Humanity suffers from a lack of self-awareness. Technology is advancing so quickly that humans can’t keep up. While it may seem that we are living in a world of terror and war, we are actually living in the most peaceful era in human history. And yet, we are surrounded by people going through the motions of life instead of working to wake up to their true life and true purpose.
It’s not about having more stuff, getting more “likes,” or becoming the next Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, Albert Einstein or Walt Disney. It’s about knowing yourself.
To better explain why we suffer from the lack of self-awareness let’s look back at the human history and how our brain evolved, or to put it in a correct way, didn’t evolve at all to arrive at the times we live in right now.
According to Loretta Graziano Breuning, the author of Habits of a Happy Brain, nature tends to build on what’s there instead of starting over with a blank sheet. Mammals built onto the reptile brain and humans built onto the mammal brain. We, humans, are designed to seek survival and pleasure while avoiding pain and danger.
It’s not natural to thrive and live in abundance. Every situation in life is examined by our reptilian brain, which monitors danger around us and activates the fight or flight mode whenever possible. It’s dysfunctional because we don’t have as much danger in our daily lives that would need such reactions. But the brain is different, it just acts as it is made to. We are animals, after all, the new brain called the neocortex doesn’t have such power as our old brain. When someone criticizes your work you feel endangered subconsciously because you don’t fit in. Your old brain interprets it as you may face more criticism, lose friends which will lead to lost security, no partner and eventually death. You don’t want it. You want to be safe and thrive. You want to make sure your genes survive. That’s the ultimate goal of a mammalian human brain.
Prehistoric humans were no more important and impressive than other mammals. No special skills, no language, no higher self-awareness, and consciousness. Humans were not even at the top of the food chain, they resided in the middle. Our ancestors were fear filled living beings carefully going after predators and eating the leftovers. But then, one of the most important breakthroughs in human history occurred. The cognitive revolution. In his bestselling book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains the importance of cognitive revolution that started the incredible human quest to the top of the food chain and becoming the ruler of the world.
In a matter of millenniums, humans, more specifically Homo Sapiens climbed the food chain ladder and became the most powerful species on Earth even wiping out of Homo Neanderthals. “They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate,” writes Harari. It’s hard to imagine that other species of humans existed just 12,000 years ago.
This huge leap from being in the middle of the ecosystem and then going on top and ruling them all had harmful consequences on our behavior and psychological development. Biologically, it’s too fast to evolve at such a pace and radically replace your position in the ecosystem. It takes hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of years for species to adapt, mutate, transform and evolve. Homo Sapiens did it so fast that our brain remains pretty much unchanged compared to our ancestors. What does it mean? It means that we have all the insecurities and fears, anxiety and doubts that helped our ancestors survive and overcome enormous adversity and scarcity.
Follow the Rules
In the past, you had to be accepted in the tribe. You had to obey the leader, you had your responsibilities and most of your luck depended on how physically big you are. If you couldn’t challenge the leader you would be a follower for the rest of your life meaning that you only would get leftover food, you would have to do the dangerous work, protect the tribe, go hunt and fight other tribes. You would not choose your mate, you would only get what others didn’t want. That’s why our ancestors contained themselves.
They felt alright living with no aspirations, no self-expression, and no challenges. It was the ultimate survival environment. “Take the safe path and stay safe, seek protection and follow the tribe or you will die,” they thought. It’s true, the living conditions were unimaginably horrible. Lack of food and hygiene, infections, conflicts, and natural disasters led to lives no longer than a couple of decades. People learned to value safety and obey authority in hopes to be accepted and protected so they could pass on their genes.
But the times have changed. Sadly, our brain didn’t. As I mentioned, humans have a triune brain. It consists of three parts: the reptilian brain responsible for species typical instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. Then we have the limbic system, responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior. Finally, the last part of our brain, the cerebral neocortex, a structure found uniquely in higher mammals, and especially humans, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception.
Our lack of awareness is caused due to our so-called monkey mind, a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” It’s our animal brain that only seeks pleasure and avoids pain. It values instant gratification over long term benefits. We lack awareness.
What do I mean by saying lack of awareness? I mean that we’re walking asleep without even knowing it.
It’s like being in the 1999’s movie The Matrix. We’re so obsessed with our past and worried about the future that we forget to live in the now and notice where we’re and what’s happening around us.
We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
If you start paying attention to your thoughts and emotions happening right now, you will notice that you’re thinking in circles, replaying over and over again what your friend said about your shoes, you keep anger on your coworker who didn’t approve of your business idea and you keep worrying about what will people think about the upcoming speech you’re preparing. Obviously, thoughts and emotions differ from person to person but almost no one is present and is blind to seeing things as they are.
Who’s to Blame?
There is no one to blame. Looking for someone to blame is a victim mindset and it won’t serve you for long. When you’re growing up, parents rarely tell you to enjoy the moment. You must obey the rules or you will get hurt. You must eat healthily and stay clean or you will get sick. You must study hard in school or you will end up uneducated and won’t find a job. Rarely, you will hear parents telling their kids to enjoy being kids, not to worry about what they have done wrong.
Another thing that makes sleepwalking deeper is the culture of consumerism. The exponential growth of the world economy made things extremely affordable in the last centuries. Humans went from having nothing to having everything in just a few generations. People now can afford to have dozens of pairs of shoes, closets filled with clothes that they don’t even enjoy wearing and things surrounding their everyday life.
The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything. – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
The problem with consumerism is that it’s never enough. You may buy new shoes because they’re on sale or because you saw it on TV or one of your favorite actors wore them. Not long after, these shoes won’t give you any joy and you will be searching for new ones to make you excited. That’s a self-destructive and vicious loop you will have a hard time escaping. We keep accumulating things without realizing that they create clutter and mental fog. Things start owning you. All of that comes from external influences, lack of self-awareness and untamed desires that shape our behavior.
I see in the fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars, advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of the history man, no purpose or place, we have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives, we’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact. and we’re very very pissed off. – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
When everything is so affordable, people replace their phones every year, buy a new car every five years or so, get new clothes every month, some every day, because everything is relatively affordable. There is so much we can afford.
Think about it, even if you work a low paid job, you can save some money and get a new pair of shoes you like, if you save a little more you can buy a TV, a car, then get a better job and rent a better apartment and so on. But what you don’t realize is that it doesn’t satisfy you and it never will. Once you climb one step higher, you want more. Wanting more comes from your monkey mind desiring things, right now. It comes from our ancient brain that seeks more, that seeks protection and sees things in life as scarce.
I don’t believe there’s a group of people orchestrating things in the world but there are definitely very powerful and influential people driven by their desires and interests that shape most of what we see. TV shows, ads, people you interact with portray something you don’t have and you subconsciously want security, belonging, love and acceptance, you want one thing or another just to be a part of the tribe. That’s why we have amazing looking people advertising watches, toothpaste, cars, shoes, electronics, and whatnot. Because we want to be like them. Liked, loved, accepted and seen as leaders. It’s security and status. All these desires are endless and only create suffering. Once you buy the latest iThing you are satisfied but then the new one comes out and every cool kid gets it except you. Then your old brain makes you question yourself. You’re endangered because you’re not as trendy as other kids. “You desire to have the best, the latest,” your monkey mind reminds you. And that won’t change once you get the latest, because after that another one will come out and ultimately create more suffering that you will do everything to relieve.
Businesses know that people are never satisfied. They design their products with human wants and needs in mind. The most successful businesses in the world have a value ladder. For example, first, you buy the cheapest product, say a smartphone, to get into the tribe of other fangirls and fanboys. Once you’re in, it creates more desire that turns into suffering. You decide to climb the ladder and get a tablet but not long after you desire more. You want what you don’t have and the moment you have it, you want something else. Eventually, you buy everything from the company and reach the top of their value ladder buying premium products with all possible upgrades to be the best of the best. Don’t be surprised if you still feel empty and unfulfilled looking for something else to acquire.
The Disease No One Talks About
The lack of self-awareness is the disease that our world is infected with. We value so much what we don’t have and forget about the things that truly fulfill us. We ignore what is in front of us and obsess what is far away or imagined, just like in a dream. If a person dreams, you can do anything in front of them, they won’t see you but they will be so happy dreaming about what they think will fulfill them.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. – Aristotle
Life can be happy and meaningful without acquiring things. You can have fun, love and be loved, create, help and impact the world without suffering so much. Life is unpredictable and pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. All you need to do is to decide to wake up and acknowledge that you were sleeping and everyone around you is sleeping. Once you do that and dedicate time to waking up and staying awake you will see the world differently. You will become calmer, more content, more aware, more responsive and less reactive.
Once you know yourself, you’ll have a better chance of leading a great life.