Tag Archives: self awareness

Disbelief

Your friend has been accused of a terrible thing. Your first reaction is likely to be that you will want to believe this is wrong. The accuser has horrible motives of their own, perhaps (after all, this does happen). There’s been a mistake, a misunderstanding. Some explanation exists that makes it all ok. Not only do we do this when people we care about are accused of terrible things, we can do it when people we care about do terrible things to us. We love them, and so we want them to be decent people. We may shoulder the blame for what happened so that we can carry on believing they are good people.

We may believe that how a person has treated us is representative of who they are. This is often something that comes up when people defend abusers. What’s going on here is as much about the person offering the defence as anything else. If you believe that how a person presents to you, is how they are – which should be a sane and fair assumption – challenging that is uncomfortable. If they were hiding that part of themselves from you, why did they do that? Or were you not paying attention? Were the signs there all along? Should you have seen this? Did you unconsciously turn a blind eye? These are not comfortable places to explore.

We all like to believe in the value of our own judgement. In fact, believing that you can make good calls is a key thing for staying sane and functional. Of course we all want to defend our own judgement, because without that we’re horribly adrift. If my friend has done a terrible thing, and I didn’t see they were a person capable of doing a terrible thing, what does that say about me? What does it say about me if I truly loved a person who did a terrible thing? What if, knowing about the terrible thing, I can’t unlove them? What does that make me? If they lied to me and deliberately misled me, what’s wrong with me that I couldn’t see through that?

Sometimes it is easier to assume the best and be actively complicit at this point, rather than facing the painful alternatives. It may not be the accused person we are protecting, but ourselves, our sense of self, our confidence in ourselves. It’s an understandable response. It is also important to ask how much evidence you need to acknowledge that your friend has done a terrible thing. And that perhaps by association, you have enabled a terrible thing.

Sometimes, we don’t want to look too hard at the terrible thing our friend has done, because if we did, we’d have to question our own behaviour. If their attitude is rapey, maybe ours is too. If they are sexist, or racist and we haven’t seen that, maybe it’s because we have the same issues. If their shouting, temper tantrums and irresponsibility isn’t ok, maybe our similar actions aren’t ok either. And so we may be inclined to support them so that we don’t have to question ourselves.

Questioning yourself is hard. Recognising and putting down problematic behaviour and attitudes is hard. It all comes down to whether taking the easy path is always preferable, even if it means you don’t get to be an honourable person. It often means knowing, on some level, that you are out of order and having to live with the tension between who you want people to think you are, and how you are, and that can take quite a toll.


Self Awareness and Unawareness

I’ve yet to encounter anyone who self-identifies as being self-unaware. It’s one of those things that you have to have if you’re on a spiritual path, and that we tend to talk about in terms of work done rather than in terms of struggle or full on failure. So, here we go…

I like to know what I’m doing and why, but honestly, sometimes, I have no idea. Sometimes the emotions and impulses turn up and it isn’t until afterwards that I can figure out what’s going on. Often this is important, it happens because I’m changing, growing, healing, breaking, stretching or somesuch. To do those things I have to go through a patch where I may have little idea what’s going on with me.

Not all of my thinking is conscious – there’s all kinds of stuff the brain gets up to where the conscious bit of the mind can’t see it, and sometimes surprising things bubble up from the depths. Sometimes this shows up in dreams, or comes through in my writing. Sometimes I can only bring things into my consciousness by accidentally starting to write about them. I like this about me. I like that I can still surprise myself and that there are always new things to explore.

I’m getting new experiences and information on a daily basis. My environment shapes and shifts me. My body changes over time. My needs, wants, hopes and desires change. When they are in flux, I may need to question them regularly to keep up at all.

I have ideas about who I have been and aspirations about where I might be going, but both of these can be wrong. We re-write our stories all the time, and I’m fine with that – it is necessary. The story I tell myself is not the story other people tell about me. There are plenty of other people’s stories in which I am a far better person than I appear to be when I look at me. There are also plenty of other people’s stories in which I am all the wrong things imaginable, and there are lots of those and they exist for reasons and some of those reasons are definitely of my making. Often they pertain to situations where I refused to do or be what was wanted of me.

There is a balance to strike between navel-gazing introspection, and looking outwards. We can’t entirely know ourselves by looking in, we have to get out there and do stuff, and see what we do and how we feel about it and what happens next. We have to engage with other people and see what they make of us and whether we agree with them. Too much introspection can create halls of mirrors in which we see reflections of who we imagine we are, ever more distorted by all the things about us we haven’t actually faced or dealt with…  Too little introspection and we can be at the mercy of anything – interior or exterior. We’re easily led and persuaded if we don’t know who we are or what we want.

I don’t always choose the right bits of my personality to squash down as unacceptable, or the right bits to bring forward into the light. I have a history of making poor judgements about what of me should be allowed, and what is too offensive to other people, what I’m entitled to and what I’m not. At least, right now I think those were bad choices, but a decade ago I thought they were wise and responsible choices. The opinion of future-me remains a mystery.

For all that I try to understand how my history impacts on my outlook, how my feelings affect my actions, how my actions inform my life… I also give myself permission not to know. To be perplexed and lost and confused sometimes – because those are important experiences too. I give myself permission to have no idea what’s going on or what I ought to be doing so as to make space for new things to come in. I give myself permission to change and to surprise myself. And as far as I can manage it, I am not going to let any story I have about how self aware I am become a reason to ignore anyone who doesn’t agree with me, or to reject input that doesn’t affirm to me how brilliantly self aware I am being. It’s a theory, at any rate.


Zazen and adventures with pain

Zazen is a form of sitting meditation that comes from Zen practice, and it’s all about being present and aware in the moment, and noticing what is happening. Now, all of the physical meditations I use tend to interest me for their capacity to control the body – calming and relaxing being part of that. However, I come to realise I’ve got into a thing that I need to get out of.

I tune out pain. I’m good at ignoring it, and telling myself it isn’t there. A long history underpins this, to do with various people who assumed that if I expressed discomfort I was just being lazy, attention seeking or a drama queen. There were some situations in which expressing pain could result in life getting harder, not easier. I learned to keep my mouth shut. It’s easier not to accidentally show pain when you have decided it doesn’t exist. Mind over matter: No mind, no matter. I learned not to feel, and I learned to blank out my body. There were short term scenarios in which that was a useful survival tool, but it’s not a place to live.

Like my body, my mind is rather finite. I only have so much will power, so much cognitive capacity to throw at tuning out the pain. So, there have been days when it’s been like living with a lot of background noise, and I struggle a lot with what my body isn’t able to do. My concentration suffers, I do not think as well. I know there is a problem. The affect on my thinking bothers me more than anything else, but that too is an attitude issue that I am going to reconsider.

What would happen if I just lay down and paid attention to my body? That was a learning experience. There’s a lot of tension in my body, a lot of muscle and joint pain – I was somewhat aware of this, it’s hard not to notice on the days when the stiffness affects my movement. I have little idea where the edges of my body are, or how its feeling most of the time. Sitting in my own skin and paying attention was not a comfortable experience, but it taught me a lot. Not trying to shape the experience as I normally would with meditation, but letting whatever came, occur, I felt a lot of the pain I normally tune out. I also felt more real and present.

I don’t have to run flat out anymore, and none of the people around me think I’m a slacker or feel the need to do competitive illness (that whole, ‘I’m more ill than you, you have to look after me’ game). There is no one who will take my expression of discomfort as though it was an attack on them. It is safe to say ‘ouch’. It’s not easy to say ‘ouch’ but that’s a practice issue. The first job is to allow myself to be aware of what hurts, and when, and why. It occurs to me I might be able to make practical changes to alleviate it. I’ve started giving more time to stretching and other things that make me hurt less. I’m making more time to rest too, and to generally take care of myself.


Free range human

For most of us, when to sleep and get up, when to eat, when to rest, and the choice to be active are not things we get a lot of say in. Work and school dictates hours for most of us. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to sleep as much as I’ve wanted to, eat a diet of my choosing, and have control over levels of physical activity. I’m not fully self determining, but the difference to health and weight wrought by what changes I could make, have been huge.

The whole spectrum of MBS practices and related religions, Druidry included, encourage us to be aware of our bodies and to treat them with respect. There’s not much gain to be had from attentiveness if you don’t feel able to act upon what you learn, though. I became very good at ignoring bodily pain, illness and exhaustion because for a long time I felt I had no choices. I’m prepared to bet I’m not the only person who has, at some point, felt this way. Not enough hours in the day to sleep properly. Not enough time to make proper meals. Too tired mentally to exercise properly. And all the rest.

I’ve got better at slowing down and listening to my mind and body. There’s a temptation to work flat out when I can, and to limp when I can’t keep running, but this brings very unproductive bouts of depression and cycles of burnout. I’m not sure I can explain how, or why, but I got into a mindset of feeling un-entitled to rest, or time off, or anything nice even. I had to work, and work more, and harder, and if I wasn’t wearing fingers and soul down until they bled, I just wasn’t doing enough. That’s not a good thing to live with, I might add. I think it stems from feeling inadequate and like I needed to compensate for something, but I’ve never got to a point that felt like ‘enough’ by that measure, and the goalposts kept on moving further away. There came a point when my body started saying ‘no more’ in such loud and serious ways that I had to change my thinking.

It’s not enough to be self aware. That awareness has to be acted on. I am conscious of the total luxury of being in a situation where I can afford to eat the things that agree with me (my preferences are helpfully cheap, but that won’t be true for everyone), where I have support to take breaks, time to take exercise and can sleep as much as I need to. I’m very aware that not everyone has this. The job, and the demands of others deprive many people of needful things, but surviving and making ends meet is essential and I know a lot of people would not, and could not handle the trade-offs I’ve accepted to make this lifestyle work. There’s no one right answer for everyone out there, and we have to make our compromises and consider our priorities.

However, the modern, hectic lifestyle that we’re all supposed to adhere to is not an unassailable fact. It is not as inevitable and all powerful as we might be encouraged to believe. It is possible to make changes, and sometimes even quite small changes can make a huge difference. A bit more water and a bit less caffeine. Ten minutes of winding down time before heading off to bed. The occasional lie in. Often, doing things the slower, cheaper way gives the body a much needed physical release. Why pay for a gym when you can do some of your transport on foot and save money?

I wouldn’t wish on anyone the kind of radical life upheavals that have got me to where I am. I’m pretty confident that it’s possible to make a lot of changes without having to have an epic crisis, personal disaster or nervous breakdown first. In fact, if you can go the easy route, consider it. There’s a lot to be said for not pushing yourself to breaking point.

I know a lot of readers of this blog are on top of life and time management and are getting good levels of quality and free range humanity in your lives. I also know from the comments people leave that far too many of you are still stuck in a battery-farmed lifestyle banging against the edges of the too small cage and struggling to see how on earth life without said cage would ever be possible. I’ve heard it said that if you get a battery hen to take home (it can be done) then many are agoraphobic and it takes them a while to learn how to cope with new freedoms. We’re a lot like chickens, except that we are often so much more complicit in building our own cages and keeping them firm, and that was the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn so far. I agreed to the bars. I accepted them and behaved in ways that kept them in place. Most of us do, one way or another. The cage is safe, it may keep us in, but it keeps other things out and requires us to think a lot less.


Be mindful of your thoughts

Mindfulness comes up a lot in Buddhism. Druids who take inspiration from Buddhism seem to mention this one a lot. It’s also absolutely central in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The more I contemplate it, the more convinced I am that mindfulness is a thing we should all be striving to achieve, regardless of path.

Self awareness means knowing what you are doing and why. Knowing what you want, how you feel about things – no repressed ideas and desires, no being driven by motives you won’t consciously acknowledge. CBT mindfulness goes further, and as part of a therapeutic process, requires us to minutely examine our thoughts. We all have habits of thought, and they influence our emotions and actions, but how conscious of those thoughts are we?

For example, I just had some really disappointing and frustrating news. My immediate thoughts are that other people will assume what happened is all my fault, that I will seem less credible, that no one will believe it was just bad luck and not some failure on my part. It takes me seconds to think this, and all the optimism of the last few days is wiped away. Seconds I could easily fail to notice. But I’ve caught it, and am trying to fight it.

Now, CBT, being  a therapy, is something people pick up after the event. It’s something you do when depression has already taken you down, when anxiety is sitting on your chest like a lead weight or low self esteem has you thinking the world might be a better place without you. Aided and abetted by circumstances, we think our way into holes. The person who has some belief in themselves and some capacity for hope, and the energy to keep going can and will prevail. The person who has taken inside every setback and criticism, who has bought into the bully’s story, or a family myth about their own uselessness, won’t fight what’s happening externally, but will instead use it as a stick to beat themselves with. I do it. Partly I do it because I sort of believe that if I can show I’m repentant and recognising my failures, I will not be beaten up quite so much by external reality. And no, I wasn’t brought up Catholic. As defensive measures go, it’s not even slightly clever or helpful. But I know it’s there. I don’t have to be the mediaeval mystic who starts hitting myself with a flail as soon as the plague comes to town.

What we think about life experience shapes how we understand what happens to us. It’s very easy to let those thoughts occur and not to think about what we are thinking. All those people who act and speak in the spur of the moment. I didn’t mean it. It just came out. I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I did that. Without self awareness, we cannot hope to be in control of our actions and choices. Someone else, something else, can pull our strings. We’re easy to manipulate, or running on habit, not properly engaged with what is really happening and not making rational decisions about our lives from one moment to the next.

What are you thinking?

Whose voice is inside your head? (See the blog post on hearing voices).

What are you telling yourself about the meaning of experiences?

What are you telling yourself you are entitled to do, justified in doing? Are you working up a rage, a reason to hit out, an indignant response, a ‘justified’ attack on someone else?

Are you saying ‘well done me’ at all? Or are you just bombarding yourself with criticism?

A lack of self consciousness and self awareness may seem like the easy way to drift through life. Cheerful obliviousness. Ignorance is bliss. I think this is deluded, at best. It might protect us from having to look at the aspects of self and behaviour that we don’t really like, but those who do not look, cannot change.

I’m not aware of any particularly Druid tradition of mindfulness. There are lots ways. I’m not sure that we need one. I would recommend paying some attention to what you think, step back now and then if you can, contemplate your own responses and the implications of what happens between your ears. It is entirely possible to change how you think, but to do so, you need to be aware of what you think. If you’re in a spiritual tradition looking for some kind of personal growth, I would ask what kind of growth there can ever be without proper self awareness?  Knowing how you think, and what that thinking means, is key to this. Thinking about thinking is inevitably self referential and all about the navel gazing, but ultimately, it is liberating.


Entitlement and Honour

What I want to talk about today is a habit of thought that I think is both dangerous and damaging. It’s also far too easy to slip into, and I suspect it is something we all do to some degree.

The thought form goes something like this. “Because of this thing, I am entitled to act in a certain way.” To develop that, we might say “Because I am in pain it is totally reasonable for me to be short tempered.” That’s a line it’s easy to accept. “Because I earn the most money, I should be the one who makes all the decisions.” “Because I did not like what you said, I am entitled to hit you.” No doubt you can come up with plenty of alternative versions.

It’s a slippery slope to get onto. Now, everything we do is undertaken in a context. Our own feelings are part of that. If we are hurt, we become angry. If we are frustrated we may want to lash out. Feeling a thing is always fine. There can be no wrong feelings, they are simply how we respond. The difficulty arises when that feeling is then used as a justification for subsequent behaviour. Not only is this an issue in abuse situations, but it is something to consider in terms of personal honour and how we treat those around us day to day.

If we rely on justifications, do we accept the same justifications from others? Is it fine for someone else to be snappy with us because they were tired? Is it fine for someone else not to have done a job because they just didn’t feel like it? Wherever we draw our lines, integrity demands that we are consistent. If it is truly justified for us to behave in a certain way given the right circumstances, we have to make the same allowances for everyone else.

Closer scrutiny of the attitude that ‘I am justified because’ can lead us towards the uncomfortable conclusion that really our belief is ‘I am justified because this is what I want.’ When it comes to behaving badly, taking, using, not bothering and not taking care, this is at heart an act of laziness. It’s painfully easy to do, and becoming aware of doing it is very uncomfortable.

There are ways of handling it better. For example, I am frequently difficult around menstruation, I become impatient, short tempered and the pain makes me crabby. I do not always manage that well. If I snap at someone and follow through with “Well tough, I don’t feel good, I can’t help it,” I reinforce having knocked my victim back. If I instead apologise, recognise that I am spiky because of pain and make clear the problem lies with me, not the other person, they at least know not to take it personally and I have at least managed not to compound the initial slip by trying to justify it. If I think pain, illness or some other issue is going to affect me – moodwise, workwise, concentration etc then I try and warn people in advance. I’ve found that helps where circumstances make it genuinely difficult to maintain perfect self control. Explanations tend to work better than justifications.

No one manages to behave with perfect care and mindfulness at all times. We are human, flawed and fallible, and when life throws us challenges, we are not always going to field them with perfect grace. What matters, is being honest about that. Acknowledge the mistakes, recognise the reasons and they do not become entrenched as assumptions and justifications. Alternatively, if we get in the habit of justifying, it’s so easy to keep sliding down that route, towards an understanding where something as small as irritation justifies causing pain to another, or the suggestion that we are somehow less than perfect makes us feel entitled to verbally attack our ‘accuser’. I’ve seen that done, and it isn’t pretty, but I doubt anyone starts there.