by Zat Rana
We are wise and intellectually aware in proportion to our
Think about a kid. According to the work of developmental
psychologists, in the first few years of its life, it has a very
loose concept of self and object.
In plain English, such a child is extremely egocentric, and it can't
imagine the world from someone else's point of view. With time and
experience, however, as we all know, this begins to change.
It learns to respond to
its parent's cues, and it starts to acknowledge the existence of
many unique personalities.
With more time and experience, it completely sheds the illusion that
it is the only thing that exists in this world. It becomes aware
that whatever it identifies as self actually isn't the only self
that interacts with reality.
The details of how this occurs are hazy, but a big part of it is
that, with time, there is just more information that has been
consumed and filtered to help the person make sense of its
interactions with the world. As a result, it starts to see its
surroundings in a way that is more conducive to its survival.
As adults, most of us have a very defined sense of self. We are also
very aware of other people and their selves.
That said, in the same
way that a young child often struggles to see the world as anything
other than what it directly knows, we similarly get stuck in our own
ways and refuse to look at things from a different angle, even if
that angle may be better for us.
In today's world, the lack of open-mindedness is maybe one of the
core issues leading the way for many of the surface-level problems
It seems that we are so set in existing ways that the idea of
learning from new, conflicting information has become as terrifying
to us as many real, physical threats.
Our identities have found
their place, and they don't care to update.
Regardless of any personal opinion, that's undoubtedly a problem,
The Value of
The Mind Illuminated - a science-based book on meditation -
the authors present a simple model of consciousness that I think is
They compare our conscious experience to that of vision, where each
moment has a focal point, yes, but also a peripheral range that
appears subtly in the background.
For consciousness, the
distinction is between attention, which is what focuses us, and
peripheral awareness, which keeps us alert.
Any time you experience something, you have a point of focus -
something the absorbs your mental energy. If you're cooking, for
example, this will be cutting vegetables.
That said, you also know
- and this is your awareness - that the dog is running around
behind you and that the TV is on downstairs.
If we stretch this model a little further, we can see how it
explains the difference that open-minded people possess that doesn't
seem to come as easily to those who are not yet where they want to
be in this regard.
Whenever we talk about something dear to us, our focus of attention
is not only on the topic, but it is also on whatever our opinion
espouses. We see the whole topic through the pre-existing lens we
have attached to our identity, which makes it hard for anything new
to penetrate our belief.
What open-minded people are able to do, however, is that
they can refocus in and out of the thing dictating their
attention at any given point, and as a result, they are able to let
the peripheral awareness capture whatever lesson a new, conflicting
thing may or may not contain.
The lens of our attention is always going to distort information to
fit into it as it likes rather than doing the hard job of
incorporating the new after it causes a disturbance.
That's why even smart
people can hear a valid contradictory opinion and still shrug it off
like it doesn't mean a thing.
The key to an open mind lies in being able to attend to a topic at
hand without using that same attention to closely tie in a current
belief system in such a way that it forgets the existence of a world
beyond what it already knows.
It's always in the peripheral awareness that you will find
information that is going to challenge you and make you better off
in the long-term. The only way to capture it is to know when to zoom
out of the wrong kind of attention.
Response to a Threat
One of the evolutionary purposes of our peripheral vision - and by
extension, our peripheral awareness - is to register any incoming
threats or surprises.
It's not very active most of the time, but when it does fire up,
it's in response to something subtle that nudged it. It gives us a
clue that something in our environment isn't as it should be,
meaning that attention is needed elsewhere.
We have all had these moments. They are practically everyday
You're sitting in the park, and suddenly, in the corner of your eye,
you see a football driving towards you, causing you to immediately
duck. Or you happen to be dozing off in class or at work, and a
quick glance at the clock surprises you enough that your entire
attention then shifts.
It's not only that, though.
What about when
someone insults you?
Or when someone says
something that you aggressively disagree with?
It's the same thing, the
same sudden emotions arising unexpectedly.
It's your mind telling
you that you are being threatened. It's not physical, of course, but
your sense of self, your ego, is being attacked - which, as far as
your evolutionary instincts are concerned, is basically the same
Most people use these threats and surprises unproductively.
At best, they let
them cause anger.
At worst, they plot
for ways to get back at the person.
An open-minded person,
however, would use something like that.
She would take note of
every time she felt surprised or threatened in this way, and she
would then think it over at a later time, when she had calmed down,
to dissect if there was any information there that may be valuable.
If your identity is being threatened or your sense of self is
surprised by a fact or an opinion, the chances are that there is
conflicting information in there, somewhere, that contradicts with
how you currently see the world, and the solution isn't to ignore or
suppress it. It's to use it to update your mind.
Your peripheral awareness is a light that attracts the darkness of
what has yet to illuminate you. But for you to see it that way, you
have to help it out when it provides the signal. You have to look
for the pleasant in the unpleasant.
Every surprise, every threat, and every shock is an information
point, and the only way to extract that information is to take note
and then to pay attention.
Any time you have experienced a paradigm shift in your thinking, it
has been because your mind has been opened up to a whole new realm
The level of open-mindedness you show in your day to day life
informs the amount of learning available to you for the future,
which in turn is what stops you from living with a faulty and
problematic way of seeing reality.
Put more bluntly, as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius did in his
"If someone is able
to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily
change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly
It is the person who
continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed."
If you carefully observe
most debates and arguments, you will realize that many people seem
to, fundamentally, want the same thing.
The problem is usually
that they just refuse to take into account the other's point of
The world would be a better place if more of us learned to harness
the power of peripheral awareness, and it'd move faster if we
dissected the right signals.
Our minds are continually evolving, and like the development of a
child, they can't do so unless they feed on, and filter for, the
There is great possibility in what you don't know.
But you have to look for