The science of self-awareness

 

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What is self-awareness? And how does it help us?

Scientists disagree on their definitions of consciousness and self-awareness, but they agree that “to be conscious is to think; to be self-aware is to realise that you are a thinking being and to think about your thoughts.”¹

Newborn babies are conscious, they have thoughts and feelings, even if they do not yet have language. They feel hungry, they desire to be fed and we all know how upset they get if food doesn’t come quickly!

“In their first years of life, children develop a sense of self, learning to recognise themselves in the mirror and to distinguish between their own point of view and the perspectives of other people,” says Ferris Jabr of Scientific American.

Awareness is the gate of reason

So what does it mean to be self-aware? And can we enhance our own self-awareness?

Psychiatrists from the University of Washington² have drawn on Freud and Schiller’s model of the gates of consciousness to define different levels of self-awareness in the mind.

In the first stage of self-awareness, we think, but we cannot conceive that another is entitled to think differently. One might use phrases like,”I’m right, you’re wrong.”

In between stages one and two is what Freud and Schiller called “the gate of reason”. Here, one is able to accept the reality of both sides of the story. This is a fundamental turning point for awareness and our own well-being.

At the second stage of self-awareness, one respects different opinions on the same matter. Thoughts are metacognitive, mindful and meditative. One takes a parental and conditional view, using phrases like, “We should all be kind.”

The third stage goes even further. Here, one’s thoughts are engaged in contemplation and self-fulfillment. Conflicts are illuminated by the ability to recognise and transform one’s own impulses.

According to Freud and Schiller, this can progress all the way to a state of constant awareness and unconditional understanding. One is accepting of everything, using phrases like, “Life is like that.” One has no conflicts and is increasing humble, serene, wise, virtuous and well.

This seems to be the behaviour we see in great human beings like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, but does scientific research hold this theory to be true?

In a 2003 study, four Buddhist adepts in a meditative state of “open awareness” had less activation in their orbital frontal cortex when hearing a baby cry than those without meditation training.

This part of the brain is associated with making judgements such as pleasant or unpleasant. Decreased activity here suggests that the meditators were able to let go of any negative impulses.

The University of Washington’s scale suggests that as a person becomes more self-aware, they become more mindful, and are able to let go of struggles and feel more compassionately about others.

The same four meditators in this study showed greater activation in their left superior pre-frontal cortex than others, when listening to emotionally-charged sounds. This area of the brain is thought to be responsible for empathy and forgiveness. The meditators were able to hear these sounds, recognise their reactions, and let them go.

Imagine how much less irritable we might be, if we could allow those annoying sounds like barking, construction work and crying to simply come and go, without judgement and with great empathy?

Science seems to say that self-awareness is linked to compassion, empathy, forgiveness and the ability to regulate our own impulses. These qualities can bring a greater sense of well-being and peace to oneself, as well as being extremely beneficial for others.

Practising mindfulness is one way we can cultivate self-awareness.

¹ Self Awareness With A Simple Brain, Scientific American 2012

² Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, published by Washington University School of Medicine

The natural stability of mind

When we practise mindfulness, we often focus on something, like the breath perhaps, and then watch what happens. When mind wanders off, we gently bring it back again.

Nothing’s gone wrong. No need to beat ourselves up. This is the practise. We get distracted, we notice it, we release and relax and we come back to the breath over and over again.

We are not seeking to stop all thoughts.

The stillness of mind does not arise by striving to stop thinking and pushing away those harmful thoughts. Neither is it kind of blank mental state or bliss in which no thoughts ever arise.

“… the stillness of which we speak is not the stillness of the quiet mind because your mind may not be quiet today. Your body may not be quiet or still. It’s rather the stillness of allowing things to be as they are in this moment.”¹

Can we allow things to be as they are?

Can we allow thoughts to come and go, without reacting to them?

By getting to know our mental habits, and befriending them, we can learn to work with them. We can learn to accept them and let them go, without acting them out.

One teacher uses the metaphor of the waves and the ocean². Thoughts, like waves, arise from the ocean and return back into the ocean. Like the ocean, our awareness is always there, beneath the waves of thought.

Life gets pretty turbulent when we identify with our thoughts. Thoughts are always rising and changing.

But just as the ocean is undisturbed by the waves, the unchanging, pure awareness of mind is always there beneath, and is never disturbed by the thoughts themselves.

This is the natural stability of mind.

This is what we sometimes describe in mindfulness as “bringing mind home.”

Two books on this topic: Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by ¹Mark Williams and ²The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Mindfulness and thoughts

Mindfulness helps us change our relationship to our thoughts.

With practise, we find ourselves experiencing that thoughts are not facts and that “I am not my thoughts”.

By allowing mind to settle, we step out of the mind-stream. We start to see thoughts as changing mental content, instead of believing them and chasing after them.

One teacher says, “Water, if you don’t stir it, will become clear, just as mind left unaltered will find its true nature.¹”

In mindfulness, we allow our mind to become calm and clear.

This has a few wonderful advantages. As our ordinary mind and all our concerns settle, underneath we discover a profound stillness. We become more spacious and less self-focused. We become aware of sensations, thoughts and feelings, rather than reacting to them. We notice how thoughts and feelings are ever-changing, and we rediscover the pleasure of being in the present moment.

Want to know more? Dr. Ron Siegel’s Google Talk on the Science of Mindfulness is a simple, scientific introduction to mindfulness, including a guided practice at 27:20.

¹Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

A wasted meditation?

Ever found yourself lost in thoughts throughout your entire meditation?

You haven’t wasted your time, or failed.

Meditation teacher David Simon would often tell his students:
“The thought I’m having thoughts may be the most important thought you have ever thought, because before you had that thought, you may not have even known you were having thoughts. You probably thought you were your thoughts.”

(from Seven Myths About Meditation by Deepak Chopra)

The experienced meditator is not someone who’s mind has stopped wandering, but someone who is very used to beginning again.

Simply noticing that you are having thoughts is a breakthrough. Your reference point shifts from identifying with the thoughts to the awareness that recognises thoughts as thoughts.

And that’s the training: we get lost in thoughts, we notice, we gently come back to the awareness of the breath, or the present moment.

As we identify less with our thoughts and stories, and relate more and more from this awareness, we find benefit from the great openness, equality and sense of well-being that it seems to bring.

Mind thinks the unthinkable

Ever think the unthinkable? Ever find yourself horrified at what your mind has imagined?

Don’t worry, it’s completely normal.

When we awake from a dream, we may find we have dreamt all kinds of impossibilities. We may die in our dreams, we may dream of murder, we may go off on fantastic adventures. We can have two heads or live in a mansion made of clouds. Our whole world can look remarkably different. This too, is mind running wild, but when we wake up, we can say, “Phew! It was only  a dream.”

In real life, we often take our thoughts to be the truth.

Scientists have discovered that when our minds are not occupied with a task, they default to a kind of daydreaming, mind-wandering state called the Default Mode Network.

This network is responsible for rumination. It seems to increase opinions about ourselves, opinions  about others, remembering the past or envisioning the future. And scientists have found that while some of its activities are pleasant or useful, like encouraging us to feel empathy and review our actions, in many of us, the activation of the DMN triggers negative thoughts and emotions.

That means that for most of us, when our minds wander, they wander to a negative place.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that increased connection and activity in parts of the DMN are correlated with major anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.

When we are actively involved in a task, such as physical activity or carrying on a conversation, we de-activate the DMN. So no wonder we often suppress our rising negative thoughts and feelings by keeping ourselves busy!

If we allow rising negative thoughts to take over, we increase our suffering. If we continually suppress our negative thoughts in a constant stream of activity, we can end up exhausted.

So what to do?

By working with the mind, we can train our attention to follow the breath. This is a task, but one that helps us feel contentment and well-being. By bringing an open awareness to our minds, by noticing thoughts as they arise, we can learn to let them go without buying in into their storylines.