“The unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates.
Around holiday-time I was at Trader Joe’s walking through the parking lot when a woman asked if I needed her cart. She had her hands full while trying to load groceries and a squirming toddler into her car.
I didn’t need a cart but I took it from her because I was aware of what was really being asked. She was really asking for help. Instead of hearing the question literally, my own awareness of the subtext of the situation gave me the choice to help her.
This may seem like a small incident, but it represents a much bigger theme: the power of awareness. Some have even called it a super-power–but we’ll get to that.
What is Self-Awareness?
Awareness, like mindfulness, is a skill. Which means it is something that we can improve, develop and cultivate. Through cultivating awareness we can get off autopilot, stop sleepwalking through our days, and step into our power to create the best life for ourselves.
Self-awareness is listening to and perceiving your internal environment. It is the ability to notice sensations in your body like muscle tension, stomach tension or shallow breathing. Research even suggests a link between this interoceptive awareness and your sense of self (as in, who you think you are).
To increase interoception and become more aware of what is happening inside your body is to better understand your actual wants/needs.
We’ve all been in situations where in hindsight we saw ‘red flags’ or had that feeling that something was ‘off’. When you tune up your interoception you can get a more accurate read on how you’re feeling in the moment. Awareness gives you this freedom to act on what doesn’t actually serve you.
Awareness is being able to clearly see the full scope of a situation, and respond consciously to it. Awareness can allow us to better understand and empathize with those we share homes, offices, roads and grocery stores with… but awareness can also help us care for our own selves.
A few years ago I noticed that I didn’t sleep well after watching Law & Order at night. It was difficult to fall asleep and I had bad dreams. Eventually I realized that watching shows about violence and assault before bed might not be a great idea. Crazy right? So I chose to stop watching the show, or anything else disturbing.
When you can’t sleep, you can choose to stop watching the shows that give you nightmares. When you notice you’re sore from sitting in the same position at your desk all day, you can choose to get up and move around. By noticing that jicama on your salad makes you gassy, you can choose to leave it off… or you can choose not to. But either way, you have choice.
Breath as a Barometer
The breath can be used as a barometer for our well-being and our stress level. Nature designed our bodies to produce biological responses to stressors to help us survive immediate danger. One of those changes is in how we breathe. When we’re experiencing stress the breath becomes shallow, rapid and often gets stuck up near the shoulders.
Alternately, during stressful situations, the breath might feel like it comes to a standstill and be practically nonexistent.
Stress can show up in the breath before you’re even mentally conscious of it, so the more aware you are aware of your breath, the more you have a head-start on bringing your body out of the stress response and into a more conscious place where you have choice. Following is a simple practice you can do to super-power your awareness of your breath.
Awareness of Breath Practice
We’re often given the cue to ‘become aware of the breath’ or ‘notice the breath’ in a yoga class. Sometimes it can be challenging to maintain that awareness for more than two or three breaths. To drop deeper into the awareness and maintain it for a longer I like to use the [email protected] ball.
- Lie on your belly and place the [email protected] ball under your navel.
- Notice the sensation of the ball in your belly and continue to notice your breath.
- Notice what shifts, gives, or changes as time passes.
Tapping into Resources for Support
Awareness also affords you the ability to appreciate what you do like. With awareness you can realize the positive things in life that bring you peace and joy. You can track foods, people, activities, etc. that make you feel good, healthy, strong and supported.
These things that make you feel good are your resources. Awareness makes you cognizant of these resources so you can tap into them when you need them.
Awareness Through Touch Practice
Think about all of the things you touch, turn, feel and grab every single day. A fantastic way to cultivate greater awareness and reconnect with your body is to experience touch with your hands. The practice is simple:
- Grab any smallish object that you like the look/feel of, a mug, pen, potato… anything!
- Sit comfortably with your back supported and a pillow in your lap.
- Spend several minutes feeling the object, noticing the shape, the texture, what it is, and what it feels like. The key is to move slowly and spend several minutes with the object.
- Take time and notice how touching this object that you like makes you feel.
Taking on Challenges With Awareness
Awareness also helps you discern if something challenging or uncomfortable was worth it. You know that feeling of not wanting to go out and exercise, then afterward, when you get that natural energizing endorphin high, you are so glad you did?
Building your awareness will help put you back in touch with your ‘gut instincts’. Those feelings and instincts that help guide you toward making healthy choices, even if your pleasure centers don’t ‘feel like it’ in the moment.
The gut is like a little compass inside each of us that will point us toward choices that help us feel good, healthy and strong. Your gut is often the little voice that tells you you’ll feel better after the run or warns that you’ll feel pretty crappy if you devour an entire pint of cookie dough ice cream. Your gut can help inform you whether or not you’re on the right track.
For our final practice, I’m going to invite you into an exercise that will help you differentiate productive discomfort that is beneficial, from bad pain to avoid.
Awareness of Body Cues Practice
Let’s play with shifting our awareness into our body, specifically the gluteus maximus.
- Grab a therapy ball and lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor in constructive rest.
- Place the ball under your right buttock, any meaty part will do, and allow your right knee to fall open to the right.
- Notice the sensation. After a few moments you may notice a shift in the sensation. What has changed? Stay for about 90 seconds then take the ball away.
- Notice: How does the right side feel compared to the left side? How do your pants feel against your right leg? How has the range of motion changed? Are there feelings of relief or release that let you know that was a good idea? Now do the other side.
So how is self-awareness a superpower?
Well, let me break it down: Awareness can help you overcome seemingly insurmountable objects–kind of like being able to fly. It also gives you x-ray vision into the truth of a situation like being able to read minds. Plus it helps you see the future by attuning to your own gut instincts about whether a choice will serve you or not. I hope you feel your own capacity to tap into this superpower–the power of self-awareness.
Related Article: Where Breathing Exercises Fit Into Stress Management (Video)
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