KNOW THYSELF: HOW TO DEVELOP SELF-AWARENESS
Self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly—as we are. It’s the wellspring from which an authentic life naturally flows.
Here are two other definitions of self-awareness I like:
“Internal self-awareness is about creating the time and space to know yourself; constantly check in with yourself (since your “self” changes over time); and then live your life accordingly.” –Brad Stulberg
“Knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions.” –Daniel Goleman
Self-awareness is not self-improvement. It’s not a struggle to change who we are. A widening self-awareness broadens our perspective and allows us to embrace new possibilities of being. Change follows naturally.
This page is a list of resources and exercises that have helped me understand myself. A couple comments about the sort of things you will find on this page:
- It’s from my own experience. If I didn’t try it you won’t find it here.
- It’s practical not theoretical. They are experiments you can do.
- You don’t have to believe anything. Nothing listed here requires belief—just an adventurous spirit and an open mind.
- You have to do the work. No one can do it for you.
- There is no map. These aren’t solutions, only paths that I found worthwhile to explore.
Self-understanding is the prelude to transformation.-Don Richard Riso
METHODS OF SELF DISCOVERY
(In alphabetical order.)
“We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.” -Yuval Noah Harari
Understanding the story of the past helps us to understand where we are, the invisible forces that shape our lives and how we might create something new.
Here’s a few books on the big picture that have changed my personal perspective:
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond – A sweeping, systematic inquiry into human evolution sparked by the question: why did Eurasian peoples, rather than peoples of other continents, become the ones to develop the ingredients of power and expand around the world? His thorough analysis unearths surprising insights into how our world was shaped, or rather, how our world has shaped us.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber – An exploration into the origins of debt (and money) and how debt has influenced our interpersonal relationships, religion, politics and society over the course of human history.
Myths To Live By by Joseph Campbell – The world’s collected mythology provides one of the oldest and well-preserved records of humankind’s ambitious struggle to understand itself and the world around it. Joseph Campbell demonstrates how for millennia, Man has relied on stories to navigate his inner and outer world. I’d recommend The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, also by Campbell.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – A thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human which begins with the very first humans to walk earth, and continues through the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolution to the modern day. It’s a fascinating look into the key turning points of human history that have shaped how we, and consequently most the lifeforms on on our planet, live.
A new vision of the past makes possible a new vision of the future. History is not a coffin with no escape. On the contrary, it is liberation, a bunch of keys that opens doors to places one never knew existed. -Theodore Zeldin
The only way to experience truth directly is to look within, to observe oneself. All our lives we have been accustomed to look outward. We have always been interested in what is happening outside, what others are doing. We have rarely, if ever, tried to examine ourselves, our own mental and physical structure, our own actions, our own reality. Therefore we remain unknown to ourselves. We do not realize how harmful this ignorance is, how much we remain the slaves of forces within ourselves of which we are unaware.
― William Hart
Meditation is a powerful approach to self-examination that’s been honed and passed down through different traditions for millennia. The benefits I’ve experienced are vast and have penetrated into every corner of my life. It’s the best tool I know of for developing awareness.
The world of meditation is vast and easy to get lost in. Mindfulness has become a buzzword these days and meditation is now a full-blown industry. Here’s a few suggestions for establishing a practice from one beginner to another:
- You learn meditation by meditating. This is the only way. It’s a practice.
- You need a teacher. Your practice will flourish much faster with the guidance of an experienced teacher. Especially so at the beginning. A teacher can’t walk the path for you but she can show you where some of the dead ends and wrong turns are.
- You absolutely need a teacher. If you are serious about establishing a meditation practice there is no substitute for a good teacher. Find one.
- Practice with others. Participating in a community, even if only occasionally, will strengthen your own practice.
- Write down the purpose for your practice in one sentence. Develop it as you go and revisit it when you need reminding.
- There are many methods. Don’t stress about finding the Right One. Find one that appeals to you and begin (I recommend a few places to start further down). You’ll learn as you go.
- Start small. Focus on building the habit of meditating, even if only for a few minutes, every day. Then begin increasing the duration of your meditations as you like.
- Commit to a method for a predetermined amount of time before you evaluate it. Give the technique a fair trial before deciding whether it’s worth continuing. With a daily practice, I’d recommend at least 3 months.
It is remarkable how much we, as a culture, invest in the fitness of the body and how little, by and large, in the fitness of the spirit and the psyche — which is essentially what meditation provides. -Maria Popova
A concise post on how to meditate from Sam Harris.
Understanding the meditation process can help us keep with our practice. My former Zen teacher, Ezra Bayda outlines the 5 elements of meditation that make it a transformative process.
Here are two methods of meditation I’ve practiced and recommend:
Dual Awareness Meditation
Taught by Ezra Bayden and Elizabeth Hamilton at the Zen Center of San Diego. Ezra has written a short guide on how to practice dual awareness meditation. You can find free recordings and transcripts of past Dharma talks on their website.
Visitors are welcome to practice with them. Check their schedule for upcoming sittings.
As taught by S. N. Goenka. You can learn more about vipassana on their site. To learn Vipassana you must take a 10 day course (donation based). Vipassana centers are worldwide, you can find the nearest one to you by checking their directory.
I wrote about my first Vipassana retreat.
I spent a lot of my life trying to be an extrovert. I didn’t understand why I felt so drained after social interactions and felt ashamed for craving so much time alone. I commonly felt guilty for wanting to “stay in” and alienated when I ignored my feelings and “went out” anyway. When I took a personality test and realized I was an introvert (and an INTJ for that matter!), it was a revelation. Nothing was inherently wrong with me, I was just wired differently. Understanding this helped me accept myself and organize my life, work and relationships in more fulfilling ways.
Personality tests don’t define who we are but they can help us better understand ourselves and how we interact with the world around us by identifying common patterns. They can help us recognize strengths, weaknesses and behavioral tendencies that we’re unconscious of.
The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers — of persistence, concentration, and insight — to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems. make art, think deeply.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
The MBTI is based off the work and theories of Carl Jung. One of Jung’s significant contributions (among many) was recognizing the prominent role that introversion and extroversion plays in personality. Taking the official MBTI will set you back $49.95 but there are plenty of free assessments and in-depth analysis out there. It’s worth taking a couple tests to dial in on your type. Then search your type online to learn more.
Free Myers-Briggs Personality Tests:
Additional Resources for INTJs:
- Howard at Systems Thinker provides an in depth look into the INTJ personality along with links additional resources
- Personality Hacker shares a ton of resources for INTJs including *gasp* an INTJ reading list! I also resonated with their explanation of why INTJ types are “the most misunderstood by others and by themselves.”
- I also liked Personality Junkie’s INTJ profile.
The Enneagram model depicts nine interlinked personality types with 9 stages of development for each. It’s a deep and nuanced system that has much to offer for those that take the time to study it. The Enneagram and the MBTI models often compliment each other—I’d recommend spending time with both.
My experience with the Enneagram comes mainly from Riso’s and Hudson’s book Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. It’s a good starting point for understanding the Enneagram system and its 9 types. You should have a pretty good idea of your type after reading the book. There are also plenty of free tests online. The Enneagram Institute charges $12 for their official test but they have a free analysis of each type here.
Free Enneagram Tests:
Self-acceptance is a way of viewing oneself compassionately, without condemnation or justification. It is a starting point in life which makes other things possible. It celebrates the fullness of joy of being alive and of being who we are: accepting ourselves, however, does not mean embracing our neuroses or bad habits and celebrating them as if they were virtues. On the contrary, self-acceptance involves loving ourselves enough to accept painful truths about ourselves. . . Self-acceptance is, at its simplest, the experience of one’s self, here and now, as a complete human being, with all the glories and problems that condition entails.
― Don Richard Riso
This test aims to help you identify your strengths in the workplace. The Gallup Organization interviewed 1.7 million professionals and distilled their results into 34 distinct patterns, or strengths. Take the test on the StrengthFinder’s website here.
Their test ($19.99 for the 5 strengths assessment) gave me valuable insight into my unique mix of talents and helped me contemplate what I’m best positioned to contribute. It’s helped me understand past successes and think about the future direction of my work. I’ve referred back to my results often.
The Five Love Languages
Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages is a simple yet powerful framework that’s helped millions understand and improve their relationships. It’s helped me communicate with the people I love more effectively.
If you’re in a relationship already I’d recommend sharing and discussing your results with your partner.
The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive (this is different than being introverted, extraverts make up 30% of HSPs). In general, western society does not cater to—or understand—the needs and abilities of HSPs. If you are an HSP, you likely operate much differently than most people around you. If you do, it’s helpful to know this.
I found the assessment fairly vague so if you think you might be highly sensitive but aren’t sure try reading the first chapter of Dr. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, which provides an in depth description of the highly sensitive trait.
Retreats create a distraction-free space where we can focus in on what’s important. Every retreat will have a different focus and style. What’s most important is developing the habit of periodically creating time and space for yourself. With experience you’ll discover what flavor of retreat works best for you.
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. -Marcus Aurelius
Solo Retreats – The great thing about solo retreats is all it requires is you. You can go whenever you like for however long you like. Solo retreats have helped me reflect and gain perspective, contemplate difficult decisions and situations, find direction and reconnect with myself and nature. I wrote an in-depth, practical guide for planning your own solo retreat.
The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait until that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.-Henry David Thoreau
Vipassana Meditation Retreats – Vipassana (a Pali word that translates to “insight”) is a technique claimed to have been discovered and taught by the Buddha. There are several methods of vipassana, my experience is with the method taught by S.N. Goenka. It’s completely donation based and open to all. There are centers all over the world. Chances are there is one near you. New students must take a 10 day course to learn the technique.
If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. -Buddha
What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.-James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
Two exercises for developing your vision:
- Create a vision board. Here’s what happened when I made my first vision board and a 10 step guide for making your own.
- Imagine your dream day in detail. Write it down, tweak it and develop it in as much detail as you can. Continue to revisit it daily, weekly or monthly. My friend Zach first introduced me to this method and offers a free, guided dream day meditation on his site. When I look back on my original dream day from years ago it’s startling to see how much of it has become my reality.