When some people hear the word “consciousness” they think of the inconvenient time between naps.
Is consciousness just the state of being awake, or is it more than that? There are many theories about what consciousness is and where it is located. It remains a mystery. But there is much to be gained from considering consciousness from multiple perspectives, and finding the partial truths in all of them. In this article I will consider consciousness in the context of personal experience and cultural transformation, as a sample of the many approaches to a complex issue.
As a way to illustrate the personal dimension of consciousness, I recall my first experience with miracle fruit. I tried it a few years back while on vacation in Panama with my family. The miracle fruit is an amazing berry. It doesn’t claim to be a weight loss marvel or to increase antioxidants like some other wonder fruits. It’s more fun than that. It’s a miracle because for several hours after eating the miracle fruit, everything else you taste is sweet. So we ate lemons and limes and they tasted as sweet as pie after eating the miracle fruit. It’s a pity the miracle fruit is so hard to find.
Consciousness is like the miracle fruit, and not only because it’s hard to locate. Life tastes exactly like your current level of consciousness. With a grateful consciousness, everything becomes a reason for gratitude. With a fearful consciousness, everything becomes threatening. With an egocentric consciousness, it’s all about me etc. Your experience of life lasts as long as your consciousness stays the same. When you raise your consciousness, you change your experience of life.
From a personal and subjective perspective, consciousness is the total package of your current awareness. It is not one static thing, and it may not be located in any particular part of the brain. Instead it may consist of the sum total of all the interconnected neurons of the brain. It is the ever changing combination of nature and nurture, genes and scenes, thoughts and feelings, impulses and instincts that give you a unique perspective in any given moment. It’s not necessarily the way things are. It’s the way they taste to you at the time.
Leadership and the Consciousness of Groups
From this perspective, the overall consciousness of groups, even nations, can be changed when individuals in that group change their consciousness. Just look at our own history and your own wisdom traditions. Most movements are led by consciousness raisers. You might even call them hell raisers; people like Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed. More recently people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto among many others, have helped to raise the consciousness of society by raising the bar on personal responsibility and reinforcing the social contract to be mindful of others, especially the most vulnerable. It’s frightening to think about how many of the people I just listed were assassinated for their efforts. When you challenge the status quo, which is what is often required to raise consciousness, people get scared and tragic things happen.
The Broader Perspective of “Both/And Thinking”
Many spiritual practitioners consider the act of raising the consciousness of society by raising one’s own consciousness as an individual imperative—even the very purpose of a human life. When terrible things happen in your life or in the world, you have an opportunity to take a higher perspective than the act or situation you are responding to. Albert Einstein said, “You can’t solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them.” If someone is acting with hatred, you can’t beat them with more hatred. You will just create an endless spiral of hatred. I’m not talking “Either/Or Thinking” where you perceive a false choice of either being passive (allowing abuse to continue) or hating them back. I’m talking about being smart and coming from a broader perspective, what psychologists call “Both/And Thinking.” Greater consciousness is able to hold more than one response (or quality or perspective) at a time. A mature person isn’t forced to choose between forgiveness or personal rights. People with greater consciousness can both forgive someone and demand that the unacceptable behavior changes. You can forgive someone without the certainty that the behavior has completely changed; trust can grow in time. The amazing thing is in situations like these the behavior is more likely to change with the more conscious approach (and if it doesn’t, your greater consciousness better equips you for new options and choices).
Protestors in Egypt and now Syria are a great example of this very point. They are demanding change, but doing so in reasonable ways which makes their case more compelling and their actions more effective. The leaders of many of the most successful social movements understand this.
Families are incubators for raising consciousness. The ancient biblical story about John the Baptist jumping in Elizabeth’s belly when Mary came to visit is usually told at Christmas time. I always enjoyed it, but when I considered it in the context of consciousness, it came alive for me. There is no reason to think of it as a story of supernatural intervention. Babies kick, and from one perspective this is just the story of a kicking baby. The miracle is in the circumstances and the experience of connection. The story is told through the eyes of two women. Elizabeth, according to the story, was 80 years old and barren. The inclusion of an eighty year old female hero in the story itself says something about the consciousness of the authors of the text that arose in a deeply patriarchal context.
The story describes the profound connection between Elizabeth and her unborn baby. It was tender and significant. She was beginning a bonding process that is itself a natural and beautiful miracle. This is a parable about the incredible merging of consciousness that takes place between parents and children. Kids do not arrive in the world as blank slates. They come with a huge amount of genetic coding and unconscious impulses. Then their environment and parents help to shape them as people. It’s not that the whole burden is on parents. But parents are powerful to impact the consciousness of kids from care during pregnancy to the way you talk and play with kids in their early months. The relationship between parent and child is a mirror into wonder. Until about 18 months old, the child thinks she is an extension of her mother and many later beliefs grow out of these early interactions. At the same time, for a parent, your child is a mirror into the mystery of who you are as a spiritual adventurer on a human journey.
Fortunately, parents don’t need to be perfect. On the contrary, parents can model a sense of adventure and forgiveness to their kids because they are willing to try new things, then acknowledge limitations without dwelling on failure. This is part of a raised consciousness. You can change direction without lapsing into blame and shame. You can be both exasperated with your kids and love them deeply at the same time. This is another example of what I call the “spiritual elasticity” of a raised consciousness.
This is true for non parents as well. You don’t have to have children to be a parent. We all have a parental instinct to nurture children, pets, communities, ideas and causes and when you are truly passionate you will give yourself to these children of yours unconditionally. When it comes to consciousness, you are always giving birth to something. As with the story of Elizabeth, the consciousness of one person can raise the consciousness of others by virtue of their interactions. Something incredible is being birthed in the world right now, as more and more people honor the feminine dimension of life, tap into their intuitive wisdom, and seek non violent transformation of oppressive systems.
Turning to the social or cultural aspect of consciousness, it is clear that this relates to religious beliefs and worldview. We can explore the social dimensions of consciousness by looking at the belief in hell and the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. In his play “No Exit” French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” In the play three men find themselves bunking down for a sleepless eternity in a crowded room. They become each other’s torturers. Sartre was making the point that we create hell by poisoning our relationships with judgment.
The belief in hell is attractive to the small self because the ego longs to live forever, and suffering suits the desire to be a victim. The ego also has a penchant for living in the delusion of separateness and the cunning strategy of dividing people into self serving standards of absolute good and evil with appropriate rewards and punishments suits the ego down to the ground. It’s interesting that 63% of Americans believe in hell where people are punished eternally, but when the question becomes more pointed, “Do you think you will go to hell after death?” only 1% say they are going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe in hell but virtually no one thinks they’re going there.
It is comforting to put other people in the box of evil, because it makes the small self feel righteous and safe. There may have been some of this in the recent response to the killing of Osama bin Laden. A few times I had to pause and wonder what it was we were celebrating. I don’t fully understand the psychology of celebrating the violent death of any person. I can understand celebrating a sense of relief like you might have at the end of a drawn out trauma, but this felt different to relief. It was too joyful, almost smug. The word “justice” was used too often, or in the case of Rudi Giliani the word “revenge”. Justice that is based in revenge just adds hate to hate, and revenge is an insatiable beast that in the words of Ghandi “makes the whole world blind.”
The death of bin Laden should be celebrated but not because of his personal demise. Rather it should be celebrated as part of the demise of bin Ladenism and all that this ideology represented.
His death was one more step in a process of global transformation that has been taking place for some time, a raising of global consciousness being led by young, non violent protestors in the Middle East who neither looked to bin Laden for leadership nor served his violent agenda. We should celebrate the resilience of Americans who refused to give in to the cunning terrorist plot to engender fear and uncertainty into everyday life. If we revoked the Patriot Act that was only ever supposed to be a temporary measure after 9/11, we could celebrate the choice to no longer live in mistrust and suspicion. The judgment that policies such as the Patriot Act engender create the hell on earth that Sartre was talking about.
Responding from our highest self, we don’t need to imagine bin Laden in hell. We can make peace with him, knowing that his agenda failed because we wouldn’t let it infiltrate our psyches. To live in fear and paranoia is to be in a hell of our own making. We can make peace with bin Laden, knowing that like many misguided extremists before him, he had a partial truth about heavy handed American foreign policy that created more enemies and ambiguous allies than it solved problems. We now seem to be heeding the message but we hear it so much clearer from non violent protestors in the Arab world than we do from extremists that it’s time to let Middle Eastern countries create their own form of democracy.
Without for a second condoning the calculated violence of bin Laden, we need to respond from a higher perspective than his. Bin Laden has his own spiritual karma to deal with and if he was still alive an international tribunal, in the mode of the war crimes tribunals following the great wars of the twentieth century, would be appropriate. But this is different than celebrating the death of him as a human being, and more about celebrating the demise of bin ladenism extremist consciousness. We can celebrate this as a milestone in the movement toward higher consciousness.
At a time of global transformation such as we find ourselves in now, we are reminded that the suffering of anyone, even the most corrupt individual, effects the whole. The small self’s desire for righteousness in making others wrong is insatiable. Responding from the highest perspective, we know that each of us is responsible only for our own karma but we find true satisfaction in our connection to the whole, cosmic consciousness. We can only be different because we are part of a global system that supports our individuality.
The counterpart to Sartre’s hell in a shared, small room is the old Jewish story about the difference between heaven and hell. The Rabbi first showed his students hell by taking them to a room with a large round table.
There were many people sitting around it, and they were desperately hungry, which didn’t make sense because in the middle of the table was a huge pot of stew. The people all had spoons with very long handles which could easily reach into the pot. The problem was that because the spoon handles were so much longer than their arms, they could not get the food to their mouths. They were starving in the midst of plenty.
Then he showed his students heaven by taking them to another room where there was another large round table. As before, there were as many people with long-handled spoons reaching into the pot of stew. These people were well nourished and happy because they had realized the secret of community. They were feeding each other. Unity in diversity with a balance between individual rights and group needs is heaven on earth.
Where does this new consciousness come from? How do you raise your consciousness?
It comes from within. It’s all there to begin with. You just need to remove some of the protective layers to uncover wisdom that is often unconscious. It’s partly about trusting your intuitive wisdom, and it’s partly about making manifest instincts and motivations that are unconscious; make them conscious and intentional. Either way it’s an inner challenge.
It’s like cleaning frost from the windows of your consciousness. You can scrub for hours on the outside and make only slow progress. The more effective way of wiping away the frost is to light a fire on the inside. Shine a warm light on the frost from the inside and the frost will vanish like nose prints on windows. Frost on consciousness is often hiding your awareness of what you value, why it’s important and where your true motivation lies. Revenge for example is often suppressed self loathing. Light a fire of awareness on all the dark places, fears and habitual patterns and you will see beyond them to the perfect peace within. Then this peace will manifest in your actions.
We tend to imagine that we are a highly rational species and that we make well informed decisions and discernments. But in reality a good portion of life is driven by unconscious forces; memories tucked away in your inner filing cabinet, intuitive understanding that seems to come from nowhere, sudden achievements that surprise you. Unconscious impulses drive the majority of your life.
Jonathon Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, describes the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind as being like the relationship between an elephant and its rider. The rider is your conscious thoughts and plans while the elephant is your bundle of automatic operations that take place every second outside of your conscious awareness. The elephant operates like Pavlov’s dog with gut instincts, emotions and innate responses. The rider struggles to convince the elephant of anything. The rider can only change direction when the elephant has a change of heart. The struggle that most of us have is that we forget that the elephant has to change for our lives to change. The elephant will win every time. It has been building its instincts for millions of years.
David Brooks uses the analogy of a general and his scouts in his recently released book The Social Animal. The conscious mind is like the general who sees life from a distance and analyses things logically. Countless scouts send back a constant flow of intelligence, immersed in the space between language, in dreams, in emotions, in stories and signs, in relationships and in the environment.
Keep in mind that the unconscious is not all sinister and primal. This is also where incredible wisdom and surprising acts of altruism emerge from. The point is to become aware of more of the unconscious, both to uncover some of the less than healthy patterns that have formed in your life but also to maximize the wealth of untapped resources at your disposal in every moment.
At root, the situation we face in the world today is not a political crisis, and it’s not an ecological crisis. Nor is it a financial crisis. It is a crisis of consciousness. Cracks are developing in the former consciousness of the planet. If we try to mend these cracks using the same consciousness that created them, we will do little more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as it sinks. A radical new planetary consciousness will approach the challenges from the inside out. The solutions are there, awaiting our attention. It’s a cause for great optimism that there are signs that people are beginning to make this quantum leap in consciousness. The collective consciousness seems to be rising above the individual challenges to incorporate the ultimate truth of the unconscious mind that we are all profoundly related.
Evolving consciousness in me greets the same in you. Namaste