Awareness is revolutionary


Have you ever wondered why awareness makes such a difference? How and why does it bring about such complete and dramatic change to the way we lead and relate to others?

Like me, you’ve probably had one of those truly awful experiences where you lost your cool in an important work meeting, or ruined a special, romantic dinner, all because you just couldn’t stop yourself from reacting to something. If only you could take back those dreadful words that just slipped out of your mouth!

So how can you improve your awareness so that next time you will be to able pause and compose yourself before you speak, and nip the reactive process in the bud?

Awareness always begins with yourself. Self-awareness is the essential foundation we need in order to become more aware of others, and of the world around us. The process of becoming more self-aware is often described as holding up a mirror and seeing yourself more clearly. Sadly, sometimes I really don’t like what I see.

I also wonder if this way of describing awareness is a bit too self-referential. Although you do need to start with yourself, it’s important to remember that, ultimately, it’s not all about you.  As leaders, our efforts to become more self-aware are really aimed at improving our relationships with others and having a greater impact within our organisations and in the world in which we work. This gives us some ideas about what mindful leadership actually looks like.

A more hopeful image that resonates with me is the lotus. The lotus has its roots down in the mud but it reaches clear of the water, towards the sun, where it flourishes and grows. If the mud is our reactivity and negative states of mind – the sludge at the root of our difficulties, and the water is the depth of emotion that is part of the human condition – the emotional states that are never far from our experience, then the sun is the pure light of awareness, shining everywhere at all times.  

On a cloudy day, and even at night, the light of awareness is available; it is only temporarily obscured, waiting to be revealed. With awareness, even the worst aspects of our negativity, or the things we really struggle to change, can be transformed into the beautiful lotus.

Beginner’s mind

So where and how to begin? We begin with beginner’s mind. This is the change in attitude – the spirit of curiosity – that is essential to becoming more aware.  When we cultivate beginner’s mind, we are freed from our habitual ways of being and perceiving the world.  Instead of being caught in our version of the world, as experienced through our thoughts and feelings, and our fixed sense of who we are, we begin seeing the world from the perspective of awareness. With beginner’s mind, nothing is fixed, so anything is possible.

Imagine experiencing every moment with beginner’s mind? This gives us an inkling of just how revolutionary awareness is, and how it can radically change how we relate to others and the way we lead.

“In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities
but in the expert’s there are few.”                            

-Shunryu Suzuki

This process is illustrated in the Growing Edge Awareness Model below, which is inspired by the excellent work of Tenney & Gard (2016). Our habitual way of being and seeing the world (the diagram on the left) involves sense experiences coming in through one or more of our senses and shaping our thoughts and feelings, and our ideas about who we are. Often the stimulus comes in unhindered and we react habitually, either with craving or aversion. Craving means we want more of the stimulus (“that chocolate cakes smells delicious, I must eat some”). Aversion means we want to get away from the stimulus (“my manager isn’t listening to me, I’ve got to get out of this unbearable conversation”).

With our thoughts and feelings foremost in our experience, and the solid sense of self that is “me” defining how we see ourselves, awareness barely gets a look in. If there is any glimmer of awareness, it arrives too late, almost as an afterthought, with little or no possibility of impacting the way we communicate or behave.


The Growing Edge Awareness Model
(Adapted from The Mindfulness Edge, Tenney & Gard, 2016)

The other way of being and perceiving the world involves self-reflexive consciousness (the diagram on the right). This turn of phrase was coined by Eugene Halliday to describe the mind turning its attention back on itself. Here, we are aware, in the moment, of our sense experience so we can choose how we respond. So, instead of reacting with craving or aversion, other responses become possible. We can be curious about what is happening, or ask a question, or just pause to reflect for a moment before speaking.

Self-reflexive consciousness is a uniquely human capacity. With awareness, you can shift from being the “subject” to being the “object” of your own mind. In the moment, when awareness is turned back on itself, you don’t just experience desire or anger, you know you’re experiencing it.

So now, that chocolate cake still smells really good but, with awareness, I choose to reflect and be curious – “Jane is so kind to make the cake for the team. I wonder if it’s some one’s birthday?”  And that difficult conversation with my manager goes something like this – “I’m noticing my manager isn’t listening.  I wonder what’s going on for her?”

Mind the gap

If you’ve been to London and travelled on the Tube you will have seen the signs everywhere that tell you to “Mind the Gap”.  This is the gap between the platform and the train. If you fall in the gap, the consequences can be serious.

In awareness training we also need to mind the gap.

Returning to our awareness model, there is a specific moment when a reaction happens. We’ve all been there so you know what this feels like.  In that moment, if you are operating habitually, there’s very little, if any, gap between how you feel about your present experience (it could be positive, negative or neutral) and your reaction.  Like the gap at the London Underground, the consequences can be serious if you react automatically.

I remember a time I lost sight of the gap when I was in a leadership role. In the pressure situation of a public event, I didn’t have enough awareness to sit in the gap and make a positive choice. Instead, I castigated a staff member in front of some event attendees and the consequences were very serious. Despite my profuse apologies after the event (yes apologising is always the right thing for a leader to do), it was too late. A very excellent member of my team was so mortified by my behaviour that I received their resignation not long after.

Widening the gap between feeling (which is simply a positive, negative or neutral stimulus) and your response gives you some precious time to compose yourself, reflect and choose how to respond. By cultivating awareness, you can move from reactivity to creativity and from habit to choice. With this shift comes freedom.

At the beginning, you might notice yourself reacting after it has already happened – as I did in my very public, and very embarrassing example.  Then you might be able to see what is happening while you’re in the grip of the reaction; you’re in the gap but not yet aware enough to choose not to react.  Finally, with greater awareness, you can actually see and feel the gap before you are in it, and make a more creative choice.

For leaders who want to be more aware of themselves and others, cultivating awareness involves learning to find and sit in the gap between feeling and response. It takes some practice but it is a skill that can be learnt. Doing so will radically change the way you lead because, in the gap, you have the freedom to choose how to respond and to be exactly the kind of leader that you aspire to be.

It’s important to bring self-acceptance to this process because, at times, we all fall into the gap. With acceptance, and a mindset committed to learning and growth, change is possible. In fact, it is inevitable.

Mindfulness

Practising mindfulness is a very direct way leaders can develop their awareness. With mindfulness, we practice turning the mind back on itself, noticing our habitual reactions, and exploring new ways of responding with reflection, curiosity and questions. Every challenging situation is a fresh opportunity to learn, if we come to it with beginner’s mind.

Mindfulness has a well-established research-base which has confirmed the health and mental health benefits of mindfulness practice. With a wide range of organisations now offering mindfulness programs in the workplace, research into workplace mindfulness is also taking off. Researchers have found that mindfulness at work comes with a whole host of benefits, from improved self-regulation, work relationships and employee resilience (Good et al, 2016) to reduced workplace stress and improved performance (Hyland et al., 2015).

Before you object that meditation is not for you (or maybe you love it), mindfulness includes meditation but is actually much broader than just meditation. Either way, awareness is something that you can most definitely cultivate, both on and off the meditation cushion, and apply to all aspects of your life, work and leadership.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge
www.maria-brett.com

Maria Brett inspires other to find and work at their growing edge. She offers training and coaching in mindfulness and resilience for personal and professional growth. To find out more, contact Maria.

References:

Good, D. J., Lyddy, C. J., Glomb, T. M., Bono, J. E., Brown, K. W., Duffy, M. K., Baer, R. A., Brewer, J. A., & Lazar, S. W. (2016). Contemplating Mindfulness at Work: An Integrative Review. Journal of Management42(1), 114-142. 

Halliday, E. (1989). The Reflexive Self-Consciousness. In David Mahlowe (ed.) The Collected Works of Eugene Halliday, vol II. The Melchisedec Press.

Hyland, P.K., Lee, R.A. and Mills. M.J. (2015). Mindfulness at Work: A New Approach to Improving Individual and Organizational Performance. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8, pp 576-602 doi:10.1017/iop.2015.41.

Tenney, M., & Gard, T. (2016). The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule. John Wiley & Sons.

© Maria Brett, 2021