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Consciousness

The Evolution Of Consciousness – Are All Creatures Conscious?

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Before we can begin to consider the evolution of consciousness, we have to ask when consciousness first arose. Are human beings alone conscious, or are other creatures also conscious? Is an animal such as a dog, for example, conscious?

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Dogs may not be aware of many of the things we are aware of. They are not conscious of much beyond their immediate world, the world defined by the span of their senses. They know nothing of lands beyond the oceans, or the space beyond the earth. Nor can dogs be aware of much beyond the present time.

They know nothing of the course of history, or where it might be headed. They are not aware of their inevitable death in the same way that we are. They do not think to themselves in words, and they probably do not reason as we do. And they do not seem to have the self-awareness that we do; they certainly do not get caught up in concern for their own self-image, with all the strange behaviors that engenders. But this does not mean that dogs have no awareness at all.

Dogs experience the world of their senses. They see, hear, smell, and taste their world. They remember where they have been. They recognize sounds. They may like some people or things, and dislike others. Dogs sometimes show fear, and at other times excitement. When asleep, they appear to dream, feet and toes twitching as if on the scent of some fantasy rabbit. They clearly are not just a biological mechanism, devoid of any inner experience. To suggest that they are not conscious is absurd — as absurd as suggesting that my neighbor across the street is not conscious.

Where dogs differ from us is not in their capacity for consciousness but in what they are conscious of. Dogs may not be self-aware, and may not think or reason as we do. In these respects they are less aware than we are. On the other hand, dogs can hear higher frequencies of sound than we do, and their sense of smell far surpasses our own. In terms of their sensory perception of the world around, dogs may be considered more aware than humans.

A useful analogy for understanding the nature of consciousness is that of a painting. The picture itself corresponds to the contents of consciousness; the canvas on which it is painted corresponds to the faculty of consciousness. An infinite variety of pictures can be painted on the canvas; but whatever the pictures, they all share the fact that they are painted on a canvas. Without the canvas there would be no painting.

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The pictures that are painted on the canvas of consciousness take many forms. They include our perceptions of the world around, our thoughts, our ideas, our beliefs, our values, our feelings, our emotions, our hopes, our fears, our intuitions, our dreams and fantasies — and more. But none of this would be possible if we did not in the first place possess the capacity for consciousness. Without it there would be no subjective experience of any kind.

Are All Creatures Conscious?

If dogs have the faculty of consciousness, then by the same argument so must cats, horses, deer, dolphins, whales, and other mammals. Why else would we require veterinarians to use anesthetics?

If mammals are conscious beings, then I see no reason to suppose birds are any different. Some parrots I have known seem as conscious as dogs. If birds have the capacity for consciousness, then it seems natural to assume that so do other vertebrates — alligators, snakes, frogs, salmon, and sharks. What they are conscious of may vary considerably. Dolphins “see” the world with sonar; snakes sense infrared radiation; sharks feel with electric senses. The pictures that are painted in their minds may vary considerably; but, however varied their experiences, they all share the faculty of consciousness.

Where do we draw the line? At vertebrates? The nervous systems of insects may not be as complex as ours, and they probably do not have as rich an experience of the world as we do. They also have very different senses, so the picture that is painted in their minds may be totally unlike ours. But I see no reason to doubt that insects have inner experiences of some kind.

How far down do we go? It seems probable to me that any organism that is sensitive in some way to its environment has a degree of interior experience. Many single-celled organisms are sensitive to physical vibration, light intensity, or heat. Who are we to say they do not have a corresponding degree of consciousness?

Would the same apply to viruses and DNA? Even to crystals and atoms? The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued that consciousness goes all the way down. He saw it as an intrinsic property of creation.

Consciousness & Biological Evolution

If all creatures are conscious in some way or other, then consciousness is not something that evolved with human beings, or with primates, mammals or any other particular degree of biological evolution. It has always existed. What emerged over the course of evolution were the various qualities and dimensions of conscious experience — the contents of consciousness.

The first simple organisms — bacteria and algae — having no senses, were aware in only the most rudimentary way: no form, no structure, just the vaguest glimmer of awareness. Their picture of the world is nothing but an extremely dim smudge of color — virtually nothing, compared to the richness and detail of human experience.

peterrussellWhen multicellular organisms evolved, so did this sensing capacity. Cells emerged that specialized in sensing light, vibration, pressure, or changes in chemistry. These cells formed sensory organs, and as they developed, the ability to take in information increased. Eyes are not only sensitive to light; they react differently to different frequencies, and can tell from which direction the light is coming. The faintest smudge of the bacterium’s experience had begun to take on different hues and shapes. Forms had begun to emerge on the canvas of consciousness.

Nervous systems evolved, processing this data and distributing it to other parts of the organism. Before long, the flow of information required a central processing system, and with it a more integrated picture of the world appeared. As brains evolved, new features were added to consciousness. With reptiles the limbic system appeared, an area of the brain associated with emotion. Feeling had been added.

In birds and mammals the nervous system grew yet more complex, developing a cortex around it. With the cortex came other new abilities. A dog chasing a cat around a corner holds some image in its mind of the cat it can no longer see. Creatures with a cortex have memory and recognition; they can pay attention and show intention.

With primates the cortex grew into the larger, more complex neo-cortex, adding yet more features to consciousness. The most significant of these was the ability to use symbols. Not only did this ability enable simple reasoning, it also led to a new form of communication — symbolic language.

Chimpanzees and gorillas may not be able to speak as we do, but this is not because they lack something in their brains; they lack a voice. They have no larynx, or voice-box, and cannot move their tongues as freely as we can. But they can use other forms of symbolic language. When taught sign language, such as that used by the deaf, they show a remarkable ability to communicate. Coco, a gorilla in California, now has a vocabulary of more than a thousand words, and composes sentences in sign language.

Language & Consciousness

For one reason or another, human beings evolved slightly differently. We have a well-developed voice-box, and after the first year of life the tongue frees up, permitting the complex sounds necessary for speech. With these two seemingly small advances, everything changed.

Being able to speak allows us to share our experiences with each other. Whereas a dog learns principally from its own experience, and builds up its knowledge of the world from scratch, we can learn from each other. We can build up a body of collective knowledge and pass it on from one generation to another — the foundation of a cohesive society.

This new ability has expanded our consciousness in several ways. Our experience of space expanded as we learnt of events beyond our immediate sensory environment. And as we learnt of events that had happened before our own lives, our experience of time expanded.

As well as using speech to communicate with each other, we can also use it to communicate with ourselves, inside our own minds. We can think to ourselves in words. Of all the developments that came from language, this has probably been the most significant.

Thinking allows us to conjure up associations to past experiences. When we think of the word “tree,” images of trees readily come to mind. Or if we think of a person’s name, we may find ourselves remembering past experiences with that person. Other creatures may well experience associations to past experiences, but their associations are almost certainly determined by their immediate environment; what is out of sight is out of mind. Thought liberated human beings from this constraint. We can deliberately bring the past back to mind, independently of what is happening in the present.

In a similar way, thinking expanded our appreciation of the future. We can think about what might or might not happen, make plans and take decisions. A new inner freedom had been born — the freedom to choose our future and so exercise a much greater influence over our lives.

Thinking in words opened our minds to reason. We could ask questions: Why do stars move? How do our bodies function? What is matter? A whole new dimension had been added to our consciousness — understanding. We could form hypotheses and beliefs about the world in which we found ourselves.

We could also begin to understand ourselves. We could think about our own conscious experience. We became aware not only of the many aspects and qualities of our consciousness, but also of the faculty of consciousness. We are aware that we are aware — conscious of the fact that we are conscious.

Consciousness could now reflect not only upon the nature of the world it experienced, but also on the nature of consciousness itself. Self-reflective consciousness had emerged.

Self-Consciousness

As we reflect upon our own consciousness, it seems that there must be an experiencer — an individual self that is having these experiences, making all these decisions, and thinking all these thoughts. But what is this self? What is it really like? What does it consist of?

Questions such as these have intrigued and puzzled philosophers for centuries. Some, like the Scottish philosopher David Hume, spent much time searching within their experience for something that seemed to be the true self. But all they could find were various thoughts, sensations, images and feelings. However hard we look, we never seem to find the self itself.

Not finding an easily identifiable self at the core of our being, we look to other aspects of our lives for a sense of identity. We identify with our bodies, with how they look, how they are dressed, and how they are perceived by other people. We identify with what we do and what we have achieved; with our work, our social status, our academic qualifications, where we live and who we know. We derive a sense of who we are from what we think, our theories and beliefs, our personality and character.

There is, however, a severe drawback to such a sense of self. Being derived from what is happening in the world of experience, it is forever at the mercy of events. A person who draws a strong sense of identity from their work may, on hearing that their job is threatened, feel their sense of self is threatened.

Someone else, who identifies with being fashionably dressed, may buy a new set of clothes every time the fashion changes, not because they need new clothes, but because their sense of self needs to be maintained. Or if we identify with our views and beliefs we may take a criticism of our ideas to be a criticism of our self.

Any threat to our sense of self triggers fear. Fear is of great value if our physical self is being threatened. Then we need to have our heart beat hard, our blood pressure rise, and our muscles tense. Our survival may depend on it. But this response is totally inappropriate when all that is being threatened is our psychological self.

Having our bodies repeatedly put on full alert is a principal cause of stress. We can easily end up in a permanent state of tension, opening us up to all manner of physical illnesses. Our emotional life may suffer, leading to anxiety or depression. Our thinking and decision making can likewise deteriorate.

Fear also leads to worry. We worry about what others might be thinking of us. We worry about what we have done or not done, and about what might or might not happen to us. When we worry like this, our attention is caught up in the past or the future. It is not experiencing the present moment.

Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that this worry prevents us from finding that which we are really seeking. The goal of every person is, in the final analysis, a comfortable state of mind. Quite naturally, we want to avoid pain and suffering, and feel more at peace. But a mind that is busy worrying cannot be a mind that is at peace.

Other animals, not having language, do not think to themselves in words, and do not experience many of the worries that we do. In particular, they do not experience all the worries that come from having a vulnerable sense of self. They are probably at peace much more of the time. Human beings may have made a great leap forward in consciousness, but at our present stage of development we are no happier for it — quite the opposite.

Transcending Language

There is, it would appear, a downside to language. Language is invaluable for sharing knowledge and experience — without it human culture would never have arisen. And thinking to ourselves in words can be very useful when we need to focus our attention, analyze a situation, or make plans. But much of the remainder of our thinking is totally unnecessary.

If half my attention is taken up with the voice in my head, that half is not available for noticing other things. I don’t notice what is going on around me. I don’t hear the sounds of birds, the wind, or creaking trees. I don’t notice my emotions, or how my body feels. I am, in effect, only half-conscious.

Just because we have the gift of being able to think in words does not mean that we have to do it all the time. Many spiritual teachings seem to have recognized this. In Buddhism, for example, students are often advised to sit with a quiet mind, experiencing “what is” without naming it in words or putting it into some category — to see a daffodil as it is, without the labels “daffodil,” “flower,” “yellow” or “pretty.” To see it with the mind in its natural state, before language was added to our consciousness.

Sat Chit Ananda

Returning the mind to this simple pre-linguistic state of consciousness is not easy. A lifetime of conditioning makes it hard to stop thinking and let go. This is why many spiritual teachings include practices of meditation designed to quieten the voice in the head, and bring us to a state of inner stillness. In Indian philosophy, this state is called samadhi, “still mind.”

Furthermore, it is said that when the mind is still, then one knows the real self, and the nature of this self is, according to the ancient Vedic teachings, sat-chit-ananda.

It is sat — “the truth, unchanging, eternal, being.” It is always there, whatever our experience. It never changes. It is not a unique self; it has no personal qualities. It is the same for everyone. It is the one undeniable truth — the fact that we are conscious.

It is chit — “consciousness.” It is not any particular form or mode of consciousness, but the faculty of consciousness. It is that which makes all experience possible.

And it is ananda — “bliss.” It is the peace that passeth all understanding, that lies beyond all thought. It is the state of grace to which we long to return; from which we fell when we began to fill our minds with words.

This is the self that we have been seeking all along. The reason we have had such difficulty finding it was that we have been looking in the wrong place. We have been looking for something that could be experienced — a feeling, a sense, an idea. Yet the self cannot be an experience. It is, by definition, that which is experiencing. It is behind every experience, behind everything I see, think, and feel.

What the mystical traditions around the world seem to be saying is that the self, that sense of I-ness that we all feel, but which is so hard to pin down or define, is actually consciousness itself. The pure self is pure consciousness — the faculty of awareness common to all sentient beings.

Moreover, when we come to know this to be our true essential nature, our search for identity ends. No longer is there any need to buy things we don’t really need, say things we don’t really mean, or engage in any other unnecessary and inappropriate activities in order to reinforce an artificially derived sense of self. Now we discover a deeper inner security, one that is independent of circumstances and events. Here is the peace we have long been seeking. It is right here inside us, at the heart of our being. But as with the self, we have been looking for it in the wrong place — in the world around.

Our Evolutionary Imperative

With the advent of human beings, the awakening of consciousness took a huge leap forward. Consciousness began becoming aware of itself. But at present this leap is only partially complete. We may be self-aware, but we have not yet discovered the true nature and potential of consciousness. In this respect our inner evolution has some way to go.

Throughout history there have been those who have evolved inwardly to higher states of consciousness. They are the saints and mystics who have realized the true nature of the self. Such people are examples of what we each have the potential to become. There is nothing special about them in terms of their biology. They are human beings, just like you and me, with similar bodies and similar nervous systems. The only difference is that they have liberated themselves from a limited, artificially derived sense of identity and discovered a greater peace and security within.

In the past the number of people who made this step was small, but the times we are living through make it imperative that many more of us now complete our inner evolutionary journey into full wakefulness.

The many crises that we see around us — global warming, desertification, holes in the ozone layer, disappearing rainforests, polluted rivers, acid rain, dying dolphins, large-scale famine, a widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” nuclear proliferation, over-exploitation, and a host of other dangers — all stem in one way or another from human self-centeredness. Time and again we find decisions being made not according to the merits of the situation at hand, but according to the needs of the individual or special interest groups. Governments strive to hold on to power, businesses seek to maximize profit, leaders want to retain their status, and consumers around the world try to satisfy their own needs for identity and security. In the final analysis, it is our need to protect and reinforce an ever-faltering sense of self that leads us to consume more than we need, pollute the world around, abuse other peoples, and show a careless disregard for the many other species sharing our planetary home.

Even now, when we recognize that we are in great danger, we fail to take appropriate remedial action. We continue driving our cars, consuming dwindling resources, and throwing our waste into the sea because to do otherwise would inconvenience ourselves.

The global crisis now facing us is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness. The essence of any crisis, whether it be a personal crisis, a political crisis, or, as in this case, a global crisis, is that the old way of functioning is no longer working. Something new is being called for. In this case the old way that is no longer working is our mode of consciousness. The old mode is destroying the world around us, and threatening the survival of our species. The time has come to evolve into a new mode. We need to wake up to our true identity, to make the step that many saints and mystics have already made, and discover for ourselves the peace and security that lie at our core.

With the advent of human beings, evolution has ceased to be a blind affair governed by random genetic mutations. A new degree of freedom has appeared; we can think ahead and determine our own future. Our further evolution is now in our own hands — or rather, in our own minds.

Our next step is to rise beyond the handicaps that came with the gift of language and discover who we really are. Then, free from the need to reinforce an artificially derived sense of identity, we will be able to act in accord with our true needs — and with the needs of others and the needs of our environment.

Relieved of unnecessary fears, we will be in a much better state to cope with the many changes that we will undoubtedly see over the coming years. Liberated from unnecessary self-centeredness, we will be free to care for each other, to offer others the love we so much want for ourselves. And we will be in a much better position to build a new world — one that is not so driven by this halfway stage in the unfolding of self-consciousness.

Our task is to manifest this change on earth, now — both for our own sakes and for the sake of every other creature.

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Consciousness

Parables For The New Conversation (Chapter 26: The Banker)

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The following is a chapter from my book ‘Parables For The New Conversation.’ One chapter will be published every Sunday for 36 weeks here on Collective Evolution. (I would recommend you start with Chapter 1 if you haven’t already read it.) I hope my words are a source of enjoyment and inspiration for you, the reader. If perchance you would like to purchase a signed paperback copy of the book, you can do so on my production company website Pandora’s Box Office.

From the back cover: “Imagine a conversation that centers around possibility—the possibility that we can be more accepting of our own judgments, that we can find unity through our diversity, that we can shed the light of our love on the things we fear most. Imagine a conversation where our greatest polarities are coming together, a meeting place of East and West, of spirituality and materialism, of religion and science, where the stage is being set for a collective leap in consciousness more magnificent than any we have known in our history.

Now imagine that this conversation honors your uniqueness and frees you to speak from your heart, helping you to navigate your way more deliberately along your distinct path. Imagine that this conversation puts you squarely into the seat of creator—of your fortunes, your relationships, your life—thereby putting the fulfillment of your deepest personal desires well within your grasp.

‘Parables for the New Conversation’ is a spellbinding odyssey through metaphor and prose, personal sagas and historic events, where together author and reader explore the proposal that at its most profound level, life is about learning to consciously manifest the experiences we desire–and thus having fun. The conversation touches on many diverse themes but always circles back to who we are and how our purposes are intertwined, for it is only when we see that our personal desires are perfectly aligned with the destiny of humanity as a whole that we will give ourselves full permission to enjoy the most exquisite experiences life has to offer.”

26. The Banker

In the banker’s office at the village bank on the island of Allandon, the glassblower was just completing a loan application for renovations to his glass shop. He was about to sign when he noticed something peculiar about the final sentence.

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“What’s this?” he asked as he read the final line: “Warning: late payments will not lead to prosecution.

“Yes, what about it?”

“Well, it must be a typo. Surely you meant ‘…will lead to prosecution.’”

The banker smiled to himself for a moment. Then he said, “Do you want me to let you in on a little secret?”

“Sure,” said the glassblower.

“A while back many people were not making their monthly payments on time. They had every excuse in the book. So I had that line added to the bottom of the contract to prevent them from taking advantage of me. And so you’re right, it is a typo. The printer put in the ‘not’ by mistake.”

“Well, don’t you think you should change it right away?” asked the glassblower.

“Well, I was going to when it first came to my attention,” said the banker. “The first customer that saw the new contract pointed it out. But he thought it was my way of showing my trust in him. He promised that he wouldn’t let me down. I was too embarrassed to tell him it was a typo.”

“But then you didn’t change it.”

“I was planning to, but before I could get in touch with the printer, another customer also noticed it. She was amazed at the way I was willing to do business. She made quite a big fuss about it.”

“Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. What if the word got out that you were doing this?”

“Well, long story short—it did. She told a lot of people and suddenly they were coming to me, calling me ‘the trusting banker,’ and ‘the caring banker’. And certainly they would all be looking for that line in their contracts when they came to me for loans.”

“And so you were stuck.”

“You could say that—but I promised myself that I would fix it the next time someone was late with a payment.” After a slight pause the banker added, “That was twenty years ago.”

Whenever we want to ensure right action, whether it be in a business deal, teaching our kids, or holding a vision for humanity, we tend to automatically resort to discouraging wrong action. This is the persistent temptation we face living in a world of duality.

Proclaiming ‘Thou shalt not…’ followed by a threat of retribution has long purported to be what is required to maintain an orderly and harmonious community and world. The underlying assumption here is that there are universal ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions, an absolute code of what is good and what is evil. In many religious traditions, there exists a supreme Being who is the author and enforcer of an absolute code of moral conduct, the rules and commandments that we must follow in order to be saved. This supreme Being presides on our ‘day of judgment’ after our death, to determine if our cumulative actions in the world merit either eternal salvation or eternal damnation.

Ahem.

I’m not saying this state of affairs is impossible, but it has long puzzled me how an all-powerful and omniscient Being could ever find the motivation or desire to judge good acts from evil acts, since this Being is ultimately the source of all acts. The idea that this Being would somehow have a need for our obedience, or have any needs whatsoever in fact, doesn’t make any sense to me. It smacks of anthropomorphism—our tendency to give human attributes to something that is not human.

This ‘supreme Judger’ appears to me as a projection of our Ego Self onto the Being that I have called the Dao. When we come from the perspective of the Ego Self, then we tend to be deeply involved in matters of right and wrong, judgment and retribution. We are likely to believe that some among us are basically evil, not to be trusted, and if given the freedom to act from an inner compass will undoubtedly seek to harm others. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because in coming from an environment of mistrust and fear we continue to create mistrust and fear.

This perspective is only reinforced by the media, which sells copy and maintains ratings by clearly distinguishing the heroes from the villains in our society. It is easy to buy into it, as it can be comforting to know who the good people are and who the bad people are—especially since we consider ourselves to be on the side of good. And so naturally it appears more than obvious that we need to have some common form of morality to contain the potential damage coming from the bad guys.

The idea that we will be considered good if and only if we follow some universal code of moral responsibility towards others is very tempting, as it saves us the work of figuring out from the inside how we should act. But therein lies my firm objection, and why I take the opposite tack: I believe we have absolutely no moral responsibility to others. We do not ‘owe’ people respect, compassion, or charity. Of higher importance is that we actually feel that we have a choice.

Our true moral obligation, our path, our destiny, and also not coincidentally our greatest bliss, is to endeavor to find and be our true self. But this is not even a real obligation, it’s a choice we made that we have forgotten about, the choice to come into this world. If we owe other people anything it is to get to know ourselves better so that we can act from our connectedness while sharing the gift of our unique perspective. The closer we move to the center of our being, the more we become aligned with our freedom of choice, of real choice, not of choice based on compulsion or command. My experience of life has shown me that when I am free to act in accordance with my true self, my Dao Self, I act out of love. The love flows easily, and is genuine and empowering. When I am ‘loving’ as a result of some outwardly proscribed moral directive, the expression is always dry, stunted, and unenthusiastic.

What is morality but one person’s idea thrust upon another? No system of morality ever sponsored great love, compassion or true acceptance. All commands, orders, rules and imperatives come from the fear of the Ego Self. Even the greatest commandment of all, ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ loses its essential power if it is taken as a commandment rather than as a proposal freely offered to consider. Enlightened masters who spoke powerfully about love such as Jesus understood that real love is a natural expression of our true self. Throughout our history the tendency of humans has been to misinterpret this call to love as a ‘you must do this’ rather than a ‘try this on’. I don’t believe it has ever been the intention of the truly enlightened masters to have their offerings hardened into mandatory moral codes.

When we stand behind a moral code we can become righteous about our own moral superiority. From on high, it is easy to condemn and judge others for what we have determined are ‘evil’ acts. But this judgment and condemnation is actually the lynchpin of the entire problem. Someone might say, “I believe that everyone should respect each other,” but in saying so they might feel justified in closing the door to respecting people who do not respect them. And so the person who most desperately needs respect and love—the one who cannot in a given moment respect and love others—does not receive it, and we all get stuck. It is only when we are able to move closer to our Dao Self that we get in touch with our authentic desire to respect others, out of the pure joy of expansion and expression of love. This respect is afforded even when—especially when—the other has no respect for us, because this is where the respect is most pressingly needed.

Consider the possibility that right and wrong are never absolute, and in fact we are all continually making it up as we go along, to create dramatic effect in the unfolding of the play called human life. In the old Spaghetti Westerns, we could tell the good guys and the bad guys apart, since the good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore the black hats. The difference in real life is that everybody thinks that they are the good guy. They really do. And do you know why they think so? Because they are. We are all good. Wars and fighting only occur between some good guys who have one idea of what is good and other good guys who have a different idea about what is good.

The sooner we see that good and evil is really a fabrication of the Ego Self, the sooner we will be able to take the next leap in consciousness, and come more fully from our Dao Self. When we do, we will gain an understanding that we are all fundamentally good, and when we are able to act authentically we can be trusted to exercise our free will in ways that will benefit others. It stands to reason: from the perspective of the Dao Self, we and others are the same. Coming from our Dao Self we would never harm the world because our Dao Self is the world.

No matter how ‘moral’ we consider ourselves to be, if we are still judging others for being less ‘moral’, then we are instantly pulled by our judgment out of the realm of our Dao Self and back into our Ego Self. For the time being, I think the best we can do to move things along is to realize that those who do ‘wrong’—that is to say, detrimental to others—are simply acting out of fear, and are unaware of their true nature. Rather than being condemned and castigated they need to be understood and accepted. The condemnation of evil should not be confused with the celebration of good. The emotional need to exact revenge by condemning people who have perpetrated crimes is the same as the emotional need behind the crime itself. We actually circulate divisive energy by overtly demonstrating our opposition to ignorance of self. And so to me, whenever I see on the news the hordes of people standing outside a prison, vilifying a man or woman who is to be executed for a heinous crime, I can only think that those people are projecting the very darkness that they are condemning.

The attempt to legitimize the separation of people as good and evil, worthy and unworthy is itself a denial of our unity and connectedness as human beings. As Khalil Gibran says,

Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.

But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you, so the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.

And as a single leaf does not turn yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, so the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden knowledge of you all.

When we come from a place of oneness, judgment is pointless. We are captured by the joyful feeling that we are all in this together. Eventually it is possible to see that all acts, those we call good and those we call evil, are really on a continuum of actions all motivated by the same basic human desire—the desire for unity. The low point of this continuum is total ignorance of who we are and the high point is fully embodied knowledge of our true nature—as One. The acts that emerge from a knowledge of self try to arrive at unity by embracing diversity. Acts of charity, humility, and compassion are obvious attempts to unite with others. The acts that emerge from an ignorance of self tend to try to arrive at unity by suppressing or destroying diversity. The need to conform is a good example. So is jealousy, which stems from the desire to be united with another. Even the act of genocide is founded on an attempt to unify one’s race or culture—by killing people who are different.

Easy now. Let’s not misunderstand what is being said here. The assertion that there is no absolute good and evil does not mean that we need to consider all acts as the same. When we let go of judgment we are still left with the power of discernment. We know an act of kindness has a significantly different effect from an act of violence. We know from experience that the kind of unity that the Ego Self seeks inevitably tears us farther apart. But if we as witnesses of such acts can frame them not as evil but rather as simply ignorant, then it helps us to maintain a vision of ourselves and the other as One. From there we can see that if people knew more about who they were and what they were doing that they would be seeking to unify not out of a fear of being alone but out of a love of being One.

Of course as individuals we are not there yet. We are all at various stages or levels of awareness of our true self. And that is all well and good. Being at one place on the continuum of awareness is no better than being at another. Being self-aware is not ‘better’ than being ignorant. It simply is what is. For each of us I believe a time will come in our evolution when we will realize that our diversity is our greatest gift. It is actually what makes any worthwhile experience possible. And the easiest way to achieve unity without rejecting diversity is to act with the belief that there is already a unity underneath our differences. This, in all its shades and nuances, is what it means to act out of love.

I am not saying we ought to act this way. There is no ‘should’ in love. Love flows naturally. So rather than enforcing moral standards, informing each other what is right and wrong, we are better off trying to be gentle and accepting, creating a space that is big enough to allow each person to think, speak, and act in accordance with what they believe is good. The new conversation honors your personal morality based on your unique set of values and experiences. It does not support a fixed and universal morality since this can actually serve to hide you from your true nature. After all, if you follow rules that oppose your desires, how will you ever learn about your true nature? How will you ever come to face your own ignorance? It is only in a space where we feel we are allowed to show our ignorance, our darkness, that we become capable of dissolving our ignorance and seeing who we truly are. And as we go forward we become more able to help others discover the same thing about themselves—not out of some moral imperative, but out of the joy of expressing and expanding ourselves into the world.

The new conversation is a call to heal our darkness together. There is no one we need to look to but ourselves. There is no guru, no expert, no savior, because all of us have darkness. All of us need healing. As imperfect beings we will create the space as best we can, a space without right and wrong. We only need to be authentic, and speak the truth of our desires. In an environment where we no longer feel the need to suppress our true desires in favor of the ‘right’ way to think, speak and act, we are likely to enjoy a far more empowering sense of ourselves as beings of pure love.

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Consciousness

How To Deal With Society Pressuring You To Get Married

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When I was younger, I would think about the concept of marriage and get overwhelmed with emotions: excitement for the potential to find my soulmate and to share my life with that person, fear of knowing that this may never happen, and panic in considering what legally binding myself to another person truly means. As a child, I simply assumed I’d get married, because that’s what society considers “normal.” As I got older, my perception changed and I started noticing that most of my peers shared one thing in common: All of them wanted to get married. This seemed backwards to me, as I couldn’t possibly know if I wanted to get married before I met someone I wanted to be with forever. Marriage has become a social norm; society expects you to get married and to do so before the age of 30 (sometimes even younger depending on what culture you’re from). This belief system puts significant pressure on couples, creating “the marriage trap.”

How Marriage Became a Social Norm

When it all boils down, marriage is a legal contract. By choosing to marry your partner, you are legally required to be committed to that individual and typically to share your assets. Contracts are usually made for a limited time period and designed with an “if you do this… then I will do this…” mentality. If your relationship is so strong that you know, deep down, that you will be with your partner for the rest of your life, then why should you require a binding contract to verify your bond?

According to the American Psychological Association, 90% of people in Western societies get married before the age of 50. A shocking 86% of young people in the U.S. believe that when they get married, it will be for life (literally, “until death do us part”). Many may view this number as high, but I perceive it to be surprisingly low. If you’re about to commit to being in a relationship for your entire life, shouldn’t you be 100% positive it will last forever? In Western societies, people between the ages of 25 and 35 are heavily pressured to get married and have kids. People seem to be more concerned about accomplishing this goal than they are about potentially marrying the wrong person. It’s no wonder approximately half of the married couples in the U.S. end up divorced.

What is the Marriage Trap? 

If you’ve already decided that you will get married in the future, you’re willingly creating expectations about your present and/or future partner. You could currently be with the “right person,” but because you’ve constructed a timeline for your relationship (when and if you want to get married, have kids, etc.), you’re putting added stress on your partner and yourself. Society will also pressure you into marrying your partner after you’ve been together for a certain length of time. If you’re not married within that timeframe, people assume there’s something wrong with your relationship. The weight of all of these expectations can make couples feel like they’re approaching an ultimatum, forcing them to choose between getting married or breaking up. If you’ve felt these societal pressures or you’re struggling to decide whether or not to marry your partner, you may have been sucked into the marriage trap.

How People Typically Decide Whether or Not to Get Married:

  1. Allowing your partner to make the decision: the easiest way to avoid your feelings.
  2. Letting love guide you: If you’re referring to self love, then that’s perfect. However, if you’re assuming that your love for an individual will fix all of your problems, you have a problem.
  3. Fear: of losing that person if you decide you don’t want to get married, of what others will think of you if you don’t get married, or of eventually growing apart from your partner instead of together.
  4. Ego: Your ego says you need to get married because society tells you to do so, allowing societal pressures to force you into an unwanted relationship.
  5. Physical attraction: A strong sex drive doesn’t always equate to love.
  6. Intuition: Following your gut can often provide incredible insights; however, if you’re not self-aware it may be difficult for you to listen to guidance from your Higher Self.
  7. Brain: Your brain may convince you you’re in love with someone, when you’re actually in love with the idea of that person. Just because your partner checks off all of the appropriate “boxes” you used to theorize your ideal partner, doesn’t mean you’re in love with them either.
  8. Biological clock: It’s typically easier for women to conceive before the age of 40, so they’ll often have biological children with the wrong mate instead of adopting children or taking the risk of not having children with the right person.
  9. Comparing your partner to other people: One study found that our dating choices are “98% a response to market conditions and just 2% immutable desires. Proposals to date tall, short, fat, thin, professional, clerical, educated, educated, uneducated people are all more than nine-tenths governed by what’s on offer that night.” This essentially means that most people will choose a partner by comparing them to other potential partners instead of truly following their heart.

What We Can Learn From the Marriage Trap

One study found that being married is 20 times more important to a person’s well-being than their income and 13 times more important than owning a house. That same study found that marriage makes people happier than religion and money. Although marriage has the power to form a strong, loving bond between two people and provide them with happiness, I don’t think that’s the underlying message we should take from these studies.

I would argue that it’s simply love that’s making these people happy and that they can find that same love within themselves, even if they’re single. Ultimately, it all comes down to self-awareness and self-love. You need to know yourself and love yourself before you can fully love another. Once you develop more self-love and a deeper understanding of your fundamental needs as an individual and in a partner, you’ll be prepared to choose a life partner (if you even want one).

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I’m not suggesting you should never get married, nor am I against monogamy. I’m simply saying you should avoid setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and others and that you need to look within instead of outwards before making “the marriage decision.” Many people view marriage and love as synonymous and they forget that they can fuel that same love within themselves; you don’t need to be married to be happy and feel love. However, more and more people are realizing this and choosing not to get married. This begs the question, are we meant to be with only one person for the rest of our lives? I don’t think there’s a clear answer to this question because it differs for every person. The only thing I believe to remain true is that regardless of whether you’re single or in a relationship, you have the ability to find everlasting love within yourself.

“The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”

– Rumi

Inspired by: The Marriage Decision: Everything Forever or Nothing Ever Again on Wait But Why

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Awareness

5 Great Benefits Kids Can Get From Yoga

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Yoga has a number of mind and body benefits, and those benefits have also been seen in children.

  • Reflect On:

    Should schools be incorporating yoga programs into their curriculum?

Kermit the Frog has a wonderful song – “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” And kids love this song because they can relate. After all, it’s not easy being a kid today either. More and more is asked of them in school; they are hurried from one activity to the next; homework begins at much earlier grade levels now, and then there are all of the digital distractions that top off fully exhausting days and evenings.

It’s Beginning to Show in the Classroom

Teachers are frustrated because attention spans seem to be so short and because they have to be entertainers if they want to engage learning in their classrooms. Parents worry that their kids won’t pass the standardized state tests that often decide promotion to the next grade. So, they cart their kids to tutoring sessions, among all of the sports practices. Kids just don’t have any non-stimulated time, and that is a huge concern. This is where yoga comes in.

Yoga – the Balance Every Kid Needs

Amidst the flurry of activity, there should be time for all kids to turn off their devices and tune out their activities and school work. There should be time for non-competitive physical activity, for some quiet reflection, and for the opportunity to enhance their ability to focus.

These are the big benefits of yoga and this is what kids can get when they learn and practice it.


  • Become aware of their breathing and the connections between deep breathing and the body’s feel.
    Techniques and games that foster this connection serve to improve focus, reduce stress, and actually cause the release of healthy hormones.


  • Balance: Techniques that focus on balance do far more than just develop control over the physical body. They assist increases in attention in natural ways, rather than through medication, which doctors are so quick to prescribe. As kids focus on a balance pose, they also clear their minds, thinking only of what their bodies are doing.

  • Kids have lots of natural flexibility – something that we adults lose as we grow older.  Doing stretching exercises increases flexibility, a flexibility that forms in muscles and joints and allows them to “yield.” Football players who practice yoga, for example, have far fewer serious injuries because they have developed flexibility. If flexibility exercises can become habitual with kids, they will perform better in any sport.

  • Focus and Awareness: A typical yoga exercise for young children is to have them close their eyes and focus on sitting just as a statue. They must become aware of all parts of their body in order to keep them still and stiff, and focus on keeping them that way. Then, when a short period of time is over, they are told to relax and just start laughing as hard as they can – a great release of energy and stress. They come to understand that they have control of their bodies and of their minds, and with this understanding comes confidence.

  • Relaxation and Meditation: This may be the most important benefit of yoga for young children. The early exercises of tightening and then relaxing muscles, of holding poses and moving from one pose into another, all take the mind away from the “harried” nature of their lives and have a strong calming effect. Meditation on their mats can occur as they sit in a pose or lie flat. In both instances, children can be guided to place their thought on a single thing – maybe a favorite pet or color.

Gradually, additional visualization can be added to meditation. One small private school has an assembly each morning. Children are on mats and perform yoga poses and exercises to music. Then, the “quiet” time begins. As they sit on their mats, softer music is played and they are asked to think of one thing they want to accomplish that day and to see themselves doing it – a small activity that inspires.

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Yoga for kids is all about developing habits of body and mind working together to create a more balanced lifestyle and develop great study habits. When these habits are instilled early, they tend to “stick” better.

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