What Higher Consciousness Really Means, How We Attain It, and What It Does for the Human Spirit
By Maria Popova
“[Leonardo da Vinci’s] unique brain wiring … allowed him the opportunity to experience the world from the vantage point of a higher dimension,” Leonard Shlain wrote in his stimulating inquiry into the source of Leonardo’s genius. But what is “higher consciousness,” really, and can it be unmoored from the baggage of spiritualism and superstition to enrich our secular understanding of what it means to be human?
Few contemporary thinkers have done more to reinstate philosophy as a guiding light for public life and a practical tool for personal growth than philosopher and School of Life founder Alain de Botton, who has written beautifully about such enduring ideas as the role of art in human happiness and what Nietzsche teaches us about the character-building role of difficulty. De Botton’s fantastic recent conversation with Tim Ferriss pointed me to this equally fantastic video essay examining the question of higher consciousness.
As human beings, we spend most of our lives functioning in states of lower consciousness, where what we are principally concerned with is ourselves, our survival and our own success, narrowly defined.
Ordinary life rewards practical, unintrospective, self-justifying outlooks that are the hallmarks of what we could call “lower” consciousness. Neuroscientists speak of a “lower” part of the brain they term the reptilian mind and tell us that under its sway, we strike back when we’re hit, blame others, quell any stray questions that lack immediate relevance, fail to free-associate, and stick closely to a flattering image of who we are and where we are heading.
However, at rare moments, when there are no threats or demands upon us, perhaps late at night or early in the morning, when our bodies and passions are comfortable and quiescent, we have the privilege of being able to access the higher mind — what neuroscientists call our neocortex, the seat of imagination, empathy and impartial judgement. We loosen our hold on our own egos and ascend to a less biased and more universal perspective, casting off a little of the customary anxious self-justification and brittle pride.
In such states, the mind moves beyond its particular self-interests and cravings. We start to think of other people in a more imaginative way. Rather than criticize and attack, we are free to imagine that their behavior is driven by pressures derived from their own more primitive minds, which they are generally in no position to tell us about. Their temper or viciousness are, we now see, symptoms of hurt rather than of “evil.”
It’s an astonishing gradual evolution to develop the ability to explain others’ actions by their distress, rather than simply in terms of how it affects us. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism or aggression, but always — when we can manage it — love. At such moments, the world reveals itself as quite different: a place of suffering and misguided effort, full of people striving to be heard and lashing out against others, but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty, and touching vulnerability.
The fitting response is universal sympathy and kindness.
States of higher consciousness are, of course, desperately short lived. We shouldn’t in any case aspire to make them permanent, because they don’t sit so well with the many important practical tasks we all need to attend to. But we should make the most of them when they arise, and harvest their insights for the time when we require them most. Higher consciousness is a huge triumph over the primitive mind which cannot envisage any such possibilities. Ideally, we would be a little more alive to the advantages of this higher mind and strive to make our oceanic experiences somewhat less random and less clothed in unnecessary mystery.
The film is part of the excellent School of Life series that has previously examined what great books do for the soul, how to stop letting habit blunt our aliveness, what philosophy is for, how to find fulfilling work, and what comes after religion.
Published November 16, 2015