Saturday, November 2, 2013

When It Comes to "Being All that You Can Be"...Self-Awareness Is Key

This morning I came across this article: "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?" The crux of the instruction they are receiving seems to be pointing them towards greater "self-awareness", especially in the midst of mundane or ordinary every day experiences.  As E.F. Schumacher explains in A Guide for the Perplexed..., this is the quality of "z" in the formula, "Man = m + x + y + z", or "Man = mineral + life + consciousness + self-awareness".  In his analysis, Schumacher contends that our capacity for self-awareness is what sets us apart from all other animals - as far as we can tell right now.  From my own point of view, I can appreciate that as long as the language barrier persists, it is hard to get inside the head of say a dolphin, or a member of the lower primate species, to know exactly how they are thinking of themselves. Who knows though, we might figure out how to do that at some point in the future. Nevertheless, for now anyway, I think we are safe in taking Schumacher's assumption at face value.

Furthermore, if every human being were actively using their capacity for self-awareness, all of the time, then there would be no need for this class at Harvard.  Apparently that is not the case. Schumacher acknowledges the fact that even though human beings have the capacity for self-awareness, the degree to which we exercise it tends to vary across populations and even within individuals themselves; i.e. even as individuals, there are some times when we are more self-aware than at other times.

I would offer that there is actually a pretty strong impetus in our society to not be self-aware and instead to be constantly distracted by things and people outside of ourselves; to be more "aware of" what is going on "outside" of ourselves than to be "aware of" what is going on "inside" of ourselves.  I find it interesting that this class is now being taught at Harvard, maybe even being Allowed to be taught at Harvard, because it is a pretty blatant counter to that trend.  I think the fact that it is being so well received by the student population alludes to my contention that human beings are not totally satisfied with just "m, x, and y".  I think because we are capable of "z", of self-awareness, it is something we need to experience to be satisfied with ourselves; i.e. through realizing more of our full potential as human (i.e., "m+x+y+Z") beings.

For a long time now I have felt very strongly that we are at a point in our evolution as a species that we can no longer live our lives as merely a function of "m, x, and y"; i.e. the more biologically based aspects of our existence. I have written several blog posts on this subject such as "The Biology of Heaven""Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love - Part I""Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love - Part II""Overcoming My Addiction to 'Falling In Love'""The Biology of 'Omnipotence'", and "So What Does Love FEEL Like...For Real?", etc. If I were to make a broad summary of all of these posts, I would say they have to do with becoming much more self-aware, even to the point of being sensitive to the "patterns-patterning" in our own biochemistry that we recognize as "feelings", that may be driving us from much deeper biological imperatives, but are not necessarily beyond our conscious control.  I would offer that it is the very fact that we can become more "self-aware" in the midst of that play of our biology, that we actually have more opportunities to regulate it intentionally. The truth is there are all kinds of ways that we are doing things without full-consciousness or intention that are ultimately ways of regulating our emotional biochemistry. Why do we do anything that "makes us feel good"? What is "feeling good" apart from a secretion of certain biochemicals into our bloodstream?

Admittedly, with all of the work I have done in this area myself, I find myself identifying more and more with the "Bene Gesserit" of the world of Dune and science fiction: "But beyond the outer virtues of poise, self-control, and diplomacy, Bene Gesserit training includes superior combat skills and precise physiological control that grants them direct control over conception and embryonic sex determination, aging, and even the ability to render poisons harmless within their bodies...." (according to this Wikipedia article). Granted, that's a Really Idealized conception of what anyone might be capable of doing with regards to regulating their own physiology, but it does point to some inkling of what we might become capable of, at least to a greater degree, especially with better training.

Furthermore, I think for us to have a more functional human culture in this world, and to have more people experiencing more meaningful and ultimately happier lives as human beings, it is important that we give more attention to this higher capacity in ourselves, this capacity for self-awareness and emotional/biological/physiological self-regulation. I think much of the dissatisfaction people are experiencing today stems from the very fact that they are not able to exercise those capacities, that they have not been given the social support and context for developing those capacities within themselves. These young people attending this class at Harvard...they are some of the lucky ones, especially because they are getting exposed to this fairly early in their lives. I am a firm believer that even much younger children can be gently and effectively guided in their learning of emotional self-regulation, but it needs to be something their parents and teachers also understand and know how to practice themselves, before it can be taught to their children and students.

In other words, we still have plenty of room to grow and evolve as human beings in this world, both individually, and collectively.  From my point of view, we have barely even begun to realize the potential of our capacity for self-awareness; i.e. "The Z Factor" (according to E.F. Schumacher). Consequently, I applaud the work of people who are effectively helping others to explore along this path, people like Professor Michael Puett. I am continuing my own "work" in this area as well, and, as appropriate, will continue to share with you here from my experiences and insights.