Self Awareness in Uncertain Times

Entry #2: Practicing Self-Awareness in the Midst of Uncertainty

Despite seeming so straightforward, the task of persevering our self-awareness is a difficult one to endeavor.

The difficulty of the task is even more amplified amidst the COVID-19 situation, a global pandemic that forces us to revamp our routines, sometimes with negative consequences to our well-being. If there’s one good thing that comes out of this, it’s that it gives us the time and space we need to evaluate our outlook on life. But how should we go about doing it, especially when we are faced with so many uncertainties?

To help answer this, here are some ways we can practice to keep ourselves going from some of the great minds of our time:

Thích Nhất Hạnh – The miracle of mindfulness

Known as one of the pioneers in mindfulness teachings, Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who spent his life mastering and promoting mindfulness. Contrary to what is often thought of mindfulness as a meditation exercise, Nhất Hạnh’s teaching has one key point: when you’re doing something, fully immerse yourself in what you’re doing at the present moment.

One beautiful example he shared in one of his letters (which was turned into the book “The Miracle of Mindfulness”) is about washing the dishes. During his time at the monastery, it was his routine to wash the dishes after every evening meal, before sitting down and having tea with the others.

Now imagine you have a similar routine; tea after washing dishes. According to Nhất Hạnh, if you wash the dishes while thinking of the tea that awaits you, then you are not washing the dishes correctly. On the other hand, if you empty your mind and just wash the dishes mindlessly, it is also not the right way. When you wash the dishes, you should only think “I’m washing the dishes now”.

How could his idea be applied to us during this time? If we start to practice Nhất Hạnh’s teachings to our own minds, there will be little room for worry and anxiety to take over. We will be engaged with what is happening at the present moment, and not drift away thinking about situations in the past or future. If we are successful in practicing this, we will be able to keep ourselves grounded and have better clarity on what we need to do.

Seneca – Having an internal locus of control

Stoicism has been a central theme in philosophy over the past few decades (if not centuries), and Seneca is famous for being one of its early popularisers. Put simply, stoicism is the belief that we should have an internal “locus of control”, where we are in control of what we think and how we behave at any given situation, as opposed to having an external locus where we let things beyond our control trouble us.

While similar in result to mindfulness (being focused at the present moment), stoicism teaches us to categorise our thoughts by what we can and can’t control. How others treat us, economic recessions, and the present pandemic situation are things beyond our control, and therefore not things we should be concerned with. However, how we respond and choose to act during such moments are within our control.

When we have made a clear separation between in-control vs out-of-control, decision making should be easier. For example, we know that there are signs that a recession is coming, yet there’s nothing we can do to stop it. There’s no point in worrying what will happen if recession comes. A good course of action we can do instead is to ensure we are well prepared, have enough money saved, cut unnecessary expenses, or maybe find another source of income.

As Seneca himself stated in his letter to Lucillus:

“There are more things that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.

Alfred Adler – Nothing can definitively cause unhappiness

Adler was a renowned psychotherapist famous for debunking the notion that trauma, or past incidents that happen in our lives, could alter the course of our lives. He strongly opposed the notion that traumas shaped who we are (as popularised by another famous psychotherapist Sigmund Freud).

According to Adlerian psychology, the events in our life don’t have any definitive effect on who we are today. The things that happened in our past only have meaning the moment we assign certain meanings to them. For example, two people who experienced lonely childhood can turn out to have two opposing personalities as adults. One may turn out to be a loner, pointing the reason that it is how they were raised and therefore shaped who they are today. The other one can use the exact same reason, but says that the experience forced them to break free of loneliness and become an extremely outgoing person instead.

If our goal, perhaps subconsciously, is to remain in a negative state because we’re afraid of changing, then we will “justify” that state by looking for a cause that supports it. That is not to say, however, that traumatic events in our past don’t any impact on our lives. They certainly do, but the extent of which they could affect us depends on the purpose we have at the present.

Using the same logic, if we have our intention set to keep moving, then the pandemic shouldn’t be a cause that stops us from doing them. If on the other hand, we have a “goal” to not do anything (perhaps out of fear), we will use the pandemic, recession, and social isolation to justify our lack of action.

What next?

To summarise, these are the three things we can start practicing to keep ourselves grounded and be in touch with who we are:

  1. Be fully engaged at what we are doing at the present moment
  2. Have an internal locus of control and not let our thoughts be disturbed by things beyond our control
  3. Set the right goal or purpose at the present

If we start incorporating them into our days, we’ll find that it’s not too difficult to get through this time. In fact, we may use this time to give ourselves a much needed break to spend on self-reflection and improvement. Hopefully one day we will be able to look back at this moment in our lives fondly and see how much it had helped propelled the change that we needed.

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