Nathan Hwang

Awareness, Awareness, Everywhere (but no one sought to think)

Epistemic status: contains wild speculation

I.

Plato said “know thyself” 2500 years ago, so why is everyone still trying to sell me on self-awareness?

More specifically, many contemporary self-help books seem to focus on some aspect of self-awareness and offer their own spin on it. Even books from fairly different traditions give me pause with how often I hear echos of the same introspection program. As examples, I’ll walk through books from therapeutic, meditative, and relationship backgrounds.

The first book is Feeling Good, perhaps the definitive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) book for popular audiences. One of the roots of this dense and long book is a simple technique: using a page with two columns, hold a conversation with yourself, and examine your assumptions and their consequences plainly in the sharp light of a white page. After doing so, you are better able to talk back to unwarranted negative thoughts on the fly. There are other instruments described within the book, but this one is the most referenced, and it is simply introspection made concrete.

Next is Search Inside Yourself, about westernized meditation rooted in Buddhist tradition. The core idea is that by practicing focused attention within meditation, you increase your attentional skill in general. A heightened attention then leads to a sharper resolution of your internal landscape (why am I feeling this way?), or allows your self assessment to be more accurate (can I confront the quality of my public speaking?). The book also details benefits derived from simply practicing attention, like lengthening the time between a negative trigger and a negative response, allowing a more reasoned response (I believe this concept is colloquially known as “check yo’self before you wreck yo’self”).

Lastly is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), possibly the most self-help-like out of these three, as well as the most ad hoc and unusual. The author presents a style of communication which rejects demands as moral coercion (violent: you must do this, or you are a bad person) and instead embraces requests as respectful of your conversational partner’s agency (nonviolent: this is what I need and why, can you do this for me?). A prerequisite to this, though, is being aware that one’s sense of self can be separated from the way one is feeling, and then wresting responsibility for modulating one’s feelings away from pure circumstance. For example, “I am angry” is incomplete: why are you angry? Is the anger useful, or do you just let yourself get angry each time you have to go to the DMV? Should you take steps to exit this temporary angry state? This reminds me of the call to keep your identity small, throwing emotions that most people think of as uncontrollable out of the inner sanctum of the self.

II.

Each of these traditions has been around for a while: CBT merged from separate cognitive and behavioral therapy traditions in the 1980s, mindfulness meditation in the western world really started to take off with Jon Kabat-Zinn also in the 1980s (around when Wherever You Go, There You Are was published), and NVC had been under development by Marshall Rosenberg since the 1960s. All of these traditions have been around for 30 years, and they all contain a basic common goal to increase self-awareness. And yet, my layman’s gut feeling says that this idea’s societal penetration is still low. For instance, no one publishes self-help books about how to tie shoelaces; since there are tons of self-help books about self-awareness, it appears lots of people think the world could use more self-awareness.

This is somewhat surprising to me, because the practice of self-awareness does seem to be a great trait to have in the modern world, where on top of not being able to control the weather, one can’t control the global economy or whether the newspaper will publish upsetting news today. Having a more accurate view of your limitations or what perturbs you should be strictly better than not. Why aren’t any of these practices boringly mainstream yet?

I have three thoughts about why these ideas might not be as widespread as it seems they should.

The first is the usual civilizational inadequacy argument, that we’re still barely qualified monkeys: at the first point we could put together a civilization, we did it. Sure, we built skyscrapers on savannas, but it’s easy to imagine that having built-in deep introspection hardware wasn’t adaptive before civilization was stable enough to emphasize the internal over the external. Being angry at Ugg helped when in a club fight with him, but getting angry at terrible driver #17729387 won’t help maneuvering in the boardroom later that afternoon. The Stone Age mind doesn’t know that we’re closer to the boardroom, though, so we’re stuck with higher cognitive costs to access and manipulate our inner state.

The second idea is that the results of these interventions are subtle. No one notices when you prevent yourself from punching someone. People barely pick up on when you are more happy than usual. Even improved relationships are not flashy (Happy families are all alike…). It’s not clear to others that these are winning strategies, especially across tribal borders: the staid businessman looks at the yogi preaching transcendental joy, and figures he’s just on drugs. Combined with high starting costs (learning to sit still, unlearning years of conversational habits) means there are plenty of hurdles for a someone to move from “never heard of it” to “interested enough to try”.

Thirdly, these ideas are still fringe ideas within society (remember, society is relatively fixed). Sure, lots of people do CBT, but only in therapeutic contexts, and if you’re not mentally debilitated, why would you use an instrument designed for therapy? You’re not mentally unstable, are you? Mindfulness meditation still has trappings of eastern spiritualism on it, which helps and hinders it (“oh, it’s eastern mysticism!” versus “oh, it’s eastern mysticism.”), not to mention the main religion in the US being allergic to anything that doesn’t wave a bible around[1]. Finally, NVC is just plain weird (“what do you mean, I can’t tell my kid he has to do his homework?”).

So is there $20 lying on the societal ground in the form of easy-to-implement self-awareness practices, or is it really $20 with a 2 ton glass block on top of it? It definitely works for some people, or disparate traditions wouldn’t have bothered writing books about it, but it remains to be seen whether it’s constrained to those people, or if it’s simply a subtle effect and it needs time to diffuse through society.

Finally, I’ve saved the most important question for last: if we do manage to spread self-awareness practices throughout society, what will our self-help books be about then?

Many thanks to Cecilia Schudel for reading early drafts of this post!

[1] This analysis is restricted to the US, but it just so happens that most of Asia is conversant with meditation, so it’s not just a fringe idea there, and yet they’re not significantly happier. Why? This is especially speculative, but the self-awareness payload might still be fringe, in the same way that the US is nominally a Christian nation, and yet there are still homeless people. Yes, this is a version of the No True Buddhist.

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