Conscience and Consciousness

A Spiritual Path for Personal Transformation

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” — Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

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Spirituality is often an amorphous and bandied about term that too often connotes the merely religious type, as somehow distinct from those who are not. It’s a little like the artificial distinction sometimes made between what is sacred or secular in a world of human experience that is actually infused with the totality of all things, known and unknown.

Instead, I appreciate something as equally shared as it is often neglected, namely the human conscience and our consciousness of it. Simply put, human consciousness is the awareness of a personal conscience; where conscience is a core dimension with which we have the innate capacity to take account of ourselves.

One’s conscience, however, is not simply about adherence to an external set of beliefs about what is “right” or “wrong;” which can – and does – change, both cross-culturally and over time. Rather, it is something intrinsic within every human being, and is universal when it comes to our common humanity. Ultimately, it has to do with meaning and purpose.

It is also similar to the observation that at the heart of every great religious tradition the same fundamental truths about purpose and meaning are espoused; with ways of wisdom practiced as expressions of those truths. In this sense, the human conscience is not only that spiritual home from which we can wander; but from which we can often lose the way of return, as well. The Christian faith tradition is a good example of just such a journey.

Before Human Consciousness became “Spiritualized”

“The (Father’s) imperial rule is within you and it is outside you. … If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas, 113:4, 70

From what little we know, the historical Jesus was an itinerant 1st century Galilean sage, teacher from Jewish peasant stock. He was also sometimes referred to as a “spirit” person. But put another way, he was also a person of conscience, with a keen awareness of the human condition in all its inconsequence and magnificence.

While his teachings were life changing for his followers, they were also soon affiliated with what quickly became a legendary figure; and to which a messianic title was subsequently attributed by a religious sect that arose in the years following his human demise.

In the decades and centuries that followed, a whole set of belief’s about his divinity overshadowed his teachings. Furthermore, it’s worth noting those teachings now considered most historically authentic were noticeably void of any religious language, but richly and colloquially descriptive of his full humanity.

Central to those teachings was the fundamental notion that there was not only an inherent dimension within every person that was connected to the source of all being-ness; but that it also required an awakening, of sorts, for those who had “eyes” to see, and “ears” to hear. Any notions of such religiously laden ideas like salvation or redemption — that were subsequently overlaid and instituted — originated from a transformative process that first arose within the individual.

Of course as we know, the early Christian movement quickly constructed a hierarchical structure with ecclesiastical authority, dispensing certain orthodoxies (right belief) and heresies (wrong beliefs). The role for the human conscience as the source of “spiritual” awareness and practice was replaced by conformity to those external doctrines called Church teachings; along with the proprietary claim that personal salvation was mediated solely through the divinity of Jesus, as the Christ.

In contrast, Jesus the wisdom teacher directed his earliest followers to look within themselves, and each other. As such, Jesus was not “the way,” but a companion in the way each person has the capacity to travel; given the conscious awareness of that path, and the choice to venture wherever it leads.

Consciousness and Conscience as a “Spiritual” Path

I have often looked around at the world in which we live with all our faults and foibles and thought to myself we seem to be hard-wired as human beings, but soft-wired whenever we try to describe or imagine ourselves to be so-called spiritual beings.

As physical, finite beings, it’s hard to remain unaware of outward human frailties, successes and excesses. But to become aware of anything more — or other — than what is empirical, verifiable and (consequently) believable is commonly considered to be a venture into the intangible, ethereal realm of “spirituality.” Our soft-wired side can’t seem to stand up to the harsh realities with which we are confronted and challenged in today’s world of disruption, chaos, and sheer seeming madness.

When our “spiritual” side is invoked or employed, it’s typically in some religious context or tradition; that is — as often as not — seen to be in a battle over whose “god” is greater, and whose religious convictions possess the “truth.” Whenever a crack of doubt is introduced into any set of staunchly held beliefs in such a common scenario, two options then present themselves.

One can shut one’s eyes, squeeze them tightly, and endlessly repeat, “I believe, I believe, I believe _____ (fill in the blank).” The world around us then becomes filled with competing rules, ideals and principles; all representing ways we should behave, as well as what we should think and believe. The devil perches on one shoulder, an angel on the other, both whispering in your ear. Such religious constructs become morality plays, depicting the battle between the forces of good and evil; typically tinged with the illusory promise of something better when our hard-wired selves ultimately wear out.

The other option? One can acknowledge a conscious awareness of something new and revelatory stirring within oneself, beckoning one to see with new eyes. However, this spiritual wellspring is not some external divine, but something just as worthy of being revered as sacred; namely, the human conscience. It is the awareness one might liken to an internal “divining rod” of what is right or wrong. And one which supersedes any external moral constructs of right and wrong, and instead instigates compassionate acts for a common good; yielding to a sense of personal purpose, and a kind of conversion or transformation worthy of any reputable “spiritual” quest for a meaningful life.

Transformative Acts of Conscience

If all this has your head swimming, here are three “secular” examples of transformative power of human conscience, or lack thereof.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden was a former security analyst contractor with the NSA, who made the conscious decision to breach the confidentiality agreement he had with the government, flee the country with sensitive documents, and then disclose the evidence government officials were flat out lying to the American public about the massive level of surveillance being indiscriminately conducted on the citizenry.

Snowden violated U.S. law by his conduct, jeopardized military information gathering practices and was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. When asked why he did so, he explained it as a matter of conscience; where his actions were essentially the result of competing external values and the importance he placed upon himself of one over the other. He has said he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, and that no matter what happened to him, he feels good about what he’d done. For him, one might say, it was a self-redemptive act. It gave him a deeply held sense of meaning and purpose.

It’s also worth noting that two years later, a bill recently introduced in Congress to overhaul the Patriot Act, curtailing the metadata collection program exposed by Snowden, is expected to pass overwhelmingly.

A second example: The late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL known as the American sniper, was a renowned killing machine; credited with saving his comrades time and again in Iraq. “After the first kill, the others come easy,” he wrote in his best-selling memoir. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do something special mentally — I look through the scope, get my target in the cross hairs, and kill my enemy, before he kills one of my people.”

When explaining how he’d managed to kill one insurgent from an incredible distance, he was quoted saying, “God blew that bullet and hit him.” Kyle went on to say he performed his duty with the values he held to be most important to him, and with a “clear conscience.”

At the same time, Kyle subsequently suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his military service. The bitter irony is that he himself was shot and killed at point blank range at a shooting range by another troubled veteran suffering from PTSD.

Now, we may all have our own opinions and labels for who is the hero, the villain, the patriot, or the traitor. But once consciously aware of what they were doing or had done, it might be said it became for both of these individuals a wrestling match equal to Jacob with the angel of their better natures. They struggled to reconcile their hard-wired self with their soft-wired conscience; each in their own redemptive quest.

A third example is the story of Chuck Palazzo.

Fifty years ago this spring, U.S. Marines stormed ashore on the beaches of Da Nang, South Vietnam; as part of what would be one of our countries longest military conflicts. Chuck Palazzo was an 18 year-old draftee from New York, who did his duty and followed orders without question. During his tour of duty, the Da Nang airbase became a storage depot for Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used extensively and indiscriminately throughout that country.

Fifty years later, Da Nang is now a favorite vacation destination for tourists, with the cabanas of modern high-rise hotels dotting the beaches. Most dismiss the American war in Southeast Asia as ancient history. One of only the few lingering effects of that conflict is the airbase and surrounding land which remains contaminated with dioxin levels 350 times international safety standards; most tangibly evidenced by the genetic birth defects that still continue to affect generations of newborn Vietnamese children to this day.

While the U.S. has spent $100 million to try to reduce the residual contamination it left behind in Da Nang with the construction of a state-of-the-art decontamination facility, it has never paid the $3 billion in reconstruction promised by the Nixon Administration during the Paris peace accords that ended U.S. involvement in 1973. One might call that unconscionable.

But a more personal lingering effect of that war from long ago was the post-traumatic stress Chuck Palazzo has endured; having been afflicted, in a sense, by his own awakened conscience. “I had a goal and a dream, to come back at some point and do something positive here in Vietnam and for the Vietnamese people,” he says. Five years ago he did just that.

American ex-pat, Chuck Palazzo

American ex-pat, Chuck Palazzo

“One of my motivations back then … was to resolve my own issues, as well as to work with the victims. I continue to heal as a result of the work that we do with the Agent Orange victims here. I have no medical or scientific background, but just interacting with kids, I could see that it makes them happy. And it makes me happy, too. I enjoy it.”

Our own small lives may not be as dramatic as these examples. But for those of us who may have previously simply relegated the idea of spiritual transformation to the religious life, consider what you would identify as your own conscience, when and how you become consciously aware of it, and how you apply it to the manner in which you live your life.

In what ways would you consider it akin to a spiritual life? How does your soft-wired side within inform and direct your hard-wired world, in ways that give real meaning and purpose to your life?


© 2015 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

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