In a recent conversation on her podcast, my friend Holly asked me “what does consciousness mean to you?” I encourage you to listen to the entire episode (it’s only 20 minutes long), but here is my answer:
“Consciousness, to me, is about space. It is the space between your thoughts and your feelings — and you, your True Self. In western culture, this space or distance between thoughts and feelings and your True Self is often not there. When you begin a mindfulness practice, when you begin to meditate on even a very basic level, you begin to understand that you are not your thoughts and feelings. This opens up a little bit of space. And when that space opens up, your vision changes. When your vision changes, the forms you have and the narratives you have about those forms permanently shift.”
I’m quite new to my understanding of consciousness. It took a while to dismantle the thought structures from being immersed in Christian fundamentalism, conservative talk radio and other influencing factors. The idea of consciousness in these cultures was seen as “woo woo” — or “not biblical” — both of which are bullshit.
While I’m certainly no consciousness expert, I’ve learned a few things that might be useful. One is that there appear to be two kinds of consciousness and, therefore, two kinds of practices: 1) spiritual and 2) psychological. Spiritual consciousness is related to awakening, enlightenment. This is divine, mysterious, unplanned and quite disruptive. For me, this practice is about prayer, intuition, listening. Psychological consciousness is evolutionary. It is moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy to self-actualization through a mindfulness practice. It is neuroscience. Which is why I use Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” app for this practice. Both practices require discipline, solitude, silence, stillness. One involves faith. The other involves logic.
I’ve also learned that, in many ways, consciousness is incompatible with modern life. For one, it is not a coping mechanism — at least not for attempting to keep an illusory life going. For another, it takes actual time. But most of all, consciousness always creates change. And most people really don’t like change.
I’ve observed that consciousness is particularly incompatible with two facets of contemporary times: consumerism and ideology. For this essay, I will focus on consumerism.
Things of the soul are incompatible with consumerism. Not the consuming to exist or to experience — but the consumerism born of productizing the yearning for meaning, purpose, fulfillment. This productizing happens in several areas:
- Religion — specifically the Prosperity Doctrine. If you are not familiar with that branch of American Christianity, I strongly encourage you to check out this article. The Prosperity Doctrine is not the only part of religion that is transactional. In fact, you can go back to the New Testament and read of Jesus’ clearing the temple of money changers. Whatever the era, transactional faith is highly incompatible with consciousness because it requires you to participate in the illusion that some prophet, pastor or doctrine provides you something you don’t already have.
- Career — I call this the Achievement Doctrine. This is the “American Dream” combined with a “win at all costs” mindset — and the Machiavellian “the ends justify the means.” We tend to place more value on the sum of someone’s achievements over the sum of their character. This too is an illusion, but that’s not the only thing that makes it incompatible with consciousness. The Achievement Doctrine assumes a finite amount of everything — primarily tied to material possessions. And consciousness teaches you there is an endless supply of what really matters.
- Self Help — I call this the Motivation Doctrine. This is the idea that something outside of you is the answer to happiness and fulfillment. This often comes in the form of a course, a retreat, a motivational speaker, a book. Book publishers know that if you bought a self-help book in the last 18 months, you are the one most likely to buy another one. I’m not condemning self-help nor these platforms. It is certainly a good thing to get inspired by someone else’s ideas and life. And it’s good to learn and grow. But striving outside of yourself for answers and meaning is incompatible with consciousness.
Each of these areas has its celebrities, its gurus. And each of them feeds their audience a steady stream of highly profitable consumable material. And because consumerism can’t feed the soul, people keep lining back up at the conveyor line for another helping. It is a hell of a business model.
Here is what consciousness reveals …
What your soul feeds on is always free. It just needs to be cultivated. Stillness is free. Compassion is free. Acceptance is free. Movement is free. This makes consciousness not just incompatible with consumerism, but a threat to it as well. This is because consciousness connects you with reality. And in reality, we need very little once our soul is fed.
As I said, I don’t have this all figured out. I still like stuff. I’m still drawn to status symbols. I still get a thrill of seeing an Amazon package on the front porch. Just way less so than I used to. Consciousness has definitely taught me a level of essentialism. It makes me examine my motivation behind wanting to buy something. It makes me examine my ego’s need to make a statement. And it has greatly enhanced the value of all the free things in life.