recently I started having a peculiar experience. While in conversation, I would get a flash of my own semblance as it appears to the other person. It is a profound moment. In that very brief moment I am no longer lost in thought, not thinking about what I would say in response, but instead, I am aware about how the other person perceives me, what they might feel about how I feel about them.
We say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but the specter of the self, our sense of a personal identity, lurks not in the shadow of the retina, but in the semblance of the 43 muscles that surround the eyes, the mouth and cheeks. Each of them contract or relax in response to a thought.
At the moment that I become aware of my semblance as it appears to the other person, the nature of our conversation changes. I am instantly aware of my appearance potentially being perceived as combative, indifferent, or as kind and empathetic. It is a profound exercise, not just with loved ones, but even for your encounter with the checkout clerk at the grocery store.
With a recent trip to my family, I recognized once again how short-tempered I can be. How indifferent, or defensive, my semblance might appear in conversation with the people who love me the most.
How do I cultivate greater self awareness?
I know that I cannot consciously, in the moment, choose my instinctive emotional responses, because my emotions are made in the brain by concepts and habits that have been constructed long before, through repeated interactions with family, friends and society. However, I can seek out and try assimilate more constructive ideas, today, to help precipitate more propitious, instinctive responses... in the future.
This insight made me think: Which habit has engendered these unexpected moments of empathetic self-awareness? I directly attribute this phenomena in my conscious experience to having followed the guided meditations of Sam Harris, for a good few years now. Sam is a neuroscientist with evidence sanity, who studied meditation under Tibetan masters for many years. Although he highly recommends the well known meditation technique, Vipassana (which means "insight"), he focuses more on the Tibetan technique, called Dzogchen, on his Waking Up meditation app. The difference being, in a very elementary way, instead of “listening to the sounds [or sensations] that arise in consciousness, you then try to find who or what is hearing them."
He expounds on this technique during an in-depth conversation with Dan Harris,
"Looking for the mind, or the thinker, or the one who is looking, is often taught as a preliminary exercise in Dzogchen, and it gets your attention pointed in the right direction. It’s different from focusing on the sensation of breathing. You’re simply turning attention upon itself—and this can provoke the insight I’m talking about. It’s possible to look for the one who is looking and to find, conclusively, that no one is there to be found."
~ Sam Harris
The Waking Up app is not inexpensive, but if you are pressed for cash, Sam invites you to write to him and he will grant you a year’s free access. And if in a year, your fortunes haven’t changed, you can write him again.
The app also offers guided meditations for children, guided Metta (loving-kindness) meditations, as well as profound short ‘lessons’ on topics such as free will, the nature of self, consciousness, trauma and working with pain.
Perhaps you feel that it is more important in conversation to know what you will say once you respond, than to be self-aware about how you appear to the other person. My description of the experience is perhaps, problematic. But I do not feel that this experience inhibits my ability, at all, to consider a meaningful response. In fact, it allows me to enrich my response with empathy and loving-kindness.
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
~ Maya Angelou