It seems like the greater the variety of meditation styles, yoga forms, systemic change methods and spiritual practices I try out, the more I realize that in some basic way they are all focusing on the same type of result: self-awareness as the first step towards any kind of personal growth or enlightenment. And although the explanations for how to engage in a journey of building self-awareness are as diverse as the people who engage with them, I find that the main point to developing this capacity is this: learning to extend the time between actions and our corresponding reactions.
If we see any particular event that happens in our lives as a dot along a solid line of time, then our response to that event could also be charted as a dot further along on the same line. Most often, the space between these two dots -- in other words between cause and effect -- is next to none. Action/reaction. But what happens when we work on increasing the space between the two? Action.......reaction. What exists and what is possible in that space? And how can increasing the size of it actually alter the corresponding reaction that comes after it?
If we assume that action is a given -- i.e. events that come at us from the external world -- then our own possibility for engagement begins the moment the stimulus ends. At this moment our most natural engagement is instant reaction. We see this in the form of emotion, behavior or words that erupt out of us automatically, without the opportunity to first reflect or choose. The rush of happiness when we are praised or the rush of anger of defensiveness when insulted, for example. In this state, we are at the mercy of our pre-programmed understanding of the world, usually based on what we have experienced and learned from the world. While this "knee-jerk" reaction is at times useful and based in survival, it is certainly not always the one that provides the best results. We see this in everyday arguments that erupt from the most mundane of provocations. We also see this in massive world conflict based on a history of associations and experiences.
But what would happen if our reactions weren't so instantaneous? What if we could suspend our programmed instinct and build in a moment of pause, like floating in the brief second of space between a breath's inhalation and exhalation? Or like standing for a moment longer in the doorway between one room and another, having already left the first room but not yet stepped foot in the second?
This golden space is encapsulated by the Japanese foundational, artistic and cultural concept of Ma. It allows those who are aware of it to possess a greater vocabulary regarding how they react to everything that happens in their worlds. And because our options for reaction are actually limitless, nourishing our awareness of this space fosters our capacity to engage with our lives in more meaningful ways.
So how can we build up this capacity? As mentioned, the pursuit of this self-awareness capacity building has no lack of associated practices to help get you there. On a very simple level however, three practices that can help cultivate this space are (1) taking a moment to name actions before engaging with reactions, (2) letting go of expectations, and (3) viewing ourselves as separate from our emotions.
Naming the action refers to consciously seeing and identifying what is happening around us. It means objectively identifying an external impulse as soon as we become aware of it: noticing unpleasant words from someone else just for the words themselves and not the impact they have on you, or viewing a personally successful achievement just for the accomplishment itself and not via the corresponding pride we feel as a result of it. As a process, naming the action extends the space between its occurrence and our reaction to it. It gives us time.
Letting go of expectations references our capacity to recognize that while we all carry with us experiences that influence our views and understanding of the world, we still each possess the capacity to react in fresh and unexpected ways. By doing so we allow ourselves to be present to the actual moment rather than a product of our pasts. While not always easy, building up awareness around this can be incredibly liberating as it allows us to act independent from "what we always have done." Without expectations we allow ourselves to engage with agenda-less being and feel whatever comes to us in the moment while reveling in that void. This is exactly that space previously identified between Action.....Reaction.
Lastly, acknowledging that we are separate from our emotions allows us the capacity to take on a balcony view toward our own engagements with any Action/Reaction scenario. It allows you to see yourself from the outside and to temporarily disengage with the belief that you are your emotions. Rather, it allows you to see any emotional reaction as a fluid and passing one. After all, all emotions whether they be happy or sad come and go like tides in the ocean. When we engage with distance we are able to better see how automatic some of our reactions actually are. In turn we realize that they are not permanently connected to our own being and that we can let them go, allowing for other possibilities to emerge.
Using these methods can allow for incredible freshness in the way we engage with everyone and everything around us. It allows us to access to a wider breadth of knowledge and possibilities within every moment, and ultimately supports the development of a more authentic you. At the end of the day, regardless of whichever practice or method you use to get there, your self-awareness exploration is only as powerful as your ability to let go of everything you always have been and embrace everything you currently can be.