Two years ago I was sitting around a table with my then-supervisor and a colleague. The topic of discussion was a report that I had written. The report in question was something that I had spent weeks working on, and I had grown attached to it. My colleague, on whose behalf I had written the report, expressed some concerns that if we were to release it, there could be friction with another organization. He made a strong case that the cost of releasing my report was not worth the opportunity. My rebuttal was almost entirely emotional. I perceived his desire to prevent my report from being released as a personal attack and a display of disrespect for the hard work that I had put into what I thought was an excellent product.
After listening to my colleague and me go back and forth for about an hour, my supervisor made the call that we would not be releasing my report. I lashed out in anger. While I didn’t flip any tables, my displeasure with my colleague and supervisor was evident as I raised my voice, accused them of choosing expediency over doing the “right thing,” and then stormed out of the room. How I behaved was not my finest moment. Even if I was right on the merits of the case—and in retrospect, I do not believe I was—I did myself no favors in behaving the way I did. The notion that something I had worked on would be cast aside sent anger signals from my ambient consciousness, igniting my limbic system—subsequently bypassing my cognitive awareness—manifesting as fight behaviors.
Opening the Aperture
Fast forward to June 2017. Now working for a different organization, I had completed another piece of work. Having spent four weeks on this project, I had sunk a lot of personal cost into it. I believed I had done everything right by consulting with my colleagues, taking their advice, and continually refining the product into one of my proudest pieces of work since I started at the organization. Then, while on vacation, I received word that one of the heads of my division didn’t like the product. I managed to keep my cool and spent four hours one evening during my vacation revising the product according to the guidance I had received. When I returned from vacation, I was met with the news that my division would not be publishing my product. The rationale for not releasing my product was sound. Nevertheless, when I received the news, my heart started to pound, my hands became sweaty, and a sensation of anger rushed over me. What I was feeling was the same fight response I experienced the last time a superior decided not move forward with a project on which I had worked hard. However, while I felt the anger and frustration both mentally and physically, this time I did not erupt in rage. My supervisor and I had a productive conversation about the cost vs. the opportunity of releasing my work, and I accepted her rationale. My anger passed, and I moved onto another project with my supervisor’s support.
We have all been there. We have all been in situations where we lose our cool and explode in anger or flee in fear. This response to perceived threats was well honed over millennia and is highly tuned. Even minor threats can spark this response to fight or flee. To be sure, we need this fight/flight response to survive. However, in our modern world, the physiology that governs this response—the limbic system—often reacts to things with behavior that is disproportionate to the real or imagined threat. Road rage is a prime example of this. Getting cut off in traffic or being stuck behind someone going 60 mph in the fast lane results in the beeping of horns, the use of profanity, obscene hand gestures and, in worst-case scenarios, violent encounters. But rationally we almost all know and understand that being cut off or going 60 mph when we’d rather be doing 80 (my preferred speed), is simply not a life threatening situation.
The Ambient Consciousness
So, why in the first instance of my work being rejected and in the event of road rage do people behave in ways that are entirely out of proportion to the threat, sometimes with tragic consequences? The answer lies in the concept of ambient consciousness. I deliberately choose to use the phase ambient consciousness over subconsciousness, because the latter implies that it is permanently hidden from us. But in fact, the mental processing that is going on outside of our immediate consciousness is not hidden from us at all. Like background music in a restaurant, our ambient consciousness sets the tone of our mood and influences our behavior. If you’re in a place with heavy metal playing in the background, you may tend to feel more excited or even agitated. If you’re in a place with soothing classical music, you’re likely to feel calmer; this is the case even if you’re not paying attention to the music per se. Unless you put in ear plugs, your ears are still taking in and processing the background music, which is influencing your mood and behavior. The same applies to colors painted on walls in rooms and other visual stimuli, in addition to odors. Even when you’re not immediately aware of what you’re seeing, smelling, or hearing, these things are all influencing how you feel and behave, often without your prefrontal cortex—the cognitive part of your brain—getting a say in the matter.
In the second case when my supervisor rejected my product, I was in tune with my ambient consciousness; it was sending signals of distress, fear, and anger. However, because I had learned to increase my aperture of self-awareness, I was able to hear the signals and disrupt any manifestations of negative and unproductive behavior. I was able to do this by practicing mindfulness. By learning to be in the present moment and accepting what it holds as it unfolds, my ability to be aware of my ambient consciousness has increased 100 fold, if not more, in the past two years since I've been more dedicated to practicing mindfulness. As my aperture of awareness has increased, my ability to be more conscious about the choices I make has grown in tandem.
Model of behavior being driven by ambient consciences absent cognative disruption
Model of behavior being driven by an open aperture of self-awareness
The Fire Within
Even though our ambient consciousness can influence our mood, thoughts, feelings, and ultimately our behaviors, we do not need to be slaves to it. And the key to removing the shackles of millennia of natural selection lies in the simple practice of learning to tune into our ambient consciousness so that we are more aware of the signals it is sending us. Once we are in tune with what our ambient consciousness is sending us, the most important step in developing emotional intelligence takes place—opening our aperture of self-awareness. When our ambient consciousness is sending signals of fear, distress, anger, rage, defensiveness, etc. these signals often bypass our consciousness and manifest as behavior. By increasing our aperture of self-awareness, we enable ourselves to disrupt negative and unproductive behavior. I do not mean to say that these unpleasant feelings will go away. In fact, they probably won’t. But once we become aware of them, we start to build our capacity to make choices in our behavior outside of our ambient consciousness.
Take the classic example of a leader. When in the wrong and challenged, some leaders assume a defensive mental posture. Behaving this way is understandable because a leader is often expected to have the right answers, make the right calls, and be the infallible authority in Western work cultures. Anything that a leader perceives as undermining his/her authority and credibility can easily arouse the fight response as the ambient consciousness sends signals of fear, anger, indignation, etc. In this case, the leader is faced with two choices: 1) accept that he/she is wrong and perceive a loss of face; or 2) stick to his/her position and run the risks of making a bad decision. A leader with an open aperture of self-awareness gets a third option. As he/she is challenged, and the ambient consciousness sends signals or fear, anger, resentment, etc. the leader can tune into those signals, recognize they are a reaction to a perceived threat and choose to behave contrary to those signals. This frame of mind allows the leader to accept that he/she is in the wrong, acknowledge it with humility, and make space for a better decision to be made. But for this to be possible, the leader must have an open aperture of self-awareness and a willingness to disrupt his/her unproductive and negative behavior before it manifests.
A New Approach
We often blame people for their poverty, their addictions, their aggression, their fear, and all the adverse behaviors that negative feelings bring with them. For the poor, as a society, we've decided to give them a bit of money to get by. For the addicted, we decided to imprison them or commit them to rehabilitation programs that have abysmal recovery rates. For the angry, we’ve decided to teach them “coping mechanisms” that don’t address their underlying human condition. As a society, our response to those people being driven to and fro by their unchecked negative emotions and subsequent behaviors is to medicate them, incarcerate them, or recondition them.
Up until now, I believe we’ve done the best we can for those people in behavioral distress (and by the way, we are all "those people,"; it's just a matter of degrees). But the time has come to change the paradigm, so we empower people by helping them to open their aperture of self-awareness through practicing mindfulness, which enables them to disrupt the link between ambient consciousness and negative and unproductive behaviors.
But this isn’t just for those on the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. We—all of us—as human beings have been beautifully and carefully selected by nature to survive in a world of danger. As the world becomes less dangerous for some of us living with first-world problems, our brains are still wired the way they were 40,000 years ago when we were on the food chain. Our responses to even trivial slights, misunderstandings, a minor bruising of the ego, or even a bump of the shoulder can result in behavior that comes right out of our ambient consciousness, bypasses our consciousness, and can have devastating consequences.
Our mental hardwiring is incongruent with the world we’ve created for ourselves. Our limbic systems are often overwhelmed by the change, complexity, and uncertainty this world presents us. While we can’t turn off our fight/flight response, we can tune into our ambient consciousness, listen to it, and ultimately grow our agency by opening our aperture of self-awareness for our personal good, for the good of those in the workplace, our homes, our communities, and the good of humanity.