Imagine it’s a quiet evening at home. You’re relaxing in your favorite chair reading a book in the living room with some nice background music on low and perhaps a glass of wine by your side. Your partner comes in, taps your shoulder and says they have to do something in the basement. “Could you keep an ear out for the kids? They’re suppose to be sleeping but I suspect they’re going to get into one of their wrestling matches before they settle down for the night.”
You smile, look up, say “Sure, no problem,” and dive back into your book.
And all the time that you’re reading, some part of you is listening, almost leaning, perhaps unconsciously tilting an ear in the direction of your children’s bedroom, just in case.
Congratulations, you’re experiencing the start of what is called Levels of Awareness. It may be called other things in other disciplines, that’s the term one of my teachers used and it stuck with me. Several of my teachers talked about it, some giving it a name or using a term specific to their languages to describe it (what’s always intrigued and amused me is that Inuit and Bahamian teachers used the same term, “Go wide,” to describe this).
I was in a snowcat way up north with some researchers, a military liason and some Inuit when one of the older Inuit told us to stop.
He pointed towards the horizon. He could have pointed anywhere because the horizon was nothing but white in any direction you chose, but he was quite specific. He pointed to about 10:30 from the snowcat’s 12 o’clock and said there were polar bears there and we shouldn’t disturb them, they were eating.
I took out a pair of binoculars. These were immensely powerful eye-pieces, practically too heavy to lift single handed, and looked.
There, on the edge of the horizon and only recognizable when I focused hard for several seconds, I could make out the steam of their breath.
There was no way this old man could have seen that. How did he know?
“Go wide,” he said. “You don’t have to see to see when you go wide.”
Another time I was on a beautiful white sand beach with a teacher the color of a brazil nut learning an exercise called “Waves”. The entire scene was a cliche from a bad movie; he was lying in a hammock strung between two palm trees, a broad-brimmed straw hat over his face, a hawaiian shirt and cutoff jeans his only clothing, while he rocked with the wind, correcting my form and technique.
Suddenly he took his hat off, rocked out of the hammock, stood up, pointed and said, “Ah. Samuel’s coming back with two fish.” He looked at me, smiled, went back to his hammock, put his hat back over his face and said, “Continue.”
Samuel, his brother, had left early that morning to fish off a nearby island. I looked out on the ocean (screwing up my technique) and couldn’t see anything anywhere. Water water water and not a drop to drink, as they say.
An hour later, Samuel’s sail appeared on the horizon and about an hour after that Samuel pulled his small sailboat up on the sand. There were two beautiful stripers on the bottom boards of the boat.
I asked my teacher how he knew Samuel was coming back and had two fish for dinner.
“You go wide, is all,” he said.
Serial Tasking versus Multi-Tasking
People, despite what they may tell you or believe about themselves, are horrible multi-taskers. They can’t do different things in parallel, which is what multi-tasking is. Being able to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while simultaneously making dinner – one hand on the keyboard and the other stirring the plot – is an example of true multi-taking and humans aren’t designed for it.
What people are naturally quite good at is serial tasking. People may tell you they’re multitasking and what they’re really doing is devoting their attention to one thing, then another, then maybe another and then back to the first thing.
Not everybody can intentionally serial task, though. I’ve known people who can have 7-10 simultaneous projects going, complete them all on or ahead of schedule and each project is a study in perfection. Most people can handle three and still need to go for a walk.
But the people who can manage 7-10 different projects don’t do one project start to finish then the next then the next, they do them serially. Get tired of one project? Pick up another. Artists, artisans and the like do this routinely. Have trouble with one piece of music? Pick up another one until you’re ready to go back to the first one. Getting writer’s block in some piece of writing? Pick up another writing project until your mind clears of the first one’s block.
Anyway, that’s serial tasking and people can switch between two different tasks easily and among three well enough without much training. Some people can go from two to three or three to five or five to ten. It may take some effort and they can do it.
Let’s go back to sitting in your living room reading a book, listening to music and sipping some wine.
Have you ever gotten so caught up in what you’re reading that you no longer hear the music (meaning that it’s still there, you’re just unaware of it)? Or perhaps some truly beautiful piece of music comes on and you stop reading your book to listen more closely to the music? Or perhaps you have to take your eyes off your book because you’re reaching for your wine and you don’t want to spill it? Or the wine is so wonderfully tasty that its flavor draws your attention away from both your book and the music for a moment?
Ever get so caught up in what you’re reading or watching or doing that someone has to tap you on the shoulder to break through your concentration to get your attention?
These kinds of things happen to most of us.
But some people have had Situational Awareness training. They can be aware of the music while they enjoy what they read while sipping their wine. They don’t need a tap on their shoulder because their attention is never that focused even though their concentration often is.
Situational awareness teaches you to spread your attention over a large cognitive area, like spreading a pat butter over a piece of toast. The toast’s surface is larger than the surface of the pat of butter, but if you spread the butter thin (but not too thin), the butter covers the toast. The trick is to cover the toast evenly. You’re not focusing all your attention on any one thing (what humans normally do and as described above), you’re spreading your attention over everything so that it will alert you to what definitely and unquestioningly requires your absolute focused attention.
Elite military personnel get lots of Situational Awareness training. Tactical police units get some. Professional sports team players learn it due to all their practicing. Basically anybody who has to be aware of their surroundings – like where your team mates are and what they’re doing, where hostages are being held, how many perps there are, where they’re located in reference to your team members, what isn’t as it should be in a military operation – is either trained in or someone learns some elements of situational awareness.
People studying The Practice learn it as part of their training. Part of The Practice is being aware of your environment so you can savor it and interact with it intentionally. Any aboriginal performs situational awareness simply to stay alive and because it’s natural to them, many of them who practice make it the start of Going Wide.
Levels of Awareness, Part 1
We’ve gone from keeping an ear out for the kids (serial tasking) to spreading your attention over your environment kind of like spreading a blanket over something and then focusing on where it’s not lying flat (situational awareness) and that brings us to Levels of Awareness.
We’re going to go back to you reading while listening while sipping.
You’re reading your book and it’s a really exciting part. You’re really focused.
Normally you’d be paying less attention to the music and your wine and this time you’re paying attention to your book and the music and the wine (there’s your situational awareness training kicking in, and here’s where we bring it to the next…umm…level) while you’re also aware that this one part of the book is very exciting.
Now we’re doing what most people can’t do without some kind of training; being focused on one thing while simultaneously being intentionally aware of something else.
And no, this isn’t multi-tasking. This isn’t stirring a pot while playing the piano.
Often authors, when reading some other author’s writing, will become aware of their reaction to the writing, keep on reading while analyzing their reaction to the writing while observing what’s going on in the writing that’s causing them to have the reaction they’re having.
Count that out and you have
- They’re reading
- while they’re monitoring their reaction to what they’re reading
- while observing the writing to learn what this other author did to cause them to have the reaction their having.
That’s a very simple description of three simultaneous Levels of Awareness. Most people can do this once it’s explained to them because (literally) every thing they’re focusing on is more or less in front of them and it’s relatively easy to manifest levels of awareness on things in our immediate environment. It’s a natural outgrowth of situational awareness and what our ancestors naturally did to stay alive. Film and theater students learn to simple levels of awareness as do film and theater critics. That’s how the critics can sit through something like the original Alien movie without reacting; they’re definitely reacting, they’re just monitoring how they’re reacting and keeping notes so they’ll be able to tell us why we should or shouldn’t go see the movie or play.
Imagine a computer system that’s constantly running a low-level diagnostic on itself so it’ll be able to alert its handlers before any serious problems arise, kind of like Hal in 2001. HAL tells Dave Borman there’s a malfunction in the communications antennae and a part needs to be swapped out before complete failure occurred. Self-monitoring is kind of like that (without that going psychotic part. Okay, if you don’t know what you’re doing, maybe neurotic but not psychotic).
People in The Practice learn to be wholly involved in their daily lives while running a low-level diagnostic, a second level of awareness, that lets them know if there’s something in their environment (including themselves) they need to deal with before any problems arise. In essence, they have one level of awareness handling their day-to-day routine and a second level of awareness making sure everything’s okay in their day-to-day routine.
Levels of Awareness, Part 2
Now let’s stretch self-monitoring a bit. Let’s say you’re going about your daily routine, you have that second level of awareness running a low-level diagnostic on yourself and you want to pro-actively make sure your kids – remember them? They’re about to get into a wrestling match – go to sleep. You can extend your awareness in their direction but there’s only so much butter and, if your toast gets too big, there won’t be enough butter to go around.
So you open another level of awareness and send it off to watch the kids. I use the term “open” because that’s my experience of it. I have to center and lower myself (things I’ve described elsewhere) and the more levels of awareness I open, the more centered and lowered I have to be. Just so we’re clear, I lower my energy in myself. I don’t decrease the level of energy in my body, I center myself via breathing and meditation techniques, then lower my energy in my body, say from my chest to my diaphragm. This lowering of my energy allows me to experience more levels and the more levels of awareness I need keep active, the more centered and lowered I need to be.
One of the ways I practice this is quite simple (and was taught to me by my Bahamian teacher). It goes like this:
- Can you center yourself right now? (0th Level of Awareness)
- Now, can you be aware of yourself being centered? (1st Level of Awareness)
- Now, can you be aware of yourself being aware of yourself being centered? (2nd Level of Awareness)
- Now, can you be aware of yourself being aware of yourself being aware of yourself being centered? (3rd Level of Awareness)
Most people can get to Level 1 with a little effort. Most people need training and time to get to Level 2. Some people can get to Level 3 with work.
One of my teachers (not the Bahamian) could get to 22 Levels of Awareness. My Bahamian teacher knew when his brother was returning and with how many fish because he had level of awareness focused on his brother. My Inuit teacher knew where the polar bears were because he had several levels of awareness ranging all around us (like dogs, he said, sniffing this way and that, making sure everything was alright).
They call it “Going Wide”. Ask them the specifics and they start by explaining how to center and lower.
Borrowing from Susan’s “Life Off the Mountaintop” series…
All of this would be an interesting academic exercise if it didn’t have some definite and obvious uses in every day life.
For example, Susan can tell you that I perk up while driving and start looking in my mirrors and such. She’ll ask, “Where is he?” because she knows I’ve picked up the scent (to me it’s a scent) of a police officer/patrol car/radar (so far no polar bears or stripers). We usually find them a mile or two down the road, coming up behind us or coming in the other direction towards us. This is an example of “Going Wide.”
Sometimes, when I’m talking with people, their totems/guides/spirits/energies are simultaneously communicating with me. I’m carrying on several conversations at once, one level of awareness on the person or people, other levels of awareness on whatever’s going on around them.
Sometimes I’ll be listening (cocking an ear, as it were), to people I’m studying with and know they need to contact me because I’ll leave a level of awareness on them, especially when they’re starting out, in case something happens they’re unprepared for.
Sometimes I’m expecting someone and they’re late. I’ll go ranging, learn where they are and what’s delaying them, and act accordingly.
Sometimes, when called upon as a Healer, I’ll wrap several levels of awareness around the person or animal I’m working with to help understand their need and what’s required of me.
And sometimes, like today, I’ll be making pizza and have a level of awareness making sure the dough is doing its job.
There may be other things I do with them in everyday life. I don’t really keep track.
Levels of Awareness, Part 3
What I have learned from several of my teachers is that Levels of Awareness are closely tied to how many Directions or Energies or Totems you have around you. I don’t know if the levels come first or the Directions/Energies/Totems come first. What I’m pretty sure about is that it’s the Directions/Energies/Totems doing the ranging, each Direction/Energy/Totem is one Level of Awareness.
But that’ll have to wait until Joe asks another question.
(again, because Joe asked)