When many people think of counseling or therapy, they may think of insight. People want to know why they feel the way they do, struggle with the same behavioral patterns or have negative thoughts. In fact, insight is valued highly by most people and even more by highly educated people. I believe that insight is important, but not as important as awareness. Insight is about why and awareness is about what and how. Insight is by-product of awareness. Let me explain.
Let us say that you notice that you are reacting strangely to something someone just said to you. You notice that your abdominal muscles have tightened and that your thoughts are racing. This process of noticing is what I would call awareness. You are noticing what you are experiencing and how you are reacting. If you think about why you are reacting this way, and realize that the person treats you like your father or brother, that is what I would call insight. I view insight as more of a cognitive process and awareness as more of an experiential here-and-now process. Both are important but I encounter more people with insight than I do awareness. Many people including therapists are very insightful. We tend to want to know why we do things. Many clients are the same way. In western cultures, insight and analysis seem to be emphasized more than awareness. It seems to be very important for us to explain everything. Of course, many things in life are hard to explain. I am guessing that certain things have happened to you for which you have no explanation.
Not only is insight more valued in western culture, but also it is safer. Awareness can be scary and unpleasant. It is experiential, unpredictable and here-and-now. Of course, awareness also can be after the fact. I might not notice that I am distressed about something until after the experience. Insight is usually after the fact. It is often the result of reflection. Reflection is important and somewhat neglected in our culture. We seem to have so many distractions that hinder reflection. Reflection may focus on why or it may focus on what and how.
Rohr (1999) noted that our first reaction to awareness is typically not a positive one. He observed that most people experience increased anxiety when they move into a new level of awareness. We like living in a comfort zone and awareness disrupts that comfort zone. As we move to the edge of our comfort zone, we tend to experience anxiety. Even though we believe that knowing the truth is a good thing, we tend to be afraid of this kind of truth.
For example, I tend to be critical of myself and other people. This tendency is not something that I view positively at all. For the most part, I view this tendency as a weakness of mine. Some days, I notice that I am criticizing numerous people that I have seen throughout the day. When I am able to catch myself, and notice what I have been doing it is helpful, but it does not make me feel better about myself.
In sandtray therapy, clients often create scenes that evoke emotion and with that emotion there is an opportunity to experience something unexpected and unpredictable. Some clients have the courage to move into this experience while others shy away from it. Therapists have a choice to make when this experience emerges in a session: analyze the moment or describe the moment. Analysis tends to be cognitive and insight-oriented, whereas description of an experience in the moment tends to focus on experiencing and awareness. In humanistic sandtray therapy, therapists facilitate the latter process because we believe that awareness facilitates growth and change. Insight is important but it comes after awareness in the humanistic approach.
If you are interested in learning more about sandtray, check out our 6-part sandtray therapy training videos.