In some circles, there is the belief that young children and animals do not have self-awareness. This clashes with most people’s experiences of having been young children at earlier stages of our lives. Personally, I had a strong sense of self-awareness as a pre-schooler.
At the same time, I had more than an inkling that other people, dogs, cats, and other creatures had some sort of self-awareness even though the term was not yet in my vocabulary. At some point in early adolescence I questioned whether or not humans had superior intelligence and the sharpest sense of self-awareness. I also wondered at what level of life does self-awareness not occur.
Certainly creatures like dogs and bears have some sense of self-awareness. They seem to know who they are, they care for their young, and seem to know where they belong in some sort of hierarchy. Marine mammals like dolphins have been shown to possess high levels of intelligence and various “personalities”. Recent research reveals high intelligence and probable self-awareness among octopuses. The same qualities appear to be true in birds like crows and blue jays.
So, generally speaking, nearly every living animal has sentience or “the lights are on” and may have some sort of mind. Such is the thinking behind our drive towards humane treatment of animals. Yet, we wonder about the quality of self-awareness creatures have or that of our fellow humans. Does the most narrow sense of self-awareness give us a living automaton like the Frankenstein monster?
When we feel extreme pain or are ill, our self-awareness becomes more sharply focused upon ourselves. When we feel healthy and vibrant, we are more likely to feel empathy with others. I’m guessing that this holds true for non-human animals, as well.
There are disciplines like martial arts that sharpen self-awareness. My friend Andy said he began training at age twelve and earned his black belt just before his 17th birthday. Before he entered college, Andy helped coach younger students in their training. The intensity of self-awareness is a vital part of earning black belt status and maintaining it. People who do not know that Andy is adept in martial arts notice his intense, cat-like personality.
On the other hand, it is important to be able to dial back self-awareness when we engage in creative pursuits. Being too self-aware puts a damper on creativity. Toning down self-awareness is not the same as being in a drunken stupor. Dialed-back self-awareness is akin to being in that sweet spot of a “Zen” place in your head. You’re not focused on who you are; you’re focused on what your’re doing. That mental state is the fine balance of awareness in general. We witness that state of mind in a concert musician or a skilled athlete when they perform.
It’s important to remember that self-awareness does not equal self-centeredness nor narcissism. The process of enhancing self-awareness negates narcissistic aspects of our thoughts and behavior. When we are self-aware in the positive sense, we let go of self-centered narcissism. When our self-awareness crosses over to self-centeredness we get into trouble. Balanced self-awareness keeps self-awareness from being our downfall. A healthy, balanced sense of self-awareness can be our most auspicious blessing.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes media personality Jason Silva. “Look at the evidence and be willing to question your own truths, and be willing to scrutinize things that you hold dearly because that way, that transparency, that self-awareness, will protect you from ever becoming somebody whose beliefs somehow make them have myopic vision about what could be.”