Exercises in Awareness: Understanding What It Is

Exercises in Awareness: Understanding What It Is
John H. Langer, Ed.D.

To know is to be aware. But awareness and consciousness are not exactly the same thing. Consciousness is self-awareness, which actually has two aspects. Being aware of yourself, your inner self is one of them. The other is being aware that other things outside of yourself exist.

The answers to some questions will help clarify this. How do we become conscious of our own “inner space?” is one question. Another is, how do we “break out” of our inner space to become aware of “outer space?” What is outside of our own minds and consciousness? Imagine yourself as Helen Keller was as a child, blind and deaf. When very young she had been able to see and hear, but illness caused her to lose those senses. She had a difficult life—being led around, fed and clothed by others and she could be taught almost nothing in the usual way. Her story, and the story of her tutor—Mrs. Sullivan—are inspirational.
Helen was still a child when her tutor, frustrated by not being able to “reach” her, grabbed her hand and held it under running water, and then printed the letters w-a-t-e-r on it. Helen later wrote about her feelings at that moment—as if the world had “opened up” for her. She had found a way to reach her “outer space.”
Helen Keller went on to become a world-famous writer and speaker, overcoming her handicaps with persistence and effort, helped and trained by a resourceful and dedicated teacher. Few of us need to experience that kind of “awareness.” We already have it and are so used to it that often we don’t pay enough attention to it.

Most of us are fortunate. We don’t have to find a way to “break out” or “reach” our “outer space.” Our senses—all eight or more of them—(yes, there are more than five) bring it to us. In fact we can’t avoid it. If our eyes are open, we are seeing; we hear noises unless we cover our ears; we feel and smell as long as we are awake (though we can learn to ignore them—sometimes suffering serious consequences).
Being aware, though, is more than just letting our senses “bring” to our brains what exists outside of them. The word aware means “having or showing realization, perception or knowledge.” That means there is another step—your mind must process the data your senses deliver to your brain.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (7th Ed.) gives these synonyms: cognizant, conscious, sensible, alive, and awake. “Aware implies vigilance in observing or alertness in drawing inferences from what one sees or hears or learns; cognizant implies having special or certain knowledge as from firsthand sources; conscious implies having an awareness of the present existence of something; it may suggest a dominating realization or even preoccupation; sensible implies direct or intuitive perceiving experience of intangibles or of emotional states or qualities; alive adds to sensible the implication of acute sensitiveness to something; awake implies that one has become alive to something and is on the alert.” (P.61)

Another, older definition of the word aware is “watchful.” This is from the older word wary, that we still use. To be watchful means that we are “paying attention” to something that we are “aware of.” There are many other ways of using words to describe how we can be aware.
Why is AWARENESS important? The answer is, because unless we CONTROL our awareness, we can’t completely control the way we react to things. Again, why is that important? The answer is, if we are unable to act or re-act correctly, or at all, we don’t learn from our experiences, and so have to re-learn. Being UN-aware is another way of saying “we’re clueless,” “we haven’t any idea,” “we’re at a loss,” “we don’t get it,” “we’re a can shy of a six-pack,” “we missed the boat.” You can add your own favorite reason to this list.

Being aware of, conscious of, knowing, is the beginning of ATTENTION. You ALREADY KNOW a lot about your senses, awareness, knowing, learning, paying attention, focusing, concentration and the other ways of explaining awareness. We’ll use what YOU ALREADY KNOW to suggest exercises that will alert you to your senses and make you “more aware” of them. Later, we’ll add details. But YOU CAN EASILY DO THE EXERCISES AND ACTIVITIES we describe in the next part.
After you do them as described, you will better understand how your body-tools work and how you can improve your use of them. Once you KNOW, are AWARE, of how your senses work together with your body, brain and then your “mind tools,” you will be ready to become “more aware” than you are already.


You know how your senses work. You use them automatically. Actually, you can’t easily “shut them off.” Your vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste work while you are awake and asleep. Someone shakes you while you are sleeping and you wake up, or you hear a loud noise—your alarm. Light comes in through the windows and you wake up. Your other senses—beyond the five you always hear about—also kick in automatically. Your internal feelings of hunger and thirst, your temperature, your muscles tensing and digestion all work whether or not you are telling them to. Your location and balance, how you keep yourself upright and know where you are in relation to other objects are always working, whether you are thinking about them or not.
You may not have been “aware” of it, but your senses are working all the time. They help you stay in CONTROL. Because we actually can’t stay aware of all our senses all the time, we need to learn when it is very important to be aware, and most of all, how to train our senses to be alert and our own “inner space” to “notice” what our senses, our “outer space” data collectors, and our inner senses too, are bringing to our brains.
Then, once we train ourselves to be “more aware,” we — USE that data input to be “more in CONTROL” of our “inner- space” and “outer space.” Why is this important? Because being in control is basic to learning and understanding, and to success in what we do with our lives. Become more aware is the beginning of “being in the habit” of “paying more attention.” To develop that habit you need to learn and to practice some simple things you already know how to do.

Every one of the following kinds of exercise you have done already in some way. Yes, every one! If you hadn’t you would not have survived. Here is a list of activities. We’ll provide exercises for each one so that you can:
1. Become more aware of what you already know how to do, and
2. Learn how to DO these things better
3. Understand how they contribute to making learning easier
4. Give you confidence that you CAN “get smarter” by doing better what you already know how to do.

Here’s the list of exercises and activities

1. Awareness of self
2. Vision, seeing, imagery, imagination
3. Hearing, sound—sources
4. Touch, temperature, texture, weight
5. Taste, and smell
6. Internal feelings—digestion, pulse, pain, etc.
7. Distance—how vision affects size, shape, color, etc.
8. Feelings and emotions—memory and recall
9. Zone—how it works, its purpose, getting there
10. Order—random vs. systematic
11. Your own CONTROL—establishing your special “inner space”

This list applies only to the section below. There are other activities and skills you will learn, as we go more deeply into the skills you need to “be in control.”

1. AWARENESS OF SELF: Knowing Your Physical, Living, Breathing, Moving, Speaking, Thinking, Sensing Self

Activity—Exercise: Getting to Really Know Your Body and How it Moves and Acts

”Paying attention” means focusing on one, or a few things with one or more of your senses. You are so familiar with yourself, and have immediate access to yourself, that you may not pay enough attention. You may not KNOW yourself as well as you think you do, OR as well as you SHOULD.
Do the following for at least a week, taking at least a half-hour or more. If you need more time, use it. The purpose of the activity is to “focus” your attention on your body, senses and mind and how they comprise YOU, your WHOLE SELF.

First, find a mirror. A full-length mirror is best, but if you haven’t one a bathroom mirror that reflects most of you will do.
Stand and look at yourself—blink your eyes, then look to the right, left, up and down, and look at yourself looking, see your eyes move.
Pause and listen to yourself. Hear your breath as you inhale and exhale. Do stomach breathing and feel the breath come in and go out. This is to get in touch with your inner self, your lungs and internal organs. Do this twice, then pause and do it three times more, feeling it as you breathe.
Notice whether or not you smell anything. If you do, name it and move on. If not, just be aware that if there were an odor, you would have smelled it, it would have triggered your sense of smell. If you are doing this in the morning and have brushed your teeth, notice the toothpaste or mouthwash taste. Open and close your mouth. Stick out your tongue and lick your lips. Pay attention to the feelings.
Turn your head from side to side slowly, then raise and lower it. Move carefully and notice the muscles you use.
Move your arms slowly, raise and lower them, then open and close your hands, wiggle your fingers as you move your arms. Squeeze your hands into fists; slowly relax them as you put your arms at your sides.
Walk in place, raising your knees. If you can’t see your legs in the mirror, look down at them. Do this 5 times, paying attention to the movement.
Now, smile at yourself, wrinkle your nose, and make faces. Hum a tune, talk to yourself as you do these things. Name each sense as you use it—for example, “That’s my eyes looking at my fine fingers,” or “I can see the tip of my tongue if I cross my eyes.” Have fun; carry on a conversation with yourself, naming your senses—vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and your internal feelings. Are you hungry? Say so. Tell yourself, “What a fine person I am—I like you, the way you look and move, etc.”
Then, aloud, ask yourself, “Who are you, really?” And answer, with some details about yourself. Stare, listen some more, make noises, feel your body, arms, legs, chest, wherever you can reach—rub and scratch gently, massage and then stretch to your full length. Imagine your back, even look at it in the mirror if you can. As you gently stretch, feel the tensing and relaxing, then smile at yourself, tell yourself what a great thing it is to meet like this. Then say, so long until we meet again.

Activity—Exercise: Feeling Your Body in Space—Where ARE You?

Paying attention to “where you are,” and “where parts of you are located” is a way of KNOWING your location and how it “fits” into where you are. The first step is to find a place where you can be by yourself for about 20 minutes. Then do the following each day for a week, and then when you want to, but at least weekly.
Stand in a room where you won’t be disturbed, place your feet comfortably apart, perhaps about the width of your shoulders. Make no sound, look at a wall or other blank area or try to see partway to the wall. Relax and notice your breathing, in—out—in—out– for about 3 minutes. As you do this, relax your face, mouth, tongue, neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, torso, stomach, buttocks, legs, calves, feet and toes. Pay attention to EACH of these as they relax. Notice your breathing, slow and regular stomach breathing, as you relax.
Stand until you are relaxed and notice that you will be “balancing” slightly to stay still. Think about, pay attention to, WHERE exactly is the center of your body? When you have located it, notice where it is and put your hand there. Pretend there is a “core” there that radiates energy. Feel it and enjoy it. After a few minutes, shift your weight from one leg and hold it for a half-minute, then shift to the other leg. Do this for at least a few minutes until you get tired of it. The entire exercise should take about 20 minutes. All through this, notice your breathing, gently in and out from your stomach.
As an alternative when you can’t find a room to be by yourself, you can sit in a chair. Do the breathing and relaxing as you sit, and then pretend there is a string or chain attached to your center or “core” that is pulling gently up through the center of your head, straightening your back and neck and holding you up. Keep this position for five to ten minutes while watching your breathing, or until it becomes uncomfortable.

Activity—Exercise: Your Senses—Paying Attention To Them, In Turn

The purpose of this exercise is to get you to focus on, to notice your senses—the five we all know and the other internal ones– and how they work. You can do this while you ride to work though not while driving—or on a break, or at any time when you can sit and walk alone.
You can change the order that you focus on the senses—actually it will be best if you DO vary it. Here are the activities. Do each one for 1-2 minutes.
Hearing—close your eyes for this and just listen—paying close attention to the sounds. As you hear things, name them.
Vision—block your ears for this and just look, observe—paying close attention to what you SEE around you. Name what you see.
Taste and smell—again close your eyes and just pay close attention to the odors and tastes you notice for a minute or more. Name any tastes and smells.
Touch—squeeze a ball, or piece of paper or cloth, rub it, and sense its texture and composition. Identify and name anything you notice.
Balance—walk slowly, paying close attention to when you raise your foot and when you place it—each time you move. Notice exactly where you are and feel how your body balances. Name the feelings you notice.
Internal feelings—identify any sense of hunger, thirst, dry throat or mouth, ears, discomfort, itching, tension, pain or irritation. Notice and name it. You can do many of these whenever you think of them.
Do some of these every day, and all of them at least once a week.

Summary: What you should learn from these activities is that your body is working ALL THE TIME, even though you may not notice it. You will notice that your senses are TAKING IN data and your brain has to pay attention, but your MIND can “block out” or ignore much of it, especially if the “sensation” (sight, sound, taste, smell, feel, etc.) is not strong or vivid. Or if it is something that YOU habitually IGNORE (that is, don’t “pay attention to,” or focus on).
The exercises are evidence that UNLESS we learn to “pay more attention” we can “lose touch” with our senses, and get out of the habit of focusing. In short, we can LOSE MUCH OF THE ABILITY TO FOCUS, TO CONCENTRATE AND TO CONTROL OUR SENSES. THEY ARE OUR BODY-TOOLS, AND OUR ONLY WAY TO PROVIDE DATA TO OUR MIND-TOOLS.
That inability to fully pay attention to things we MUST learn makes “getting smarter” impossible. Inability to concentrate means you have lost control. Without control you CAN’T LEARN OR PERFORM WELL. But you CAN improve your abilities by training and practice, to focus, concentrate and pay attention. DOING THAT CAN GIVE YOU “CONTROL OF YOUR LEARNING AND YOUR LIFE.”

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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