Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Self-Awareness: The Key To A Better Life

How do you become a better person? How do you uncover your faults, and once found, how do you know where to focus your energy in order to improve them? How do you even know that there's something wrong in the first place? The answer lies in self-awareness, an absolutely critical life skill that most people spend a lifetime avoiding.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been possessed of the notion that the world is overrun with people who tramp through life in a nearly unconscious state. I can clearly remember going to the store one day as a child and watching a middle-aged woman pushing a cart while muttering to herself, not like she was crazy, but more like she was just going through the motions of life. She was an NPC, and she was not alone. I was probably three or four years old.

Growing up to be the engineer and scientist (and philosopher?) that I am, I'm constantly searching for elegant solutions to the problems around me. My friends know that I very often start sentences with "I have a theory ...". In this case, I really do have a theory: I think that a great deal of the problems we encounter stem from a lack of self-awareness, and that building your self-awareness will help you develop as a person in ways that you probably cannot even imagine.

So what is self-awareness? Simply put, it's the ability to observe yourself and the way you interact with your environment. As a simple example, let's talk about body awareness, which is a subset of self-awareness. Body awareness means paying attention to your body, its feelings, aches, pains, sensations, and of course skeletal configuration. I used to be a competitive gymnast, but I would say that my body awareness was severely crippled until my later years in college, when I took two life-changing classes: Social Dance my junior year, and Yoga my final year of grad school. Yoga was mind-blowing - the first day of class, our tie-dye-wearing chakra-chanting instructor had us all stand up straight, and then she taught us how much we sucked at it. I kid you not - she taught a room full of twenty-somethings the proper way to stand.

And you know what? We were all doing it wrong.

None of us knew how to stand with correct posture. But not only that, none of us had ever thought about it. After you learn how to stand as a baby, when do you consciously think about the alignment of your hip bones compared to your shoulders compared to your knees and ankles, etc? You don't - it becomes automatic, and you forget that it's actually something within your control. And unless you take yourself off cruise control from time to time and consciously observe yourself, you may very well develop some of the poor posture habits that plague our bipedal ape-descended species.

Social dance was similarly enlightening - if you're Lindy hopping at a high tempo but have poor control over your body, 1) you will not be an effective lead, and 2) you won't be dancing, you'll be flailing. Social dance teaches you that controlling your body is not merely a simple thought-to-action process; in contrast, it's quite difficult. It takes years and years to master. This is one of the reasons I've fallen in love with ballet over the last year and a half. Ballet exemplifies such a pure and unadulterated mastery of body awareness and control, blended so perfectly with music and aestheticism, that I am completely captivated every time I see it. (The beautiful girls don't hurt, either).

Of course, self-awareness is useful far beyond the physical realm. The main difference between people who have a low EQ and people with high emotional intelligence is their self-awareness with respect to how they deal with other people. As you read that, your first reaction is probably, "Well, of course I know how I deal with other people! What sort of a compassionless automaton do you think I am??" Oh really? Have you actually stopped recently to think hard about how you personally deal with emotions, and how you react to other people's emotions? Have you accepted responsibility for your emotional shortcomings and taken concrete steps to improve them? If not (and I can guarantee you, if you think you're perfect at handling and dealing with emotions, you are most certainly mistaken), then self-awareness can help. Next time you have a conversation, pay attention to your listening. Notice the other party's expressions and emotions as they're speaking and as you respond. Take note of the effect that certain words have. Take stock of your unconscious reactions to what's being said. Are those feelings fair? Are they accurate? If you were in the speaker's shoes, would you feel differently? Were you honest in your feelings, or did you misdirect or hold something back?

Congratulations. These are the first steps to becoming a self-aware human being. Over the last year, I've had an awakening of self-awareness that has changed my outlook on everything from health, work, concentration, meditation, art, and most especially interpersonal relationships. None of these changes would have occurred had they not been sparked by a genuine curiosity about how my body and mind operate. And now that my eyes are open, I can't help but be a continually vigilant observer of my path through time and space.

Are you willing to take a hard, objective look at yourself, and take action on the ugly things you find? Or are you content to go through life believing that you're fine and everyone else is the problem? It's up to you. But I can guarantee you, the path of self-awareness has a much happier ending.

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