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The Praxis of Consciousness

The realization that consciousness varies, and that we can learn to control that variation, is the key to understanding a practice and theory of consciousness. The practice is based on the simple effort to be aware of ourselves in our surroundings. An already existing theory of consciousness becomes recognizable as a result of the practice, and serves as a map to direct further practice.


We experience the variation of our personal level of consciousness at least daily. We can see it, for example, when we wake up in the morning. We come out of a dream state and progressively realize we are in bed, then that it is morning, it is Saturday morning and so on. It is something we are intimately familiar with, but before meeting with this set of ideas, ascribe no particular importance to it.

We may effect a change in our awareness, our consciousness, by trying to become more aware—to observe, for example, that as we write or talk or sit our shoulders have a certain tension, our posture assumes a certain attitude, we are feeling uneasy or glad, nervous or comfortable. By increasingly adding subjects to our awareness we can become aware of considerably more at once than we were aware of only moments before.

By recognizing the fact of such variations in our awareness we come to what is perhaps the first tentative theory—consciousness appears to be a continuum. That is, the ranges of consciousness we perceive seem to fit nicely into a continuum, stretching from an unconscious deep sleep to ever more lucid and inclusive awareness. How far this goes, how much we can be conscious of, is hard to say (if indeed there is any limit). We may have had experiences of a quality of awareness that seems far removed from our relatively meager attempts to increase awareness, but at least it can be said that such higher states of consciousness don't rule out the possibility that they are on the same continuum, and it is possible that those higher states can in some way be reached intentionally—if we can continue to increase our successful efforts to be ever more aware. In any case, unless we actually reach a point at which we are unable to increase our awareness by further personal efforts, it seems desirable to continue to make efforts to increase consciousness as long as the efforts are fruitful.

The Practice of Consciousness

The practice of consciousness can be performed by making efforts to be aware of ourselves in any and all situations. If we set out conscientiously to be aware of ourselves continually throughout the day, we first discover that we cannot do it. We get distracted constantly and, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we spend our day more distracted than aware. This general distraction may be seen as a sort of pinpoint awareness; we are aware of one thing and then a different thing and so on, but rarely do we experience ourselves as existing simultaneously with the object of our attention. This realization of the difficulty in attaining any degree of increased awareness is a first fruit of efforts to increase consciousness.

So, in fact, the practice of awareness at once produces results. The chief difficulty, perhaps, is accepting what we observe and starting with that, not trying to force observations to fit pre-conceived ideas of what we might or should experience. It seems paradoxical, or even disheartening, to attain some result such as the observation 'my mind wanders' rather than something like 'I feel a peace pervading my being', but it is essential to build with clear, simple observations that suggest practical next steps rather than hope-filled dead-ends.

If we observe that our mind wanders and that this causes us to forget about trying to be aware of ourselves in our surroundings, we can make experiments specifically on this condition and see what diminishes it, and what aggravates it. Here too it is important to keep things simple and practical. We may find, for example, that we don't maintain a continuous awareness of our existence with the music blaring or the TV on, while we have better luck when walking down Main Street or weeding the garden. We may not do as well when lying in bed or drinking beer in the easy chair but better sitting in a hard chair or in an unaccustomed position. Or vice-versa. There is no end to the small experiments we can make and, in time, these experiments may produce a nucleus of tools we can use to keep our mind from wandering the way it did when we first set out to control awareness.

But perhaps it is not a wandering mind we face when trying to increase our awareness but something else, say strong dissatisfaction with our life, our job, our mate. These too are practical, useful observations. As in the example of a wandering mind, creative experimentation can lead to a collection of practical techniques to help in profiting by this. But first, the feeling itself must be addressed. It hardly serves our goal to become more aware if we simply find ways to suppress feelings which appear to be obstacles. It is necessary to evaluate the feeling, to pursue it with the awareness of ourselves pursuing it. That awareness of ourselves keeps this pursuit from becoming just another distraction and even makes it a part of our general effort to increase awareness. That is, there is no restriction as to what we may try to include in the range of our awareness: feelings, thoughts, muscular tensions, sunlight, wind, a ticking clock, are all fair game.

If, for example, our attempts to increase awareness seem to suffer due to an unpleasant situation existing with our spouse, we can examine our feelings about this, ask ourselves what is the difficulty, why is this difficult, always trying to recognize clear, simple answers that imply obvious next questions and ultimately suggest concrete actions. But we must observe ourselves while we do this, we ourselves must be another object of our awareness, so we watch our thoughts and feelings interacting, perhaps feeding each other to become more and more angry or more and more sad. The simple act of continued awareness can do much toward clarifying turbulent waters and lead to practical decisions on how to deal with the conditions that seem to prohibit awareness. And, most important, we begin to see ourselves as something quite different from what we had imagined ourselves to be. It seems that we are not what we are observing—that is continually changing, inconstant, ephemeral. It is more likely that we are that part which is doing the observing, not those parts which we are observing.

Consider what an exact knowledge of psychology might lend to such self-examinations.

It is as a result of such efforts that we may begin to recognize some of the obstacles to consciousness pointed out in the psychological ideas of the fourth way. At some point, we begin to connect that strange-sounding set of ideas to our personal experience, and it helps us immeasurably to be able to organize our perceptions by those ideas. We begin to realize that people have been here before, have known where we are and how to grow from this point. In addition, we begin to acquire a common language in which we can discuss this inner world with others in a similar situation.

While the practice of consciousness is a personal pursuit it should not be an isolating one. On the contrary, the increase of personal awareness of ourselves in our surroundings increasingly comes to include others—the friends, relatives, acquaintances, and strangers we are with in moments of greater awareness. And, if we are lucky enough to have friends engaged in the same pursuit of greater awareness, the sharing of observations can become an invaluable source of new ideas for experiments, and such gatherings in themselves are supportive environments to practice awareness.

Finally, the pursuit of personal consciousness leads us out of ourselves and through the back door, so to speak, through ourselves and out into life. Now we can give our friends and our world the attention they deserve—but only after having mastered our own attention to some extent. If the mind does not wander, how much better we attend to another's words and their meaning. If the turbulent emotions of intimate contact clarify to a purity of thinking and feeling, so much finer is a moment with a loved one. If the noise of preconceptions stills, so much richer is the acquaintance with a stranger. In this way, awareness itself becomes an encouragement to us to find ways to increase it.

The Theory of Consciousness

The theory of consciousness is an ancient one, and many traces of it can be found in the sacred literature of almost all times and places. But it cannot really be understood that way. Ancient ideas are expressed in the way that they are for the time and place of the people they were intended for, and conditions are very different today. Also, we cannot read these ideas in their original expression. In the first place, we are almost always reading translations, and translations can never be at the level of the original, and in fact are almost always hampered by the understanding of the translator. Even in cases where one can read the original texts, for example by having a sophisticated knowledge of ancient Greek or Chinese or even Elizabethan English, many of the terms are used in contexts now lost, and have connotations impossible to recall today. In order to understand these ancient texts, we have to already know a great deal about what they are trying to convey. Then we may well be able to get something from them.

In addition to the problems of dealing with ancient written knowledge is the very real necessity of direct transmission. This leads to the necessity of schools for the development of consciousness, which consequently leads as well to the pseudo-schools that are much more plentiful. And all that leads to the usefulness of "pre-school", that is, groups or organizations with the purpose of studying what schools of consciousness must be, how they can be recognized, how to prepare for them, how to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate approaches.

The most frequent email I get in response to these essays includes a question of the form "I live in X. Do you know where I can find a school here?" To this I can only say that nobody can tell you where a school is. So much the worse for you if they do. It is a necessary first step to find school on your own. There are schools, and they do make themselves available, but we have to have the necessary discrimination to locate them through the confusion of the pretenders, and those who honestly think they are a school, but are not. And, first of all, we have to recognize the value of pre-school.

We need to find others with a working knowledge of this work in order to progress. Working in common with others from the point of view of the work is the only way I know of to see certain aspects of ourselves that we simply cannot arrive at alone. All the more so because we think we can. But we must not become persuaded, convinced, or hypnotized by others. We must actually learn and see a great deal about ourselves, all made possible by this new knowledge applied in fruitful and unbiased group work.

As an example of the kind of thing we can learn in this way and not by ourselves is what is called our "chief feature". Also, in any real emotional and practical way, our "type" and "center of gravity". And as we learn these things about ourselves we begin to learn them about others, and we can begin to help others that ask us for help. One reason that learning in fourth way group work is so effective is that we do not necessarily believe what someone tells us, and this is good, but when we see that many different people are trying to tell us something very similar, and when this is clearly being done out of kindness, and done sincerely, we either must begin to take what they are saying about us seriously or leave before we see something about ourselves that we don't really want to see. If we don't want to see it, we just aren't ready for it, and can go no further until we are.

It is necessary to find others with whom we can learn, and that is best achieved by trying it. Keep your aim in mind (and if your aim is unclear to you, keep trying to formulate it) and see if your efforts to achieve your aim are aided by being with the group. Ask questions, ask for help, and evaluate the results. Participate: be involved and active in the group and its exercises, techniques, gatherings, and so forth. Above all, try to remember yourself when faced with decisions, be true to yourself.

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