Interviewsand Articles


The Courage of Consciousness

by John Shirley, Jul 7, 2012



When I was much younger I was at a reception, speaking to an Orthodox priest: a bearded man who was quite evidently very self-contained and aware; it seemed to me he was constantly making small conscious choices, inwardly, as to how he responded to people. Anytime the choice was between his own vanity, some self indulgence, or listening to someone else, he always turned toward concern for the other. He did this without being a show-off, without being demonstrative about it, out of a kind of sincerity that seemed intrinsic to him. I was impressed by this sincerity, which was almost a palpable thing, and found I wanted to impress him in turn. So I said something flattering to him about how he demonstrated goodness rooted in self honesty—and he immediately changed the subject, turning it away from himself. Though he was never unfriendly, I not only noticed his rejection of the flattery, somehow I could feel it, within myself, as though he’d literally expelled my flattery from him. It was as if my attempt to flatter him—something I did, really, so that he would like me better—simply bounced off him. There was a quality about his awareness of himself that made me more aware of myself. And when that came about, I saw myself, for a moment—I saw my flattery, my shallowness, for what it was.

All in a flash, I saw something about myself I’d never seen before. I saw that I was in the habit of using flattery to “get around” people, that I’d been doing it for years, that it was protective—that it was a function of my fear of other people. I saw that I would smile at them, chat wittily with them, but all the time I was afraid of them.

Somehow I knew that little lightning stroke of self-knowledge was valuable; that it was a flash of light illuminating a moonless, nighttime landscape normally invisible to me.

I kept watch in myself for this tendency, and learned to be aware of the impulse, the desire to do it. Gradually I weeded out this tendency to flattering others —though occasionally it crops up when I’m in an unusually insecure mood.

But eliminating a bad habit isn’t the point; the real value of seeing the bad habit, and the shallowness it was a part of, was in the realization that there must be much more about myself-- about my behavior, my habitual responses--that I  wasn’t seeing. Since I frequently struggled with self destructive impulses, I was very interested in seeing myself as I really was. After that insight, I was roused to work harder at that basic building block of consciousness, self-observation.

“If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts.” That’s Carl Jung telling us, once again, about the part of ourselves we choose not to see, usually without knowing we made the choice.

But there’s a particular hurdle to real self-observation.  We have to be willing to leap into the unknown—to leap into areas we’re afraid to explore. Self-observation takes courage. It takes bravery to see oneself as one really is.

I was lucky to encounter that priest, a man of that depth of character, in just that circumstance—he held up a mirror between himself and me, which reflected my falseness back at me. I was in a fairly receptive mood—and I saw what was in the mirror. But normally, I don’t have access to someone who can compel me to see myself. Most of the time, if I hope to become more conscious, I have to have the courage, all on my own, to look where I would normally fear to look.

In Ouspensky’s classic, In Search of the Miraculous, he provides a simple drawing of “divided attention”, which is part of the process of self-remembering. The drawing is simply a line with two arrowheads, one on each end; one end represents attention directed outward, the other arrowhead represents attention pointing inward; the two arrowheads are linked by the line. It’s a simple drawing of a simple process—but keeping this inner spotlight on, keeping this attention shining inward while maintaining a solid connection with what is extrinsic, is hard to do. Our habitual state resists it. The process requires persistence, and courage.

In a spiritual group, I heard a teacher remark, “…but don’t you find self- remembering to be exquisitely uncomfortable, at times? I do.”

Why should being more fully aware of oneself ever be “exquisitely uncomfortable”? Of course, we’re talking about taking in feelings, emotions, impulses, sensations of the body, all experienced actively, in the present moment. Perhaps it’s like stepping out of a dark room into the glare of noon—naturally I blink, and recoil a bit, at first, with all that light coming at me. Facing that plain discomfort can require courage. But for my money, there’s another aspect of advancing consciousness that takes even more courage: psychological self-knowledge.

Seeing myself as a shallow flatterer—well, it’s not flattering. It’s painful for me to think of, even now. Like everyone else, I am still prone to mindless reaction, to a kneejerk impatience with those around me—if I look at myself actively while interacting with people, even people I love, I see that negative reactivity in myself. And just seeing it is painful. It takes courage to really see it, and to bear it.

Self-flagellation over perceived faults is itself cowardly, an avenue of escape from the reality of the perception. It’s a way out. It’s playing a sort of game with oneself, using a projected inner parent to go through a little drama, a passion play of histrionic penance. “I was bad, I punish myself, and I can forget about it now”. And then I leave that particular drama, free to go back to sleep—to slip back into an unconsciousness of the Shadow side of myself, because I’ve dutifully played out the psychological drama.

Buffering the dark side away, being asleep to it, is more than easy—it’s reflexive, automatic.  It’s much harder to simply remain “in front of” an insight, some grim little epiphany, and integrate it into the overall knowledge I have of myself. Eventually, if I have the courage to remain with it, it finds a place in me, it is just another jigsaw part, and the feeling of putting a jigsaw piece in its right slot is pleasing. There, that’s where it belongs…and I see how it’s part of the larger picture.

When I consider the process of trying to become more conscious, it all pivots on attention, and where I direct attention, in myself. It seems to me that when I sit, and occasionally reach a degree of real mindfulness—when I sense and feel without surrendering to some narcoticizing fantasy—that the movement of attention really is like a spotlight, a directed arrow. Only after awhile, it’s as if there are many arrows pointing in many directions, a cluster of arrows all pointing outward from one center, from a unity. Esoteric writers sometimes use the analogy of going from the duality of two parallel lines, to a triangle, to a square, to a pentagram, to the six pointed star--the Seal of Solomon.

But it’s a long road from the parallel lines to the Seal of Solomon. Anyone who pretends that consciousness expands without effort, without discomfort, without courage, is misleading those of us who wish to achieve more consciousness.  When I sit and turn my attention inward and outward, both, completing that circuit, there is always a resistance. Something in me knows that while this effort is going to be rewarding, while it can be relaxing and liberating, it can also be “exquisitely uncomfortable” at first; it can turn my attention to aspects of myself I’ve spent years turned away from. And that is going against the grain that I’ve grown into. I have to create a new “grain”—and that means looking at myself with a bracing sincerity, without self-judging but also without looking away. The animal part of me naturally turns away. It resists. The horse bucks when you put the saddle on it—and who can blame the horse? Prepare to be bucked off, and to get back on, somewhat bruised…

It takes courage to get back in that saddle; it takes courage to face inner resistance. It takes courage on a second-by-second basis, because the resistance will be a sharp feeling, like an inner prod, that will keep trying to tilt me, push me off balance, back into my daily habitual state of self-hypnosis. When I have the courage to include that resistance in my sphere of attention—including it, reconciling with it, a little more consciousness becomes possible.

The tranced state, our sleep as we move through life, seems so much safer, so much more comforting, to the part of me that is afraid of my real inner reality…


About the Author

John Shirley is a prolific writer of novels and short stories, TV scripts and screenplays.


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