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Yancey Strickler
Yancey Strickler
4 min read

In this post I’ll explore two different kinds of awareness: passive awareness and active awareness.

Passive awareness is the instinctual thinking that helps us identify and respond to our needs on a moment to moment basis. Passive awareness is something every person has. It’s close to Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 thinking.

Passive awareness is focused on your immediate wants and needs. The world beyond that is at the edges of its perception. We can visualize this as a bento with a heatmap showing where the person is most aware.

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“Passive” doesn’t mean inactive. It means reactive. Running when a bear starts chasing you is passive awareness. Passive awareness can get you to move, it just doesn’t think beyond “get away.”

What I call active awareness is our ability to consciously operate within a broader arena than our immediate desires. Being able to think conceptually about future events, have empathy for the needs of others, and to see the big picture are traits of active awareness.

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Active awareness empowers you to not only make choices for your right now needs, but your future needs as well. It sets a larger perimeter of self-interest. A person with active awareness has the ability to not just react to events, but to shape events before they reach them.

Passive vs active awareness

There are potential passive and active responses to essentially every situation. There are responses that solve the issue at hand (passive), and there are responses that attempt to solve the question for future instances too (active).

Take the pandemic for example.

A passive response to the pandemic is to stock up on goods and follow the government’s instructions. With the exception of some serious binge-watching, the response basically stops there.

An actively aware response is to have started preparing earlier this year when the virus was first on the radar. Active awareness would have seen this future state moving towards it and acted to mitigate its impact ahead of time.

Passive awareness tells us to buy toilet paper. Active awareness does the math and suggests buying a bidet.

Passive awareness tells us to stock up on frozen foods. Active awareness says don’t forget seeds and soil.

Passive awareness says not to bother with a mask since authorities say they don’t work. Active awareness notes that people in cultures who are more experienced at this always wear masks and decides to track some down anyway.

Our passively aware selves and our actively aware selves respond differently to the same question. Passive awareness looks to satisfy the needs of the moment. Active awareness extrapolates that moment to potential futures. The ability to factor in future value is a distinguishing trait of active awareness.

The lockdown is a passive response. The steps China and South Korea have taken to manage the epidemic through wide testing are active responses. Without the second step, the virus will hold society under house arrest indefinitely. This crisis is a challenge of awareness — perhaps best exemplified in our inability to “see” it in asymptomatic patients.

Passive and active values aren’t in opposition. They’re complimentary. The now matters. The future matters. The challenge and opportunity is to hold onto both at once.

How to grow active awareness

Our level of awareness isn’t ingrained by DNA, correlated with nationality, or tied to income. An active awareness is accessible to anyone, but not everyone has it. It must be cultivated through practice.

To grow my own active awareness I use the bento framework — an acronym for BEyond Near Term Orientation — and I meditate. A ten minute meditation most mornings and a fifteen minute bento check-in each week. It’s an incredibly small amount of time for the value it produces.

The morning meditation is my mental reset. I break free of my emotional energy (try to — I’m still a beginner) and I’m reminded of the bigger picture. My mind clears.

The weekly bento is a one on one with my fullest self. It’s time for me to dive deeper into what’s important to me. It’s an explicit space for me to collaborate with my active awareness on our plans.

The process, which I wrote about in the last Bento Society issue, asks me to step into each of those spaces and engage with their perspective. To access my Future Me, for example, I imagine I’m the Obi-Wan Kenobi hologram version of myself. The version of me that ultimately gets where I want to get in life. What does that person say is most important? Somehow, from somewhere, a voice will answer. I’ve learned to listen.

Bentoism IRL (Exit Music)

I keep thinking of a famous photo from last month and what it says about the bento. I saw it in this tweet:

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A bentoist lens tells us a lot about this picture.

In this photo Duval County, where the beaches are closed, is prioritizing the Now Us value of community safety. St. John’s County, where the beaches were open, is prioritizing the Now Me value of personal liberty.

Each community viewed self-interest from a different lens, each likely believing it was right to do so.

The tension between community safety and personal liberty might end up being the defining values conflict of the 21st century. Climate change brings that same tension to the fore, as does the geopolitical contest between the United States and China.

Right now it’s a debate between Now Me and Now Us. But as we saw with passive and active awareness, these spaces are not in competition with one another. They’re complementary to one another, as well as sometimes in tension with one another.

Holding that balance remains our most important and most difficult task. Growing our active awareness is key to achieving it.

The Bento SocietyNew valuesNew self

Yancey Strickler

Sup y'all. I'm Yancey — writer, founder of the Bento Society, cofounder of Kickstarter, and author of "This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World." Subscribe to stay in touch.

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