Awakening to What Is

Conscious living in the postmodern world

Makapu‘u Lighthouse © David Ulrich

Makapu‘u Lighthouse © David Ulrich

What might it mean to live consciously? On a daily basis and from a variety of sources—articles, books, websites, personal conversations, even media and advertising—we come face to face with evocative yet misleading phrases like conscious eating, conscious relationships, conscious sex, conscious art, conscious work, and more. We have even heard the phrase, conscious consumption. And often, these particular strivings towards consciousness are referred to as something we can actually do on our own volition, as if we can, as if we are actually fully intentional beings capable of making a choice to live consciously.

Intelligent living and thoughtfulness, even a basic understanding of cause and effect, does not necessarily equate with growth of  being and consciousness. Let’s take conscious eating, or mindful eating as an example. Simply knowing where your food comes from, ascertaining that it did not exist in conditions of cruelty, that it comes from a sustainable source, and making certain that it is healthy and not genetically modified is an intelligent and responsible choice.  Indeed, our society needs more of this form of thoughtfulness and social responsibility. Clearly, it is a positive step towards a recognition of the interrelatedness of life.

In Zen and other teachings, conscious eating involves the actual experience of life taking in life, that the food that we ingest into our systems is actually vibrating with living energy, that in being aware of ourselves at the moment of ingesting food and witnessing its passage into our bodies and minds, we become experientially aware of a living process that gives us energy and quite literally life. It is a sacred act that feeds our bodies and potentially our souls. We are in debt to this privilege of taking life in order to maintain life.

Conscious realization involves more than the rational mind, deeply touches the emotions, and is entered into through the body and senses. It is a search, not a fact; it is a striving, not an actuality for most of us.  Consciousness is inherently a mystery; it admits many degrees and levels, many of which are beyond our personal and even scientific understanding. A Google search for the phrase “endowed with consciousness” reminded me of an insightful book, published early in the twentieth century, with the intriguing title of Cosmic Consciousness, by Dr. Maurice Bucke—a book that was a forerunner of today’s climate of widespread spiritual seeking.

Though dated in its language and tone, it presents a highly useful matrix for understanding the process of growth of consciousness. Bucke describes the three modes of consciousness potentially available to human beings—and he attempts to place humanity on a universal, evolutionary scale of awareness. The first stage of consciousness, he postulates, is “simple” consciousness, that we embody and share with all animals, where there is an awareness of the instinctive functions of the body and a basic connection to a limited range of emotions and feelings.

The next stage on Dr. Bucke’s scale is “self consciousness,” where we have the potential to be aware of ourselves and the full range of our manifestations. We can be conscious of our instinctive functions, the wide spectrum of our emotional states and automatic reactions to the world around us, as well as our thoughts, our potential, our talents, our highest possibilities, and our most conflicting elements and limitations. We can know ourselves in context with others, and we can identify our place in the larger world. We are given the capacity to observe ourselves, and we have the discrimination to understand something of what we observe. We are the witness and the witnessed, simultaneously. However — and this is where Bucke’s work takes on real meaning for us today — he believes that human beings stand only on the threshold of this form of consciousness.

Self consciousness, according to Bucke, is a continuum where humanity exists — leaving room for individual variation — somewhere in the beginning stages. Self-realization is the aim, representing the latter stage of this form of consciousness. We have some distance to grow before we can fully attest to this, our distinctive human birthright. Indeed, most of our lives reflect the efforts toward growth and development on this particular scale of being. We seek to know ourselves through self-observation, through our interactions with others and with the world-at-large. Only when we are on the road toward achieving the aim of direct, experiential self-knowledge can we have intimations of the next stage of consciousness.

This third state of consciousness is what Bucke calls “cosmic consciousness,” or the experiential awareness of the whole, the cosmos to which we belong. G.I. Gurdjieff refers to this stage  as “objective” consciousness. He explains:  “In this state a man can see things as they are. Flashes of this state of consciousness also occur in man. In the religions of all nations there are indications of the possibility of a state of consciousness of this kind which is called ‘enlightenment’ and various other names but which cannot be described in words. But the only right way to objective consciousness is through the development of self-consciousness . . . In the state of self consciousness a man can have flashes of objective consciousness and remember them. . . This state of consciousness means an altogether different state of being; it is the result of inner growth and of long and difficult work on oneself.”

In Gurdjieff’s view, we do not yet have a stable, lucid presence, a consistent self-awareness in the midst of our lives. We are not fully present — to ourselves and the world around us — except in rare moments. He re-affirms the universal teaching of mindful attention, that only through self-observation accompanied by self-remembering, by feeling and sensing the state of oneself in a given moment, can we achieve our aim of heightened consciousness.

Moments of radiant consciousness are rare, perhaps exceedingly so in our presently incomplete and fragmented states of being. But we have tastes of this pure form of seeing; in moments of perceiving the sublime beauty and unity in all things, in love, in moments of great pain and suffering, in quiet moments connected to the natural world, in meditation, or in listening to music or experiencing works of art and literature arising from a deeper source that reveal a greater dimension.

To come to a greater consciousness, we need to look within and awake to what is. What are the shapes and contours of our interior landscape? What are our essential characteristics, our gifts and challenges that we are here in this lifetime to develop, and what is the form of our conditioned personality? Self observation, interactions with others and with the world, creativity and art, dreams and visions; all of these form the paths through which we may genuinely know ourselves.

The process of individuation, or becoming whole and authentic, is described by Carl Jung with a scientific certainty, as he recounts his own dreams and visions, as well as those of many of his patients, and correlates both works of art and cultural icons to this highly symbolic language. Jung’s work laid the foundation for our understanding of the symbols, archetypes, and meanings found in the unconscious part of our nature. The outer world of events, objects, and people is “seen” by the unconscious in a manner that reveals who we are and how we really feel about the object of our attention. Dreams, as well as the mirrors presented through our seeing and creative efforts, shed light on the inner meaning of our outer life.

The conscious mind has much to learn about the way in which our unconscious “sees” outer phenomena. Gurdjieff believes that the subconscious is the “real” mind. Indeed, the integration of self can only proceed by integrating the contents of the unconscious gradually into conscious awareness. What in the outer world resonates within us with the most power and impact? Why are we drawn to this scene, this place, this person, this condition, and not another? Can we begin to determine — to feel and sense — how the world interacts within us? What is being mirrored? We cannot avoid seeing the world, and even other human beings, as mirrors of ourselves — of our inner conditions, our potential, our obstacles, our angels and demons. If we wish to achieve the aim of self knowledge and insight, we must pay attention to these deeply rooted, often unconscious responses to the world surrounding us. Observing our dreams certainly helps, but the daily effort of witnessing our reactions and interactions with the world around us is a valuable key toward insight and self-discovery.

Until we come to a stable, lucid self-consciousness, we cannot hope for a durable connection to the cosmos. For most of us, a deeper consciousness is limited to rare moments, to illuminating flashes, to gifted insights that enter through the cracks in our raw, obstinate minds. But hope springs eternal. We do have these moments, and then quickly forget the wondrous shape of the real and the true nature of our lives. These momentary flashes of illumination give our lives meaning and direction. They serve to ignite our passionate search and bring us closer to the currents of a deeper awareness. The wings of freedom are available; this much we know from our present experience.

I am reminded of a simple exercise designed to expand our awareness in two directions simultaneously: toward a deepening connection with both the inner and outer worlds. The exercise is given: I am sitting here, and first bring attention into my body, to the organic sensation of the present — my feet on the ground, my contact with the chair, my breathing and heartbeat, and the myriad thoughts and emotions passing through me. I sense myself, here, in this moment. Then, I slowly turn my attention outward from this inner place. I am in a chair, next to a desk, in a room, and I sense the presence of these elements. My computer is quietly humming. Then, my awareness expands, and I can know that the room is in a house, which exists on a plot of land in a neighborhood. It is a balmy, warm evening outdoors. I am inwardly struck by the acute, lyrical sounds of mynah birds singing at dusk. The air feels humid, slightly oppressive. I become aware of my neighbors, hearing hints of sounds and movements next door. The neighborhood is in a town; the distant sound of car and jet engines, carrying people here and there, gently intrude into my consciousness. The town is on an island, and I strikingly realize my existence on a tiny speck of land surrounded by a vast ocean. The island belongs to a planet, and, through my window, I can see the sliver of a new moon and the evening star, Venus, against the azure sky. A momentary realization dawns, I am here in the presence of immensity — and this flash is immediately lost, giving way to random thoughts. You get the idea. We gradually expand our awareness outward from the center. But, we always remember to sense and feel ourselves as part of this larger picture.

Transcending ego-driven spirituality, a genuine approach towards consciousness means that the subjective “me” cannot claim awareness. It belongs to no one, yet it potentially belongs to all of us. Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel Prize winner and one of the fathers of quantum mechanics writes:

 “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown.

It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings.

The conditions for your existence are almost as old as the rocks. For thousands of years men have striven and suffered and begotten, and women have brought forth in pain. A hundred years ago, perhaps, another man sat on this spot; like you he gazed with awe and yearning in his heart at the lying light on the glaciers. Like you he was begotten of man and born of woman. He felt pain and brief joy as you do. Was he someone else? Was it not you yourself?”