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Working with Subtle Awareness

Recovering the Sensitivity in Sense-making to Heal and Create Cultures of Awakening

Roden Crater, natural feature and earthwork by James Turrell, where vastness, light, and space interact to stimulate subtle effects in visitors.
“According to the Womb of Secrets Tantra, the optimal partner is a jasmin and sandalwood-scented ‘lotus woman’, whose diverse endowments include seventy-two more energy channels than a male.” –Tibetan Yoga, Ian Baker
“Remember the magic, the poisons and the tenacious dreams; you wanted to see, you covered your eyes to see, without knowing how to open the other one.” –Mémorables, René Daumal

An empath, intuitive, and sensitive person, I’ve lived and worked in New York City for over twenty years. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has helped me refine my gifts. Like yogis practicing meditation in the charnal grounds in order to overcome fear and disgust, I’ve practiced subtle awareness amid jackhammers in order to overcome distraction. I can find bliss on the crowded subway and see through charades in board rooms. I can sense when someone I work with is emotionally raw or needing something they can’t ask for. I can reach through the veil of anonymity that city-dwellers wear like a cloak and establish intimacy with strangers.

I’ve always loved coming across references in spiritual and mystical texts to seekers refining, relying on, and deepening their practice through embodied sensitivities. This is one of the reasons I’ve resonated with immanent theologies and philosophies like Tantra, Alchemy, Hermeticism, Shamanism, and Mysticism; where the aspirant doesn’t transcend out of their vessel but travels deeper in where they can master the inner winds and energy channels (like the yogini mentioned in the quote above) to become vessels for the Divine in this world. René Daumal, a French poet and mystic, pushed the boundaries of his physical sensing to explore consciousness with Gurdjieff. The inner eye is of course what he’s referring to in the above quote, the jnanachaksu, which is the eye of divine knowledge necessary to see spiritual visions.

Of course, sensitivity to the subtle is paramount in the realm of spirit, but it’s also key to how we must navigate our material and relational reality now. We must remember how to call on the subtlest of awarenesses in order to make better sense of these times. Subtle awareness can put us back in touch with our own inner knowing, sense of truth, connection to intuition and spirit. It can help us notice the tiniest shifts in environment and atmosphere, which is essential to navigating interpersonal and group dynamics. As we move deeper into the age of chaos and a post-truth media landscape, we can count on our subtle awareness to guide us. From the eye of the storm, our own moving center, we can dance with whatever is happening. We will be forewarned. We can be certain in times of uncertainty.

Gathering berries for nature mandalas refines the sense of sight.

What is Subtle Awareness?

Subtle awareness is a heightened sensitivity to the fields of energy that move within, between, and around us. The possibility of sensing is greatly expanded to include phenomena that are typically outside the spectrum of “normal” sensing (which is not at all normal, but something atrophied that humans now call normal). What I’m talking about can range from the act of training attention to detect subtle shifts in the field to the extrasensory perception we tend to label as psychic phenomena.

The six senses are organs of perception and orientation that correspond to the six elements and translate gross existence into the realm of the subtle — we have ears, but hearing (sense-making through sound) is subtle; we have fleshy eyes, but seeing (sense-making through sight) is subtle. Traditionally, the assignation goes like this: ether is the medium for hearing; air is the medium for touch; fire is the medium for sight; water is the medium for taste; earth is the medium for smell; and space is the medium for mind and conceptual knowing. A few degrees more subtle and we have extrasensory perception: clairaudience, clairsentience, clairvoyance, claircognizance…the ability to hear, sense, see, and know things beyond the material realm.

When we develop subtle awareness, we begin to understand that there are both more refined ways to apply the senses and interpret sensory data, and whole dimensions of subtlety waiting to be revealed. You begin to grasp how much we miss on a moment-to-moment basis. And as a result, how much of life we live with poor intelligence/data; how many decisions we make in the dark; how many unnecessary misunderstandings occur between people. Most of our mistakes happen as a result of a lack of subtle sensing. This is where we break things, so it follows that it’s in the subtle where the healing needs to happen.

Now, this is not a simple as it sounds in a world moving too fast for healthy neural processing. The “noise” in the sensory field is more intense than ever before. The speedier, duller, and more automated things get, the harder it is to find the space and quiet requisite for successful subtle sensing. Add to that the trauma fields we live in (a.k.a. “culture”) and you get a recipe for dissociation, avoidance, and numbing.

One of my mentors, Bonnitta Roy, practices equestrian Qi Gong and helps leaders tune in to a deeper level of sensitivity working with horses.

I’ve been supported by many kindred spirits as I’ve come into my subtle awareness: people who have chosen to embrace the pain that comes with being a sensitive person in an insensitive world; people who have chosen not to numb out, but to tune in. I’ve had mentors and friends with gifts for sensing, seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing things that should be beyond the bounds of material “reality.” For many, the journey into subtle competence displays some common stations: first there’s curiosity and a desire to explore the possibility of deeper sensing; an opening to Truth in whatever form it takes; then a commitment to stand for Truth in a world that constantly seeks to avoid it. This path leads one deeper and deeper into a sensing relationship with reality. We become more intimate not just with the world, but with our own process of making sense of it.

Today’s technology isn’t doing us any favors as far as our senses go. It’s aggressively and blindly (if I’m being generous…if I’m not, I’d say maliciously, sociopathically) taking us outside the body and our embodied existence. As more and more aspects of daily life become automated, gamified, and mechanized, we risk losing our greatest natural gift, something we share with other species: our ability to feel our way forward through the terrain of our lives. While this is of course essential in a survivalist scenario, it can also be critical in any human endeavor. So much of the confusion of this moment is due to our atrophied capacity to detect subtleties; to trust our own inner awareness; follow our inner guidance; and empathize with people much like us and those also who are seemingly unlike us. Without subtle awareness, we cannot connect with ourselves, with Spirit, or with each other.

The mindfulness revolution in the world and workplace is a good sign that a growing number of people are ready to take back space and sanity inwardly. That more high performing people than ever before are becoming aware that their ability to navigate the chaos of their environment is dependent on the inner space they have to work with. And also that the external is a reflection of the internal. The chaos “out there” is to some degree the result of the chaos “in here.” By reigning in one, perhaps we stand a chance of reigning in the other. It’s worth a shot.

Practical Application

What I want to share now is something of the practical variety: how we can work with subtle awareness to heal ourselves and each other (especially in group dynamics) and how we can access new information in the field to guide us out of habitual behaviors into truly innovative ways of approaching the problems that most need to be solved now. These tips are helpful for leaders in the workplace, in activist and social justice contexts, for facilitators of group process, or for anyone looking to heal, awaken, and live more fully. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

Less is more.

We grossly underestimate the amount of information that’s already flowing through spaces; through the humans and elements involved in any situation. We skip over much of what needs to be processed and addressed as we race towards goals and outcomes. We look outside ourselves too much; look outside the situation for inspiration, for motivation, for feedback. In a truly generative, living system, it is the internal feedback loops that are most significant. As a facilitator I’ve nearly done away with agendas altogether. We work with what’s most alive for the group in any moment and that practice can fill as much space as you want to give it.

Nicholas Janni leads a profound exercise where he places people in triads and has them take turns intuiting into one person at a time. The subject sits without speaking while the other two participants tune in and speak aloud any information they’re getting about the person’s work, highest self, mission in life, gifts. It’s a profoundly simple practice that usually brings people to tears as they realize how much of our essence can be experienced by others without our trying; without having to promote ourselves. Not much needs to be done when the field is focused and sincere. I’ve heard people come out of this exercise calling it a “blessing.” They felt blessed to be seen so clearly without having to do anything at all. Being sensed is a blessing we can give our children, our colleagues, our partners, parents and friends without much effort. The result is connection.

One of the main practices I work with when I work with individuals and groups is the creation, cultivation and preservation of space — internal spaciousness for individuals and relational space for groups. There is vast intelligence in the space. And this is what we need more of as we access solutions beyond what we currently “know.”

Welcome sensitivity back in.

We’re so afraid of being exiled from the tribe. Our codes of behavior — especially in public — are very rigid. I think this is part of why our anonymous online discourse is so volatile and broken. We’re suppressed in our expression! We’re stifled and hampered and generally afraid that the slightest expression of discontent or inappropriate emotion — from tears to excessive joy — will label us forever and incontrovertibly crazy, unhinged. This is such a shame. It’s doing us a major disservice. Physically, it’s making us sick. Socially it makes us feel unsafe and reinforces the patriarchal and mechanistic worldview that we need to throw off right now. We are human and we feel. Accept it. Embrace it. Leaders in workplaces, within organizations, and those in the public eye can do a tremendous service by expressing genuine emotions visibly, publicly, and proudly.

One of the things that began to happen for me when I reached a level of mastery in my own integration was that my presence alone provokes tears. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s to do with the deep well of grief that so many of us need to spill and what happens when we finally feel held and safe enough to do it. There are many tears that will be shed through this time of transition. There must be. It’s part of the healing. If we can make gatherings at work and in life more friendly and safe for the expression for a fuller range of emotions, we can begin to remake our culture on a fundamental level. This does require leadership. It requires sincerity. And it requires a greater capacity on the part of more space holders to ensure the safety of those who are expressing themselves and might need support. Let’s hold each other in our grief and in our joy; give it space. Once we welcome it back in, it might stop running the show from underground as it currently does.

Know thyself.

Famously inscribed in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were these words: Know thyself. This was fitting instruction for the rulers who visited the temple to consult with the Pythia, the priestesses who acted as oracles. We have to cultivate deep self-knowledge before we go about prescribing and solving the problems of others. Subtle awareness starts within. Until you can tease out your own emotions and inner temperaments, you can’t hope to know what’s going on with someone else. The biggest inhibitor of clarity, especially in group dynamics, is our own internal shadows, biases, unconscious material. We make all kinds of assumptions and judgments (constantly, really) without even knowing it.

To be in truly healing subtle dynamics, we need to know where our own experience begins and ends and where it is in relationship with the field. We need to know if the anger we feel is our own or arising in the group. The rise in interest in Empathy and being an empath suggests to me that more people are coming into the self-awareness that not everything we feel belongs to us. What to do with that? We must start by knowing ourselves, our own inner contours. Those seventy-two energy channels of the consort mentioned in the opening quote? They are as much for her own discernment as enjoyment. We must be self-maintaining, self-organized individuals with clear boundaries before we can be safely porous and in healthy communion with other energetic beings, including Nature, the earth Herself.

Attune. Listen. Acknowledge. Repeat.

There is a beautiful and simple tool most therapists will offer to couples seeking counsel: the check in, or “Did I get that right?” We frequently assume we know where others are coming from. Most of the time we’re wrong. Accepting that is the beginning of the humility necessary to truly be in community or in relationship.

When I’m facilitating a group experience, meeting, or retreat, I try never to assume. I almost always ask where the question came from if I am not clear. Every question has two parts, a process part and a content part. The content is what we almost always focus on: How long will we have to work on this project? And we answer with content: For six months. But a good facilitator will seek to understand the process or what’s behind the question. Why are they asking this? What emotional content is present for the person? Do they need reassurance? Are they asking out of fear? Is there information that person has that could be helpful to the rest of the group’s process? Maybe that person has a unique perspective within the organization where they can see that this new mandate will cause friction or tension. Maybe they have insight into staffing and know that the new mandate will cause undo strain. There are a million reasons why people ask questions and most of them are hidden. Most of the meetings I attend take place at the level of content. Most of the experience of meeting participants is actually taking place at the level of process.

When we work with subtle awareness, we can tune into the group as a whole or individual participants to make explicit what is already in the field, but not being attended to. Being able to do this skillfully can create great relief in the system. Recently, I was facilitating a three-day retreat for a CEO and his executive team. The company was in the process of being sold to a large holding company. We spent the first day trying to ignore the interruptions and tension this fact was causing in the field. The CEO was determined to be productive and get the year’s goals down on paper. He was desperate to see progress and not rock the boat. I felt we were pushing a boulder up hill. Nothing was flowing. The group didn’t have focus. At dinner and again at breakfast several of his team approached me in private to express their personal concerns and anxieties surrounding the impending sale. They were afraid he would leave. They were afraid they would lose their job, that the company culture would change, that the sale would fall through…The next day as we started the session I told the CEO we needed to spend a couple of hours processing the emotions around the sale. He resisted saying, “I don’t want the emotions to interrupt our process.” I quietly, but firmly told him the truth of the matter: “They already are.” He was able to hear that and we spent two productive and bonding hours as a group. Clearing that energy, we were able to move forward again with clarity and a great deal of pressure removed from the system.

Stand firm. Go countercurrent.

That example with the CEO is classic to my experience as a representative of the subtle dimension in a world that is more focused on immediate, gross dynamics. You have to speak truth to power. In most cases, the power I’m talking about is not in the person’s title so much as the power of a system that is deeply entrenched. I call this going counterculture. It’s like a salmon swimming upstream. You have to do the impossible effortlessly in order to get “home.” When you have an awareness of subtle dynamics in a world governed by data and obsessed with measurement, you can find yourself in the position of having opinions and insights that are not shared by the majority of people. And they can’t be measured with the same tools. I can’t always tell you how I “know” something. Linear causality is amazing and reassuring, but there is also a whole dimension of reality that is non-linear and spontaneous. I sometimes call that magic, but it’s also Chaos, Nature, Spirit, or Source (notice how these words are all capitalized because they deserve some reverence as the mystery they are). Who knows how we know things sometimes?

As a facilitator, coach and leader, I love to invite the non-rational modes of knowing into my environments. For me (and many others), dreams are a huge part of my navigation system. I get more answers to waking questions in my dreams than anywhere else. This has been true for indigenous peoples all over the world for millennia. Why wouldn’t it be true for us now? I love to invite people to share their dreams in workshops. It’s almost always a revelation. Patterns emerge, answers arrive. We dream not just for ourselves, as it turns out, but for each other. I’ve had many many instances of women on retreat having dreams that answered the questions and prayers of other women in the group quite directly. One of the significant shifts outlined by Fritjof Capra in his book, The Systems View of Life, is from measuring to mapping. We have to stop trying to measure things that can’t be measured. And start trying to map them through our own channels and into the collective. These maps will lead us to salvation. You can’t measure your way there.

Feel More Fully

The way I’ve come to understand my path is that the point is to feel fully — whatever needs to be felt. For myself, for the earth, for the ancestors, for the collective. I am here, in part, to liberate emotions, to heal trauma, and to invite others into their own feeling gifts. In ancient societies there was a closer connection to ritual, rites, and the sacredness of life in all its hues. There was a deeper connection to life and also to death — an embrace of transition, or at least a profound humility in the face of its inevitability — that we’ve lost. With it, we’ve lost the ability to feel and know ourselves and each other deeply.

In an epic talk on grief and praise, the Mayan Shaman, Martín Prechtel illuminates how alienated we’ve become from our feelings by contrasting his experience of village life with modern (Western) culture. He brings us back to our own remembering of a more natural and indigenous way of being with powerful emotions. This passage captured me because it demonstrates one way a community can encourage the feeling of difficult emotions together. I feel a real kinship with the women he describes:

“So when somebody passes away from us and the tears don’t loosen properly, what do we do? We search for women. We search for women who are very sensitive to life. We have professional women in our village who are known to be very sensitive to life…and we search for men who are very sensitive to life…and they’re known as professional weepers. We bring them in. We hire them. And we pay them…of course, we don’t pay them money. We pay them cloth and chickens and food. And they come into the house and they look at the situation. And they get the situation explained to them. Of course, in a village they already know what it is…When these women hear the situation what happens? Eventually, they start feeling. And they start empathizing with what’s going down. And then they start making these huge speeches and when they’re done the tears start rolling. And when the tears start rolling, everybody else’s tears start rolling too. You can’t stop it. It’s natural. You can’t stop! It’s as natural as eating or seeing or tasting. So why is grief like an unspeakable thing anymore? I don’t know. Plus you feel so good when it’s done…I don’t know if good is the word, but alive. You feel alive.”

We’ve also lost access to the timeless mysteries of existence which, any wise person will tell you, require us to be inwardly attentive and quiet to receive. Once in the middle of the night, deep in the countryside, I awoke and lay still for hours. I was very patient and very aware as I listened to coyote and owl. Then I received this message as reward for my patience and commitment to knowledge: “Be still and realize the truth of who you are within this body.” I wept. I wrote it down. I meditated on it. Still do. And I returned to my practice of inner awareness with renewed vigor.

Rest and recover.

One of the last and hardest lessons I’ve had to learn about being a subtle instrument in the world is how to care for my system. For many years, I operated like a live wire. I was constantly short-circuiting. Now, I have a firm commitment to rest and honoring the needs of my body, especially my nervous system. If I am in a place that is too loud, I leave. No matter how much fun there is to be had. If I don’t feel comfortable in a space, I leave. If I have pressing engagements but my body isn’t up for them, I cancel. Over time, I have created agreements with many of my likewise sensitive and intuitive friends. We all understand when one or the other of us cancels a call last minute or doesn’t show up to an engagement. We don’t take it personally or hold people accountable to rigid schedules. We assume they needed to care for themselves and we honor that. It’s a huge relief. The corporate world is absolutely horrid with this. People are literally working themselves to the bone. It cannot last. Bodies, especially sensitive female bodies, weren’t build to be so out of rhythm with the natural world. We’re lost at sea and drowning in our own unrealistic expectations. We push. It’s not sustainable. This behavior is central to the climate crisis, too. The way we treat ourselves is how we treat the planet: we extract endlessly and expect it to keep living, nurturing and thriving. It can’t and we can’t. We have to honor our own and each others’ need for rest…especially those of us actively honing our sensing capacity.

Sensing Into Healing and Awakening

One day we’ll live once again in a society that is life-giving and sensitive to the material, emotional and sensual needs of human and non-human life. It wasn’t so long ago for many of us that this was still the case. My grandparents were raised on farms in Appalachia. They had extremely refined senses well into old age and lived with an awareness of the effect of the environment on them and their effect on the environment.

It’s a positive feedback loop: the more we inhabit subtle environments, the more attuned we get to the tiniest shifts in the field. The more attuned we get to subtle shifts in the field, the less we tolerate noise in all its forms — visual, audio, energetic, informational, memetic — and the more we crave the wonders of what is revealed in the dynamism of the subtle dimension.

There was a period when I thought I’d have to take my sensitive self off the grid, out of the city, to live in a cave somewhere. I mourned this isolation. But I’ve worked hard to befriend my nervous system and have spent years (literally) learning to ground, to find the ground, and ultimately to be the ground. As a result, I’m enjoying a new relationship to life as it is in these times: busy, hectic, stressful, demanding, alienating, extractive. I can experience the siren call of these qualities and I can relate with them in others, but I am not pulled off my center so easily. Instead, I offer an invitation everywhere I go to a deeper state of presence and a remembering of our real mission here: to feel fully, to allow Life to experience Herself living through us.

Sensing and subtle awareness are critical contributions to the important practice of sense-making in this time. We have to find new and more subtle ways to make sense of what’s happening on the planet now and why. We have to assess the problems better before we can solve them. My offering is in the realm of the senses. I believe bringing more of them online, learning to attune to ourselves and each other, liberating so much of our capacity for emotion from the stuck energies of trauma…these are the ways we can begin to make real sense of the situation, and begin to rebuild culture of trust. This is how we go on.

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