“Until you know what you do, you cannot choose to do otherwise.” Moshe Feldenkrais.
Self-awareness is a necessary basis for improvement in any skill. Some of us are in constantly monitoring ourselves, while others of us can go along content to be less acutely aware of how or why we might behave in certain ways. Teachers, trainers, coaches and team mates play a critical role in developing self-awareness. They are the outside observers that perceive and point out behaviors to the student has that he or she is not yet aware of.
Self awareness has been localized into a specific area of the brain with magnetic resonance imaging. It can be observed when this area is active or inactive. When the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a consuming task, this area is inhibited, becoming “human” or self aware again when it has the time to process the input and make more rational decisions. Neurobiologist Ilan Goldberg suggests that this ability may have evolved as a protective mechanism. “If there is a sudden danger, it is not helpful to stand around wondering how one feels about the situation.” he points out. To survive under threat, it has been necessary for humans to switch this type of process off so “fight or flight” instincts can kick in. However, it makes sense to make an effort to stay as rational as possible in a bad situation, so better strategic choices can be made rather than acting blindly. The funny things is, humans often over-rationalize or over-think situations to the point where they rob themselves of the will to act safely. In “The gift of fear”, author Gavin DeBecker ask if we think a rabbit in the woods at night, hearing the crack of twigs, says to himself “meh, its probably nothing” and carries on. Or do they get the hell out of there, whether it was a predator or not? That situation could be more akin to denial, rather than thinking too much, but I hope you get the point. We need to both maintain a cool head, and react decisively when necessary.
The process of acquiring new skills is necessarily a process of breaking things down into components. We have to become aware of inefficient or counterproductive behaviors to the skill we wish to learn. Training, being instructed by our teachers, and repetition become a basis for developing new skills that eventually become automatic responses. These responses can enhance or even replace the “fight or flight” instincts! Soldiers performing their missions under fire and fighters executing their game plan in spite of a tenacious opponent must perform effectively to survive and win.
As training progresses, there is an interplay between being self-aware, sometimes self-critical perhaps, and then at times being able to lose ourselves in our activities. Some of us have the experience in a workout, a sparring session or a fight, where we aren’t thinking of anything at all, just reacting to the movements of our opponent and feeling like there is a sense of control over the situation without knowing what is going to happen next. If you haven’t felt this way before, keep training and you will. As you acquire more skill and confidence, you will begin to experience more of a sense of just being in the moment, rather than planning, plotting, or worrying. This is the essence of self awareness, and among its many benefits is higher performance under duress.