Awareness, Acceptance, and Alignment

Posted on 19 May 2022 by Steve Markham

An interesting study from last Fall made the rounds on reddit (via PsychologyToday) yesterday. The gist of it is that “self-connection” is important to good mental health, and is composed “self-awareness” plus “self-acceptance” plus “self-alignment” in roughly equal parts. I think it’s a useful way of thinking about the world in general, not just yourself and your own mental health.

I confess I didn’t read the whole study, or even the whole article about it. The concept is still rather thought-provoking, though. I find myself thinking in terms of the failure modes. Roughly speaking, I lack “awareness” if I believe the world is different than how it is, I lack “acceptance” if I wish the world were different than how it is, and I lack “alignment” if I behave as though the world were different than how it is. Something Jeff and I have talked about several times recently is how progress/technology/comfort can sometimes be bad, because short-term discomfort is often a part of long-term well-being.

It’s raining where I live today. If I needed to get to the store, the rain wouldn’t stop me. I have a car (two of them, actually), and a car lets me behave as though it weren’t raining. My car is very helpful on rainy days. Yesterday, though, it was sunny and nice out, and I drove to the store anyway. Sometimes I fantasize about riding my bike to the store, and I’m absolutely certain that if I didn’t have a car, I would have biked to the store yesterday. But it’s just so convenient to drive that I drove. I rolled the windows down to hear the birds singing on the way there, but I confess that on the way back I forgot to roll them down and missed out on that little treat.

On a rainy day, I want to behave as though the world were different. But the technology that lets me behave out of alignment on rainy days also lets me behave out of alignment on beautiful sunny days. In fact, it makes it convenient and comfortable to the point that I unintentionally behave out of alignment with the world. This is risky, and probably bad overall.

One of my favorite pictures is of Kyle and Camille in rubber boots stomping in some puddles on a rainy day when they were little. I’m not going to pretend that kids always have a high level of acceptance. But, when behaving in alignment with the world is easy and fun, it’s also easy and fun to accept the world the way it is. I don’t get a thrill from puddle stomping, so I usually resist the rain more than they did that day. In this way, technology that lets us behave out of alignment during unpleasant situations can slowly erode our acceptance of those unpleasant situations, especially when the technology is temporarily unavailable.

For me, a consistent and predictable outcome of my mindfulness practice is that as my awareness of the present increases, I feel a sense of wonder about how things are. This wonder makes acceptance of the present very natural. I think it can also lead to better alignment of behavior. Sometimes, however, I escape to certain distractions when I don’t want my attention to be aware of some unpleasant aspect of the present. Just like the car undermining my behavior on sunny days, those distractions can undermine my self-connection even during pleasant times, if they become habitual.