The Profound Effects of Self-Awareness

In contrast to the current impecunious and troubled Greece of today, ancient Greece led the world with its concepts of philosophy, politics and citizenship. Many would argue that modern democracies owe much to the developments of these concepts over two millennia ago emanating from Greece. A major figure in these developments was Plato’s famous pupil, Aristotle. Among other things Aristotle had a lot to say about happiness and if we take the time to analyse his thoughts we will see how marvellously prescient he was. As we will touch on later, many of his principles have been rediscovered by philosophers and psychologists in the last century.


Aristotle believed that humans were essentially animals that had some divine traits. Enigmatically they were simultaneously beastly and god-like. (On the other hand, Greek mythology is littered with gods who, whilst being gods, also had many human qualities.) He preached that happiness did not derive from satisfying humankind’s beastly desires but by giving scope to the development of their god-like traits. The expression of a human being’s highest virtue lay in the fields of philosophy and politics. Aristotle’s definitions of “philosophy” and “politics” were much broader than modern usage suggests. Philosophy, as he understood it, was the use of reason and argument to seek the truth about reality and to him this included mathematics, natural and physical sciences and the knowledge base of all the major professions and the arts. To Aristotle the most uplifting activity we could indulge in was contemplation. This is what we shared with the gods. Indeed, he believed contemplation was how the gods used their leisure time. Politics was the endeavour we could make to contribute to society. It was in essence our contribution to the welfare of our fellow citizens.


Thus he argued, attending to our animal needs and desires might bring short term pleasure but it was only by engaging our god-like traits could we really secure enduring happiness.


There is much truth in Aristotle’s contention. It was only after my exposure to the philosophical and psychological notions of my friend Dr Phil Harker that I began to understand in a deeper sense the true nature of this god-like attribute.


The good Dr Phil introduced me to what he called his Tri-Partite Model of Humanity. (My recollection is that he first published it in his PhD thesis.)


In this model he postulates as humans we must contend with three aspects of our humanity, The three components comprise:

  • Body
  • Mind
  • Watcher


You, no doubt have no need for me to explain what a ‘mind’ or a ‘body’ is but I suspect that the notion of a ‘watcher’ might need some elaboration.


As Phil explained in our little book Humanity at Work:


Sir Wilder Penfield, the renowned British neurosurgeon, spent decades cutting and probing human brains (while the patients were fully conscious). He would ask them what they had experienced, when, for example, their arms would move or words were uttered as he probed. They told him that it seemed to them that they were voluntarily performing actions even though they knew that it was the result of his probing. Penfield coined the idea of a ‘watcher’ in the brain that enabled the person to observe the process of his or her own thoughts and decisions, but which was, of course, not able to be aware of itself. Because the ‘watcher’ cannot watch itself, we tend not to be aware of either its presence or its role, but it would seem that it has a greater role to play than objectively observing like some sort of internal security camera. It is watching with a distinct bias, and this bias influences the way in which the mind (the second level of our human make-up that we have in common with animals) interprets, analyses and reacts to its environment.


This concept is not new. In the Eastern wisdom traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism the idea of the “Witness” is promoted. They hold that the Witness is the human capacity to observe (to some extent) the functioning of our own minds. There are of course many unconscious processes of the mind that are beyond our ken. But it is the capacity of the Watcher/Witness that provides us with self-awareness that seems unavailable to other animals.


Enigmatically we are aware of our bodies and minds because of the Witness but we are unaware of the Witness because we have no capacity to observe it – its existence is thus inferred. As the eastern sages once asked:


Can the eye see itself?

Can a knife cut itself?


Now we will see, as my argument progresses, that the Witness is the very essence of our identity but we have no direct capacity to apprehend it. Consequently, being largely unaware of this unique human facility when we observe ourselves we fall into the understandable trap of identifying with mind and body.


The mystics provided us with tools to see beyond this fallacy.


Our sense of self seems to be enduring but neither our mind nor our bodies have enduring continuity.


Your body is considerably different from what it was as a child. It is said that every single cell in your body is replaced over a period of seven years or so and yet your sense of self remains constant.


And in your mind thoughts and ideas continually arise and then are displaced. But even though your mind is continually changing your sense of self continues to endure.


The sages have provided many such arguments to convince us that our true sense of self comes not from what is being observed (ie the body and the mind but) by what is doing the observing – viz the Witness.


Consequently we derive a false sense of self from that which is easily observed and unsurprisingly that “self” is tied to our concepts of mind and body. Hence we strive to look good and adopt beliefs that enable us to feel accepted by whatever “in-groups” that seem to be fashionable or in other ways desirable to us.


In this way we evolve an inauthentic sense of self. We try to project ourselves as we would like to be rather than who we are. And of course that makes us very vulnerable and motivates us to put in place defensive mechanisms that are designed to protect the façade we are trying to promote to the world. (This subterfuge is the source of most mental illness.)


To have a so-called “theatre of mind” as I explained earlier is an essential and wonderful feature of our humanity, but it is not without its difficulties. Unfortunately that deluded sense of self that we often call the “ego” has a great capacity to dominate the discourse of the mind.

The mind is a noisy place that is usually dominated by what we might call “self-talk”.And because of our innate insecurity of assuming the facade of an inauthentic self, a lot of this self- talk is about “self” defence.-So a lot of this internal conversation is devoted to such inconsequential things like,


What do I look like?

If I say this, will I offend someone?

If I give this speech will I make a fool of myself?

If I tell my friends I disagree with some of their ideas will I lose them?


We devote a lot of psychic energy defending this manufactured notion of self. This negative “self-talk” dominates our thinking and prevents us looking more objectively at the world. We can never do enough to satisfy the demands of ego. Unfortunately those whose minds are dominated by the demands of the ego can never be at peace with themselves.


Many of the wisdom traditions teach their adherents how to meditate. This practice provides us with a mechanism to still the mind and cease the domination of “self talk” which is important in achieving personal equanimity.


But let us return again to the good Dr Phil’s important Tripartite Model. Each aspect of our humanity creates needs that we must attempt to satisfy to some degree if we are to live a fulfilled life. This is illustrated below.



Witness Spiritual
Mind Social/Emotional
Body Physical


(With respect to the Aristotelian world view mentioned above, without the capacity that the “Witness” provides us we would not be able to indulge in the god-like activity of contemplation. It is the Witness that enables us to view the “theatre of mind” and consequently facilitate our self-awareness.)


In Humanity at Work we described our three sets of needs thus:


In common with all physical life on the planet, we humans have a body. From our body we derive physical needs. If we don’t satisfy our physical needs we die – physically. Fulfilment of our physical needs allows us to survive. We should temper this with the thoughts of the evolutionary psychologists, that our physical needs are not only designed to secure our survival but are designed as well to secure the survival of our genes. Consequently our repertoire of needs is not only aimed at ensuring our own physical survival but at propagation of the species, the nurturing and protection of our offspring, and the well-being of those that share our genetic inheritance.


In common with all animals on the planet, we humans have a brain. Through the cognitive processes of our brains we are able to discern the world and make decisions. From this mental capacity comes our second set of needs, one that we share with all the animals of the world. The second set of needs are our social needs. Like all animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to it through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like all animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we do not find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die – emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfilment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.


The third set of needs are spiritual needs – needs for meaning, the uniquely human needs. If we don’t supply our spiritual needs and fail to find meaning in our lives we die – spiritually (and sometimes socially and physically). Fulfilment of our spiritual needs and gaining a sense of personal worth through finding meaning and purpose in our lives is needed if we are going to experience our full humanity. Meeting these needs provides a transcendent sense of well-being, i.e. a sense of well being that transcends the condition of our immediate circumstances.


But importantly, without the theatre of mind which the Witness provides we would not have a sense of “self”. This is the faculty that enables us to consider the self’s continued existence throughout time. It causes us to worry about the future.


We suspect other animals don’t have this capacity – they, in fact only live in the ”now”. Robert Sapolsky wrote a lovely book titled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. As he pointed out, you would think life on the Serengeti Plain would be very stressful for a zebra  They have to avoid being eaten by lions. Sapolsky maintains the reason zebras don’t get ulcers is because they don’t worry. When they are pursued they instinctually take whatever action needed to escape. But once having escaped, without an enduring sense of self, they can’t imagine a future where they will be again set upon.


(Similarly Buddhism leads us to mindfulness which teaches us to live in the eternal now.)


The Witness requires us to modify our thinking in another important way, All of a sudden, as a result of this third aspect of our humanity, we have to deal with two worlds, viz.

  1. An external world (the “world out there”, our external ,physical world) and
  2. An internal world (the “world in here”, our internal, mental world of thoughts. Ideas and emotions.)


Whilst awareness of our internal world provides us with the richness of human existence, it brings with it its own set of problems. Once we have a sense of self it seems almost inevitable (as we saw above) that we come to conclude that our “self” is somehow special and must be defended from any attack. This process results in the emergence of ego.


In other essays I have written about the fundamental choice we have in our world view. When we commit ourselves to the primary defence of ego that results in a world view of fear, We look out at the world as though it is somehow inimical to us and we must defend ourselves at all cost. Now this defence is not just confined to our physical selves but it extends to our psychic selves – our egos.


On the other hand our awareness of our theatre of mind allows us to perceive the subjective experience of self – ie what it is like to be me. Although I cannot prove this, I might then conclude that you must have a similar experience of what it is like to be you. Provided my world view is not distorted by fear, this understanding is what induces empathy.


As the French geneticist and Buddhist master Matthieu Ricard wrote:


The ability of an organism to become aware of its identity and its aspirations goes hand in hand with a corresponding ability to become aware that the other also has its own identity and aspirations, from this empathy is born.


Indeed the Dalai Lama has observed that:


Basic human nature is compassionate.


But I would contend that such compassion is more effectively expressed when we can put aside the ego and our fear.


Fundamentally, the human condition is such that we all desire a sense of personal well-being. In the wake of the positive psychology movement we had a plethora of books by various people telling us how to be “happy”. And even well prior to that, of course, the American constitution enshrined in it the right of American people to the “pursuit of happiness” (as though if they ran fast enough happiness might be captured!)


(In recent years I have shied away from talking too much about happiness because many associate happiness with smiling, laughing and perhaps joking. That of course is not what I have in mind. I would now say that my ideal for my children is to have an enduring sense of well-being. I want them to have the depth and satisfaction that the river of life can provide and not just the froth on the surface.)


Going back to the dichotomy created by our self-awareness, viz an inner world and an outer world, it is instructive to contemplate from where such a sense of well-being might be derived?


Modern consumerist culture is extremely misleading in this regard. It contrives to have us believe we must have more “stuff” to be happy. Oh what a difference it would make to our lives if we could only have a new car, a larger house, an attractive partner, a university degree, beautiful children, fashionable clothes, expensive jewellery or whatever.


Because we mistake happiness for short term pleasure we find ourselves on what Matthieu Ricard termed the “hedonic treadmill”. We seek short term pleasure and when that pleasure wanes we must go out and get another “hit”.


We basically conform to this equation:





Consumerism exploits this relationship. It convinces us that particular products and services are necessary to provide us pleasure thus creating desire that we then rush to satisfy. But that experiential pleasure doesn’t usually last long by which time we have been convinced we need something else.


Now those that pursue happiness this way no doubt experience short term pleasure but they are inveigled into believing that more of the same will somehow ensure long term happiness. (As Socrates rightly observed satisfying our beastly desires is no substitute for tending to our god-like needs,)


Those that choose to take this route to happiness allow their external worlds to dominate at the expense of their internal worlds. Most of those who seriously studied the nature of the human condition  have come to the opposite conclusion, viz that the state of our internal world has far more bearing on our long term sense of well-being than what occurs in our external world.


Public surveys on happiness indicate:

  • Marriage makes us happier
  • Pets make us happier
  • Wealth doesn’t seem to make much difference
  • The happiness of lottery winners returns to former levels within 12 months
  • Most people disabled in car accidents resume their former levels of happiness


Now you can see from my arguments above that what mainly upsets the equanimity of our internal world are the incessant demands of our egos – that confected, unrelenting construct that we wish to project as “self”. Consequently it is not hard to come to the conclusion that our sense of personal well-being is more determined by the state of our interior world than by our circumstances in the outer world.


Now over the years I have dealt wih many people who were depressed. Most of those I challenged with a question along the lines of, “Can you tell me a time when you felt happy?” Most depressed people find this a difficult question to answer. They have learned to live with a persona that is basically erected on the assumption they can’t be happy. Indeed some depressed people are described as anhedonic, ie incapable of feeling pleasure. If for example you treat them to a fabulous dinner at a first class restaurant and if you ask them how they enjoyed the meal, the best response you might expect is something like, ”It was all right, I guess.”


But occasionally you will cajole them into recounting some pleasurable experience in their life,


Some typical responses might be:

  • I was so happy when our daughter brought our first grandchild to visit.
  • I will never forget the day we were told John’s cancer was in remission.
  • It was a very special day for me when I attended our son’s graduation ceremony.


Now one of the things you will consistently find is that during the moments of our greatest happiness we don’t focus on ourselves. The problem with depressed people is that they are “self-obsessed”. Now, I don’t mean this in a Narcissistic way, – in fact just the opposite. Narcissistic people want to convince us how wonderful they are. Depressed people are largely self-denigrating.


The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe told us that depressed people were largely good people but they were never good enough to meet their own high standards. And the tragedy for them is that their own self-talk is continually emphasising their supposed shortcomings.


It is therefore no surprise that when they recount their happiest moments their self-obsession has been temporarily abated to think of someone else. In those circumstances we can forget ourselves and be free of negative self-talk.


Let me provide you with a little more support for this surprising realisation.


My friend, the good Dr Phil, famously taught us that our psychological wellbeing required us to go through a three step process, viz. that we should seek:

  • To know ourselves,
  • To accept ourselves, and finally
  • To forget ourselves.


This perceptively simple little model is exceedingly difficult to implement. I have written extensively about this in other essays so I won’t pursue it further except to stress the desirable outcome is to “forget yourself”.


Martin Seligman the famous proponent of Positive Psychology extensively researched the causes of happiness (whereas most psychology is about alleviating psychological distress). He concluded that one of the three factors that underlie happiness is to be devoted to a cause greater than yourself.


Now after the discussion above this should not surprise you. Having such a cause helps an individual from being too self-obsessed.


It is not surprising that notions such as this litter the wisdom traditions. For example the eighth century Buddhist sage, Shantideva wrote:

Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy.
And whatever suffering there is in the world,
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.

But what need is there to say much more?
The childish work for their own benefit,
The Buddhas work for the benefit of others.
Just look at the difference between them!

Similarly Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk wrote:


To study the Way is to study the Self.

To study the Self is to forget the Self.

To forget the Self is to be enlightened by all things.

To be enlightened by all things is to forget the barrier between Self and other.


Not being able to directly apprehend the Witness we understandably identify with what we are aware of, viz, our mind and body. As a result we become attached to the physical world and to particular ideas that help us belong to groups of like others. We concoct a notion of self that is so important to the façade of who we believe we are that we often come to believe that manufactured façade must be defended at all cost if we are to preserve our identity. Such defence, because of our irrational attachment to this confected identity, is often irrational and made at the expense of allowing the airing of competing viewpoints.


Consequently, even with self-awareness which no doubt provides the platform for our very humanity, we still have a considerable blind spot because we don’t appreciate the subtle but important role of the Witness.


In essence, it seems to me that when we “forget the self” we come to understand our inherent “Oneness”, the unimportance of individual “specialness” and realise our unique place in the Universe where we can reside in an unthreatened sense of personal wellbeing.

2 Replies to “The Profound Effects of Self-Awareness”

  1. “Who am I” the only question that cannot be answered by the unchosen and arbitrary coincidences of either nature or nurture. It is the only question whose answer, emanating from within and not from without, is such that it can be Know with certainty [what the Greeks called Epignosis] and is therefore, needing no external verification is ‘beyond belief’ and ‘beyond doubt’. Here lies the unshakable Ground for a sustainable peace of Mind.

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