This mind itself, bound by its knots—if one lets go,
There is no doubt: it will be free.
What is this concept self-awareness? A simple response (I won’t say ‘answer’) came this morning as I was pondering the question during meditation—or rather, trying not to ponder on it, which, as Einstein attested to by taking a notepad into the shower, is often the way.
What I thought was this: Self-awareness as is it practiced in modern Western society is a concept that combines a very narrow definition of ‘awareness’ (a critical rumination aimed at improvement and progress of the ‘self’ project) coupled with a very narrow definition of what that self is (generally the social self).
I suppose that’s evident to many—it’s certainly at the heart of the 21 Soul process – and it’s probably something I’ve known before. What was different this time, however, was how I reached that response—through a shift in not only knowledge, but also (bodily) behaviour and feeling
An answer of sorts came in fragments over the last few weeks, almost like a small puzzle that I was, without realising it, putting together.
♯1. A shift in knowledge
There is a strange moment at p.143 of Michael Frayn’s Headlong where the first person narrator diverges from the telling of the story into an internal conversation with himself (“Odd, though, all these dealings of mine with myself. First I’ve agreed a principle with myself, now I’m making out a case to myself, and debating my own feelings and intentions with myself. Who is this self, this phantom internal partner, with whom I’m entering into all these arrangements? (I ask myself.)”) In terms of the novel it’s a splitting of moral positions over the narrator’s plans. But I sensed it was also about the narrowness of definitions we have not only for who we are (self) but also the tools or awareness we have of that self, and how unsettling that can be when we come to realise that our trust in this self-awareness (and it is useful to see it as a tool, something we can utilize, if it means we can also see it as the wrong tool for a particular job) may be misplaced. (I’ll write about the narrator in Frayn’s book in more depth later.)
Through reading something with a wonderful narrative told with integrity and truthfulness and a connection with questions regarding the self, I was able to reawaken my sense of curiosity about awareness of the self. That was my shift in knowledge.
♯2. A shift in feeling and bodily behaviour
A small epiphany yesterday while walking on the beach with a friend collecting sea glass (the smoothed out pieces of glass that look like pebbles). Our moods were in different places. Her mood was chilled out. She’d had a few months of, well, not really thinking very much. My mood was anything but—too much thinking and not enough repose or non-evaluative time, by which I mean both mindfulness (“characterized by non-evaluative and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes”) and also time spent simply not making any effort at all: no sustained awareness, no acting, no planning, no progressing (“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler”).
I began to talk to my friend about this sense of my life being at a hinge point, and turning into the second part of life, and how I was dissatisfied with the first part. My friend asked me what was missing to be dissatisfied with it? I didn’t have any answers. Then my friend basically told me to shut up and stop evaluating everything.
At first I was hurt that she was not willing to talk it out with me. Then, after shutting up, we walked for about twenty minutes without really saying anything. I wanted to. I wanted to let her know I was upset and that I expected more support. But I didn’t. Advice I’d heard on the radio earlier while listening to, of all things, the Ashes cricket, had lodged itself in my mind (while talking about one of the England players who’d had a bad time on the field, the commentator said: “It is what it is. It’s happened. Now he just has to deal with it.”)
So I tried that. Bodily, I turned my attention towards the floor, one step at a time, searching for something in the world, not in my head: sea glass. I stepped out of the internal fray, ignored my ‘suffering’, let things simply be. Began searching externally (for something else).
That’s when I got a sense of a different kind of awareness being necessary. Empathy, perhaps, to get into my friend’s head: that she was unwilling to contribute to rumination after clearing her own mind. But also self-compassion in my own head, trying a different path. And after a while the past was forgotten, my hurt disappeared, and we began to pick up sea glass and to enjoy the heat, the sun and the sea, and just get on with things. Finding beautiful things in the smoothed-over detritus of what is basically rubbish, pollution, turned pretty by the incessant always-ness of nature, the coming and going of the tides, the sea’s own breathing. And then we went for dinner and talked about other things, not the internal machinations of an overworked mind.
♯3 A shift in bodily behaviour
I sat down and meditated for the first time in two and a bit weeks. Doing so, I realised how much self-awareness is awareness of the social self only. And that awareness is also, an incredibly narrow lens. Self-awareness as it’s usually practiced in Western modern societies, at least, is a double-constraint wrapped up in the appearance of being healthy-minded. The bodily behaviour—finding time, no, making time, to sit still and focus attention on one thing only—and letting awareness develop. The first thing one becomes aware of, then, is how limited one’s awareness is (unless you’ve reached enlightenment, of course).
So this is where Freud and psychoanalysis got it wrong, and perhaps in some quarters still gets it wrong; and more importantly, is the model to which individual consumer capitalism is wedded, because it is, for capitalist profit-makers and the elite political decision-makers and the comfortable middle-classes, so productive in terms of rights, power and gain.
It is what Otto Rank was arguing back in the 1920s and 1930s: that ‘self-awareness’ in the form in which it was practiced in early psychoanalysis and rigidly adhered to by Freud, and which has been reinforced by now a century of practice, is the unhealthy by-product of a psychological method which, because of its uses (and its pleasurable and painful feelings, and their uses), was co-opted by capitalist projects (individualism, neoliberalism, consumerism) and became central facets of consumer capitalism’s toolset (advertising, educational and legal institutions, the media).
And when self-awareness in this form doesn’t bring happiness, the answer is, of course… “you’re not self-aware enough”. And which qualified and intellectual and professional body supports this self-evident truth…? Psychology. Sorry, pedantic style for making points over. Not all psychology is bad for you. But this psychoanalytic focus on self-awareness has been cherry-picked by the media and advertising and corporations who filter the messages we receive about ourselves and our world. We go with it, because not only are we sold the idea, but it also, in nuggets, feels good/right. We see a problem (‘not beautiful enough’) and look for an answer (‘that new anti-aging cream’) and we purchase it, we feel good because we acted and took control, and the cream has some superficial effect, and then we’re hooked onto this as a means of ‘improving our selves’.
And the cycle of damaging introspective rumination gets stronger (it is the ‘method’ for identifying why we ‘feel bad’), and so self-awareness becomes a strongly habituated process for sorting out our ‘problems’ and ‘pathologies’ (which are, of course, our individual responsibility, and not structural or political), and all the while the benefits to capitalism (‘finding yourself’ through asserting yourself as an individual who will spend more money than a collective group, for example on the new and improved anti-aging cream) wrecks the planet and wrecks our histories of living in balance with the planet and with each other.
What Otto Rank and others (such as Karen Horney, Karl Abraham) saw as the healthy part of psychoanalysis—as a method of medical intervention administered by trained experts to help the individual overcome a specific problem to be able to live more creatively and with less of a gap between potential and achievement—was overshadowed and often subsumed by the ‘lifelong project’ of progress in achieving social acceptance through constant monitoring and self-awareness. Foucault’s Panopticon was ingested. The watching eye became fully internal.
I’m not exactly saying anything new… yet. Although this is still at the heart of the PhD for me: how to look back to the interwar period when Freudian psychoanalysis and modern psychology were not so embedded in capitalism as they are today, to find the resistances and faultlines there, and to learn from them for developing new methods of fracturing and breaking the means by which capitalism and its sponsors continue to use damaging processes and habits of ‘self-awareness’ and ‘self-building’ and ‘individuation’ to keep us from forming healthy and soulful and fully-aware minds and communities that will, if given a chance, stop consuming so much, stop harming the world and others so much.
So, my PhD is a part of my ‘Soul Activism’ as Steve Thorp calls it. It is part of what Alice Walker practices when she makes sacrifices for her work. As is Lauren Berlant as she asks us to deal with the true feelings of politics such as ‘cruel optimism’ (PDF). As is Chris Jordan when he asks us all to choose just one issue to fully-face and feel the emotion of how the world is being devastated (as he has with the Midway Film project). As Anne Cvetkovich is when she asks us to invest in the utopia of daily habit to counter the habits that are forced upon us from outside.
To take apart those things that seem ‘normal’ in our societies such as this concept of ‘self-awareness’ and to look at what it does and how it is doing it and to perhaps bring this to the attention of more people, and to help stop harm and alleviate suffering and nudge the world in a different direction. That is a motivation I can stick to for these last few weeks of the PhD. And also a motivation I can hold close for the future beyond that.