In self-help books and teachings, there is often talk about the importance of self-observation or self-awareness; to train yourself to be aware in and with yourself and what happens within you in response to various situations.
At first, this might sound a bit, “duh”. “Of course I’m present to my experience — I’m having it, right?” Well. Often, we are going through the motions, and then along the way reactions, memories, patterns, prejudices, fears and other juicy bits crop up to add to what we’re experiencing, and suddenly we are reacting out of old, ingrained patterns instead of responding to (only) what is actually happening in the here and now.
So this presence, this self-awareness, might take some practice. At first, it might sound like we are meant to be thinking about everything we’re doing and all that is happening — but that’s not really it. Awareness is not equal to thinking. But like everything else, when we first learn it, we need to over-focus on whatever we are learning (which will include thinking about it). So when we start out attempting to be aware of ourselves and “catching ourselves in the act”, it is easier if we ask the thoughts to be a part of it.
The paradox: To develop awareness of the present, look to the past 🧐
To develop the capacity to be present to yourself and your inner processes, in my experience, most people need to start with hindsight. Something happens, and we fall into a pattern of behaviour which we mightn’t recognise until (sometimes way) after the fact. But that’s a good start, as we can explore our reaction in retrospect. Here the first barrier comes up, though, because our emotional reactivity and habitual patterns of thought, or their results, aren’t necessarily enjoyable. (If they were, chances are we would not feel the need to work on them 😉.) So since the situation is in the past anyway, whether ten minutes or a week back, it’s easy to fall into the “what’s the use” trap. Why would I want to rehash a situation where I might already realise I acted like a dick, or really stupidly, when I can’t change what happened anyway? Regardless of whether I want to go back and rectify the situation or not (if this is even possible), I might not see the point of dwelling on the experience itself.
This is too bad — because in this “rehash” and “dwelling” hides our best chances of developing the present-moment awareness we would have liked to possess (so we could have chosen to not act the way we did). Exploring all the nooks and crannies of what really happened — with the advantage of slow-motion, rewind and pause features — gives us the opportunity to get to know ourselves. We learn to see how automatic conclusions get drawn, how old reactive patterns are kicking into gear, in a way that would be almost impossible for us to learn in real-time. (They are automatic for a reason 😉.) And as long as this exploration is conducted without denial, justification or judgement, but merely from a stance of open curiosity, if we keep at it, the time from reaction to recognition will shorten.
Getting to know you, and understanding — for real — that you’re not that bad
In the process, we not only get to know our reactive selves, but also learn to tolerate the discomfort of exploring emotional, mental or even instinctual territories that we might have preferred not to visit. We learn that this has its own reward — and we realise that just because we choose to turn a blind eye, it does not mean that what we’re ignoring isn’t there. And most important of all, we learn that none of this is shameful or happens because we are bad or stupid people. We are human, and all humans possess this kind of unhelpful patterns, until we start doing this work actively. The fact that we are discovering new ones make it look like they are multiplying, but the truth is we are just becoming more perceptive ❤️
Eventually, we get familiar enough with this inner territory to catch ourselves while we’re in the midst of it, or even as we enter it — still not able to change it, necessarily. This tends to be a particularly frustrating part of the journey, but please remember that, too, passes eventually. Sooner or later, the glorious day arrives when we realise what’s about to happen BEFORE the pattern kicks in, and are actually able to press “pause”. And then, likely, we revert to not being able to stop it, or even falling into reactivity without noticing until after. We go back and forth, and this journey is not a straight line 😎. But the point is, practising presence — even if at first we do so after the fact — will pave the way for change ❤️