Three Zones of Awareness: A Guided Meditation

May 18, 2021

I practice zen in the tradition of the Ordinary Mind Zen School. My teacher, Dr. Andrew Tootell, is encouraging me to present some guided meditations to a small group of practitioners who sit together on Zoom on Tuesday mornings. Below is the transcript of my second guided meditation, which I presented on Tuesday 23 March 2021 (an audio recording is also available). In this meditation, I continue my exploration of resonances between Zen and gestalt therapy, using Fritz Perls’ notion of “three zones of awareness” to explore different aspects of meditative awareness.

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for having me again. It’s a pleasure for me to be doing this again. Please find your seat. Find your breath. Allow yourself to drop in, or to settle down in whatever way works for you.

A month ago, I spoke about resonances between Zen practice and gestalt therapy—I’m a gestalt therapist, so I’m interested in that—and this morning I’d like to continue with that theme. At the heart of both Zen and gestalt therapy is awareness—the cultivation and employment of awareness. But these traditions have different ways of approaching and directing awareness. In gestalt therapy, awareness aids the unfolding of a self: a self that’s flexible, responsive, spontaneous, and authentic. This kind of self may also emerge in Zen practice—hopefully it does—but it will most likely do so as a kind of outgrowth of an awareness that points beyond the self. In Zen, awareness moves beyond the self, it moves towards a recognition and an expression of emptiness and impermanence.

As I start to explore these ideas, stay in touch the quality of your own awareness. It might be moving towards my voice; it might be moving away from it. Maybe you can hear the cockatoos in the background as I talk. It might feel receptive, like it’s receiving my voice and other sounds. It’s probably moving in and out of thought. Maybe you’re directing your awareness somewhere, or holding it somewhere, like to the breath. There’s no need to change anything; just recognition is enough.

Fritz Perls, who was one of the founders of gestalt therapy—the most popular founder; a lot of people associate gestalt therapy with Fritz Perls—he liked to distinguish between three zones of awareness. There’s the inner zone, which is where awareness meets our embodied selves—visceral sensations, muscular tension or muscular relaxation, the embodied experience of emotions, the rise and fall of the breath—this is the inner zone of awareness. The outer zone is our awareness of the ways in which we make contact with the world—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling—awareness of things that appear to be coming from the outside, this is the outer zone. And the middle zone comprises thinking, and all that goes along with thinking, all the different variations of thinking: emotional reactions, images, fantasies, concepts.

Perls acknowledged that this division into zones is artificial because ultimately there is no distinction between inner and outer, and this is an idea we’ll be familiar with in Zen as well. But in a relative sense—in the sense that most of us normally experience the world—it can sometimes be useful to make this division and to investigate these zones of awareness, to explore how they function, how the interact, how we inhabit them, how our particular forms of conditioning show up in each of them. So this is what I’m suggesting we do for the next little while: we explore and experiment with this idea of zones of awareness. And potentially—hopefully—we can learn something, maybe even find something that can inform our regular sitting practice.

So, let’s start with the inner zone of awareness. What does it feel like, right now, to inhabit the body? What do you notice? Perhaps you can fill the whole body with awareness. Maybe you feel drawn to letting your awareness rest in a particular area. Or maybe it feels more comfortable to move your awareness around. Do whatever feels most comfortable or engaging, but let’s stay with this with inner zone, with the body, for a few minutes.

As you stay with and inhabit this inner zone, see what you can notice about the quality of awareness itself. Is it bright or dull? Does it want to move or stay still? Is it drawn to certain corners of this inner zone? How comfortable do you feel with your awareness in this zone? Some people expend a lot of energy avoiding their bodies, so there can be resistance in some people to shining the light of awareness on this inner zone. We can be aware of the objects of awareness—in this case the body—and we can be aware of awareness as a process in itself: as a process that moves, that normally has a sense of agency associated with it, that meets resistance, that gets blocked, that sometimes flows freely, that can be clear or muddy, or bright or dull. Awareness of both content and process.

Gently let your focus move now to the outer zone of awareness, to the world around you, the world of which you are a part. How are you making contact with the world, right now? (This idea of “making contact” is one of the in ideas in gestalt therapy.) How is the world making contact with you, reaching out to you? Can you feel the atmosphere on your skin? Are you aware of sounds? Of smells? Of sights? Let’s spend a few minutes now allowing our awareness to inhabit this outer zone.

As you stay with this outer zone, again what do you notice about the quality of awareness itself? Maybe awareness here is lively, or bright, or sharp. Maybe awareness is in some way diminished, or numbed, or blocked, or on “automatic pilot”. See if your awareness has taken on different qualities since you shifted from the inner zone. And again, notice the objects of awareness, and notice what you can about awareness itself.

As we’ve been exploring the inner and outer zones of awareness, I imagine that all of us will have also been moving in and out of the middle zone, which is the zone of thought, thinking, imagination, fantasy, imagery, concepts. One of the risks in mediation practice is that we can develop an adversarial relationship to this zone of awareness. Thoughts can become the enemy of our practice. I used to learn from a meditation teacher, Jason Siff, who actually wrote a book called Thoughts are Not the Enemy, which is grounded in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, or, the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, a Pāli sutta. Jason observed that when people in our culture teach meditation practice based on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, they almost always centre their practices on the first and second foundations of mindfulness, which are the body and sensations, respectively. Rarely do people centre their practice, or begin their practice, on the third foundation of mindfulness, cittānupassanā in Pāli, which we could translate as “mindfulness of mental states and thoughts”. This form of mindfulness involves remaining receptively aware of thinking—being open to thinking—and recognising the states of mind that underlie particular trains of thoughts, or particular reactions. So, let’s practice this for a few minutes: being receptively aware of thinking, being open to thinking, being curious about thinking. Let’s see if we can remain curious about this middle zone of awareness.

How does awareness operate in this middle zone? Is it possible for you to be aware of thoughts in the same way that you’re aware of the body and the world beyond the body? Are you able to be aware of thoughts as they’re occurring, or are you always looking back at thoughts, remembering thoughts that have just finished? We normally translate the word “sati” as “mindfulness,” which is a useful translation, it’s one we’re all used to. But many scholars of Pali texts point out that word “sati” derives from the verb “sarati,” which means “to remember” or “to recollect”. So, when we translate the word “sati” as “mindfulness”—with all of the connotations we’ve added to it about being in the “here and now”—we don’t preserve this connection with memory or recollection. Some of these scholars say that this connection to memory, this part of the word, is sometimes needed to make sense of particular passages in the early Buddhist texts. So, remain open to the idea that awareness in this middle zone may involve memory or recollection.

As we come to the end of this meditation, let’s take a minute to reflect on our exploration of the inner, outer, and middle zones of awareness, as they’re described in gestalt therapy. Let’s remember that these zones are nothing more than a useful fiction—we don’t have to hold onto them tightly or believe them to be “true”—they’re just designed to give us insight into our self-processes. And let’s note that in gestalt therapy, healthy functioning involves a fluid movement between the three zones—healthy functioning involves a fluid movement between all three zones—and that when awareness is functioning freely, when it’s moving fluidly, the middle zone of thinking moderates the connection between the inner and outer zones of awareness. Thinking is not a problem; it moderates our connection to the world, it helps us understand the world, it helps to connect us to the world.

Just before we finish, you might want to shake off this useful fiction—hopefully it’s been useful—you might want to shake it off and just return to a sense of open awareness for a minute, whatever that means for you, however you do that in your practice.