we can respond in ways that better promote wellbeing and personal integrity.
The ability to fall back into basic awareness of ourselves and our surroundings can even improve our chances of survival. Even if we’ve gone off the beaten track, once we’ve found ourselves, we may still be in the woods, but we’re no longer lost. We’re more able to objectively witness our surroundings and better cope with the situation.
The Use of Awareness Practices in Psychotherapy
Today’s psychotherapies employ awareness practices under many names.
Enhanced mindfulness techniquessuch as focusing on breathinghelp people act more in accord with their values instead of with escape and avoidance behaviors that typically make problems worse.
The diary approach is central to early cognitive therapies, such as the Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) of Aaron Beck, M.D., where clients fill out automatic thought records, recording their inner responses to situations. They then are instructed to counter habitual assumptions, reducing the anxiety and depression generated by helpless and hopeless expectations. Cognitive behavioral methods are particularly helpful for people who are easily overwhelmed by fear and other strong emotions and may find themselves too easily propelled into harmful actions to escape such feelings.
Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) also has a longer-term component. DBT begins by addressing the most urgent problems, such as self-destructive behaviors, before attending to longer-term healing. But it eventually can help people form more adaptive lifestyles and work through early trauma.