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The Basics: What is Consciousness?

 

If we want to live a more mindful, peaceful, and joyful life, it’s important to first learn what we’re aiming for. I call this way of thinking and living “consciousness.”

When we first embark on this path, it’s useful to learn what consciousness actually IS and what it looks like in our lives when we practice it.

On the other side of that coin, it can be helpful to recognize the opposite of consciousness: unconsciousness. This is one of the very first concepts I teach in my Art of Living Consciously retreats. I like to illustrate this as a table with traits of consciousness on one side and traits of unconsciousness on the other.

This is a quick way for students to recognize the difference between the two and where they tend to fall on the spectrum.

Conscious vs Unconscious Traits

At its core, consciousness is pure love while unconsciousness is fear. All other traits and patterns stem from these two foundations.

 

Things to Remember About Consciousness

Spoiler alert: 100% consciousness is unattainable

One of the most important things I can tell you about consciousness is that it’s not possible to be conscious all the time. Consciousness is not a permanent state of being that you suddenly reach and maintain without effort.

Unconsciousness doesn’t require much of anything because it is our default. Consciousness, on the other hand, requires intention and focus.

Our work is to gently pull ourselves back to consciousness over and over again. Aiming for perfection is counterproductive. If we see consciousness/unconsciousness as a spectrum, the goal is to move the needle to the conscious end of the spectrum. Transformation comes when we are able to observe that we have gone back to sleep (gone unconscious) and choose to wake up (return to consciousness).

Consciousness requires intention and effort

Unconsciousness is easier in the short run because it takes little effort in the moment. However, being unconscious creates more discord and struggle in our lives in the long run.

It’s kind of like the old adage “A stitch in time saves nine.” It takes more effort to pick up the needle and do the mending in the moment, but it saves us time and trouble in the big picture. It’s not only less work overall, but we’re also spending more time in that preferred state of repair.

Staying conscious takes effort, and unconsciousness is the easy button. Consciousness is an ongoing process. In unconsciousness, we return to a more primitive state where we fall back on unhelpful patterns and habits. It takes intention and effort to choose consciousness.

Anything worthwhile takes intention and effort, whether it’s raising children, earning a college degree, or planting a garden.

It’s not about being a better person

Another thing to know is that you are free to be as unconscious or as conscious as you want. You have free will. You can do whatever you want.

Living more consciously leads to a higher quality of life in the long run. It’s not good or bad. It’s about living in harmony in the universe.

Living unconsciously isn’t good or bad, it just leads to a lower quality of life. You’re far more likely to end up with long-term negative consequences to your unconscious behavior.

Practice does not make perfect, but it leads to progress

You can let go of the idea of being perfectly conscious all the time. After all, perfectionism is a form of non-acceptance and falls on the “unconscious” side of the spectrum.

For most people, simply putting our attention on being conscious more of the time is enough to lead to improvements in our quality of life. As we practice the principles of conscious living, you’ll find that it becomes easier and easier to bring yourself back to consciousness.

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