Tag Archives: consciousness

Self Awareness and Unawareness

I’ve yet to encounter anyone who self-identifies as being self-unaware. It’s one of those things that you have to have if you’re on a spiritual path, and that we tend to talk about in terms of work done rather than in terms of struggle or full on failure. So, here we go…

I like to know what I’m doing and why, but honestly, sometimes, I have no idea. Sometimes the emotions and impulses turn up and it isn’t until afterwards that I can figure out what’s going on. Often this is important, it happens because I’m changing, growing, healing, breaking, stretching or somesuch. To do those things I have to go through a patch where I may have little idea what’s going on with me.

Not all of my thinking is conscious – there’s all kinds of stuff the brain gets up to where the conscious bit of the mind can’t see it, and sometimes surprising things bubble up from the depths. Sometimes this shows up in dreams, or comes through in my writing. Sometimes I can only bring things into my consciousness by accidentally starting to write about them. I like this about me. I like that I can still surprise myself and that there are always new things to explore.

I’m getting new experiences and information on a daily basis. My environment shapes and shifts me. My body changes over time. My needs, wants, hopes and desires change. When they are in flux, I may need to question them regularly to keep up at all.

I have ideas about who I have been and aspirations about where I might be going, but both of these can be wrong. We re-write our stories all the time, and I’m fine with that – it is necessary. The story I tell myself is not the story other people tell about me. There are plenty of other people’s stories in which I am a far better person than I appear to be when I look at me. There are also plenty of other people’s stories in which I am all the wrong things imaginable, and there are lots of those and they exist for reasons and some of those reasons are definitely of my making. Often they pertain to situations where I refused to do or be what was wanted of me.

There is a balance to strike between navel-gazing introspection, and looking outwards. We can’t entirely know ourselves by looking in, we have to get out there and do stuff, and see what we do and how we feel about it and what happens next. We have to engage with other people and see what they make of us and whether we agree with them. Too much introspection can create halls of mirrors in which we see reflections of who we imagine we are, ever more distorted by all the things about us we haven’t actually faced or dealt with…  Too little introspection and we can be at the mercy of anything – interior or exterior. We’re easily led and persuaded if we don’t know who we are or what we want.

I don’t always choose the right bits of my personality to squash down as unacceptable, or the right bits to bring forward into the light. I have a history of making poor judgements about what of me should be allowed, and what is too offensive to other people, what I’m entitled to and what I’m not. At least, right now I think those were bad choices, but a decade ago I thought they were wise and responsible choices. The opinion of future-me remains a mystery.

For all that I try to understand how my history impacts on my outlook, how my feelings affect my actions, how my actions inform my life… I also give myself permission not to know. To be perplexed and lost and confused sometimes – because those are important experiences too. I give myself permission to have no idea what’s going on or what I ought to be doing so as to make space for new things to come in. I give myself permission to change and to surprise myself. And as far as I can manage it, I am not going to let any story I have about how self aware I am become a reason to ignore anyone who doesn’t agree with me, or to reject input that doesn’t affirm to me how brilliantly self aware I am being. It’s a theory, at any rate.

Breaking your reality

We do all to a certain extent choose our realities, because the way in which we interpret experience informs how we think and feel about it. While there are limits on how much we can change our reality by thinking about it (I am so not a chaos magician) the scope for difference is vast. No amount of positive thinking would turn this awkward body into a ballerina, but the ability to imagine I could be graceful would make the difference between dancing and not dancing.

We make theories about life based on experience. It is entirely possible to draw fairly reasonable conclusions that are entirely wrong. We try to find meaning in what happens to us, and that’s a very subjective process. Where we place the power in those judgements makes worlds of difference. Do I see an event of proof of failure and that I am therefore a failure? Do I see it is bad luck and worth another try? Do I see someone else as responsible for thwarting me? Get that wrong and I can start to build a reality that will get me into trouble. Believe I am thwarted and I might start feeding a paranoid persecution complex.

Sometimes, when a wonky reality is really embedded, the only way forward is to break. Sometimes there can be no tidy dismantling of the messy thinking. If your whole reality is a mess, based on dubious premises, then letting go of it will, for a while at least feel like madness. This is a huge incentive not to let go. Sometimes the road to sanity and health does require us to go a bit nuts first. I’ve been through some of this, needing to shift from a belief that I entirely deserved everything that had gone wrong for me. Holding everyone else blameless, I had carried guilt and feelings of being an absolute failure. For them to be right, and ok, I must be so awful that I barely qualified as a proper person. More like a straw doll. Changing that was quite a traumatic process, and it has redefined a significant number of relationships.

It doesn’t always have to be that dramatic. The process described above was one I had little conscious control over. My life and mind fell apart, there was nothing to do but work through that. However, choosing to dismantle a wonky reality, can be approached slowly and a bit more gently. We can set out to change our own thinking, and do that by changing what we do, or the spaces we move in. We are shaped by our environments, by the people we associate with, the things we do, or do not do, and small or modest shifts there can have considerable effects.

I’ve been working this year on changing my relationship with my body, and how I relate to people physically. Initially I thought that would just be about learning to do some things differently, but it is changing my thinking so that I can now see how my thinking needs to change in order to progress. At the moment I’m just trying to unpick what it is that I think and feel, because in understanding that, I might be able to make some conscious changes, or plan some experiments to help me find other perspectives.

Holding together all questions of reality, is that huge issue of “who am I?” Working out what of our experiences are a reflection of self, and defining of who we are. Working out what is just ‘stuff that happened’ and should not be taken personally. How much of that is choice? Do we simply become the bits of our life experience that we choose to internalise? If that’s the case, there is a lot of scope for choosing, and for shifting our realities.

Revolutions in thinking

I’m currently reading about the early fossil hunters – Mary Anning et al, and the huge shift in consciousness they caused. Until the 1800s, the Christian west had understood creation as perfect and unchanging. Awareness of extinct dinosaurs, mammoths and so forth brought into question the whole story. Why would God make things and then not keep them? A perfect God could not make imperfect creatures and have to give up on them! A perfect God would know exactly what he was doing from the start! Why would God make things and allow them to become extinct? It made no sense.

Taking on the implications of the past – that the Earth is older than the Bible suggests, that extinction happens, that things are created imperfectly and can change, that there is evolution, rocked the Victorian world. More than a hundred years on and there are still people who prefer any explanation for fossils but the most logical one. Everything we once thought we knew, was wrong. We went round similar cultural upheaval dealing with the idea that it isn’t a flat Earth, and the sun does not go around the Earth. We killed people as heretics over that, I believe. We struggled with recognising that people are people, no matter their skin colour and that we all evolved from ape-like ancestors.

It is worth looking at how in the past, we resisted new thinking. We fought against feminism and women getting the vote, insisting for decades that women are too silly to handle anything much. As with the folk who haven’t got to grips with evolution, sexism and racism still hold sway in some minds. Often the same minds. Every good idea, every moment of progress has been accompanied by fervent denial, ridicule of the new stuff, through to actually murdering people for daring to disagree. The first guy to translate the Bible into English died for that. We’re so frightened of having our old stories challenges that we kill to protect them rather than accept change, or new insight. That’s not a glowing endorsement of us as a species.

So we’ve spent decades adamant that climate change science isn’t real, and isn’t happening. We’re still having the same maddening debates about equality and tolerance on all fronts and there are still people who think God put the dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith. Assuming we get our acts together and face up to the challenges of our times – climate change, pollution, poverty, resource allocation, our whole relationship with the natural world… Assuming we get that right and there are future humans who can look back, they will no doubt line us up with all the other idiots of history who refused to read the writing on the wall, and who preferred death to changing the story. The only difference between us and our reactionary ancestors, is that this time if we get it wrong, there may be no one in the future to look back at us in bemusement and wonder how on earth we failed to grasp the blindingly obvious.

Your hidden mind

On Art Share this week (www.art-share.org) we were talking about how we work, and the importance of switching off the more conscious part of the mind in order to better get on with things. Tom definitely draws more comfortably if there’s music on, or I’m playing, or reading to him. It frees up his hands.

Rather a long time ago, I minored in psychology at university, and one of the things I ran into was the idea of the pre-conscious mind, which does quite a lot of the work. It’s this bit that will pop up the answer to a missing name three hours after the relevant conversation. Somewhere beneath the surface, you were working on that all along. This is just labels, as far as I know there are no actual brain structures to go with them.
Rather a lot of our thinking happens at a level we aren’t aware of. All the technical stuff around running the body. Anything we know well. These days I tend to say I play the violin by sense of smell, because I have no conscious idea of what I’m doing any more. It just happens. Hours and hours of work have resulted in the violin being so much a part of my body that I do it the same way I breathe. And as with breathing, if I have to think about it, things get complicated. This, I gather, is true of people who are good at pretty much anything, and if you make a person deconstruct what they’re doing to explain it, their ability to do it actually reduces for a while.

Last night my brain woke me in the early hours of the morning because it had processed a large quantity of raw data and it wanted me to look over the findings and make some decisions about how to act. Why that seemed so important that I had to do it at 3am, I have no idea, but I did the thinking, went back to sleep and woke up feeling like I’d made some good choices.

So what is going on at the back end of my mind, in the bits I can’t see? I think the answer is habit and training. My mind can run unconsciously round any loop I have built and maintained. That’s true of the violin playing, and it is also true of anxiety. I have a capacity to learn and analyse unconsciously, but only because I’ve put so much time into learning and analysis. Tom draws amazing art when he’s not thinking about it too much, but only because he’s spent decades thinking about it a great deal.

It can look a bit like magic. We might be tempted to see the hand of deity in the mix, or some other supernatural agent, and to miss out the important detail that we built the space in which this happens. We made the tools, fine-tuned the hardware, wrote the software, if you like.

I only have myself to blame for what my mind gets up to in the middle of the night.

The flip side of that is knowing that I can deliberately reconstruct my thinking, with time, establishing better habits of thought, and putting my energy into the right things. I don’t believe that we make our own realities, but we absolutely do make the brains that perceive and engage with whatever else is out there, and we have a startling amount of power to change that, albeit slowly.

Being Judged

Modern Paganism doesn’t do much in terms of imagining post-death judgement. This is one of the things I happen to like. The idea of someone keeping score, and judging me against an unknown set of rules or criteria has never felt like a comfortable thing. There are so many religions that know that one true way to guaranteed passing the end of your life test. Unfortunately many of them are incompatible, and don’t even agree about what the ultimate goal is.

I rather like the ancient Egyptian take on this one. After death, the heart of the dead person is weighed in the underworld, the Gods providing the equipment and seeing the process through, but not actually judging anything. It is the heart of the individual that provides judgment.

We are what we do. We are constantly in the process of becoming the sum and total of our actions. Flawed, striving, learning, we make mistakes, some of them terrible. The weight of the heart will not depend entirely on those mistakes, but also on what we did after them. The person who apologises, makes amends, seeks to redress the wrong done, will have a much lighter heart than the one who carries that guilt and the weight of wrongdoing. In this system, our delusions and fantasies shouldn’t turn out to count for much. The person who is joyfully evil should not come to the final reckoning with a light heart. But then, having been neither joyfully evil, or consciously dead, I can only speculate and there’s no knowing if the Egyptians had it right.

In interesting parallel, I read a book about consciousness back in the summer (title eludes me). It talked about how we construct our own minds, through thoughts, actions, beliefs, until at last we end up with the consciousness we die with. The writer felt that a consciousness in harmony, one that loved, sought truth and lived well, would be better placed to either survive death, and continue in a meaningful way, or voluntarily dissipate and join once more with everything else. A consciousness built of hatred, greed, selfishness and other such negative traits would simply go on to create its own hell. It’s a vision that calls for no external judgement at all, and simply makes our outcome the product of our own actions. Hell is something we may, or may not, choose to make for ourselves, both in this life and, potentially, in whatever comes after.

It brings us back again to the interesting issues of how death shapes life, and how beliefs about death inform what we choose to do. Are you expecting judgement from an eternal source that has the potential simultaneously to bestow meaning and reward?  Do you believe there is nothing beyond life and that you may as well please yourself in every regard? Do you believe that there is nothing else and that the only option is to live well and do the best with what you’ve got? If your heart went on the scales today, how would it weight?

There’s a lovely mediaeval song called Lyke Wake Dirge, about going through purgatory after death. “If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon… sit thee down and put them on… if never thou gavest hosen or shoon… the whinnies shall prick thee to the bare bones’. There’s another pair of verses about meat and drink following on from the shoes and socks. I like the idea that in the afterlife, all that we will have to help us on the journey to the next stage, will be what we gave to others. That’s a judgement I could live with.

Dream Interpretation

The science of dreaming fascinates me, the limits of it more so. There are dreams that I can readily identify as being my brain just sorting out what has come in during the day. When I learned to crotchet recently, I was crocheting the fabric of my dreams for some nights. I can also spot the dreams that are born from suppressed emotion – usually anxiety. Not least because they tend to take the same forms all the time.

But there are other dreams, rare and strange ones that I can’t rationally explain. Dreams that have such deep resonance it feels like they are telling me something. I remember waking from just such a dream in which my father was trying to contact me, and knowing that he would phone that morning. He did. My Nan had gone into hospital and she died a short time later. Not all of the resonant dreams are that clear and coherent though. Sometimes I wake with the sense that a profound thing has happened during my sleep, and no real idea what it was.

In my teens I studied my own dreams enthusiastically, and was managing a little lucid dreaming. In my twenties my dreams reduced down to a small number of scenarios, obsessively revisited and laden with anxiety. The return to good dreaming has been very much a part of my return to more creative and happy mental states. The quest for re-enchantment has me looking hard at my dreams again.

After all, we spend a fair chunk of our lives dreaming, they are part of our experience, and that gives them a reality of sorts. They may well be windows into the unconscious, they certainly have the capacity to bring fresh inspiration and to help with problem solving. There are dreams that incline me to feel I have really been somewhere else, and that something real has happened to me. Dreams where the emotional content is so affecting, that by influence, the dream itself becomes real in important ways.

We used, collectively, to be far more open to the idea of dreams as messages from god, or the gods, and of the potential of dreams to be prophetic. The rise of rationalism has done away with this as superstition. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. We take in and process far more information than we are conscious of. The capacity of the human mind to make connections and find patterns in apparently random things is phenomenal. Magical, even. It underpins so much of what we are able to do ‘rationally’. Dreams are all about the mad juxtapositions, the great intuitive leaps, maybe they are the bits we reject as other parts of our mind go through the available information to see what might be useful. Dreams are testimony to the sheer wonder of both our consciousness and our unconsciousness, to the imaginative potential within us all, and the dashes of chaos and irrationality that go into making us human.

Rational, logical thought only takes us so far. Intuition and inspiration are not logical (I pause once again to nod to Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance). Invention, problem solving, and creativity all depend on that more irrational thinking. Dreams are part of that process, a nightly eruption of the kind of thought that shows no respect to boxes, laws, or consensus reality.

Last night I dreamed about going to court, and finding there was no real hearing, just lots of people gathered together to sing, organised by a portly woman of advanced years. Explaining this to Tom he said ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings?’

She sang. Perhaps it’s a good omen!

Everything is a pagan issue

Yesterday Jayne opened the way to this line of thought by asking how television watching would possibly be a pagan issue. I’ve put my cards on the table at the outset here, because I’m going to argue that everything is a pagan issue.

For me, religion is not something we roll out for festivals and rites of passage. It’s a dedication to a way of understanding the world and moving through it. Religion is not something we do, it becomes part of who we are – this is a process we can all continually deepen, develop and explore. I’ve always considered paganism to be an active path, where those involved take personal responsibility for their own spiritual development rather than relying in the guidance of a book or a priest. Recognising that everything we do is, or can be, an expression of our beliefs, is a vital part of that process.

It’s easy to be consciously pagan when you’re at a ritual, walking in the woods, dancing around a fire or otherwise in an explicitly pagan setting. It’s much harder to be a pagan in a supermarket, or during the day job, or after the day job when you’re tired and just need to chill. But I ask the counter question, how can you be a pagan, and not still be a pagan whilst doing all of these things? Every choice we make has the potential to be an expression of our pagan selves. One of the most important choices we all make, on a daily basis, is how to use our time.

Now, that’s not just an issue about overt expression of paganism. It doesn’t mean we have to draw mystical symbols on everything we own and dance naked around the washing machine. It does mean we need to think carefully about how we use our time and resources. This is about how we treat ourselves, how we recognise the sacred within ourselves and use the time available to us to nurture our souls.

It is, pretty much by definition, easy and tempting to do what is normal. To go along with the mainstream and not think too much. As I see it, to be pagan is very precisely to reject the mainstream, the conventional and habitual. To be in relationship with the planet, the ancestors, gods, spirits, is to be adopting a way of viewing the world radically out of kilter with ‘normal’.

Are we fair weather pagans, honouring nature when it’s a nice sunny day and we feel like it, forgetting about issues of spirit and soul the rest of the time? That’s lip service. That’s religion as hobby, and it is not what it takes to make a profound commitment to a spiritual life. To be fully, truly, entirely pagan, is to be pagan full time. It’s to be pagan at work, and pagan doing the housework. It means bringing that paganism to everything we do and think, and nothing, nothing at all is outside of that.

In practice, doing that in one go is overwhelming to the point of being impossible. It’s more than most minds can handle, and daunting in the extreme. No one goes from liking the idea of paganism to living in an entirely committed way over night. It is a journey, and like all good quests, has no true end. There is always further we can take this.

So to anyone who is at the early stages along their path I would offer this. Everything is fair game, but there is no necessity to make all of your life consciously pagan in one go. Pick a small, manageable thing to change – it might be going greener with the cleaning products, recycling more, cutting down on power use. It might be taking ten minutes every day for meditation. Start manageable, and when you’ve adjusted, look around for the next thing. It’s not a race or a competition, there’s no one right way of doing this, except for ‘consciously’. By degrees, bring your pagan consciousness to all parts of your life, and let it guide you. This is not a process of self negation or denial either, this is a route to enrichment, to happier, more fulfilled and rewarding living. There is nowhere your paganism can’t go, and nothing your paganism cannot help you to do in more soulful ways.