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Awareness as a Tool: The "Circle of Life"

Emotions reflect your body's physiology; you must be aware of them to change.

Key points

  •  Awareness is at the center of life; you cannot make good decisions without understanding the relevant factors.
  • The “circle of life” represents three states of the human experience and reflects your body’s current physiological state. 
  • Combining awareness skills with the “circle of life” allows you to selectively use tools to regulate your body’s chemistry. 

The essence of chronic mental and physical disease is being exposed to sustained levels of threat physiology. Your body is consuming resources for survival, and you cannot heal in this condition. Healing can only occur when you feel safe enough to replenish your reserves. But a major block to seeking safety is not recognizing your body’s cues that you are in fight-or-flight mode. There are many ways of it covering it up, but your body is still in high gear.

You must learn to become aware of your physiological state and choose where and when you want to go or stay. Whatever set of tools you decide to implement begins with awareness. Where in the “circle of life” are you at this minute?

Awareness is at the core of both survival and thriving. These are separate, and learned, skills. Survival is instinctual and includes whatever strategies you have embedded over your lifetime. However, many of the actions we have acquired are not only ineffective but can make situations worse. Acquiring effective stress processing skills is important.

Thriving is not as instinctual and must be cultivated and nurtured. If you are trying to use pleasant experiences, power, and material possessions to compensate for unpleasant emotions basic to survival, it can’t and doesn’t work. You cannot outrun your mind. The key to thriving is developing a working relationship with anxiety and anger; then you are able to create the life you want.

Just solving problems doesn’t yield a good life. You must live a good life to have a good life.

Additionally, having awareness is critical. You can’t solve problems in any domain without understanding details from both your perspective and that of other involved parties. If you are projecting your views onto a given situation, you are not going to come up with consistently viable solutions. For example, you may have repeated troubles with relationships at home and work and can’t figure out why.

Putting awareness to work

The first necessary step in using awareness is looking for clues that you are not as aware as you might think. By the way, if you think you are “aware” or “enlightened,” then you have already demonstrated that you are not aware. Any labels, positive or negative, block awareness.

Seeing your unawareness will allow you to deepen your awareness and start you down the pathway of using awareness as a tool.

Second, understanding and nurturing different types of awareness enables you to learn skills in each of these arenas. Here are four suggested types to use as a baseline.

  • Environmental
  • Emotional
  • Judgment, or the stories you tell yourself
  • Ingrained patterns

Environment awareness is a tool by which you train your brain to connect to specific sensory inputs. It is used daily, and it shifts your attention away from disruptive thought patterns. With practice, it becomes automatic and calms your mind.

Emotional awareness is difficult in that you are training your brain to experience pain that you have been suppressing or repressing. Remember, emotions reflect sensations generated by your various physiological states—safety versus threat. They drive your behavior to avoid danger and seek safety. Since mental pain and physical pain are processed in a similar manner, emotional pain actually hurts physically. Why would you want to feel it? But suppressed/repressed emotions fire up your body’s nervous system and chemistry so that you feel even more.

Awareness of the stories you create about your life to make sense out of where you fit into the world is particularly necessary. Many of the stories have been programmed in by your family, friends, and society. A high percentage of them are actually cognitive distortions that continue to keep you ramped up even when your circumstances are good. The good news is that you don’t have to do anything about them, because they are not based on reality. You can just become aware, separate from them, and move forward. If you choose to prove them wrong or ignore them, you have inadvertently reinforced them.

Ingrained patterns are the essence of who you are; they make up your life view and evolve to become the lens through which all new information is processed. Since the human brain is programmed by interacting with others, each individual is incredibly unique. The early input is critical as it sets the trajectory for the rest of your life. By definition, you cannot see these patterns without outside help, as they are your frame of reference.

Creating a clear awareness of your programming is a powerful way of switching your life from a reactive to a creative mode. It is also a much more interesting way of interacting with others, as opposed to constantly projecting your views onto them.

Once you become familiar with and skilled in developing these levels of awareness, you can actively use them as tools to calm down and redirect your nervous system. Some people make the strong argument that awareness is the only tool you need to heal. We know that you can’t “fix” yourself; your attention is focused on the problem, and from a neuroplasticity perspective, you are reinforcing it. With awareness, you can watch yourself respond; you are getting out of your own way and allowing yourself to heal. You become an observer of your own healing.

Remember, the steps required to create neuroplastic changes in your brain are: 1) awareness, 2) separation (create some “space” between you and your problem), and 3) redirecting your attention.

Finally, the “circle of life” pictured below can be used as a foundational template for implementing awareness into your daily life. On a given day or moment, you can quickly assess your relationship with any of the four kinds of awareness and see which part of the circle you are in. You then can choose to use your tools to move in whatever direction you want. But you can’t redirect unless you know where you are starting from.

Moving easily between all aspects of your life on your terms is the goal of the healing journey. Then you are beginning your real journey of life.

 Hanscom/Vertus Team
The "Circle of Life."
Source: Hanscom/Vertus Team

The circle of life provides a foundational reference point of awareness for embarking on any healing journey. The challenging aspect of using it as a tool is that you must allow yourself to feel everything—but only as you can tolerate it. Allowing yourself to feel anxious is difficult because no living creature is programmed to allow vulnerability; the consequences in nature are harsh. Yet, with language, we have the capacity to develop complex relationships, which requires vulnerability. It is a frustrating aspect of the human condition.

However, once you are aware of where you are at in the circle, you do have choices. You can remain where you are—even if you are in the red—take a “refueling break” by entering the green center, or move on by engaging in blue activities.

Freedom is being fully immersed in every element of your circle of life—on your own terms. It begins with awareness.

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