The Four Benefits of Cultivating Self-Awareness
By Sister Heba el-Haddad
‘Al-Dunya’ is an Arabic word that is very frequently used to describe the temporal world that hosts our lives here on earth. Upon taking a closer look, the word dunya stems from the root word دنو d-w-n or دني d-n-y, which means ‘the nearer’ or ‘the lower.’ This word has been mentioned in the Qur’an as ‘Al-hayaat al dunya’ because it is ‘nearer’ to us than the akhirah (the afterlife); it is our current existence, and that which we are most familiar with. However, it is also lowly in nature, greatly superficial in comparison to the life of the hereafter and is a place that contains all objects of desire for the human nafs or carnal soul. Essentially, Al-Dunya is a mere transition to the afterlife that is both fleeting and knows neither stability nor permanence. The human soul temporarily resides in this world, which aims to test us by the constant bombardment of messages about who we should be, what we should look like, and the manner in which we should live. As a result, it becomes crucial to re-assess who we are and what we desire out of life to maintain a clear direction and focus on that which truly matters.
The question of who we are can cover such a broad category of facts, as each individual is deeply unique, beautiful in their natural state and flawed in equally varying ways. There are no two individuals that look exactly alike, and each person lives in a way that is unique to them according to their own upbringing, faith, knowledge, culture and life experiences. Living in such a vast world that tends to pull one in many competing directions and presents many temptations for the nafs, it becomes incumbent to cultivate a level of self-awareness for the sake of one’s emotional health and spiritual survival. We’re all composed of countless layers of the self, and by increasing our level of self-awareness, we progress in our journey of understanding why we behave the way we do and what drives our fears, hopes and motivations. Mentioned in this article are four benefits of cultivating self-awareness which are: knowing ourselves in order to better know Allah, self-awareness strengthens our resilience, the relationship between self-awareness and humility and self-awareness in relation to habit formation.
1. Know Yourself So That You May Come to Know Allah (swt)
It is stated in Islamic tradition: ‘Whosoever knows himself knows his Lord.”
This hadith implies that gaining knowledge about oneself leads to knowledge about Allah (swt). But how are these two types of knowledge connected? By studying ourselves, our abilities, the way in which our bodies function and the manner in which we are molded and designed, this knowledge combined redirects our attention back to the existence of a supreme Creator: The Fashioner, The Originator, and The Giver of Life. By coming to terms with our weaknesses as fallible beings, we realize the need for reliance on The Most Strong, The Omnipotent The Able. By being aware of our weaknesses, we can work on them in order to gain closeness to Allah (swt) and avoid incurring sins as a result of that awareness. An example of how knowledge of our weaknesses can help us do just that is an individual who is aware of their weakness to temptations of the use of substances. Avoiding friends who use substances and encourage it and places which may trigger that temptation can help strengthen one’s resolve and ability to abstain from it altogether. Similarly, by being aware of our strengths we can capitalize on them and use them in order to positively impact our surroundings and loved ones and gain closeness to Allah (swt) and His pleasure. An individual who is very tech savvy and is skilled in creating apps decides to create an app to help blind individuals connect with someone who is blessed with the gift of sight through the use of video chat to help guide them around their homes and assist them with small day-to-day tasks. Through the culmination of knowledge of our weaknesses and strengths, it becomes increasingly evident that in no way shape or form did we have anything to do with our own creation. All signs embedded within ourselves and in our surroundings redirect us back to a higher supreme being whose existence is undeniable.
2. Self-Awareness strengthens The Muscle of Resiliency
On average, human beings have approximately 60,000 thoughts per day, which translates to one thought per second! The large majority of these thoughts are the same ones on replay in our minds each day and a whopping 80 percent of those thoughts are negative in nature. Due to the brain being inclined to focus more attention on the negative experiences or circumstances in life, a term that is often referred to as negative attribution bias, during your toughest and darkest moments, your mind will do an amazing job of convincing you of a multitude of things. You may repeatedly have thoughts that tell you that you aren’t good enough to succeed in your business endeavors, that you’re not worthy of a good spouse, that you’ll never reach your weight loss goal and that you’re a horrible parent, and the list is endless. You may start to firmly believe that you’re weak and incapable of fulfilling your lifelong dreams and aspirations and you may even be fooled into thinking that your thoughts are concrete facts. Thoughts surface from many different sources including but not limited to what we repeatedly have been exposed to: people, upbringing, books, faith, social media, movies, or music. Regardless of how firmly rooted these ‘facts’ become in your mind, with some deep analysis of your past, you’ll realize that the only real facts that are worthy of your attention are that you’ve survived greater struggles, endured greater pain and became progressively resilient as a result. Having a great propensity towards being forgetful, a lack of self-awareness may inadvertently lead us to lose sight of all the internal battles we’ve won irrespective of how small and how much progress we’ve made in our respective journeys. Self-awareness will engender a greater degree of accurate self-perception and reflection which leads to better accountability (muhasabah) and which can allow you to conquer the mind’s inclination to focus on the negative. Perhaps nothing is more empowering than knowing that you don’t have to believe every thought that crosses your mind; that your thoughts aren’t facts; and that by questioning your thoughts, you can essentially revolutionize the entire process of how you think. Every thought is not automatically worthy of being entertained and you can practice mindfulness in regards to which thoughts you feed and respond to, for they will be the ones that have power over you.
3. The Relationship Between Self-Awareness & Humility
Although we have a negative attribution bias, we also have what may seem to be a contradictory tendency known as a self-serving bias. The self-serving bias is a tendency to perceive ourselves in an overly favorable way and is ultimately designed to protect our self-esteem. In order to guide ourselves to a more accurate form of self-awareness, it’s essential to balance our lowliness and fallibility with our potential for greatness. Those who are in touch with both ends of this spectrum and balance them well are often identified as confident yet humble individuals due to not losing sight of both sides. Contributing to our potential greatness, humans enjoy complex cognitive faculties, free will, and language and comprehension abilities to name just a few. These combined abilities contributed to the emergence of many extraordinary inventions, innovative discoveries and incredible achievements which can pave the way to a state of delusion and loss of touch with our own fallibility. Cultivating self-awareness teaches that, similar to Newton’s law of gravity, what goes up in life must eventually come down. Allah (swt) states in the Qur’an a similar concept reflected in this verse “…for man was created weak”[4:28]. At times, we can feel great surges of strength and soar in life and shortly thereafter encounter crashing moments of despair. We live in a world of contrasts. We have strengths as well as weaknesses- some strengths are present from birth and others are acquired through hard work and practice. Some weaknesses are beyond our control and some harmful practices or habits that we adopt and engage in by choice render us weaker as a result. We’re unable to fully understand happiness until we’ve known sadness and we can’t fully appreciate ease until we’ve experienced hardship. It’s these contrasting experiences that teach us the beautiful concept of humility; and within the depths of humility one can feel a greater connection and closeness to The Creator. Despite the many advantages of humility, this virtue isn’t always viewed as a strength depending on the context it’s framed in.
Humility in relation to the field of leadership, for example, is often perceived as a form of weakness; especially in a competitive cut throat culture where over confidence and power are glorified and frequently rewarded. In an article by Morris, Brotheridge & Urbanski (2005), leaders who embodied high levels of humility were found to have higher levels of self-awareness, openness and transcendence: the three dimensions of humility identified by the authors. Leaders with high levels of humility had a higher probability of forming supportive relationships with their employees, presented a socialized power motivation, and had the overall greater good of the company in mind which led them to thrive collectively. A research study by Collins (2001) provided evidence for the importance of humility in leadership. Collins discovered that Level 5 leadership led companies had continuously high performance; meaning that these leaders had a combination of humility and strong personal will. The tide of leadership is slowly turning due to researchers shedding light on the great benefits humility stemming from leadership brings to the workplace.
4. Out With The Old, In With The New
It’s an unquestionable fact that we are creatures of habit. Habits are formed through repetition and become so familiar to us that we begin to perform them automatically, without much effort or thought. The more we practice or do something, the more engrained the neural pathways in the brain become. When our habits become so deeply engrained, we become less aware of them to the point where if a friend or loved one were to point them out to us, it may take us by surprise. The habits that we are unaware of are more harmful due to us being oblivious to their impact in our lives or to their impact on others. As difficult as it may be to admit, most of us have at least one bad habit that we dislike about ourselves and wish we could change. But you may tell yourself ‘it’s easier said than done.’ Whether your habit is being chronically late, smoking, being a perfectionist or impulsively overspending; surprisingly, every bad habit serves a purpose in our lives. It may be that certain habits were formed as a result of deeply rooted issues such as resentment towards someone or something, a long history of exposure to trauma, or underlying depression. For example, someone who often struggles with controlling their anger could have assumed the role of caretaker for an elderly loved one for so long and has been in the mode of giving to the point of burnout that any small mishap or problem sets them off. At times, bad habits can help us cope with overwhelming levels of stress, avoiding uncomfortable situations or to merely pass time. But what makes a habit bad for us? A habit crosses the red line from good to doubtful or bad when it disrupts our daily productivity, robs us of precious time or threatens our emotional, physical and psychological well being. To learn how to replace bad habits with new ones by forming new neural pathways in the brain through a cool process known as neuroplasticity, one must first understand the role that awareness plays in the larger picture. To discern a good habit from the bad, a level of self-awareness and introspection is necessary. Reflection leads to a heightened sense of self-awareness. Self-awareness in turn helps us to decipher bad habits that previously led to patterns of dysfunction, the role these habits played in our lives and how to better replace them with new positive habits. For example, do you dislike your habit of consistently focusing on the negative aspects of your past despite the presence of many positive ones that you should be grateful for? First, try to understand why you’re mentally holding onto these negative thoughts and experiences, and the purpose they serve you. Once you understand why it is you do what you do, it becomes easier to envision being positive and how reflecting on these positive experiences makes you feel. Make it a daily practice to go through this envisioning process. Select your thoughts carefully as you would select your best outfits daily and make it a habit to only focus on the positive aspects of each day. What you choose to focus on is what will grow in your mind. Be mindful of what you pay attention to as it will consume you and manifest in various ways through your actions and life overall.
A ninth century Muslim physician known as Abu Zayd Al-Balkhi often discussed the nature of this life and how it is a home for anxiety, trials, worry and sadness. He highlighted the importance of focusing on positive thoughts in his works and practice; the types of thoughts that are the opposite of those that sustain the psychological disturbance and the importance of making the realization that whatever afflicts the soul could have been worse in nature. By using this train of thought, one can cultivate gratefulness for their current state and develop enough strength to avoid falling into hopelessness and defeat. The concept that our thoughts lead to our emotional states and later influence our actions is as old as Greek philosophy, however, it was Al-Balkhi who developed this concept into cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which is a form of psychotherapy used regularly by psychologists today. It may come as a surprise to many that it took western psychologists close to an entire century to arrive at this approach that Al-Balkhi arrived at in the ninth century! Al-Balkhi also mentions the concept of being self-aware in order to know what one should avoid and what one’s soul can bear. Self-awareness is the first step in ridding oneself of old habits and facilitating the formation of new habits. You can’t change that which you’re not aware of. And you can’t become a better person without learning from your past behaviors, mistakes, and the present habits that comprise your character.
Al-Balkhi along with tenth century physician Abu Bakr Al-Razi and 11th century scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali all spoke about the importance of seeking out the counsel of a wise person (hakim) in the form of a discussion or counseling in an effort to neutralize problematic habits or to change one’s thoughts and behaviors to the better. Al-Balkhi in specific made mention of this practical approach in his manuscript ‘Sustenance of the Soul’ where he described the importance of having an advisor to oversee one’s actions, to go hand in hand with the internal self-treatment approach which in this case is the positive envisioning process referred to earlier. We may not always be aware of the detrimental habits we adopt as we are unable to see ourselves from an outsider’s perspective and having an advisor or a friend oversee us can help in changing unfavorable habits significantly by merely allowing someone to bring them to our level of consciousness. Seeking therapy can also help in reforming our inner selves and most stubborn habits and can increase one’s quality of life and level of happiness. True contentment lies in gaining knowledge to enlighten our minds and hearts, and the most beneficial form of knowledge originates from knowing oneself.
“Who looks outside, dreams; Who looks inside, awakens” — Carl Jung
Al-Balkhi, A. (2013). Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behavior Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician. London: The International Institute of Islamic Thought.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t. New York: Harper Business.
Morris, J. A., Brotheridge, C., & Urbanski, J. C. (2005). Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human Relations, 58(10), 1323-1350.