Wikipedia defines self-awareness as "the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. It is not to be confused with consciousness. While consciousness is being aware of one’s environment and body and lifestyle, self-awareness is the recognition of that consciousness."
I have always been conscious of myself and my environment, but the awareness I have developed has set that consciousness in a context that enables me to make sense of it. My self is a matrix, a jumble, of all that I have been talking about. In the same moment I am physical and emotional, intellectual and spiritual. I can never truly pin my life down to any one aspect or any one level of existence. How do I distinguish what to do or how to react in any situation?
Looking at how I climb a mountain I can piece together the matrix of how I evolve and develop moment by moment. Climbing mountains is something I love to do and it is something that stretches me on all levels. It takes skill, self-understanding and awareness of the context to be able to successfully achieve the peak, both of the mountain and of self-understanding.
Recently I went out walking with a group of enthusiasts to walk a circular ridge walk here in Spain. It was planned to be a four hour walk with a lot of climbing. The first hour was spent walking up the rambla—a dry river bed common in this part of Spain—at a cracking pace. At the top end we were due to start some serious climbing. At that point I chose to go back down the rambla and go home. I had a great time walking back at my own pace. I enjoyed the surroundings and developed what I call a meditative walking pace.
I chose to go back primarily for physical reasons. My legs were complaining and the muscles were getting sore due to excess weight and a lack of training. I knew the route, having walked it the previous year, and I knew there was a significant amount of climbing still to come. I am going through a significant change of lifestyle that I have yet to fully integrate and I have not yet fully built up my physical strength.
I understood my physical limitations and decided not to continue. I had to find the courage to do that. I was with a group and was conscious of the potential for the group to judge me for dropping out. I rose above that and let my emotional reaction go. I enjoy walking for the ability to be alone in nature and be alone with myself. This may seem like an anti-social reason for doing it but that is alright with me. I did not enjoy the push and the pace to achieve the result.
On another occasion, in another part of Spain, I set out to climb Mulhacen, the highest peak in Spain. This time I set off alone excited by the prospect of topping Spain. It was a tough climb that tested me physically. As I set the pace I was able to keep going and get close to the top. But I stopped before I reached the peak and turned back. This was a difficult decision to make and one that I had to make in relation to my own desire to continue.
Across the valley my partner was sitting outside the Cortijo—a Spanish cottage— we were staying in, looking across at the mountain. She became concerned when she saw a deep black cloud settle around the top. She knew I was probably somewhere in the midst of it. For me the black cloud manifested itself as a hailstorm that was sudden and fierce. I was not dressed for this type of weather and I did not have the equipment to brave it. I was so close to the top but decided it was not wise to continue, especially on my own. I turned back. I was aware of my own limitations and capabilities. I knew my intentions but was able to balance them against the reality of the situation.
In these situations it easy to blind yourself to your desire or intention but awareness, true awareness, can help you see beyond that. In turning back I had to deal with my reaction to the potential judgement of others. We are all subject to the judgement of others, whether it is spoken or not. How does my awareness speak to this and how do I rise above it?
Much of my life has been influenced by what others thought of me. I had a desperation to fit in, a need for people to think well of me. Behind that I was frightened that people would see through that mask and see the real me. I always felt that who I was and who I portrayed to others were different people. In fact they were, but only because I chose it to be that way.
Before I became aware of this division in me I thought that what other people thought of me was the most important issue to deal with. My life was only worth while if they thought well of me. If they did not think well of me then I was doing something wrong, I was not good enough. Paradoxically, instead of pursuing this and seeking to know what people thought and doing something about it, I shied away, afraid of experiencing their judgement.
I always felt socially inept because I saw judgement in every reaction. I actually thought that people were focused on me and looking at me all the time. I did not work out that most people were like me, they were focused on themselves. The truth was more likely that they did not actually notice me because I did not put myself into their attention.
Many years ago I was at a crossroads in my life. I had been working in lighting design in the theatre and was trying to establish a career in architectural lighting. At that point it was not creative or satisfying and I was wondering where to go in the future. I decided to seek the opinions of those who knew me well in different areas of my life. I prepared a questionnaire about what they thought I was good at, not good at, what my positive points were, and what my negative points were. I was looking to get a rounded outside view of me. It took a great deal of courage for me to go to people and ask them to talk about me in this way.
A lot of people were embarrassed to do this, afraid of upsetting me. Many people responded with great answers, talking about about how amazing I was. there were those who were honest—I am so grateful to them for that—and there were those just thought I was mad. It proved to be a powerful exercise, if only for the experience of doing it. The picture I got back was pretty much in line with what I thought about myself. It helped me to keep moving forward and achieve great things, creatively, in architectural lighting. At that time I also went to a clinical psychologist and asked him to prepare a report on my strengths and weaknesses and type of career he thought I should pursue. It was an extraordinary feeling having an outsider look at me dispassionately and professionally and provide a written report.
I am now, however, at a point where that no longer matters to me. I have come to realise that it is what I think of myself that is important. I now allow my awareness to go deep inside me to feel my soul and experience the wholeness of who I am. This awareness is about me, it is not consciousness, about others and the environment, it is the end point of my meditation and my journey in life.
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—Photo Credit: Flickr/Abel Maestro Garcia