How do you define consciousness? The medical definition of consciousness is the state of being awake and aware of your surroundings. But there is a deeper more symbolic definition of consciousness that transcends the physical and the mental. The ninety-three-year-old Buddhist Monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh describes consciousness like a stream or river, it is always continuing and evolving. And like running water there is the shallow surface to the still silence in the depths below. Like many who have studied consciousness in the physical (brain/mind) and its effect on the body and perception, they all have found that you can shift your consciousness once you raise your awareness and focus.
If you think of consciousness as layers imagine the first being that which is more primal or automatic and connects the brain to the body; your physical needs; hunger, pain, pleasure. You are aware if a room is hot and stuffy, if you are nauseated, or feeling relaxed from a massage. This is surface consciousness.
Let’s think of the next layer as your thoughts and perceptions, how you evaluate your experiences and how they impact your decision making. Here lies what you have learned from both a formal education, absorbed from your culture, as well your past experiences and how these affect your emotions. Your emotions and feelings though are liable to be subject to moods of others unless you learn to listen within.
There is another layer. Learning to listen to the awakening of that layer, that transcends all the other layers, this deeper level of consciousness that can elevate your awareness, heal your mind and your body, and bring you a greater sense of peace and joy. Ah, this is what we all want, right? So how do we get there?
For a moment, create in your mind’s eye your favorite place in nature. Whether it is at the ocean hearing gulls and the sounds of waves crashing on the sand, or in the mountains with the scent of pine trees and the moist dirt of a mossy forest, breathe and be there for a moment. Open your eyes and notice how you feel. By bringing your awareness inward, you can choose what it is you want to focus on. This is a step in the direction of creating consciousness. Being aware. If you are meandering through a beautiful park, with the fall leaves surrounding you, yet rather than admiring their beauty you worry about an upcoming business meeting, your mind is not engaged, you’re distracted. Creating consciousness is letting go of those distractions and reconnecting to the quiet within.
Living consciously helps you with negative emotions. It gives you the ability to deal with negative feelings differently, to not be rote with reactions. Creating consciousness builds empathy towards yourself and others, because you have a deeper understanding. Think about when you were four or five, learning to count, then learning to add, subtract, multiply, divide, etc. As your awareness grew, so did your understanding and appreciation for numbers. It is the same with cultivating an expanded life that is fully alive and conscious. And like learning math, it takes practice.
When you are feeling angry, rather than lashing out, notice the anger, shake hands with it, acknowledge it. Then breathe, long slow steady breaths. Make a conscious choice to handle your anger differently, not allowing it to consume you.
Spending time in silence, bringing your awareness to your breath or meditating is a powerful way to increase your consciousness. By withdrawing from outside stimuli on a regular basis you can begin to create a calm interior. Physiologically, when you slow your breath, your body relaxes. Rapid breathing is associated with fear and anxiety. Consciously, focusing on breath, allows you to relax. When you practice this, eventually you learn to quiet your thinking mind, the one that makes assumptions and passes judgements.
Living with purpose or living fully, is the same as living consciously. Bringing awareness to yourself helps you to be a more loving human being as you begin to see that you are interconnected to all living things. You need the warmth of the sun, the shade of trees, the oxygen from the plants, the love of another. By raising your awareness and centering on the self that is beyond definitions (mother/father, employee/employer) you can tap into the truest essence of you. That spirit or energy that is kind and loving can grow, once you bring your consciousness there and spend time stripped of pretense.
Opening your awareness liberates you from patterns of thought. Thoughts that have biases towards yourself and others. It gives you new perspectives, like wearing a pair of glasses that help you see better. You may not be aware that you treat certain people with disdain, like wait staff at a restaurant or the janitor at your children’s school. When you awaken your consciousness, you may see the humanity in all people. You may get to know that janitor and realize he is an artist or a single father working several jobs to provide for his children. Awakening removes veils allowing you to see the beauty in all things, a flower, an old man, a cloud. It gives you a sense of appreciation for the life that is all around you.
Lastly, living a conscious life is indeed like the stream that flows into the river that eventually finds freedom and flows into the ocean where all embankments and confines are removed. You don’t have to go on long extended or expensive retreats to create an expanded consciousness. You simply have to practice, be fully aware of the beauty around you, take time to notice your child’s sweet chubby hand that brought you a fistful of daisies, or the stranger that offered you a smile. Know that the sweet place of consciousness dwells within you. Listen to Podcasts, read books, find a favorite poet or philosopher, try guided meditations, nourish your consciousness, and then watch it, like the one seed of a sunflower, grow and bloom.