Date: 6th October 2021
Speaker of the day: Claire Petitmengin
Article: Varela, Depraz, Vermersch, “The Gesture of Awareness” (1999)
Keywords: meditative practice, phenomenology, explicitation interview, generic experiential structure, epoché, suspension
This 1999 paper is the core of the book On Becoming Aware: A pragmatics of experiencing, which was published in 2003. The title The Gesture of Awareness: An account of its structural dynamics is powerful: it implies that there is a form of unawareness, which can be lifted, thanks to a particular gesture; this act consists of a process that has a generic structure (regardless of the content that is discovered) – thus, it is not an event that occurs contingently.
The three researchers of lived experience set out to compare the processes of becoming aware put into practice in their respective disciplines: (Husserlian) phenomenology – Natalie, explicitation interview (EI) – Pierre, and Mahamudra-Dzogchen Buddhist meditation (BM) – Francisco. These methods all start from the observation that living an experience does not necessarily mean recognizing it: what is closest to us, escapes us. According to phenomenology, this is an outcome of natural attitude + implicit belief in objective world that is independent of experience; EI argues that action as an autonomous knowledge remains largely pre-reflective; Buddhism finds avidjā to be the culprit. Authors wish to elucidate the mystery of becoming aware, namely, “How can I aim for something that I don’t know that I know, while I don’t know that I don’t know it?”
The objectives of the act of becoming aware are different in the three approaches: gnoseological in phenomenology (uncovering the subject-object structure), pragmatic in EI (describing the pre-reflective acts) and soteriological in BM (recognizing the natural state of mind in order to alleviate one’s suffering).
The “manifesto”: empirical approach.
Three types of acts
The main technique used by the interviewer to trigger suspension is to invite the respondent to choose and explore a singular experience precisely situated in space and time – which is a precondition for one to be aware of what she lives, instead of remaining locked in the representation of what she thinks she lives. Each time the participant, caught up in natural attitude, deviates towards generalities or judgements, the interviewer directs her back to the single experience which is being described.
When I hear a blackbird’s song, I immediately focus on its origin. To become aware of its microgenesis, I have to loosen the tension towards the object at the source of the sound (blackbird), and redirect it to how I recognize this song. Both EI and BM offer skillful practices to trigger this conversion, e.g., the inhibition of action (still seated meditative position; respecting periods of retreat) and attention to the bodily sensations. Agreeing to release my grip on objects means giving up the control I think I have over my experience, so I may discover something intimate about myself; being in this position of vulnerability, I need to have confidence in my guide (therapist, interviewer or meditation teacher).
III. Letting come
In order to conquer the temptation to prematurely fill in the period of latency with a representation of experience – which stops the emergence into something new – one has to reactivate the gesture of suspension. The latter in fact permeates every step of becoming aware.
After this time of relative emptiness, something may take form and emerge into awareness. Intuitive evidence is the second stage of becoming aware: with much surprise, I recognize something I was living without recognizing it.
A few reflections on the process just presented
a) How does a generic experiential structure emerge? Neither in the article nor in the book do the authors give precise details on how they arrived at this generic structure. (The three phases of becoming aware only represent the content of the generic structure, the what.)
b) What is the interest of highlighting a generic structure of the process of becoming aware? – It allows for a performative view of the validity of phenomenological descriptions (as opposed to a correspondist view), and thus the reproducibility of results: it is possible to obtain verifiable and falsifiable results.
1) Viktorija Lipič: In journals and books, we often read of the end results or of an abstraction (letting-go, suspension, redirection). But I am curious about the actual concrete experiences – how do your co-researchers describe their acts or gestures of epoché?
Urban Kordeš: Are there any differences among the descriptions of this gesture given by different research participants? When talking about its generic structure, it seems like there is only one gesture, followed by one result. However, given that each individual does a part of the gesture differently, would not the results thus obtained also differ a bit?
Claire Petitmengin: In meditative practice, epoché is not the (immediate) suspension of natural attitude (as defined in phenomenology) – it is the (gradual) loosening of tension towards object, until the very structures of experience, of the subject-object dyad become ever more subtle, and finally vanish. This loosening brings forth the consciousness of acts that create the dyad.
Sebastjan Vörös: Merleau-Ponty similarly writes that what is crucial to the phenomenological reduction is the loosening of intentional threads – they are not entirely put in abeyance.
Claire: There is a difference, though: the meditative “epoché” is not decided in the beginning of the practice; it is the final result of a long-term practice.
2) Adnan: In spite of the fascinating structural parallels, there’s one crucial difference between the epoche on the one hand and mindfulness on the other. The latter is (at least in its traditional forms) always part of a very complex soteriological, ritual and cultural context, where the practitioner is given very precise practical guidance on what exactly they are to do and how they are to respond to any experience that might arise, while the former is completely bereft of such a detailed (embodied, let’s say) context. How would this stark difference influence the way that the two practices reveal different aspects of awareness? Would it make sense to say that only meditative practice can reveal certain “deeper” aspects of the structure of awareness precisely because of its nature as a long-term and contextualized practice, whereas the epoche remains somewhat closer to the surface because of (1) its lack of a specific concrete context and (2) its goal of providing descriptions of the structure of experience (rather than truly “just sitting,” for example)?
Urban: Within phenomenological literature – and asking the phenomenologists themselves – it is really hard to obtain a description of epoché. There are three kinds of instructions within Husserl’s writing alone. Among the things we can observe empirically, mindfulness gesture seems to be the closest to epoché.
Michel Bitbol: In the book and in the paper, I think that the issue is not to compare the definitions of epoché, mindfulness and EI, but to compare three different acts of awareness and wonder whether there are some invariants between them. In the workshops we prepared, we were surprised to see that each of these methods enhanced the capacities of the other two: clearly, there are performative connections between them.
3) Sebastjan: Claire, could you say a bit more about the releasing of tension towards objects?
Claire offers an example of felt sound from the perspectives of BM and EI.
Michel on tension towards objects as described by early Husserl and Sartre: it is (almost) painful, so a relief can be felt when it is released.
4) Toma Strle: How do you, as an empirical researcher, understand the generic structure? What counts as it?
Sebastjan: Is it even possible to talk about generic structures? Are we not always contextualized in some sense (historically, culturally, socially)?
Claire gives an example of imagining a landscape and the regularities that can be noticed among different people doing it: for instance, the perceptual position in the landscape is part of a structure of experience of an imaginary scene (do I observe the landscape from the outside (3rd person) or am I in it (1st person)?). Such regularities are there, regardless of the content: it is hard to impossible to imagine a scene without a perceptual position.
Sebastjan provides an example of Guugu Yimithirr attitude toward fundamental experiential categories of space and time.
Claire: The structure of experience dissolves in meditation: an experienced practitioner might arrive at the point where no perceptual position is involved. For me, it is interesting to enquire about how the generic structure vanishes.
5) Florian Klauser: In performing the gesture of becoming aware, do you think there is a limit to the depth of the contents thus uncovered, or can we explore a single moment ad infinitum, forever uncovering new details?
Claire gives an example of a study that suggests doing a self-description of a specific moment and then wait for a certain period of time (a day, week or month) before doing it again, for new things to emerge. It is crucial to pause: you cannot force yourself to pay direct, voluntary attention in order to extract more from an experience. You need to loosen the tension.
6) Miha Flere: It is mentioned that there are certain states or events that are problematic to reflect upon by these approaches. Is there an example of a content or a (segment of) experience that is hard to access for participants in general?
Claire: A resistance can occur when what emerges is intimate (in EI, I discover something surprising about myself, which can be destabilizing; examples would be the perspectivity, or how I create objects through my tensions to them). EI was not created to explore (difficult) private experiences (what pertains to your personal life; does not equal intimate) because it puts you in a very close contact with your experience – it reactivates the (possibly unpleasant private) emotions. Here is the limit to the current EI, since a microphenomelologist does not have the tools to manage a person who comes into contact with something distressing.
Sebastjan: Could there be a productive bridge between the EI (& meditation) and therapy?
Claire: For now, no. But EI could be a complementary tool for a therapist to explore minute moments of experience. It is more difficult, still, to imagine how the therapeutic practice could be included in the EI.