First published on my Psychology Today Blog 2/10/11
After years of therapy, hundreds of self-help books, and countless inspirational YouTube videos, I've come to one conclusion: the most powerful self-help tool that we can cultivate is compassionate self-awareness. Any kind of therapy and every self-help book worth the paper its printed on seeks to help us understand ourselves and our emotions and behaviors better. But the problem with most therapy and self-help is that this self-awareness is focused on "getting better" rather than in simply being aware of who we are. In this, positive psychology has some of the right ideas, by having us focus on our strengths. But even that's too limited. We are so much more than our traits, whether negative or positive.
The first step to helping ourselves become the people we already are underneath our neuroses (loving, kind, balanced, open, and compassionate) is to foster the kind of deep self-awareness that flows beneath our judgments of who we are or what we do. Not only awareness of our emotions, behaviors and triggers, but an awareness of how we operate in the first place. How our mind connects things, how our thoughts and emotions move and flow, how we think, what words we use to describe the world, how we talk to ourselves and about others, and what we see when we look out at the world
The point isn't to understand why we do what we do or think what we think. The point is to understand how . Have you ever known someone who was in love with his car? Like really in love. Doted on it, polished it, knew every part, inside and out, knew how the engine sounded in all of its states, knew its quirks and exactly the moment to shift gears? That's how we need to be about our minds. That Gearhead doesn't berate his car for being the way it is, even when the clutch sometimes sticks. In fact, he probably loves it more for the quirks than for the parts that work perfectly.
Without judgment, with compassion, can we get so familiar with our mind's workings that we start to get comfortable with them, even the stuff that feels bad? Can we become a friend to our mind, rather than constantly fighting with it to behave some other way?
In couples therapy, we're told that we need to accept and respect one another's personhood - that we don't have the right to belittle our partner or disrespect him because he's not acting the way we want him to act. The same is true of our minds. If we hate it, fight with it, despair over it, and begrudge it, we will never understand it, and we'll never be able to make real changes. We have to understand our mind - all of it - before we can understand how to live happily with it.
I noticed something the other day that helped me understand the stance we can take to observe our minds from a distance. While meditating, I heard a train going by in the distance. I listened to the sound rise and fade, and then it was gone. I had no attachment to the sound, I didn't need to follow it with my thoughts. I realized that the way I was witnessing that train was also the way I could witness my mind's workings. Now, when I remember to, I call up that inner witness, and watch how my mind operates in daily situations. It's rather fascinating. The mind is so fluid, so lively, so creative and so flexible, it's really astonishing, even when it's causing trouble.
This visceral understanding of the experience of detachment can help us to observe this lively creature between our ears, and get to know it the way we get to know our children, our partners, or our best friends. In getting to know the mind, in befriending it, and in cultivating respect for it, we can learn to let go a little bit and not take our thoughts and emotions so seriously We can smile a little when we see our mind making up a whole, elaborate story about why our friend is late in arriving for dinner or why our partner seems unusually quiet tonight.
To cultivate self-awareness, consider meditating regularly or starting a mindfulness practice. Set your clock, watch, or phone to alert you every hour, and then take 5 minutes to call up that inner witness and to simply observe, letting go of judgment. Even if you can't let go of judgment, let go of judging yourself for that. Just watch, like you're watching a movie. Eventually, you'll get better and better at witnessing.
For most of us, there's nothing appreciably wrong with us that wouldn't end if we stopped struggling with our own minds. This is the first step in ending that struggle.
(photo by Yobi Blumberg)
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