From unaware unknowns to aware knowns

In 1955, two American psychologists Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1916–1995) developed the Johari Window.  Their goal was to model the relationship between self and others to improve self-awareness and personal development among individuals in a group.

The Jorahi Window Model

This idea of distinguishing between what is known and unknown between self and others has been built on over the years, away from the original use in psychology and towards a more general view based on awareness and knowledge. You may have heard of expressions such as “known knowns” (aware knowledge) and “unknown unknowns” (unaware lack of knowledge) that are sometimes represented as in the matrix below.

Matrix of awareness vs knowledge

What this awareness vs knowledge matrix fails to represent is the unavoidable relationship between self and others, as in the Johari Window. In this article, I present my own view that combines the concepts of awareness, knowledge, self, and others.

To begin with, I consider the “self vs others” concept more generally as “local vs global”, as illustrated in the table below:

Examples of local vs global perspectives
Local Global
Me Humankind
Team Company
Company Industry

Then, I aim to distinguish between awareness and knowledge. Awareness comes first since the question must be asked before you are locally aware of your knowledge of the answer. If something is unknown, it has not been identified; the question has not been asked. Awareness of the question must arise before knowledge of the relevant solution can arise. At the same time, solutions may exist to unanswered questions, but we cannot assign solutions to questions without the questions too.

From “unaware” to “aware” is a process of realization or discovery of a problem or question.

From “unknown” to “known” is a process of finding a solution to a problem that you are aware of.

Bringing this all together results in the following diagram (note that the horizontal axis has been swapped compared to the other two diagrams, so that top right is the “positive” direction rather than top left):

From unware unknowns to aware knowns

Ways to aware knowledge given awareness:

  1. Reinvent the wheel
  2. Use existing knowledge
  3. Discover new knowledge

Ways to aware knowledge given knowledge:

  1. Have existing insight
  2. Use existing insight
  3. Have new insight

Ways to awareness without knowledge:

  1. Ask existing questions
  2. Use existing questions
  3. Ask new questions

By looking at things from this angle, we can see that:

  1. Using only local awareness and local knowledge is a poor use of resources
  2. Efficient use of existing resources comes from “standing on the shoulders of giants” and looking to expand local awareness and knowledge by leaning on the success of those that have come before us
  3. The other edge of the sword is exploring new frontiers by means of discovering new questions and new solutions or new ways of applying existing solutions to existing questions. In this way, the global set of awareness and knowledge increases, for future generations to continue to find new ways to iterate in this great game we call life.

Closing thoughts on the terminology used and how it might fit together:

  • Awareness is the fundamental mechanism a conscious agent has for acquiring data
  • Knowledge is awareness of information by a conscious agent
  • Information is data that has been interpreted by a conscious agent for their own purpose e.g. prediction or pattern recognition
  • Data is the smallest unit of uninterpreted information in the context in use by a conscious agent e.g. when reading a book the smallest unit might be the words, but for someone analyzing words the smallest unit might be the letters; data has subjective units
  • Information can be encoded back as data e.g. text, speech, images
  • Information is self-referential; data leads to information which can act as the data for further information.
  • A conscious agent is something like me or (possibly) you that appears to “think therefore I am”

A common inter-subjective data basis is the binary system; encoding information using bits 0s and 1s to represent discriminatory power. This is by no means a universal basis since it only carries the meaning we associate to the discriminatory ability of the bits. It may be possible to have a universal data basis defined in terms of the Planck units (which appear to be the smallest discrete units the universe has on offer).

System of perception

What are your thoughts? I found this topic especially useful as a reminder that we do not typically operate in closed bounded systems. More often, we are part of something larger than our immediate surroundings and it is important to remember that feedback loops exist between self and others.

Chasing your tail

Warning: thought dump ahead!

Attachment to the outcome of an event leads to a subjective spectrum of measurements of the (usually implicit) metrics that you are using to monitor apparent change. Your preferences about which direction you want these metrics to go in seems to be how the attachment presents itself.

Thinking of ways to game this, let’s explore a few strategies and see what happens.

At one extreme, you could take the position “I have no preferences”. This is kind of self-contradicting since this is a preference in itself. A step further could be to have no preference for having preferences. Huh?

Is it possible to have no preferences? Let’s look at the word “preference” first, starting with a dictionary definition:

a greater liking for one alternative over another or others

We need to go deeper down the rabbit hole. What does “liking” mean? Back to the dictionary…

a feeling of regard or fondness

This is not really helping, we are just arriving at more words that are not objectively defined. Hmm.

Let’s use the facts. To have a preference, we have to have at least two possibilities. We could say that the word preference is a kind of directionality or scoring system for the possible outcomes.

Alright, so one strategy is to weight the scores equally for all outcomes. I can see a few problems with that. As before, this strategy (and perhaps any strategy?) is a kind of preference. By choosing a scoring system, you have weighted that system above all others.

Is it possible to not choose a scoring system? Perhaps…

Certainly, it is possible to not explicitly choose a system. But it seems as if there is always going to be an implicit system in place. Without preference, it would not take long before you got run over by a truck because you did not have a preference for the outcome of crossing the road!

Alright, so it looks like there are going to be at least a handful of fundamental preferences that anyone reading this is going to have. First and foremost would be the self-preservation instinct.

Another way we can look at this is to inspect the “at least two possibilities” bit. What if there were only one possibility? In that case, there would be no preference because there is no choice about what to have a preference for.

So, how could there be only one possibility? Well, I suppose the only way to do that would be to not distinguish between outcomes. The phrase “whatever happens, happens” comes to mind.

Of course, you could argue that the model of not distinguishing between outcomes is a kind of scoring system in itself. In a way, it is isomorphic to the perspective of equally weighting all possible outcomes. Nonetheless, it certainly sounds like a simpler way of framing things.

To not distinguish between outcomes would be something like the absence of chopping and categorising things up. Lack of labelling. A willingness to not know and not understand.

How far could you take this? I think this approach leads to the experience of a lack of agency. By agency, I mean the impression that you have control over the outcome of events. If you have stopped distinguishing between outcomes, it seems that you would also have stopped getting the impression that you were influencing those outcomes.

The suggestion that lack of agency is even possible can be a scary thought for some people. I think this is perhaps tied to the fear of losing control, identity, self, ego, whatever you want to call it.

So, then what? I think the end game is that, with this approach, you retain a fresh sense of wonder about each and every moment as it unfolds. Unsure what to expect and untied to what happens. The most appropriate word that comes to mind is “freedom”.

You are not your beliefs

This one can be quite an eye opener if you have not heard of it before.

When interacting with others, sometimes we can end up defending a particular belief, idea or position. This can be a useful tool, but sometimes it is possible to take it a bit too far.

You are not your beliefs. By attaching the sense of self to particular concepts, you open up a duality of being “right” or “wrong” about something. In turn, this polarization can lead to sticky situations, where you feel under attack when you encounter someone who is pushing an agenda that conflicts with your own.

A great way to work with this is pretty simple: lose. See what that is like. Next time you sense someone is getting defensive about something, try “losing” and see what happens as one of the two fists stops fighting.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying everyone should become a tree hugging pacifist. Fight when appropriate, but at least be aware of the mechanisms that lead you there.

Why meditate?

This question came up recently and I did not give a great answer. The following post aims to provide an answer that hopefully clarifies rather than confuses.

First, let’s set some context. I have explored a number of different meditation approaches and philosophies, with my current focus predominantly on a technique used in the Sōtō lineage of Zen Buddhism. This post will talk mainly about that technique, which is called Shikantaza.

The reason this question is hard is that in truth I do not know the answer. I fell into becoming interested in this stuff some time ago and that interest has not dwindled much since.

Today, lots of traditional Eastern philosophy has started to creep into the Western world. For example, this has manifested the popularization of techniques such as mindfulness. The way these ideas are typically sold to a Western audience is to suggest possible benefits such as “do this and you will be calmer” or “do that and you will have fewer negative thoughts”.

If you go into a meditation practice with the intention to achieve these kinds of goals, then you are enacting a form of spiritual materialism. This means using the spiritual path to achieve material gains. You may even succeed! It is true that people will likely see these kinds of material benefits.

In comparison, the typical intention behind a practice such as Shikantaza is to see clearly what is already there, rather than trying to create something different.

So, what is Shikantaza? Quite simply, it is the practice of “just sitting”. Hold the body still and watch what continues to move. What this results in for most people initially is a flurry of thoughts they did not even know they had. The idea is to just observe. Don’t chase. Don’t reject. Don’t ignore. Mmm doughnuts…

Right, but why would you want to do that? This is the funny bit, you probably do not want to do that at all! All the typical markers that the ego uses to measure “progress” are missing. You could get bored. Your joints might hurt. You will lose time that could have been spent elsewhere. Your friends might say you will turn into a vegetable!

The will to do this goes beyond the ego mind, from a more fundamental urge to see what this is, to see what you are and how things function.

Upon investigation, the realisation that typically follows is along the lines of “this is all there is”. This could be spontaneous or it could take decades or it may never happen at all. Or you might say “screw this, I’m gonna go watch TV!”.

Pinning down a description of what I am trying to point to here is super hard. Many have tried over the years and in my experience, it does not help much. Any words I use might make sense to me and mean nothing to you. If you are interested, I would encourage you to find out for yourself. Don’t accept, reject or ignore anything I am talking about. Consider it, and see how it fits into how things work for you.

So, why meditate? I suppose it depends on what you are looking for. In my case, curiosity is the main driver.

It is clear to me that there are pieces missing in the way we are typically educated. In our society, from a young age, we are taught the philosophy of reductionist materialism, which is typically accepted without question. I am exploring those questions now.

PS: I’m always happy to speak more about this kind of stuff. Send any questions you have my way!

Everything is dependently arisen

Everything. That’s a lot of stuff.

What am I talking about? Let me try to explain.

Notice the way that you make sense of the world. In order to function, you have to interpret your sense data. All that you see, hear, taste, touch, smell and think is relative. Relative to what? Everything else. This is the nature of reality.

Put another way, in the “subject-object” concept, for example in the phrase “I see the phone”, the subject “I” and the object “the phone” are described relative to one another. Most typical language seems to function in this way, relative descriptions of things that only seem to exist in relation to other things.

This is both completely ordinary and utterly mindblowing depending on how you look at it. From here at least, it looks to me that there is Just This, nothing more and nothing less.

Don’t believe a word I say. Find out for yourself!

Seeing the ego: compassion with and without expectation

This post will consider the following statement:

All compassion is selfish

Let’s also begin with a dictionary definition of the noun compassion:

Sympathetic pity and concern for the suffering or misfortunes of others

Think of the last time you were compassionate. Perhaps a friend was ill and you brought them flowers. Or maybe you donated some money to charity. Or maybe you were compassionate and took no action at all.

Now, ask yourself the question: why was I compassionate? There are no right or wrong answers.

In my experience, it is likely that at least part of the perceived reason is something along the lines of “it felt like the right thing to do” or “if I were in that situation, I would be suffering”.

I am going to suggest that these types of reason are subtle forms of selfishness.

Imagine that we lived in a world where compassion would not give us that warm, feel good glow inside. Replace it with whatever strong negativity that makes most sense to you. Would you still be compassionate?

This is not an easy question. To begin with, it is hypothetical. It is very hard for us to imagine this situation, since compassion is baked into our evolutionary psychology. We can’t help but feel good when we help others.

Despite this, to me at least, it seems that the core motivation for compassion is either the desire to feel good through lessening the suffering of others, or a fear that if we were in that situation others would not be compassionate to us. These are both ego driven concepts that are inherently selfish.

Here’s the good bit: once you can see this for yourself, once you can see the self preserving ego at work, you also have the option to see past it.

Compassion without expectation can be achieved by seeing the ego, letting it have its desires and fears, but also seeing past that.

Compassion that comes from this place can manifest in unexpected ways. Being spacious for people in your life is an often overlooked expression of compassion. It is rare in today’s busy world to give someone your undivided attention for an extended period of time.

What opportunities can you think of for compassion without expectation in your life?