Continuing on in the exploration of the big ideas brought up in the Life Simplified – Overview series, we will dive into Awareness. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the exploration of Clarity. Awareness paired with clarity is one of the most powerful ways you can ensure that the changes you wish to make in your life will last.
Awareness is a mental state that does not have much to do with the physical, it is a property of consciousness, hence why its exploration can seem very abstract. This is because awareness is inherently an abstract idea. To make the exploration more concrete, we will use an example as a case study.
George has been a frequent smoker for the past 10 years and his health is declining beyond what he can ignore. He has taken up quitting but finds that he easily gets brought back into the mindless habit loop of smoking. George even finds that he quickly rationalizes that another cigarette will be okay by saying things like “this will be the last” or “I will relapse anyway”.
What is it?
Big Idea: The state of having knowledge or perception of a situation or behavior.
Basically: Awareness is the state of being conscious of something.
To be aware of something is to take it and bring it into attention, to apply consciously directed focus to it. For example, George would be applying awareness to his smoking habit by realizing that when he smokes he goes on autopilot. George already has a sliver of awareness because he has recognized the importance of quitting; this is an early stage of awareness.
Awareness comes in varying degrees and always starts with a little sliver that you later build on. With time, it will grow into a larger awareness. The more awareness you gain, the more deliberate you will have to be to gain even more. The more awareness you have over something, the more attention you can apply to it. This leads to more control that you will have over it and therefore the less control it will have over you. The result is an easier time influencing change, such as breaking a bad habit.
You can think of awareness like a flashlight. This is because of its strong relationship with attention, which you can model with a flashlight. What is in the light is what you are aware of, what is in the dark is out of your awareness. The aim of developing awareness is to make the light brighter and spread the field-of-view that the light illuminates.
Unlike a flashlight, awareness often starts out very dim and not covering a lot of space. The development of awareness increases the flashlight’s field-of-view and applies more brightness to what it covers. A brighter and wider field-of-view is more useful in the darkest of locations, such as the darkness and uncertainty of George’s smoking habit.
NOTE: I will use the phrase “after the fact” or “after the action” to discuss awareness in a more general sense. These both mean awareness after the event or action of interest has taken place. For example, instead of saying “after George engages with his smoking habit” or its many variants, I would, more concisely, say “after the fact” or “after the action”. This allows me to remain general when sharing this idea. My analysis will include examples for illustration, but the emphasis will be on transferability.
Why is it Important?
Big Idea: Awareness allows for effective change of subtleties such as emotional control.
Basically: Gain control over things often considered “unchangeable“, such as personality.
Changing physical habits is relatively easy, you simply make it more obvious by simply placing a trigger or cue of some sort out in the physical world that you will happen to stumble upon. For example, you could easily apply the habit of reading every night by placing the book on your pillow each morning, just doing this the first time you get an urge to build that habit can immediately start you down a path of developing it.
The ease of physical habits is due to the ease of the awareness stage. All habits come in 4 stages:
- Awareness (the “Cue” or “Trigger”)
- Urge (the “Desire”)
- Engagement (the “Action”)
- Release (the “Reward”)
You can easily pass through the Awareness stage of physical habits by placing a physical object where you know you will be when you want to engage in that habit. You don’t even have to be conscious of the habit before seeing the object, just having the pillow on your bed is enough to serve as a reminder that you should read even if that wasn’t on your mind when you walked into your room.
The tricky thing with all habits including more physical (real-world) habits but especially with mental habits is emotions and mental states. A tough day at work and emotional exhaustion can be enough to make the book reading habit tough to stick to, but it would require much less discipline to stick to than a mental habit would.
The Awareness stage of mental habits isn’t so easy. For example, perhaps you have built up a habit of getting emotionally “triggered” by someone slurping on a cup, changing this habit is difficult for many reasons:
- The slurping on the cup probably occurs randomly, so to properly drill down and address the habit you would first have to record the audio of the slurping or do something that you can apply repeatedly to properly train consistently. A habit is much harder to break (or create) if the appropriate repetition isn’t applied.
- The trigger itself changes your state of consciousness, your body has been programmed to feel a certain way given the trigger and so all the emotions begin flooding in and your whole state of being is now in a reactive state where logic simply doesn’t work anymore.
This second point is the interesting one, because of the fact that your mind operates largely based on feelings and emotional states. It does this in order to constantly monitor your physical well-being and encourage whatever action is necessary to increase you or your gene’s chances of survival. Emotions drive action, motivation is an emotion itself. But emotions come and go like waves, hence why motivation is fleeting and should not be the aim for effective action, once an obstacle hits, your “motivation” or “happy emotion” goes to fear.
Your own conscious awareness can easily be influenced by the feelings and emotions that goes on in your body. To try and change your body’s response to someone slurping on a cup is like trying to fight against a tidal wave. You can’t go at with brute force and sheer willpower, a more subtle and gentle approach is required.
The more emotions are involved, as with mental habits, the more subtle and cautious you will have to be to make effective action. The slightest imbalance can cause a whirlwind of chaos resulting in your mental state changing rapidly.
Physical arousal is a great example, when you are sexually aroused it seems like the only thing you should ever care about is engaging in intercourse. Then afterwards you feel the opposite. This is the refractory period at work. In fact this goes for any stimulation.
Consider running, you may be sitting on your couch saying that you’ll run a relatively large amount of miles tomorrow and that it will be easy and you wonder how you ever struggled with running. But as any runner would know, once you are physically exhausted you are in a completely different mental state.
The same thing goes for when you perhaps felt the burst of motivation and put that book on your pillow. But after an exhausting day at work it seems much harder to pull yourself to engaging in the habit and easier to rationalize not doing it, such as saying “I’ll do it tomorrow” or some other various of “when I feel like it”…
Changing mental habits are especially difficult since you don’t easily have the crutch of a physical object to serve as a reminder.
Much more mental control is necessary and it all comes down to that very first stage in the habit loop, which is the most important of them all since once the habit is triggered, the rest more easily follows.
But! It is not just possible, but can be very simple if you know how to approach it. Think about how the conditioned fear response is broken. Mental habits, phobias, and irritation can all be changed but require special care and attention to the Awareness stage of the habit loop.
In order for George to successfully break his smoking habit he must develop his awareness to the point that he is able to anticipate his response to a cigarette and effectively avoid the triggers. It involves understanding that once the trigger occurs he will have a much harder time taking back control, so he must start early with that control.
Starting with awareness is vital because it is easier to carry awareness from one moment to the next than it is to go from a state of high emotional chaos to a state of awareness. That would be like fighting a tidal wave, even more so if you attempt to approach it with rationality and logic.
George can gain this control, but it is done in a very subtle manner and requires patience. Just like trying to fight emotions with logic, there is no shortcut, you have to understand and respect the process in order to effectively get out from under the rock. Ego and impatience is what holds most people back and leaves them in an endless loop for the rest of their lives.
Lastly, to aid in making the point of how import awareness is, let’s speculate about what consciousness might even be. This is for the sake of illustration of how important awareness is, and that it’s fundamental. This is not a claim of reality, just a point for illustration pulling on intuition and some imagination.
The point originates with the idea that you are not your thoughts, you are the awareness of the thoughts. Just consider: If you can observe your thoughts, then who is the observer? You occupy a body which has hardware (i.e. the physical components that include organs, flesh, brain, senses, etc.) and a particular wiring that allows for particular (dynamic) behavior, with awareness (i.e. you) you can control these thoughts.
For the sake of illustration, think of it as if “you” (i.e. awareness) can be pulled out of your existing body. When the awareness is removed from the body, you wouldn’t be having any thoughts since that is something that requires hardware (i.e. the brain), you wouldn’t be sensing anything since that requires hardware too (i.e. sensory organs). Once you are pulled out, let’s say you could then be placed in another body, you would immediately be able to observe those thoughts and be aware of what that hardware is doing.
With this new body you would immediately perceive all of the memories within its brain and perceive the environment around you through the filter that that unique brain has constructed (talk about a perspective shift!). Furthermore, this awareness which is you may even be eternal, something that always exists and is a single unifying property of the universe such that we all are connected through it. It is as if the universe is experiencing itself through your body.
This suggests that you don’t “die” and the concept of death itself may be a construct of the thought-activity within the brain, meaning it is a “human-made” construct that is supported by culture. But “death” as we know it results in decay and the lack of function of the brain and sensory organs within the body that you possessed and as result the associated memories and senses of the environment also die with it. In this sense, the experience of being outside of your body and being “dead” is unfathomable and thus open and likely for stories to be created to help remove the ambiguity and fear.
You are like the player of a video game and the character you play as is your sensory organs and thoughts allowing you to experience the reality that is the video game’s environment. Again, this is all speculation and is mainly stated to promote out-of-the-box thinking and ultimately to illustrate the importance of awareness and how it likely has far more power and responsibility than you might think.
So what are the implications of this? This implies that you have full control over your thoughts and actions, and furthermore, you have the full responsibility over everything that goes on in your body from emotions to decisions. Consider “less conscious” animals, such as a pig, this pig has dynamic hardware such that new experiences in any environment can rewire the pig’s brain to better function and survive in that environment. So the pig can survive just fine in the world, but without this idea of “awareness” occupying the pig’s body, the pig’s behavior would be fairly deterministic and trainable. When the pig is hungry it goes look for food, when pig is tired, it sleeps.
The interesting thing is that with a higher level of awareness that humans posses we have the power to control such thoughts and literally starve ourselves to death (consider hunger strikes throughout history). This is a mild example but we can go even deeper and suggest that this power of awareness can be used to reverse and even destroy nature given habits to the point that things such as sex, moderation of eating, exercise are all shamed or even tabooed.
The power of culture can cause shame, which is basically an awareness that your thoughts/behavior shouldn’t be, to cause dysfunction. Even modern day breathing is heavy, shallow, fast, and chaotic which is a nature given habit that we have the power of messing up through modern day stress and social stigmas.
This all goes to show how vital it is to take responsibility of your thoughts and actions and learn how to live effectively, you can’t rely on nature given habits. You have no way of knowing that what seems “natural” to you at 20 is actually in alignment with nature and whether or not a more effective, healthier, and easier means of functioning exists that doesn’t fight the very design of the human body.
It is safer to assume that, even through the good intentions of caregivers and community, you’re living a down-right ineffective life struggling far more than you need to and far more than you would if you lived more in alignment with nature. Even arguments against such ideas such as “but I have to make money to pay bills and give up sleep to do so” all are the result of society’s stigmas and modern day stressors. Your posture while reading this is likely even impacted, it is far more natural to squat to defecate, socialize, and rest, but your muscles are probably tense to the degree that you can’t even get in the position, let alone remain there for long periods of time, chairs have promoted this dysfunction and there are so many other dysfunctions that modern society promotes, consider concepts of “grounding” as opposed to wearing shoes or sleeping in a raised bed.
This is the core idea behind my claim that because we are conscious, we must learn how to live. That is why awareness is important in the context of effective living.
Now, personally, I think it’s more accurate to think of consciousness (and therefore awareness) as a spectrum from less conscious to more conscious with another spectrum within each species (i.e. some humans are more conscious than others, through, for example, lots of struggle paired with self-reflection). Animals such as elephants, octopuses, and dolphins are widely recognized as possessing self-aware entities, many other animals including whales have also found to exhibit similar qualities. There is a neat book that explores the nature of consciousness and considers it an evolutionary trait shared by many animals, check out Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
How do I Develop it?
Big Idea: Consistent and deliberate attention gradually built upon, starting with a sliver.
Basically: Build awareness with an iterative process of noticing a thing earlier and earlier.
When changing any subtle or nuanced thing, you have to start with building awareness. Developing an understanding of something is itself building awareness. The vital first step to changing anything is to first be aware of the need for change and then understanding what needs to be changed. Reading about awareness is the humble first step to understanding how to develop it.
Consider someone who is overcoming the phobia of spiders, they start with slight exposure through things like just talking about a spider then later images, to videos, to being next to one, touching it, having it crawl on you, and so on.
Notice that you can’t just toss them into a pile of spiders, you have to gently expose them. To develop awareness requires patience, that is often what gets most people as well as the inherent ambiguity of the process, it is very nuanced and requires trust.
In order to allow for the patience, trust, and humility required you have to commit to the change. This can be difficult since it easier to maintain the old habits since they provide you immediate relief. This is exactly why most people don’t change until they “hit rock-bottom”, because now they have to commit, they have officially suffered too long.
Awareness is developed in 3 primary stages, these are the following
- Awareness after the action
- Awareness during the action
- Awareness before the action, or during the onset of the action
You develop through each stage the same way you would progress effectively in anything you want long-term success in, which is with deliberate and consistent action. The objective is to bring awareness to the situation, at first this may only be possible after the fact, this is completely fine and to be expected since awareness is usually developed in the order mentioned above. Most people fail at the first step because they find that they forget until it’s too late and don’t have the awareness until after the action has already taken place, they then quit and think they aren’t “cut out for it” or that they are “no good at it”. But all along they were doing exactly what was needed to develop awareness! This is why humility, trust, and a separation of ego is important. Ambiguity is innate in a lot of action and is usually what causes most people to jump ship and quit early on.
Awareness after the fact may come several hours to even days later, this is normal at first. The awareness at each stage will also develop over time, starting with awareness at the later-half of the stage and then slowly occurring earlier and earlier within that stage. Think of it like a continuous timeline with 3 divisions:
Initially the awareness will be in Stage 1, after the action has taken place. But the awareness may only come a long time after the action has already happened which would be to the very far right of the above timeline. Overtime, with deliberate practice and consistently bringing more awareness and attention to the desired objective your awareness level will progress in the stages and occur sooner (i.e. further left in the timeline) which means you will have more ability to drive quality into the action instead of having emotion take over and lead you to a downward spiral.
This means that when you first begin building awareness you may not be aware of what you intended to be aware of until hours to even days after the fact, after deliberate practice this time-frame will shrink such that you begin obtaining the awareness sooner and sooner after the fact until your awareness moves into the second stage, perhaps only a few times while the majority of the times your awareness will be still in the first stage, over time, with deliberate practice, the majority of your awareness will progress further through the stages.
It may help to think of this like 3 buckets and only enough water for one bucket. Each bucket represents a stage in the development of awareness. At the start of developing awareness of a particular thing all of the water is in the first bucket, which is the first start of awareness where you don’t have awareness until only after the fact (perhaps several hours later!) As you apply deliberate practice and actually try to improve your awareness the water will begin to move to the next bucket. There may be times when the water moves backwards in the chain, but with an increased level of awareness you will be able to correct this quickly.
During the initial development of awareness for a particular action it is important to spend some extra time, whenever the awareness does come up, journaling or meditating on the objective that you were intending to have awareness for. This will help to improve your awareness more surely and quickly. This is addressing the attention property of awareness, to develop awareness you need to develop the properties of awareness and one of the most important is the concept of attention that awareness has baked in. Consciously writing is precisely the act of focusing attention and therefore can be used as a tool here.
The pair of journaling and meditating is especially useful when developing awareness. This is because journaling brings attention to what was previously out of focus making it easier to bring up in the future. While meditation removes distractions and clears the mind so that the latest thing you applied your attention to (i.e. what you journaled on) can seep into the subconscious and simmer without distraction or new stimulus coming in to interrupt storing the information retrieved from journaling.
The important idea in how well you are developing awareness towards a particular thing is not whether or not all awareness occurs in a particular stage, but whether or not the majority of your awareness is in a particular stage (e.g. the stage of awareness during action). This means that you may find times where you forget and are not aware of what you intended to be aware of until after the action has occurred and it’s too late. Don’t beat yourself up over this, this is normal, as long as the majority of your awareness is progressing from one stage to the next over time then you are making progress.
The beautiful thing about developing awareness is that developing awareness itself is a skill, that means anything can be used as a means to practice developing awareness. For example, the simple awareness of your mental and physical response (i.e. building awareness of your inner body) to your dog lapping at water from a bowl. This awareness will strengthen your ability to be more aware in general which will carry over to improving your ability to develop awareness in the future. This basically means that as you develop awareness for a few things, your overall awareness will improve (especially your self-awareness) making your ability to progress through each of the stages faster and faster.
Meditation is an extremely powerful tool at improving awareness. This is because it removes the clutter and distraction of constantly being bombarded with stimulus. When your mind is being constantly bombarded it can’t properly process any one particular stimulus and more and more information is just thrown out as noise.
Awareness is one of the few vital skills that can always be improved on and each little improvement has profound and lasting benefits. It’s like something that once seen can’t be unseen. Each new level of awareness is a new milestone that you always have the ability to go back to.
Big Idea: Awareness is the vital first step in any change and cannot be overlooked.
Basically: Consistency is vital for any lasting change. Consistency requires awareness.
The process of developing awareness for any one thing is very similar to the development of consciousness in general. Start with a sliver and nourish it regularly. Everyone has different levels of awareness for a particular thing, just as everyone has different levels of consciousness. Awareness sits on a spectrum, like consciousness, it is not an “on” or “off” switch.
The more things you develop awareness around the more awareness you will have overall making it easier to take control of the subtle things that you want to change to improve your well being such as patience, irritation, and emotional control.
Your ability to effectively gain emotional control is directly proportional to your ability to arrive at a state of stillness even during chaotic situations. This ability is developed slowly with practice through consistent and regular development of awareness.
Developing awareness requires a lot of the same things that developing attention requires. It requires removing the clutter and having patience and humility in order to slow down and take the seemingly slower but ultimately more effective route. To make any lasting change you have to start where you are, and that requires humility. There is no shortcut.
With improved levels of awareness, you increase your ability to change the more annoying and limiting aspects of one’s life or personality such as the easy irritation triggers or thought patterns that cause the same negative loops to occur for habits such as smoking or binge eating. Improved awareness applies to all things mental, such as emotions, but even spills over into the physical as well since all things physical are perceived through the mind.
All change requires awareness, so you can change anything with the appropriate levels of awareness. But you must also pair this with the belief that you can change or else the doubt will seep over into your subconscious and impact your actions. Luckily, it is often the case that with the development of awareness one will begin to see ways they can make positive change by seeing new possibilities and with more awareness comes more perceived control and therefore increases your confidence that you can make the change.
Again, the only thing holding most people back is impatience, ego, and lack of understanding. All of these can be addressed and developed. We will explore each of these in turn later on to build a more complete picture of how to engage in effective living.
Your Call to Action
Thank you for reading!
Start your new year off right and commit to the change by sharing how you will apply Awareness to ensure success with your new goals. Share in the comments section below!
Don’t put off contemplating what the insights from this article mean, find a quiet location and think deeply about what it might mean for you. Just 10 deliberate minutes can make a large difference, set a timer, do it regularly and you will notice the changes within a few weeks. You improve your ability to think and therefore make effective decisions by spending more time deliberately thinking about the relevant subject. Consider applying journaling and meditation to see more profound changes, these are just more deliberate and concentrated forms of quiet and focused thinking. Slow down, find stillness.
I am always looking to improve my reach and the impact that I have with my writing, please provide your feedback in the comments below.
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