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In Search of a New Consciousness

Is it possible to develop a new and better kind of consciousness in this lifetime, or even this week? Perhaps people are doing it all the time when they meditate over an extended period of time. Meditative practice has been known to make people calmer, less stressed, and even more creative. In other words meditation has some ability to transform personality or what we might refer to as the consciousness of a person.

Consciousness is roughly defined as the quality or state of being aware, whether that awareness is of what's going on internally or of external reality. But the level of conscious awareness and the way in which we exhibit it is to some degree personal and unique for each one of us. And the experiences claimed by some, such as being "born again," raises the question of whether we can recreate our own consciousness in a quicker and more active way than the usual slow process by which it develops or changes over the years.

To begin to understand our own minds we can look to nature and see the difference between our human consciousness and that of other animals. Many people claim that our consciousness makes us superior to other animals, while some might say it gives us no advantage over animals in terms of happiness, peace of mind, spirituality or even long-term survival as a species. But whether either of these propositions is true or false is a separate issue from the differences themselves. With or without any value judgments -- without calling it superior -- we can observe that our conscious life is very different from that of a chipmunk or a lizard, for example.

What is the reason for that difference? How did this human consciousness evolve to become what it is? If we can answer this, even in part, we have some clues as to what we can do to develop our consciousness even further. So let's risk the assumption that a worm is less mentally developed than us, and start there.

A worm feels its surroundings, perhaps tastes them as well, and senses vibrations. All of these ways of relating to the world cause it to react in a pre-programmed kind of way. Wetness causes it to crawl out of the ground, for example, but it cannot learn that crawling onto pavement makes it likely to be run over or stepped on. It cannot reflect on how that happened to other worms, and so choose to do something different next time. If we can say that it is conscious at all in the sense of awareness and ability to learn and reflect on what it learns, we certainly would ascribe a very limited kind of consciousness to it.

A mouse, on the other hand, has a less limited consciousness. It can learn where danger is and avoid it. It has a much more developed nervous system. It certainly feels pain, and probably has rudimentary emotions.

A dog certainly has emotions, as anyone who has had one for a pet can tell you. It is able to learn a wide range of things. It can keep track of people and their “reputations” (I hurt my mothers dog by accident once, and it avoided me for weeks). Dogs dream, and though we do not know what their dreams are about, it does indicate a basic ability to imagine things. The consciousness of a dog is different and less limited than that of a mouse or a worm.

Then there are the apes and other primates, our closest cousins in the animal world of which we are a part. One famous one, Koko, has been studied for over 30 years, and has learned to speak American Sign Language. In addition to the 1,300 signs she knows, she also understands 2,000 words of spoken English. She does not merely recognize words, like a dog responding to commands, but invents new sentences on her own.

If we look at all of the examples in nature, we see a kind of evolution of consciousness, which culminates in humans. I say that it culminates in humans because our particular type of consciousness appears to be the most complex and the most adaptable. Although we are clearly still animals, no other animal has as many ways to respond to circumstances, to interact with the world. Of course we could someday discover other animals which are even more advanced than us, perhaps on other planets.

This intelligence and consciousness is not a function of our opposable thumbs, nor even of our brain capacity. Large brains alone do not guarantee the kind of conscious relation to the world that we are capable of. Other animals with large brains do not think like we do (as far as we can tell). They do not reflect on their lives and change their plans for the future. It is not just what we have for a brain, but how we use it.

Now, it is true that a dog, or even a lion can be raised to be gentle with smaller animals, rather than trying to kill and eat them. This shows that they are adaptable to new circumstances, and can even develop behaviors that seem to go against their instinctive ones. But there isn't much evidence that this is a result of a conscious decision made by the animals. Humans, on the other hand, can choose to change. This process can be manifested in changing of habits of body and mind over time. For example, even if you did not initially feel generous to others you could choose to be more kind and giving to people until this became your habitual response to strangers and friends alike.

But we return now to the initial question of whether we can make such changes more "instantaneously" as a result of new knowledge and awareness. I don't have an answer, but it seems that if we can at any moment decide to choose a better thought or action rather than a worse one, there might be hope that seeing clearly what is needed and being aware of what is possible could lead to a sudden transformation in perspective and so (maybe) even character.

By the way, the limited evidence for this hypothesis comes from studies of people who have had near-death experiences and those who have psychedelic mushroom "trips" that changed their lives. (I have a page that covers research on the positive effects of magic mushrooms.) In both types of cases people have reported positive life changes from their experiences. It is true that the positive effects seem to slowly diminish in time, but that just suggests that we are forgetful in some fundamental way, and so might need regular reminding of some sort in order to sustain a new and useful perspective or consciousness.

It is also possible that those of us who are too intellectual in our approach to what might be called "spiritual" matters find it more difficult to have enlightening or transformative experiences. Just as there is a difference between a scientist's explanation of flight and the actual experience and sensation of flying, analyzing the possible perspectives might be a poor substitute for exploring them more directly. Should we talk about the mountain or climb it?

I'll leave this essay here, with more questions than answers.

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