The Three Gestures of Becoming Aware


From the interview with Francisco Varela
Paris, France
January 12, 2000
Claus Otto Scharmer

In 1996 I did my first interview with Francisco Varela. In that conversation, Varela said that the blind spot of the 20th century (in cognition science) was concerned with the inability to access experience. He said: I maintain that there is an irreducible core to the quality of experience that needs to be explored with a method. In other words, the problem is not that we don't know enough about the brain or about biology, the problem is that we don't know enough about experience. … We have had a blind spot in the West for that kind of methodical approach, which I would now describe as a more straightforward phenomenological method. … Everybody thinks they know about experience, I claim we don't.

In the second interview in January 2000, Francisco Varela laid out the key ideas of a book he and his two co-authors were working on. The working title of the book was "On Becoming Aware" and it focuses on how to access experience. It synthesizes the essence of three great traditions in first-person approaches to knowing – introspection, phenomenology, and Buddhism – and uncovers the common core process that underlies these three traditions.

I. Three Methods of Accessing First-Person Experience

We think we know a lot about experience, but in fact we don't. … It is as if there's a big blind spot. …One of its manifestations is something that we just published, a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness, which is also a book. It would have been an unthinkable book three or four years ago. …Walk the walk.

  • The first approach: introspection…
  • The second approach: phenomenology…
  • The third approach: contemplative traditions…

The results of this work are a book, tentatively called in English, On Becoming Aware. Because that's the key: how you become aware.

II. On the Core Process of Becoming Aware

The core process is the basic ability through which each individual can actually access his or her experience. The core process is based on three phases or gestures of awareness:

  • Suspension: overcoming habitual patterns
  • Redirection: turning the attention toward the source rather than the object
  • Letting-go: changing the quality of attention from looking for to letting come

III. Second Person

The first person acts and plays a new role. The second person is somebody who is not in the first person having direct access to the experience, but is interested in that first-person access…

The first reaction people have is that [the first person is] just a personal thing. That it's private. But the notion that the first person is private is a disaster. The first-person access is as public as the third person, okay?

…There is a quality to experience where you need a mode of access that you might want to call the first-person access. That doesn't make it private. It's just as social as everything else. And that's something it took me a long time to discover. I had a blind spot on that like everybody else.

IV. On the Sources of Becoming Aware

Life is constantly in this process of reaccommodation, and therefore this kind of cycle is at the very core of what life is all about.… So it's not so much what causes it as can it be stopped? It's like saying death cannot be stopped from being part of life because if it is not there you cannot have the flexibility and evolution on the planet. I don't know if that strikes a chord. For me it's an interesting lesson on learning to work with fragile ontologies. I like that notion of fragility in ontological thinking, that the way the world unfolds is very brittle, very fragile.

V. Virtual Self

You cannot be a virtual self unless you have this constant creation of letting go. That is the nature of virtuality. What this is saying to me is if you really want to get closer to understanding what it means to be a subject, you'd better understand that this is the constant generator of what that subject is all about – since it is not a stable, solid entity, since it is not within the head, since it is not just in language. It's in none of those dimensions, it's somehow in a figure of multiple levels of emergence, but it is always fragile. … fragile flotation…

It’s not very far from the recent insight in biology that evolution doesn't have one single unit of selection, but is multiple. …So if you don't have multiple levels of selection, you don't understand evolution at all. … I wish that insight about the distributiveness of what we call a subject would be taken more seriously.

VI. The Fragile Self Deploying Itself

The more the fragile self-subject deploys itself, the more compassion deploys itself because that's what it is. The more there is the opening into space to accommodate or to take care of the other, there is kind of an intrinsic decenteredness, and therefore the other appears closer. Solidarity, compassion, care, love – all of the different modes of being together – appear when the self owned is decentered...

VII. Reflection

The work of the late Francisco Varela was inspired by what he called the blind spot of cognition science: the inability to access experience, which is the core process of becoming aware. What intrigues me about his synthesis, the three gestures of becoming aware, is not only that he tries to capture the essence of various scientific, philosophical, and spiritual traditions in three simple terms, but also that the core process that he outlines for the individual resonates with my own experience with journeys of organizational transformation involving groups. I believe that what he describes can be found not just on the individual level but on all levels of social systems.

Other interviews in this series also discuss the three gestures:

  • "Suspension," that is, overcoming habitual patterns and judgments, is what all creativity technologies work with and what Stanford’s Michael Ray calls "VOJ" (voice of judgment);
  • "Redirection," tuning one’s attention to the source rather than the object, has to do with the magic shift that Eleanor Rosch describes as "tuning into the fields that know themselves" and that Henri Bortoft describes as switching from an external type of observation to a seeing and sensing from within the living phenomenon (see interviews with Eleanor Rosch and Henri Bortoft);
  • "Letting-go," changing one’s quality of attention from looking for to letting come, is what Brian Arthur and Joseph Jaworski talk about as "surrendering into commitment" and what Eleanor Rosch calls primary knowing.

Francisco Varela, who passed away in 2001, left us with a hugely promising and yet unfinished body of work. It will probably take a larger and more collaborative work from many of us, his friends and his readers, to further develop his line of thought and to keep alive the light that he brought through his work and life.




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