Noticing and Consciousness: Broadening Our Perceptual Spectrum
Have you ever paid attention to what it is that you notice in the world? I emphasize the word “notice.” In Dialectic Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness, “notice” is a word that can substitute for “judging.” Judging is a cognitive process that often locks a person into a moral paradigm that can be limiting. Judging creates alienation from both self and others. On the other hand, noticing can actually help a person become more attuned to qualities of the present moment that may hold important information otherwise overlooked due to the preoccupying tendency of judgments.
Noticing is something existential psychotherapists have been encouraging clients to do since the advent of our modality. Rollo May posited that a primary goal of psychotherapy is to make the unconscious conscious. Indeed, in order to be conscious, we must play at what we notice. This requires the development of a meta-consciousness, or as some would say, an observing ego. If we are to expand upon what we notice, we must first notice “what” we notice. This is the value of being in the “here and now.” When we invite our clients to be in the present, we invite a more concentrated level of noticing that builds a meta-consciousness. Ideally, our clients use this skill in their world-at-large.
I recently came upon the term “inattentional blindness.” In sum, inattentional blindness is our failure to notice certain aspects of our environment when a situation calls on our attention. The context in which I heard this term was for a person who is coping with a loved one’s alcoholism. The idea is that when there is a crisis, it is difficult to notice certain aspects of life because all senses are turned toward managing that crisis. Interestingly, the same day I read this, I had a session with a client that included a conversation about what we do and don’t notice, and why. We were discussing dissociation and fight-and-flight. We had both observed the psyche’s wisdom at times in employing dissociation (in this case, not noticing one’s own sensations or thoughts as acutely so that one can tolerate life and survive.)
In this case, on some unconscious level, the area of focus is survival, even if my client isn’t thinking about it. However, what we also discussed is that when our primary mode of existence is survival, the dynamic range of thoughts and feelings can become narrower, thus blocking out not only pain, but also joy. We talked further about how we can gradually increase this client’s perceptual and experiential threshold so she is no longer just surviving, but really experiencing. What is even more wonderful is that she had shared a desire to replace the word “recovery” with “discovery.” How wonderful, given that discovery includes expansion of experience and most likely, consciousness. Additionally, it feels less about a disease and more about an adventure.
Regarding noticing, this client and many of my others are usually at first very good at noticing their more tender and painful feelings and thoughts. These could include guilt and shame, anger, intense grief, or deep rooted fears. I do believe that a wonderful by-product of noticing these kinds of feelings is that a person’s noticing eventually begins to also include deeper feelings of peace and joy. Expansion does not tend to be linear or one directional. Rather, it has a scope that reaches farther than when we originally began our journeys into the unknown aspects of ourselves and others. I think there is an assumption that the unconscious is filled with all of the deep, dark, ugly things that feel really bad. However, the unconscious also includes pleasure and rewarding insights.
Sometimes, my clients need a little help at first with noticing their growths and successes. As a clinician, I may notice a milestone response in a client that is not within their immediate sphere of awareness. This is how relationships can help draw the unconscious into the conscious. For instance, my client may say “the conflict with my friend made me so cranky for days, and I wanted a drink so badly, but I had to work.” I may say, “In the past, your typical response was to call in sick and stay at home brooding. Instead, you got up and perhaps felt cranky like any other person who has a bad day, but you didn’t allow your feelings to stop you from living your life.” In that instant, my client might become more aware of a capacity they have to tolerate their crummy feelings and move through life unshattered.
Noticing the strengths and capacities we are not previously conscious of is a very important part of therapy, and is an instance when a client can transcend inattentional blindness and live a fuller life that includes a broader scope of experience, including the capacity to move beyond survival mode into living. Getting up and going to work may seem mundane, but to somebody who has felt incapacitated by severe depression, getting up and going to work can be a glorious achievement.
I encourage you to pay attention to what you notice. Are you in survival mode? Sometimes, an existential crisis can open us up to insights about the world that we may have previously avoided. However, sometimes crisis can send us into a constricted existence that truncates our ability to see beyond the problem in front of us that needs solving. Problem solving becomes the habit rather than the exceptional instance. What do you notice? How broad is your dynamic range of experiencing? Most importantly, how can you expand your noticing so that your life is more full?
-- Candice Hershman