The Downside of Awareness?

Awareness, I think, is one of the better qualities we can cultivate.  By paying attention and by striving to know ourselves, we can turn experience into wisdom.

But sometimes paying attention turns into navel gazing, where we get so focused on our own thoughts and our own Self that we forget to live in the real world with the other human beings.  Or we fall victim to spiritual materialism, as described by Chogyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (  There is a fine line between being aware and being egocentric.

Recently I came across two interesting items that highlighted this phenomenon of going down the proverbial rabbit hole.  The first was a television show on the National Geographic channel about the Mayan calendar and the now-infamous date of December 21, 2012.  The documentarian travelled to Guatemala and, through an interpreter, questioned several locals of Mayan descent.  He asked them about the so-called Mayan prophecies.  To a person, every one of them stared, nonplussed, at the interpreter and claimed no knowledge of such a prophecy.  Now, my Spanish is sufficient enough to know that the interpreter did indeed ask the question that the documentarian wanted, so there was no mix-up there.  Why the denial, then?  Perhaps everything could have been staged.  Perhaps there is a conspiracy by Mayan descendants to keep the knowledge secret and away from the white men.  But I think the more likely explanation is that the locals were aware enough of the Mayan calendar to know that 12-21-12 is just another day in the great circle of life, but not so overly aware and full of self-importance as to make it into a big deal.

I read about the second item in the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine by Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno.  According to their findings, in cultures where older women are viewed as respected elders, menopause symptoms are almost unheard of.   The authors even state that osteoporosis is extremely rare in those cultures where achieving old age is seen as a sign of divine blessing and great wisdom.  But here in the West, where eternal youth is valued, women experience hot flashes, headaches, and forgetfulness.  In fact, Western medicine classifies menopause as a disease.  They conclude that if our Western society would adopt a different cultural view of older women, then menopausal symptoms would cease to be.

The point here, in my opinion, is that our perspective is indeed our reality.  So is your reality one of spiritual materialism and navel gazing, where your thoughts imprison you in an apocalyptic world filled with hot flashes and night sweats?  What do you think?


6 responses

  1. I think you’re talking about different kinds of awareness. I agree that it’s important to live with awareness: to be observant, to notice others and be involved and/or helpful when needed, to know your surroundings and be one with your environment/nature, and to be aware of cultural/societal/spiritual/physical views. If you’re aware, you’re continually inspired because the world is constantly changing. You gave examples concerning contemporary Mayans and Western views of menopause. These go beyond pure self-awareness (navel gazing) to reflect a deeper awareness about our societies. In America, people live on the surface of life. Some rarely scratch below the obvious and easily-observable. My favorite line from the movie, “Bull Durham” is: “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness (Annie Savoy).”

  2. Thank you so much, Aimee. This is a great post! I was assigned a couple articles on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche last week having to do with spiritual materialism and his unique ways of teaching. I find Trungpa’s books, especially “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialsm” to be newly profound with every read.

    I think there’s a difference and connection between self-absorption and self-awareness, with the former being an uncomfortable path to the latter. Like the med or psych student who exaggerates and personalizes course content (i.e., physical or mental diagnoses), the spiritual student can exaggerate the study of the Self. Ideally, in all those cases, hyperanalysis is just a sweet, awkward, painful, and necessary step toward being a good practitioner.

    Stated simply: Being aware of your personal weirdness(es) is the only way out of suffering. And it takes a long time of study – perhaps a few lifetimes of absorption in them – to recognize them, get sick of them, and let them go.

    If you’re lucky, says Trungpa Rinpoche, you might get to the point this time around where you feel hopeless about your variously yucky personal condition – acutely aware that there is no immediate escape from it, that no one is going to save you from it….. THEN AND ONLY THEN, he says – when you are utterly hopeless – are you really on the spiritual path!

    Taken from “The Way of Basic Sanity” (looks like a chapter of a book) by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche:

    [According to Trungpa Rinpoche,] ” He was convinced that to make any spiritual progress we have to begin with ourselves, with what he characteristically referred to as ‘our own neurosis.’ In his inimitable style, Trungpa Rinpoche describes it this way: ‘If you are utterly confused, you are confused to the point of seeming to yourself to be unconfused. This is what we call spiritual materialism.’”

    This is why I say that for most of us, it’s a good idea to wonder a lot, to be confused – especially whenever we are 1000 percent sure we “know” something, or are “right.”

    But being rigid OR confused can be difficult – involving all kinds of neurosis and self-absoprtion. So, as is true for the med or psych student, the spiritual student ought to put diligent effort into a legitimate course of study with a good teacher. Then, poking at his or her ignorance of the material (here, Self) isn’t such an ego-absorptive or ego-inflating affair. With guidance, a more ego-less awareness – grounded in confidence and faith in credible teachings – is possible.

    As Trungpa Rinpoche says (quoted by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche): “It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism.”

    How frustrating, right?! As if the more we try and the higher we aspire, the deeper we sink into the wrong idea…. Oh ego can be such a paradoxical and annoying thing! Being caught up in its noble or shameful aspects is understandable. All in all, I’m told that any honest efforts we make at clear awareness are very good and worthwhile.

    Your examples of Mayan awareness and societal lack of ego/absorption, as well as our culture’s habit of pathologizing what is a normal human progression of life and wisdom – are just great. The Shambhala literature and trainings have a lot to say about an Enlightened Society that is based on virtue and goodness…. Good stuff!

    But I’ve gone on long enough Thanks again for this venue, and your insights.

  3. What I think I am hearing is our emotions. I am going to focus on the awareness of the respect for women as they become older, and that it is a blessing and a sign of wisdom. Along with that, their health is strong as they age. I believe menopause is the result of women being over worked, over stressed, doing too much and not being respected. This affects the woman’s emotional system, may I say only in support. Is it because in this country women are in denial about getting older instead of grasping the beauty of it. I am only saying this because I am becoming a older women in this culture, and love what you presented in this blog. Thank you.

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