Monday, March 7, 2016

The centrality of self-awareness

Self-awareness – sometimes called metacognition or self-transcendence – connotes the human ability to represent one's cognitive processes to one's self in order to evaluate those processes. Because of self-awareness, humans can reflect about the future, engage in introspection, converse with the self, create a narrative about the self, and react emotionally to that narrative.

Self-awareness may be the locus of God-human encounters, an element of the imago dei (although some process theologians argue that self-awareness constitutes the imago dei), or an essential component of liberation and spiritual growth, e.g., in Theravadan Buddhism.

Self-awareness is always partial and therefore never completely accurate. Identifying self-awareness as an aspect of the human spirit does not specify the content, degree, or nature of self-awareness but may only recognize the question's universal and distinctive importance for humans. Moreover, externalities such as drugs, physical or psychological trauma, etc., can impair self-awareness.

Spiritual disciplines that can help to develop self-awareness are:
  • Physical exercise – A person is his or her body, having no existence independent of the physical body. A program of physical exercise aids in attuning awareness to one's bio-rhythms, sharpening the difference between self and non-self, clearing the mind by reducing stress and flushing negative emotions from the body, and putting one more in touch with one's self.
  • Contemplation – Contemplation denotes thinking about an image, idea, object, or relationship. Christian contemplatives, illustratively, often focus their reflections on Jesus or some aspect of his life, such as his death on the cross. In Orthodoxy, Christian contemplatives often use an icon as the catalyst for their reflections; in Roman Catholic Christianity, contemplatives frequently will use the rosary, the consecrated host, or Stations of the Cross as the catalyst. Sadly, many Protestant Christian traditions have abandoned contemplation as a spiritual discipline.
  • Meditation – In meditation, a person aims to move beyond words and concrete images to a more direct, personal experience of God that occurs by emptying the mind, leaving it a blank canvass upon which God can write, paint, or appear. Meditation has been part of the Christian tradition since almost the beginning, but those who have pursued the spiritual discipline of meditation have often faced misunderstanding and condemnation. Current interest in being spiritual but not religious seems to invite Christians to explore and to inhabit those parts of their tradition that affirm the value of meditation, offering an important counterbalance to interest in other religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, that have historically placed greater emphasis on the value of meditation.
  • Spiritual direction or psychoanalysis – Improving self-awareness – more fully and consciously recognizing what you think is your identity, your purpose, and your values – is one of the benefits from receiving spiritual direction or undergoing psychoanalysis. Some individuals find continuing guidance from a spiritual director invaluable. Other persons prefer an occasional "checkup" that they use as an opportunity to review their spiritual life, to discuss obstacles or new directions, to clarify experiences, and to assess progress. As is true in developing all six facets of the spirit, each person is unique. Each person, usually through a process of trial and error, must identify a helpful and sustainable set of spiritual practices. Over time, some of those practices will cease to be helpful and need replacing. Other practices will seem dry and pointless for extended periods, but perseverance will bring the person fresh insights and depth. A good spiritual director can help one to discern whether to abandon a particular discipline or to persevere with it. 

The disciplines that develop self-awareness are generally not exercises in which one can engage haphazardly. Physical exercise, contemplation, and meditation all require an ongoing and commitment. Numerous books outline programs for each. Selecting a particular program is a function of personality and lifestyle. In all cases, establishing a regular pattern and some form of accountability will help to transform an initial interest into a habitual practice.

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