The Nature of Conscious Awareness

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A guidebook for the Future

Trying to making sense of conscious awareness—it nature and function—has been a source of debate since our human beginnings. A creative frame offers a new kind of answer to the question of awareness.

Pulitzer prize winning author John Nable Wilford summed awareness’s contribution thusly: “Alone among all creatures, the species that styles itself wise, Homo Sapiens, has an abiding interest in its distant origins, knows that its allotted time is short, worries about the future and wonders about the past.”  A person could well describe the core task of future responsibility as that of being more conscious than in times past. Depending of what we mean that would be right.

But this observation is of limited use—indeed can easily lead us astray—if we don’t begin by revisiting what conscious awareness is and how it works.   The last century has provided fascinating new insight.

In the traditional picture, awareness has been who we are, captain of the cellular ship—a point of clear and final perspective.  The Enlightenment’s stated grand task was to bring all of truth into the light of such awareness.  This picture is changing.

Few truths become more obvious when practicing the craft of the psychotherapist than how different the reality of conscious awareness is from how the conscious mind tends to view itself. (Comic Emo Philips once quipped: “I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that.”)   In fact, that conscious awareness is limited in what it can grasp is exactly as it should be. The larger part of our functioning works best without volition’s interference.  (Recall Kipling’s centipede who walks gracefully with its hundred legs until praised for her exquisite memory.)

Increasingly our picture of the functioning of awareness is coming to better match this reality. A central achievement of modern psychology and psychiatry has been the elucidation of more complex and multi-hued pictures of our inner workings. The oft-used psychological metaphor that compares the psyche to an iceberg, part visible, part submerged, gets us started in the right direction. Awareness’s task becomes that of recognizing as much of this multi-hued complexity as we are able and making the most life-enhancing choices from within the options it reveals.

Such a broader view has a price.  It requires humility to all that necessarily lies forever beyond awareness’ reach.  But we gain in return a greater maturity and fullness of perspective and an important new step in our potential generative potency.Today, we see a growing capacity to step back from all parts of our cognitive functioning—including the more rational parts of ourselves that in the past we tended to identify with awareness (and ourselves). We might call this a new potential for “meta-perspective.” We also see a new ability to appreciate all the various parts of our cognitive complexity, both those before shielded from consciousness and those we may have identified with it—to more deeply embody intelligence as a whole.

There is a further important piece. We are better recognizing how the various pieces of our cognitive complexity may work together (and to have them work together in more conscious and obviously complementary ways.)  Today’s formulations provide a more specifically integrative sort of meta-perspective. CST views these shifts as key to the new picture we get with the best of emergent thinking. What we see is necessarily a product of how we see, and we would predict this new way of seeing to change what we see in ultimately radical ways.

Certainly this is so with regard to awareness itself. A creative metaphor helps paint the new picture.  Imagine being a composer writing a symphony.  Ask yourself what the right role for conscious awareness should be in the symphony’s creation if it is to be most powerful and beautiful,?  Clearly that role is not to write the piece, for conscious awareness can write only what it knows—nothing new would be created. But just as much, the task of conscious awareness is not simply to get out of the way.  We use it to affirm the importance of creating, to commit the time and attention that the symphony requires. We use it to consider where we are going and to bring together needed resources.  We use it to create the safe places needed for deep creative work.  And we utilize conscious awareness to refine our sensibilities, to better appreciate the uniquely sonorous voice of the bassoon, or the subtle and critical differences in the emotional tone of a flute or a piccolo, to better understand the geography of musical creation, the hills and valleys of crescendo and arpeggios, how one movement intricately plays into the next like a lush forest transitioning into a broad plain.

This more dynamic picture of awareness’s functions translates directly to new human responsibility the future will increasingly require.  The needed new responsibility becomes different from more familiar concepts of responsibility in the same way the function of awareness in musical composition is different from awareness’ more familiar Enlightenment interpretation.  The composer’s reflective responsibility is not to craft (no matter how elegantly) a predefined product—that would not be composition.  Rather it is to help bring forth the commitment, sensitivity, and perspective needed for the artistic effort.  It is the same if we are creating relationships, communities, organizations, or societies when reliable handholds are absent.  Mature responsibility becomes a measure of the imagination, courage, and integrity we bring to our personal and collective choices.  We may not get to know what the ultimate outcome of our efforts will be.  But we can know that anything that helps us bring these qualities to bear increases the likelihood that what results will enhance life.  In the end, responsibility has always been creative.  But now, as culture’s assisting guideposts become less reliable, it becomes more explicitly so.