The Practice of Awareness: The Animá Approach to a More Aware, Decisive & Satisfying Life – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

by on August 26th, 2009
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The Animá Approach to a More Aware, Decisive & Satisfying Life

by Jesse Wolf Hardin


The Call to Awareness

Awareness is one of the most precious opportunities and essential life practices, determining in part the richness, health and even length of our finite existence.  It is vital for presence, necessary to notice and learn from, to discern and evaluate, understand and appreciate.  It’s crucial when it comes to avoiding accidents or improving technique, defending ourselves or our loved ones from attack or getting the most from our exposure to a potent work of art.  It is an ingredient that we cannot do without, if we are to truly taste the intermingled flavors of our food or fully savor each available moment.  The better we become at being aware, the better choices we make, and the better we are able to give, whether in the role of healers, teachers, craftspeople, parents and providers.  And the more aware we become, the more flavorful and meaningful our world becomes, the more wondrous and useful what we are given.  Awareness is – optionally, ideally – our simultaneous work, art and reward.  It is not simply what we seek or grow, it way that calls to us.

How aware we are is a matter of how much we notice, how broadly we perceive, and how deeply we understand.  As an Animá practice, awareness is intentionally noticing/engaging as many aspects of ourselves and the world around us as possible, consciously making choices as to how much attention and focus to give each element, each moment.

The word “aware” comes from the old Germanic “war,” or “wer,” meaning to “watch” or to “take care.”  When we’re aware of something we are not only observing but evaluating – in the sense of continuously estimating the immediate value (significance, relevance, importance) of each.  We give it care, being either careful of it or with it.

Make no mistake, awareness isn’t a state or condition so much as an activity!   It’s not where we rest or reside, it’s something we naturally – and preferably intentionally – do.

Animá’s 7 Elements of Awareness

There are seven definitive aspects of awareness that we teach students to develop.  Though they can be derivative, successive and even progressive, we don’t like to refer to them as levels.  That tends to make them sound disconnected and unmoored, otherworldly, stratified and even hierarchal.  Nor do we say “degrees,” because while one builds from the other, and they are related aspects and capacities more than degrees of ability.  We prefer to think of them as elements instead, even though they are multifaceted rather than singular.  They are decidedly elemental, not in the sense of inert ingredients but in the same way that air, fire, water and earth are all energetically interconnected and interactive, feeding, informing and enabling each other.  Each of these seven elements of awareness are stages that we don’t move on from, but rather, that we incorporate, integrate and utilize.

The necessary first such element exists at ground level if you will, the initial awakening of the senses,  and becoming increasingly conscious and feeling, without which none of the others are possible.  The second is increased awareness of self as a definable subject of experience – awareness of the self that feels – along with an ever deepening sense of one’s inner states and increasing awareness of our subconscious processes.  The above two correlate with “earth” in elemental theory, with the living planet, our original nature and innermost essence and core.  From that can follow an increasing awareness of the world outside our skin, contexts and situations, revealing patterns and evolving interrelationship.  This make possible increasing awareness of self in relationship to the world, of one’s daily choices and their criteria in making them, of the potential consequences and benefits.  The fifth element is an increasing awareness of past and future, of the distant or unseen, un-sensed or for now incomprehensible, of impending death and its attendant mysteries, of the finite nature of our mortal lives and the importance of how we spend it.  These three could be seen as relating to water – overflowing its vessel, probing and making contact, as well as seeking out the depths and those secrets that await there.  The sixth element is an increasing awareness of the timeless nature of existence, or more clearly, of the unified presence of past and future as well as of the continuity and continuousness of the Anima or life force.  The seventh is akin to the Chinese element of wood, ceaseless movement and consistent fruiting: awareness of a need to initiate action or respond in ways that further our growth and better the world, inspired, informed and motivated by all that we become aware of.

1. Awakening, Becoming Conscious

In the beginning, we awaken from an unconscious or less conscious condition, from death into life, from less discernible oneness to distinguishing consciousness.  Such consciousness is the beginning of and foundation for awareness, not a thing that proceeds from it.  The start of life –  and of each day of our lives – is an awakening into consciousness, bringing with it only the option for differing degrees of awareness.

To be conscious requires only that we be aware of the world outside of our narrowly defined selves.  It doesn’t require that we understand much of what we sense, or even that we sense it in more than one way.  Someone coming out of a coma after an accident can be said to be conscious even if they are unable to open their eyes or move, and even if their brains are unable to make sense of the information their ears receive.  Even the most distracted and habituated of modern men and women – oblivious to their surroundings, shopping for matching fashions instead of developing an opinion on what to wear, voting the way their friends vote rather than studying the issues, unaware of their own feelings as well as their spouses, stepping off of curbs without watching for traffic – can still said to be conscious… though not necessarily to a survivable or even personally satisfyingly degree.  Even to be ultra-conscious is simply to be fully awake, a term that we prefer for several reasons.

There are, in fact,  few other situations in which we even use this term “consciousness” in the teaching of Animá.  First, because there is so much disagreement, from spiritual figures arguing its meaning to medical ethicists offering contesting definitions of what constitutes consciousness, unconsciousness and the so-called “vegetable” state where further medical life support may no longer make sense.  Secondly, consciousness is too often described as a state that only humans are capable of, when so much of other-than-human life is clearly more awakened, aware and responsive than all too many of our own blessed kind.  And thirdly, the related expression “higher consciousness” is too misleading to be useful, evoking as it does an out of body, unearthly location or condition, an imagined way of knowing suspended somehow above messy bodily and planetary experiencing.

To the contrary, what is needed to further develop our awareness is to (as the saying goes) “come down to earth,” ground in presence and place, reconnect to the living land and the seeming secrets that such connection affords, and to revisit our feeling beings and sentient bodies, natural abilities and informative challenges, needs and proclivities, callings and dreams.  Awareness requires we not ascend so much as dig in and delve, submerge and insinuate oneself in the web and weft… that we take the time for long explorative journeys into the winding labyrinths of our energetic and creature beings, into the context of relationship with other people, the food we eat, the plant whose breath we breathe.  To notice – often up close and intimate – the interacting world, our place within it, and the ways we can most powerfully receive and give.

Awareness isn’t a subcomponent of consciousness, it is its expansion, prioritization and application.  Consciousness and awakeness constitute the basic and fundamental level of awareness from which we can then further develop and expand… through not only intently sensing but emotionally feeling,

2. Self Awareness & the Subconscious

Once conscious – and consciously feeling – self recognition becomes possible… for our kind, as well as at least a handful other species.  Wild creatures are usually and necessarily more awake and notice more than civilized human beings, with quicker response times.  For the most part they are not, however, able to form a mental image of themselves, or hence to imagine themselves in new situations.  When confronted with its reflection in a mirror, a rat seems to see only light or space, a dog will run or bark as though spotting a stranger in the neighborhood no matter how closely the movements in the mirror match its own.  Using the Mirror Self Recognition Test, only our closest relatives the apes, dolphins and elephants have so far shown to know that a reflection is of them, with both of the latter rubbing the appropriate part of their face after noticing a mark that researches had daubed there.  What appears to be exclusively human is what’s sometimes called meta-awareness, an awareness of the self that feels, self as the knowable and definable subject of experience… and awareness of one’s feeling process itself.  This occurs not when some inner witness separates itself from the input and effects of emotions or action, but when the observing self begins to actively relate to its own shifting feelings and processes.  In a healthy person emotions aren’t objectified and analyzed so much as plumbed, and then weighed-in.

Deepening awareness of one’s inner states includes not only feelings, emotions and moods, but also our ongoing subconscious processes.  By definition, much of what goes on in the subconscious occurs unnoticed, and yet we can increasingly get glimpses of our subconscious issues and icons, patterns and tendencies through self exploration, artistic experimentation, vision questing, meditation and dream work.  And self-awareness and self-understanding can be greatly served by our uncovering of that which is ever being confronted or tested, assayed or inflated, deconstructed and re-created there.

Self awareness is essential to a healthy ego, not be confused with the negative “egotistical.” Ego is simply sense of self and identity, not self-centeredness.  Most of the problems in our world our brought on not by inflated egos – nor even for egotism – but by people’s generally undeveloped sense of self, a remarkable lack of self awareness, self knowledge, and thus self esteem.  People blindly react, lash out, suffer depression, remain in unsatisfying or abusive relationships, subject themselves to toxic food additives and soul deadening jobs, silently enable ecological destruction and permit their governments to wage unjust wars, largely because they are unawares… not just of the facts and mechanics of the food industry or Congress, but unaware of how they feel and the origination of those feelings.  Of their values and the basis on which those values were formed.  Of their habits, both those the bring order and repetition to healthy behaviors, and those that trap them in harmful and unproductive ways of perceiving or acting.  Of their personalities, their tendencies, or where they are on their personal Medicine Wheels.  Of their real needs, let alone how to meet them.  Of their repressed desires, untended dreams and unanswered callings.

Self awareness provides some of the necessary information and input we need when consciously contacting and interacting with the world.  By making us familiar with our needs and desires, it makes it possible to act to meet those that benefit, as well as to transform those that cause stress or harm.  Awareness of our true nature helps us to serve that nature, as well as capitalize on it, knowing what our honest weaknesses are means we can address and strengthen those areas, recognition of our true abilities means we can better trust them, grow them, apply them, take pride in them.  It makes it possible to align our behavior with our values, standards and intentions.  Equipped with an intimate understanding of, and personal acceptance of who we really are, the less likely we are to feel insecure and act of that insecure place.  Regardless our degree of awareness of external happenings or outside factors, increased self awareness means we become more confident, which makes us more motivated, thus more effective and potentially fulfilled.  And knowledge of our own inner workings, brings greater ability to understand, assay, predict, empathize with, help heal, clarify, assist, affirm, empower or transform the feelings and actions of others.

Like the apes and elephants in the MSR experiment, we come to see ours selves mirrored in the world around us.  And then there’s the next element or step, where we see in the world more than a reflection of ourselves.


The above explains in depth the general principals and first 2 Elements of Awareness, as taught by Animá.  Following Awareness of Self comes 3. Awareness of the World, Noticing & Orienting; 4. Awareness of Self in Place, Relationship & Dynamic; 5. Awareness of Finite Time and the Importance of Timing; 6. Awareness of Timeless Nature & the Animate Whole.  7. Awareness of Callings, Purpose & the Need to Respond.  The entire 10,000 word essay will appear in the book in progress known for now as the Book of Animá.  Meanwhile, those wishing to delve deeper will find an entire lesson of the redesigned Animá year-long Mentorship program devoted to this skill and topic, as well as an entire, new 8 week long Animá course on Awareness that will include self exploration questions and assignments for implementing. We expect to be able to accept registrations for this and a number of other courses within the next two weeks.  Your comments and responses are valued as always.  It is important that I am clear with this, as there are so many contrary approaches and beliefs out there, and it is so easy for us humans to hear only what we are comfortable hearing.  Hence the stress… on awareness!  be well, live fully, love deeply.…


(Please forward and post freely)

Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Practicing Animá Lifeways, The Shaman Path


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  • Hi Wolf,
    This essay is wonderful! Have you written about 3 – 7 yet? If so, I’m wondering about the possibility of including a shorter, edited version in the upcoming issue of Gaian Voices. What you say here is so important and you do it so well. (As always).

    Work is progressing on my latest projects here. Sean and I are getting together today so that he can teach me how to upload stuff onto the website. It’s not going to be as fancy or beautiful as Anima’s, though perhaps someday it will. Kiva Rose has done such an amazing job. Still, it’s a start, a step in the right direction given today’s technological focus (which I’m not totally keen on but . . . that’s the way it is).

    My youngest, Colin (the photographer) and his fiance Lynn, currently living in Bar Harbor, ME (which is so beautiful I hope they end up settling somewhere in the area and I think, for Colin, the ocean is so important, I’ve seen him really blossom whenever he’s living there) are putting together a grant proposal to travel around the country, living and working on farms and communities practicing methods of sustainability with regard to food, energy, water, shelter, etc. Their plan is to take a year to learn and then come back (hopefully to Maine) to put it all into practice while creating programs and curriculum to attract so-called ordinary folk into different ways of living. I have no idea whether they will be successful raising the funds they want, but regardless they most likely will do the traveling and learning. Perhaps they’ll even be able to make their way to the Canyon and contribute in some way. I’m doing what I can to help, and keeping my fingers crossed. They are so passionate about this and I love that about them.

    Let me know about the elements of awareness and I’ll be keeping you all posted on Gaian Voices’ progress.

  • Susan B.

    This is amazing…it is an essay that, for me, is best understood in “layers”…that is, I have to re-read it several times in order to begin to understand the things that are being said, and get to the great depth this essay goes into. I LOVE this, Jesse, and I look forward to reading more of what you have to say! *goes back to re-read* :-)

  • [...] the meantime, check out Wolf’s amazing piece on Awareness. This is an incredibly important subject for any healer and perhaps especially herbalists, we who [...]

  • Mary

    Thank you for bringing this to my awareness. As mentioned above I will reread and gain more. I feel this essay is also significant for my son who is struggling in a job and life he has and is very unhappy and depressed. I will forward it to him in the hopes that he may find a spark that catches his attention.
    Thank you……I have been asking for help.

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