The Trauma of Being Self-Aware

We pride ourselves on being self-aware; of being capable of observing our thoughts and actions as if from the outside; of expressing those observations in language and abstract construct we can then manipulate, express, and share. We consider this a typically human capability, and one of the things that sets us apart from other species. While it may be true that our type of self-awareness is unique, does that make it good?

What must it have been like to live like a pre-human hominid? Not yet capable of speaking; of sharing complex abstract thoughts and ideas with others of your kind; of bonding by telling stories and listening to the stories of others; of planning far beyond the immediate future, of imagining things that don’t exist so clearly you can turn them into images on the walls, floors and ceilings of caves and shelters?

There must have been a period when our ancient ancestors developed the first tentative versions of the traits we now recognise as fundamentally human, but not yet developed enough to lift them from being very clever animals to being tentatively human. There must have been a budding awareness in those early minds that moved beyond the immediate to the remote: remote in time, in place, in abstraction, in reality even. A moment when an individual could not just observe something outside and respond to it, but could observe herself observing, and become aware of herself as the observer, not just of what was being observed.

Imagine that transition: one moment there is just one world, observed by but not separated from the observer, reality experienced as an extension of the self that moves through it but not outside it; the next moment reality splits apart into the observed and the observer, and now there are two things in the world, related but not the same, inseparable but not a single unit. The moment the first of our ancestors found herself separated from the reality she had previously been part of must have been a terrifying and lonely moment. Not only would she have found herself apart from the world she previously had been an indivisible part of, she must not have had, being the first to reach that threshold, anyone to share her experience with; no-one to comfort her and tell her it would all be OK.

I wonder if those first moments of self-awareness came and went like the hesitant first flames in a starting fire – little sparks of knowing, but brief and fleeting, almost immediately pushed away into sub-conscious memory – or if awareness, once the door had opened, came rushing in like a deluge when a dam gives way to the pressure of the water behind it. However slow or fast it came, self-awareness stayed with our earliest human ancestors and became the source of our greatest achievements as well as the root of our deepest suffering.

Self-awareness creates separation, and separation creates fear and desire. It gives rise to fear of a world that is other than ourself and cannot be trusted to not turn against us. Fear that a world that is separate may not need us in it, may move on and disappear, leaving us behind. Because it is not us it can, and one day will, destroy us. And it equally create a desire to impose our will on that world that is not us. Desire to create, shape, and destroy to show ourself that we have power of that separate reality, that ‘something’ outside us. It may not be us, but we can bend it to our will.

As long as we stay stuck in the duality that self-awareness has thrown us into, we will be slaves to this constant battle between fear and desire. On the one hand setting ourselves bold and ambitious goals – challenges we set ourselves, expecting to find happiness when we succeed; on the other hand constantly fearing we will fail sooner or later. We know, deep inside, that there is no permanent victory, and that the external world we have separated ourselves from through our self-awareness will one day come to claim us back, to absorb us, and erase all traces of us ever having been here. So no victorious achievement is ever going to bring that final happiness we crave for. Because we know we cannot keep out-achieving reality.

Evolution must have favoured self-awareness, for it allowed a physically weak and defenceless species to end up taking over and dominating the planet far beyond what any other vertebrate has ever achieved. Maybe self-awareness enabled us to learn faster, and be more flexible in times of change. Maybe it was the combination of self-awareness and language, which not only made us better learners individually, but also enabled us to scale that learning up beyond tribal limits and across many generations. But evolutionary success does not automatically mean it’s good for us. Our DNA doesn’t care about our pains. If it were up to our DNA we would just keep suffering, as long as it helps making more and more copies of itself.

So, perhaps it is time to set ourselves the ultimate goal; to aim for an achievement that will outlast all other achievements. Maybe it is time to use the very self-awareness that causes us so much conflict and suffering to lift us out of the duality it inflicts on us. Maybe that is what enlightenment is: the first glimpses some of us may get of an awareness beyond what we normally experience, an awareness that lifts itself beyond the duality self-awareness created.

Using self-awareness to walk out of the darkness it created
Using self-awareness to walk out of the darkness it created

Maybe our descendants will look back and wonder what it must have been like to be one of those first individuals to experience this. Maybe they will struggle to understand what it must have felt like to be stuck in a pre-enlightened state of awareness but to have glimpses of an awareness beyond that.

I hope so.

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