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John Shirley on Self-awareness Being a Flashlight

“Mistakes often escape our eyes,” meditated Montaigne in his Essays, “but it is the sign of a poor judgement if we are unable to see them when shown to us by another. Knowledge and truth may dwell in us without judgement, and judgement also without them; indeed to recognize one’s ignorance is one of the best and surest signs of judgement that I know.”

Indeed, self-awareness is ruthlessly hard. The ability to step outside of yourself to view your behavior objectively requires a profound level of humility, a willingness to change your mind, and the difficult challenge of thinking about our thinking. Perhaps one of the greatest skills that enriched my own life was the daily but difficult practice of being self-aware. Whether driving in traffic or standing in a long line or wanting to quit in the middle of an exercise, these tiny moments are perfect places to tune in, become aware of what we’re telling ourselves, and learning to overcome our default reactions that lead us into egotism, entitlement, or straight-up self-delusions.

John Shirley, an American writer of fantasy and science fiction, admonished to the younger generation in Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, to practice self-awareness [emphasis mine]:

“If you have to walk along a dark mountain path, don’t you prefer to have a flashlight to shine on the path ahead? I would suggest that it is possible to have that flashlight in life all the time. What does a flashlight give us? Light.
That is, a flashlight sheds light. It is like the faculty of attention—if we turn our full attention to something, we learn more about that thing. We are seeing it with more light. Our attention is our ‘flashlight.’ So it’s all about how much and how fun an attention we consciously bring to life. This quality of attention doesn’t make us hesitant, or slow to decide, particularly—just as the flashlight doesn’t make us hang back on the trail. So, how do we get to the better quality of attention? With attention! That is, we turn our attention on our attention; we start by trying to see how we don’t pay attention. We sort of keep that light on ourselves. ‘Know thyself’ has been an honored ancient teaching, and it’s still a cornerstone of the world’s greatest philosophies. If you watch yourself honestly, in a detached way—not guilt-tripping yourself when you screw up—you gradually learn where it was that you were just blundering along, reacting sort of mechanically, and being asleep even as you were in your waking day. Another way to make this happen is by returning your whole attention to the present—to what’s happening now, in this moment, and this moment, and on—within yourself and around you.”

One of my professors in psychology said to the class, “You all have the capacity to be self-aware, but many of you will never attain it.” I thought that was, well, very grim. I imagined all the times that I was unbearable, foolishness, or selfish, and me being unaware of it, going on with my life without understanding the consequences and effects of my actions.

The challenge that’s often missed is simply learning to pause. Something happens, like getting cut off on the road, and you immediately flail your arms and curse. But why? Hasn’t this happened before? Haven’t you done this to others, unknowingly or not? Then we enter a store and give the clerk an attitude because of that past event—without ever realizing that we’re being harsh because we were treated harshly.

Roman philosopher Epictetus once said that a good philosophy is, “Self-scrutiny applied with kindness,” meaning you must learn to face yourself, to admit mistakes, to learn from them, and to let that awareness motivate and change you. Self-awareness is the catalyst for change. Without the awareness of our actions and thinking, we can never correct them, learn from them, and grow because of them.

Take My Advice is a wonderful read, filled with contrarian and often sound advice. See my piece on 99u about self-awareness and habit change, Epictetus on how philosophy fosters self-awarenessSeneca on self-awareness, and Bruce Lee’s moment of self-awareness and how it inspired his “be like water” philosophy.