We’re Not Aware of What We’re Not Aware of

lab and bird
This is a very peculiar (for me), meandering post. There’s something important here. I’m just not quite sure yet what it is.
“If only (company x) knew what (everyone in company x) knew”, goes the lament of many organizations that have tried to implement Knowledge Management. My sense is that the problem is more fundamental than that: We’re not aware of what we’re not aware of.

Case in point: I have started a routine to check my posture, breathing, hydration and state of mind, and to do a couple of simple stretching exercises, once an hour. To remind myself, I have set my watch to ‘beep’ once at five minutes to each hour. I’ve been pretty diligent at doing this, but not once have I not had to correct my posture and breathing. For a few minutes every hour, I’m aware. As soon as I go back to whatever I was doing, I cease to be aware and quickly revert to bad habits. I am incorrigibly unaware of my body’s subconscious actions, my state of mind (including the stress that manifests itself in insidious ways in my body), and my disconnectedness to the ‘real’ world, whenever I am ‘living inside my head’ (which is most of the time, at least when I’m conscious).

There are many other things we’re not aware of not being aware of:

  • Our biases, 
  • Our habits (good, bad and nervous), 
  • Our inattention and insensitivity to others, 
  • Our inability to comprehend others’ worldviews and hence appreciate their beliefs, thinking and feelings, 
  • The sixteen million bits of subconscious data our bodies process every second, 
  • Subtle changes in our mood, our health, our sensory and emotional sensitivity. 

As Stewart & Cohen argue in Figments of Reality, we are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit i.e. we are an organism. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

So when it comes to being aware of what we’re not aware of, ‘we’ really have little say in the matter: Our bodies’ collective organisms adapt as they see fit to external forces, changes and stimuli, and have no inclination to consult ‘us’ about it. Our minds are in their service.

In Straw Dogs, John Gray calls the belief that we as individuals and as a species have control of ourselves and our world The Deception.

We labour under an error. We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.

This conceit of ourselves as separate, enduring selves, apart from others and from ‘the environment’ and under ‘our’ control, is hard to give up. If we concede that it is an illusion, a falsehood, we are left with the worst of both worlds: We have little real ‘free will’ (control or authority over ourselves) yet we still have responsibility for our actions (and inactions), since ‘we’ as organisms, watery bags of skin, are in turn integral parts of the larger organism that is all-life-on-Earth (what I call Gaia) and are hence responsive and responsible to ‘us-all’.

This seems profoundly unfair. As wonderful as the gift of life is, responsibility without authority is a steep price to pay for it. If our bodies or our instincts or something in our subconscious drives us to madness, to sudden horrific knee-jerk violence, to infidelity, to procrastinate, to suicide, to substance addiction, to respond to stress by ‘making ourselves ill’, or other ‘unconscionable’ behaviour, why should we be held responsible and accountable for it when ‘we’ were unable to do anything else?

The answer is that ‘we’ do have some influence over what our watery bag of skin and organs does. Some of us need no alarm clock — we simply ‘tell’ ourselves that we need to wake up at 6 a.m. and somehow we do. A couple of years ago when I was recovering from back spasms, my physio ‘taped me’ into a proper posture, and until the tape was removed, my body adopted such a posture instead of the stooped, slouched one it had practiced for nearly fifty years — every time ‘it’ tried to go back to that bad posture, the tape told ‘me’, and I told ‘it’, to resume proper posture, and ‘it’ obeyed.

But for the most part, our attempt to command and control our bodies and change our behaviour is as futile as our culture’s attempt to command and control and change the external environment of which we are a part. Things happen the way they do for a reason, and as Pascal said, “the heart has reasons of which our reason knows nothing”. And just as the answer to most of the world’s most intractable, complex, social and environmental problems is to achieve a deep understanding of why and how they have arisen, and adapt ourselves (Let-Self-Change) and work with the rest of humanity (and Gaia) to exert, from the bottom-up, such influence as we can, the answer to working with, instead of against, our bodies, our instincts and our subconscious (and our emotions, which manifest the tension between our rational and visceral ‘selves’), is probably to understand them, Let-Self-Change to adapt to them, accept them, and go with them. Even when, like teenage children, ‘they’ act foolishly, irrationally, in self-defeating ways. They are independent of ‘us’ and they do what they must.

We need to give ‘them’, and ‘ourselves’, a break. ‘They’ will learn, probably far more quickly and effectively than ‘we’ will, and, if we’re wise, we’ll pay attention and learn with ‘them’ and from ‘them’. This is what might be called ‘ecological consciousness’, and it applies equally to the cosmos within us and the cosmos all around us. ‘We’ are a part of both, and fighting ‘them’, as if they were apart, ‘other’, is in every sense of the word self-defeating. This is not a matter of forgiveness, or self-forgiveness, or ‘salvation’, but rather integral understanding, letting go, letting be, letting come. It’s a part of re-becoming a part, of re-belonging.

The prerequisite for Let-Self-Change is Let-Self-Be-Aware. That includes becoming more aware of what we are not, and probably cannot be, aware of, what we cannot hope to understand. And knowing that we’re not aware, and being aware that sometimes we’re not aware of not beingaware, is OK too. There is a reason for that. It’s bigger than all of us, and we’re all in this together.

Photo from the Ontario SPCA.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to We’re Not Aware of What We’re Not Aware of

  1. Yes we sure are in this together Dave

  2. Kay Dayss says:

    YES YES YES! Well said! It is the great mystery of it all that makes it all worthwhile and wonderful. Have you ever heard of Dr. Jean Houston? She runs a wonderful Mystery School. You might want to check into it at http://www.jeanhouston.org. There you can explore the great Mystery with other seekers.

  3. kayseigh says:

    Dave – great post. Many times I’ve had to tell myself to let go in order to overcome, however as I read your words, I made a connection that I’ve never made before – You wrote:”Even when, like teenage children, ‘they’ act foolishly, irrationally, in self-defeating ways. They are independent of ‘us’ and they do what they must.We need to give ‘them’, and ‘ourselves’, a break. ‘They’ will learn, probably far more quickly and effectively than ‘we’ will, and, if we’re wise, we’ll pay attention and learn with ‘them’ and from ‘them’. “This illustrates co-dependency. Usually when I think of co-dependency, I think of ‘myself & others’. In this illustration the concept is the same, but it’s within ourselves that the co-dependency can be wrought.

  4. Susan Hales says:

    Dave – great thoughts this morning – I read both this post and the one you linked to on Figments and will ponder them all day – Your honesty and energy are essential gifts without which this reader couldn’t bear the world as it is. Thanks as always.

  5. Karen M says:

    Thanks for the reminder about the importance of awareness and its power as an agency of change.

  6. Stephen says:

    I appreciate the disconnection there seems to be form the body, as we seem to live in our minds most of the time. I wonder if we were madely sensual, if we wouldn’t be able to be aware more of the multipleness of our being.

  7. Jeff says:

    I think you’re on the right track by surrounding yourself with tape and beeps. If you use the control (or illusion of control) you have in order place positive influences around you, you can rationally leverage the “non-you” parts of “you” in the way “you” desire “them” to change. I also think you’re wise to listen to “them”– as you mention, “they” often know more than “we” do.

  8. Exactly. That’s the problem I run into when doing research for fiction, too. If it’s an area I don’t know at all, then I don’t know the right questions to ask. In my former workplace I was involved in a new arm of the same industry I’d been in for twenty-five years, so I had a lot of knowlege just tucked away in my memory. Once, when an intern did some research for one of the other managers, she went to a LOT of work, which I inadvertantly made obsolete with a single statement about the history I knew of that subject. She was crushed, and of course I never intended that. If she’d come to me to begin with, I could’ve saved her weeks of work. But she didn’t know I had that knowledge, and I didn’t know what she was researching.

Comments are closed.