A dear friend asked that question on facebook a few days ago. She created a private group and invited 80 or so people just to talk about this question. I was reluctant to respond, not because I had nothing to say, but because I had so much to say and it would take a lot of time and energy to say it. But the question still burned it’s way into me, so here I am with my long answer to this important question.
In and around the area in which I live, Boulder Colorado, it seems everyone is trying to be a conscious person and engaging in (or looking for) conscious relationship. It’s become “a thing” in these parts. In that way, it has become a label, or even an attainment; something we all want. I can say that a conscious relationship is a relationship between two conscious people, but that is not very helpful and pushes all of the interesting aspects of the question into the definition of a conscious person.
I would like to start with looking at the nature of the mind, which has both conscious and unconscious elements. The superpower of the unconscious mind is that it can process vast amounts of information automatically. The automatic nature of this processing is both necessary and it’s downfall.
The superpower of the conscious mind is that it has the power of choice. It is limited in the amount of information it can process but that processing is not automatic; we can choose our engagement with that information. The unconscious mind presents the conscious mind with the information that it deems relevant based on it’s automatic processing, as well as presenting any information that the conscious mind asks for. So what are the kinds of information that our minds can be aware of?
I find it useful to categorize this information into two broad streams, each of which is further divided into two streams:
Physical: Sensory information
Emotional: Emotions and feelings, including the gut feelings/cellular wisdom that is perhaps transmitted via the parasympathetic and/or enteric nervous system.
Mental: Thoughts, idea’s and hypotheticals
Mythological: Beliefs and stories.
I would like to define a conscious person as someone who can be aware of and disidentify with any of this information. A conscious person will still have emotions, but when the emotion arises, they experience it without identifying with it. In the same way, a story may arise within the mind, but a conscious person does not identify with that story. The more conscious the people in relationship can be, the more conscious the relationship can be.
Within a conscious relationship, both people are capable of experiencing what arises somatically and conceptually, but since they don’t identify with what arises, they can exercise the conscious mind’s superpower and choose the engagement with what arises. If I saw my relationship partner talking in an intimate way with someone else, it might trigger a fear of abandonment and an associated story that I am not good enough. If I’m a conscious person, I can experience that somatic and conceptual arising without identifying with it, and thus choose my course of action in response to my present moment experience.
Both the somatic stream and conceptual stream can be handled at the conscious or unconscious level. What is most interesting to me is the way in which our conceptual models influence the automatic processing of information within the unconscious mind. For example, if I have a belief that eagles represent an omen in my life, then my unconscious mind will prioritize any sensory information about eagles to present to my conscious mind. In this way our conceptual models filter what information the conscious mind sees.
This is why I think it is not enough to be a conscious person; I think it’s helpful to use our conscious awareness to deconstruct unhelpful beliefs and replacing them with better beliefs. Sure, these new beliefs are not without their own peril, acting as they do to filter information from the conscious mind. All of our conceptual models are merely projections into the underlying non-conceptual reality and thus are not true in the absolute sense. However, the test of our conceptual models is not whether they are true or false, it is whether they are useful. Our unconscious minds operate on our conceptual models, so doing away with conceptual models is not possible if we want to function in anyway in life. When you operate a vehicle, you are utilizing conceptual models built up during your life; models you were not born with. There is too much information to process for our conscious minds to be able to manage all the aspects of operating a vehicle, or do pretty much anything else. As I type these words, my conscious mind doesn’t know which fingers to press to select the letters on the keyboard, yet my fingers (mostly) hit the right key. So we are in the beautiful and dangerous situation of needing to have conceptual models in order to function, while at the same time these conceptual models are by their very nature flawed.
It often happens in life that something happens that shatters our world view, thus doing great damage to the conceptual constructs we have been using to function. It’s no wonder this often creates an existential crisis that makes it difficult to function. The very models we have been using are in shambles, and we need to construct new and better models in order to move forward. These types of crisis are difficult but also represent a great opportunity for the expansion of consciousness.
No conversation about consciousness would be complete without looking at the shadow and how it gets formed. I will use myself as an example of this.
Growing up, there was a deficit in the quantity and quality of love and affection in my life. This led me to a belief that there was something wrong with me, that I did not deserve to be loved. My adult self knows that any lack in my childhood had very little to do with me and a lot to do with my parents and their own issues and stresses, but that doesn’t change the existence of the model within my mind. I’m not looking for any sympathy here; in my admittedly limited experience, 90% or more of the people I know seems to have some variation on the “I’m too this” or “I’m not enough that” theme, though most would not admit to it. And some of the remaining of people seem to have the narcissistic belief that they deserved to be loved no matter how badly they behave. We are such an interesting species.
My belief that I was flawed in someway and not deserving love was part of my conceptual model. And I wanted to hide that I was so flawed, thinking that my flaws would prevent anyone from loving me. All of that thinking went into my shadow and I could not even let myself be aware of my belief in being flawed.
These type of shadow issues become really important in relationships and often drive people’s behavior. It’s not just the shadow dynamic is operating unconsciously but that it is actively engaged in blocking awareness of itself. If we want to be as conscious as possible in a relationship we need to do some shadow work and understand our own inner dynamic. Your task it not to seek for consciousness, but merely to seek and find all the barriers you have built against it (yes, I am riffing on the famous Helen Schucman quote).
This idea of the shadow has an ironic relationship for those of us who identify as conscious beings having conscious relationships. Once it becomes part of our identity, then there is a temptation to push away or deny anything which might indicate we are not fully conscious, thus driving it into the shadow, not a very conscious way of being.
So am I a conscious or unconscious being? If you are following along here, you might guess that my answer is yes. I have a mind, which has conscious and unconscious elements. I am always a combination of the conscious and unconscious elements. You can only be as intimate with another human being as you are first intimate with yourself. In order to be intimate with yourself, you need to be capable of being aware of the entire somatic stream of information as well as the entire conceptual stream of information, without identifying with those elements. None of us can be fully conscious of all this information all at once, nor it is desirable to try. We need the automatic processing of the unconscious in order to function. The very idea of “conscious person” or “conscious relationship” contains within it a flawed model of how our minds work. However it can still be a useful phrase if we know what we mean by it. For me this is all about our capacity to disidentify with the objects of our awareness.