This is Chapter One in the book that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. The book’s title is: “Living Consciousness”, and this is an experiment. I’m publishing the book weekly, one chapter at a time, here on my website and on Medium.com, because the book itself feels alive to me. I’m in the middle of the fifth re-write, and the material has changed and deepened. It keeps getting closer to the truth.
If you’d like to participate in this Living Consciousness experiment with us, just read and add your thoughts, and/or examples in the comments section.
Imagine consciousness as a cloud of potential awareness, part of the unseen world that permeates all of the space and material of existence. We are born as, into, and with that potentiality.
When we are conscious, we are awake and aware of our surroundings. We are aware of or perceiving something, and we are aware that we are aware of both our own mind and of the world in which we are immersed. As I write this, I know that I am both thinking about the material and writing it. As you read this, you are aware that you are both thinking about the material and reading.
Every single morning, we wake up. Sometimes when we awaken, it feels like we come to the surface in stages. Other times it happens abruptly. We were asleep; now we’re awake. Eyes open up. We become aware of the body and how it feels. We may have a remnant of a dream hanging out in the mind. We notice the bedroom, the feeling of the floor underfoot, the temperature of the air, the degree of lightness in the sky. We become awake and aware of our surroundings.
We can lose consciousness in more ways than by simply going to sleep. If we’re concussed in an accident, are “put under” by an anesthesiologist during an operation, or faint for some reason, we lose consciousness. We can also lose it by using a substance like drugs, alcohol, or even sugar that causes the loss. When we “come to”, that is, when we become awake and aware of ourselves and of our surroundings, it happens in much the same way as it does when we awaken from sleep.
Our ability to be conscious, awake and aware of our surroundings can also be affected by any addictions we have, any well-worn path we’ve walked (metaphorically speaking), and any enculturated ideas that we unwittingly try to live. What this means is that we may be conscious (awake) in some parts of life and unconscious (asleep) in others.
When it comes to addiction affecting my ability to be awake and aware, I’m thinking here of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. I mean really! I cannot have those cookies in my house. After I ate an entire box all by myself, in one sitting, I realized I might have a problem. When I told a friend about the experience, she recommended I store the cookies in the freezer and take just a couple of cookies out at one time. Right. Like that would stop me from inhaling a sleeve of Thin Mints! Ha! I discovered they’re even better direct from the freezer, and the entire box disappears just as fast! No! Faster! My consciousness disappears into a sugar-induced haze. The same thing happens with peanut M&M’s. I simply cannot buy them! Ever!
The metaphoric well-worn path that I’m referring to is any habitual thoughts or feelings we have. At the end of the day, life is made of the sum total of our thoughts, feelings, and the actions we’ve taken because of them. And lots of those thoughts and feelings and the resulting actions are completely unconscious, habitual choices we’re making.
I just experienced a feeling this morning that can be used to illustrate this. As I listened to the song “Unchained Melody,” I experienced an overwhelming feeling of unrequited and lost love. This song was popular when I was a teenager, when feeling bereft and unloved was a dramatic weekly event. That feeling from long ago flooded my emotions as I listened. Luckily, I caught myself in the act. I noticed the habitual and unconscious nature of the feeling and stopped myself. My conscious self knows that I am thoroughly loved, and that there is always enough love to go around. I want my life to be built from the conscious understanding of the caveat that there is always enough love, and that if we let it, it permeates everything.
Another example of a habitual, metaphoric well-worn path from my own experience has to do with my reaction to a male friend when he insisted that he was right, and being right was the most important thing to him. I may not have even had any skin in the game, that is, I may have simply exclaimed something like: “What a gorgeous day!” And in response, he might tell me that I’m wrong about that because it’s going to rain shortly. So, while I was saying something about what the day feels like inside of me, he would take it as a literal statement about weather.
My unconscious response to his interpretation was to feel instantly angry. It was completely unconscious. For a time, I loaded the feeling of anger with an also unconscious story line or thought process that went something like this: “He squashes my enthusiasm every time I express it. Argh! It feels like he’s trying to control me!”
He is a literal guy and has spent an adult lifetime doing work in which his ability to be literal determined his level of success in business. I am pretty sure that I was born enthusiastic. My working edge in that scenario was to wake up to the feeling of anger when it ramped up inside of me, to stop the habitual story response before it started, and to allow the angry feeling to dissolve. I would remind myself that his literal interpretation had nothing to do with me.
A final example of this has to do with my own unconscious thoughts and feelings about my body. We are all good and tired of thinking there is something wrong with the shape of our bodies, right? If you’ve read my last book, I Am A Miracle Magnet, you know all about my own struggle with this, so I won’t repeat it here. If you haven’t read it, just look at your own feelings about your body-you know-the ones that live in the dark corners of life experience-the ones that criticize abs, thighs, ankles, bellies, breasts or chest, or any body part at all, really.
I am working consciously to both stop and replace negative thoughts and feelings about my body. Every morning when I meditate and every day when I walk, I set the intention for a joyful, energetic, and vital body. I am cultivating feelings of gratitude for my strength and endurance and shape. After all, we human beings come in all shapes and sizes. There is simply no one, single shape and size that is the measure of beauty. And that brings us to the next way in which we can be asleep in pieces of our consciousness: enculturated rules about right and wrong ways to behave.
Just as we’ve been taught, often subliminally, that there is only one beautiful or handsome shape for a person, other ideas and rules about culturally approved ways to be have been passed on to us as well. In his excellent book, The Code of the Extraordinary Mind, (which I highly recommend), Vishen Lakhiani coins a new word to describe the unquestioned, enculturated rules that we follow. He calls them “Brules,” which is short for bullshit rules. Following them effectively prevents us from living our lives authentically.
One example of an enculturated rule is about acceptable careers for women and men. When I was in grade school, I remember our eighth-grade teacher asking class members what career they wanted to pursue. Every girl responded with one of the following professions: nun, wife and mother, teacher, nurse, or the possibility, at that time brand new, for girl’s vocations, stewardess. (And we all knew, of course, that a stewardess would have to be blond, thin, and beautiful to be hired to do the work.) This was in 1962. There was no name for what I wanted to do-not inside of me, and not outside of me. I probably said “nun” at the time.
That was a long time ago, and you might be thinking that a lot has changed regarding career opportunities for women and men since I was in grade school, and I agree that possibilities have expanded for both genders. After all, there are now women who are doctors and engineers, and men who are nurses and interior designers. But doing just a thin skiff of research on current career stats for women and men will uncover cultural expectations still firmly held in place.
It took me some time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up because of these enculturated limits. On my website, I state that I am a “midwife to the birth of the Wild Soul,” and that is a pretty good description of what I want to be in the world. The act of writing this book is an example of me doing what I enjoy doing. I love to think about the place in which Psychology and Philosophy intersect.
It has taken me a long time to learn to be what I want to be in the world, to be conscious, awake and alive, in this area of life. The process of getting here has been interesting, exciting, and oftentimes hard. I am hoping that as you read this book, you will be able to identify places in life in which you are following a grooved, enculturated, and perhaps an inauthentic road, bring it to the surface, and make conscious choices, more truly reflective of your own “wild soul,” your authentic core self.
One Action to Take Today to Explore Consciousness:
Pick one activity you do each day that is normally automatic, like breathing, eating a meal, or working out at the gym, and consciously choose to stay aware of what you’re doing and do a body scan-make yourself conscious of how it feels in your body. When your mind wanders and you find yourself thinking about something else, bring your thoughts back to the present and simply stay aware of that.
“Do you know that you’re breathing?”
Thich Nhat Hanh