In my last post I discussed a four stage model of change based on the conscious competence model. The conscience competence model is traditionally described in four stages the last of which is called unconscious competence. Unconscious competence is the point in the process of learning a skill when you can perform the skill without thinking about it (“it’s like riding a bike…”). As much as we’d like to be able to rest forever in that stage, unconscious competence isn’t free of traps. One such trap is complacency – believing that you have mastered a skill, you neglect practice and allow the skill to languish, in effect falling back into the previous stage, conscious competence. Applied to the process of change, this would be a relapse either to the conscious freedom model or, even all the way back to unconscious habit.

In light of the potential for sliding back from the fourth stage in the model, some have suggested a fifth stage. There are several names offered for this fifth stage but the one I like best is reflective competence. At this stage the practitioner is able to execute the skill without conscious effort and has a clear understanding of the skill such that he’s able articulate it to himself and teach it to others. Another key characteristic of this stage is the ability to step back and reflect on performance of the skill from an external perspective. How does the apply to the process of change?

Being able to step back and reflect on my experience is the skill of mindful awareness and a clear understanding of the skill is exactly what’s being described in this model. I suggest that in the process of change, the fifth stage of reflective freedom is composed of two main skills:

  1. Understanding the process of change itself as I’ve described it previously. Getting to know the various forces at play in each stage (ignorance, resistance, etc.) is especially helpful.
  2. An ongoing practice of mindful awareness. Coming back, again and again, to this moment and noticing: what is my mind (and heart and guts) up to? This practice can support us with maintaining that change that we want and with discovering unskillful habits that were, so far, unconscious.

To summarize the model so far:

  1. Unconscious habit – Ignorance is in full force.
  2. Conscious habit – We recognize the unskillful habit and become increasingly aware of its impact. The suffering inherent in this habit brings up strategies of avoidance (ignorance) and self-criticism. Through the practice of compassionate mindful awareness we develop a friendly relationship with the habit. It is helpful to seek support from a friend, teacher or coach at this point as their external awareness will prove very useful.
  3. Conscious freedom – We’re now able to recognize the habit happening in real-time and, increasingly often, we can even do something about it! As we actively work to bring about change, we encounter resistance. The resistance will try to convince us to give up, it’s too hard, not worth it! Instead, we bring our compassion to the resistance as well and keep practicing conscious change.
  4. Unconscious freedom – we’re now largely free of the unskilful habit. Aware of the trap of complacence we continue practicing mindful awareness.
  5. Reflective freedom – We’re able to reflect on this entire process and we recognize that it has happened before. With this awareness in mind and an ongoing practice of mindful awareness we are now more resilient. We can recognize habits we want to work with and we have the tools to do so ourselves. We can even support others through this process.
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