My father was fond of quoting the famous Scottish poet Robert (“Rabbie”) Burns. And his favourite quotation was this extract from his poem To a Louse.
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
Indeed it would be a great gift to see ourselves as others see us, and, although probably not completely attainable, certainly something worth striving for.
I think I have related to my blog audience previously, my good friend Dr Phil Harker’s three step process towards psychological maturity, viz. to:
• Know Yourself,
• Accept Yourself, and then,
• Forget Yourself.
That hackneyed, but valuable old tool, The Johari Window, shows us why we are never likely to completely know ourselves, but it also gives us some clues how to know ourselves better.
Burns’s quote implies that other people will know “stuff” about ourselves that we don’t. If we are perceptive, but more importantly, receptive, we can learn more about ourselves by getting feedback from others that know us well and whose judgments we trust.
But this is not easy. Many of us have a self-concept that is different to who we really are. When that self-concept is threatened we find ways of rationalising away the exposed differences. We console ourselves that what we are hearing in contradiction to how we would want to appear is ill-informed, malicious or misguided. It is hard to hear what we don’t want to acknowledge. That is why in Phil’s model the “Knowing” and the “Accepting” are interrelated –it is not just a linear progression.
There is, of course, a fine line here. Some of us unduly defend our self-concept and others accept unreasonable criticism as gospel truth. This is a spectrum that extends from psychopaths to depressives. Depressives take all criticism as being indicative of a permanent, unchangeable fault in their characters. They believe that all shortcomings in their behaviours are their fault alone and will be pervasive through all areas of their lives. Psychopaths on the other hand are entirely impervious to criticism. They rationalise away all attacks on their self-concept.
When we become truly aware, one of the things that we learn is that we have more choices. In physics we learn that, most often, a stimulus generates a response. I push down on the see-saw and the person on the other end goes up. I apply the brakes on my car and my inertia propels me forward. Many of us are conditioned so that our behaviours are manifested in a similar way. Something happens in my exterior world and of a sudden I am, angry, anxious, happy, curious or whatever. The stimulus from my environment has stimulated an automatic response that I have learnt as a reaction to that particular initiating circumstance. But awareness offers us more choice. When we are aware we don’t have to be automatically, angry, anxious, afraid or whatever. There is a difference to human reaction and the basic stimulus/response reaction that is not often obvious. For a human being it is not necessarily that a stimulus results in an automatic response. The stimulus can be mediated by the organism that is the human being. There is a fleeting opportunity between the stimulus and our response where we can have some choice in the response. That choice is only opened up to us by our awareness.
I found personally, that meditation improved my awareness. I remember an incident when this awareness was developing. I was at a meeting with a group of young managers. I was keen to be able to put a point of view. I suddenly noticed that I was beginning to get agitated. Rather than taking on the mantle of this emotional reaction, I was aware enough to question myself as to the source of this agitation. I quickly came to the conclusion I was feeling miffed because they were continually talking over me and I was not being given an opportunity to put my point of view. I smiled to myself when I realised that I was becoming upset for such a trifling reason. I did not need their recognition or approval to maintain my sense of self. Whether they heard me or not was not a matter that should impinge on how I felt. Once recognising the issue, I became less anxious to press my case and waited patiently until I could say what I wanted. In the past I would have identified with the emotion, acted it out and lost my freedom to respond in a rational manner. This is a trivial example, but awareness is a powerful attribute.
There is a parable from Zen Buddhism that I read somewhere that went something like this. A Master had taken a vow of silence for a month. A young man seeking enlightenment had travelled long from far away to seek his advice. When he approached the sage, attendants told him of the Master’s vow. Undeterred he still queried the sage. “Sir, please tell me what I must do to gain enlightenment. What is the most important thing to help me in my pursuit?”
The sage scribbled something on a tablet and handed it to the young man. He eagerly read the Master’s message but all it said was “Awareness”. He wrinkled his brow in perplexity. “Is there nothing else that you can advise me to do to gain enlightenment?”
The Master shrugged his shoulders and reached for the tablet again and scribbled on it. Eagerly the seeker read the message. But this time he seemed upset. The tablet again had on it the single word “Awareness.”
Somewhat agitated now he said somewhat belligerently, “But what do you mean by awareness?”
The master took up the tablet and with a sigh wrote, “By awareness I mean awareness, awareness, awareness!”
In one of the books by the great Indian sage Krishnamurti I recall reading about an occasion when he was travelling by car between two provincial cities. Travelling with him were a couple of young disciples. Probably to impress the famous man they were discussing the subject of his lecture at the last venue which was on awareness. “There is nothing more important than awareness,” one said to the other. They then embarked on a great exposition on the benefits of awareness. After a time the old man intervened and said, “Did either of you notice the bump just now.” The two young men looked at each other but then shook their heads. “We just ran over a goat!” said Krishnamurti. The two who were espousing the value of awareness then hung their heads in shame!
In my work as an executive coach I have assisted quite a few executives that were very competent in other ways but seemed impervious to how their behaviours impinged on other people. This lack of empathy causes bad interpersonal relationships to develop, often to the detriment of their careers. Improving their awareness can have a major impact on such people.
After his death, a book was compiled from the audio recordings of some of the seminars of Anthony De Mello. The book was appropriately titled Awareness.
Let me finish with a few quotes from this book.
“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.”
“The unaware life is a mechanical life. It’s not human – it’s programmed, conditioned. We might as well be a stone, a block of wood.”
“What you are aware of, you are in control of. You are always a slave to what you are not aware of. When you are aware of it, you’re free from it. It’s there, but you are not affected by it; you’re not enslaved by it. That’s the difference.”