A sincere and clear exploration of our own consciousness inevitably leads to lessons we can implement in our own lives. It helps us find ways to focus on what is important, to make us more productive and successful, and to make us happier. I have discovered this time and again, most recently when continuing the work I started last week exploring the nature of consciousness. With this in mind, I invite you to join today’s journey and believe it will lead you to practical and useful lessons and techniques you can start to implement today.
Does The Nature of Consciousness Change Over Time?
We begin by looking at the nature of consciousness and at its “evolution” over time.
Much has been written and said about “the evolution of consciousness”. A Google search yields a long list of articles ranging from the heavily academic and scholarly through to the religious and metaphysical. The academic end of the spectrum focuses on how consciousness arose in the first place, on how we humans came to think the way we do. The metaphysical, on the other hand, examines whether 1,000 years ago, or 500 years ago, consciousness was different in a meaningful way from consciousness today, and whether it will be different in another 500 years.
Expanding on this a little, many philosophers, spiritualists and thinkers regard consciousness as something that arose in the dim and distant past and is evolving with us as we change over time. They offer utopian views of a future in which all of humankind will “grok” a universal, interconnected, and compassionate life-force-consciousness. Ken Wilbur and his Integral Institute offer perhaps the most developed framework and body of work in this area. His Institute has developed a series of course in Spiral Dynamics, a theory which looks at human consciousness as evolving from basic survival through levels of family, security and reward into higher levels of opportunity; harmony and love; self-worth; and global community. It’s called “Spiral Dynamics” because at the same time Wilbur talks of consciousness evolving to higher planes, he sees it following a circular motion from internal to external (first to second person), from singular to plural and back again.
The Explosion of your Personal Consciousness
When I take this approach to examining consciousness down to a personal level, I find not so much the evolution of my consciousness, but its explosion.
So what does this concept of the evolution of consciousness look like for you as a person? Let me offer up some examples which I think will help you find that your own consciousness changes over time, and does so in a rather explosive manner:
- You were once a baby with an experience of the world very different from today. Somewhere along the way you first became aware of your existence, then identified as a child, as being associated with a particular gender, and over time with an exploding set of attributes and learned knowledge;
- Have you ever found yourself mindlessly scratching a tiny itch and then become ensnared in it, absorbed in it as it became bigger and stronger and finally took over your entire field of awareness?…Until something new came along and completely distracted you, starting another cycle of…something else!
- Did you ever lay in bed at night as a child and become absorbed in the gentle swishing of your heart? Did you ever find the gentle sensation that is not even noticeable in your everyday life rising to take over your entire field of awareness? It can become a drummer in the front yard, an axe chopping down the tree outside, or a heart attack about to happen: an overwhelming explosion;
- Now think of a business challenge, of a project or opportunity presented at work. The assignment was probably communicated in a short written document, or a brief meeting, but when you got into it you found there was much more there than you thought. And the more time you spent, the more it opened up in layer upon layer of complexity.
So I think that the human experience – your experience – is one of consciousness exploding into ever-greater complexity.
And have you noticed that this explosion of complexity in consciousness does not make you any happier? Actually, quite the opposite: each instance of the explosion of consciousness described above leads to progressively heightened levels of anxiety, maybe even trauma.
The Explosion of Complexity
Analogous to the explosion of consciousness, our we are experiencing an explosion of complexity in our world – today more than ever!
The history of modern science is a history of the explosion of complexity. It had a jump start in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century with (among other publications) Maxwell’s Theory of Electromagnetism and governing equations in 1865, and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, but it was in the early years of the Twentieth Century that things got really crazy. In 1897 with the “discovery” of the electron by J.J. Thompson, humankind validated that the fundamental particles of matter – atoms – are not fundamental at all. And things went on from there. Ernest Rutherford was credited with the discovery of protons in 1920, and James Chadwick with the discovery of the neutron, the particle which, together with the proton, forms the nucleus of atoms.
Overlapping with this timeline came the quantum hypothesis of Max Planck in 1900; Einstein’s corollary hypothesis in 1905 that light is comprised of quantized photons; and Einstein’s publication of a paper on Special Relativity in 1905 and the gravitational field equations of General Relativity in 1915. While few if any subsequent scientific landmarks have received such sustained popular acclaim, things have hardly slowed down, and our knowledge of the very large and the very small have both exploded.
And yet over a hundred years after this first incredible set of developments, the extent of what is still to come is staggering. As we dig ever deeper in our subatomic exploration, questions arise about the fundamental nature of time and space: Are they, too quantized? How do they arise? Is time symmetric? Just what, in fact, are time and space? And one of the great goals of physics, the grand unification of the fundamental forces (strong and weak sub-atomic forces, electromagnetism and gravity) is still elusive.
Which brings us to the very large, to astrophysics. As our instrumentation, computational technology, and knowledge base expand exponentially, here, too, apparent complexity is exploding. We are able to see ever deeper into space and to resolve distant star systems so that we can see planets; we are observing patterns in massively distant galaxies; and we are looking ever further back in time and getting closer to the singularity – the Big Bang – with which our universe began. In making gravitational and other readings of the universe we have learned that our science and methods of direct detection can only account for 5% of the contents of the universe.
The search for the missing matter and energy takes us back to the very small, for we are missing vast numbers of fundamental particles, vast amounts of fundamental energy. Our search takes us back ultimately to the tiny speck out of which the entire universe expanded. What happened before and during hyper-inflation? How many dimensions exist? What is the missing energy? What is the missing matter?
The same explosion of complexity exists in every field of knowledge. In the years since I left school, our understanding of the evolution of life has exploded, as has our knowledge (going in the direction of the large) of ecosystems; of the planet’s global weather system; of ocean dynamics, and of the earth’s systems inter-relationship with solar flares, etc. Similarly, going in the direction of the very small, our knowledge of the mechanics of DNA in reproduction and in cell operation, and more broadly than that our knowledge of the operation of the cell have also exploded – not just with no end in sight, but with every prospect that the pace of explosion of knowledge itself will continue to grow.
The deeper we burrow into the small and the further we are able to look out into the vast, the more rapidly observed complexity grows, and the more rapidly we find just how much further we still have to go. Scientists continue to seek an end of this complexity, continue to search for the magic keys which will allow us to reduce everything once more to the simple. But there is no sign of such a key; rather we continue to encounter exploding complexity.
Revisiting The Evolution Of Consciousness In The Light Of Exploding Complexity
By bringing together what we know of the evolution of consciousness and the explosion of complexity, we can better understand our suffering and our quest for knowledge.
We talk much in this Information Age of the exponential growth of knowledge, but not so much about the consciousness associated with this. I think this an important and sad omission, for though it is often seen as a difficult conversation, I believe we make it more complicated than it needs to be, and it is one that has much to offer.
I see a clear trajectory emerging from our examination that is consistent with the teachings of the mystics going back thousands of years. Spiritual narratives can be opaque and shrouded in mystery and metaphor, but at their heart these ancient teachings are very simple. They posit that everything – the entire universe, the entire multiverse, the entirety of whatever exists wherever it exists – comes out of the simplicity of pure, knowingless being; they posit that through a pinprick of consciousness, a pinprick of matter, the manifest explodes into existence. In theistic or religious terms this is the moment of creation; and in scientific terms the Big Bang.
But the spiritual narrative continues. It suggests that we misunderstand the nature of consciousness: that rather than us having consciousness, consciousness has us. (I wrote about this concept at some length a couple of weeks ago in How We Misunderstand Consciousness – And Where We Might Look). The spiritual narrative suggests that if we allow this consciousness – our consciousness – to get entangled in the material world – in our own body and mind – the whole thing just spirals into an unending expansion of complexity. It suggests that this complexity has two obvious consequences, both of which we explored above:
- It suggests that at a personal level, getting caught up in our experiences of liking or disliking, of wanting and not wanting, of our pain and discomfort, leads to ever deeper and more powerful emotions and to personal suffering;
- It also suggests that we need to be careful of knowledge, for though we should learn and take advantage of it for its practical uses in the material world, we should be aware that it has no ending and exists in a realm that can never move us to happiness.
What Does All Of This Have To Do With Me And My Life?
Eight lessons from our examination that have direct relevance to your life.
Looking closely at the expansion of complexity and at our tendency to get caught up in our own suffering and make things worse can put us on a path towards a happier and more focused life, a life which will naturally, out of the tighter focus and clearer thinking that will emerge, allow us to identify those things that really matter, and thereby do a better job of defining and achieving success – which does not come from buying a Maserati or a mansion, or even achieving a major and complicated life goal! The lessons are:
- Look closely at those things that cause suffering. By analogy with scratching the itch, the obsessive attention to a sound, realize that over-identification with our suffering does nothing by exacerbate suffering;
- Move away from identifying with these things, and move towards identification with the ability to observe them. I” am not the itch, I am the person watching the itch”; “I am not the person angry with my boss, rather I am the person observing this angry reaction”;
- Notice that this act of distancing creates the opportunity to slow things down, to take a breath, to redirect your actions away from amplifying problems and your own suffering;
- At the same time notice that whatever you dig into, whether a study subject, vacation planning, or a task at work, becomes increasingly complex the more you examine it;
- Recognize that this complexity has no end. In other words see how easily you can turn the simplest task into the most overwhelming, time- and mind-consuming problem…;
- …and recognize that allowing yourself to get caught up in that spiraling complexity is the same as focusing on an itch;
- Notice the corollary, which is that you do not need to get caught up in complexity;
- Finally notice that if you move away from personal identification with the the task, and instead move into identification with awareness of your reactions and responses, you move to a place where the growth in complexity loses its power to affect you.
These are on the one hand easy things to do, and at the same time incredibly hard. It is easy to take the first steps, but only with time and practice can we move into any level of mastery. But if you take even those first steps, I think you’ll find the results very rewarding. And assuming this is the case, you’ll keep coming back to practicing them and getting better.
In addition to the practical benefits this practice will bestow on your health, happiness, focus and success, it will offer you something else. As you move away from identifying with what you had previously thought of as yourself, with your suffering and your problems, you will be moving towards increasingly identifying with your own consciousness. While this is not concrete and quantifiable, I can assure you from my own experiences that this is a fascinating and wonderful journey.