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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Hearing over Goats and Quieting the Ego: Detached Awareness

Updated: Mar 2

Lisa, my dear spouse, tends Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats who often show up in her blog posts. I may have rolled my eyes at that a few times, so it amuses me how they're about to show up in mine, too.

Yesterday, as I was working in the blueberry field, the goats gathered around to offer their pitiful February-hungry bleating sound, over and over, reminding me that I am not providing them with as much fresh green produce as they would like to eat. Clara, who has lived on our little farmlet the longest, served as their spokesperson.

Clara: It's so brown over here, and so very green where you are standing.

Mark: Wait! We feed you hay every morning and evening, and fir branches most days and Lisa gives you an apple every single day, and there's still some grass in that pasture around the corner if you get hungry.

Clara: Stop talking and listen to us. We want what we want. Now, please.

I'll admit it. I can be goat-like, too. Like Clara, I can clamor for how I want things to be. She's a goat, without much of a frontal lobe, so we should probably cut her some slack. So what's my excuse?

To give context, I'm writing a series of blog posts on something called The Quiet Ego, which comes from the work of two psychologists, Heidi Wayment and Jack Bauer. How can we learn to quiet the clamoring self within?

One way to quiet the ego is called detached awareness. This is the capacity to stand outside our normal biases to look at things as others might see them.

This is no easy task. Decades of research shows we're not objective perceivers of reality. Instead, we filter what we see and hear through a set of preconceived assumptions and beliefs called schemas. We may throw around the adage, "Seeing is believing!," as if it is self-evident, but a more accurate adage is, "Believing is seeing!" Once we start believing a thing, we see evidence for it everywhere.

Toss social media into the mix and we become even more muddled. Most platforms allow us to construct an audience of our choosing, so whenever we post something we get applauded by our friends. Then we have social proof that our way of seeing a thing is the only reasonable perspective. Those who see it differently are just plain ____ (I'll let you fill in the blank).

Detached awareness points the other way, toward collecting and valuing different perspectives. When Abraham Lincoln was President, he assembled a cabinet including political opponents because he saw value in considering multiple viewpoints. It's hard to even imagine such a thing in today's social climate.

Here are a few questions to help us ponder detached awareness in our own lives, and how it might help quiet our clamoring egos.

  1. Am I willing and able to consider the weaknesses in my own perspectives and the strengths in the views of others who see things differently? An exquisite On Being podcast has Krista Tippett interviewing Frances Kissling and David Gushee about their different views on abortion, each of them offering a weakness in their own argument and a strength of the other's. This is detached awareness at its finest!

  2. Do I apologize? Teresa is the name showing up first on the random name generator I am accustomed to using, so that's what I'll call the person who wrote a striking email to Lisa last week. In her email, Teresa offered a detailed apology for a minor social misstep. Lisa and I have discussed the email several times since, recognizing how rarely people show such stunning humility. A sincere apology requires detached awareness.

  3. Can I feel (and show) compassion for those who have hurt me? Admittedly, this is hard. And it can't be rushed. It takes time to work through the wounds of being hurt by another. But eventually, am I able to see the humanity of the person who hurt me? Can I recognize how that person has also been hurt by others? Might I even experience some empathy for how difficult each of our lives can be?

  4. Do I help people become their best selves? Put another way, am I a uniter or a divider? When uniters spend time with people, everyone leaves feeling a bit more whole and complete because of the time together. Dividers split things apart: friendships, families, communities. Uniting requires a quiet ego, detached awareness, and a whole lot of humility.

If I were more of pop psychology fan I could give you cut-off scores for these four questions, but I have no idea what a good score might be. Still, the more we can answer yes to these, the quieter our egos have become. And that's no small feat in a world that's clamoring all around us.


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1 Comment

Mar 13

Good words. Hard to practice. And yet I hope to keep trying!

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