A Field Guide to Life – Significance of Context

by Brad on September 4, 2012

The Significance of Context

Early in life, we learn “the way it is,” repeated lessons that become embedded in our unconscious minds as beliefs about how life should be. We come to see this as truth. Through reinforcement by parents, teachers, friends, managers, media and society, we became someone we’re not, someone we had to be in order to gain the approval of others. As adults, we’ve come to view our lives through this lens of our past. It’s like steering life with the rear-view mirror instead of with hands on the wheel. This invisible framework around our lives is called context. It’s like a roadmap, with the roads defining for us what’s possible and what isn’t. Because we’re largely unaware of its existence, we’re unable to make the choice to change it.

Through the resulting habituated behavior, we follow the same roads over and over, accepting the map so unconsciously that we question neither its existence nor its validity. We stop thinking. If you’re content to do the same thing each day, you have little reason to question the map. But if you want to learn something new, you unconsciously respond to the belief that there’s no road leading there. To create new roads threatens the edges of your life context, better known as your comfort zone. If you choose to remain comfy, you stay on the same old roads. Unlike real roadways, however, mental maps describe a place living only in your head, a reconstruction of old lessons. You know the map as home, yet it doesn’t exist.  This is how we come to believe more strongly in our limitations than in our potential. Limitations define your comfort zone; potential lives outside it.

What’s important here is that context is a far more significant factor in impacting the course of our lives than any of the content, or details, that live inside it. In other words, the details rarely cause problems or hold us back; the way we look at the stuff of life is the culprit. Become aware of your life context, and you’re free to choose a new one, one that actually matches the territory on which you live, one that can make your life work instead of make your life impossible. Ben and Roz Zander (in The Art of Possibility) said: “Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience.”

Here are three simple examples of how context impacts your life. You may not see them as choices today, simply because your unconscious has chosen for you. But as you reclaim your power of choice, you open up vast new possibility, simply by coming to draw a new frame around life – consciously.

Learning: To learn something new pushes the edges of your comfort zone, disrupting you in some way. New things are outside your current contextual frame. As creatures of habit, however, we like our comfort zones, and guard them vigilantly. It’s why we call them comfort zones. Disruption is uncomfortable.  New ideas draw us into new territory, while old habits hold us back. So mostly, we don’t learn all that much. If you want to change anything in life, you must be willing to be disrupted. You could think of this as a reason for these words, to be a disruptive influence on how you see and think.  

Listening: How you listen is a choice. Listening is an active process for both listener and speaker. Rarely do you truly listen; instead, you listen for something. Unless your listening is truly conscious, your unconscious mind listens for how it can reinforce the way you already believe, see and think. It’s how you maintain your comfort zone or context. Listening therefore is less about the message than your interpretation of the message, reflecting how you believe, see and think. Check in with your listening; notice how you’re listening to my words. If you listen with the question: “What can I find wrong here?” I promise you won’t be disappointed. If you listen with “What possibility might I find here?” I promise you won’t be disappointed either. You hear what you listen for. I’m not telling you how to listen, but ask you to know how you listen. Listening frames your experience of the world, another part of context. Listening for possibility instantly expands your comfort zone. 

Worldview: you see the world not only through your own personal context, but through an equally invisible worldview, too. Classical science has framed our society’s worldview for centuries. Science claims that for a thing to be true, it must be repeatable, measurable and predictable. Human consciousness, for example, doesn’t pass these tests, so much of human experience is often excluded from “truth,” despite the fact that it exists independent of how we “know.” This is one way you come to deny your own personal experience, relying instead on society’s more “objective” ways of knowing. 

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