You can only respond to what you notice
Awareness has a variable shape and size—and learning to control it is a powerful skill
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Picture the scene. You're driving to work, thinking about a meeting on the day’s agenda, when suddenly you realise that you missed your turn. Awoken from your reverie, you detach from your thoughts, mutter under your breath and replan your route. At work, later, you have a similar experience where you emerge from a high-flow coding session with the uncomfortable realisation that the meeting started ten minutes ago.
These two experiences share something in common; they both involve not noticing something and so not making a choice you might otherwise have made.
In our everyday life we often get tunnel vision, the experience of being so focused on a goal or way of doing things that we get stuck, falling into a kind of ‘choice unconsciousness’ that constrains our options until the goal is complete, we get interrupted or we become tired.
What you experience in tunnel vision is a collapse of your awareness, which is your capacity to notice things around and within you that could be noticed in any given moment. The problem is that if something isn't in your awareness—if you can't notice it—you can't make choices with respect to it.
Richard Wiseman, psychologist, author of The Luck Factor and member of the Magic Circle, demonstrates this when he points out that having more of the world in your awareness is key to being lucky:
"Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. [...] Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for." — Richard Wiseman
Put another way, you can’t pick up a twenty dollar bill from the ground if you haven't already noticed the twenty dollar bill on the ground.
The interesting thing is that your ability to notice—your field of awareness—has certain dynamic properties that can be brought under your control. Awareness has a variable shape and size that can be changed, and you can learn to notice and then play with these.
Let me show you.
Awareness can expand and collapse
As quickly as you can, I'd like you to count the number of times the letter 't' appears in this sentence.
Okay, thanks for doing that.
Now just check in: what happened to your experience of the world around you while you were counting? Did it go away a little bit? If yes, notice how little it took to bring that about. Counting the number of times a letter appears in a sentence is probably the least important thing you'll do all week, and yet, for many of you at least, it was enough to hook you. It was ten, by the way.
I'd hate to leave you like that, so let's undo what we just did. And this time I give you full permission not to try to get anything right.
Without moving your attention from these words, I invite you also to become aware of your feet, the sensations of your breathing and the temperature of the air around you. You don't need to go looking for these, just choose to become available to them. Then, as you keep reading, become aware of ambient sounds. What's the furthest away sound you can notice as your eyes continue to track along these words?
What you may have just glimpsed is the experience of expanded awareness, contrasted with collapsed awareness as you were counting letters. In this state, you are better able to notice not only the world around you, but also your own thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Shallow breathing, for example, is a sign of stress, but you can only choose to take a slow, deep, calming breath if you first notice that your breathing is shallow.
You may have even taken a slow, deep breath just now when I placed the idea that you could into your awareness.
The benefits of this go deep. When you work like this, you’re better able to notice when your code, let’s say, is getting overly complicated, which gives you the capacity to zoom out and replace it with something cleaner. Or, when writing to your manager, you can notice if you’re just venting your frustrations and choose instead to focus on how to move your project forwards.
Across all the decisions you make in life, large or small, noticing what’s going on and making different choices can compound into enormous differences in outcome. In the examples above, one set of decisions leads to a well-designed product and happy boss, while the other does not.
Trying too hard collapses awareness
One of the most powerful triggers that collapses awareness is goal fixation, which the classic selective attention test study demonstrates perfectly. In the study, participants were asked to watch a video showing a group passing a ball between them and to count the number of times the ball is thrown. Mid-way through someone walks through the group in a gorilla suit. Participants were asked afterwards if they noticed the gorilla—and many of them were so focused on counting that they failed to notice it at all!
This effect is amplified powerfully by something that most people reading this will find familiar: trying really hard. The harder you try to achieve a goal, the stronger the collapse in awareness is and the more difficult it is to notice anything that isn’t related to your goal. That’s why, when I asked you to count the occurances of the letter ‘t’ before, I asked you to do it as quickly as you could, just to get you to try harder and amplify this effect.
How hard you try is itself affected by how much you care about the outcome. I would wager that if the participants in the selective attention study were rewarded with varying amounts of money for correctly counting the number of times the ball was thrown, the likelihood that someone noticed the gorilla would decrease as the reward became more meaningful to them.
The interesting thing about trying is that, unless you’re careful, it just embeds you more deeply within ways of doing things that are already familiar to you. F. M. Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique, said:
“Trying is only emphasising the thing we already know.” — F. M. Alexander
This is why true change can be so elusive. The harder you try to change, the more you end up doing familiar things that get you more stuck than you were before.
The way out of this trap is not to try even harder, but to stop doing the things that aren’t working and become aware of previously unnoticed options. Or, to quote Alexander again:
“You can't do something you don't know, if you keep on doing what you know."
It’s only once you expand your awareness and become aware of those previously unnoticed options that you gain the ability to act on them.
Collapsed awareness limits your agency
The ease with which awareness can be collapsed has profound implications when you consider that all of human experience—our emotions, internal and external senses, experience of other people, thoughts, beliefs and intentions—takes place within a bubble of awareness.
If your awareness is suitably expanded, you will notice that lucky twenty dollar bill on the ground, at which point a series of choices unfolds before you. You could ignore it, put it in your pocket, or look for the person who dropped it. The diversity of these choices is starkly contrasted with your choices had your awareness been collapsed: none.
If you miss some cash on the street, that's unfortunate, but not the end of the world. Where things get interesting is in the domains of emotions, thoughts and other people.
For example, if you don't notice that you're angry, you can't decide that it might be a good idea to make that important phone call later. If you don't notice your strongly held opinion, you can't challenge it. If you don't notice that your child has been quieter than usual, you can't ask them what's been going on at school.
Going further, if you don’t notice, moment by moment, the possibility that you might be wrong, you will be held in a fixed pattern of beliefs until something sufficiently powerful from outside breaks you out of it.
And if you don't notice all your desires, you can't decide which to fulfil and which to leave alone. Or you won't notice that you're actively fulfilling desires that you haven't even noticed that you have. As Jung put it:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung
The question Jung begs us to consider, then, is how do you make the unconscious conscious and regain your agency?
You can learn to expand your awareness
The lesson of the examples above is that being able to notice more things—to expand your awareness—gives you more choices in all domains of life. But, how?
You probably already use some tricks to expand your awareness when you need to. Setting a reminder reflects the fact that something important probably won't be in your awareness when it needs to be. A to-do app puts tasks in your awareness at the right moment, while regular reviews encourage you to notice things that you wouldn't normally engage with day to day.
Similarly, journaling shows you parts of your mental and emotional lives that may be hidden, which can help reduce internal conflicts, while outside perspectives from friends, coaches and therapists can snap you out of stuck loops of familiar thoughts, emotions and beliefs.
But let’s also explore a few techniques that access your awareness directly.
First, start by noticing moments in your life when your awareness has collapsed—when your capacity to notice things has diminished. At first this will happen after the fact, once your awareness has naturally re-expanded, but you can note that it happened and get curious about what you were doing that caused it to happen.
The more you can develop the habit of being aware of your own awareness, the more easily you’ll be able to notice when it has collapsed. One effective way to do this is to build reminders into your daily life. While this could be as simple as putting sticky notes in places where your awareness is likely to collapse, my favorite is to notice your awareness whenever you pass through thresholds, like the doors in your home or office.
Second, I encourage you to practice expanding your awareness in easy, low-stakes environments. Go for regular walks, in nature if you can, without music or a podcast playing in your ears. Without going looking for them, check that you can notice the furthest away sounds in all directions, including above your head.
You could then gently ask yourself this question from mindfulness teacher Loch Kelly:
“What’s here now when there’s no problem to solve?” — Loch Kelly
As you notice what is, right now, your mind will naturally do its thing, generating stuff for you to think about. Notice the effect this stuff has on your awareness and gently re-expand to take in more of the world around you as you walk.
Here I’ll point out a common trap in any mindfulness practice that’s particularly relevant to this practice. What you’re essentially doing here is becoming aware of the contents of the present moment in all directions—all of it, all at once. When you glimpse that, there’s a tendency to want to cling on to it, but all that does is push it away.
The present moment only lasts for three seconds. You can’t cling on to it, you can only choose it, over and over again. Similarly, expanding your awareness is not something you do once. It’s a choice that you make repeatedly with a sense of “there it is; there it is; there it is.”
Finally, for a bit more fun, start paying attention to the state of other people’s awareness, particularly in conversation. As highly social creatures, we’re sensitive both to what other people are paying attention to and how aware they are of us and the wider world. You’ll be surprised by just how much you can pick up on and what you can learn.
You can notice, for example, whether you’re really in someone’s awareness or not. Are they talking to you or just projecting sounds into space that you happen to be in? Having someone in your awareness is what creates a true sense of connection and makes the conversation come alive.
These ideas come from a tradition called Alexander Technique, which I teach. If you’ve heard about Alexander Technique and think it’s all about posture and movement, let me assure you it’s much more than that. It’s actually a kind of embodied, real-world mindfulness practice that doesn’t require sitting on a cushion. It gives you the capacity to step out of stuck patterns and make new, conscious choices in all domains of life.
If you want to dig deeper into the Alexander Technique and expanded awareness, Michael teaches a self-paced online course on it that you should check out. You can also ask him questions on Twitter.
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