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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Med­i­ta­tion for Begin­ners: Bud­dhist Monks & Teach­ers Explain the Basics

How Med­i­ta­tion Can Change Your Brain: The Neu­ro­science of Bud­dhist Prac­tice

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Boosts Our Cre­ativ­i­ty (Plus Free Resources to Help You Start Med­i­tat­ing)

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

The Unex­pect­ed Ways East­ern Phi­los­o­phy Can Make Us Wis­er, More Com­pas­sion­ate & Bet­ter Able to Appre­ci­ate Our Lives

Medieval Monks Com­plained About Con­stant Dis­trac­tions: Learn How They Worked to Over­come Them

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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