A Visual Introduction to Kintsugi, the Japanese Art of Repairing Broken Pottery and Finding Beauty in Imperfection

Kintsugi, the Japanese art of joining broken pottery with gleaming seams of gold or silver, creates fine art objects we can see as symbols for the beauty of vulnerability. Surely, these bowls, cups, vases, etc. remind of us Leonard Cohen’s oft-quoted lyric from “Anthem” (“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”) Writer and artist Austin Kleon touches on this same sentiment in a recent post on his blog. “The thing I love the most about Kintsugi is the visible trace of healing and repair—the idea of highlighted, glowing scars.”

Kintsugi, which translates to “golden joinery,” has a history that dates back to the 15th century, as Colin Marshall explained in a previous post here. But it’s fascinating how much this art resonates with our contemporary discourse around trauma and healing.




“We all grow up believing we should emphasize the inherent positives about ourselves,” writes Marshall, “but what if we also emphasized the negatives, the parts we’ve had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the negatives still look so negative after all?”

A key idea here is “doing it just right.” Kintsugi is not a warts-and-all presentation, but a means of turning brokenness into art, a skillful realization of the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” as Leonard Koren writes in Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Objects that represent wabi-sabi “may exhibit the effects of accident, like a broken bowl glued back together again.” In kintsugi, those effects are due to the artist’s craft rather than random chance.

When it comes to healing psychic wounds so that they shine like precious metals, there seems to be no one perfect method. But when we’re talking about the artistry of kintsugi, there are some—from the most refined artisanship to less rigorous do-it-yourself techniques—we can all adopt with some success. In the video at the top, learn DIY kintsugi from World Crafted’s Robert Mahar. Further up, we have an intensive, wordless demonstration from professional kintsugi artist Kyoko Ohwaki.

And just above, see psychologist Alexa Altman travel to Japan to learn kintsugi, then make it “accessible” with an explanation of both the physical process of kintsugi and its metaphorical dimensions. As Altman shows, kintsugi can just as well be made from things broken on purpose as by accident. When it comes to the beautifully flawed finished product, however, perhaps how a thing was broken matters far less than the amount of care and skill we use to join it back together.

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Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Japanese Craft of Repairing Pottery with Gold & Finding Beauty in Broken Things

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wisdom on Confronting Aging and Dying

After his dismissal from Harvard for researching LSD with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert left the U.S. for India in 1967. He devoted himself to the teachings of Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba and returned to the States a permanently changed man, with a new name and a message he first spread via the collaboratively-edited and illustrated 1971 classic Be Here Now.

In the “philosophically misty, stubbornly resonant Buddhist-Hindu-Christian mash-up,” writes David Marchese at The New York Times, Ram Dass “extolled the now-commonplace, then-novel (to Western hippies, at least) idea that paying deep attention to the present moment—that is, mindfulness—is the best path to a meaningful life.” We’ve grown so used to hearing this by now that we’ve likely become a little numb to it, even if we’ve bought into the premise and the practice of meditation.




Ram Dass discovered that mindful awareness was not part of any self-improvement project but a way of being ordinary and abandoning excess self-concern. “The more your awareness is expanded, the more it becomes just a natural part of your life, like eating or sleeping or going to the toilet” he says in the excerpt above from a talk he gave on “Conscious Aging” in 1992. “If you’re full of ego, if you’re full of yourself, you’re doing it out of righteousness to prove you’re a good person.”

To really open ourselves up to reality, we must be willing to put desire aside and become “irrelevant.” That’s a tough ask in a culture that values few things more highly than fame, youth, and beauty and fears nothing more than aging, loss, and death. Our culture “denigrates non-youth,” Ram Dass wrote in 2017, and thus stigmatizes and ignores a natural process everyone must all endure if they live long enough.

[W]hat I realized many years ago was I went into training to be a kind of elder, or social philosopher, or find a role that would be comfortable as I became irrelevant in the youth market. Now I’ve seen in interviewing old people that the minute you cling to something that was a moment ago, you suffer. You suffer when you have your face lifted to be who you wish you were then, for a little longer, because you know it’s temporary.

The minute you pit yourself against nature, the minute you pit yourself with your mind against change, you are asking for suffering.

Older adults are projected to outnumber children in the next decade or so, with a healthcare system designed to extract maximum profit for the minimal amount of care. The denial of aging and death creates “a very cruel culture,” Ram Dass writes, “and the bizarre situation is that as the demographic changes, and the baby boomers come along and get old, what you have is an aging society and a youth mythology”—a recipe for mass suffering if there ever was one.

We can and should, Ram Dass believed, advocate for better social policy. But to change our collective approach to aging and death, we must also, individually, confront our own fears of mortality, no matter how old we are at the moment. The spiritual teacher and writer, who passed away yesterday at age 88, confronted death for decades and helped students do the same with books like 2001’s Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying and his series of talks on “Conscious Aging,” which you can hear in full further up.

“Recorded at the Conscious Aging conference sponsored by the Omega Institute in 1992,” notes the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, the conference “was the first of its kind on aging. Ram Dass had just turned sixty.” He begins his first talk with a joke about purchasing his first senior citizen ticket and says he felt like a teenager until he hit fifty. But joking aside, he learned early that really living in the present means facing aging and death in all its forms.

Ram Dass met aging with wisdom, humor, and compassion, as you can see in the recent video above. As we remember his life, we can also turn to decades of his teaching to learn how to become kinder to ourselves and others (a distinction without a real difference, he argued), as we all face the inevitable together.

Related Content:

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Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the Stendhal Syndrome: The Condition Where People Faint, or Feel Totally Overwhelmed, in the Presence of Great Art

Clutch imaginary pearls, rest the back of your hand on your forehead, look wan and stricken, begin to wilt, and most people will recognize the symptoms of your sarcasm, aimed at some pejoratively feminized qualities we’ve seen characters embody in movies. The “literary swoon” as Iaian Bamforth writes at the British Journal of General Practice, dates back much further than film, to the early years of the modern novel itself, and it was once a male domain.

“Somewhere around the time of the French Revolution (or perhaps a little before it) feelings were let loose on the world.” Rationalism went out vogue and passion was in—lots of it, though not all at once. It took some decades before the discovery of emotion reached the climax of Romanticism and denouement of Victorian sentimentality:

Back in 1761, readers had swooned when they encountered the ‘true voice of feeling’ in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Héloïse; by the end of the decade, all of Europe was being sentimental in the manner made fashionable a few years later by Laurence Sterne in his A Sentimental Journey. Then there was Goethe’s novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which made its author a celebrity.

It’s impossible to overstate how popular Goethe’s book became among the aristocratic young men of Europe. Napoleon “reputedly carried a copy of the novel with him on his military campaign.” Its swooning hero, whom we might be tempted to diagnose with any number of personality and mood disorders, develops a disturbing and debilitating obsession with an engaged woman and finally commits suicide. The novel supposedly inspired many copycats and “the media’s first moral panic.”




If we can feel such exaltation, disquiet, and fear when in the grip of romantic passion, or when faced with nature’s implacable behemoths, as in Kant's Sublime, so too may we be overcome by art. Napoleonic novelist Stendhal suggested as much in a dramatic account of such an experience. Stendhal, the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle, was no inexperienced dreamer. He had traveled and fought extensively with the Grand Army (including that fateful march through Russia, and back) and had held several government offices abroad. His realist fiction didn’t always comport with the more lyrical tenor of the times.

Photo of the Basilica of Santa Croce by Diana Ringo, via Wikimedia Commons

But he was also of the generation of young men who read Werther while touring Europe, contemplating the varieties of emotion. He had held a similarly unrequited obsession for an unavailable woman, and once wrote that “in Italy… people are still driven to despair by love.” During a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817, he “found a monk to let him into the chapel,” writes Bamforth, “where he could sit on a genuflecting stool, tilt his head back and take in the prospect of Volterrano’s fresco of the Sibyls without interruption." As Stendhal described the scene:

I was already in a kind of ecstasy by the idea of being in Florence, and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in contemplating sublime beauty, I saw it close-up—I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations (what they call an attack of the nerves in Berlin); the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.

With the recording of this experience, Stendhal “brought the literary swoon into tourism,” Bamforth remarks. Such passages became far more commonplace in travelogues, not least those involving the city of Florence. So many cases similar to Stendhal's have been reported in the city that the condition acquired the name Stendhal syndrome in the late seventies from Dr. Graziella Magherini, chief of psychiatry at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. It presents as an acute state of exhilarated anxiety that causes people to feel faint, or to collapse, in the presence of art.

Magherini and her assistants compiled studies of 107 different cases in 1989. Since then, Santa Maria Nuova has continued to treat tourists for the syndrome with some regularity. “Dr. Magherini insists,” writes The New York Times, that “certain men and women are susceptible to swooning in the presence of great art, especially when far from home.” Stendhal didn’t invent the phenomenon, of course. And it need not be solely caused by sufferers’ love of the 15th century.

The stresses of travel can sometimes be enough to make anyone faint, though further research may rule out other factors. The effect, however, does not seem to occur with nearly as much frequency in other major cities with other major cultural treasures. “It is surely the sheer concentration of great art in Florence that causes such issues,” claims Jonathan Jones at The Guardian. Trying to take it all in while navigating unfamiliar streets and crowds.... "More cynically, some might say the long queues do add a layer of stress on the heart.”

There’s also no discounting the effect of expectation. “It is among religious travelers that Stendhal’s syndrome seems to have found its most florid expression,” notes Bamforth. Stendhal admitted that his “ecstasy” began with an awareness of his “proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen.” Without his prior education, the effect might have disappeared entirely. The story of the Renaissance, in his time and ours, has impressed upon us such a reverence for its artists, statesmen, and engineers, that sensitive visitors may feel they can hardly stand in the actual presence of Florence's abundant treasures.

Perhaps Stendhal syndrome should be regarded as akin to a spiritual experience. A study of religious travelers to Jerusalem found that “otherwise normal patients tended to have ‘an idealistic subconscious image of Jerusalem’” before they succumbed to Stendhal syndrome. Carl Jung described his own such feelings about Pompeii and Rome, which he could never bring himself to visit because he lived in such awe of its historical aura. Those primed to have symptoms tend also to have a sentimental nature, a word that once meant great depth of feeling rather than a callow or mawkish nature.

We might all expect great art to overwhelm us, but Stendhal syndrome is rare and rarified. The experience of many more travelers accords with Mark Twain’s 1869 The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, a fictionalized memoir “lampooning the grandiose travel accounts of his contemporaries,” notes Bamforth. It became “one of the best-selling travel books ever” and gave its author’s name to what one researcher calls Mark Twain Malaise, “a cynical mood which overcomes travelers and leaves them totally unimpressed with anything UNESCO has on its universal heritage list.” Sentimentalists might wish these weary tourists would stay home and let them swoon in peace.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Improve Your Memory: Four TED Talks Explain the Techniques to Remember Anything

Offered the ability to remember everything, who among us could turn it down? For that matter, who among us could turn down even a slight increase in our memory capacity? If we're older, we complain of forgetfulness. If we're younger, we complain that so little of what we're supposed to learn for tests sticks. If we're in the middle, we complain of being "bad with names" and having trouble properly organizing all the tasks we need to complete. Whatever our stage in life, we could all use the kind of memory-improving techniques explained in these four TED Talks, the most popular of which offers Swedish "memory athlete" Idriz Zogaj's method of "How to Become a Memory Master."

Framing his talk with the story of how he trained himself to compete in the World Memory Championships (yes, they exist), Zogaj recommends remembering by making "a fun, vivid, animated story," using all your senses." "And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D goggles. Your brain is amazing; it can do it anyway." Telling yourself a story in such a way that connects seemingly unrelated images, words, numbers, or other pieces of information gives those connections strength in our brains.




In "How to Triple Your Memory by Using This Trick," Ricardo Lieuw On recommends a similarly story-based method, but emphasizes the importance of constructing it with "bizarre images." And "if you tie these bizarre images to a place you know well, like your body, suddenly memorizing things in order becomes a lot easier."

In his TED Talk about daily practices to improve memory, Krishan Chahal divides "the art of memorizing" into two parts. The first entails "designing the information or modifying the information in such a way so that it can catch your attention," making what you want to memorize more naturally palatable to "the taste of human mind" — stories and strong visual images being perhaps the human mind's tastiest treat. The second involves creating what he calls a "self-meaning system," the best-known variety of which is the memory palace. The Memory Techniques Wiki describes a memory palace as "an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images," typically modeled on "a place you know well, like a building or town." When memorizing, you store pieces information in different "locations" within your memory palace; when recalling, you take that same mental journey through your palace and find everything where you left it.

The memory palace came up here on Open Culture earlier this year when we featured a video about how to memorize an entire chapter of Moby-Dick. Its creator drew on Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and if you want a taste of what Foer has learned about memory, watch his TED Talk above. Foer, too, has spent time at the World Memory Championships, and his questions about how memory athletes do what they do led him to the concept psychologists call "elaborative encoding," the practice of taking information "lacking in context, in significance, in meaning" and transforming it "so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind."

Elaborative encoding underlies the effectiveness of memorizing even the driest lists of facts in the form of stories full of striking and unusual sights. (Foer himself opens with a memory-aiding story starring "a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.") No wonder so many of the greatest storytellers have had a thematic preoccupation with memory. Take Jorge Luis Borges, author of "Shakespeare's Memory" (previously featured here on Open Culture) and the even more (dare I say) memorable "Funes the Memorious." In the latter a horse-riding accident robs a rural teenager of the ability to forget, bestowing upon him an effectively infinite memory — a power that has him taking an entire day to remember an entire day and assigning a different name ("the train," "Máximo Perez," "the whale," "Napoleon") to each and every number in existence. As much as we all want to remember more things, surely none of us wants to remember everything.

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Play Mark Twain’s “Memory-Builder,” His Game for Remembering Historical Facts & Dates

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Helps Us Understand the Meaning of Life

Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” was “written as pure psychology,” notes the BBC, but “it has found its main application in management theory.” It has also become one of the best-known theories of human well-being. But whether you first encountered it in an Intro Psych class or a business training seminar, you’ll immediately recognize the triangular scheme of the “hierarchy of needs,” leading upward from basic physical necessities to full self-actualization.

Maslow’s theory had great explanatory power, offering what he called a “third force" between idealism and materialism. He was in line, he wrote, with the more spiritually-minded pragmatists, or what he called “the functionalist tradition of James and Dewey… fused with the holism of Wertheimer, Goldstein, and Gestalt Psychology, and with the dynamicism of Freud and Adler.” Against the general trend in psychology to pathologize, Maslow offered his paper as “an attempt to formulate a positive theory of motivation.”




His work helped inspire managers to “shape the conditions that create people’s aspirations,” says Gerald Hodgkinson, psychologist at the Warwick Business School,” in order to influence productivity and loyalty in their employees. If this seems manipulative, perhaps Maslow can be held no more responsible than can Freud for the use of his work by his nephew Edward Bernays, who almost single-handedly invented modern advertising and propaganda using Freudian appeals.

Maslow had in mind something grander than managing human capital—"no less,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, "than the meaning of life.” His quest came itself from a personal motivation. “I was awfully curious,” he once remarked, “to find out why I didn’t go insane.” Or, as de Botton says, he wanted to know “what could make life purposeful for people, himself included, in modern-day America, a country where the pursuit of money and fame seemed to have eclipsed any more interior or authentic aspirations.”

De Botton walks us through the hierarchy, which divides into two dimensions, the material—basic biological needs (including sex) and the need for safety—and the psychological. In this last category, we find the social needs for belonging (“the love needs,” Maslow called them) and esteem, capped with the apex need—self-actualization—the realization of one’s true purpose. “A musician must make music,” wrote Maslow, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be."

“How do we arrange our priorities and give due regard to the different and competing claims we have on our attention?” De Botton asks. In an increasingly disembodied culture, we may ignore or neglect the needs of the body, even if we have the means to meet them, an unsustainable course over the long term. Even those on the path of the “starving artist” will sadly have to reevaluate after a time, Maslow argued, giving priority to their need to eat over their creative aspirations. But Maslow’s is not, or not only, a theory of rational choice.

On the contrary, he had a compassionate response to alienation and poverty of all kinds: “the bold postulation,” he wrote “that a man who is thwarted in any of his basic needs may fairly be envisaged simply as a sick man…. Who is to say that a lack of love is less important than a lack of vitamins?” The material needs in Maslow’s scheme must be consistently met in order to create a stable base for all the others. Yet, while self-actualization may sit at the top, its lack, according to Maslow, may still affect us as much as much if we suffered from “pellagra or scurvy."

It’s possible to read in the hierarchy of needs a psychological elaboration of Marx’s slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” but Maslow was no dialectical materialist. He valued spirituality, and if he was “ambivalent about business,” he also held out hope that companies would market products to meet consumers’ higher desires as well as their needs for food, shelter, and physical comfort. Maslow died in 1970, and in the ensuing decades, his wish has become a hugely profitable reality.

From religious broadcasting companies to social media to dating and meditation apps, marketers find ever-new ways to sell promises of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Perhaps Maslow would see this as progress. In any case, commerce aside, his theory continues to address pressing sociological and existential problems. And as an aid to personal reflection, it can help us notice how we “haven’t arranged and balanced our needs as wisely and elegantly as we might,” says de Botton. We may have denied ourselves, or been denied, important experiences we need in order to become who we truly are.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch 21 Animated Ideas from Big Thinkers: Steven Pinker, Carol Dweck, Philip Zimbardo, David Harvey & More

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, better known as the Royal Society for the Arts, and best known simply as the RSA, was founded in 1754. At the time, nobody could have imagined a world in which the people of every land, no matter how far-flung, could hear the same talks by well-known scholars and speakers, let alone see them animated as if on a conference-room whiteboard. Yet even back then, in an era before the invention of animation and whiteboards, let alone computers and the internet, people had an appetite for strong, often counterintuitive or even contrarian ideas to diagnose and potentially even solve social problems — an appetite for which the RSA Animate series of videos was made.

We can't understand what goes right and what goes wrong in our societies without understanding how we think. To that end the RSA has commissioned animated videos based on talks by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on our "divided brain," former political strategist (and current RSA Chief Executive) Matthew Taylor on how our left and right brains shape our politics, psychologist Steven Pinker on language as a window into human nature, philosopher-sociologist Renata Salecl on the paradoxical downside of choice, psychologist Philip Zimbardo on our perception of time, "social and ethical prophet" Jeremy Rifkin on empathy, philosopher Roman Krznaric on "outrospection," journalist Barbara Ehrenreich on "the darker side of positive thinking," and behavioral-economics researcher Dan Ariely on drive and dishonesty.

Economics is another field that has provided the RSA with a surfeit of animatable material — even of the kind "economists don’t want you to see," as the RSA promotes economist Ha-joon Chang's talk on "why every single person can and SHOULD get their head around basic economics" and "how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel."




Freakonomics co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner make an appearance to break down altruism, and "economic geographer" David Harvey attempts to envision a system beyond capitalism. And on the parts of the intellectual map where economics overlaps politics, the RSA brings us figures like Slavoj Žižek, who "investigates the surprising ethical implications of charitable giving."

As, in essence, an educational enterprise, RSA Animate videos also look into new ways to think about education itself. Educationalist Carol Dweck examines the issues of "why kids say they’re bored at school, or why they stop trying when the work gets harder" by looking at what kind of praise helps young students, and what kind harms them.

Education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson explains the need to change our very paradigms of education. And according to the RSA's speakers, those aren't the only paradigms we should change: Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer Dave Coplin argues that we should re-imagine work, and technology critic Evgeny Morozov argues that we should rethink the "cyber-utopianism" that has exposed harmful side-effects of our digital world.

httvs://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&list=PL39BF9545D740ECFF&index=11&t=0s

But it is in this world that the RSA promotes "21st-century enlightenment," a concept further explored in another talk by Matthew Taylor — and one of which you can get a few doses, ten minutes at a time, on the full RSA Animate Youtube playlist. Watch the complete playlist of 21 videos, from start to finish, below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is Higher Consciousness?: How We Can Transcend Our Petty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deeper Wisdom

Each of us has a normal state of mind, as well as our own way of reaching a different state of mind. As the School of Life video above reminds us, such habits go back quite deep into recorded history, to the eras when, then as now, "Hindu sages, Christian monks and Buddhist ascetics" spoke of "reaching moments of ‘higher consciousness’ – through meditation or chanting, fasting or pilgrimages." In recent years, the practice of meditation has spread even, and perhaps especially, among those of us who don't subscribe to Buddhism, or indeed to any religion at all. Periodic fasting has come to be seen as a necessity in certain circles of wealthy first-worlders, as has "dopamine fasting" among those who feel their minds compromised by the distractions of high technology and social media. (And one needs only glance at that social media to see how seriously some of us are taking our pilgrimages.)

Still, on top of our mountain, deep into our sitting-and-breathing sessions, or even after having consumed our mind-altering substance of choice, we do feel, if only for a moment, that something has changed within us. We understand things we don't even consider understanding in our normal state of mind, "where what we are principally concerned with is ourselves, our survival and our own success, narrowly defined."




When we occupy this "lower consciousness," we "strike back when we’re hit, blame others, quell any stray questions that lack immediate relevance, fail to free-associate and stick closely to a flattering image of who we are and where we are heading." But when we enter a state of "higher consciousness," however we define it, "the mind moves beyond its particular self-interests and cravings. We start to think of other people in a more imaginative way."

When we rise from lower to higher consciousness, we find it much harder to think of our fellow human beings as enemies. "Rather than criticize and attack, we are free to imagine that their behavior is driven by pressures derived from their own more primitive minds, which they are generally in no position to tell us about." The more time we spend in our higher consciousness, the more we "develop the ability to explain others’ actions by their distress, rather than simply in terms of how it affects us. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism or aggression, but always — when we can manage it — love." When our consciousness reaches the proper altitude, "the world reveals itself as quite different: a place of suffering and misguided effort, full of people striving to be heard and lashing out against others, but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty and touching vulnerability. The fitting response is universal sympathy and kindness."

This may all come across as a bit new-age, sounding "maddeningly vague, wishy washy, touchy-feely – and, for want of a better word, annoying." But the concept of higher consciousness is variously interpreted not just across cultural and religious traditions but in scientific research as well, where we find a sharp distinction drawn between the neocortex, "the seat of imagination, empathy and impartial judgement," and the "reptilian mind" below. This suggests that we'd benefit from understanding states of higher consciousness as fully as we can, as well as trying to "make the most of them when they arise, and harvest their insights for the time when we require them most" — that is to say, the rest of our ordinary lives, especially their most stressful, trying moments. The instinctive, unimaginative defensiveness of the lower consciousness does have strengths of its own, but we can't take advantage of them unless we learn to put it in its place.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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