Paying Attention: Consciousness of What?

Bodily practice and the possibilities of perception

Posted Oct 31, 2017

“Consciousness,” the man offered. I was shocked by his answer. It was years ago. We were both standing in a circle of people gathered around a candle at a mutual friend’s winter solstice party. We were sharing oranges and "sunshine" soup, and a word about something we wished would wax along with the lengthening days. I remember thinking: “Why would anyone want consciousness? Why not peace or justice or love or creativity, something that will improve life, something active! Consciousness doesn’t do anything…It just is!”
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In my third Story Circle with Kun Yang Lin Dance Company's Faith Project, participants from six different faith communities in Philadelphia shared texts, songs, stories, or practices from their respective religious traditions that are important to them. A common theme appeared: consciousness, the desire for it, and the challenges and fruits of pursuing it.

Participants were not seeking to become conscious of the same things, but they all engaged in specific patterns of bodily movement designed to help them acquire a consciousness of some thing. I thought back to my shock at hearing that man's wish. Consciousness of what?
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According to phenomenology (a branch of philosophy focused on consciousness and the structures of experience), consciousness is relational. It is a relationship between something that appears and the someone to whom it appears. In that relationship, because of that relationship, the someone and the something become who they are. There is nothing apart from its appearance; no self apart from its apprehension of something.

As phenomenologists also describe, any person’s ability to receive appearances is malleable. When a person practices paying attention, she learns to perceive differently. That practice opens new sensory pathways in herself along the span of awareness that her practices guide her to notice. By paying attention, she cultivates a vulnerability to appearances occurring within a certain range, to shades of color, form, and meaning, to shocks of recognition.

As we practice paying attention, we see. We understand. We love. As phenomenologist of religion Gerardus van der Leeuw wrote: “To him who does not love, nothing appears.”
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In our current cultural moment, discussions of consciousness circle around the term mindfulness. Practices of mindfulness, adapted to the western context from traditions of Buddhist meditation, involve paying attention to whatever is happening in the moment, to our thoughts, feelings, and actions as well as to the world surrounding us. The goal is to be in the moment, to pull our sensory selves out of our personal devices and other portals to virtual realms, and into the living moment.

Yet it is also true that this goal is impossible. We can never perceive everything there is around us or within us at any given moment. Our sensory organs are sieves, designed to filter out what (we have learned) is not relevant to our ongoing well being. As a raft of psychological research confirms, humans see what they expect to see and what they want to see. Practitioners of mindfulness know this, of course, and affirm that the practice helps us see more, not everything, but more.

Again, I ask, consciousness of what?
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In our third Story Circle, bodily practices of paying attention appeared as a point of connection between “religion” and “dance.”

Both religion and dance call to mind ancient and modern traditions that train people to pay attention along some span of sensory awareness that those people (and others in their communities) perceive as capable of registering appearances that are life-giving, beneficial, or pleasurable in some way.

Will (Christian) talked about the experience of singing hymns together. People stand, breathe, vocalize, and sound out their shared presence in time and space. This unified bodily movement draws his attention to the community as a locus of encounter; it fosters a sense of himself as a member, a part of something larger, something beautiful, something sacred. The Body of Christ.

Nzinga and Dania (Muslim) talked about the call to prayer. Making the bodily movements of full prostration five times a day invites them to pay attention to God as something greater, and to experience their relationship to God as one of devotion and submission.

Tricia (Quaker) talked about her experience sitting in a silent service, waiting to feel inspired to speak by what Quakers call the light within. She described how the bodily movements of sitting in silence encourage her to pay attention to the stirring of desire and anxiety in her that she recognizes as the movement of spirit.

Carolyn, as a Santeria priestess, practices specific forms and rhythms of dance as the medium through which she evokes and feels and expresses the presence of divinities who inhabit all aspects of life.

In each of these cases, the bodily movements participants make guide them to pay attention to distinct spans of sensory awareness as the locus for experiencing and knowing a source of intensity, of reality, something worth living for. Something they recognize as divine. 

Dance artists do so too. 

It occurs to me that this connection that appeared between religion and dance does not only shed light on each, it also reveals something about the nature of consciousness itself.

Consciousness is not merely mental. It is not just relational. Nor is it simply embodied. It is itself bodily. The relationships that transpire between someone who apprehends and something that appears are constituted in and through the bodily movements that a someone and a something are constantly creating and becoming. 

Consciousness is movement-based. It is dynamic. It evolves. I apprehend something when it moves me to respond. My understanding grows as I learn to move with what appears to me. It appears, then, by virtue of the movements I make in relation to it, and moves me in such a way as to catalyze my own movement-making in return. I become someone other than who I was: someone who is conscious(ness) of it. 

In traditions of religion and dance, people make movements that train their attention to a sensory range where the tradition teaches them they are bound to find an Other, a source of energy or levity, of strength or expressivity, whose movements will move them, and awaken in them a deep desire and ability to move with others who are moving in similar ways. In each case, those who move become aware of themselves as participating consciously in rhythms of bodily becoming. 

From the perspective of bodily becoming, “I” am conscious as a function of the bodily movements I make, bodily movements that teach me how and why and where to pay attention. Bodily movements that invite appearances of meaning along a spectrum of possible perceptions. Bodily movements that both enable and delimit what I can imagine possible. Consciousness is consciousness of bodily becoming. 

Of course we want it. 
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We can never know god outside of our own experience of god, even if we can imagine that god must exceed what we can perceive.

We can never know our own vital core outside of our experience of it, even if we can imagine its physiological coordinates.

What we can know and who we are, what we believe and how we feel, what we can think and how we move as bodily selves are inseparable. 

So are religion and dance.