By Suzanne E. Harrill
Recently, I was interviewed for an on-line radio show; the topic of discussion was awareness and mindfulness as paths to consciousness. Here are the questions and my answers. May my answers be food for thought and allow you to more deeply ponder your own life.
The first question asked me to talk about self-awareness from my perspective and why it is important. My answer: Let me start by defining awareness. It is everything that has brought you to this present moment—your beliefs, emotions, feelings, and reactions to all your life experiences. Awareness includes everything you have taken in and are taking in with your five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, as well as using your sixth sense of intuition. Much of our awareness is unconscious to us. As we study ourselves, we become more and more self-aware. This is the key to improving decision-making; to make choices that are in alignment with what we want to create in our lives.
Question number two asked me to talk about mindfulness and consciousness as paths to self-awareness. Here is my answer: Mindfulness comes from the Buddhist tradition and is about paying attention to what is happening to us now, in the present moment. It is tuning-in to all experiences, both the good-feeling ones and the negative-feeling ones, in order to feel, learn, and know what is going on within. Instead of shying away from the negative, we stay present and really experience whatever is going on, just as we do when we have fun, joyful experiences. This builds self-awareness and leads to more aware choices in the future.
Much of the time we aren't really paying attention to what is currently happening to us, or to the people with whom we spend time. Instead, we daydream about what we will do in the future or go over and over something in our mind that happened in the past. We find ourselves emotionally reacting to other people or situations when they surprise or bother us, rather than being able to make better choices with our words, actions, and responses. When mindful, we really participate in our moment-to-moment experiences—feeling them, enjoying them, or learning from them. Practicing mindfulness moves us in the direction of greater self-awareness, which allows us the power of choice and to get the most out of our life day to day.
Consciousness is a very expansive thing to describe. One way to understand consciousness is that it is the Universal Intelligence (God, Universe) in which we all live and move and have our being. It is the Source of our existence, our creativity, imagination, intuition, inner knowing, and unconditional love; and it is what responds to our thoughts, feelings, and prayers. To expand our individual consciousness makes us more and more consciously aware.
One way to build conscious awareness is to learn to look below the surface of our experiences. I’ll use an iceberg to illustrate consciousness. What is known and conscious to us relates to the part of the iceberg above the water. The larger part of the iceberg, however, is below the surface and unconscious to us. To improve the quality of our lives to become self-aware, it is important to go below the surface to look at our ego-personalities – the issues, patterns, conditioned responses, fears, habits, and attitudes that we want to change. Looking below the surface of our problems and issues, we find causes and, thus, have more information available to help us change, heal, and grow.
An example of how I grew in self-awareness by looking below the surface to understand an issue involved Girl Scout cookies. A few years ago I had an agreement with myself to eat healthier foods. So that year I chose to not buy Girl Scout cookies; however, my two teenage daughters did and kept them in their rooms. One morning one daughter and I got in a heated argument as she left the house for school. I was feeling angry and had tightness in my stomach and gut; and I had no way to communicate my side of the argument at that moment. What did I do? I marched upstairs and opened a box of Thin Mints I found in one of the girls’ rooms and began eating them until I settled down. Of course a few minutes later I was angry at myself for breaking the agreement with myself to eat healthier.
I journal-write when I am upset. With that process, what I uncovered below the surface of my awareness that day was that I had a need to not feel my uncomfortable feelings and wanted to quickly get back to a calm, peaceful morning as I had planned. Unfortunately, I did this by eating chocolate and sugar. I then kept writing about the situation, my feelings, what I wanted to say to my daughter, and what I wanted to do next time I got so upset. Basically, I wanted to be more mindful in the future when these situations come up, to feel the uncomfortable feelings and not run away from them, and to journal-write instead of eating cookies. This was new to me—to stop avoiding and to go into my unpleasant feelings. More insights would surface with repeated journaling.
To summarize, there are two important ways to build consciousness and move us along on the path of self-awareness. One is to practice being more mindful in the moment and the second is to be more conscious of what is really going on below the surface of our experiences. Self-awareness really is the key to greater freedom and happiness.
The next question asked me to illustrate a real life “success story” where a couple made a difference in their relationship by becoming more mindful and conscious of their interactions.
One couple came to mind. Ted and Carol started their marriage like a lot of people do—unconsciously. After a year, each was very unhappy about the marriage. They sought professional help which made a huge difference in their lives; and they are very happily married to this day.
Ted didn’t have many male friends and depended upon his wife to be his "best friend," lover, and confidante. He was resentful that Carol wanted to spend time with her friends; it often seemed she enjoyed herself more with friends than she did with him. Another aspect of the situation was that Ted had a successful career but didn't feel totally fulfilled in his job, so he expected fulfillment to come from his marriage.
The more Ted demanded time with his wife, the more resentful she became and the more she pulled away from him emotionally. Sometimes Carol would cancel other plans to be with Ted, but only to avoid an argument and his anger. Over time, trying to please her husband created hostility in Carol.
Therapy helped this couple and they each took responsibility for the part they were playing in this drama once it became clear. Time was spent figuring out the cause of the wife's avoidance and to encourage the husband to create some fulfilling things to do outside of work and home.
Carol remembered her parents' boring and hostile marriage. They worked together every day and never seemed to have time apart from one another. When she remembered her parents, Carol said it did not feel good to be around them as they were mean to each other and fought a lot. As conflict grew in her own marriage, Carol wanted space, so she would not repeat what she observed her parents doing. This insight helped Carol be more mindful that there were more options than simply getting away from her husband. For example, she and Ted could have honest discussions about her needs and they could learn constructive ways to resolve conflict.
Ted looked at his issues too and was encouraged to find more things to do with his spare time. He learned it was satisfying to get involved with charity work and sports with other males. This enabled him to develop closer friendships with other men who shared common interests. Suddenly, he wasn't waiting around for his wife anymore. Her respect for him grew, which caused her to want to be with him more. She no longer felt responsible for Ted’s happiness. Once both gained insight into their respective family histories and took responsibility for changing themselves, they grew individually and as a couple. Their growth and awareness continues today, many years later.
Question number four asked my views about teaching children and teens these concepts before they face adulthood. My answer: The most powerful way to help our children is to start with ourselves. We can only teach and model what we are, what we believe, and what we know. Without self-awareness and the desire to look below the surface of our issues, we repeat dysfunctional patterns our parents and society taught us.
Take self-esteem, for example, which we all know is important in healthy development. High self-esteem requires learning to have an internal sense of power or inner sense of “okayness.” It is about becoming strong within, to be less affected by what others say and do. Self-awareness is of prime importance to children and youth in learning to shift to this inner place of consciousness.
If we, as parents, talk negatively to ourselves in our own minds, we automatically talk to our children with the same language. If we talk critically to our spouse or talk negatively about her/him to others, our children pick up on these feelings and are hurt emotionally.
To positively impact our children’s self-esteem, at any age, we need to build our own self-esteem first. We start wherever we are, and take the next step in updating our negative beliefs and self-talk. As you stop judging and criticizing yourself, you will find your self-talk becomes more kind, loving and supportive, and that the words coming out of your mouth towards others will be different. As you build your awareness through self-inquiry, reading books, listening to CD’s of wise teachers, or going to therapy, you pass on better thoughts and feelings to your family. One person in a family system can positively impact the whole system. Begin with yourself.
Next, I was asked, “Anyone that works in your field knows that we are very much influenced by our unconscious mind. What can you say about understanding and working with our unconscious better?”
If I had to pick one thing to help one become aware of the unconscious, it would be to spend quality time with yourself each day. Here the intention is self-inquiry, to know yourself at a deeper level through contemplation, meditation, and prayer. Other things that build self-awareness and help you understand what is below the surface are the following:
1. Read a few pages each day in a self-help book that you find applies to your personal challenges and issues.
2. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Journal-write about your conflicts to allow them to become more conscious to you. Feel your feelings – cry if you need to, feel your upset and anger if you need to; allow feelings inside of you to surface.
3. Watch your dreams and daydreams. Look for patterns and messages about your issues, actions, about what you really want. If, for example, you daydream about writing a book often, take this as a serious message from your unconscious. If you dream about moving over and over, you may need to look at your current living situation and consider that the unconscious is nudging you in a new direction, not necessarily to move physically, but to do something different to get unstuck emotionally.
4. Notice if you are envious of anyone. Ask yourself what they have that you want in your life. Then use them as a role model. Observe them to learn how they accomplish what you want to create.
5. Psychotherapy is a supportive way to look at yourself and your problems, to move beyond conditioning from the past, and to find good solutions to life’s dilemmas.
6. Ask people you trust to give you honest feedback about you. What do they see as your strengths and weaknesses? Use this simply as a consideration of some things that may be in your blind spot.
7. Remember to acknowledge the things that are working in your life to build gratitude awareness. Make a list every day of the things you are grateful for.
Question number six asked me to explain personal power as used in my book, Enlightening Cinderella. Here is what I said. Personal power is about taking responsibility for your own life. This begins with self-study and becoming a self-aware individual. It includes building a strong foundation of self-esteem and updating dysfunctional beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and habits to healthy ones. The more you understand yourself, the wiser your choices and ability to solve your problems. It is not about using power over another individual, only with yourself.
Next I was to talk about our bodies and the mind-body connection. We can learn a lot about ourselves through our body awareness. Each ache, pain, symptom, or illness is a whole new language to learn, when we want to understand the metaphor of our symptoms. Our bodies reflect our consciousness and our unresolved emotional issues get buried within our physical bodies.
There are some very helpful authors I turn to when I am ill or want to understand what is behind my physical issues. Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life and Deb Shapiro’s book, Your Body Speaks Your Mind are very powerful resources. Your own meditations are important here too.
The final question asked me to share some personal stories on the topics discussed and relate how I have applied them to my life as a wife, mother, or professional person.
I could talk about all three areas for hours. Let’s start with my life as a mother. It was not until the birth of my third daughter that I was introduced to information about self-esteem. I had a master’s degree in counseling and I thought I knew a lot about raising children. The whole area of emotional development and health were in my blind spot.
Fortunately life brought me new information. My husband was transferred to a job in Thibodaux, LA in 1979 and I was hired to teach student development courses at Nicholls St. University. Guess what part of the curriculum was. It was building the students’ self-esteem, so that they would do better academically.
L. S. Barksdale’s, Building Self-Esteem, was part of the course. I learned so much that year. We stayed in Thibodaux less than a year; however, a dear friend I met while teaching there gave me another important book, Your Child’s Self-Esteem by Dorothy Briggs.
I could see so much I needed to incorporate in my parenting and marriage. It was not a small job. However, I stayed with it and over the years I can see many important changes in my family. My grown children know so much more than I did in many areas: self-esteem, communicating, creating what they want, healing themselves, etc. They are passing on the good stuff I introduced to them to their kids. It was a long process, starting with healing myself first and then introducing ideas to my family. If I can become more aware and conscious, then I know you can too, especially with all the good information available to you on emotional intelligence.
May the ideas presented here inspire you on your personal journey of expanding awareness through mindfulness and consciousness.
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