The Five Layers of Self-Awareness

By Beth Gibbs

What is self-awareness? What are the five layers of self-awareness? Why is self-awareness important and how can it be cultivated? 


What is Self-Awareness?
For centuries, philosophers have pondered the connection between mental and physical health. Science now recognizes the mind/body connection and research continues to find evidence that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and how we handle stress can positively or negatively affect our physical health. Modern research on the psychological aspects of self-awareness can be traced back to 1972 when Psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund developed their theory of self-awareness:

“When we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.”

However, this concept is not new. We can look back 3,000 years to find guidelines, information and practices for cultivating self-awareness not just of the mind, which is one-half of the mind/body connection, but of the whole human being. The first known mention of the five layers of self-awareness (the koshas) comes from the Taittirya Upanishad, a philosophical text from India.

This five-layer model offers an ideal framework for the theory and practice of self-awareness. This model says that we are so much more than a mind interacting with a body. Seeing ourselves through this model gives us clear knowledge of our total being, warts and all.

The five-layers are: 
Picture
 

Layer 1. Physical: your body and your environment. This is you — your size, shape, gender identification, race and ethnicity. Your body includes the systems of your anatomy and physiology. This layer also includes your environment and the world you experience through your five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

Layer 2. Energetic: your breath and energy levels. The oxygen you breathe nourishes your body and brain and sustains life. Your energy is that invisible life force that animates you at all levels and enables you to think, create, move, work and navigate all that life brings; the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Layer 3. Mental: your thoughts, and emotions. This is how you think, what you think about, and how you experience and express your emotions. They effect your view of the world, your actions and how you experience, yourself, others and life.

Layer 4. The Witness: your ability to see and witness each layer without judgment. The Witness is a trusted companion on the path to self-awareness, understanding and healing. When you witness your thoughts, emotions, and behavior without judgment, you are better able to identify and understand the sources that give rise to habits, patterns, and unhelpful beliefs. As a result, you consciously make (or not) more informed choices or changes. The Witness is an essential component to self-awareness.

Layer 5. Bliss: Your connection to something larger than yourself. This may be spiritual, religious, or a deep connection to a healthy passion or the natural world. It is ultimate self-awareness with a capital ‘S,’ and is often described as the experience of connectedness with all that is or your personal understanding of the divine.

​Self-awareness asks us to:
  • Gain clear knowledge of our character, feelings, desires, quirks and flaws
  • Notice and understand the messages we receive from our body and our environment
  • Get in touch with our breath and energy and notice how that affects and is affected by our lifestyle and choices
  • Watch the mind and emotions, understand the difference between thoughts and feelings and find ways to respond rather than react to what life presents
  • Wake The Witness (intuitive wisdom) and use it to work with the first three layers to accept ourselves with clarity and without judgment
  • Find our own personal path of connection to something larger than ourselves.

When this skill is actively employed, we see our reality as it is, not hidden behind a veil of wishful thinking or denial. Then we consciously choose to make changes, remain unchanged with full awareness of the consequences or find acceptance and internal resilience if change is not possible. This is the process of enlightening up.

Why is Self-Awareness Important?
Each layer operates moment to moment in our daily lives whether we are aware of them or not. If we move through our lives on autopilot with no awareness of our body, how we’re breathing, or our habits, routines, impulses, and reactions, we lose power. When we succeed in peeling back the layers for a good hard look, we will gain a better understanding of how and why we react the way we do to what life presents. We will take our power back and the choices we make are conscious and our responses healthier, more balanced and productive. This is work and it takes time but the outcome will be a more peaceful realistic outlook on life.

For example, a friend of mine was upset because her son and his girlfriend were unmarried and pregnant. Her emotional reaction was based in large part on her concern about ‘what will people think!” In an attempt to help her find a way through to acceptance, I quoted the saying, “When one door closes, another door opens.” She replied, “Maybe but in the meantime, it’s hell in the hallway!”


When we practice self-awareness the time spent in the hallway is fruitful and productive, even when difficult. And when that other door opens we will walk through knowing how to navigate what comes next.

My friend’s initial unhappy reaction shifted into a positive response when she accepted that her son’s situation, while not what she wanted for him or her family, was going to result in her holding her first grandchild.

The process of enlightening up on the path to self-awareness can help you:
  • Navigate the ups and downs of life with more clarity, balance, contentment and internal resilience
  • Manage encounters with negative Nellies – the gloom and doomers
  • Cultivate calmness
  • Think through problems more clearly
  • Find better solutions for your problems and make better choices
  • Manage stress3
  • Improve relationships that can be improved
  • End toxic relationships that cannot be improved
  • Be more spontaneous
  • Reduce worry, fear and anger
  • Work through and manage grief and loss
  • Reduce judging yourself and others
  • Feel more connected to nature
  • Understand what you can and cannot control
  • Stick to your New Year resolutions or daily intentions
  • Find the courage to tackle your bucket list
  • Learn how to relax
  • Choose and use tools of self-awareness
  • Develop positive changes in sleep patterns
  • Enhance creativity
  • Find contentment and enjoy life


In her book, Easter Body, Western Mind, Anodea Judith states that:
“ As we reflect upon ourselves, we integrate more and more pieces of ourselves. Our sense of the whole becomes larger and stronger. Like an ecosystem whose stability and magnificence increases with diversity, the whole of a person gains beauty and stability as more and more parts become integrated. We become more complex, more mature, and capable of greater and greater
possibilities.”
 4

Research shows that people with good self-awareness skills tend to have better psychological health, a positive outlook on life and are likely to be more compassionate to themselves and others.

So with all those benefits we might wonder why it’s so hard to do and what gets in the way of practicing self-awareness more often and more effectively. Most of us do not have a full 360- degree understanding of who we are and how we function. Seeking out, accepting and dealing with our flaws, unhelpful habits and beliefs are not how we want to spend the little free time we have when we’re not working, volunteering, parenting, care-taking, paying bills or handling the ‘must do’s on our ‘to do’ lists. These are some clear daily obstacles to self-awareness.

Here are five more subtle obstacles:

Fear – an uncomfortable emotion that results from something we recognize, resist or perceive as a danger or a threat.

Attachment – a strong or unhealthy attachment to anyone or anything can become a cause for anxiety, conflict and internal discomfort.

Aversion – those things, situations or people we avoid or dislike. If we do not have conscious understanding and healthy boundaries around our decisions, aversion will also create unresolved anxiety, conflict and internal discomfort.

Ego – thinking that we are the center of the world and everything revolves around us. That said, the ego has a job to do. The ego helps us distinguish between our internal conscious “I” and the outside world. It helps the mind think, plan, analyze, judge, critique and warn. It is an important aspect of the mind, but one we want to manage with balance and wisdom, lest it control us.

Ignorance – The root of all these obstacles is the inability to see the larger picture of our lives and ourselves. We tend to be pleased and comfortable when life presents us with what we expect and want and displeased and pissed off when it doesn’t. No one likes to think of themselves as ignorant but when we understand that it means not having the knowledge needed to work with a problem, it’s easier to accept the word and seek the knowledge. And ignorance, unlike stupidity, can be cured. Stupidity is a whole other thing and as comedian Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Understanding how these obstacles operate in and through our five-layers of being are potential teachers to helping us practice self-awareness. Here is an updated version of a Cherokee story that illustrates this point.

One evening an old Cherokee told her granddaughter about a battle that goes on inside people. She said, “My daughter, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is our shadow. It is:
  • Fear
  • Attachment
  • Aversion
  • Ego
  • Ignorance

The other is our self-awareness:
  • Clarity
  • Balance
  • Contentment
  • Resilience
  • Wisdom

The little girl thought about it for a minute and then said “A li-si” (grandmother), which one wins?” The old Cherokee woman replied, “Lu-si” (granddaughter) “The one you feed.”

How Can You Feed the Self-Awareness Wolf?
No matter your size, shape, or color, condition or position in life you have five layers of self-awareness. When you were born your five-layers came along into this life with you. They are an up close and personal part of your existence and are accessible to you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The trick is to understand and work each layer to view and experience the ups and downs of your life with clarity, balance, contentment and internal resilience. I’d love to tell you that you and your five-layers remain unchanged when your journey on Earth is over, but no one knows for sure, so that will remain a mystery.

The main technique for cultivating self-awareness is the ability to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. This is illustrated in a quote that’s been re-stated, re-worded and attributed to several people, including Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

This is not easy. The process of paying attention to the present is often influenced by the past, how we think about it, how often we mis-remember it and by how it affects our feelings about ourselves in the present. Being present is hard but practice makes it easier over time. It helps to understand that the road to self-awareness through all five layers is not a thirty-day, ten-step, twenty-minute a day sprint; it’s a lifelong marathon that requires skill, training and first aid. This book provides descriptions, explanations, real life examples and suggested first aid techniques to help you cultivate self-awareness. Practice will help you feed the self-awareness wolf and go the distance with clarity, balance, contentment and internal resilience.

You and your five layers of self-awareness form a unique vibration of universal energy. You are a blend of stardust, water and energy that join together into a perfect whole. In the book, the five layers are separated so that we can use language to present, explain and discuss how real people work with each layer. However, if you choose to start working with your body through exercise, know that you are also affecting the other layers that make up the rest of who you are. This is also true if you decide to begin with your mind. The Witness, once you awaken it, will always be a trusted companion.

Start with the layer you are most comfortable with. The rest of you has no choice but to come along for the journey. Practicing the first aid exercises will help you make more informed choices, change reactions into responses and give you tools to work through whatever life presents.

Choosing an appropriate technique, practice or response is a big step in the right direction. Your choices will not look, sound or feel like anyone else’s because you are unique, just like a snowflake or a fingerprint. How you choose to understand, personalize and apply self-awareness first aid to your life will be your choice alone.

The decision to change comes at different times and in different ways to each of us. Your process will take as long as it takes. Mine is taking as long as it is taking. There are no miracle weekend workshops. No DVD’s to watch or MP3’s to listen to on your smart phone. There are lots of experts out there who claim they have the program, workshop or coaching expertise to get you where they think you want or need to go. But ultimately, no one can make these decisions for you or guarantee success. Why is that?


  1. You are unique. We’ve already established that, but it bears repeating. It’s that important.
  2. Your journey will unfold at its own pace based on your choices and commitment. Respect your pace, don’t allow anyone to hurry you or slow you down.
  3. Be your own best friend. I know that’s a cliché but it’s an important truth. You will go two steps forward and a few steps back. When that happens, be flexible and gentle with yourself.
  4. You may need to focus on different layers at different times. For example, your body may need to be more active or it might need more rest. Your mind may want to read, study or contemplate new ideas, or you may be feeling difficult emotions that need attention. Your Witness may be asleep and require attention and focus to help it wake up. So, be flexible and stay tuned into what you need.
  5. As you move through this process, take time to check on your attitude, actions, reactions, responses and any changes in perspective to gauge how you are doing. Notice how much ease (or lack of) you experience. Notice how difficult or easy the experience feels. When and where do you experience the highs? Where are the lows, bumps and bruises?
  6. Expect to meet challenges and deal with the five obstacles. They are part of the experience and may slow you down, speed you up or prevent you from making a mistake. Face them with equanimity; they are signposts, teachers and gifts that will let you know which physical, energetic, mental or spiritual muscles you need to flex, rest, stretch or strengthen.
  7. Focus on how far you’ve come, not on how far you need to go. For the serious traveler, there is no going back and every step forward gives you the strength to continue.
  8. To experience understanding and healing is its own reward. The techniques you choose are doorways to clarity, self-knowledge and self- acceptance.
  9. Throughout the Enlightening Up! process, you will experience yourself as a whole, complete and enough, warts and all. And when you don’t, you will have the tools to get back that enough feeling. As a result, the highs will still feel wonderful, but now you know they are temporary. The lows will still feel painful, but you know that they too, are temporary. You can learn to be concerned, but not consumed by them.

And here’s the disclaimer: Enlightening Up! can’t be forced. Find your own way to ease into it. It will need to be a conscious choice made after you sit with your challenges and questions. Next, you’ll need to listen within for the answers. Be patient and trust yourself and the process. For serious concerns or in an emergency, please seek professional help.

Work with your five-layers and apply your chosen first aid responsibly.


1. What is Self-Awareness and Why Does it Matter? By Jessie Zhu, personal and executive coach and positive psychology practitioner at positivepsychologyprogram.com
2. The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaren, Nilgiri Press; June 1, 2009, pages 245 – 256
3. The American Psychological Association says most Americans suffer from moderate to high stress, with 44 percent reporting an increase in stress levels over the past five years (https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress.aspx) and a 2013 JAMA Internal Medicine paper states that 70 – 90 percent of primary care doctor visits are attributed to stress.
4. Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith, Celestial Arts Publishing, 1952, page 284

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