Many ancient texts talk about “having eyes that don’t see,” or being “blind” to what is going on around us. Awareness practices address this human challenge. In some cases these are called “mindfulness. Thomas Aquinas discussed these behaviors as “practical wisdom.”

Sensing change: In my innovation work, I have  found it helpful to start talking about awareness in very concrete terms. Consider the changing seasons. What do we notice? We sense that the air is different; perhaps the angle of the light as well. We may notice changes in animals or plants. After sensing a change in the season, communities take action. For instance, in Nepal, when the waters rise, we may be in monsoon season and need to take precautions. In the United States, when we see Christmas displays at the mall, it may be mid-October and time for Columbus Day.

Emotional seasons change too, and wise people notice and respond. Sensing a change, you can make observations.

Why do we fail to see what’s next? Sometimes we are too busy with the day-to-day execution of our responsibilities, or distracted by things that clamor for attention.

It starts with noticing “what is,” not “what we want to be.” This practice is often called “mindfulness. I like the the term “awareness” because the practice involves so much more than a person’s mind.

The results of greater awareness include the abilities to:

1. Sense signals our bodies emit around different changes (e.g. acceptance, alarm, passion, anger, despair, etc.) so we can better understand what we have to deal with.

2. See trends and patterns.

3. See the gap between stated values and those values in practice.

4. See overlooked assets around us and within us.

5. Understand better what could help our stakeholders.

How do we begin? Thich Nhat Hanh writes for secular, Buddhist, and Christian audiences. In the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, he describes the process as beginning with focus on a neutral action like the washing of dishes, the eating of a tangerine or the awareness of your breathing. In this state, neutrally observe what thoughts come to mind as you focus on one thing. Watch, don’t wish. “I am thinking a negative thought.” “I am thinking a joyful thought.” “My heart hurts when this thought comes in.” “My chest relaxes when this thought enters.” This is a basic practice. It helps a person relax and begin to notice what is going on.

Thomas Aquinas wrote 750 years ago about steps he considered important to be wise. They are a checklist for people who want to be aware.

  1. Memoria: Accurate memory; that is, memory that is true to reality
  2. Intelligentia — Understanding of first principles (or the most basic facts)
  3. Docilitas — The kind of open-mindedness that recognizes the true variety of things and situations to be experienced, and does not cage itself in any presumption of deceptive knowledge; the ability to make use of the experience and authority of others to make prudent decisions. This would include the art of improvisation, an important element in teamwork where you build on each other’s ideas to help them become all they can be.
  4. Shrewdness or quick-wittedness (solertia) — sizing up a situation on one’s own quickly
  5. Discursive reasoning (ratio) — research and compare alternative possibilities
  6. Foresight (providentia) — capacity to estimate whether a particular action will lead to the realization of our goal
  7. Circumspection — ability to take all relevant circumstances into account
  8. Caution — risk mitigation

The assumption for this checklist is: Each action I take should take me closer to God’s heart.

(This checklist is quite similar to modern-day checklists, but the underlying assumptions are not tethered to building good character. A discussion of these lists, often used in innovation process engineering, is found here.)

Mindfulness is the first step in seeing “what is” and that is different than mindLESSly moving forward based on assumptions that no longer hold true. By being aware that things are changing, you can take advantage of opportunities you’d otherwise would have missed.