Building Self-Awareness Through Mindfulness Meditation

Daniel Goldman explains that emotional self-awareness is the ability to “recognize and understand our own emotional reactions”.  He maintains that it is the foundation competency for the development of emotional intelligence.  If we have self-awareness, we are better able to achieve self-management and be empathetic and compassionate towards others.

Building self-awareness through mindfulness meditation

Goleman maintains that one of the best ways to develop self-awareness is mindfulness meditation.  He states that  his review of research on mindfulness with Richard Davidson demonstrated that meditation lessens the amygdala control over our response to negative triggers; enables us to be more aware of, and reduce, mind wandering; enhances our concentration and, overall, makes us calmer under stress.  According to Goleman, there is considerable payoff from self-awareness.

Kabat-Zinn, in discussing meditation in his book, Coming to Our Senses, maintains that the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to “cultivate qualities of mind and heart conducive to breaking free from the fetters of our own persistent blindness and delusions” (p110).  He suggests that our innate ability to be aware of our emotions and thoughts has eroded over time, the decline being further exacerbated by the pressures of modern living.   What mindful awareness, “wakefulness”, has brought to society, in his view, is the possibility “to break out of seemingly endless cycles self-delusion, misperception, and mental affliction to an innate freedom, equanimity and wisdom” (p.113).

Goleman in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, maintains that mindfulness meditation enables people not only to manage their attention but also their emotions (p.198).  As a result, one thing that such meditations can do is increase the response ability of people so that they are better able to create a gap between stimulus and response and choose constructive ways of responding.  He suggests that there is a very wide variety of meditations that can help people achieve the desired level of self-awareness.

Goleman, in his Focus book, also reports a conversation he had with Jon Kabat-Zinn about his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program (p.198).  In that conversation, Kabat-Zinn pointed out that people on their own accord changed their behaviour (e.g. stopped smoking) once they started “paying attention to their own inner states” – this happened despite the changed behaviour not being the focus of their meditation efforts.  Just developing self-awareness about their own feelings and stimuli enabled them to see what needed to be changed in their lives.

As people grow in mindfulness through meditation, they are better able to develop an understanding of their own emotions and thoughts and improve their response to stimuli that occur throughout their day.  In this way, they are calmer and more in control of their reaction to negative triggers.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Beyond R.A.I.N. – Remembering Self-Compasssion

In an earlier post, I discussed the R.A.I.N. meditation process – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture – as a way to address situations, including interactions with another, that generate strong negative feelings.  What happens, though, when your ineffective behaviour and negative feelings continue to recur after using the R.A.I.N. process?

We can be the captive of addiction, trapped in habituated responses to adverse stimuli, or stressed to the point that we have little control over our response when we are aggravated by an event or another person.  We may have lost our response ability through a lack of consciousness of our words and actions and their injurious impact on others, often unintended.

Tara Brach likens our daily life and its challenges to the waves of the ocean – we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf them so that we do not get “dumped” by them.  If we persist in blaming ourselves for falling off the surfboard of life occasionally, we can become paralysed by fear of failure.  This, in turn, can be compounded by our endless self-judging.

Self-judging imprisons us

We all have some form of negative self-evaluation – it may be stimulated by an event, adverse experience or over-reaction to a person we find annoying or critical of our behaviour.  We regularly blame ourselves or undervalue who we are or what we have contributed.  We might think that we do not “measure up” to our own standards, values or expectations or those of our family or significant other.

Our assessment of our response to a situation may be accurate in terms of inappropriateness, but the continual self-judging and self-denigrating disempowers us and detracts from our happiness and joy in life.  We become reluctant to engage effectively with our work colleagues, withdrawn in our conversations with our life partner or reticent to raise issues that affect us in other situations.   The way to regain our freedom and joy is through self-compassion.

Self-compassion frees us from the imprisonment of self-judging

Self-compassion enables us to break the trap of self-judging and be open to new responses to adverse situations.  It requires a radical self-acceptance and acknowledgement of what is human – our depth of suffering from previous experiences that manifests itself in our daily response to what is experienced as adverse events.  The perception of the impact of these events on us and our self-esteem is coloured by our recollections and interpretations of prior experiences.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-compassion meditation, we can break out of the cycle of self-judging and become open to different responses and to the freedom realised when we can break free of negative self-evaluations.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Mindfulness and Response Ability

Mitra Manesh, in her podcast on Mindfulness and Responsibility, noted that the word “responsibility” has two components – “response” and “ability”.  Her discussion and guided meditation are aimed at expanding our ability to respond rather than react.

Mitra maintains that mindfulness meditation, encompassing mindful breathing and body scan, can increase our response options so that our life is not governed by reactivity.  To this end, she leads us in a guided meditation on two occasions throughout the podcast.

During her podcast, Mitra Manesh defines mindfulness as ‘kind awareness and acceptance of our present moment”.  She notes that mindfulness has three essential elements – kindness, acceptance and the present moment. As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our response choices so that we are not held captive to our habituated, reactive responses.

We can more readily accept the present moment with kindness towards ourselves and others.  Kindness towards ourselves requires self-compassion and self-acceptance.  Kindness towards others involves consideration and compassion – being thoughtful and empathetic towards others and their needs.

Reactivity

Typically, in a wide range of situations, we react without thinking or being aware of the consequences of our words or actions for ourselves or others.  If someone “steels” our parking space during busy Christmas shopping, we may have some choice words to say and/or gestures to make.  If someone’s behaviour sets off a trigger for us, we will often react in an inappropriate way, usually with a response whose intensity does not match the seemingly, insignificant word or action that triggered the response – we are in a heightened reactive mode.

Reactivity taps into habituated behaviour that we have developed over time in response to various stimuli in our lives – stimuli such as disturbing situations, annoying  people or frustrated expectations.

Mindfulness and response ability

Mindfulness enables us to identify the negative triggers, isolate our reactive response, name our feelings and provide us with a choice space between stimulus and response.  We are able to expand our choice of responses and maintain calmness and clarity despite the disturbing nature of the situation.

Mindfulness helps us to show up differently in our relationships.  Instead of reacting to conflict with our life partner or colleague by our habit of withdrawal, sullenness or hurtful words, we can have the presence of mind to avoid inflaming the situation and, instead, show consideration and kindness.  Habituated reactivity fractures relationships, mindful responsiveness enriches them.

Our response ability develops with meditation practice because it helps us to grow in self-awareness and self-management.   Mindfulness practice expands our response choices as we “walk the streets of life”.

Note: Mitra Manesh’s podcast is provided as one of the weekly mindfulness podcasts provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.