I’ve thought and written a great deal about self-awareness. I work with a lot of self-aware people–and I consider myself a pretty self-aware person. Yet, in my own life and with my clients, I’m become increasingly aware that self-awareness operates at multiple levels and that just being “highly self-aware” is not enough. To that end, I’m playing with a distinction–between what I’ll call “macro” self-awareness and “micro” self-awareness. Macro self-awareness is all about being aware of one’s patterns, one’s reactions, one’s impact in the world. Micro self-awareness is being able to experience yourself in the moment, to catch yourself before you act out a pattern that you are highly aware of in the abstract–and, in the very moment, do something different. Micro self-awareness requires that you remain attentive in the moment, that you are able to observe your reactions before they turn into actions. It is the capacity to stand outside of yourself and be an observer of that self–to see yourself from a distance, to hear your thoughts as thoughts, rather than as reality.
Micro self-awareness is also when you make a tiny course corrections that allows you to be more present, more empathic, more generous–to yourself and to others–because of your capacity to see yourself more clearly in the moment. I would argue that the most fertile soil for meaningful, sustainable change, growth and shift is is in the realm of micro self-awareness–and that we all would do well identifying ways to spend more time in that realm.
I’m becoming increasingly aware that much of my work as a coach is in helping people take macro awareness to a micro level. I am often hired to support people who realize that something is getting in their way–but aren’t sure how to make a shift. They often don’t know where to start. Our work together almost always begins with a period of learning to notice, of observing. Often, just by observing, change begins. Paying attention in the moment is a key to micro self-awareness. And, while this might sound simple, it’s anything but easy. It’s incredibly easy to forgot to observe, to be so “in” the moment that you can’t “see” the moment. Micro self-awareness is the work of a life time.
An obvious and popular strategy for increasing micro self-awareness–to develop the capacity for moment-to-moment awareness–is mindfulness. Mindfulness practices offering many tools for increasing micro self-awareness. We now know that these practices and others that require us to develop our present moment awareness actually rewire our brains, opening up new neural pathways.
Mindfulness meditation trains your mind to be present to what emerges in the moment. A more active yoga practice can do the same. And, for those with whom neither meditation nor yoga resonate, learning to notice, to become an observer of one’s self, can take lots of different forms. Adam Grant’s recent op-ed in the New York Times includes, among other things, some great strategies for building mindfulness–without meditation. (And, as an aside, his piece is an altogether interesting critique of the emphasis placed on meditation these days–more on that another day.)
Micro self-awareness–and the hard work of daily self-observation–is also the stuff of spiritual practice. Not big, splashy spirituality and religion, but quiet, reflective practice that can result in moments of clarity and–dare I say it–enlightenment (with a lower case “e.”)
So, I’m sure I’ll keep reading books, gathering new insights, looking to grow my “macro” self-awareness. I’ll also make sure to balance my efforts–and guide my clients to do the same–spending more time taking those big insights and bringing them into my day, moment by moment.