CAN I GET A WITNESS? Relationality and consciousness.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on September 26, 2011

I used to think that we needed language in order to experience consciousness. I could even make an intelligent argument for it. The conscious mind, I thought, coded experience with words, which assigned meaning to it. Since thoughts are language based, so consciousness must be. Now that seems all wrong. Simplistic really. I have changed my mind. Done a 180 . Finally included information that ‘felt’ right to me but I could not categorize into what I had learned. So I had a category of my own for it because it just felt right. While I still think that language is important for our experience of consciousness and the preferred way of accessing much of our history and information, the language of the body and the senses, which is the carrier of emotion and feelings, encompasses consciousness as well, spoken language can only capture some of it. If we re-think our definition of language, and expand it to include a sensorial and somatic register that is not about signs and symbols but about experience that is felt – what is now called implicit knowing- then it is true that we need language to experience consciousness. On the other hand, maybe we should expand our definition of consciousness so that it includes relational memories that are inscribed in the body and in the senses rather than in spoken language. Hmm.

Several weeks ago, in my post on intuition I wrote about implicit knowledge. How is it that we just know some things? In our gut, or in our bones, or just have a feeling? For many years the answer to such questions were left to religion, spirituality, extra sensory perception and coincidence. Not exactly scientific categories, but then, their not- science stature gives them room to think outside the box and consider such experiential phenomena as real, and more importantly, responsible for many of our decisions about life. Implicit knowing accounts for much of who we are and what we do.

In the world of psychoanalysis such things were not talked about, and when they were, they were usually grouped into the vast category of unconscious phenomena- there, somewhere and waiting to be found and explained –with few and notable exceptions (relational analysts have been at this for a long time). There is a vast body of neuro-biological research that supports the idea that we read and assess environmental information sensorially and that it becomes filtered through our first relationships to our caretakers. By the time we acquire language to label information and begin to think in language bits, we have a world of implicit knowledge stored in relational memories that helps to inform what we put into language, how we think and what we do. The meaning of the thing arrived at in interaction with another.

So today’s blog is about consciousness, and the notion that our experience of consciousness is created relationally and non-verbally! Before we can have words that assign meaning to our experience we need another to experience it with. We need someone to act as witness and sometime translator. Consciousness is an interactive creation that later becomes internalized and, along with language, results in what we call thought or the experience of being conscious in our mind. But we are conscious all along and we are left with bits of implicit knowledge that bubble up and get our attention in nano seconds, bursting into ‘consciousness’ with split second accuracy and determination.

We need a witness to see, feel and experience our experience so that it’s meaning can be arrived at relationally. We need another set of eyes and ears, another head to think, another heart to feel, another voice to speak, another body to experience what we experience and what we may leave out, particularly in situations that have been traumatic. We need a witness– this is why so many people come to therapy and benefit from it: it offers the opportunity to have a witness who bears the weight of lived experience and helps to understand it, label it and re-structure it through an ongoing relational exchange.

Witnesses are always involved. Participant observers.The very presence of a witness changes the nature of the experience. Someone else knows. We are no longer alone with our experience; someone else has shared in it, his or her participation as witnesses adding to the meaning of the thing.

Ultimately we all need a witness to validate and recognize who we are, where we have been, and what we are capable of doing. We need a witness to witness our life and its imprint on the planet.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Erika Schwartz ,MD September 27, 2011 at 6:55 AM

What if the witness becomes the committee by which too many of us live? If so, we are creating a second guessing mechanism of sycophants that in fact may prevent us from interpreting our experiences on our own. Good therapists and good friends are true witnesses. The process of choosing them is crucial to successful interpretation and living!
Dr.V you are a great witness!


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