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From Issue Twenty-Two, May 2012 Next Article »

Consciousness, Transformation, and the Soul’s Journey

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Ed. note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ Mysteries of Consciousness teleseminar series, IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with Frances Vaughan, an internationally known author-educator and a pioneer in the field of transpersonal psychology. She is the author of several books, including Awakening Intuition, Shadows of the Sacred, and Accept This Gift: Selections from A Course in Miracles.


Vieten: There are so many questions I could ask you. One of the first stems from how we here at IONS have been orienting our work around the phrase “consciousness matters.” What have you learned in all of these years about how consciousness matters? What does that phrase mean to you?

Vaughan: Well, when I hear that phrase, I think of course it matters. Consciousness matters in everything that we do and everything that we experience. It’s the most essential aspect of our reality. Consciousness matters not only for our own health, happiness, and well-being but also for our interpersonal relationships and for our future as a species. We all participate in the collective consciousness of the society and the planet. Most of the work that we need to do, however, is our individual inner work. We need to become aware that our consciousness determines how we live our lives. Consciousness is the essential element that enables us to recognize our freedom and our capacity to make a difference in our own health and well-being as well as in relieving the suffering of others.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my work is how much unnecessary suffering we create for ourselves, both individually and collectively, out of ignorance or a misunderstanding about being a victim of the world rather than recognizing the possibility in our role as co-creators. When our minds join, we become much more empowered to really make a difference in the world. Individual consciousness is our individual responsibility. As we grow and develop, we learn how much our intentions, attitudes, and values do shape our experience. Learning this is crucial for our healing and our happiness; it enables us to love deeply, to experience joy, and to live life to the fullest. Yes, consciousness matters.

Vieten: How do you define consciousness?

Vaughan: Well, that’s a question that has been debated ever since I can remember and certainly before that. I don’t think there’s a single definition that can define consciousness, but I will say that we need to be aware of two basic ways of working with consciousness. One is to assume that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter—which is the dominant view in our materialistic culture. In the idealistic view, however, consciousness is fundamental, and everything in the physical universe is an emanation that comes from consciousness. So, whether you believe matter is fundamental or consciousness is fundamental makes a big difference in how you choose to work with consciousness.

Many people in consciousness research are primarily interested in the correlations of consciousness with brain function. I think that’s interesting work, but I don’t think it’s what really makes a difference in how we experience our lives and our interpersonal relationships. Awareness may be a better term to use when we talk about what I feel is both our collective work and our individual work: How do we connect the inner life of mind and spirit with the outer work of action and service in the world? That is a universal challenge for us: to recognize how our beliefs, values, and attitudes affect our life experience and then to recognize how these contribute to the well-being of others and the planet—and how our unconsciousness increases suffering and much of what is so wrong with the world. Each one of us makes a difference, so we need to recognize the responsibility each of us has.

Vieten: In a way, the pathway between the heart and the mind—or what we call the noetic and the external worlds—is the shortest distance there can be. But for most people, connecting these two aspects of life is a long journey. What have you learned about how we can walk that path?

Vaughan: Well, we’re all on that journey. One of the things I recognized over the years of my work in this field is that we tend to think the outer world causes the inner world of our experience. But I’ve seen how much the inner world is the cause of our experience in the outer world. For example, people may come into psychotherapy feeling like a victim of the past, of difficult, challenging, and traumatic past experiences. And yet, when they begin to do inner work and look at their own experience more deeply, they realize that they are not the victims of the past and that they really can recreate and reinvent themselves. They discover that they can make a difference in their lives right now and into the future. When we change our beliefs and attitudes internally, about ourselves and the world, it initiates the changes we want to see in the world, as well as in ourselves. At first, we may feel there’s a split between what’s going on in our consciousness and what’s going on out in the world, but then we discover that inner work is more fundamental, because when we do do inner work, our experience in the world begins to change. I’ve seen this happen so often! Most of us underestimate the power of individual consciousness to change our lives and to affect everyone we encounter.

Vieten: You were involved in our study on transformations in consciousness and know that it led to a model that presents some of the facilitators of transformation. Many of these are common sense—you know, such as having some sort of a daily mind-body practice, having a positive community, and similar things that we know are good for us. Now, we’ve turned our attention to the barriers that block these kinds of transformations. It’s kind of easy to say what’s good for us but not always easy to do what we know is good for us.

Vaughan: Yes, that’s true. Certainly in psychotherapy, that is what the work consists of, identifying the barriers and working through the obstacles to inner peace and the capacity for love.

I don’t think I’ve met anybody anywhere in the world who didn’t want to give and receive love. So many people feel they have to find it out there somewhere. But we find it first within ourselves, and then we find it everywhere. There’s a saying that if you see the love of god in you, you will see it everywhere because it is everywhere. Of course, the main obstacle that prevents us from experiencing this is usually fear. When we begin to see that all of our fears are about the future and that our resentments, anger, and guilt are about the past, we also begin to see that right now, in this moment, we are free, free to take responsibility for our attitudes and to choose what we pay attention to. So much of consciousness is related to our attention. The more we do some kind of meditative practice, the more we realize the power of attention.

I notice, for example, that in dialogue, if we can really give each other the “unconditional, positive regard” which Carl Rogers talked about, it means a lot. This kind of quiet, non-interfering attention seems to be what most of us want, and we can give each other that unconditional, positive regard not just in a consulting room but in any situation. We also refer to this powerful attention as presence. Cultivating presence means removing the obstacles that get in the way of our being fully present with another person. And gain, we may find the same kinds of obstacles, those issues that bring up our fears, anxieties, and self-consciousness.

Sometimes people on the spiritual path will say, “Well, that’s all ego, which somehow we have to get rid of.” I think it’s important to remember, though, that the ego can be either a good servant or a poor master. Zen Buddhists capture this in their pictures of herding ox. You don’t want your life to be run by your ego desires because ego desires are never fully satisfying. But you also need to have an ego to help manage your life and everyday concerns. On the spiritual path, we can make friends with the limitations of ego. When we can accept that no one is perfect and yet still free to cultivate awareness, we can deepen our ability to be more fully present with one another. There is a lot of healing in this. I believe we need both the inner work of meditative practices and the interpersonal work of psychotherapy, whenever it’s appropriate. It’s not an either-or but a both-and relationship between these two.

Vieten: It can sometimes be difficult, though, to tell the difference between ego desires and a deeper orienting principle. Do you have ideas on how to navigate this better?

Vaughan: One distinction I think many people find useful is to recognize the difference between ego desires and soul desires. Although people have different beliefs and ideas about what we mean by soul, most agree that there are some things that are really satisfying to the soul which are not necessarily satisfying to the ego. The ego tends to want material things, concrete things—you know, the ego thinks the next car or the next house will make me happy, but of course that never lasts very long. The ego is also engaged in thinking that the next relationship will make me happy, when in fact nobody else can make us happy because it has to come from the inside. We’re responsible for our own happiness; we can’t depend on somebody else or the possession of more things to make us happy. On the other hand, the soul is nourished by beauty, music, love, nature, and by a sense of connection with other people. So, I think it’s not too difficult for people to distinguish the longings of the soul from the desires of the ego.

Vieten: What’s captured your curiosity recently? What’s the next wave in your own evolution?

Vaughan: One is my work with the Metta Institute, which Frank Ostaseski founded. It’s an end-of-life counseling program for people who work with the dying. The students who come to this program are from different professions—doctors, nurses, chaplains, and many others who in some way are working with those facing the end of life. Over the years, the feedback I’ve heard is how much gratitude they feel for the opportunity to deepen their spiritual awareness and to make their work more effective with others. I think that’s true for all of us, that the deeper we go inside ourselves, the more we can open that door for others at any time in life, not only at the end of life. But end-of-life counseling demands coming to terms with our own mortality and the recognition that we don’t know how much time we have—at any age really, though all of this becomes more obvious as we get older. Thinking about spirituality and aging has been an interesting new development for me.

Coming to the latter part of my life—when we want to do what we can in whatever time we have left here on earth—I find there are two things that are most important: the practices of gratitude and forgiveness. Forgiveness is about letting go of the past, a deep letting go. Of course, we have to let go throughout our lives because losses are inevitable, but they become more obvious as we get older. Many of our friends pass away, and we realize the truth of the teachings of impermanence. Impermanence, like change, is a fact of life. Even a relationship that lasts many, many years is temporary. And so, when we really grapple with the fundamental existential issues of life, we begin to see that, yes, each moment is an opportunity to practice gratitude. Forgiveness frees us up to live wholeheartedly in the present, not constricting or depriving ourselves of joy by holding on to resentments and old grievances. Many people have said to me that they wish they had been able to wake up to this sooner in their lives, before facing the end of life.

Another thing I’ve learned from aging and spirituality is this question many people ask themselves toward the end of their life: Have I loved well? Not, what did I accomplish or what have I done, but did I really live wholeheartedly? So, I think that is the task.

I’ve been thinking about a kind of developmental sequence as we go through different stages in life. There are so many ways, of course, to think about psychological and spiritual development. But when I think about how our consciousness evolves, I think we all start out in a place of magic. As children, we see so much in the world that seems to be magical. Then in adolescence and early adulthood, we have to make our way in the world and to obtain a degree of mastery in whatever our chosen profession or way of life may be. After that comes the search for meaning, which usually doesn’t show up until midlife, when we begin to question some of the things we’ve been doing and begin to wonder what it all means. And then, I think later life gives way to the mystery. We realize that no matter how much meaning we find in our lives and how much we’ve been able to accomplish or achieve, they’re all part of a great mystery. In my experience, the mystery shows up at the moment of birth and at the moment of death. When we can integrate all those different aspects—magic, mastery, meaning, and mystery—then we can say, yes, we’ve been able to look at life from different perspectives, and we can be grateful for the consciousness that we’ve been given. It’s not about being intellectually accomplished but more about integrating the heart, the mind, the body, and the soul.

Vieten: That’s a beautiful evolutionary model. It makes me think about an interview I heard with Erik Erikson’s wife, Joan Serson Erikson—who, as you known, made a substantial contribution to the life stages perspective Erikson shared. She was about ninety-five at the time of this interview, and she said something like: “The one thing I want to say about the last stage, which we called wisdom, is that I think we were wrong. It’s not wisdom in the sense that you know what you’re doing and where everything comes from. It’s really more about being able to be in the mystery.” Which is what you’ve just said.

As you know, at IONS, we study those experiences that reside outside our current scientific models or materialist models of reality but that continue to be relatively common. I wonder if you want to say anything about numinous or extraordinary experiences and what they might tell us about the potentials of consciousness and what we still have to learn in this place of mystery.

Vaughan: Yes, I’ve always been interested in these kinds of experiences. I wrote my book on awakening intuition because I felt we didn’t pay enough attention to the intuitive experiences that can be so significant in our lives. As I know you know from your work at IONS, the challenge is how to distinguish the cutting-edge science from the pseudoscience. We need a lot of discernment when we begin to explore these areas because sometimes our beliefs and our wishful thinking can carry us away. So, how do we keep the dialogue going between science and spirituality? Certainly, the Institute of Noetic Sciences has contributed a tremendous amount to this dialogue. It’s crucial for our deepening understanding because often such experiences will open the door to a deeper appreciation of spirituality.

Vieten: One more question. In your recent book, Accept this Gift, you’ve pulled quotes from A Course in Miracles. A Course in Miracles was an important thread that led to the formation of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 1973. Would you want to share anything about the Course?

Vaughan: A Course in Miracleshas certainly been important in my life. There are many quotes and daily lessons that I appreciate. One of my favorites goes something like, “I rest in God. God is the light in which I see, and God is the love in which I forgive.” The Course says that it was sent to teach us, step by step, how to return to the eternal Self we thought we lost.

In another one of my favorite quotes, the Course says: “A new beginning. Simply do this. Be still and lay aside all thoughts of what you are and what God is. Hold on to nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught or anything you learned before from anyone. Forget this world, forget this course, and come with empty hands unto your God.”

I have found many of its quotes inspirational. Mostly, the Course gave me a sense of the healing that comes from recognizing that we are all connected and that we all have the capacity to connect with whatever we mean by God. It may or may not be a sense of a personal God; it doesn’t matter what the framework is. We all have the capacity both to be more fully who we are and to connect to that which is larger than we are.

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  • 2 Comments
  • Heartland May 02, 2012

    Wonderful and inspiring. The "emptiness" of Tibetan Bon and Buddhism, that of unconditioned presence, casts a clear light on the questions of forgiveness, gratitude and the impersonal ground of being.

    Who is the doer?If we look for it, we find no-thing, yet awareness unadorned by thought shines lucidly. If we cast about for divisions between perception and the perceived, we find none. Time and distance vanish, being measures for the conditioned, relative environment we all share. Descriptive terminology fails, no matter how detailed or nuanced. Finally, since "consciousness," "awareness," or "presence" are the
    single, unconditioned ground of our being, who or what is presently seeing, sensing the moment?

    The historical buddha made a distinction between what changes and what does not. An example
    is an aging person who has seen clearly all their lives. The body ages, changes and passes on, but
    clear sight does not. In terms of our nature, our unconditioned presence does not change because
    the nature of presence has never actually died, or been born.

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    Sungon9 Jun 01, 2012

    This article is a great introduction to those wanting to understand consciousness a little better. But I suggest that IONS one day puts a step-by-step survey of the basic facts, understandings and even beliefs about consciousness. This way the many people who are interested in learning easily and freely the science and concepts of consciousness can do so, without having to listen to seminars or read articles that talk about consciousness but that are not designed to teach it.

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