Introspection Part 8, Self-awareness and being
“Skynet… becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th.”
From the Movie, Terminator II, 1991
I was on a bus at the age of 14, headed toward work. I was looking down at my hands. I was probably bored, and maybe high on something. I started to move my fingers, watching my fingers as I moved them. I stopped moving them. Then I moved just the index finger on my left hand (I know this mostly because I am left-handed so I’ve always paid more attention to my left hand). I stopped moving that finger. I then thought, “move that finger.” Then the finger started moving. I then thought, “stop moving the finger.” The finger stopped moving. I did this several times, awed by the fact that I was thinking of a thing, then making it happen, then repeating it. This was my moment I became self-aware. I had learned in that instant the practice of intentionality. Such a trivial sounding thing had become something I would never forget, even writing about it now exactly 40 years later.
There is what you “are” (existence) and then there is what you want to “be” (being). Existence requires nothing from you. It was given to you when you were born and continues to be yours while you live. Being requires awareness. In order to move from what you are (existence) to what you want to be (being), you must first become aware of what you are and then continually decide how to move toward what you want to be. Self-awareness is a capacity that belongs to all humans. You are born with the capacity for self-awareness. Unlike existence, which just is, self-awareness must be exercised to be useful. It is a skill that is always improving when used regularly, frequently. Being requires self-awareness, intentionality and the desire to be more than mere existence. Being is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. Once you begin, there is no end for your whole life, if you care to continue. You will always become closer to what you want to be. This is the process of becoming, and it is it’s own goal. Becoming and being are not a means to an end, they are an end in themselves, they are the goal.
Throughout these previous blog posts about introspection, I have tried to find ways to describe the benefits of self-awareness for you and for your relationships. I certainly believe introspection has benefits. I also believe the act of introspection, of searching within yourself and the self-awareness that comes from it is a worthy goal in itself. Can you really imagine saying to yourself: “getting to know who I am and what I would like to be is a waste of time.” Who could honestly say this, unless fear of themselves was getting in the way?
This is the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I have always thought this was a modern restatement of Socrates recommendation as part of having a good life 2400 years ago: “Know thyself.” We have the capacity to know ourselves, deeply. And yet, so often, so many of us do so many things to avoid knowing ourselves. I have for my whole adult life found this to be perhaps the most amazing and unfortunate aspect of the human condition. Why in the world would you choose not to know some part of yourself you could know? I covered this topic in some detail in “Introspection, Part 3” so I won’t rehash all of that now. When I come to think of it, when I ask myself, what do I believe to be the highest ideal, goal, value, I can place on being human, it is, simply “know thyself.” Thank you Socrates.
What is so important about knowing one’s self? This: nothing else can happen that is worth happening in your life if you don’t know yourself. Or, to put it in a more positive light: a continual, life-long effort to know yourself better, deeper, more clearly, leads you to be able to make decisions with more intentionality, more awareness, more self-guidance, which greatly increases the likelihood that the decisions you make are consistent with who you actually are, what you believe to be important, and what you want for yourself, others, and the world.
I can see how this belief about the importance of introspection might appear flawed—there have been many people throughout history and even now who have done very great things, yet seemed to have little self-awareness at any point in their lives. It seems likely this was true of Steve Jobs, one of the co-founders of Apple Computer, who helped to bring us the personal computer, the graphical user interface, the smartphone, the modern tablet, etc. He did some really amazing things, and yet many of the people around him throughout his life encountered a person who was often completely unaware of the way his behavior was offensive, rude, even destructive to his goals and his personal and professional life. We all know about people who “claw their way to the top” of whatever they are climbing (corporate management for instance). They might be very wealthy, appear to be very successful, and seem to have almost zero awareness of themselves or the cost of their interactions for themselves and others (and maybe don’t care at all). We can also imagine that their inner life, what it feels like to be themis really pretty terrible, regardless of whatever they may have accomplished on the outside (wealth, innovation, power, “success”).
A bit of introspection about why you plan to do a thing and its consequences can really be helpful, especially when those consequences could be enormous. Julius Caesar stopped at the Rubicon River with his troops, pondering there the civil war that would certainly occur (and it did) if he crossed the river and moved toward Rome. After crossing the river, he said, “the die has been cast” predicting what would be one of the most significant decisions in the history of western civilization. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who directed the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, didn’t seem to realize the consequences of his entire effort until after he witnessed the first nuclear detonation. At that point he said, “now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” and then spent most of the rest of his life fighting to limit the use and construction of nuclear bombs.
In our daily lives, we are not likely to face the kind of decisions that could alter human history (but hey, you never really know). What we can predict with absolute certainty is that our decisions will have consequences large and small for ourselves and the people who share our lives. So, wouldn’t you want to be as sure as you can be about why you are making the decisions you are making before you make them? The only way you can do this is through introspection. Up above I said that nothing worth happening can happen in your life without introspection. I really mean it. Obviously, if you don’t really know yourself, you can still have things happen, and they will. People move through their lives with very little self-awareness all the time. You can too. But why would you when you don’t have to?
The things we do take on significantly more meaning and importance when we do them on purpose—when we meant to do them, when we intend to do them, when we thought about why we did them before we did them. If you get a promotion at your job because you worked hard, proved yourself worthy, sought the promotion and it was given to you, this will mean a lot more to you than if you obtained the same promotion because you happened to be there when someone else left. Either way, the promotion doesn’t suck, as long as you are up to the new responsibilities and there are other perks (better pay for instance). With the intent and awareness that you are trying to do good work and then be recognized for it, you are going to feel better about yourself and the promotion itself than if you hadn’t given it much thought. This kind of thing is true in everything you do. Everything. If you note to yourself on the way home that you haven’t played with your dog in a few days, and then when you get home, you lie on the living room floor and play tug of war with her rope toy, it will feel more satisfying than if you just happened to spontaneously pull on that toy—because you did it on purpose, which means you did it with purpose.You can do nothing with purpose unless you intended to do it and also knew you intended to do it before you did it, which is not possible without digging into yourself, thinking about your intentions, become aware of them as they arise—all of which is possible only through introspection. To sum it up: introspection will help you live a better, more fulfilling, more meaningful, more satisfying life.
Introspection will slowly erode the fears you have of yourself. In Firewalking on Jupiter, in the chapter “What is Mental Health, Part 2,” I defined “mental health” (being mentally healthy) in much the same way: “’mental health’ is a state in which a person is able and willing to address every aspect of their inner life, regardless of whether they experience difficult feelings, including fear, while addressing those aspects of their inner life.”Every time you take the risk of looking into the metaphorical mirror of yourself, of seeing some part of yourself you might not want to see, it becomes easier to do so. I see this so often in therapy. I see this over the years in my own life. If you decide to make a daily effort toward greater introspection, even when it might cause you discomfort, you will also find it less necessary to engage in activities to avoid seeing yourself (activities which might be harmless or might be destructive).
Clients who engage in all kinds of activities to avoid looking at themselves when they first start in therapy find this less and less attractive as they grow more comfortable with who they are and realize their capacities to come to terms with parts of themselves they thought were impossible to cope with. Most often, these fears have something to do with things they have done or that have been done to them in their past. Jim’s parents berated him for years, telling him how disappointed they were in the choices he made during and after college. His resentment and the way he has internalized their criticisms are now so strong he sees them only on holidays, says little to them when he sees them, and can barely discuss them in his sessions with me. Over time, as Jim grows more comfortable talking with me about those years of criticisms, he can more clearly see that he himself regrets some but not most of the decisions that formed the basis of their criticism. He has for years attributed to his parents both a fair share of responsibility for the way he feels about himself but has also used them as a way to avoid coming to terms with his own regrets. When Jim learns that he can expel and let go of his own regrets and how he can now make better decisions based on those regrets, his resentments against his parents becomes more manageable, to the point that he feels comfortable talking to them about it, and only then can see how he can reconcile with them in a way that brings a closer connection for him, his wife and his children. Now, if his parents attempt to criticize him, which they still do from time to time, he has through introspection discovered ways to directly address those criticisms in the moment by telling them when he is open to their advice and when he is not. Jim is now able to predict his own reactions because he is aware beforehand what he is willing to tolerate from them. In other words, whatever he says to them now, he does so on purpose, with full awareness of the internal strengths and resources he possesses to be able to tell them what he is and is not willing to hear and why.
More important than Jim’s capacity to directly address his parents in the moment, his new capacity to let go of resentments, his willingness to bring his wife and kids to his parent’s house more often or invite them over, his capacity to talk about them with me and others, letting go of his desire to turn on “the game” when he sees them to avoid conversations—more important than any of these is the fact that Jim can now so much more easily think about himself, his life, his direction, his past and his future, his feelings, all the time, especially when he is alone.
Being alone with nothing much to do can be a very hard thing to do if you are not very comfortable thinking about yourself. Ask yourself this: how often in your life are you alone with nothing to distract yourself from the fact that you are alone? For most of us it is either almost never or just plain never. This might be why sleep aids are a huge business. Nighttime, in bed, with everything turned off—and the only thing occupying your mind is your mind—might be the only time most of us ever catch a glimpse of being with ourselves without distraction. In the car, you have the radio, podcasts, audio books, or a friend in the passenger seat or kids in the back seats. Next time you are in the car alone, try turning the radio off, listening to nothing, just your thoughts. This is introspection for no reason other than introspection.
Some people think they have to go to a meditation center, or sit in a particular room in a particular position with the appropriate state of mind to do this. You don’t. You can introspect anywhere, anytime you choose. This is precisely what I was doing on the bus at the age of 14, moving my finger back and forth on purpose for the first time. Finding comfort with your uninterrupted thoughts, letting them go wherever they take you. is a goal worth achieving. It might be the single greatest goal worth achieving—a kind of love of self in action (or through inaction). It is the goal of many religious and meditative practices. If you can be comfortable with no interruptions from yourself because you have become that much more comfortable with yourself, then when you are with others, when you find distraction, or are necessarily occupied by distraction in your life, those distractions will be there “on purpose.” You will have decided that it is okay or necessary to be distracted, not because you need to avoid yourself (you don’t anymore), but because the distraction fills your life in some important way. You will cherish time alone to be with your thoughts, your feelings, your perceptions, and you can then intentionally choose when to move out of your comfort with yourself into the world in a kind of transcendence that is only possible with the practice of regular, frequent and honest introspection.
The initial goal of introspection is usually to learn and then sort out some thorny internal issue that is causing you a problem. For me, introspection took on a much more serious purpose than moving my finger back and forth when I became aware of how my life was being damaged by drug and alcohol addiction—it became acutely necessary for me to ask: “why do I want to fill my body with chemicals that make my feelings go away?”
What I am advocating here is to stick with introspection even after you may have sorted through some particular issue, to see introspection as a goal in itself, to continue self-discovery and the way it can help you become for your whole life more comfortable with who you are, with what you think and feel, with how you interact with others, with life itself. I am advocating introspection as a way of life—to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself all the time, every day, in every situation you encounter, until it becomes a habit as familiar as breathing, walking, waking up and going to bed. With each new discovery you make about yourself, you will have a greater capacity to do everything in your life “on purpose” with more awareness of why you are doing it and with how you will likely feel after you have done it.
Don’t wait until your life is at its end to look back and ask how you feel about what you have done with your life. Start now. Start asking now what you want to do with your life now, how you feel about it now, how you want to see your life as you live it. This is the goal of introspection—forever increasing your ability to see yourself in your life as you live your life. Certainly, that has to be a goal and a practice worth having. There’s no reason to wait. Start now. And then just keep doing it. Keep asking yourself, whenever necessary, whenever you think about it, “where am I in this situation?,” “How do I feel about this decision I am considering?,” “what have I learned about myself today?,” “Do I have any business I need to attend to in any of my relationships to feel more satisfied and resolved?” The questions are endless because we are all so deep, so complex, and so full of great potential that we can ask ourselves these kinds of questions for our whole lives until our last breath and never run out of more questions we could ask. So ask. Ask yourself, “who am I?” Then ask yourself, “who do I want to be?” and “How do I want to be?” And then never stop asking, so you can continue to be what you are always becoming.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.