self-awareness

“We forget our faults easily when they are known only to ourselves.” Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence that other people have a clearer picture of what we’re like as individuals than we do ourselves. While we’re fairly good at assessing ourselves in terms of internal factors, knowing better than others what we feel and thinks, when it comes to factors like intelligence, attractiveness, creativity, and competence, others have a far clearer perception of us than we do ourselves.

But sometimes even internal factors are hard to assess. In my role as a teacher I’ve often heard from people (usually men) who say things like “After meditating for a few weeks I don’t think I’ve changed, although people who know me say I’m much easier to be with.” To me this suggests our tendency to externalize our mental states, so that rather than see ourselves as impatient we see others as being too slow; instead of seeing ourselves as untrusting we see others as untrustworthy; instead of seeing ourselves as unkind we see others as needing a good kick up the behind, and so on. And so when we change, for example by becoming a bit more relaxed, we don’t necessarily notice that fact, and we interpret this change, perhaps in terms of other people being more cooperative, and so on.

What I’ve just described is perhaps more common when we’re first starting to get to know and to work on ourselves, but even after decades of practice I’m still learning that there are things about myself I haven’t allowed myself to acknowledge. It’s only through being mirrored by others that I come to recognize some of my faults.

And those faults are the ones I find hardest to see, because I’ve spent longer learning how not to acknowledge them, and trying to hide them from others. For example, I have habits of dishonesty that I haven’t been very aware of. I can tend to rationalize and whitewash my actions, so that I do things for one (not very noble) reason and then, when called on this, claim that my motivations were much more noble than they actually were. Or I’ll say something, have it pointed out that I was incorrect, and then claim I meant something different from what I actually said. Sometimes I’ll speculate about something, and then try to convince others that I’m more certain in my knowledge than I actually am. Sometimes I’ll feel or think one thing (usually critical) but present another thing to others.

I wouldn’t be aware of those habits if it wasn’t for one friend who has a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and in fact experiences acute distress when people around her are being inauthentic. As a result, she’s particularly demanding when it comes to dishonesty. In the past I’d probably have found her scary and made sure I avoided her. Actually, I do find her a little intimidating, but I really value how she’s pressuring me to be more honest and authentic. I’m finding that I like myself better when I live that way. So on the whole I really value our connection. It’s liberating to be called on my bullshit.

Looking back, I see a pattern in my life. I have to be with someone who’s kinder than I am in order to learn to see my own unkindness. I have to be with someone clearer than I am in order to see my own unclarity. I have to be with someone more honest than me in order to become more authentic and to see the ways in which I’m dishonest.

This is work that I could never have done on my own. We all need others as mirrors so that we can learn to see ourselves more accurately. It’s a scary process to have mirrored those aspects of ourselves that we least admire, but it’s necessary and rewarding work.

Just one other thing: often I hear perfectly lovely people express the belief that they’re actually horrible and unlovable individuals. Sometimes I have my good qualities reflected back to me and am surprised. De la Rochefoucauld was a cynic, and so less inclined to see that just as we forget our faults when they’re known only to ourselves, we also forget our virtues when they are known only to others. A true mirror reflects, impartially, both the good and the bad that is within us.

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A gift to yourself

wildmind meditation newsLara Fielding, Huffington Post: Now that the holiday shopping is (mostly) finished, and we look to the New Year, perhaps it is a time when you may be selfish… in the best sense of the word! Building your self-awareness is the best gift you can give yourself, and ultimately to share with those you love.

Before you can know what you need, you have to know how to listen to your needs. While we tend to believe we know ourselves pretty well, the skill of self-awareness is not always intuitive. Our true authentic needs often get buried under layers of encrusted patterns of beliefs …

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Can mindfulness help patients stick to lifestyle changes?

wildmind meditation newsKristin Gourlay, RIPR: Changes to diet and exercise can have a big impact on health. But sticking with a new regimen can be tough. Scientists are wondering whether a practice called mindfulness can help. Now a team of Brown University researchers has won a multi-million dollar federal grant to find out.

Mindfulness uses meditation to improve attention and self-awareness. Its effects have been shown to reduce stress. But Brown University epidemiologist Eric Loucks wants to try it on high blood pressure, or hypertension.

“So far no one has ever customized a mindfulness intervention to a hypertensive patient population,” Loucks said. “So that’s what this …

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Let the mind take over

Ayesha Singh, The New Indian Express: When you are in the moment, any moment for that matter, are you really in that moment? Ask yourself. Surrounded by 50,000 thoughts per day, that is about 48 thoughts per minute—positive, negative and neutral—we wonder how this state of constant distraction impacts our brain functioning. And it sure does, sometimes quite adversely. Mindfulness meditation, a profound but underrated approach, has now found its due place in the sun. According to a new report by Harvard University scientists, mindfulness meditation, a version of Buddhist Vipassana, helps …

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Self-compassion has many health benefits

Aaron Means, Chanhassen Villager: You have probably heard a lot about mindfulness over the years. Self-compassion is a natural byproduct of mindfulness, as a self-compassionate attitude asks us to be mindful of how we are relating to ourselves.

Self-compassion is commonly defined as the ability to adopt a stance of self-kindness, feel a sense of connection to others, and be mindful of one’s thoughts and feelings in the context of one’s experience of pain and suffering.

There are three elements that are inherent within self-compassion. Self-kindness, or the tendency to be kind …

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Mindfulness for children

wildmind meditation newsGail Innis, Michigan State University Extension: It’s not just another way to get your kids to pay attention to you.

“Pay attention!” or “Why can’t you pay attention?” How many times have you said this to a child? We often expect that children should pay attention to us, their surroundings and their actions yet how do they actually learn to pay attention? According to Michigan State University Extension, paying attention isn’t easy when there are lots of things going on vying for your attention.
Research shows that when children are able to manage their own emotions and get along well with others (social …

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Yoga, more popular than ever, flexes body and mind (Seattle Times)

Tyrone Beason, Seattle Times: Ever since Oprah featured a segment on yoga and Madonna beat back her nasty side with namastes, Americans can’t get enough of the ancient Indian practice.

Though 5,000 years old, yoga has boomed in recent years, with private instructors, gyms, community centers, even churches offering classes to help people wind down, focus, get limber and stay fit.

Yoga Journal magazine estimates that 15 million people in the United States practice yoga, twice as many as five years ago.

The nationally recognized instructor Aadil Palkhivala said when he opened Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Wash., 12 years ago, his was the only such facility in the area. Today there are dozens of yoga studios – “within walking distance,” he joked.

So what’s behind the yoga craze?

For starters, Americans are more passionate about fitness in general, instructors say. At the same time, yoga’s exotic image has transformed into one that appeals to mainstream, Western tastes.

More important, yoga seems to work.

Yoga emphasizes stretching, building core body strength, controlled breathing, enhanced circulation and deep relaxation.

For these reasons, doctors in this country have started to recommend yoga for their patients based on its value as a fitness routine alone. Coupled with meditation, it is also used to reduce stress and high blood pressure, bolster the immune system and even treat depression. Many cancer and AIDS patients, as well as pregnant women, practice yoga. More vigorous types of yoga – which induce increased heart rates and sweating – have become popular among people who want to lose weight.

“There are very few people, from kids on up to seniors, who wouldn’t benefit from it,” said Dr. Peter McGough, chief of the University of Washington Medicine Factoria Clinic.

McGough noted yoga’s positive effects on musculoskeletal disorders – such as arthritis – in particular.

But while studies in India, Europe and the United States point to yoga’s potential benefits in a number of areas, even some yoga supporters concede more research is needed to track its long-term effects.

Yoga has become so commonplace that it’s easy to lose sight of its roots and original purpose. The word itself is a Sanskrit expression that refers to a “yoke” or “union.” As both a philosophy for living and a physical exercise, yoga unites the mind, body and spirit, bringing mental clarity, health and balance, its adherents say.

The ultimate goal of a yoga student is to reach a state of enlightenment, or ecstasy, through disciplined meditation.

But most Americans practice some form of hatha yoga, which focuses on breathing exercises and striking complex poses, or “asanas,” that encourage flexibility, balance, strength and good energy flow through the body. Traditionally, hatha yoga serves as a foundation for other, more cerebral types.

“Hatha yoga is just the bait,” Palkhivala said in his soothing, breathy delivery. “The mind is much more subtle and the emotions even more subtle.” As students learn the physical techniques and begin to feel the benefits, he said, some may want to venture deeper.

Palkhivala says yoga has become popular as more and more people grapple to find a real purpose in their lives, something to aspire to. They’re seeking spiritual fitness, as well as elastic hamstrings. He believes it’s important for people to shop around for an instructor who can teach not just physical techniques but yoga’s deeper principles.

“There is an urge to find something greater than the humdrum repetition of an unfulfilling existence,” he insisted. “People are beginning to ask the question, ‘So what?’ ”

Whether or not people reach an end to spiritual suffering through yoga, its physical effects alone keep people coming back.

“What yoga does is it moves the body in all different directions,” without the repetitive motion of say, an aerobics routine, said Joseph Rodin, director of Northwest Yoga Festival, a four-day event featuring lectures, yoga classes and performances at Seattle Center that kicks off tomorrow. “It takes your body through its full range of motion.”

Doctors and physical therapists agree yoga benefits a variety of age groups, body types and physical conditions, but they are reluctant to rank it higher than other forms of exercise.

Some people get more pleasure from – and are therefore more likely to stick with – aerobics, pilates or sports, which also promote fitness and stress relief.

New yoga styles are springing up all the time to accommodate different needs, including some people’s desire for a routine that gets the blood pumping.

One of the hottest – literally and figuratively – is bikram yoga, which uses high room temperatures to loosen muscles and promote the release of toxins through sweat.

Whereas the iyengar style of yoga taught at Palkhivala’s studio emphasizes meditation and holding individual poses for long periods to perfect form, bikram yoga involves a set of 26 poses that flow from one to the other. The faster pace and saunalike conditions offer a stimulating cardiovascular workout.

At The Sweat Box on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, “Hot Yoga” instructors crank up the heat to 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit for each 90-minute class in the bikram style.

It may sound excruciating, but the studio’s co-founder, Frankie Oser, said more than 2,300 students have taken classes in 3 1/2 years of business, and many of those are repeat customers.

Oser said Hot Yoga helps deliver more blood to muscles, speeds the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, improves coordination, makes muscles less prone to injury, reduces heart irregularities and burns fat.

It’s a total body experience, Oser said, “from head to toe, inside and out. … Your whole body is worked out every time you come in.”

McGough advises people with pre-existing medical conditions or who are on certain types of medication – blood-pressure drugs, for example – to consult a doctor before joining a particular yoga class, just to make sure the style is appropriate for them.

While yoga instructors usually ask students about medical concerns before classes begin, most are not equipped to do in-depth screenings. It’s up to the student to bring up any issues.

A person who has especially tight hamstrings, for example, may want to avoid yoga routines that call for strenuous forward bends, because this might lead to injury.

Another aspect of yoga classes that may attract people is the lack of competitiveness.

While yoga students strive to be more self-aware, they also work at being less self-conscious in relation to those around them.

But to eliminate the social pressure altogether, some yoga students prefer one-on-one sessions.

Many instructors offer classes in studios built onto their homes or in neighborhood storefronts. In settings like these, the feeling is more intimate and the embarrassment of making a mistake is minimal, since nobody’s watching.

Jo Leffingwell, a former Seattle theater actress, exercised patience and grace as she coached this reporter through a series of warm-up stretches, breathing exercises and iyengar poses, followed by 10 minutes of meditation and a lesson in yoga teachings, at her studio in Seattle.

Leffingwell explained that just as a person’s mind has tendencies and cravings that lead to an imbalanced life, that person’s body has tendencies that can lead to physical imbalance, discomfort and pain. It could be shortness of breath, an inability to twist in one direction, or simple tightness in the back or legs resulting from a lack of exercise, stress or a previous injury. Yoga, she said, “shows you what the tendencies are in your body and brings you back to a more balanced state.”

She encourages her students, as they bend and flex into position, to take their time and truly “experience the posture.” If you can’t bend over and touch your ankles on the first few visits, or balance your body on one leg, that’s fine.

“What you’re trying to do is be present in your body, moment by moment,” she said.

Leffingwell explained that an essential part of yoga study is learning sutras, or words of wisdom about yoga, the self and the universe, many of which have been passed along for thousands of years.

One prominent idea embodied in both the physical and mental aspects of yoga is the belief that inside each person is a being that “sees” everything clearly. Some might think of it as the conscience, or intuition.

The problem for many people, Leffingwell said, is that they make decisions that contradict their own higher instincts. They get swept away by a jumble of thoughts, memories, fears, frustrations, expectations and desires, and life loses focus and meaning.

While many experts are pleased that people are introducing themselves to more physical types of yoga, they say the greatest path to a healthy life is connecting with that inner being.

“Yoga helps bring out what you are,” Palkhivala said. “You have to face it, and sometimes it’s not pleasant.”

But if mastering yoga poses and getting a good workout are all you’re looking for, that’s OK, too, he said.

“The house is huge,” Palkhivala said, referring to all the yoga choices people have available to them. “Where you want to live in it is your choice.”

YOGA TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS

– Shop around and find an instructor whose technique and teaching style suit you. This is very important, instructors say. Many yoga teachers are poorly trained or don’t work well with clients. If you don’t have a good feeling about the first class or two, move on.

-Take it easy. Yoga is about self-awareness, but also patience. You shouldn’t expect to be able to perform every asana, or yoga pose, after a couple of tries. Some require a high level of flexibility, so you may have to work your way up to them. Trying too hard at the beginning also may lead to muscle and joint injury. Focus instead on breathing deeply and understanding how your body moves and where the most tension occurs. Let the instructor know about any past injuries and health concerns before the class begins.

-Don’t worry about your neighbors. Yoga is not a competitive sport, so if the student next to you can fold himself in half while standing, don’t be discouraged. Focus on your own ability level and progress.

-Go with your emotions. Yoga is ultimately about transcendence and liberation – from pain, memories, anxiety, this month’s household budget, everything that keeps you from being at peace with yourself. Think of yoga as a way of identifying obstacles in the mind and body and working through them.

YOGA GLOSSARY

-Yoga (YOH ga) – Sanskrit for “yoke” or “union,” in this case, a union of mind, body and spirit. There are eight progressive “limbs” in yoga ranging from moral discipline, self-restraint, posture, breath control, sensory inhibition, concentration and meditation to ecstasy, all leading to “liberation.”

-Asana (AH suh nuh) – A physical posture, or yoga pose.

-Hatha (HAH thuh) – The method of yoga most practiced in the United States, focusing on asanas and breathing skills. Many styles of yoga fit under this umbrella, from slower-paced iyengar yoga to flowing ashtanga yoga to bikram or “Hot Yoga.”

-Ashtanga (Ahsh TONG guh) – A type of yoga that uses a fast-paced series of postures in a nonstop sequence, providing a solid workout. A variation is called “Power Yoga.”

-Bikram (BEE krum) – Another flowing style of yoga that incorporates temperatures over 100 degrees to help loosen muscles and cleanse the body through sweat. Also called “Hot Yoga.”

-Viniyoga (VEN ee yo guh) – A milder category of yoga that is tailored to the emotional and physical needs of the student.

-Iyengar (I YEN gar) – This popular yoga features a slower pace, focusing on precision and proper alignment. Students breathe methodically and hold each posture for extended periods, working to refine them over time. Students can use props, such as blocks and straps, to help achieve their postures.

-Ananda (Ah NAHN da) – A more spiritual form of hatha yoga that uses breathing, postures, silent affirmations and meditation.

-Namaste (Nah mas TAY) – A traditional yoga salutation meaning, “I bow to you.” It’s one person’s humble recognition of another’s soul. To give the greeting, press the hands together at the chest, as in prayer, close your eyes, and bow your head. It’s OK, but not customary, to say the word aloud.

-Pranayama (Prah nah YA ma) – Breath-control exercise.

-Mantra (MAHN trah) – A sacred sound that has a transforming effect on the person saying it.

-Om – A common mantra, just one syllable but spoken in a deep, resonant, elongated breath.

-Sources: Yoga Journal, Joseph Rodin, Aadil Palkhivala and Jo Leffingwell

RESOURCES

-Yoga Journal has an online site with interviews and practical information on various types of yoga, as well a directory of yoga studios at www.yogajournal.com.

RECOMMENDED READING

-“Autobiography of a Yogi” (Self-Realization Fellowship Publishers, $6), by Paramahansa Yogananda.

-“The Healing Path of Yoga: Time-Honored Wisdom and Scientifically Proven Methods That Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life” (Three Rivers Press, $17), by Nischala Joy Devi, Dean Ornish and Shaye Areheart.

-“Yoga RX : A Step-by-Step Program to Promote Health, Wellness, and Healing for Common Ailments” (Broadway, $17.95) by Larry Payne, Richard Usatine, Merry Aronson.

-“The Tree of Yoga,” (Shambhala, $13.95) by B.K.S. Iyengar.

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Self-exploration is key to finding the spiritual in your work (The Arizona Republic)

Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But for 21st century Americans, self-examination is unnatural. Some people, especially men, act as if personal reflection is only for wimps. We find it easy to criticize others, from the boss to co-workers to the “system,” but many of us are reluctant to shine a critical light on ourselves. Take five minutes to consider your deepest satisfactions and your deepest fears and insecurities. Did you start to fidget before the five minutes were up? Did your mind wander? Did you try to think about easier subjects? The answers to those questions should tell you if you’re ready for self-examination and reflection, what I call the search for ME.”

I obviously think such self-exploration is essential if we want to find the spiritual in our work. Before we can be comfortable in our relationships with fellow employees, bosses, subordinates and customers, we have to know and like our selves. Yet so many of us are reluctant to give real attention to who we really are and what we want our life to be. Former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel said, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life but that it bothers him less and less.”

Contemplatives of all faiths tell us we need to find our own core. They call it our center. The great fourth-century theologian Augustine taught us the importance of self-analysis and self-criticism. There are scores of ways to think about how to do that. Here are a few.

I have talked before about the importance of analyzing our own stories to figure out who we are and how we became who we are. You can also write down all your good qualities and your bad qualities and think deeply about how they are manifesting themselves in your life. If you’re honest, you’ll get to some things that really matter.
In a similar vein, write down all the traits you find admirable in other people, such as courage, assertiveness, wisdom, etc. Think about where you stand in relation to those traits and characteristics and figure out how you can improve yourself.

Meditation helps many people focus their thoughts for self-reflection. Meditation and contemplation are great ways to pray and also excellent ways to discover oneself. Try modifying the centering prayer concept. That practice would have you relax and focus on a holy word, like “grace” or “resurrection.” You can use the same practice, but use words that will lead to reflection about who you are and how you behave. For example, use words such as “temper,” “concern,” “pressure” or even “success” or “failure.” Then follow your stream of consciousness to where your thoughts take you. Whenever you feel you are moving off-point, simply repeat your centering word and repeat it until your mind is again following that word.

Another decent way to get to your center is to reflect on the things people are saying about you in evaluations, in gentle jokes and behind your back. Rather than rejecting the criticism, seriously explore it. Why are people saying those things? Don’t immediately get defensive. Entertain the truth of what people are saying.

Another helpful exercise is to write down all the behaviors and characteristics in others that bug you. Your list may include things such as angry drivers, people who don’t care about their work, sloppy people and on and on.
Now do two things. First, examine the list and try to understand why you dislike those things. What’s inside you that doesn’t allow you to forgive or change? Second, examine the list to find behaviors that actually describe you. We often have contempt for people and behaviors that remind us of ourselves.

We cannot begin the quest for spirituality, ethics and values in our work if we do not have a firm understanding of who we are and what we want to become.

TIP FOR YOUR SEARCH: Start simply; set aside 15 minutes a day to reflect on yourself and on how you have interacted with family and work associates. Then think forward about how you want to interact with those people.

RESOURCE FOR YOUR SEARCH: Awareness, by Anthony De Mello, (Doubleday, 1990).

Tim McGuire of Scottsdale is a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Contact him at morethanwork@ unitedmedia.com and visit his Web site at www.timjmcguire.com.

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