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All About Consciousness

Food for thought

Does the Human Mind Need a Fresh Start?

In SF Gate - On November 20, 2017

By Deepak Chopra, MD

Most people would agree, even without a degree in psychology, that many if not most problems are created by the mind.  It’s impossible to be human without the functioning of the higher brain (the cerebral cortex), which is proportionately larger in Homo sapiens, and evolved with unusual swiftness into the state where it can process mathematics, philosophy, art and science. But we are trapped by the mind at the same time, as witness centuries of war on a vast scale down to daily episodes of domestic abuse in the home, or take a clinical view at the countless people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental distress.


Medicine aims to relieve people of mental distress, with the goal of addressing a mood disorder like depression, for example, and returning the mind to a normal state. But this only highlights our confusion over what “normal” means, because there are plenty of ills created by people who would pass the test for normality. In our own minds was born the atom bomb, toxic chemicals, ecological depredation, authoritarian regimes, religious and racial prejudice, and so on. Normal still leaves the human mind ignorant of how to escape itself, which could be the true mark of Homo sapiens as a unique species.


It isn’t the brain that has created such misery and confusion, such lack of self-awareness; therefore, neuroscience and psychotropic drugs aren’t going to save us. It’s the mind’s status in everyday life that lies at the heart of the dilemma.  Here are the basic areas of confusion and conflict that remain unsolved.

  • Is human nature changeable? If so, why is history a litany of the same oppression, war, and strife repeated century after century?

  • Are we inherently good or evil? Where do good and evil come from?

  • Is the unconscious a dark, fearful realm or the source of inspiration, insight, and love?

  • Why is it so difficult to curb the tendency toward anger, fear, envy, and insecurity that lies just beneath the surface when people are put under stress?

  • Why are whole populations addicted to us-versus-them thinking? What makes common humanity so feeble in comparison?

  • Finally, why is it so difficult to find happiness? Is happiness ultimately a fleeting state, a blip in an existence ruled by every kind of unhappiness?

One reason that these questions remain unanswered is that modern society has devised no kind of answer that seems to fit. These aren’t medical questions, nor are they within the domain of scientific problems.  Psychology as currently practiced is about relieving the mental distress of people who need it, not diagnosing and treating “normal” people. Philosophy and religion are on the wane so drastically that they have little influence, and it’s not clear whether religion in particular is part of the problem or part of the solution. Secularism based on reason has its advantages in dispelling myth and superstition, but rational, dispassionate science gave us atomic weapons and ever-more-lethal means of mechanized death.


These vexing problems aren’t being laid out to sound gloomy, but to place a proposition on the table, the proposition that the human mind needs a fresh start. This is the only path to redefining what it means to be human. Despite the evolutionary argument that would make us prisoners of the past (violent because of the lower brain, predacious because of the need to compete for food and mating rights, afraid because of the need for continual defense in the harshness of natural surroundings, etc.), there is an equal argument for free will, higher consciousness, our so-called better angels, loving kindness, and everything else one associates with enlightened humanity.


No one doubts that such qualities exist, and they too are mind-created. So at bottom we aren’t talking about the human mind, or human nature, as inherently evil, ignorant, and self-destructive. Instead, the human mind and human nature are divided, and the division exists in everyone. Realizing this fact, most of the solutions to human ills come down to the same thing: coaxing people to identify with the positive side of human nature and denying or releasing themselves from the negative side.


The strategies that stem from this solution are many, beginning with the pursuit of pleasure and distraction, to the practice of religion as a curb on the worst parts of human behavior and the attempt to scientize our existence so that every problem finds a technological solution. The fatal flaw in all of these strategies is that the division in the human mind is innate. The world’s wisdom traditions agree upon this point, and modern solutions have run head-on into it just as ancient solutions did. But what does “innate” really mean?


In this case it refers to the mind but not to the totality of awareness—that’s the clue to a workable solution to the divisions created by the mind. Awareness is the foundation of thought but it isn’t a thought. It is the foundation of good and bad behavior, positive and negative impulses, but awareness doesn’t behave or feel impulsive. By analogy, awareness is like color. Horrible and beautiful images use color, but color itself isn’t horrible or beautiful by nature.


This single fact allows us to know ourselves in a new way, to give the mind a fresh start. Everything we call innate about the mind is conditioned, learned, constructed, inherited, reinforced, and struggled against. Those activities are also mental; therefore, the picture is one of the mind warring against itself, which means by definition that it can never win in the end. You could go around and destroy every ugly, frightening, violent, and depressing image ever created, and this would still leave the possibility that someone new will use color to create a horrible image in the future.


To know ourselves in a new way, we must offer an alternative to the divided mind, not the same old struggle to improve it. Conditioning is self-perpetuating, and there’s nothing we can do about it as long as we remain, as mental creatures, within the arena of thinking, feeling, deciding on what we like and dislike—in short, the entire realm of mind. A future in which human beings have been turned into “good robots” is actually a horrifying prospect, because even if we could condition future generations to abandon all negative behavior, they would wind up being less than human, a kid of global North Korea experiencing dread behind the mask of uniform contentment and obedience.


The only thing that isn’t conditioned is the one who does the conditioning, the conscious agent, the decision-maker behind the façade. The world’s wisdom traditions offer this as the alternative to the conditioned mind, teaching that a process of unveiling all the layers of established beliefs, attitudes, histories, and everything associated with the ego-self will not eradicate the mind or lead to a blank nullity. A painting, when stripped of all color, ceases to exist. The mind, when stripped of conditioning, arrives at its source. At the source is pure awareness, existence, and knowingness. These are the basic raw materials that consciousness works with—that we as conscious agents should work with if we hope to escape the whole scenario of the divided mind.


The very fact that there is an alternative is the greatest insight that wisdom traditions ever had. Proving it is another thing altogether. There is no proof that consciousness is an alternative until it is experienced. Our deeper reality is only consciousness, which comes packaged, so to speak, with existence itself. There is no such thing as unconscious existence, even though that’s a state people experience mentally when they lack all self-awareness. To prove to yourself that there is an alternative to the conditioned mind, you have to set this as your personal goal. Fortunately, even though society is totally set up to perpetuate conditioning, countless people are fascinated by the prospect of waking up and finding out who they really are.  There’s no need to be either hopeful or pessimistic that this trend will continue and expand. It is inevitable that consciousness wants to know itself, unlike the mind, which spends endless time and energy not knowing itself. The inevitability of consciousness is the second greatest insight of the world’s wisdom traditions—let’s see how it expresses itself in our time.


Deepak Chopra MD

Preparing for Your Inner Journey

By Caroline Myss

All journeys require preparation. The inner journey is no exception to that rule but because we actually don’t think of the inner journey in the same way we think of a vacation, for obvious reasons, the idea of preparations strikes us as preposterous. Of course it does. But let’s look at this from a different perspective, the monastic life.

Granted, the monastic life is foreign territory for most of you - but is it really that foreign? Anyone who is interested in deepening their understanding of their personal spiritual life is wading in essentially monastic waters. Eventually you will find yourself reading sacred literature, maybe out of curiosity or maybe for more significant reasons. But the ways, teachings, and inner world of mainly the Christian and Buddhist monasteries of the world have penetrated mainstream society.

One of the given practices within traditional monasteries is to seek the guidance of a spiritual director as you prepare for your inner journey. Why? Think of it from this perspective. Imagine your inner Self as unknown territory. You do not really know who you are from the inside out. You know who you are from the outside in. You know the outer reactive you, but not the inner proactive you. You know the frightened you far better than the courageous you. You know the part of you who clings to the world as you want it to be far better than the inner you, who understands that the world is in constant flux and that you must learn to flow with the change and flux that is the nature of life. Learning to let go, not once, but again and again, is the path of learning to live in harmony with the laws and ways of life instead of living in opposition to life.

Love Is the Only Currency of Life

The inner Self is a truth-seeker. The outer you is driven by the personal illusions we all create for ourselves, illusions we will do anything to maintain. The outer you fears looking at the truth whereas the inner you cannot rest until it sees the truth. The outer you holds selfishly to love, using it as reward and punishment currency. The inner Self recognizes love as the only currency of life. Our outer and inner worlds, our external and interior domains, are two separate spheres of consciousness, that of the ego and the soul. Our outer self, our finite self, exists in the illusion that somehow the accumulation of material objects - money, status, fame, power - will assure its longevity.

The ego tells itself that the laws governing "the finite" will yield in the face of enough piles of stuff. Moguls of power have attempted to negotiate with the "finite self" since the beginning of time, only to be met with defeat - always defeat. Imagine that between the domain of the ego - our external self - and our interior self, is a second ever-beating heart that pulsates the eternal paradox: an endless attraction for this physical life is ultimately met with endless frustration or disappointment. We can never finally achieve ultimate control over everyone or everything. Someone will always escape our manipulative tactics. We never really find what we are looking for - is it love? And how much love would that be? And where will we find the supply source for all this love and attention we crave? Is it really another person? But what if that person leaves you? Then what? Will the search begin again? Well, maybe it’s not another person. Perhaps it’s stuff. How much, then, and where do I get stuff? How much is enough? And then comes the dilemma: Where do I put all my stuff? Stuff needs storage.

The spiritual journey is the long and rigorous path of entering into the eternal paradox that exists between your ego and your soul, that center point at which your appetite for the finite confronts your longing for the part of you that is capable of comprehending the nature of the infinite. Through that comprehension, you experience your own infinite Self. Your fear is that if you touch your infinite Self for even a second, your appetite for your finite world will evaporate. When you return to your mundane consciousness, your ordinary five-sensory world, you will see it for what it is: illusions built upon temporary illusions. Then how will you now exist in a world that you so clearly understand to be driven by fear?

So the question is this: How does a person prepare for a journey he or she fears taking yet cannot resist?

The Beginning

People often say that their spiritual journey began as a result of an illness or a trauma. It was, in other words, crisis-motivated. Pain, loss, isolation, and/or the need for personal healing drove the individual to seek out a path of personal healing, comfort, or self-empowerment. But ask that individual, "What are you actually seeking?" Most often, that individual will give a vague one-word reply: happiness, health, peace, tranquility, and joy are very common answers. None of them actually "means" anything. They are not really arrows pointing in any specific direction. They are just words that float in the air, leaving the person uncommitted to any path of spiritual discipline or devotion whatsoever. What type of spiritual discipline and daily practice is actually required to achieve joy? Or happiness? In general, happiness is associated with other people and more often than not, a person assumes all those other people are responsible for making his or her happiness happen.

I was intrigued for a long time at the consistency of these vague answers. At first I could not figure out how people could say they were "seeking" something yet have no idea what that something was. Then I got it. The majority of people who experience a life-crisis experience are actually going in search of why events happened to them as they did. They step into spiritual waters looking to feel better, looking to heal, but the true inner goal is that they are seeking a way home, a way back to what they lost. Because that is an impossible goal - one can never go home again - it is impossible for them to see anything at all. They can’t bring themselves to look forward, to release the past, to acknowledge that their marriage is actually over and that they are middle-aged and single, or that healing requires that they acknowledge that they are 60-years old and must work to heal a 60-year-old body. They have to finally confront their age and not a fantasy image of themselves at age 40. Healing does not include the return of their youth, but their health.

Thus, they can only respond with vague answers when I ask, "What are you seeking on your spiritual path?" They are seeking what does not exist - the past. They want to go where they cannot go and thus, they remain in chaos.

Entering the spiritual path with crisis as the motivation is entering into a psychic field of chaos. What are you entering into and why are you calling this chaos your spiritual path? What exactly about it is spiritual? Are you calling it spiritual because the chaos is inspiring you to read a few spiritual books? Or because in the midst of the chaos, you’ve decided to utter a few SOS prayers? The journey into widening the length, width, and depth of your consciousness and inner spirit is a well-directed, "conscious" endeavor. Though it may be initiated by chaos in the form of an illness, or loss, or whatever earthly trauma falls upon us, the first wise move is to harness that trauma and direct the flow of its power, lest the power of that trauma direct us.

And so, with that in mind, we begin the conscious preparation of the journey into your inner Self. (The image occurs to me of Jules Verne preparing for the journey to the center of the earth…ha).

1.Harness Your Energy

By harnessing your energy, I mean that we can all list the personal events or traumas that caused us to take up the spiritual path. Take time to reflect on their present role in your life. Are these events primary to who you are now? Are past wounds, or a divorce, or death, or an act of betrayal, something that you continually or fairly often bring into your present life? Is it a wound you keep ripping open? This is an example of how the power of a trauma directs us rather than we harnessing the power and redirecting our lives instead. It is fair to bring up illness as a crisis, as a person might wonder, "How do you harness the power of the trauma of an illness?" - especially when an illness is by its very nature so depleting. That’s a double if not triple challenge and one few can rise up to as this one is "in" you and not just "around" you, as other life crises are. You really can’t walk away from an illness. In the case of chronic syndromes, like arthritis or lupus or other long-term illnesses, it is wise - and again, it is difficult - to ask, "Is there anything else I can and should be doing?" Or, "Is there anything I should not be doing?" Helplessness and victim consciousness feed illness, and at the very least, we can ask ourselves those two questions on a regular basis.


2.Pick a Day to Separate Past from Present

This is your day of ritual, an official day of entering onto your path. We thrive on rituals. We need them. Rituals are invitations for the Sacred to bear witness upon our actions, to stand beside us as we initiate a new course of action in our life. A ritual is a request for a blessing, a prayer invoking the holy. Pick a day that represents a new point of beginning for you, a separation from the old and an entry into a new consciousness. Don’t overdue your ritual, by the way. Don’t burn down your house with candles or turn your backyard into a mini-Stonehenge. But do one small thing that makes the day stand out between you and heaven. Light one candle. Spend ten minutes in solitude, releasing the past and wrapping yourself in the present. Let your eyes slowly absorb everything that fills the present that is your life. What are the contents of your life? What meaning do these things have for you, and Why? How conscious are you of them? What does and does not contribute to your life? Who is important to you as you enter into the deeper content of your life? These are the questions that change the direction and depth of your life.


3.Leave Something of Your Ego Self Behind

A journey is a turning point, a recognition that you are consciously standing at a crossroads and in full awareness, choosing a path of transformation. You are choosing to know yourself on a deeper and more authentic level, to shred illusions that stand in the way of becoming a whole human being. These are mere words, meaningless sentences, until you animate them with actions that engage their power. The journey needs an action that marks its point of beginning, something that notes, "I am new because of this. I was that. I am now this." Thus, you need to release some part of your outer you that is no longer essential to your life. You need to select an aspect of your ego self that you recognize as an obstacle, a false part of yourself that interferes with you seeing yourself clearly. Nothing in this domain is insignificant. For example, the choice to walk twenty minutes a day as symbolic of your journey is an enormous choice. It requires discipline of mind and body. It requires that you be present each day to that one choice, that your life attend to the accomplishment of that one choice. In attending to that one choice, you are introducing into your life the template of discipline. You are taking command of your will. I repeat that there is no such thing as a small first choice as each one will engage the full fury of your excuse mechanisms and that is also the purpose of this exercise. You need to become conscious of how your shadow self sabotages your efforts to become whole. Another example, one that is more internal and therefore more complex, is the choice to release personal acts of betrayal. "I will no longer betray myself in words or in deeds." This is a choice to live at a high level of truth. I don’t recommend this as a first choice because most people are not prepared for the full consequences that "truth" brings into their life. But let me suggest that you reflect upon the fear of that choice just to give you an idea of how much "non-truth" or illusions you surround yourself with. In doing that, you come to understand much better what the mystics meant when they described the Divine as "truth itself." Reflect on this and select one aspect of your ego self that you will leave behind as your marker for your journey.


4.Introduce a Personal Devotion

The inner journey requires an inner spiritual devotion. Often time spent in prayer, contemplation, or reflection is referred to as a "practice," but I personally do not like that word. I associate that word with sports. And "practice" does not invoke thoughts or much consciousness of the sacred. It is a neutral word that suggests, "You better do this until you get it right." Get what right? This idea that one prayer is better than another is preposterous. Devotion, on the other hand, offers you the imagery of connecting to holiness by gradually piercing through the wall of the reasoning mind, that part of you that is always in search of logical answers from God. "Why is this happening to me?" "If I only knew...." The endless search for answers that will never be given often forms the core of a person’s prayer life, and such prayers are not worth devotion. You become devoted to releasing that type of prayer, to ceasing the need to ask for what cannot be given and to receive that which can be given. This is the true nature of prayer: Listening, accepting, learning to identify the distractions of your ego world and then separating yourself from their authority over you, absorbing the tranquility of the graces and quietly, gradually learning the subtle and sublime differences in their sensations. And finally, absorbing others into this growing field of tranquility, transmitting the silence of the soul to others - for healing, for counsel, for wisdom, for peace. This is the true nature of prayer.


5.Keep a Journal

It’s not necessary to write pages and pages daily. But I highly recommend that you journal your own journey, if only to take notice of how you are changing. Writing something down, committing words to paper, makes change real. Writing captures thoughts and perceptions that would otherwise continue to float away and evaporate into thin air. You will not forget that you were visited by a wondrous thought or a beautiful insight. Some of these are worth writing down and revisiting for the rest of your life. As you are preparing for your journey, you may have to get a journal and confront the challenge of the blank first page. Many of you are not writers but journaling does not require that you be a skilled writer. No one but you will read your journal. You can draw, write one-word thoughts, or copy a poem that reflects what you are feeling that day. The point is to record something of each day, or every other day of your new life. But start now.

Enough for Now

These are your instructions for the beginning of your journey. They are few but they are potent. They contain enough "charge" to initiate the reordering of your life - trust me on that.

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