Recently, in Raleigh, North Carolina, I eavesdropped on a young mother talking to her four-year old, who had just dripped chocolate ice cream onto his parka. Her tone was impatient, but it was her words “Can’t you be more conscious?” that struck me, especially because the kid seemed to know exactly what she meant. Those words – “be more conscious” – are almost as ubiquitously a part of our post-modern jargon as the word “cool”.
Webster’s Dictionary gives half a dozen meanings for the word “conscious.” As, a culture, though, we use the words conscious and consciousness to mean anything from the ability to pay attention, to the “movement” made up of people interested in knowing the truth of who they are and how the universe works, to the underlying intelligence at the heart of life–Spirit itself. And since the 1960s, the phrase “being conscious” has become a codeword for a whole complex of progressive social attitudes – environmentalism, grass roots political action, socially responsible investing, micro-economics, sensitivity to the concerns of people with different cultural contexts than yours. In a recent poster for a yoga event, I noticed that one of sponsors – in investment firm – was called Be Conscious, while a participating studio went by the name of Conscious Yoga. Consciousness has become a brand.
But to the sages of the Indian Vedantic tradition and to many yogis, consciousness is both an entrance point into the truth of who we are and also the instrument by which we awaken. And as our ideas of what a human being really is have evolved, so has the yogic ideal of a conscious life.
When I began the inner journey, in the 1970s, yoga and psychology often seemed opposed to one another–psychology being about the personal self, yoga having to do with that in us that is eternal. But over the last 30 years, more and more of us have come to recognize that the path of consciousness – the inner essence of yoga – asks us to wake up on every level. That means waking up not only to our divine Self, but also to those selves that don’t feel so divine.
At some point, we need to investigate and integrate the ways in which our habitual patterns of thinking and feeling trip us up. On this path, we learn not to push away moments of discomfort, but to welcome them as opportunities to see into and eventually through the unexamined beliefs, expectations and assumptions that may be driving us. In other words, being conscious in the yogic sense of the word means taking a very radical kind of responsibility for yourself.
The crucial first recognition on the path to radical consciousness happens when you realize that your inner state -your motives, your emotional reactions and your patterns of thought – is constantly altering your experience of the world around you. I’m not suggesting here, as some New Age teachings do, that if we change our thoughts, or develop strong, emotionally charged positive intentions, that life will start going swimmingly. Nor am I implying that everything unpleasant that happens to us is our ‘fault,’ the result of some wrong thought or forgotten karmic mistake. Obviously, we’re all embedded in complex webs of culture, physical environment and other macro-conditions that shape and often control our destiny in ways we cannot alter. (Moreover, though positive intentions have great power, they don’t always insure that everything will work out the way we’d like.)
Nonetheless, if you look deeply into your own life, you can’t help noticing how beliefs and expectations, many of them formed in early childhood and therefore pre-conscious, skew the way you experience reality. And though spiritual practice is enormously important in freeing us from identifying with these patterns, it will not, by itself, remove them altogether. I know many of people, myself included, who regularly ‘get’ the truth of oneness in an immediate, experiential way. They’ve realized that everything is one energy, that “I” as an egoic being don’t actually exist and that a peaceful balanced state is always available to them. Yet at the level of daily life, they’ve gone on being undermined by the same emotional tendencies, the same difficulties in relationships.
Yes, yoga and meditation can profoundly shift your world-view, and certain kinds of psychotherapy and bodywork can help free you from much of our patterning. But for real freedom, there is no substitute for becoming conscious of what lies in your unconscious – for the kind of self-inquiry that can start to show you what lies beneath the surface mind.
Your own personal reality
To some degree, you are always going to be at the mercy of your unconscious, until you learn how to drop not just the thoughts that cause suffering, but also to loosen the tendencies behind them. The yogasutra calls these unconscious tendencies vasanas, deep-seated tracks in our energy body that create our psychological profile, and draw us towards certain events and relationships.
Contemporary brain researchers have mapped how these patterns work: bundles of neurons bond around a certain set of thoughts or emotions, triggering hormonal responses that effect your entire body-mind. Then, whenever a certain set of stimuli triggers them, they’ll spin you through the same old brain-loops.
The good news is that because neurons are highly malleable, they rearrange themselves as you introduce more awareness into your system. The bad news is that when you don’t, they just go on repeating themselves. That means ultimately that whatever you don’t allow into out consciousness will go on functioning in a compulsive, shadowy, underground fashion, so that your patterns of thought, feeling and reaction rule your life without your even realizing it. That’s why relationships fail, plans come undone, safe harbors get pulled out from under you.
Carl Jung famously described the phenomenon of projection, in which inner tendencies that you can’t allow into your consciousness get projected onto other people, so that they seem to be coming to you from outside yourself. The Yoga Vasistha, a medieval text of Vedanta, puts the same insight like this: “Your vision creates your reality.” Essentially, this is also the conclusion of neuroscience. The world appears to you as it does because of the filters established in your brain. These filters–not just your “stories” about reality, but the energies behind those stories — have created the reality you know, and it will go on creating seemingly external circumstances that mirror your expectations and beliefs.
But this is the beauty of the path of consciousness. If you take responsibility for your own experience, and try giving some attention to your own part in the process, it has an amazing way of freeing your capacity for creative response.
Handling Petty Tyrants
Sometimes it’s easier to see this in hindsight. A case in point: I worked for several years with a man who bullied and belittled me. I would respond defensively, and after a while I became gun-shy around him, always waiting for the boom to fall. My work suffered of course, but what really suffered was my self-esteem. I used to wonder, “Why doesn’t this man respect me? Why doesn’t he understand how hard I work?” After a while, I learned to read his moods, and use persuasion and flattery – tactics that the powerless have perfected for centuries to influence petty tyrants. I learned a lot from this experience, but still, for a long time afterwards, I couldn’t think about this man without resentment.
A few years ago, I ran into a friend from that period, and we began reminiscing about our former boss. I told her that I still resented him. My friend asked me, “What could you have done at the time that would have made a difference?”
As I considered her question, a surprising recognition arose. I would have thought that my answer would have been, “Stand up for myself.” But what came up instead was, “I could have laughed.” If I’d been able to treat his tantrums lightly it would have defused the tension between us.
What stopped me? Mainly the fact that I was holding a slew of unexamined tensions and fears about authority, not to mention feelings of unworthiness, all of them stewing around in my subconscious just waiting for some bully to come along and trigger them. But the deepest problem was that a part of me believed that if I became enough of a victim, then some higher authority – a grownup? God? – would come along and rescue me. On some level, I was waiting for the deux ex machina and not taking responsibility for creating change myself.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying the guy wasn’t a bully. Nor am I saying that I deserved to have a bad time because I didn’t have the awareness or strength to overcome my circumstances. What is true is that in the moment I truly recognized my own responsibility in the situation with my boss, I stopped being angry at him. Instead, I could see that the real issue was the inner patterning I carried, and its need to be brought out of its shadowy home in the depths of my subconscious, seen, and to use Jung’s term, integrated.
One basic principle of consciousness is that your outer life reflects your inner life: every time you feel hurt by a careless lover, made angry by an aggressive driver – you are being shown a part of your own shadow. It’s not that you caused the lover to be careless or the driver aggressive, but if you didn’t have the tendency to feel hurt or angry, you wouldn’t get hooked by the person or the situation. Once you recognize that truth, you can stop blaming the people who seem to be making you unhappy – including yourself! – and start looking towards the actual source of the pain. It’s that self-reflective gesture – the willingness to bring simple awareness to the hidden, scary areas of yourself – that allows these wounds to heal, and along the way, to stop tripping you up when we least expect it.
Feeling into Darkness
Though there are many useful practices for bringing consciousness to our shadow feelings, I’ve found that the most efficient way of working with really deep emotional tendencies is through inner feeling and sensation in the body. That’s because the inner triggers that really get you reach far deeper than the discursive mind. They’re layered into your energy body, lodged in your brain tissues and in your muscles. So bringing shadowy feelings to consciousness isn’t just a question of understanding or insight. You begin to truly free yourself from these patterns only when you learn how to feel and release them in the body. And this is done with the tool of awareness, of consciousness itself.
For the last few months, I’ve been inspired by watching my friend Sharon working in this feeling-based fashion with one of her areas of darkness. Sharon is by any measure someone with a successful life. She’s the center of a family, she works for worthwhile causes, and she’s done years of yoga and meditation with powerful teachers. She also suffers from a recurrent belief that people don’t like her. Yes, she knows it’s just a story, and she’s dropped the story many times. In fact, she’s dropped it so many times that she was sure she had it handled.
But last year her young son, Todd, began wanting to spend holidays with his father, her first husband. Whenever Sharon arranged a family get-together her son would tell her that he preferred to be with his father. The whole thing came to a head at Christmas, when the extended family had gathered at Sharon’s house, and Todd called to say he wouldn’t be coming.
Sharon was blindsided by a wave of fury. She screamed at Todd, and ended by banging down the phone, going to her room, and crying for hours.
“I kept thinking, ‘I know better than this. This is crazy?’ but it wouldn’t go away.” Obviously, the events were triggering something much more significant than the actual incident. And Sharon suddenly realized that she wasn’t willing to live with those reactions for the rest of her life.
Such a “hot” moment can be the best possible time to transform a feeling. Sharon saw that if she could turn her full attention to the anger and grief, she might be able to discover its root and let it go. So she coached herself to step back from the immediate situation, and trace it back to other situations that had brought up the feelings. She saw a long string of moments when someone who was “supposed” to love her had let her down. She saw that each event had the same emotional resonance, the same emotions of hot, black anger, disappointment and grief.
She deliberately turned her awareness, like a lazer, onto the feeling of grief. She found it in her body – a big, uncomfortable burning sensation that seemed to be stuck in her chest and throat.
Then she began to sob. But the sobs did not feel as if they belonged to the adult Sharon. They felt like the sobs of a very young girl. “The hardest thing at that point was to keep my attention with the feeling,” she said. “It was so uncomfortable that all I wanted to do was get out of there. I took refuge in insights I remembered from my reading – identifying the psychological pattern, attaching it to my father, etcetera. Then I’d drag myself back to the sheer energetic feeling. It became a meditation – a meditation on the energy of this emotion.”
As she sat there, the sharp edges of her resentment and grief started to shift and soften. Her chest opened. She felt her shoulders straightening. She realized that she’d had some kind of release.
“Of course, I’d known for a long time that my nobody-loves-me story was related to something that happened a long time ago, that it didn’t have to do with any current situation. But knowing it on an insight level is one thing. Realizing it energetically is something else.”
Ever since then, Sharon says, she’s stopped taking it personally when people don’t want to spend time with her. “I still get pangs of it sometimes. But that deep anguish, the swamp of hurt feelings, is just not there.”
A great 8th century teacher of Vedanta, Shankaracharya, famously said that as a fire burns down a forest that has been growing for centuries, a moment of illumination can burn the tendencies of a lifetime. (Actually, he said many lifetimes.) Your own awareness, your consciousness, has that illuminating power. Sometimes, it takes more than a moment, sometimes months and even years of bringing awareness to an area of tightness and fear. But often a big shift happens in a few moments, as it did for Sharon. Each time we bring the light of awareness into the corners of our psyche, it is like turning on the light in a dark room. As we get accustomed to the feelings, we find we can leave the light on. The monsters and dragons reveal themselves as shadows. Then we don’t have to do anything to get rid of them. It’s as if they were never there.
Four Truths about Becoming Conscious
The tricky – and exciting – part about becoming conscious is that it usually isn’t something you do just once. To stay conscious, you need to practice consciousness – rousing yourself every time you fall back into the trance of unconsciousness. When you find yourself in the trance, remind yourself of these four truths:
- Your inner state alters your experience of reality.
- Nobody else – not your friends, your soulmate, or the people who annoy you – can change your inner state more than temporarily.
- Your “free will” is constantly being undermined by unconscious emotional drives, by beliefs and decisions you made in early childhood, and by all the fears and traumas that you’ve been stuffing into your unconscious.
- The time to free yourself from all this is, well, now.