How well do you know yourself? Do you know your likely reaction if a colleague offers you unsolicited praise? How does your mood and behaviour change in relation to external pressures? What kinds of situations lead to you getting stuck in ruminative thinking? What do you find challenging to let go of? Which situations generate anxiety for you, and when are you at your expansive best? Do you blame yourself/others when things go wrong as a way of avoiding the discomfort? Which emotions are comfortable for you and which are scary?
Self-awareness is a key capacity for engaging in the world effectively. Self-awareness supports us to see when our choices are being influenced by external forces (eg advertising messages that you’ll be happy if you buy this new product) or internal forces that might not be in our long-term interests (eg just one more glass of wine). Most of us would like to be a positive factor, at least in the lives of those we love, and perhaps beyond into the world at large. This is not always easy given that we have hard-wired biological systems such as the threat system and the reward system that narrow our focus around “me” and my survival. The affiliative system, also hard-wired but not as dominant, supports us to care for others, to reach out, empathise and connect. Because we are social animals we flourish in community. Paradoxically we can both take delight when others thrive, as well as feel diminished by the success of others. Understanding these potentials help us to put into perspective some of our feelings, thoughts and urges.
In addition to our shared biological hard-wiring, each of us has our own set of conditioned beliefs, emotional reactions, bodily habits and thought patterns. These are not chosen by us, but result from the events that we experience, the support that was/is around us… so many factors. Our individual habits, patterns, vulnerabilities… are linked to formative experiences in our lives. Without being aware of it, as we grow, we develop beliefs about the world and ourselves. These include beliefs as to whether the world is a safe place; whether vulnerability is a strength or dangerous; whether people are basically good and do their best; and whether we are good enough. These beliefs are often below consciousness and not clearly articulated, even to ourselves. We experience them as truths, when they are simply the best sense we could make of life.
Self-awareness enables us to understand that the habits and patterns that arise is certain situations are not our destiny. Sure, we may have been repeating them for many years, based on our past conditioning, but with increased awareness we are able to interrupt the patterns that no longer serve us and start to develop new ways of responding. This is a wonderful opportunity to be more intentional in what we take in, retain and embody. It is however, not a quick fix but requires some dedication.
Self-awareness is only the start. It needs to be supported by a capacity to tolerate discomfort. Our old patterns are at least familiar, and trying something new can be unnerving. That is why it often takes a crisis, big or small, to wake us up to seeing that some of the ways we’ve been engaging with life are not supportive of our long-term well-being.
Mindfulness is a clear and well-developed approach to training ourselves to be both more aware and more capable of staying with the challenge of the new. How good to be able to respond from a place of grounded, open awareness when the proverbial (s@#!) hits the fan. Mindfulness is not an escape from reality but way to be with the “stuff of life” with greater ease.
As we develop greater self-awareness through mindfulness, we also become better able to take multiple perspectives. It becomes clear that if our own conditioning led to certain habitual patterns (not all skilful), maybe, when another is reacting in an unhelpful way it is simply their conditioning playing out. I often think: “We are all doing our best – and sometimes it is pretty awful!” This helps bring understanding to what is going on. It isn’t intended to let us off the hook. Once we have some awareness, we see the need to take responsibility and start developing new habits. Mindfulness is a place to start from and also a place to come home to.
PS The topic of this blog was chosen because many of the participants in the latest Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction group identified self-awareness as a key benefit developed through their participation. In the MBSR program, self-awareness is developed through mindfulness of present moment experience – not through analysis of things that happened to us in the past.
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.