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Tired of Counting Breaths? Try Open Awareness

Our personal agency—that over which we have direct control—comes into play when we change our relationship to our thoughts and our emotions. This allows us to fine-tune our reactions to our own emotions as well as those of others. Developing the capacity to relate differently to our internal experience first requires we become cognizant of our mental phenomena (i.e. our thoughts and emotions) as they unfold in the moment. Once we hone our awareness, we can begin to react to our emotions in a more productive way.

Learning to notice our own patterns of thought and emotion can be difficult, but thankfully it’s not impossible. That is where meditation or mind training comes in. The word for meditation in Tibetan, gom, literally means “getting used to” or “familiarizing oneself with.” Getting used to what? Familiarizing ourselves with our own minds and how our thoughts and emotions unfold within our experience.

There are many ways to train the mind through meditation. One way that I’ve found helpful for familiarizing myself with my own patterns of thought and emotions is to sit up in a comfortable, yet upright position in which my spine is straight. Instead of closing my eyes, I often leave mine open. I prefer this because it better prepares me to be able to employ these practices in day-to-day circumstances. I’m not closing myself off to sensory input, rather I’m training in circumstances that more closely resemble our waking reality.

Instead of focusing on an object, I let my mind settle into its natural, wakeful quality, allowing myself to become aware of awareness itself–sometimes referred to as meta-cognition. I gently notice my mind’s capacity to be awake, clear, and spacious; I don’t intently focus on this or that. I just allow my mind to rest in a natural state of openness. I don’t have to imagine or conjure up anything in my mind’s eye, nor do I get involved with what is taking place visually in front of me or what I may hear happening around me, or even with what is unfolding within my own experience (i.e. my thoughts and emotions).

When I do get distracted by sensory inputs, by a thought or an emotion, or any movement of mind whatsoever, I gently notice this with an attitude of openness, like the experience of passing through beautiful scenery while on a train ride. We see the beautiful scenery, if only for a brief moment, and then it’s gone. Instead of getting caught up with the thought or the emotion, I let it pass. Like waiting on a platform for the subway, we may notice the trains as they come and go, but we let them pass, knowing, “this isn’t my train to catch,” and so we don’t get on.

You can also imagine your thoughts and emotions as clouds moving through the sky. Clouds don’t make a big deal about themselves. They just come and go rather unceremoniously. They might produce rain or lightning or thunder and then they are on their merry way. 

By the time you notice you’ve been distracted, you’re already back, meaning your awareness is already poised and ready to perceive whatever unfolds next within the space of your awareness and perception. It’s like riding a well-trained horse, you don’t have to yank at the reins, you lean and the horse senses what you want it to do by the shift in your body’s weight. Our minds are like this, gentle touches are all that is needed. If you start trying to yank around your mind, scolding it each time it moves, be prepared to watch it act out.

Other times our awareness can take on the quality of a cat lying in wait, tail switching back and forth, ready to pounce on whatever comes into its path. When we notice that our awareness is lying in wait for the next thought or emotion to appear we give that up too, letting go of any urges we might feel to become expert noticers. Instead, try taking a deep breath, one that’s slightly deeper than usual. Let this be a gentle reminder to let your mind relax. Then, as you breathe out, release the urge for any mental doing. Your only job at this moment is to be aware, allowing the mind to settle into its natural capacity to be clear. For that instant, the mind clears right up and isn’t preoccupied with anything.

The bright and fresh quality of mind is similar to the experience of taking in a breath of crisp, cold air when you first step outside on a cold winter’s day or how the mind feels after a brisk run when we collapse on the couch when we get home.

I find, for myself, having something that isn’t tangible, yet can still be experienced–like the awake and aware quality of my mind left untampered–is more helpful than intently focusing upon an object, such as the breath. In the space of open awareness, I am able to change my relationship to my thoughts and emotions in the moment. It’s easier to let go when you’re not holding on so tightly to begin with. 

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Developing Self-Awareness, One Moment At a Time

Most of my career has involved some form of providing leadership development solutions, including coaching executives from a wide range of industries. Soon after I began coaching, however, I noticed that regardless of how consistent I was in my approach of coaching someone or how open they were to the process, lasting changes weren’t always a given. I eventually came to realize that simply understanding one’s strengths and gaps, and having a desire to improve isn’t enough to ensure the kind of long-term behavioral changes that are necessary to consistently achieve better results. What I repeatedly observed was that the clients who achieved the most successful outcomes were also the clients who worked most consistently to improve their emotional self-awareness.

How we perceive ourselves and others happens in the present.

Our perceptions are formed continuously, from moment to moment. This process is so seamless that we often think of behaviors as being static, and that changing them should be as easy as flipping a switch. This is a mistaken perception because behaviors are formed by doing something repeatedly, over and over, one moment at a time. Being self-aware allows us to be present and to choose the most skillful behaviors to navigate our complex social landscape, taking into account both our own emotional needs as well as those of others.

Self-awareness is perhaps the most important tool for gaining access to our own agency, which is what we have control over at a most basic level, so that we can choose positive behavioral responses to the various situations we encounter in our lives on a moment-to-moment basis.

What is self-awareness?

The concept of self-awareness is fundamental to a number of different disciplines, each of which uses slightly different definitions. Within the framework of Emotional and Social Intelligence, for instance, self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize your emotions as well as how they affect your performance and your interactions with others. In the broadest sense, “Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.” Functionally-speaking, self-awareness is the mind’s ability to be aware of its own contents (e.g. its own internal movements) as well as external phenomena. Neurologically, self-awareness is one’s ability to recognize what’s happening physiologically within oneself.  At the most nuanced levels, self-awareness is the capacity to be cognizant of awareness itself.

As broad as the range of these definitions of self-awareness, so too are its practical implications. Absent self-awareness, we’re unable to consistently manage our impulses, motivations, and actions, instead letting our habitual reactions get the best of us. The problem with running on autopilot is that we end up defaulting to a set of unquestioned behaviors that don’t allow us to pause long enough to consider our situation and choose a skillful response.

Self-awareness is at the heart of the other competencies in the Emotional and Social Intelligence framework. Leadership competencies require more than simply developing and mastering certain skills; rather, we must also be able to apply those skills in a manner that produces positive and consistent results, and this is a moment-to-moment endeavor that relies on engaging our own self-awareness.

Methods to practice self- awareness and recognize our feelings:

Developing self-awareness is a continual practice. The good news is that there are a number of simple ways that we can incorporate self-awareness practices into our everyday lives. Here are 3 practical methods:

  1. meditation with focus
  2. body scan practices
  3. self-reflection through introspection or journaling

To practice meditation with focus, sit comfortably, spine straight, with eyes either closed or open and angled slightly down; find and follow your breath. As your attention wanders either to thoughts, emotions, sensations, or an awareness of external phenomena, gently notice this, allowing your attention to come back to the natural cadence of your breath. The moment you notice your mind has wandered off, you’re already back. This is subtle. No need to yank your mind around. Be gentle. Eventually, this practice of gently anchoring your attention on your breath will begin to shift your experience of your relationship with your thoughts and feelings even when you’re not endeavoring to do so. You’ll begin to wake up and notice when you’re responding from a place of habit, and instead connect with a small space in which you can pause, reflect, and respond more thoughtfully and skillfully.

Body scans help you to attune yourself to your body’s physical signals, which are often indicators or precursors of your internal and emotional states. Accordingly, by training yourself to notice your physical sensations and bodily signals, you’ll also be training yourself to notice the gestures that precede changes in your emotions and mental states. You can lead yourself through your own body scan, or you can find guided meditations online.

Finally, you can use daily self-reflection through introspection or journaling to help develop greater self-awareness. You can either write, or record your insights and observations using audio or video formats. Focus your journaling by reviewing every day how well you matched your intentions to your actions. Take note of how and why your mood shifted over the course the day. Reflect on how you are showing up and being perceived by others. To what degree is there alignment between how you’re realizing your aspirations and how you are being experienced by others? If there is a lack of alignment somewhere, why do you think it’s happening?

This practice will help you to begin to see patterns in yourself and better understand any underlying dynamics. Working with a coach can be indispensable to catalyze these insights, creating the circumstances for transformational growth and momentum towards your aspirations.­

Recommended Reading:

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership. The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Michele Nevarez. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

In Altered Traits, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson unveil new research showing how meditation affects the brain. Through thoughtful analysis of countless studies, they offer the truth about what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it.

Michele Nevarez


Inspired to transform business into a force for greater good, Michele Nevarez specializes in positive organizational development and executive coaching, leveraging what we know about the brain, Emotional Intelligence, and Resonant Leadership.

Specializing in coaching highly-driven executives and professionals, Michele leverages the framework of Emotional Intelligence to guide leaders as they tap into their self-efficacy by developing self-awareness, focus, and resilience. Michele is also an Adjunct Faculty Member for Cultivating Well Being in the Workplace: A Neuroscientific Approach, a program developed in conjunction with Dr. Richard Davidson and Center for Healthy Minds, offered through University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business.

Michele brings over 20 years of executive Human Resources leadership and c-suite experience working for industry leaders in healthcare, manufacturing, investment management, government contracting, and management consulting. Michele received a B.A. in Religion from Bryn Mawr College and a Master of Science degree in Positive Organizational Development and Change from the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, and is a founding member of Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Boudhanath, Nepal.