Awareness is probably one of the core qualities of being a counsellor, even if unlike the core conditions it is far less often talked about. However without awareness, and particularly self-awareness demonstrating those conditions, building the relationship that is the driver of therapeutic change, is impossible.
This week I did something tiny that shows how a lack of awareness can overtake us when circumstances are less than ideal. I left my house without my purse. A small thing you might think, until I explain that I live 40 minutes walk from the train station, do not drive, have only one train an hour to catch and had appointments to get too. One momentary failure of my awareness caused the whole day to have to be reorganized. It led me to contemplate the importance of being aware with clients.
Counsellors are human, hopefully, and like anyone else can have a bad day, a cold, events happening outside the counselling room that will impinge on their mood and ability. As students we are told to leave our home life outside the counselling room door, however how practical is that? I wonder if in fact a more achievable goal would be to have an awareness, a consciousness of how the outside world may be impinging on our thoughts? Then once we have that consciousness we can actively tune out, as it were, those things which might get in the way of building that therapeutic relationship. Instead of saying I will leave these things outside saying I know I carry these things, but right now they have to slumber.
How then do we go about building our awareness, our sense of how we are, in a deep and accepting way? This is something both counsellors and clients find useful. Only by knowing, and accepting how they are in the current moment can clients move towards healing. Currently Mindfulness is very popular, building on ancient traditions. Reading about Mindfulness I was reminded of a zen koan. Koans are short stories intended to teach the truths of Zen Buddhism, to increase understanding and awareness.
Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
This koan teaches that practice is needed to even know something as simple as where an umbrella is. Mindfulness suggests daily practice, CBT will often ask people to keep daily journals. There is an understanding in therapy that we need to work at things to reach a goal. I believe it is the same with awareness. To go back to my forgotten purse, checking my bag might have been wise. Wiser though would be a daily mental check, a practice of awareness that looked at how we are, of what might cause us to forget vital things, whether heading to the train station or the counselling room.