What It Really Means to be Self-Aware

I’m staring into a window from a balcony. On the other side of the window there is a dinner party, and the guests begin to take notice of me looking at them. They gather at the window, and I feel a pang of uncertainty course through me. This feeling quickly devolves into anxiety and helplessness, as I sense the hostility radiating from the other side of the glass panes.

I try to fight their reactions, but after each attempt, they come back. I soon realize what it is I’m looking at. Through the glass, I see my own thoughts, manifested as people. And just like my thoughts, these people burn with judgmental power over me. I turn away from the window.

“These thoughts are not real” I whisper to myself.

But as I turn to face the other direction, I’m confronted with my own reflection. Pausing in a state of motionless contemplation, I begin to think “Am I real?”. I wake up.

I’ve since had a handful of similar dreams in which I’m just looking into a mirror, quiet and still. During these strange encounters I’ve wondered: what does it mean to be self-aware?

The term “self-awareness” seems to be linguistically flawed, as it implies there are two separate people involved: one who is aware, and one who is the object of awareness.

In reality, this is an illusion created by the ego, looking for a fixed idea of “self” to cling to. The “you” that moves and breathes is the same you that thinks and dreams. The “you” that speaks is the same you that reflects on the words you choose. Yet, we constantly question ourselves as if this wasn’t the case. All too often I find myself wondering: is this how I should behave? Am I being true to myself? I do this with the assumption that there is another “me” which is not always true, whatever the hell that means.

I think much of the stress and anxiety we experience today stems from a fundamental mistrust of our own nature. We prioritize societal norms over our own natural reactions, and this leads us to become lost in abstract conceptions of ourselves. We create stories about who we are and what we stand for, but do they have any substance?

If you’ve ever seen the movie Anger Management, you’ll recall the scene where Jack Nicholson asks Adam Sandler’s character “Who he is”. Sandler tries to describe things like his job, his hobbies, and even his personality traits, believing that these things add up to a unified “self”. But Nicholson is unsatisfied with the answer and keeps prying until eventually Sandler snaps out of frustration.

In the same way, removing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can elicit a lot of internal resistance. We can easily become dejected, anxious, and even angry. But it’s only through this type of non identification that “self-awareness” takes on a whole new meaning.

Self-Awareness in the Modern Era

To provide more context, consider all the ways you identify yourself. Grab a sheet of paper and write a series of statements about yourself beginning with “I am”. The list might look something like this:

1. I am a brother

2. I am a salesperson

3. I am a writer

4. I am smart

5. I am outgoing

Give yourself two minutes, and you’ll probably create a list much longer than the one above. Once you have your series of statements, go ahead and attach the words: “but that’s not who I am” to each of them. Your updated list will resemble the following:

1. I am a brother, but that’s not who I am.

2. I am a salesperson, but that’s not who I am

3. I am a writer, but that’s not who I amc

4. I am smart, but that’s not who I am

5. I am outgoing, but that's not who I am

Now say these statements out loud. Say them to someone else if you can. Notice how it feels when you do it. Some of our strongest beliefs about who we are are nothing more than superficial qualities. Even as we go deeper into the realm of “character traits” and “personality”, we start to see that words like “outgoing” leave out something altogether intangible. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you feel it.

This is why I take issue with personality tests; they provide only a surface level understanding of the “self”. Based on your answers to a few questions, tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will show who you are and what strengths and weaknesses you possess. Not only is this a ridiculous oversimplification of people, it’s also potentially damaging in its reinforcement of a fixed and easy-to-define “self”.

Am I an extrovert, or an introvert? Am I logical or spontaneous? Am I a dreamer or a doer? This is an absurd way of classifying people that only gives the ego an illusory sense of self that it can cling to.

If there is no true "self", then there's no sense in practicing "self-awareness" in the traditional sense. Doing so would be affirming the existence of something which is merely a hallucination. But by practicing moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and the environment, the true “you” emerges independent of the ego. The “self” part of the “self-awareness” equation becomes less important, and we’re left with something more profound: awareness.

Meditation is the vehicle towards this awareness. With regular practice, we learn to let go of old conceptions of who we are, realizing that the “self” is fluid and not at all fixed.

Even in the realm of decision-making, the self appears to be a non factor. During our ordinary patterns of thought, we operate under something called the Default Mode Network (DMN). This is a series of connected brain regions which gives rise to a unified sense of self and autobiographical thought. The interplay between the DMN and the rest of our cognition has been the subject of research studies on things like free will. Research has shown that when making a decision, the unconscious part of my brain activates to catalyze a decision before the default mode network even recognizes it as "mine" .

So are my thoughts and decisions even mine? It all depends on your definition of "I" and "self". The DMN dictates that we identify with the thoughts we have about our experience. The likes, the dislikes, the pleasures and pains. But it seems more accurate that we are the experience itself. It's a classic paradox: the less we distract ourselves with thoughts about who we are and how we identify, the more self-aware we truly are.

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