The Power of Conscious Context
By James “Jahmaya” Kessler and Ryel Kestano
What if you had the power to shape the entire way life shows up for you, in every moment? What if you had the power to completely change how life occurs, without changing anything in the external world? In this article I will explain how. Let’s first lay some groundwork...
Most people know the word “context” as something used within a story. It’s the surroundings, circumstances, background, set, setting, circumstances, environment, who, what, when, where, why, and how - all of which give clarity and insight into a character’s behavior. When a good author is able to set up context well, it thereby establishes a rich sense of the motivations, tensions, dynamics, history, culture, ethnicity, and the rules of the world in which the story takes place. Context extends off the page to the waking world around us as well. Our constructed context helps us make sense of whatever it is that’s happening. We are all characters in the story of life, and the context of our characters has everything to do with coloring the world around us.
Context begins to formulate from our earliest days. Consider the nature of the house you grew up in. There are imposed boundaries based on the environment, the people in that environment, the country/state/town you grew up in, the climate, the personal dynamics modeled by the people around you. Imagine a toddler who is just learning to explore his world. As they experiencing things for the first time, they are categorizing, labeling, naming, and getting a sense of what to expect from their environment. They are defining their context.
My two-year-old daughter just so happens to still be in this stage. One day we were cooking eggs together and, despite my warnings, full of innocent wonder, she touched the edge of the hot pan. With a giant “OW!” she learned to her core what “hot” was. She wasn’t burned very badly at all, but sadly, ever since that incident she hasn’t really wanted to cook with me. Innocence and wonder about the stove were derailed. On the bright side, this is a valuable lesson that most people have at one point or another. Henceforth I don’t expect to have to make it explicit that she shouldn’t touch the stove. It is now implicit context that “hot” means don’t touch. Context is important as a mechanism that creates safety. It helps us make sense of the world. By piecing together our own contexts, we can anticipate how we should act, and we can then adapt quickly and be more resilient in many situations.
The context is built from the explicit and implicit rules that govern a situation or experience. Although the formation of context is altruistic, natural, and useful, our contexts can also create a lot of conflict and suffering. hen two unspoken contexts play out in the same setting, they will likely create chaos or conflict. Imagine a basketball team and a football team were both invited into an arena and simply told to start playing together. There would be nothing but chaos until each teams’ implicit context is made explicit. As another example in a more relational setting, imagine that you invite someone over to watch a movie that you really have been wanting to see. It’s a mystery and the details are important to the plot. Your implicit context is that a movie is a time when we quiet down and allow ourselves to get absorbed by the story. Well, it turns out your friend has a different context. Growing up in her family, the TV was always on, and it was common practice to talk while the TV was on. As you start the movie, within two minutes your friend starts telling you about her stressful week. Your body fills with tension as you listen, secretly hoping she will shut the hell up, an assumption based on to the context you’re expecting. Well, bad news, the friend saw the context as “let's be social and talk while a movie is on,” and your context was “let’s be quiet together and be absorbed by this movie.” You feel upset because your friend won’t stop talking. She’s feeling upset because you’re barely responding to them. This is because context sets the tone for the emotional experience you have to any objective circumstance or situation.
Your self-image has a context. Let’s say you were told over and over again that you were smart - by parents, teachers, and other models of context during your childhood. If so, you’re more likely to have confidence when faced with a difficult problem - with thoughts like “I’m pretty smart - I can probably get this.” But then if you can’t - you might be thinking something like “Damn it - I’m smart - why can’t I get this!” Or maybe the opposite is true - perhaps you were diagnosed with a slew of learning disabilities. As a result, you might be less likely to move towards solving certain kinds of problems at all, and if you can’t get something, your reaction would be more like “Ah well, of course it’s hard - I’m no good at that, I have that learning disability.”
Another example, person A and person B have just lost a job that they liked. Person A’s context might be that situations like this have no meaning, that the world feels as though it’s cruel and uncaring, and in turn, he gets depressed and feels wounded personally. Person B might feel some of the same emotions upon losing that job, but their context is that situations can have meaning if we find it, that by moving towards the discomfort we can gain important lessons from the situation. Person B has the potential to be empowered by this misfortune whereas person A was clearly disempowered by it.
When you know the context, it’s like knowing the rules to any of life’s games. Society is a game. Culture is a game. Your employment is a game. Dating and marriage are filled with games and are games themselves. The more powerful the context or compelling the game, the more people want to play it. The more we play these games, the more embedded the context becomes, and the more we act it out in the world. As we become unconscious to the implicit contexts we inherit - it’s hard to know what game is even being played. The rules are so ingrained, it becomes a game that we’re playing automatically, without question. And this can be disastrously limiting. Ingrained implicit context leads us to feel stuck in our lives, to automatically react to people and situations, and to repeat patterns over and over again and not know why.
Within the stories of books and in our lives, knowing the context allows us to predict what’s going to happen. When the implicit becomes explicit, the rules are clearly stated and we can get a sense of expectation. In a society, the laws govern the context by which we live. If someone doesn’t want to play by those rules, then either the laws need to be changed, they can move somewhere where the rules are more accommodating, or they can break the rules knowing that there are explicit consequences. We all know its a law not to run around naked in public. Knowing that we have the choice to comply with the law, go to a nudist colony, move to Spain where nudity laws are lax, or go for it and risk getting arrested and charged with indecent exposure.
Explicit context gives us choice. Here are the rules - do you want to play the game or not? One of the great underappreciated powers we have as individuals is to consciously make the implicit explicit, allow the rules to be laid out, so we can then choose the context we want. We now have a choice of whether we want to play some of the games we’ve been playing our whole life. This power to consciously set context has everything to do with our happiness and living the lives we want to live.
Of course, there are always going to be fixed pieces on the stage of our lives. You can’t change your body, there are always going to be static pieces to your personality, and the other characters out there are always going to be variables you can’t control. But with awareness and intention, in every moment, you have the power to coauthor your life. Whatever force at play that put those fixed aspects of your life is one author. But having the power to change the context and in turn, shape how your life looks and feels makes you an author as well.
The first step is to know yourself. By connecting and knowing yourself you begin to understand your own context and the rules you’re living by. C.G. Jung once said: “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and we will call it fate.” And as Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” By getting well acquainted with who you are and what you believe, you begin to make the implicit explicit in your life. This means bringing conscious awareness to the unconscious processes of our lives. As we pay attention to the subtleties of our experience we begin to unravel why we are the way we are, understand the fabric of our beliefs, and it gives us the potential to break through our limitations. We gain the power to craft the life we want.
One of the profound side effects of practices like meditation is that as we become objective observers to our present moment experience. Through this self inquiry process, our own personal context naturally arises. In turn we start to see it for what it is and how it impacts and influences us. As we observe our thoughts, just like any story, we can get a sense of our context by being in touch with the words. Accept the words, accept the context. Change the words, change the context. We name our experience, we see what’s there, and we become conscious of the things happening in the background. We now have the creative power to change the script. I may see destructive thoughts and can then question whether they serve who I want to be in the world. I can bring lovingkindness to myself and the situation, and suddenly the whole thing can shift. Perhaps you don’t have to be stuck working in that draining 40 hour job just because it feels like your supposed to. Perhaps you don’t have to be an introvert at that party. Perhaps your not bad at “such” and “such.” Perhaps you’re a talented badass who can accomplish whatever you set your mind to.
A great deal of what’s right/wrong, good/bad, repulsive/attractive, happy/sad is determined by the context we bring to any situation. It’s empowering to know that we actually have a say in what that is. Most of what we know about the world, ourselves, and how to live life was inherited before we had a choice in the matter. If this idea is new to you - it’s time to take that power back.
Formal meditation isn’t the only way to cultivate authorship in your life. There are ways to bring mindful awareness to our lives simply by getting in the habit of naming how we feel, particularly in relationship to others. This article began with the metaphor of the fish not knowing it’s in water. But perhaps it’s possible the fish does get a sense of this sometimes, particularly when the water feels different, muddied, or murky. All the sudden it reacts to this invisible thing it’s in. The same can be true for us - often, the clue to being stuck in context is a strong emotional charge to something.
As an example, my partner and I had had some ongoing friction around meal times. I often do the cooking, and as a kid, when dinner was ready, everybody came to the table and had a meal together. I would often call out “Dinner’s ready!” and my partner would often lag and not come when I expected her. My context was that when someone makes you dinner you drop what you’re doing and come to the table. I’d sit there getting really mad as I waited, food cooling off, and she would often be finishing some chore like the laundry. This went on a number of times and I would get mad and either just hold it in, or start pressuring her with a passive aggressive comment or two. You can imagine how this fosters tension at the beginning of a dinner together.
One day, after I learned this insight about context, I tried something different. I got curious instead of just assuming I was right and she was neglectfully wrong. So I said: “Honey, I notice I feel a lot of tension right now about waiting so long for you to come to the dinner table. I have this story that families are supposed to sit down when it’s time for dinner. And, as a cook, I feel upset that your food is cold by the time you sit down.”
Her answer astounded me… “I have trouble relaxing when there is something that needs to get finished. So I guess I just really like finishing the laundry before I sit down. Also, I don’t care that’s it’s cooled down, I don’t really like it when my food is so hot.” Boom. Illusions dispelled, the implicit becomes explicit, and the rules of two different contexts are now on the table. So we negotiated context. I try to give her more notice about dinner, but at the same time, I don’t expect her to drop what she’s doing to run to the table. The truth is, I want her to feel relaxed once she gets there, and it’s not as big of a deal as I make it out to be. A part of me still wishes she’d subscribe to my context, play my game and come sit down - but the charge is a tenth of what it was. I know the rules that we’re both playing by and it makes all the difference. By understanding the roles people are playing, what they’re playing, why their playing, you have just increased your advantage of having clarity and compassion in any situation.
Rather than think the world is this way or that way, this person is like this or that, consider that the context we bring makes the world and the people in it more flexible. How many things are implicit or explicit in your romantic relationships? Have you made explicit: Whether you're monogamous? Your terms of relating to others? How much freedom do you have? What are the financial expectations? How about the care of your living space? How often are you going to have sex? If some of these things aren’t yet explicit - is there tension in some of these areas? As we make the implicit explicit, we have access to choice, and those choices are what allows us to go from being characters in someone else’s book, to being the authors of our own book of life. Use this awareness to create empowering experiences and relationships in your lives.
Here are 7 practical ways to discover and play with the context in your life:
1. Meditation - I know, yet another reason to do it. Here is yet another reason it’s been around for thousands of years and research continues to back it up. But - it’s not the only way.
2. Naming your experience - Paying attention to your hear and now experience is a mindfulness practice that can take place any place at any time. If it’s just you this simply means checking in with yourself and asking “how do I feel right now?” When with others, begin by using the secret ingredient to any relationship by revealing your present moment impact. This might sound like: “Hearing you say that I’m feeling _________________” (sensations and emotions are a good place to stay in the present).
3. Journaling - Many find this to be among the most instrumental practices to get to know yourself. Any time you feel a charge with something in your life - this is a really good time to get curious and ask things like: “Why am I feeling this way?”, What’s underneath that?”, “Where does that come from?”, “How could I change my context on this?”
4. Make-up or play an actual game - Believe it or not, this is a really simple way to practice setting context. When we set up an activity or game, we are practicing making context. Set up a game night, go play capture the flag, play a guessing game (kids love this one), or even as simple as setting up the context for a conversation you want to have at the dinner table (“Hey, can we all share the most soul inspiring thing in our life right now?”). The sky’s the limit. A guide to setting good context is to be clear on who (roles), what (are we playing), why (are we going to play), where, and when. If you set the context, practice taking lead. Help hold the rules and/or renegotiating as needed.
5. Clarify the rules of the life games you play - Just like when you see two kids playing pretend, negotiating the rules as they go along - get clear on the rules of the games your playing. Whether they’re identity games, relationship games, society games, etc. Next time you feel a strong charge about something, or as if someone is crossing a line in some way (particularly a loved one), ask - "Hey what’s the context for this?" Make the implicit context explicit so that you or everyone your playing with is on the same page.
6. See a Counselor/Psychotherapist - Therapy is not just for those that need to change something that is maladaptive. A good therapist will offer you a reflective space that accelerates growth. Having someone offer you objective reflections, holding your story, and steering you toward authenticity, can be a profoundly helpful way of seeing into context and authoring the life you want to live.
7. Authentic Relating Workshop - If you are interested in an experiential understanding of changing context in your life, it is highly recommended you come to one of the next Authentic Relating Training Workshops. We get into this and many more areas that will radically influence your ability to author the life you want to live. Click below to learn when the next one in your area is!
Know that you have the power to play with your context, negotiate your worldview, and make adjustments to the game so that it’s one you actually want to play. In relationship, we have the power to play the games we want to play or decide not to play certain ones altogether. Perhaps there’s more to that repetitive conflict you keep having with people your in relationship with. So go out there and play! Execute the games, iterating and reiterating as needed. May you be playful. May you be curious. And may you once again be whole and empowered to be a contributing author to the life you want to have.