The Gift of Consciousness - Blog#15 - 27 April 2019
Our departure point is the notion that spirituality is a celebration of consciousness and connectedness. Previous blogs have targeted important varieties of connectedness (e.g., romantic union and eco-spirituality), but here we’ll focus on the other honored guest of the celebration. What is consciousness? We all know, experientially, but describing it takes some thought. Perhaps the closest synonym is awareness. Awareness. What an amazing gift! We get so used to it that we often fail to appreciate it. Gratitude is one of the core emotions we want to practice if we are cultivating a spiritual life, along with awe, humility, and the connecting emotions such as compassion and love. When we take the time to count our blessings, for life, love, and consciousness of it all, we feel fortunate, and experience existential joy – joy regarding our existence.
Backing up a bit, what are the most basic elements of the universe? Before you flash a chart of the Periodic Table, I would reply that yes, matter itself, and its sidekick, energy, are the primary physical phenomena of the universe. But they are accompanied by a radically different entity: consciousness, which is far less tangible, but just as real. On a material level, consciousness is a product of the brain, but cannot be entirely explained by matter. Matter can exist without consciousness (e.g., a rock), but so far, we have no solid, empirical evidence that consciousness can exist independently of matter (in disembodied spirits, such as souls, ghosts, and gods). Consciousness is the primary property of a parallel entity: the mind. The content and processes of the brain are tangible, and include neurons, lobes, and ventricles, as well as chemical, electrical and circulatory processes. The processes of the mind are every bit as fascinating. The basic elements of the mind include sensations, perceptions, thoughts, memories, feelings, fantasies and dreams, identity (which requires self-consciousness), etc.
We can also speak of types of consciousness. Conscious awareness is subjective, involving perception rather than reality or truth. Consciousness is seated in the mind of the individual, and is thereby subjective from the start. We may blindly assume, or arrogantly claim, that our perception of reality accurately reads objective reality, but this is folly. Sensations are organized into perceptions, which are influenced by our own expectations, desires, and experience. Moreover, whatever objective reality is, our brains automatically and unconsciously function as data reduction systems designed to filter out all but the most practical and meaningful information. There are large individual differences in such meaning. Imagine walking through a food court in a shopping mall, and the differences in the perceptions of an architect, a gourmet chef, a starved child, a pedophile, the overworked janitor, and someone who has not visited a bathroom for eight hours.
Besides the difference between what is actually out there and how we perceive it, there are other dichotomies and dimensions of consciousness worthy of analysis. Consciousness can be personal and private, or shared with others. How lonely would we be if we had consciousness but were unable to share it? Beyond the gifts of life and consciousness, we have a capacity for connected consciousness and love, incredible gifts in themselves. Think of your state of mind, your shared values, and your feeling of shared consciousness with your brethren during a Christmas Eve mass, among a stadium full of sport fans as your team takes the lead late in a playoff game, or at a political rally amidst a group protesting a gross injustice. In a darker vein, the so-called “mob mentality” involves a loss of individual identity and responsibility, which can contribute to immoral behavior in an unrestrained group atmosphere ruled by collective consciousness.
Then we have external and internal targets of consciousness. Our capacity for awareness can be focused externally, toward aspects of our surroundings, or internally, i.e., via self-consciousness. Our survival has depended on our ability to focus externally on aspects of the environment that pose possible danger, or offer potential satisfaction of our basic internal needs. But humans, and some other animals to varying degrees, have a capacity for internal, or self-consciousness as well. Like extroverts, we all sometimes experience life focused entirely on the world around us, without self-reflection. Other times, we act as introverts, aware of our mental states at a given moment, as we observe and reflect on our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. We introspect, and in some cases, we are aware that we are aware, and are thus fully self-conscious, not just experiencing our self, but experiencing our experience of our self, for better or worse. Sometimes it feels better to just flow spontaneously, or mindlessly if you will. Other times it pays to be mindful and self-aware, because it facilitates change, and allows us to enter a more spiritual dimension, aware of consciousness, our self, and our connections beyond our self. When we are aware of our awareness of the “All,” we are on the doorstep of awe, existential gratitude, and other spiritual emotions.
Consciousness can also be unitary, or divided in various ways. The left and right hemispheres of the brain can be seen as parallel processors, each taking in data and processing it in a unique, often complimentary manner. Also on this physiological level, the inner core/limbic system of our brains processes information and produces reactions that are more primitive, emotional, reptilian, and compelling than those produced in the more rational arena of our outer layer of cerebral cortex. Another important variable of consciousness involves our degree of awareness or knowing, on a conscious to unconscious dimension. We can distinguish between unconscious processes and unconscious content. We protect ourselves by banishing threatening content from consciousness. We benefit from defenses such as repression, suppression, denial, and dissociation, which export disowned thoughts, feelings, and memories into the unconscious mind. Some memories and realities are too toxic, and threaten to emotionally crush us if we cannot eliminate them from awareness. Other times we have to face them, because the fumes from our accumulating, disowned toxic waste dump can still influence us, outside of our awareness, and stink up our behavior. Unconscious processes include automatically regulated bodily processes such as heartbeat and digestion (which, fortunately, we don’t have to deliberately control from moment to moment). Likewise, automatic psychological processes include expectations and perceptions. It is convenient to expect drivers to stop at perpendicular stop signs, without having to waste time vigilantly monitoring events that are largely predictable. Dreams are also largely unconscious, and can be contrasted with various types of conscious thinking, including daydreaming, intuition, and rational, goal-directed thinking.
We can distinguish between rational and intuitive thinking, and between future-oriented versus present-focused consciousness. The rational mind is the primary mode of operation in language, communication and science, with its emphasis on linear time, cause and effect, and logical, verbal analysis. It feeds the GNP, technology, military superiority (in an attempt to ensure the bottom line of survival), and is future oriented. The intuitive mind is less valued in our clock-driven tech society, though it gives us gut-level (more influenced by emotion and unconscious) perceptions that can be valuable socially and creatively, and should not be ignored when we are about to enter dark alleys or dangerous relationships. In a related vein, we can distinguish logical, goal-oriented thinking from associational thinking. The former gets us from A to B the quickest, and proceeds according to the rules of logic. Associational thinking is a more intuitive mode of consciousness. It is the thought process that characterizes daydreaming, when one thought or image stimulates another, digressing in the moment, with no particular goal or endpoint in mind.
The actual elimination of thinking can also be useful, via meditation, when attempting to relax the mind and body, or to move toward a more present-centered state of consciousness. Goal-oriented thinking allows us to plan for the future, but immersion in the moment is also valuable, and more spiritual: more focused on immediate consciousness. It is actively cultivated by adherents of eastern religions, via mindfulness and other meditation techniques, which start with an elementary focus on breathing (our most basic interaction with our environment). Such present-focused consciousness can move toward mindlessness or mindfulness, i.e., toward suspension of external awareness and immersion in the “void,” or toward full awareness of the “All” of both external and internal reality, and celebration of our gifts.
These modes of consciousness are not better or worse than each other, but are each valuable for different goals. Mental health, like truth, is best viewed as a combination of opposites. It is best to develop multiple skills, and then choose the skill that is most adaptive in the current situation. We all want control of consciousness, particularly our feelings, which are the Holy Grail of consciousness. It helps to fully develop multiple processes of consciousness, and to have a channel selector, an ability to change the process or content of consciousness readily, on the fly. In the absence of such control over consciousness, we may find ourselves more dependent on the use of chemicals to influence consciousness. Some chemicals relax us, other stimulate us, while others (hallucinogens) are known to be a potential gateway to spirituality (or madness). But if we go to the well too often, we fail to develop natural methods of altering consciousness, and risk the slippery slide into addiction. Using a Buddhist metaphor, we can begin to resemble drunken monkeys, running back and forth from one window of stimulation to another (alcohol, other drugs, or behavioral compulsions such as sex, shopping, work or stimulation itself). In the process, we become human doings rather than human beings, and divorce ourselves from the joy of just being, and celebrating beingness. We can take some direction from eastern wisdom, and learn to alter consciousness more directly, without over reliance on chemicals and compulsive pursuits. Fundamentally, spirituality is a celebration of both consciousness and connectedness, so it behooves us to understand and deliberately steer consciousness, in addition to pursuing various ways of connecting to the universe around us.
To explore additional consciousness-building skills, read Part II “Building Secular Spirituality,” in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, which is available in print and e-Book on Amazon. Part II is divided into three Sections, “Celebrating Consciousness,” “Connecting Inside and Out,” and “Morality Revisited”. Chapter Highlights for Beyond Atheism can be found at edchandlerandbeyond.com.
If you care to, please share your perspective on consciousness in the comments section below.