At the core of both personal development and meditation, there is the concept of self-mastery. To be “the master of yourself” means that you are fully grounded and centered—you are not controlled by your thoughts, emotions and impulses. You have the ability to change your inner states.
This is what I call internal self-discipline—the cultivation of the higher mind. It’s the self-transformation aspect of self-discipline, compared to using self-discipline for external goals such as finances and career.
There are four key aspects of emotional self-mastery: Awareness, Regulation, Creation, and Sublimation. In this first article of the series, we begin by exploring Awareness.
Awareness—the Foundation of All
Whether you call it mindfulness, witnessing, noticing, or meta-cognition, self-awareness is our ability to see what is happening inside of us in the present moment. It is the first step of self-mastery, because you can never change something that you are not aware of.
Suppose you are feeling antsy. If you have well-trained self-awareness:
- You will know that you are feeling antsy.
- You will know exactly how that feels in your body, and in your mind.
- You will notice how that impacts your behavior, thoughts, and moods in general.
- You will be aware of what triggered the feeling.
- You will have an idea of what you can do to regulate it.
If you have poor self-awareness, you may not have clarity about what is going on, or what has triggered it. Your vision is clouded, and you don’t know why. You barely notice what you are feeling; and if you do, it’s hard for you to define what it is. In this state, you may even blame others for how you feel, or be unaware how this emotion is spoiling your day, and what you could do about it.
All techniques of personal development, therapy, and coaching, presuppose some degree of self-awareness. Without it, not much can be done. If you don’t know that you are angry when you are angry, you won’t even think of doing something to change that state.
The Three Aspects of Awareness
Awareness is not binary. It’s not something that you either have or you don’t. It’s a spectrum. There are also different aspects of awareness, and you may have some of them more developed than others.
The first aspect is speed. When your awareness is fast, you notice emotions and thoughts as soon as they arise. When your awareness is slow, you notice them after they are already well established—and then it’s often too late, as they have gathered a lot of momentum, making them difficult to manage.
The “speed” of your awareness shows how present you are. Take the example of meditation practice.
- A beginner meditator may only notice that they got distracted a couple of minutes after they were last aware of their object of focus—let’s say, thirty thoughts down the line.
- A more experienced meditator will notice that they were distracted much sooner, perhaps five or ten thoughts down the line.
- An advanced meditator will notice as soon as distraction happens, or perhaps with one thought of delay.
- With time and practice, it’s possible to get to a point where you become aware of distractions before they actually happen. It is hard to explain how this is possible, but it’s definitely something that can be experienced.
The second aspect of awareness is clarity. The clearer is your awareness, the more detail you see. This is the difference between saying “I don’t feel good” and saying “I felt a wave of frustration coming when I realized I had missed this deadline.”
When your awareness is clear, you see more details. You can articulate better what is going on. Your vocabulary around your inner states is richer, and your understanding of their nature is more nuanced.
The third aspect of awareness is stability. When your awareness is stable, you can keep it steady in the same place; when it’s unstable, it wobbles and wanders away. It is, basically, another name for focus.
Clarity and stability support each other.
- The longer you can look inside (stability), the more you will see (clarity).
- The more you attempt to scrutinize your states (clarity), the more you are guiding your awareness to stay focused (stability).
The stability of your awareness is disturbed by both desire and fear. Desire distracts your awareness by showing it something more interesting for you to look at. Fear distracts your awareness by making you unwilling to look at things that are not pleasant.
In summary, the three elements of awareness are speed (how soon you see), clarity (how much you see), and stability (for how long you see). Though there are overlaps, they are separate elements. Your awareness may be very fast, but not so clear and stable. Or perhaps your awareness is slow, but when it kicks in, you can see things with full clarity and stay with them.
The main ways we train our awareness is via meditation and reflection.
Meditation, especially as concentration practice, improves mostly the speed and stability of our awareness. We are training ourselves to be very present to every movement of our mind, so that we avoid distractions, and stay still with the meditation object.
Reflection, on the other hand, is more about developing clarity. Unlike with meditation, in reflection we are looking directly into the contents of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. As a result, we become more discerning about them.
Whether you are practicing self-reflection through the means of journaling, therapy, or the PAW Method, it always involves noticing what is happening inside of you, zooming out, and gaining perspective and insight about it.
In this article you learned the importance of self-awareness as the foundation for all personal development work and emotional self-mastery. You learnt that awareness has three aspects—speed, clarity, and stability—and that meditation and self-reflection are the key ways to develop it.
To train your awareness in a more systematic way, you might want to try the Mindful Self-Discipline app, which includes dozens of guided meditations, as well as interactive tools such as the three-question journal, the PAW Method, and the +1/-1 tracker.
The next articles of this series will explore the other three elements of emotional self-mastery: regulation, creation, and sublimation.