Saturday, 23 August 2014

Are You Awake? Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

It is said that soon after his enlightenment that the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha answered, "No."

"Are you a man?" "No."

"Well, my friend, then what are you?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake"

The Buddha was awake, he was fully conscious to all that is and all that will ever be. He was fully integrated, he did not see himself as separate, well he did not see himself at all.

Now this is not a claim I would or could make about myself. I believe I am more awake these days than I have ever been in the past, but I am very aware of a sense of separation from time to time. That said I am more conscious than I ever was before. There is a simple reason for this I am less self-conscious than I once was. I feel more connected, at one, with all that is, than at any other time in my life. I feel conscious, I feel awake, but I used to be terribly self-consciousness and I suspect that it was this that was the very root cause of so much of that aching loneliness that used to eat away at me. I felt, separate, cut off, alone. How many of us feel like this, it is so much the plague of the modern age.

The other day I was chatting with my mum, it was a wonderful conversation. She was doing most of the talking. This is the case in most of the conversation I have these days. I like it this way. “Now the ears of my ears are awake.”

We got talking about childhood things and what life was like back then. I asked her a question, which I haven’t asked for years about a birth defect I suffered from. She went into detail explaining how when I was born some of the nerve endings at the base of my spine were underdeveloped. It was something akin to spina bifida, but in a less severe form. As a child I had to frequently go for physiotherapy and there was a period when I was not allowed to engage in any sport. I hated the feeling it engendered in me as I looked at the other kids running around in the playground, knowing I wasn’t allowed to join in.

It was a few years later when the pain really hit me though, in my mid to later teens when I was painfully aware of the way I walked. I waddled when I moved, I still do now. When it was my time to be teased at school I would be called "Penguin, cripple, crip, criptic acid and spina bifida." I remember walking down the street of the town I grew up in and whenever I saw someone walking towards me I would stand up straight and attempt to push my feet inwards in the vain hope that they wouldn’t think that there was something wrong with me. I must have looked a right sight.

I was just so terribly self-consciousness. I was just so locked in on what I believed was wrong with me. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days and do you know what I’m not wholly convinced that the problem was my perceived physical imperfections. I suspect that if I’d been born without this physical difficulty the problem would have manifested in other areas of my life. The problem was the self-consciousness, I was locked in myself and therefore not fully conscious, I was separate and felt alone.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that I am not alone in this. So many of us suffer from this from of self-consciouness. We feel lost, lonely and cut off because we are locked in what we believe is wrong with us. Sometimes it is harder to see what is right, than what is wrong. This is a deeply lonely, isolated, way to be.

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Now while not wishing to argue with the great philosopher I do wonder if the “over examined life” can prove just as worthless. It is so easy to get lost in oneself, wrapped up in our own underwear to such an extent that we do not live at all. We can become so self-conscious that we fail to become conscious of all that is and all that as ever been. It is so easy to become wrapped up in our own perceived needs that we fail to live in the world with others and then complain about feeling lonely. Yes it is important to examine ourselves, to understand who we are and what makes us tick, but that should not be an end in itself, a destination. It is a staging post in the spiritual adventure, but not the final destination.

Some label extreme self-absorption as Narcissism. A word taken from name of a boy of ancient Greek mythology named Narcissus who fell so in love with his own reflection that he fell into the water and drowned. Now I don't believe that it is entirely correct to name the type of self-consciousness I am discussing here as Narcissistic self-love. There seems very little love here at all. Quite the opposite in fact the pre-occupation is with what is wrong. What I'm describing is a deep form of self hatred and or loathing, not love.

When you look at your own reflection in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone that you love? Do you see who you really are? While many of us see ourselves warts and all, how many of us see the beauty spots too? The kind of self-absorption that most people I come into contact with suffer from tends to be a deeply ingrained negative type. The preoccupation is often with what is wrong with them, with their shame, rather than how wonderful they are. This is certainly not what Narcissus suffered from.

This kind of self-consciousness can become so consuming that it takes over our every human interactions. I wonder how many of us suffer from the following kind of commentary when we meet up with people. “What will they think of me?” “How do I look?” “If I say something, will they think I’m an idiot?” and then a little later, “He gave me a funny look, he must have thought me a fool. Why on earth did I have to make that stupid remark? Gosh I’m such a freak, they all seem to be staring at me.”

This kind of inner dialogue can be so crippling. It can haunt us from the moment we wake and continue throughout our day, eating away at our every decision. Oh and of course because we doubt ourselves and every decision we make, we assume that everyone else must be doing exactly the same thing. This kind of self-consciousness can be so inhibiting, so much so that it can block us off almost entirely from the world around us. We can become utterly consumed by this kind of self-consciousness, leading to us seeing the world entirely from this point of view. When we do the world does not look like a pretty place at all.

So what can we do about it? How do we wake up to a greater consciousness? How do we break free from this crippling self-consciousness?

In the Gospel accounts Jesus taught his followers that they must lose themselves in order to be found. This beautiful paradox taught that by emptying ourselves of our self-absorption we begin to be filled with the spirit of neighbourliness. So that when we look deeply into the still waters we are not drawn in by narcissistic self-consciousness and loathing at our own reflection, but rather into a deeper contemplation of our shared lives. We become conscious of all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. By opening ourselves to and for others we begin to shed that debilitating skin of self-consciousness that it is so easy to become imprisoned in.

Gandhi said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others”

The Buddha talked of Nirvana, of being freed from the suffering that was the blight of humanity. He showed that we all suffered and that it was in seeing our suffering as individual that led to this sense of separation. He suggested that we needed to break through our suffering not only to serve others but to reach a higher state of being, true consciousness, to be awake.

Now please don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that we neglect ourselves and that we do not need to understand how we tick. All I am saying is that we must not get stuck there, we must not get lost there and we must not see this as a destination, more a staging post on the journey. The adolescent stage I suspect. Sadly for many folk, me included, this adolescent stage often goes on well into adulthood.

So how do we move from self-consciouness to consciousness. How do we lose ourselves so that we can be found? Well Forrest Church in his wonderful book “Lifecraft” offered three simple suggestions, which he called the three “E’s”, “empathy”, “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm”. The key he claimed could be found in the literal understanding of these words. “Empathy”, to suffer or feel with another; “Ecstasy”, to stand outside ourselves; “Enthusiasm”, to manifest the god (theos) within us.

Empathy is a deep felt compassion. When we open our hearts empathically to another we are courageously refusing to allow self-consciousness to stand in the way of a higher consciousness that comes into being as we feel what another is going through. In so doing we serve both ourselves and the other person, as well as that higher consciousness beyond our singular selves.

Ecstasy is one of those words that has often been misunderstood as some kind of hedonistic state and therefore self- indulgent, it is far from this. In its truest sense what it actually does is take us out of ourselves and lifts us beyond our self created confines. In so doing we transcend our self-consciousness and enter a realm in which purpose begins to emerge and meaning is found.

Enthusiasm means to be filled with spirit, with holy energy. Enthusiasm allows us to be fully involved and engaged in whatever it is we are doing. It allows us to see beyond the confines we have created. Forrest himself states, drawing on the imagery of Narcissus, that “Here, once again, consciousness displaces self-consciousness. We escape from our mirrored room. Its mirrors turn into windows. Or the pond grows so still that we can see beyond our own reflection to the trees and clouds and birds and sun. There is, by the way, no higher form of spiritual practice. When we step out of our own shadow, consciousness replaces self-consciousness.”

Experience has revealed to me that in so doing we are set free to walk with others in our own faltering ways. Instead of being lost in what we believe is wrong with us we are set free to do what we can in this our shared world and in so doing we encourage others to do the same, as perfectly imperfect children of God, children of Love.

As I understand it the whole purpose of the spiritual life is to develop a deepening sense of connection. We all have our troubles and our worries either within ourselves, those around us or the wider world. We need to see them for what they are, we need to acknowledge the truth, but we must not get stuck there, for that will paralyse us and stop us doing what we can. We cannot change the way the world is but that need not prevent us from doing what we can do and in doing so we will grow spiritually as we become integrated into all that has been, all that exists and all that will ever.

As a kind of conclusion I’d like to end this little chip of a blog with one final thought, inspired by some wisdom that Forrest Church shared right at the end of his life.

So much of modern spiritually gets it wrong because it is seeking the wrong thing. There is so much talk of finding ourselves, when in actual fact what we ought to be doing is losing ourselves. What we ought to be striving for is integration and to let go of those aspects within ourselves that block this. We all ask the question “Who am I?” when really we ought to asking is “How am I doing? And if we are still feeling utterly dis-connected we need to ask why? And how can I integrate once again? You see if we can begin to integrate with all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been we begin to truly cohere. In doing so we transcend our self-consciousness and become conscious. We become spiritually mature. We become like the Buddha, awake.

So how conscious are you today? Are you truly awake?




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