As the conversation wound down at a recent book group gathering I attended, a few stragglers took up one of the themes that had made the storyline so interesting: Self-awareness — or in the heroine’s case, the lack thereof.
“What’s so great about being self-aware anyway?” one woman asked. We laughed, but it was a serious question, and my mind has been percolating on the topic. In yoga the precept that contributes mightily to self-awareness is called svadhyaya (self-study), and it's a practice that helps you get to know yourself better.
It’s impossible to realize your full potential without svadhyaya. You can’t further your development without examining your assumptions, identifying your contribution to the difficult issues you encounter, or getting clear about the habits that do not serve you. Self-awareness is the means to living consciously and authentically. It can deepen relationships — or help you see when it’s time to let them go. As businessman and author William George writes in his book True North, “Authenticity is developed by … understanding one’s life story and the impact of one’s crucibles, and reflecting on how these contribute to motivations and behaviors.”
How to develop self-awareness? Start with less certainty. Most people tend to cling to certainty because they think its opposite is uncertainty — but in reality curiosity propels us from being stuck in certainty into the realm of exploration and revelation. Spend time deconstructing some of your most cherished beliefs. Hold them up to the light, stand them on their head — find your child’s mind and look at something you’ve seen a thousand times through a child’s eyes.
Svadhyaya also is a path to developing confidence in the strengths that you already possess. Not just knowledge, skills, and techniques (although they are certainly important) but also the essence of who you are. Larry Dressler, author of Standing in the Fire, says that knowing and understanding your “way of being” can make the difference between competence and mastery: “It is a specific kind of presence that others experience as fully engaged, open, authentic, relaxed, and grounded in purpose." Svadhyaya helps you find that core of integrity and presence, so that you can call it forth in complex, heated and demanding situations.
Here are a few of the suggestions we make in Yoga Wisdom at Work for developing the practice of svadhyaya:
1. Write down three things you believe are true. Identify the assumptions in your statements. Ask yourself, “What if this weren’t true? Is there a different story I could be telling?” How many other stories are possible?
2. Make a list of your core values. Where did they come from? Are they still relevant? Are there times you have failed to align your actions with your values? When does that happen, and why?
3. Ask a few close, trusted friends or coworkers to give you feedback when they see you indulging identified bad habits, or taking actions that don’t reflect your values. Set aside specific time to get feedback. When you receive it, try to avoid justifying your actions or getting defensive. Just say “Thank you.” After you’ve had one of these conversations, what do you notice?