Master your Destiny: The role of observation and awareness in achieving the results we desire
It is quite possible to move through this world without ever truly paying attention. Our internal expectations and needs continuously shape incoming stimuli to their advantage, and the default mode network is always ready to step in and support a long bout of mind wandering. But where does that leave us?
Most of us desire some measure of control over our lives. We want to be masters of our destiny - and for many, that means having choice over the course of our life.
The real question is whether we seek choice in the most effective contexts. If we want to choose what happens to us - or if we blindly react to those events - we will be forever frustrated by our lack of control. External events are not concerned with our desires. What we can control are the meaning we ascribe to those events, and the response we offer.
Behavioral scientists James Clear and Charles Duhigg lay out a framework for understanding our habits and the pathways that form our personalities. They identify four key phases: the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward.
Whenever this process remains unconscious, the result will always be what it has always been. An unconscious response is determined by existing pleasure pathways in the brain (via the limbic and emotional systems). We may feel trapped by these repeated behaviors or - if we have trouble recognizing the behaviors in the first place - victimized by the situations they repeatedly create.
So how do we regain our power and autonomy in the face of hardwired reactions?
The first step is observation. If we cannot see the cue or the craving, we are hopeless to change the way we respond to it.
Observation is neutral. Through this skill we can track patterns and correlations between context (physical or psychological), behavior, and outcome. We begin to actually see the donut we eat every morning, or the anger we bring to our relationships.
Observation offers a measure of detachment from events. We can step outside the sensations of the craving and see the actions around it - without judgment. By maintaining a sense of neutral openness, we reduce emotional interpretation of events and are able to see connections more clearly.
Once this detachment occurs, we cease to identify as strongly with the action. This allows awareness to bloom.
The difference between observation and awareness is nuanced. Both are methods of inquiring into our current experience. But where observation is neutral, awareness specifically relates to meaning and integration.
It is awareness which teaches us that the morning donut is a response to the feeling of inadequacy we have at work - by giving us the reward of pleasure and a boost in energy.
Once we are aware of the link between feeling and action, we can choose a more beneficial response to the cue. Perhaps by completing a task for the pleasure of its mastery, or a habit of morning affirmations which boost confidence in our own abilities.
With awareness, we begin to understand the deeper motivations and impacts of our actions. We see connections that are lost in the feeling and frenzy of living.
You can take a few simple steps to bring more observation and awareness into your pattern of living. One is to journal, a habit for which there are many shapes: reflecting on your feelings before, during, and after an event; tangibly affirming new beliefs or responses; and tracking our decisions or habits. (Stay tuned for more info on these techniques, or check out Atomic Habits by James Clear for a pragmatic way to begin.) Meditation and mindfulness - a focusing of attention on the present moment - are also excellent practices for surfacing unconscious beliefs and habits. They create space within our existence, like the morning sun burning through a dense fog.
These practices are beneficial for your personal life, but can be applied anywhere - observation and awareness of the land will make you a much better gardener because you will understand better the forces of light and moisture on your plot.
Wherever we choose to practice the skills of observation and mindfulness, we learn invaluable information about the relationships and systems in which we participate (or not). With knowledge comes power - in this case, we gain power over our own lives.
Control is unattainable, a desire forever at our fingertips. True power rests in the conviction of a chosen response.