How Awareness Can Improve Your Life
Awareness means noticing what your experience is from moment to moment. This noticing can include feelings, thoughts, sensations, perceptions, images, senses, and anything else that catches your attention. While awareness may seem like a basic task to master, in actuality it can be very difficult. It is astonishingly easy to go into autopilot mode and stop noticing what is going on around us. Have you ever had the experience of pulling up to your house in your car and not fully remembering how you got there? Or of spacing out while reading, and having to go back to re-read the last few pages? These are prime examples of times where we lose track of our awareness.
Awareness has been a part of many therapeutic modalities for decades, but researchers, neurobiologists, and therapists have been paying particular attention to it in recent years. You may remember my “What Makes Therapy Effective?” article, where I noted that one of the factors that contributed to the success of therapy was the client’s ability to report on their own experience in the moment. Being able to track your awareness is increasingly being recognized as a means to achieve decreased stress levels, decreased anxiety, increased calm, increased creativity, a better connection to the body, and deeper self-knowledge.
So if you want to try to increase your awareness, what can you do? Here are a few techniques to experiment with:
Find a time where you can sit quietly and uninterrupted for five to ten minutes. Get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes if it feels natural. Pay attention to your breath. When you feel settled, slowly scan your body, starting at the very tips of your toes. As you work your way up your body, stop at various points to focus all of your attention on that particular spot. There is no agenda here; all you want to do is pay attention and see what you notice. Are there any particular sensations, like tingling, aching, numbness, or tightness? Is the temperature warm, cold, or neutral? Do you visualize any shapes or images? Do you see any specific colors? Do any specific words, phrases, or thoughts come to mind? Is there a specific emotion associated with that place? If you find yourself having a thought, simply note that you are having a thought, but try not to actively think about the details of the thought. Some of these questions might seem a little silly at first, but you may be surprised by the level of detail you notice when you take the time to pay attention. Past clients have reported the image of an iron cage around their heart, a fluttery sensation of anxiety in their stomach, heat in their fists, a feeling of emptiness in their chest, and the phrase, “I’m worthless” stamped on their forehead.
After you have tried the body scan a couple of times, you can try tracking your awareness without the structure of the scan. Instead of directing your awareness up your body, just sit quietly and comfortably and see what catches your attention first. Notice how your attention shifts. You might notice a pinch in your back, followed by a memory of being embarrassed, followed by the feeling of embarrassment in your gut. If it feels comfortable, you can say each of your observations out loud. For example, “I’m noticing a sense of stillness. I’m aware of an aching in my shoulders. Now I’m noticing that I’m breathing very slowly.”
As you become more comfortable with tracking yourself in this way, you can try incorporating awareness into your day. You might take a few minutes before getting out of bed to see what you notice. You could try tracking yourself as you ride the bus, eat your lunch, talk to a friend, write an email, or go grocery shopping. If you feel yourself getting stressed, anxious, angry, sad, joyful, confused, or any other emotion, you can take a moment to notice any other details of your experience in that moment. As you keep practicing, it will become more natural to tune into your awareness and notice more and more nuances.