The Jewel Within That Is Self-Awareness

The Jewel Within That Is Self-Awareness

TLDR: We often go through life unaware and miss out on the treasure in our heart. The jewel within that is self-awareness is this treasure that differentiates humans from animals.

What is self-awareness? We use this term to describe whether someone is self-aware or not. For example, I never thought that my father had no self-awareness when I was young. He was and still is quick to anger, dislikes any slight form of challenge (depending on who the challenger is), and loves to pick on me. I had thought that he just hates me for reasons unknown.

But as I grew older and encountered some new age spiritual books and later rational teachings by the Buddha, I realised my father has no self-awareness. Although realising his denial of this inner awareness changed my feeling of low self-esteem (being the object of his tirades) to compassion, I feel sorry he does not see the jewel within that is self-awareness. 

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness theory is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection according to positivepsychology.com.  Although it is not possible to attain total objectivity about yourself based on the theory, there are degrees of self-awareness and it exists on a spectrum. Having inner awareness allows you to accept yourself, see the perspectives of others, change yourself, communicate better and to make better decisions. 

When I was a young adult, positive psychology and studies into self-awareness was at its nascent stage. I never thought I had awareness of myself.

I thought that being able to see others’ perspectives, probe my values and how others see me, was me being overly sensitive or having empathy. 

I thought my ability to reflect caused much suffering because those around me who did not reflect much, seemed to enjoy life better. They were happy with sensual pleasures such as food, exercise, travels and work while I felt there is something more than these things in life. 

Thus, instead of being glad I have a tendency towards self-reflection, I detested it. It made me miserable. I wasn’t able to occupy myself from one thing and the next like the others do. I read and reflected a lot on philosophy.

This inner sense that something is not right with the general purpose in life (to work, earn and buy a home or get married) disturbed me.

I even rebelled against such a life cycle by wanting to be different. Unfortunately, I did not encounter Buddhist teachings till my 30s.

The Difference Between Humans and Animals

I was teaching a Buddhist class recently and shared how the contemplation of death can bring about a purpose in life. Based on the dhamma talk given by Ajahn Anan, he asked what is the purpose of life? He said if we ask this question, most people would not be able to answer. He added that most people live to fulfil their physical duties (work for food), eat and sleep. They repeat this cycle until the day they die. He asked, if this cycle of life is different from that of a chicken? A chicken too forages for food, eats and sleeps until it dies. 

Until I encountered the Buddha’s mind training, I wished I had no self-awareness. What is the purpose of being aware of myself when I suffer pain and death? I’d rather not know. Moreover, my reflections were a torture more than a joy because others said I think too much.

But being able to be aware of the self, is what differentiates us from animals. It is also this quality that produces human intelligence.

Ajahn Anan continued to say, if we do not utilise our intelligence and mindfulness, we are no different from animals. His words made me thankful today that I have a sense of inner awareness.

The Purpose of Having Awareness

Why is having an inner sense of awareness considered having a jewel within? Without an inner awareness, we cannot embark on the path, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhism or even scientific inquiry to find out what we really are. Our lives would be buffeted endlessly by the vicissitudes of life while we strive over and over to find impermanent solutions that are outside of us.

Self-awareness is used to great heights in the teachings of the Buddha. One can realise the liberation of the mind through inner reflection, and probing into what makes up the self.

The self is made up of the mind and the body. Both the sensations of the body and mind are conditioned by the objects our senses come into contact with. The sensations arising from our contact with objects of our senses come and go and are impermanent.

Due to our wrong views that what we come into contact with are permanent, we cling. For example, someone may make a passing critical remark and we hold onto that remark as attacking our permanent self. We may feel insulted. This causes ill will to arise, even if the person who made that remark forgets about it entirely because s/he is not mindful. This is not to say we become doormats for people to be rude or to criticise us, but there is no need to hold on and hurt ourselves. We can simply inform that person and forget about it. 

We neglect to see what we see as the self, is easily collapsible. The more we hold onto having a precious self, the more fear and ill will can arise. In today’s world, catching a virus such as Covid-19 can kill us. Taking the vaccine may also kill us. In fact, natural disasters can also easily kill us. We are unaware of our vulnerabilities. St. Teresa of Avila asked, why do we crave living so much when there are so many uncertainties? She was a Catholic Carmelite nun living in the 15th century and had several episodes of ill health that nearly took her life.

The Buddha taught us to build our self-awareness – the ability to be objectively aware by first quieting the mind through the practice of virtues and meditation.

With our awareness sharpened by these practices, we begin to see in our mind the constant flux of things – such as the impermanence of materials and our thoughts about them. Seeing the constant flux teaches the mind to let go instead of clinging onto things. 

Ajahn Anan often extols in his talks that we never know when we will die. The body does not belong to us. Make use of the body we have towards the true purpose of life – to build treasures in our heart (the cultivation of the heart in love, compassion, joy and equanimity) with the path taught by the Buddha before we die. It is our unenlightened hearts which clings that go on, we cannot take the body or our material possessions with us upon death.


Wise Steps:

  • If you find yourself reflecting on your actions and values, you have a sense of self-awareness. Be glad that you have this jewel in your heart!
  • Cultivate and strengthen your self-awareness with meditation.
  • Utilise your awareness to look within to see a constant change in your mind and body and find out what you are.
Coming Out as LGBTQIA+: My Journey

Coming Out as LGBTQIA+: My Journey

Xin Yee (not their real name) shares with HOL on their journey of coming out as LGBTQIA+.

Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia, suicidal ideation and mental illness that might be disturbing to some readers.

LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexuals. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Some LGBTQIA+ members prefer the use of certain pronouns to reflect their gender identity. In this case, Xin Yee wishes to use “their”.


“I guess we all had inklings…you know, the dance of hormones, feelings you have as a teenager. I knew then I was gay.” 

When I read coming out stories like this, I never related. 

As a 13-year-old girl, I just recalled the pull of just wanting to get closer, and closer, and closer to some girls. There were no labels of relationships, normality, or even queerness. Just a simple innocence of “I just really like being around you, and I want you to like me too,” that’s it.

I was oblivious that I was different, and I was not aware of how sinister that simple feeling meant to others, and little did I know that could be the beginning of a crime punishable by death in 7 countries.

And then I start to learn about “the lesbians.” They are the red lines not to be crossed. Those who crossed them were treated with the same category as delinquent juveniles – who engaged in drug-taking, vandalism and gangsterism. At home, derogatory terms were thrown casually on people within the LGBTQIA+.

Conversations around them were about their differences, abnormality, and unnaturalness and almost always met with disgust and wagging tongues. Perhaps I was “fortunate” enough to not understand my feelings at that time, and hence I was not the brunt of the discrimination.

But I internalised the aversion towards them. 

When They Become I 

The complex feelings of attraction persisted and intensified. I liked boys, and I really like girls. I didn’t feel the inclinations towards expressing my femininity in stereotypical ways, nor did I feel the urge to become another gender.

I was beyond confused as there were no examples around me that I could relate to. Figuring out one’s identity and creating a meaningful sense of self in the world – one that is consistent and harmonious with what one feels-is immensely challenging.

Yet it is a crucial part of our lives. Thus, I set sail on my solo ship of exploration.

I remember navigating my exploration with much caution, as I have already internalised homophobia. I knew enough to live a double life. Away from my family, I opted for masculine clothes that I felt comfortable and free in. I gave myself bold side shaves and wax my hair up confidently like David Beckham. But when I was home, I always swept my hair over my forehead to justify that it was still “long hair” and that I was “normal”.

But of course, I was treading on thin ice – the desire to express myself freely did not sit well with my family’s heteronormative expectations.

One day, when I was minding my own business, I was beckoned into a room by my mother and, *surprise surprise* her gang of ladies, (comprising of well-intentioned relatives with the lethal combination of being too nosy and having too much time to spare ) to have “The Intervention to Straighten Me Out.”  

Screengrab from Crazy Rich Asians

Each relative had the unique role of holding 3 pictures:  

A. Facebook photos of me in short hair, 

B. Picture of male model with the same hair that I had, 

C. Celebrities in the 2000s with cringy blonde long hair and feminine outfits. 

They each interrogated me on why I was acting like a boy (picture B) and accused me of “Becoming A Lesbian.”

The bottom line was clear: My identity was not to be tolerated anymore and I had to “become” what was acceptable to them (picture C), and that the repercussions were severe. I was threatened to be “cut off completely” from the family if I were found to be “gay.”

 I barely managed to keep an emotionless face and denied my way through their harsh (disrespectful, even) scrutiny but internally, my world shut down. I remembered feeling absolutely terrified, helpless and repulsed. These were relatives, family whom I spent weekly Sundays with, grew up celebrating birthdays, new years and achievements together. 

They were supposed to be the people who had my back, not committing an  “et tu, Brutus,” in the betrayal of “Julius Caesar.” 

At the same time, I felt deeply hurt, ashamed and deeply alone in an overwhelming stew of conflicting emotions being rejected by my very own family.  It was beyond what I even knew how to process. Eventually, I stopped expressing myself to the world, but my body continued to absorb all the stress as I tried very desperately to hide the emotions that I felt, while trying to force myself into normality, while fearing the terrifying consequences, while managing final year academics, projects and competitions, heartbreak etc…… 

And that’s when my body hit the breaking point. 

I was diagnosed with a psychogenic movement disorder – which essentially was my body’s way of expressing the overwhelming psychological distress I felt through uncontrollable jerks, tics and even full-body spasms.

Emergency wards, ambulances, wheelchairs, a concoction of pills and painful injections were my best friend for the next couple of weeks and months. At my weakest, I was bedridden and completely lost the ability to perform normal functions like sitting straight up without toppling over.

Toppling over

I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. 

The Coming Out

As the desperation to rescue me from the lifeless form I occupied grew frantic, I saw my parents in a different light. They were by my side all day and all night. Without hesitation, they fed me, wiped me, and even helped me take showers.

But yet, the disconnect was there as I was still weighed down by the burden of shame, guilt and fear. I still didn’t see a way out to reconcile how I felt with how the world would react. Hope was slipping away and I was losing the desire to hold on.  

One day, I whispered meekly to my mother that I wanted her to “please let me go”.

Amidst volumes of tears that could sustain an Amazonian rainforest, I vividly remembered her asking: “Please tell me what I can do to bring you back, anything at all”. 

And the dam broke. I stammered and stuttered my way through four simple words: “Ma, I like girls.”

I closed my eyes in anticipation of the world to come crashing down, for her to disown me, for her to pack her bags and leave. 

After 5 long seconds that felt like an absolute eternity, she embraced me tightly, and said: “No matter what, you are still my daughter and I will accept and love you unconditionally.” For the first time in a long while, my tears were of relief and not of pain; And for the first time in a long while, I slept soundly like a baby.  

The Healing Begins

Coming out does not mean rainbows and sunshine immediately. Acceptance is an up and down process. Most days we struggled, and some days we were backtracking to homophobic/transphobic slurs and disrespect, but more importantly, we were making baby steps of progress.

I had to learn also that acceptance was two ways – it was not just about her accepting my reality, but also in me accepting her as a human trying her best to unlearn her perceptions shaped by past experiences and alienating cultural narratives.

We both had to learn and practice compassion to chip away at the hatred, aversion and ill-will accumulated within ourselves. 

Coming out does not mean that all problems cease to exist. The hostility and discrimination imposed by society still remains,but the most beautiful part is knowing that my family will be there with me, supporting me as I go through these challenges, and that we are together in charting an uncertain future. Family becomes part of the solution in alleviating suffering. 

Reflections

Coming to terms with an identity and establishing a strong sense of self as LGBTQIA+ was crucial to me in my younger days, and it defined a huge portion of “me, myself and I” as I struggled to gain validation and feel accepted. 

But as I grow with the Dhamma,  I realised just how fluid the sense of identity/self-view can be. Who I was, who I am, and who I will be… changes.

Internally, you may evolve as a person, and perhaps other aspects of your identities might become more important as you grow as a person – such as your spirituality, hobbies, passion, your contribution to humanity and your definition of yourself may change accordingly.  

Externally, you may be defined and categorised by others based on their perceptions. You may be everything, and everyone at once, and yet find no one static self at all. More importantly, as Buddhist practitioners, how can we aim to eventually let go of the attachment to the sense of self? As Venerable Soma in the Sister Soma Sutta(S N 5.2) wisely reflects that the moment we have strong identities of who we are, defilements arise if our ‘self’ is provoked.

Concluding Remarks

Many LGBTQIA+ people continually face generations of hate ranging from disrespectful slurs, homo/transphobic hate crimesreligious persecutions to even death sentences in some countries.

In Singapore, while the LGBTQIA+ community is gaining visibility and recognition, they still face unfavourable odds in public housing policies, military, healthcare and education. This leaves room for more progress ahead.

My intention in writing this article is not to persuade you to agree on LGBTQIA+ issues or have debates. My sincere hope is that through sharing my story, I invite you to see the humanity that both you, and I, a complete stranger share. I hope you draw parallels between our life stories and journeys, and recognise that just like you, all I want fundamentally is to be loved, accepted and respected.

Dr. Maya Angelou captures this fundamental union of humankind very beautifully below:

“As Roman Slave turned Playwright Terence mused:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ 

Even in someone very different from you or someone you perceive as heinous…‘I have in me all the components that are in her, or in him; Likewise… if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which he or she was born, it means so can you.”

Let’s look beyond our differences and celebrate our shared humanity. Let’s stretch to use our energies constructively, to generate compassion, empathy and kindness, and destruct energies of aversion, ignorance and prejudice within us so that we can eventually be liberated from the suffering eating away at our hearts. 

Credit: Siha_the_wise