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Armchair philosopher

An introduction to awareness

How your ability to process your environment can be developed

When I decided to build Thinker’s Playground earlier this year, I struggled a little when I first tried to explain to others exactly what it was I wanted to achieve in doing so. The goal seemed lucid in my head, but then felt intangible when I tried to define it in words.

I knew I wanted to discover new tools and ideas that I could apply to gain a better understanding of life, to improve my skills and to make life a little more interesting. I’m always bursting with new ideas and I felt it would be a huge advantage to share these ideas with others and hear their thoughts.

As such, I often describe Thinker’s Playground as a personal development website. I’ve found though, when people hear the phrase ‘personal development’, they tend to think of those tall, attractive, tough-talking therapists touting their winning programmes with titles like “A happier you in just 8 minutes a day”, “Empower yourself with loving acts of kindness” or “Learn to be a better you”. This movement towards personal development as a purchasable product has become almost evangelical with the ‘therapist’ or life-coach playing the role of pastor. Whilst these guys have lots of good ideas, this isn’t quite the side of personal development I had in mind.

Many personal development or self-help programmes offer constructive advice on how to improve certain aspects of your life. Full of mantras and buzzwords to stir excitement and focus, these programmes are designed to set you into the correct frame of mind to achieve whatever it is they claim you will. Although this almost hypnotic method of empowering people can be effective, I can’t help but feel whenever reading one of these books/articles or seeing a seminar that they seem to be missing out on the one element which I feel is key to any sort of personal growth and development: awareness.

So what is awareness?

My favourite dictionary definition of awareness is “having knowledge or perception of a situation or fact”. I like this definition because it includes two more key words that I am studying a lot at the moment, ‘knowledge’ and ‘perception’, and it shows that the three (knowledge, perception and awareness) are distinctly different things.

To explain the difference between these words consider this brief example: Whilst reading this article you are probably sitting down. If you are, I hope you’re sitting comfortably. As you read I’d like you to become aware of your bum. You’ll probably be able to feel the fabric from your clothes pressing against your bum as you sit there. Whatever your sitting on should be pressing back firmly. Are you wearing socks? Do they feel a little tight around your legs? Can you feel the fabric against your toes? Can you feel your tongue in your mouth? Is it pressing against your teeth? Did you realise any of this before it was pointed out to you?

You knew before you started reading this article that you had a bum, feet, socks, a tongue, teeth etc. but you probably weren’t aware that they were there and that you could feel them. How they felt, in terms of comfort, texture, etc. is how you perceived them.

In life there are things happening all around us. People say and do ridiculous and remarkable things every day and although we acknowledge them we seldom understand exactly why they happen, what the motives behind them are, and how they make us feel. This is the basic difference between knowledge, perception and awareness.

To gain a better understanding of life, I believe we have to re-evaluate everything we think we know in order to become more aware of their true nature.

This idea of awareness seems to be somewhat esoteric; to some people it seems to be a diffcult concept to accept in full. In particular, people who have been subjected to a great deal of authority and control in their lives, socially, religiously or otherwise seem to reject the idea that what they already believe they know is questionable. Trying to explain awareness to someone who is less concerned with new ideas and concepts is a tough one. Regardless of how aware you believe yourself to be, please humour me for a minute.

Consider: a test known as the ‘Mirror Test’ is used to test awareness of self. In this experiment, a dot is placed on the forehead of the test subject (usually an animal) and then they are shown their own reflection in a mirror. If the test-subject is self-aware; aware that ‘I’ exist as an entity, they will realise that they are looking at their own reflection and try to remove the dot from their head.

Although results from this test can vary and are arguably not conclusive, unsurprisingly the animals that constantly pass include the great-apes, dolphins and elephants; animals we perceive as being more intelligent. Birds and rodents on the other hand, tend to try to attack their own reflection.

Interestingly, humans do not pass the Mirror Test until they are around twelve to eighteen months old, an indication that one’s level of awareness is not static and can increase throughout life.

From this it should be obvious that the there are significant differences in the level of awareness between say, a dolphin and a magpie, or an adult human and a six month-old child. Similarly, there are examples all throughout life that reflect the vast differences in awareness from person to person. Some people seem to be a paragon of reason, consciousness and understanding whereas others seem to spend their entire lives almost asleep.

Ignorance is bliss

We often hear people use the phrase “ignorance is bliss”, the idea that what you are not aware of is never really a problem to you. In some cases this seems to make sense. For example, if you were to find out today that the person living next door to you was as serial killer, it would likely have a (perceived) negative impact on your life. You’d start to live in fear of your neighbour and stop talking to them or exchanging pleasantries. You may become anxious or paranoid, many would move house too. All of this despite the fact that your risks of falling victim to your neighbour had not changed at all. In this case, you would have been more at ease had you not known about your neighbour’s unsettling hobby. It often seems that ignorance equals bliss.

In the majority of cases though ignorance is not bliss. I’m sure most people would rather know about the dangers of their neighbour so they could decide how to act accordingly.

As another example, drinking a gallon of coke every day whilst being ignorant of the risks of type II diabetes will not reduce your risks of developing it. This attitude is simply bizarre, not blissful. Pretty soon any coke-guzzling fiend will unfortunately realise this.

So, awareness is bliss?

Not in my opinion. In fact, it seems that, to a certain level, increased awareness brings it’s own frustrations because not everybody is as reasonable or as understanding as you are. It takes a very reasonable mind to maintain that people should be helped and encouraged despite their seemingly moronic behaviour.

Increased awareness brings a greater understanding of situations, of other people and of yourself. The more you truly understand something, the more capable you are of making decisions based on reason and logic, rather than misguided feelings or misconceptions. The more you understand yourself and the people around you, the more you can understand motives and why people do or think the things they do.

By increasing your level of awareness you can assert what is really important in your life. From this, you can then start to make plans and decisions based on the things that really matter to you.

How do I raise my awareness?

I don’t claim to be a guru, therapist or even a philosopher. There are people out there who have an even better understanding of life than I do. I do seem to understand a lot more than many of the people around me though and my level of awareness has increased dramatically over the past year and a half.

Although this has been partly due to certain events that have triggered significant realisations, I can also attribute my own development to three key factors: thinking, questioning and honesty.

In the philosophical novel God’s Debris by Scott Adams, the main character Avatar describes awareness as “recognizing your delusions for what they are.” This is a big part of it and, although it is a work of fiction, God’s Debris explores the idea of awareness in a really clean and precise manner. I don’t necessarily agree with the idea of five levels of awareness but, like I said, it’s a novel.

Recognising your delusions relies on you questioning the things you assume are true, thinking them through rationally and being honest with yourself if you find you’re wrong. Without doing all three you’re either being ignorant, or you’re deluding yourself.

Another aspect of raising your awareness is to pay attention to people more often and to yourself. Study how people interact with each other and start to question (to yourself) their motives for doing the things they do. People-watching can be very interesting and gives you a fantastic insight into how others see the world. Next time you see two people flirting with one another, observe how they try to portray themselves. Apart from anything else it’s great fun.

How does this apply to personal development?

Hopefully it’s clear that by increasing your level of awareness, you will gain a better understanding of yourself, of other people and of life. The more you understand, the better equipped you are to handle life.

If you’re looking to improve your life, to learn how to deal with situations, to avoid stress and figure out what you really want, start thinking about awareness. Question things you think you already know and everything you hear, and think about the things you say and do. Be keen to learn as much as you can about everything, not just the areas you’ve grown accustomed to and always keep an open, vigilant mind.

Recommended reading

I Am A Strange Loop - A heavy but very interesting look into self awareness

God’s Debris, A Philosophical novel from the creator of Dilbert that, amongst other things, explores awareness levels

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