by Carolyn Hobbs
Jessie sat meditating each morning, labeling her thoughts “thinking” for thirty minutes. But this failed to stop her rage at her partner Tom for disappointing her. Perplexed at how to overcome this, she agreed, in therapy, to set an intention: to see her anger story as a story rather than swallow it as gospel.
“Last week I found Tom pouring his heart out on emails to some woman at work,” she said in our next session. “I wanted to wring his neck. But just as my mouth was set to launch an attack, I remembered my intention. I jumped up, ran into the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and took several deep breaths. Through gritted teeth, I asked, ‘How might the Dalai Lama respond?’ Dead silence. Then finally my heart whispered, ‘Meet his unconsciousness with awareness.’”
After Jessie calmed down, she went back into the kitchen and said to Tom, “I know you hate to disappoint me. But I’d love to hear what motivated you to email your coworker.’”
Tom stared in disbelief at Jessie’s calmness, then blurted out, “My dad has colon cancer. I’ve been afraid to tell you, afraid of your reaction. The woman at work lost her husband to colon cancer last spring, so she understands what I’m going through. If you would stop talking all the time and listen, I’d share more with you.”
Jessie took Tom in my arms while he wept and shared his fears about dying.
Conscious awareness changes how we respond in our relationships. Of course, the ego never misses an opportunity to react or embellish a big story—anything to distract us from feeling our feelings directly. But as long as we know this, we can welcome and dismiss the ego through the same revolving door.
With practice, by consciously noticing the ego’s reactions and choosing awareness, we can stay lost in the ego’s habits for two minutes instead of two days or two years.
Unconscious Human Conditioning: Ancient Ways Still in Vogue
For centuries, we humans—with the ego’s full support—have resisted, reacted, judged, doubted, and feared our way through life, fully believing that this is the smart way to survive. We all know the routine: hide tender feelings like hurt, fear or sadness (even from ourselves), take everything personally, make up a story to avoid feeling our feelings, blame others or life itself for all misunderstandings, then repeat ad nauseam. When avoidance fails and relationship feels intolerable, bail.
We sabotage love relationships, blame others for our unhappiness, and perpetuate suffering for ourselves with endless reacting, judging, and resisting, all in the name of “this is how we do reality”—until awareness turns the light switch on.
With generations of our ancestors refining what Buddha aptly named our unconscious human conditioning, these habits live deep in our bones, our blood, our DNA and our cells. We rely on them to meet scary situations, meaning anything unfamiliar, new or unexpected. Our conditioned habits are such deeply ingrained parts of us. Like our right arm or left foot, we literally never think about them; they occur pre-thought. In fact, these habits occur so far below conscious awareness that, without questioning them at all, we deem these recurrences “reality.”
In our youth, none of us escape this indoctrination. The moment the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” to the delivery room, we began soaking up the misperceptions, misguided beliefs and the ego reactions that form our family’s special brand of unconscious human conditioning. Whether raised Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, we all began seeing, thinking and reacting to life through certain culturally tinted filters. Whether born in New York, Florida, California or Kansas, we all struggle day in and day out with this human predicament: the ego’s fears and stories running our lives unconsciously.
But once we realize it is the ego’s unconscious reactions—not our current life event—that cause us untold suffering, we welcome Conscious Awareness.
Awareness of fear’s familiar voice is a short path to freedom. Fear can sound so clever and seductive, so demanding and logical, we often mistake fear for truth. Its chorus of “never good enough” judging our every act paralyzes us in doubt. It repeatedly holds us hostage to past mistakes and future what-ifs until we can’t hear that soft voice of our aware heart. If we are thinking about having a baby or opening our own business, fear says, “Where will you ever find the money and time to do that?” Once we do find love, fear tries to sabotage it with “he or she will leave too, like the others, once they see who I really am.” Over time, consumed with doubt, we feel afraid to care, afraid to trust, afraid to believe in ourselves and life.
Cutting right through fear’s countless disguises, awareness lessens fear’s impact by disarming fear’s element of surprise with, “Hello. I was expecting you.”
Simple questions call unconscious fears into conscious awareness. When we ask, “What is fear telling me right now?” or “Which fear stories capture my attention when I’m anxious, worried, hopeless, or lonely?” awareness exposes fear as fear—not who we really are. Rather than merge with it, the instant we see fear clearly, we stop identifying with it. We can name it “fearing” and let it go or surround it with love.
Centuries ago, Buddha warned us there’d be days like this—days when we layer angst on top of the inherent suffering that comes with being a human being in a body. Making unconscious feelings conscious returns us to freedom.
Attention Calls Sensations and Feelings into Awareness
Anyone facing paralyzing anxiety, jealousy, loneliness or despair knows that ditching old unconscious conditioning is easier said than done. After all, we adopted our family’s unconscious conditioning as toddlers. And despite rebelling against certain behaviors in our adolescence, adulthood finds these deeply ingrained values—and the habits that support them—remain the only reality we know.
Here are five quick, easy ways to feel free through the Power of Awareness:
- Awareness notices thoughts as thoughts: Each time awareness notices an egoic reaction, story, or judgment, it labels it “thinking” and lets it go.
- Awareness notices sensations as sensations: Each time awareness senses pain, tension, or tingling, it labels it “sensing” and lets it go.
- Awareness notices feelings as feelings: Each time awareness feels grief, hurt, anxiety, despair, loneliness, etc., it experiences the feeling directly (free of story) and holds it in loving compassion.
- Awareness notices the ego’s stories as stories: Awareness holds all stories of rejection, resentment, fear, guilt and shame in loving compassion.
- Awareness notices impermanence: Rather than resist change, awareness uses daily life to remind itself of the ever-changing truth of life.
When we align with awareness, when we notice thoughts as thoughts, sensations as sensations, and feelings as feelings, we are able to pause and remember who we really are: “I am conscious awareness witnessing thoughts, sensations, feelings, and the ego’s stories passing through my awareness as visitors.”
But this shift—from misidentifying with our thoughts, feelings, and sensations (as if all I am is such a limited sense of self), to identifying with the conscious awareness noticing these—takes time. Midstream between the two, while we practice this transition day in and day out, we painfully watch ourselves reenact old habits. This feels painful because now we are aware when we get lost in fears about money or sex or love, but we can’t stop the old habit immediately so it runs roughshod over our desire to change it.
For instance, each time Nancy felt overwhelmed at her clothing store business, she threw up her arms, said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and stormed out, just like her mother and grandmother did before her. “Mom used to piss me off so bad! She’d never say clearly what she needed. She’d make our whole family and the whole world feel wrong, then drown her sorrow in a bottle of wine.”
When Nancy interrupted this family tradition by closing her eyes and asking her heart, “Which feeling perpetuates this horrible feeling of being overwhelmed?” she let go of her family legacy. “It’s my fear, and Mom and Grandma’s fear, of never being good enough. Ever since I was young, I hid my imperfections to win love.”
As many of us learn over the years, those deep-seated childhood wounds can dampen our joy in adult life. At times, Conscious Awareness is required to meet persistent habits that repeat themselves long into our adult lives.
Carolyn Hobbs’ recent book, FREE YOURSELF: 10 Life-Changing Powers of your Wise Heart (Wisdom) is available in English, Spanish, kindle, e-book and audio on Amazon.com and Audible.com. Visit Carolyn at www.carolyn-hobbs.com.