Self-awareness has become a hot topic in everything from business to the arts, and even interpersonal connection. To be self-aware is to, in a sense, have a different level of control over your actions and choices—and to operate from a perspective that is not fueled by short-sighted and often ego-driven desires.
However, as often as we preach self-awareness in our daily lives, many see the trait as more virtuous than acquired. You’re either self-aware, or you’re not—and that’s simply not true.
My own story stands as a testament. Growing up, I always felt very aware of my surroundings, but to say I was self-aware would be a stretch. I struggled to see other people’s perspectives outside of my own, had trouble understanding my own strengths and weaknesses, and often times made decisions out of an emotional reaction and not a calm place of deeper understanding.
When I entered college, I began to take an interest in meditation. It was intriguing to me that the mind could benefit from not-thinking, which felt very different than the hyperactive state of mind I was used to, resulting in many teenage years spent dealing with insomnia, stress, and most of all, a lack of compassion for other people’s perspectives.
My junior year of college, I took a class called Spirituality and Empowerment, taught by Dr. Hayashi. He is a Professor of Humanities in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago, and holds a BA in English Literature from Stanford University, an MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago, and he received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. By the time I signed up for the class, it was already full—a favorite amongst students. In order to get in, I had to send Dr. Hayashi an email asking if he could make room for me. He did. And it was one of my favorite classes of my college career, taking what little knowledge I had in the world of mindfulness and giving me tactical exercises to practice the skill of self-awareness.
For the past few years, long after graduating from college, I have continued to learn from Dr. Hayashi. I have realized that self-awareness is not something I can easily practice alone, and having his guidance has had a tremendous impact on my life. Every Tuesday, we meet for an hour or two, and we discuss everything from meditation to the petty challenges of everyday life. It’s through our conversations that I have better understood what it truly means to be “self-aware.”
I asked Dr. Hayashi for his own thoughts on our working together, and he said, “Cole has been a very attentive and enthusiastic mentee. Meeting weekly with him has been a great support in his unfolding process of ‘Self-Awareness Mastery.’ A yogic teaching says, ‘A pound of practice is worth a ton of theory.’ Meeting regularly with him has instilled a kind of ‘accountability,’ which holds him responsible for his ‘practice.’ In our conversations, we can also explore the reasons behind his lapses and stuck places. I can also offer suggestions and specific exercises to help him move forward. Since Awake Awareness is our natural and essential nature, it is not so much a matter of learning ‘new’ things, but rather remembering and realizing who and what he ‘truly' is. The key to ‘Self-Awareness Mastery’ is, ‘Be all that you already are!’”
Over the years, I have learned an incredible amount from Dr. Hayashi about how I can take our weekly conversations and actively practice our conclusions in my day to day life. Learning from him has been a gift. I have been extremely fortunate to have had such a patient and influential mentor in my life.
So, who better to learn from than him? Here are 9 exercises you can do on your own to practice self-awareness in your everyday life, as told by Dr. Hayashi:
1. Distinguishing between "Thinking Mind" and "Open Awareness."
We think thoughts, feel emotions and sensations and differentiate "things" out there in the world. All of these are “objects"—specific, concrete forms we can identify and name. But in what are they all appearing? Are they not all appearing to and being held within Awareness, the Great Light of Consciousness? If you didn't have awareness, would any of those things even exist for you? Whenever you notice a thought, emotion, sensation or object, ask who or what is perceiving this. In what is all of this arising? You are not your thoughts, feelings, sensations nor perceived objects. You are the "knower" of your thoughts, feelings, sensations and objects.
2. Ask yourself, “What never changes?”
Our Awareness is the one thing that never changes in and about us. Our bodies, minds, emotions, life circumstances all change. Is there anything that doesn't? Imagine your Self as a young child with your first bicycle or favorite toy. Be aware of what is aware of these. Now, imagine your Self as a teen going or not going to your high school prom. Much has changed, but "you" are still the same "you." Picture your Self doing a specific activity last evening, watching television, eating a meal, talking to a friend. In these reflections, much has changed about you, your body, mind, feelings, circumstances and surroundings, but you still know "you" are "you." The Awareness that experienced all of this has not changed—it is who you truly are. As the Buddhists say, “What we really are is what never changes; Awake Awareness.”
3. Practice mindful activities.
Decide you are going to choose a specific activity during the day to be fully present for: eating a meal, taking a shower, listening to some music, etc. For the time you're doing that activity, be as present and conscious as you can. Use as many senses as possible with as little thinking as possible. Notice how alive and immediate your experience is. Contrast this with activities in which you're not intentionally being conscious. You can also choose a particular day of the week to be your "Day of MIndfulness." See how mindful you can be throughout this entire day. See how many "mindful activities" you can master. At the end of the day, give your self a number, 1-10, 10 being very mindful and 1 being all over the place. See how your ratings improve over time.
4. Use multiple objects of focus.
One way to quickly quiet your thoughts is to bring your awareness to your breathing—really feel it as a sensory experience. This will bring you out of your mind and into your body and the immediate Now. It's helpful to combine feeling the breaths with counting them: in, count 4, out 4, in 8, out 8, in 12, out 12, repeat. Make sure you coordinate the length of the breaths with the timing of the counting so they begin and end together. You can also "name" the breaths as "in" and "out," again coordinating breaths with naming. If this is easy for you, you can add a 3rd object of focus, rubbing your thumbs and first fingers together or moving your palms back and forth over your thighs. The more objects of focus you can combine easily, the more successfully you can hold your mind silent.
5. Create Space through Witnessing and not Identifying.
If you're having negative, contracting thoughts, take several long, slow breaths to help quiet your mind. Then slowly move back from your thoughts, creating some space between you and what it is you’re thinking—like a TV camera slowly moving back and away from its subject. From this distance, quietly watch your thoughts move slowly like clouds passing in front of the open, spacious blue sky of Awake Awareness. Alternatively, you can imagine yourself sitting on the bank of a river, calmly watching the water flowing in front of you, carrying leaves and papers and other debris quietly downstream. Continue this visualization process until you feel at peace or at ease.
6. Utilize Acceptance as the Doorway to Transformation.
Whenever something is bothering you, ask, “Is this something real or something I'm creating in my own mind to upset myself?” If it's something real, ask, “What can I do about these things as soon as possible?” If it's not real, do what you can to let it go. If it's something potentially real, but you're not sure because it may or may not happen, set it aside until it becomes a genuine issue. If it is something real and there's little you can do about it in concrete terms—a relationship ending or a long-term illness—work to change your frame of reference regarding it. What might you do differently next time, or what can you do to make this illness a learning process?
7. Replace the Inner Critic Voice with the Nurturing, Caring Friend Voice.
The Inner Critic is that voice in our heads that judges, compares, shames or tells us what we "should" be doing. Its tone is always harsh and unfriendly. Whenever you're feeling bad about your Self, check to see whether the inner critic has gotten involved. If so, replace that voice with the caring, supportive friend voice—the voice that you would use to comfort and support someone you really care about. We're often much meaner to ourselves than we would ever be to someone we really cared about. Why not be our own Best Friend when we really need one?
8. Perform a Wounded Child Visualization.
If you're often depressed or stressed, imagine a room inside of your chest and imagine a door into this room with a small window to peer through. Imagine that your hurt, frightened child is in that room and you're looking through the window as Caring Awareness. What is the child doing? How old are they? Very slowly and gently, open the door and carefully move toward the child, taking care not to frighten or upset him or her. Once you've successfully approached them, kindly ask what's wrong. Be patient and sensitive and let the child tell you what he or she wants. Sensitively follow through with this dialogue. If appropriate, ask the child what they needs from you. Sense how to respond. Before leaving, let the child know that you're always available to listen and support and that you'll check in from time to time to see how he or she is doing.
9. Ask yourself, “Who am I, really?”
Once you've had some practice with these exercises and have strengthened your Awareness muscle, whenever you find your Self stressed or over-thinking, just ask, “Who am I, really?” Pause, and let the question really sink in. You may be surprised at how quickly you are able to come back to the space of open, spacious, luminous Awareness: the Great Light of the Self.