A theory of strategic unawareness
Why do people lose awareness?
Why run on automatic?
If someone’s decided to be mindful, to pay attention, to maintain awareness, to not run on automatic, what explains them not doing that?
I have a theory.
Awareness is not always a good thing.
Sometimes “what you do know can hurt you more than what you don’t know.”
Sometimes unawareness is not a problem but a solution.
The dark side of awareness
We think of awareness as an asset.
More awareness is better than less awareness. Often it is.
But here’s the dark side:
Right now, I’m sitting in my living room, aware of the process of writing this.
If I expand my awareness, I can be aware of the life that I live: health, ability, resources.
If I expand it more, I can be aware of more and more of what’s in my environment.
But I can also be aware of what’s missing.
To be fully aware of the present means to be fully aware of what’s not present.
Facing the loss
Once I was a twenty-year-old, in the prime of life. I had a world of possibilities spread out before me.
Now I’m seventy-seven, still healthy, but not as healthy as I was at twenty; I’m past my prime; I’ve traded a universe of possibilities for a single reality.
It’s a good reality. I’m not complaining.
But I’ve lost more in possibility than I’ve gained in reality.
Awareness leads to loss.
Sudden transition from past to present
Imagine being your twenty-year-old self. Life is spread out before you.
Suddenly, in a moment, you’re seventy.
What would that feel like?
You’re aware that you’ve lost most of the life that you once believed you’d have.
That life is gone, and there’s no way to get it back.
That’s what’s missing in the present moment.
Decisions are losses
At the moment of decision, a single door is open.
At that same moment, every other door is shut.
Each door belongs to a different Future Self.
Only one will come to be. The rest will never exist.
When one gains, all the rest lose
Psychologically we are not unitary beings. We have many interests, desires, and goals.
Physically we are unitary beings. We can only do one thing at a time.
That means: when we decide to pursue one interest, satisfy one desire, move toward one goal, we exclude every other desire, interest, and goal.
One interest gains, the rest lose. One desire gains, the rest lose. One goal is chosen; the rest lose.
For every one opportunity we choose, we lose all the rest.
The IFS model
In the Internal Family System model, different Parts have different preferences.
Some are relaxed about their preferences; they are tolerant of alternatives.
Some are polarized. What they want MUST happen. What they don’t want MUST be avoided on pain of suffering.
When a decision’s made, one Part might consider it’s won, and many other Parts that are aware of the decision might feel that they’ve lost. It might be better if they were not aware.
Every Part that fears the consequences of a decision will feel the fear rising. It might be better if they were unaware.
Every part that’s angry about the decision will become angry. It might be better if they were unaware.
Before the decision, if Parts that are aware that a decision is being made might find themselves in conflict with parts with other preferences. It might be better if they were unaware.
If there’s a conflict, the Parts involved in the conflict might feel angry, or sad, or frustrated, but so might other Parts, not directly involved. It might be better if they were unaware.
More awareness of a decision means more potential for conflict and discomfort; more awareness of the conflict and discomfort means still more discomfort.
In theory, awareness will lead to decisions that take more perspectives into account. Those decisions are likely to be closer to optimal than decisions that f consider some perspectives.
In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are not.
The theory of considering more perspectives doesn’t take into account the costs of conflict and the costs of discomfort.
These costs can be high.
Unawareness might worsen decisions, but it might also reduce conflict and discomfort.
The discomfort that awareness and conflict might produce could make a worse decision preferable to a better one.
Accepting the liabilities of awareness
I now understand the value of inattention, unawareness, automaticity.
I believe that mindfulness will often lead me to an awareness of joy because, for me, joy is always ready to be experienced.
But so is suffering.
I believe that mindfulness must lead me to suffering because life is forever unsatisfactory.
But that unsatisfactoriness can be accepted, and suffering might then cease.
Mindfulness will almost certainly lead me to awareness of more discomfort, more suffering, more unsatisfactoriness.
There’s plenty of it that’s present in every moment of life.
Inattention, unawareness, automaticity are ways to avoid some of life’s suffering.
But suffering cannot be avoided without avoiding life, and inattention, unawareness, and automaticity are ways of avoiding life.
Thank you, Past Me
Thank you, Past Me, for all the work you’ve done to bring me to this realization and for writing this.