We can say that our conscious awareness is best directed towards understanding and controlling our own state, which is analogous to the automatic routine our other-than-conscious (embodied) self runs. We can say this because our conscious awareness is a finite resource whose utility is limited as we begin to apply it to ever finer phenomenon. Combined with an understanding of systems as bottom-up phenomenon, we can also understand why managing our state is so effective. We are tending to the relationship we have to ourselves and to the world.
Centralized, CEO-style top-down control is what we often assume our consciousness is best at. Neurologically this is not the case, as our triune brain began with the instinctual brain which must be functioning properly for the rational brain to function. Experience bears this out. The more we try to force ourselves to sleep, for example, the harder it is for us to fall asleep. And the finer the phenomenon we attempt to focus on, the more we lose sight of the larger picture and the relationships that form it.
But if we create the circumstances where we can relax, then falling asleep comes naturally. A dark, quiet room, with a comfortable bed where we've slept peacefully before, letting go of all the worries of the day and the next day: all these allow us to relax. By focusing on the relationships of the parts that create the desired outcome, we can achieve it much more effectively. To use a computer metaphor, we are booting up a whole computer program for our mind to execute. This is bottom-up action, and as for any size phenomenon, this is always less resource-intensive and more effective. We're working with the natural patterns of our organism rather than against them.
From this perspective, our consciousness is a facilitator and guardian of state that is most effective when tending to the relationships, as a sort of Master of Ceremonies. Like performers on a stage, the various parts of our mind and organism know what they are doing. Instinctively, they have millions of years of biological evolution at their fingertips and a lifetime of socialization into the mores and norms of the culture we live in. All that is required of us is to ensure the stage is set for them to play their parts. Perhaps you may have tried to "embody" a famous character you've seen in a movie or on television. You have an instinctive sense for how that character moves, talks, and interacts. You could focus consciously on individual, isolated components of the character, but more than likely it would come across as disjointed and stilted. Tell someone to focus on their leg kicking or their arm throwing while they are playing a sport, and conscious awareness of the isolated part may sabotage their performance. Neurologically, you've "downloaded" a program of that character by watching them in a variety of situations. Human empathy has a neurological basis in the firing of mirror neurons, which activate when we see someone doing something. In short, we experience their actions and feelings vicariously, as though we were the ones doing it. These programs are stored within our neural pathways, same as any pairing of stimuli, action, and feedback. The more these pathways are used, the easier they are to boot up, as we can all attest to when we've tried to change a habit. Indeed, when we remember something, we are quite literally re-membering ourselves, that is, calling up the unique pattern or mapping of neuronal tension that existed at that moment. More powerful memories evoke stronger rememberings, where we feel the accompanying inner state (feedback) more clearly- perhaps a defining peak experience, or a particularly traumatic experience.
It's important to stress that our inner state in each moment is the feedback we are receiving from the environment. It exists for a reason. It guides the broad strokes of how we act. Negative emotions tell us when a movement has been thwarted, and good emotions tell us when a movement is successful. Anyone who has played sports can immediately tell based on the feedback their body gives them when a kick, throw, or hit was a good one based on the visceral thrill their body receives, this before the ball even reaches it target.
We see that the most effective strategy is to utilize our finite conscious awareness towards facilitating and managing the states we want on a moment to moment basis. There is a complication to this story, however. And that is precisely the thing that makes us human: empathy, cooperation, competition, that is, human relating at any level (whether in a relationship or in a society) implies constant trespassing and imposition onto the states of others. We are either having our state affected by others, or we are affecting theirs.
The fact is, any kind of relating is not only an exercise in state control but also in controlling the state of the rest of those in the relationship. Applications of power are obvious. An authority figure might use their position to control your state (one of subservience and submission), which has a direct effect on your actions: you do as they say or as they want you to do. Other possibilities include the threat of harm, whether physical, emotional, or financial. By cowing someone into submission, a bully quite forcefully changes their state.
Yet even the finer sides of human nature imply an affect, that is to say control, over the state of others. We are empathic creatures. We evolved to work in close cooperation with a small, closely knit band of fellows. Empathy is the natural phenomenon that allows us to do this, or indeed cooperate at any scale including the modern nation-state. And empathy clearly means letting someone affect your state. If I open my state up enough to feel your emotions as my own, or even to learn from you, that is clearly affecting my state. And the feedback goes both ways. If I synchronize with your state, that implies I understand it enough to manipulate it (in the neutral sense of the word), and can then affect your state. More on this later.
Much of the evolution of human society has been to mitigate the affect of this in many ways. When I go to a bank, I can expect the teller to do their job professionally without further ado. Indeed, much of human courtesy has at its core the aim to minimize the ambiguity of loose or new connections and create trust without risk so that we can do things we otherwise couldn't do- like have a banking system. Yet even then, all it takes is a nasty disposition from either the service provider or the customer to potentially upset the other's state. The fact is, our mirror neurons are always firing. It is a never-ending and invaluable source of feedback about what is unfolding around us socially. We can tell when someone walks in a room if they are angry, sad, nervous, happy, or trying not to be seen. This is because on some level, we are mirroring them. The extent to which we open ourselves to that connection depends on the particulars of the relationship and the situation. For example, think about how different you feel at home, at your favorite cafe or bar, or at a Walmart or post office. In the latter, a place you wouldn't willingly choose to go yourself, you guard your state much more carefully, and probably make an effort not to disrupt the state of others. Politeness and reserve are the norm. Even were you with a good friend, you would probably behave differently than if you were at home or at a favorite social spot. The relationship to the place is in large part to blame, and the associations it has in our mind- waiting, an ugly interior, perhaps rude or unfriendly people- and that creates a certain state in the people there, which is amplified by the collective empathic capacity.
Our conscious state is more complicated than simply being awake or asleep. For example, there exists what is often called a trance state. In a trance state, we've effectively had our state change to a place where we are responding to the suggestions and commands of another. This state can be caused by anything that breaks our frame, or overloads or otherwise fully engages our conscious mind. We go into a trance state naturally when watching television, for example, or when we really focus on music and feel it. People can force a trance state on others as well, and in fact this is common. Most notably, hypnotists make use of this trance state when they hypnotize someone. Yet trance induction is a common feature of organized society. Take salesmen and strippers: they are using natural desires and impulses to force a state of compliance, to get something they want by appealing to what you want. The specific tactics are less important, though of course many books have been written about them. Techniques for gaining trust, breaking your frame and overloading your conscious mind, for getting you to say "yes" early on and often (the so-called yes ladder). Interestingly enough, these are the same techniques a hypnotist uses to formally hypnotize someone.
We could very well wonder why this state even exists, as it presents a conduit direct to our other-than-conscious mind. It seems like a glaring security flaw or weakness. In fact, it may be a case of human society and technology outpacing the relatively slow biological and psychic development of individual man. As stated previously, we are meant to operate in small, tightly knit bands of no more than 150. Survival of the individual was dependent on the survival of the band. This required built-in mechanisms to create and maintain trust and cohesion. These people could be trusted because their survival and prosperity was bound together with every other individual member. And in all likelihood, the people in that band were the only family members you had, anyway. One could not simply walk away and join a new community. There is a reason why exile, for most of human history, was considered a worse fate than death.
If someone you trust to this level tries to teach you something, or calls out in warning or for help, it follows that physiologically, we would be prepared to respond to this call. We would be constantly mirroring the people in this band, so that we could get an immediate felt-sense for whether or not we were in a safe place or if there was danger present- in this case, our empathic faculties can pick up on danger others sense far faster than words could communicate. If an elder or adult is sharing stories from a hunt or a skirmish, or details about a great hunting ground or foraging location, we naturally internalize as much of that story as we can because it is implied that what is good for him is good for us. After all, he has no way of hoarding resources, and he cannot survive if we also do not survive.
Notice that each of the preceding examples implies one or more people opening themselves up to the state of another, which sounds exactly like the trance state we have previously been discussing. Anything that someone we trust signals as important naturally opens up our state to input so that it can be absorbed, integrated, and applied as rapidly as possible, in what may make the difference between life and death of not just myself but my entire family and band. This trance state is proof of trust, and it takes trust to let our state be determined by other people. This includes deep states of empathy, rapport, and complicity. Complicity is perhaps the most powerful phenomenon pertaining to a trance state of subordinating one's state to another. In a state of complicity, I am trusting someone else to guide me to where I want to go- presumably we both want to make it to the same place, and it becomes more efficient to be guided to that place at a level of cooperation occurring below that of words. The more I open myself up to being guided by that person- in a story, an expedition, or any activity- the more complicit we are and the more trust is required. In the past, this trust would have been applied towards a very small number of very intimate relations. This made perfect sense for how human beings grew up as a species. If it didn't work at some point, after all, it wouldn't exist. Early trade would easily have been a dangerous affair, though different rituals and customs could have cut down the immense ambiguity inherent in such a venture. These are, after all, alien creatures that perhaps would just as soon cut down you and your fellows, eat your flesh, and wear your skin. Such is the power of human imagination. But think about what the handshake implies: I carry no weapons to hurt you. And think about the instinctive dislike we take to people who have a weak or awkward handshake. Clearly, we are tapping into deep aspects of our physiology with such customs.
The complication comes from the fact that expanding empathic faculties and identity structures have changed the nature of our relations, even though our hardware is essentially the same. Human history has been the narrative of expanding personal identities to encompass ever greater empathic structures permitting more complex forms of cooperation. From tribes to city states, to monarchies and the modern nation-state. Today, even, we speak in terms of "the west", and a global consciousness of sorts is emerging. Clearly these identities denote different spheres of trust we innately feel based on which group another belongs to and how close that group is to our own identity. The more we trust that group, the more we open ourselves up to allow that person to influence our state.
Society is more or less obligatory (in the sense that we don't have a choice to be socialized) state control to cooperate with people we don't really know, but think we do know in so far as we have a common narrative of identity. To be an American implies that we went to the same school system for more or less the same indoctrination, that we are exposed to more or less the same language and media, and that we tacitly acknowledge the same norms of behavior and share to a large extent the same beliefs about the world. We take these facts for granted. As a result, we are able to cooperate together to keep a large, unwieldy society and economy of more than 300 million people, intricately tied to the rest of the globe, functioning more or less smoothly. You might say it's because we're all motivated to make a living, prosper, buy nice things, not starve or live on the streets. But why do we want these things? There's nothing inherent in the human organism that says we need a nice car to be happy. But our society is organized in such a way that we want a nice car. It's controlling our very desires. This is not meant to sound dystopian. Every act of design and engineering implies an attempt to circumscribe the behaviors and thoughts of another. Thanks to the interstate system I can drive from Oklahoma City to Atlanta in less than a day. But that implies a choice- whether conscious or not- on the part of the highway planners on how I will get there and what I will see along the way. What my experience is, and therefore how I arrive in Atlanta. Of course, I only want to get to Atlanta because of the world I and my peers have inherited. Good or bad aside, this simply is, the inheritance that we all receive.
In a sense, we are inundated by strangers attempting to state control. Think as well about how widespread marketing and advertising has become in our society. Everyone wants something from us, even if for a charity. And charities are some of the worst manipulators out there, showing calculated images designed to induce a certain emotional state conducive to pity-induced giving. It may be for a good cause, a worthy cause, but it is state control nonetheless aimed at ends of their choosing. We work for money, which in some way circumvents the need to aggressively state control others. We simply pay them to get them to do what we want rather than build up an intricate network of persuasion and influence. But then perhaps money is simply an excellent, universal form of state control. If you have it, you can get most anyone to do anything for the little pieces of colored paper you hold in your fist. More generally, at work and in leisure, there is a constant jockeying for supremacy in the ability to control and influence others. We are status-based creatures, and there is no getting around this. Even to assume the position of "not playing the game" is to gain influence and control by seeming to be above it all, and thus gaining influence circularly. Being able to control our own state and shut down unwanted intrusions is a must. However, there is no neutral, net-zero effect on others. We are either moving or being moved. To interact with others is to take part. Perhaps at best we can choose the partners we get to play with on a regular basis.
If unobstructed as individuals and societies, we tend towards more complex forms of relating. This means more contact with the feedback loops of other consciousnesses, in ever lighter and less obvious ways. Since we as feedback loops react to those feedback loops which are reacting to us, ad infinitum, what we have is a complex system of feedback that is continuously determining our state, and therefore who we are and what choices we make on a moment-to-moment basis. In large part, who we are is completely out of our hands, because we are constantly being acted upon by both the individual feedback loops of individuals, plus the emergent feedback loops of all the various emergent loops corresponding to organizations, communities, and societies. The effect, being complex due to the two way nature of the unfolding relationship, is at least partially shaped by our ability to control our own state. But then that has a corresponding effect on the other, hence the reason why there can be no net zero effect on others. To control our state is to prevent the other from controlling ours by instead controlling theirs. Instead of us reacting to them, they are forced to react to us.
We are either looping those those around us, or they loop us, that is to say one or the other is synchronized to the others loop. The one looping them is one step ahead and causing them to constantly react rather than have the initiative. They are able to move with the other's shadow, because they know what they are going to do. An equitable relationship, insofar as one exists, would be one where either consciously or unconsciously the players oscillate the power dynamic. To say that someone is synchronized to another's feedback loop, or that they have been looped by the other, is to say that they have not only lost the initiative and are reacting to the other, but also that because of the position of dominance the other is able to accurately understand and shape the limited choices of the one being looped. In cases where the other is highly aware, he may even know what the one who has been looped is going to do before they even do it. Sound unbelievable? Take the example of dogfighting. When a pilot has quite literally looped another pilot- they are inside the turning radius of the other plane, which means no matter how hard they try to turn, the pilot that has looped them can always turn faster than they can. Expert martial artists describe how when a fight is going well, they intuitively know what an opponent is going to do and when. Indeed, we can freely admit that in any adversarial situation, each maneuvers to throw the opponent off balance, get inside his head, and predict and thwart his next movement. With the natural human capacity for empathy, plus accumulated experience in whatever conflict is occurring, these are difficult but obtainable goals. But then, these efforts are occurring constantly, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Human relating, even in non-adversarial conditions, ie normal life, is a process of looping and attempting not to get looped. Remember that relating means affecting the states of others, and being affected. The only way to move effectively towards what we feel called towards is to control our state, which implies having a proportionally stronger effect on the state of others. Of course, this can be used responsibly or irresponsibly, healthily or unhealthily. But once someone is looped, they are trapped. Think about a time when you felt trapped by circumstances. You probably felt a step behind, like things were happening too quickly for you to process. You've probably also been around people that make you feel this way as well. When we are looped in this way, no amount of habitual action will get us out of the state, although that is usually all we feel capable of. It requires a swerve to break free and reset the frame, to give us a new chance to be the one looping. This requires awareness in the moment, however, which can be difficult to take advantage of. But now remember an interaction, a time, or a competition where the opposite was true. The situation was probably a difficult one, but you felt fully engaged and freely choosing your responses, or choosing precisely the one needed. You felt synchronized with the unfolding of events, able to tug or twist here or there to shape them. You felt alive and on fire.
I should also say that getting looped in this way- which may very well put us into a trance state as described earlier- is not always, perhaps not even a majority of the time, a bad thing. Whenever we follow someone we naturally trust, or listen to a good story from a friend, we are being looped- though more willingly in this case. So the context of what this continuous back and forth of looping and getting looped defines how we react to it. In a setting of natural trust and complicity in an in-group or community we belong to and identify with, and where we intimately know the members, we are likely to react well, unless some rule of conduct is broken- which exist to define the conditions in which someone can be looped.
On the other hand, someone may abuse loose connections or mere proximity to attempt the same thing, and we react poorly. So the efforts must be cloaked in disguise and secrecy. Think about good salesmen. They have a vast repertoire of negotiating and sales techniques designed to get you to buy something and at the price they want. But a good one comes across as your friend. That is part of the act. They are not looking out for you, they are looking out for them. Perhaps what is good for them is good for you. Perhaps not. But why would they bother hacking your neurophysiology if what they were selling was truly important to you? Indeed, if we could be aware of the sales gambits they were using as they used them, perhaps our reaction to them would change. What we see here is a gray area where our trust/trance mechanisms can be exploited by someone gaining our trust to mask their intentions to use us for their own ends. Awareness is ultimately the best remedy. When we are aware of the deeper motivations underlying what someone is doing in relation to us or to those around them, and can connect it to their specific behaviors, we can start to spar back and in doing so keep ourselves from being looped. It's also important to realize that soft forms of influence can't make us do something we don't in part want to do. When we're seduced by a new product or gadget, there is a part of us that truly believes it will make us more likeable, cooler, happier; even though intellectually and from experience we know this is not the case. But the marketeers and salesmen speak to and exploit this part of us we like to pretend doesn't exist. Understanding ourselves in this case rather than denying who we are helps us make more responsible choices in the future, particularly by gaining awareness and understanding that we do still have a choice where we thought we didn't have one before. By understanding our motivations, we can choose to override our habitual, unconscious decision-making patterns.
Once again, however, being put into a trance state by people we trust is a fundamental part of the human experience. The question then becomes, who do we let hypnotize us? To enjoy life, to be fully human, we must consciously let some in to our feedback loop. This is perhaps the definition of intimacy, to let someone very deeply into our inner processes past all the security checkpoints most never make it past. In essence, we're communicating that we trust them enough to give them keys to our consciousness, to our being. Indeed, think about the metaphorical significance behind giving a partner or friend a key to your home. The tangled web of relationships that most deeply affect us and define us are the very definition of community. If there is no reciprocal (though not necessarily equal) exchange then it is not a life-giving relationship. And I'm not sure relationships based around the exchange of money fit the bill, either. We are meant to be deeply in rapport with communities of like-minded people, which is why we trust others enough to essentially go into a trance state with them. However our technology and social mobility has outpaced our forms of relating, which are desperately in need of reinvention. If we have no tightly-knit community that we form part of, that we engage with and live with on a regular basis, that forms part of our identity, that we can let ourselves enter into our trance state of complete trust with, then we seek out pale proxies that often take the form of abuse: substance abuse, taking advantage of another, a string of loose and unfulfilling or digital connections that barely scratch the itch. This is not to say social media or our modern communications technologies are inherently bad, nor that casual relationships are bad, only that they can never replace how we are born to live. Indeed, social commentators have pointed out that the more pointedly individualistic we become as a society, the more we all seem to be alike. To be individualistic, to look to no one for values, means we wind up looking around to all our peers for direction- the so-called "lonely crowd". Which from our perspective means we are open to being influenced and state-controlled by nearly anyone interested in doing so, probably for their own gain. In other words, we have to take seriously what everyone does and says, rather than having a small, intimate, manageable group of people from whom we derive our value and identity from. Don't fool yourself- and we are often very good at fooling ourselves- we are defined by our relationships, and we are defined in relation to others. It is humanly impossible and deeply delusional, or perhaps simply sociopathic, to pretend that we are above influence from the people, ideas, and information around us. For example, research on social status has shown that whether or not we believe we are affected by it, we most certainly are- and having lower social status, for example, translates into lower testosterone levels for men, which has a cascading effect on the entire way we relate to the world and to others. Even something as simple as a sports team we feel deeply invested in losing a game can cause a hit to our social status, which has biochemical consequences for our body.
So we either consciously choose who we open ourselves to or it is decided for us, there is no way around us. And the relationships we do open ourselves up to not only make us more of ourselves by highlighting the qualities within us present in the ethereal relationship, they are the biggest factor behind the state we consistently are in- really two different ways of saying the same thing. The deepest relationships in our lives are our bridge to the world, and indicative of our relationship to our life as a whole. This is not meant to be curmudgeonly, but rather pragmatic. There are always times to explore and open ourselves to people, things, and ideas; however if we are more able to control our state in healthy ways then we can not only create the state for exploration when we so desire but make more effective use of it. It's like the old adage that disciplined people have more freedom: to do the things that are important to them. Practically, this means that we should very consciously choose who our modern day "tribe" is, to use this overused buzzword now almost stripped of meaning. I do not mean tribe in the sense someone like Seth Godin uses it. These must be people you physically see on a regular basis. They should be connections that are not easily severed, that you are committed to no matter what and who are committed to you. These are not easy things to find. In the past, people who were bound together had to be to survive. This is no longer the case, but we still need that feeling of being around people with whom we feel ourselves to be completely free of danger: physiologically and psychically. This frees up our organism to focus on movements towards what we value as good. Everyone else beyond this small inner group must earn trust, by whatever criteria we choose to use. Even for this inner group, there might be basic ground rules in place to ensure that no one takes advantage of the group- though if you were worried about that, why would you give them that trust in the first place? It is difficult to find good people worthy of trust. Though perhaps we might also ask if we are worthy of trust.
The idea of consciously choosing who we open our state up to brings us full circle, back to the question of awareness. Recall that our awareness is limited, and what we cast it upon has a massive effect on our state. It is our most precious resource for controlling our state and moving forward in life. Awareness gives us choice where previously there had been none, only automatic response. Consider the choice of who we let into our loop. Before we even begin to train ourselves to focus on this question, our decisions on who to relate with consistently were completely automatic. There was in fact no real choice made. Awareness, then, is directly responsible for our practical experience of freedom. With awareness of our choices, also comes awareness of their consequences. We now have the basis for understanding the nature of our free will and personal responsibility, which may simply be an active and mature relationship to as-yet still future consequences of our actions in such a way that they influence our behavior, and the choices we make, now.
Without the powers of our awareness, we could not effectively exert our will upon the world in a complex social structure. Once looped, we would stay looped, only breaking out of another's control by happy happenstance. Yet awareness allows us to see choice where we previously had none, and make a complete and total swerve that completely recontextualizes the situation. No computer model of human behavior could ever capture this ability to reframe situations, see them from new or more complex perspectives, and redefine our relationship to them. This is free will, but freedom (choice) is dependent upon awareness synchronized with the present moment. In fact, freedom is a made-up thing, a human abstraction that we can make mean whatever we want it to mean. It only exists in our minds, and in our relationship to the world. So too does choice, but choice at least implies we are applying it to a specific moment in time. When we are aware of the free choices we can make in the moment, we can act on them and understand the consequences of our action. This gives rise to our sense of responsibility for the choices we make. We cannot be free if we cannot imagine alternatives, though perhaps this is a sort of imagination we are not used to. More so than an image per se, in the moment it is experienced as a gut sense for where this path could lead us.
Awareness of and responsibility for the consequences are a built-in safety valve for our choices, along with the very normal feeling of doubt: how can we be sure that this is the correct path? It keeps us from doing something truly barbaric. Beware the extremist who lives beyond doubt! After all, if we're not looping, we're being looped. Living and engaging meaningfully with the world implies affecting the states of others around us in a way I don't think we fully understand yet. This is unavoidable, though awareness of the responsibility we have can help minimize our negative impact, if we care to do so. Is there a third way, a way that reconciles the loop-or-be-looped dichotomy? Perhaps, and we've already touched on it. It requires that we see others as people, not things, and never use them as means for an end. It requires honest, sincere invitations rather than manipulation. We need to get over our antiquated ideas of selfishness and selflessness, because that only encourages us to mask our true desires and intentions. I could make the most selfish request in the world of you, but if it is made honestly and without guile, then you are free to accept or decline as you see fit. In the process, we have both affirmed each others humanity: I, in making an honest invitation, and you, in freely and honestly responding to it. When we do so, we reconcile the two polarities and find the straight and narrow path of the Third Way: rather than actor and recipient, dominant and submissive, oppressor and oppressed, we become partners in the unveiling of a mutual reality.
...sees much and knows much