An alert cognitive state in which you are aware of yourself and your situation
During the course of this book you will hear many references to love, empathy and compassion, which some of you might consider concepts (an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances), but are really just human emotions. Many of you will be asking, “How do I find these emotions?” And some of you will not be interested in finding them, because you prefer to keep acting the way you do. But these emotions are the key to the whole human condition. A key that doesn’t need spiritual guidance or a university education. A key we all possess, but may not be aware we have. A key that unlocks the true beauty of what it is to be human.
But how do we get this key? As always, the answer lies in us. Deeply buried in some, already active in others; but it all starts with awareness. Awareness of self in action.
Have you ever looked at your hands? I mean really looked at your hands?
Have you ever taken the time to examine them? Have you watched the way they move while you are looking at them? You can move your hands without having to consciously think “I will move my hands now,” they just move when you want them to! Take a moment to look now. Move every finger individually. Look at your nails; have you ever wondered how they grow? Now move your wrist slowly in circles, and move your arm, all the time noticing that you are aware you are doing it, although you cannot see the thought that caused your arm to move.
Now, I would like you to try to relax, close your eyes when you’re ready, and imagine for a moment that you are sitting above yourself. Like an observer, just watching. Watch how the thoughts flow effortlessly through your mind, but don’t try to interact with them. Just watch for a moment. Now open your eyes, and come back to your environment. Did you notice anything? Maybe, maybe not.
We all have thoughts. Every moment of the day we are thinking about something; but have you ever stopped to wonder why you are thinking? What are the processes that make you think? What causes you to think the way you do? Most of us just accept what we think. We think and act according to the way our brain has been wired, through conditioning, tradition, culture, media, or education; but how many of us stop to wonder why we think the way we do? What makes me think in ways that make me analyse, criticise, and judge all around me?
“It’s just the way I am,” you say. But do you really know your own mind? Are you really aware that you are thinking and acting in a certain way, or are you just running on automatic pilot?
One of the greatest things humans have gained is consciousness, in which we are aware of ourselves, but it seems that most of us don’t know what it really means to be conscious. A gorilla may look at a tree, but what does he see? He has no power of language to describe it; he has no mental concept of what a tree is. He may be able to visually recognise and differentiate different kinds of trees, but does he have the ability to look at the tree and think “I wonder how old that tree is, it is really beautiful”? Can he ponder the nature of his own existence, where he came from, what he is doing here, and what the meaning of life is, whilst looking at the tree?
According to everything we know (which isn’t that much), humans are the only species who have that ability, but of course, this may change in the future. It is an ability which is located somewhere in space; inside the brain, but also without. A clear space in which to play with ideas; to bring up mental images, and use language to describe them. To put words together which enable us to ask questions of ourselves; to be aware of life all around us. Unlike most animals, we are not fixed into patterns which limit us to just sensing danger, seeking out food, and procreating. We can hear the sound of a bird singing and wonder what type of bird it is, then remark upon how beautiful its song is. Let me ask you a question.
Have you ever watched yourself walking? Do you notice how one foot naturally falls in front of the other, how your arms gently swing, or how delicately, or hard you walk? Probably not, because these are activities you can perform without even consciously having the thought. You may think, “I will go for a walk,” but you do not consciously think “Right, I must put one foot in front of the other, paying careful attention to bending my toes at specifically the right time, and lifting one foot off the ground. Oh, and I’d better lift my knee a little.” That would be ridiculous. If you had to be aware of every movement, you would go crazy trying to stand upright!
But that is precisely what I want you to do the next time you go out for a walk. Use the power of your consciousness to notice how your foot bends at just the right time. How your knee lifts, ever so slightly. How you change the way you walk when you start to hurry. Becoming aware of the most basic bodily functions will start to give you an awareness of yourself. If you don’t know your own body, how will you be aware of your effect on others?
If you play sport of any kind, notice how your body can move in the most amazing ways. If you play tennis, notice how your arm comes up just at the right time. How your eye sees the ball, and the racket moves to just the right location, all without you consciously having to think. “I must start lifting my arm now and rotating my racket to just the correct angle. Oh, and I must move my body to the right position, and now I must move my feet.” If you had to think of all those different movements your opponents would have scored a point before you had time to think, “I must start…”
Our bodies are amazing. Our minds are amazing. We are amazing.
Can you even start to comprehend the complexity that makes up a human being? I certainly can’t. From the bone structure that allows us to walk upright, to the muscles and tendons that allow us to move in complex ways; to the heart that beats incessantly in your chest and keeps you alive.
Can you comprehend how the body instantly attempts to clot the blood when you cut yourself and heals the area of skin that was cut, or how the body signals to the brain that it is hungry, and the brain sends that signal to your conscious mind triggering the thought “I’m hungry, I must eat something?”
These processes are automatic. Processes designed to keep our species alive, so why would you notice them? You’re much to busy to worry about how your body works. So you keep on going until finally one day the body cannot take any more, and expires, taking you and your consciousness with it.
We are the most technically advanced of all the species on this planet. We may not be the strongest or the fastest, but we are definitely the most adaptable; using our large brains to think our way out of almost any problem.
Do you not think you are amazing?
Do you not think that the chance you even exist, was so slim, yet you are here? From a single sperm and an egg, you grew, slowly at first, then more rapidly, inside your mother’s womb; blissfully unaware that anything was going on, while the process of life was taking place right inside you, growing bones, muscles, skin, and organs. Until finally, in the ninth month, you were ejected through your mothers vagina, and gasped your first breath of air. And here you are! Alive. A member of the most intelligent species on the planet, and you didn’t have to do a thing.
You and I are the luckiest people on the planet. Able to experience such beauty in life, and also able to use language to describe it. You are not like anyone else on the planet, although you may look similar. You are an individual. An individual capable of one of the wonders of the world, conscious thought. So where does that leave us? Oh yes, as adults.
And what do we do with this wonderful chance we got? We fight, we destroy, we smoke, and drink ourselves into oblivion, we pursue our own goals at whatever cost to everyone else, and we are full of our own self-importance. We control, we subdue, we desire, we take, we enslave, and we butcher. That’s the thanks that nature gets for giving us life.
If nature had a consciousness it would have to wonder: “Why did I give life to this species who are so intent on destroying themselves, each other, and nature itself? What was the point of all the billions of years of evolution on this planet, when one species is intent on total destruction of the earth in such a short time? Do they not actually want to be alive? Aren’t they satisfied with this planet full of abundance? I think giving life to these humans was the biggest mistake I made!”
We really are a waste of time (and what a long time the earth has been around for). What do you think?
We have done nothing to further the planet. All we have done is take, take, take. We have given nothing back. We have used the earth as our personal resource centre, and we have left only death in our wake.
Sorry, am I being too hard on us all? After all, we have discovered fire, invented the wheel, and have even flown to the moon. Show me one stupid animal that’s managed to do even one tenth of what we have done!
Let’s go back to these great machines we have at our disposal (our bodies). Take an average day you go through, and think of all the amazing things your body has enabled you to do. We may have developed technology, but without our bodies, the technology would be useless.
Cars help us to travel long distances easily, but think of all the things your body has to do during the drive. The legs for the pedals, the arms for the steering wheel, and the brain to be aware of other cars.
Computers may take over all the mundane processes for us in the future, but if the computer is doing all the work, what will we be doing?
Maybe just thinking of new and better ways to destroy our enemies and ourselves?
The most amazing thing I love about my body is the way I can use my mind to choose different vegetables, prepare them in a way that sends pleasure signals to my brain, swallow them and send them down a tube I can’t see, to a thing called the stomach. This in turn lets me feel full, and uses acids – strong enough to burn the skin – to break down the food into chemical substances that it (the body) needs to stay alive. It then excretes the waste products as either liquid or solid. Now that’s amazing!
But how often do we think about this whilst going to the toilet? It’s fine when everything is functioning normally, but wait until you get food poisoning and suffer sickness and diarrhoea! Then you pay careful attention to going to the toilet. In fact, you can generally think of nothing else. That’s the thing with the human body, it can take most of what we throw at it, but when it breaks down, we are powerless.
The most cruel humans on the planet are reduced to nothing when their body is sick. The wonderful consciousness we have can only think about the pain we are in. The body goes into self-protect mode and tries to heal itself the best it can. Sometimes it is successful, sometimes not.
A short story about waking up
A young man goes out drinking every night with his friends, and he is on top of the world. He’s got a good job, plenty of money, he feels powerful; like nothing could ever touch him. He struts his stuff with the ladies, showing off his designer clothes, partying the night away; having sex with as many women as he can. He’s cool. All his friends admire him. All his friends want to be him. One night, he leaves the bar, drunk as usual, and he and his friends are in high spirits – they’ve had great night. He takes his keys out of his pocket, and all of them pile into the car. He turns the music up loud, and drives off. It’s an easy country road home, never any traffic at 2.00 am.
They are all laughing and joking, he turns his head for a second to shout something to his friend and… He wakes up. His body is covered in plaster, tubes sticking out of him everywhere, surrounded by people in white coats.
“What happened?” he asks. “What am I doing here?” “You had a car accident,” one of the doctors replies. “What about my friends?” “I’m very sorry, they were all killed.”
In this situation, like so many tragic events around the world, the dawning or realisation of what has happened comes too late. The events have already taken place and it’s too late to go back. One faculty we are not born with, is the ability to turn back the clock, though I’m sure many wish we were.
If only he had had the awareness of self; the awareness that says “I am drunk. If I get in that car, there is a high chance I may kill, not only myself, but my friends too.”
Why does this awareness come to people when their bones are broken, or when they are lying sick, or dying? What if people could find this awareness before it was too late?
People talk about developing self-awareness, but it is no more complicated than watching yourself in action. We have already discussed paying careful attention to watching how your body moves, but what I would like you to pay careful attention to now is your language.
A systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols
The cognitive processes involved in producing and understanding linguistic communication
It may be fair to say, that without the development of language skills, we may never have been able to develop awareness. Visual representations in the mind are associated with words we project into our consciousness. How would we have been able to ponder the meaning of life, if we had no words with which to describe the words “the meaning of life!”
I know it is a difficult subject to think about, but consider this. Without language, we would not have the ability to think the way we do now.
So language is an essential part of awareness; not just in how we speak to others, but how we speak to ourselves. How often do we listen to how we speak? Have you ever said something in anger and couldn’t believe the words actually came out of your mouth? Do you notice if you are aggressive, insulting, even plain boring, or if your personality is intolerable? Do you notice when people dislike you for what you say? The content is not important; it is the noticing that is important. Next time you are speaking to someone, try to practice this. As you are speaking, allow yourself to become aware that you are above yourself, watching. Not interacting with the speech; merely observing what is being said, and try to catch what you are actually saying.
Notice the content, notice the manner in which you speak, notice the tone; and try to see how it feels to be on the receiving end of a conversation with yourself. Try to listen to whether you are angry, superior, demanding, critical, or boastful; and ask yourself this question: “Would I like to be on the receiving end of this conversation?”
We need to become aware of how we interact with other people and start to take account of how others may be feeling when we are talking. Only then will we be able to modify our thinking and our behaviour;
As you go through your day, do you ever consider how things work? Have you any idea how the electricity is generated that feeds your endless requirements, or how water magically arrives at your tap? What about where the faeces, urine, and toilet paper goes when you flush the toilet? How about all the waste you generate every day, neatly put into a bag, and throw into your bin ready for collection? You may not think these things are important, but they are highly significant to developing awareness.
Let us be clear why we are trying to develop awareness. It is not so we can reach a higher spiritual plane; it is to help us improve the way we exist on this planet. Simple as that.
There is no point in saying “Oh, yes, I’m very self-aware,” and carrying on doing the things you were doing before.
This is self-awareness in action. By being aware, you are noticing how you effect, not only other people, but the other species we share this planet with, not forgetting the planet itself; and by developing this awareness, you start to tread a little more carefully, instead of blasting through life only concerned with what you can get from it. I am not going to preach to you about what you should think is important, but when you start to think about someone else apart from yourself and your “needs,” you will begin to notice yourself becoming more deeply interested in the planet you live on.
Talking of planets. Have you any idea where the earth is? No, neither have I! Scientists have been studying the universe with telescopes, and sending probes out to mars and the sun, but we have no better idea of where we are than we had last year, or the century before that.
You see, space is just that – space. It is a concept that blows your mind. How did we arrive here? How is the universe made up? Why do we exist? Where are we? These are philosophical and scientific questions that will probably keep humans busy for many years to come.
But you don’t care about that, do you? All you care about is earning money, having kids, getting a good education for them, buying a nice house with a nice garden, having drinks at the pub, buying the latest gadgets and going on holiday. Fair?
What if you are a criminal? All you care about is hurting people, stealing from them, and generally making yours and everybody else’s life a misery. Fair?
What if you are a dictator? All you care about is killing people, controlling them, lining your own pockets with their hard earned money, starting wars, and generally making everybody else’s lives a misery. Fair?
What if you are a politician? All you care about is staying in power, sending your troops off to some far flung land to free the people, organising the country, and possibly the planet, according to your ideas, having affairs, and generally not doing much for anybody except yourself. Fair?
What I am trying to help you understand here is that in order to have true awareness, you have to notice your actions, and you have to try to place them in context with the other people you have to live with. If you are a criminal who hurts people, and steals their money, awareness will not come when you go to jail.
Awareness comes when you are in the middle of the act, and you suddenly start watching yourself, without judgement. It may even be a surreal experience as you watch yourself knocking down an old lady and stealing her bag, suddenly thinking: “What am I doing?” If you don’t get that feeling, you will keep doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t even have to be anything so extreme.
As you are running the tap on full whilst brushing your teeth, you may just notice thinking: “I am letting all that water just run down the drain. It has travelled a long way to get here, and in an instant, I have let it go, without even using it.” A murderous dictator will no longer be a murderous dictator when he stops and catches himself in the middle of an act, and notices himself thinking: “Why am I doing this to all these people? I don’t want to do this anymore.” As we have discussed, awareness is the key that opens up the doorway to love, compassion, and empathy. It’s so simple, once you start noticing yourself in action.
For me, it was a strange feeling too, when I started to notice things around me that had previously not only been unimportant, but were completely out of my awareness. I was aware I had needs, and I wanted them fulfilled. Now. I didn’t care about my fellow man. The furthest I spread the net was perhaps to my girlfriend, mum and dad, and maybe a couple of close friends. But even then, I was the most important thing on the planet, just as you are now. “
Look after number one,” my mum used to say, and that I did. I travelled through life without a care, except how much money I was going to earn that month, and what I could spend it on. Nothing mattered to me in the way it does now. I don’t think I was a bad person, I just couldn’t see past myself.
But I had two key awareness moments that sparked an inquisitiveness in me, that now means I silently question everything I do, to judge its impact on others; not in an obsessive manner, just casually, almost as if it was in my peripheral vision.
The first was standing at traffic lights in sydney, australia in 2000. I casually dropped my cigarette butt, as millions of other people do.
“Pick that up; don’t you know it takes over a hundred years for that to breakdown in the environment?” my girlfriend said.
Normally I would have got angry and said “What’s it got to do with you? Leave me alone,” but this time something changed. It was as if I could hear myself going to say the words before they came out of my mouth; and in that noticing, I realised I had changed.
“Sorry, I didn’t know that,” I said, and picked it up.
The second was in thailand in 2002. I was looking for a book to read in the english bookshop, and I saw one called “beyond violence.” I was somehow attracted to it; I think I just liked the title; and unsure if it was a novel or not, I bought it and started reading.
I couldn’t put it down. It was a book about the nature of human violence, a book that made me incredibly sad, and in that moment I started to notice myself thinking “This can’t be right, how can we go around killing each other all the time? For what?”
For me, awareness has been a process, much like life is. I slowly noticed things around me more and more; people, animals, the planet. It’s not as if I deliberately wanted to become more “in touch with myself,” I just couldn’t help noticing the way I talked and dealt with people; how sometimes I was so crude, angry, or full of my own self-importance. And I began to dislike this person I was noticing – so I changed.
Awareness is not about becoming perfect. It is about starting to notice more important things than the number of credit cards in your wallet, the car you drive, the power you have, the control and dominance you have over others, and your status in society; and realising you are only here for a short time. You may have a big brain, but one day soon, that brain, along with your body will stop functioning. That will be it. You can believe in reincarnation or heaven all you like, but your body, and therefore you, will be no more. Like a car that can’t be fixed, that goes to the scrapheap – that’s where you’re going!
Awareness is waking up. Waking up to what you are – a wonderful human being. Alive today. Able to enjoy life, and share that pleasure with the rest of the world. Bringing love instead of war; compassion instead of terror; empathy instead of hatred. Step outside yourself for one moment now.
Enjoy watching yourself in action.
You may not like what you see when you first look down upon yourself, but after recognition comes understanding, and with understanding comes change; but with change there also comes resistance. All you have to do is accept the change instead of resisting it! Your new found awareness of yourself will not only be a shift in the right direction for you, but you will be helping all of Mankind.
You may not believe it right now, but if you look closely enough at yourself and your current actions, you will see the way forward.