What is self awareness?
A lot of people have a negative view of ‘self-awareness’. If you are new to this idea, then you may have similar misgivings about it. Perhaps you think, “Why should I be self-aware? Don’t we already have too many people in this world thinking just about themselves? Wouldn’t it make me more self-absorbed?”.
Maybe you think that being self-aware, is like focusing all your thoughts on yourself, and worrying only about what’s happening in your own life. That would surely make you preoccupied with yourself. It might even make you isolated, narrow-minded and narcissistic, and we don’t need more of that in this world.
Fortunately, that is not what self-awareness is. However, misconceptions about it can certainly lead one to become more self-centered.
Self-awareness or Self-centeredness
For a self-centered person, their self-interest as a top priority. Which means that no matter what happens, they prefer their own happiness, over others’. A self-centered person is only superficially interested in someone else’s problems. They help only those, from whom they expect to receive help in the future. Otherwise, they just turn a blind eye.
They also lack patience with others. When someone is talking, they pretend to listen, but in reality, they’re just waiting to express their own opinions. In the middle of a conversation, they often switch to talking about themselves, rather than allowing the other person to finish. They are the first people to demand attention, approval and respect from others, but are not as generous in giving it.
When things don’t go their way, they complain, argue, debate and quarrel to prove their point. They have an inflated opinion of themselves, and freely give unsolicited advice to people. And when that advice is not taken, they get hurt or offended. They believe they are better than anyone else out there, and the only reason why others don’t recognize their greatness, is because they are just too stupid to understand.
A self-centered person can also sometimes be emotionally needy or insecure. They expect others to fulfill their demands, which are often irrational. As a side-effect of their insecurity they can also be aggressive and dominating. Another sign of self-centeredness is their desperate pursuit of success. The only thing that matters to them is their popularity and influence, and they are obsessed with it.
A self-centered person sees the whole world, as it relates to them. From their point of view, they are at the center of the world.
So then, you may ask, how is a self-aware person different from a self-centered one?
The only difference between a self-aware person and a self-centered person is the fact that a self-aware person, is aware that they are self-centered.
That’s it. That is the only difference! They do not have any false notions of righteousness. They don’t say to themselves, “Look at all these selfish people, what do they know about doing anything for others?”. On the contrary, they know that all human beings, including themselves, are deeply flawed, and the only way to correct those flaws, is to find out what they are, and expose them.
So, they study themselves. They observe how they think, how they act, and how they make decisions. They watch their feelings, emotions and beliefs and try to understand their true nature. They question their own intentions, and look for hidden motives underneath their hidden motives. A self-aware person has one responsibility, and one responsibility alone, to understand oneself. Not to change or improve oneself, but just to understand oneself.
Now, you may think, “All that is good, but how do I practice this in my daily life? I am conscious about what I think, but practicing self-awareness with such intent, could make me even more self-conscious. Isn’t that a bad thing?”.
Yes it is, but there is a slight difference in being self-conscious, and being self-aware.
Being self-conscious, is thinking about how others are seeing you. Being self-aware is observing how you actually are.
Self-awareness, has got nothing whatsoever to do with, who (or what) others are perceiving you as. Though, it certainly has a lot to do with, who (or what) you are trying to portray yourself as, to others. Self-awareness is about understanding the story you are trying to tell the world, and then going beyond that story. In that story, sometimes you are a hero, sometimes a victim, but it is always a story.
Even a partial understanding of one’s story, brings about a certain ease and comfort with oneself. When you become comfortable with who you are, you are no longer self-conscious. When you have clarity about yourself, it makes your life a lot easier.
You may still not know what your life’s purpose is, but at least you will know in what context such a purpose could be found. And that in itself, is a huge improvement over chronic confusion in such matters.
So, self-awareness is neither self-consciousness nor self-centeredness, then what is self-awareness?
If we breakdown the word, we see there are two aspects to it. ‘Self’, and ‘Awareness’. Self-awareness is basically, awareness of the self. First, we have to understand, what it even means to be ‘aware’, then, we can be aware of something called a ‘self’.
What is awareness?
As you’re reading this sentence, a voice inside your mind is speaking these words, then you are hearing that voice, and then understanding what the words mean. That voice sounds as if it is reading the words out loud, except you are not using your tongue. You are even able to hear the words, except you are not using your ears. How does the mind speak without the tongue, and hear without the ears? What is this phenomenon?
This wordless speech and soundless hearing is what we call thinking.
Who is doing this? It is the thinker, the ego, the self or the psyche that does this. It talks almost all the time, but on certain occasions it becomes quiet.
What happens when you are walking through the forest, and come into a clearing as you climb a hill. You look up and see the sun rays filter through the leaves?
You are absorbed in the beauty of what you see. For a moment, that voice stops talking. You are fully awake and alert, but have nothing to say. You forget yourself.
That moment in which you are present, but the voice inside your mind is absent, is awareness.
Even though awareness is fundamentally very simple, there are three pillars on which it stands. Without them, awareness is impossible.
The three pillars
If you want a physical structure to have a foundation, like a stool or a chair, the minimum number of support structures it needs is three. Without having three legs, no stool can stand. Similarly, awareness also has three pillars. In order for awareness to sustain itself, these three pillars need to have equal strength and equal length. If one pillar is longer or weaker than the rest, the structure of awareness can be lopsided.
Equal strength: Three capacities need to be equally efficient.
Equal length : Three capacities need to be trained for an equal amount of time.
Can you feel the seat on which you are sitting? Can you feel the pressure that is holding you up? Can you feel the sensations in your fingers? The tingling and the pulsating of energy in your hands? Do you feel your toes ? Can you count them,not by looking at them, but by feeling the different sensations in each one of them?
Can you feel your core? The sensations in your chest, abdomen and your back? Can you tell the curve of your spine without looking in the mirror? Can you feel the air entering your body through your nose, filling up your lungs, and then coming back out when you exhale? Can you feel your heartbeat, without checking for a pulse?
If yes, this is physical body-awareness. If you notice, when you were reading the above paragraph, and checking for those sensations, you were not thinking, at all. You were just feeling those sensations,
you were aware.
To be precise, there was awareness.
Feeling, is the first foundation of awareness. Our mind is constantly gathering sensations from thousands of different streams of input. They are both inside the skin, like hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and outside the skin, like heat, cold or vibrations. All these sensations are included in this category.
Paying attention to what you are feeling, whether it is on different parts of your body, or different parts within your body, will stop the process of thinking. Just watch the different sensations, starting from your head going all the way to your toes. You will notice things which you have never noticed before, such as, a slight pain in the lower back, stress in the shoulders, bad posture, tensed facial muscles like furrowed brows etc.
Just noticing these sensations in different parts of your body will lead to increase in awareness. This whole process is non-judgmental, because sensations are what they are. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are just words which we use to describe them. If we are paying attention only to the feeling, we have to first stop paying attention, in order to use words and label that feeling.
Thinking (or labeling) and feeling, are not the same thing, even though sometimes they happen together.
To unweave ‘sensations’ from ‘thinking’ is a necessary step in understanding awareness. Try to see if you can feel a sensation without giving it a name? If you try it, you will discover you can. ‘Thinking’ always follows the feeling, but does it always have to?
What can you hear right now? Do you hear a dog barking in the distance? Or a bird singing from a tree close by? Do you hear the sounds your computer is making? Or do you hear your own breathing? Can you hear your A/C start and stop? You have all the time in the world. Listen.
As I write this, it is raining here. One can hear the raindrops fall on leaves, splinter and land on the window sill. There is a deep rumble in clouds, a song of thunder. It is …indescribable.
Just listen to the sounds in your environment. If there are no sounds, just listen to the silence.
Listening is a powerful tool to bring you into the present moment. It is also the second pillar of awareness. Listening to natural sounds in your environment prevents the mind from chattering. The ego, the self, the thinker cannot interfere with the process of listening, if you simply listen. This gives you a rare window into reality.
Usually when we listen to someone, we do it while playing with our phones, or watching the TV. We believe listening requires the least amount of effort, so why should we give it more effort than required?
I get it. We find most conversations boring, and so decide that they are not worth our full attention. But, if you ever listen to someone with the intention of, only listening to them, without planning what to say next, you might get a very strange feeling. In the same sense that repeating your name several times, makes it sound strange. It feels as if you are hearing it for the first time. Try it.
It sounds strange, because we are not used to listening to other people, or ourselves, with that level of attention.
Listening intently, breaks away the layers and layers of conditioning from our minds, to make the words stand out anew, as if you were hearing them for the first time.
The tone, the pitch, the intensity of a person’s voice, and the accompanying facial expressions, convey a lot more, than the words they contain. That is where the real communication is.
Undistracted listening is a very refreshing activity. It almost feels as if a deeper meaning is uncovered every instant. It energizes the listener and the speaker by creating a channel between them. Even if the person is telling a lie, the listener can spot it, and flow with the conversation, without judging the speaker as a liar. Judging is the same as labeling, and hence breaks away from the act of listening itself.
Only listening without judgement, creates an honest interaction between two people. You finally get to hear what they are saying, without any preconception or conclusion.
This is why our politics is so divided. We hear the same story, but walk away with two opposite conclusions. If you hear the story about a construction company clearing out a big patch of an old forest, with Redwood trees in it, you will have a different reaction to this story based on your political leaning, upbringing, or social circle. It it good for the environment, or is it good for the local economy? See what I am saying?
Listening is not hearing what you want to hear, but hearing what is actually being said. It is about seeing the whole coin, not just the one side you prefer.
If you have ever owned a cat, you know how carefully they watch birds. A cat’s focus and attention are laser-like,watching every movement the bird makes. The cat is not straining, or even trying to zone out all the other things around it, its just focused on that bird. If you make a sound, the cat’s ears will momentarily move towards you, but then they look back at the bird.
I have a Border Collie who loves to play fetch. His focus is so intense that he becomes a statue, when he is waiting for me to throw the ball. He doesn’t blink, he doesn’t move, he just waits. When the ball leaves my hand, he runs after it without ever hesitating.
Animals can naturally observe and act without thinking. That’s something which we are not able to do easily. Perhaps thousands of years ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, we did have that ability, but gradually, as the human civilization progressed we seem to have forgotten it.
The ability to see without thinking, is the third pillar of awareness.
When we see something new, we often make a snap judgment about it. This tendency is an extension of a defense mechanism evolved to spot dangers in the wild. Our brain has evolved to make a split-second decision about a looming threat behind the trees. In such cases, it is often better to be safe than sorry. So our judgments are always rapid, hyperbolic, and overestimate the danger, if any.
However, in the modern world, the dangers we face are quite different. Our society is much more complex than that of the animals, which means that this protective mechanism, could work in more convoluted and strange ways.
The result is, even when we don’t need to, we are trying to protect ourselves against future dangers, which have not, and may not materialize.
If you are able to see anything for a few minutes without the stream of judgments, opinions and fear stepping in, you see a totally different world. You could be sitting in your own bedroom, and yet, it would feel as if you were just born into it. The most familiar places seem the most unfamiliar.
This doesn’t mean you won’t recognize your dog, when he walks into the room, but you may actually see him, for the very first time. To see carefully, intently, patiently is to be in the present moment. All your problems instantly vanish if you can be aware, and in the present.
After all, isn’t that what we all want? To solve all our problems quickly? But when we decide to solve a problem sometime in the future, we are choosing to suffer because of it, until then. The only way to go beyond suffering, is to solve the problem as it arises.
The only way to dissolve your problems is to root yourself in the flow of the present moment.
Awareness is the doorway into the present, where problems do not, and cannot exist. Find the three pillars of awareness, and be here, far away from all the noise, into this ever deepening silence.
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