Self Awareness I: How to Avoid the Hole in the Sidewalk

Self Awareness I: How to Avoid the Hole in the Sidewalk

on Apr 12, 2011 in Spirit | 2 comments

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers
between one’s self and others.

—Eihei Dogen, 12th century Zen master

We’ve spent the last couple of posts looking outward… today I’m feeling the need to take “the backward step,” as it’s called in Zen Buddhism, and look once again at the inner dimensions of liberation.

The Liberated Life Project’s tagline is “Freedom: It’s an Inside Job.” What I mean by this is that no matter how good the external circumstances of our life may be – we’re earning lots of money, we’re doing the ‘right’ thing when it comes to being good citizens on our planet, we’re in a good relationship, we’re getting our creative fires stoked – if we haven’t figured out how to liberate ourselves from within, it’s really just a house of cards, ready to tumble down at any time.

In my life, the only way I’ve figured out to come anywhere near this degree of internal liberation is to work toward a high degree of self-awareness.

Self-awareness is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot,
but what does it really mean?

It doesn’t mean just sitting and gazing at our navel. Meditation or any other kind of practice alone, without any guidance or context, isn’t a magic bullet.

I believe self-awareness does mean holding an intention to stay awake to the truth of what’s going on inside ourselves and in relation to our world. And doing this day after day after day.

It means having an unwavering commitment to non-harm, both to ourselves and others.

And it means being ready to take full responsibility for our lives.

A few years ago, I went through an especially difficult period of life, which I wrote about in more detail here. The emotional pain I experienced during that time was so great that it was clarifying, in the way that a huge thunderstorm clears out the atmosphere and everything looks sharper afterwards.

The clarity was this: I could see that the painful things happened, in part, because I wasn’t very conscious of the consequences of my choices and actions. I realized I did not ever want to create that degree of suffering again, for myself or anyone else. And I understood that the only way to do this was to stay awake to my motivations and actions.

I’m guessing you may have seen this wonderful poem before, by Portia Nelson. If you haven’t, it gets at the heart of what I’m saying. Even if you have seen it, try reading it again and see how it speaks to you at this point in your life:


Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
by Portia Nelson

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost …. I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.


That’s it, in a nutshell: Chapter 5 is liberation. It’s synonymous with self-awareness.

It’s realizing we don’t need to go down that same street, meaning we don’t need to engage in choices that create suffering for ourselves and others.

Prior to that bad year, I had been meditating on and off for a number of years. I guess you could call me a kind of recreational meditator.

That kind of intermittent meditation got me somewhere in between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of Portia’s poem. I wasn’t completely blind to the holes in the sidewalk, but I still fell into them. Sometimes I blamed others. And it didn’t even occur to me that there was another street.

Tara Brach talks a lot about trances in a book I really love, Radical Acceptance. A trance is like falling asleep at the wheel. Do you ever catch yourself driving your car to a place you go all the time – maybe it’s your daily commute to your office – and after a number of miles have gone by you realize you have absolutely no recollection of the past 10 minutes? That’s a trance.

It happens in our lives as well. We settle into a well-worn groove – our beliefs, our habits – and we zone out. We act from a place where we have little to no awareness of what we are doing.

During that difficult year, I learned that I don’t function well unless I am, every day, doing some practices that re-connect me with my mind, heart, and body. These practices help me to stay awake, to catch myself when I start to fall into trances and patterns.

And by waking up, I’m better able to not create suffering for myself or others. That’s liberation.

Next week, we’ll explore more about exactly what it means to have a “practice” and how you can develop one in your own life.


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  1. Chapter 6. The Bodhisattva walks down the sidewalk, points out the hole to other pedestrians, and organizes a work party to fill the hole so no one steps in it again.


    April 12, 2011

    • John — I love your addition of Chapter 6! May it be so : )

      Maia Duerr

      April 13, 2011


  1. Self Awareness II: How to Start or Deepen a Spiritual Practice | Maia Duerr - […] week I wrote about the necessity of knowing ourselves as a prerequisite to living a liberated life. I believe …
  2. Breathing In... | The Liberated Life Project - [...] Self Awareness I: How to Avoid the Hole in the Sidewalk [...]
  3. Self Awareness: How to Start or Deepen a Spiritual Practice | The Liberated Life Project - [...] week I wrote about the necessity of knowing ourselves as a prerequisite to living a liberated life. I believe …

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