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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Exam my conscience?

(Another installment in my thinking about spiritual exercise.)

Many masters of the Spiritual Life recommend a daily examination of conscience. In Catholic terms it sounds like a preparation for going to confession where I can tell my sins to a priest representing a potential vengeful God and get absolution so I can go to heaven. Sorry--no longer interested in that. I'm with Martin Luther who said "Pecca fortiter!" Sin bravely.

Or it could mean a listing of all my faults towards developing a corrective strategy which would be somewhat practical as I move ahead in my career. No longer interested in that either. In fact I've never been that interested in a career.

Conscience in French is the word used both for what we English speakers call "consciousness," i.e. mind awareness, and "conscience," i.e. moral awareness. I like to think that the French, though they got stuck with Descartes in the body/soul duality, have with Piaget closed the gap between thinking and acting. Acting is a thinking out and in. Thinking is acting in and out. And also the gap between ethics and politics. Personal behavior is shaped by and shapes social action. Social action shapes and is shaped by personal behavior.

So the examination of conscience is a reflection or meditation on consciousness in both its thoughtful and behavioral dimensions. It is mindfulness and contemplation in action. Mindfulness is taking out moments, few or many, to withdraw into my consciousness by focusing not on the object of my consciousness, the words or images that make things in the world, but on the flow in which objects are becoming. Much more than my camera does, I change my depth of field all the way back to a focusing on the focusing itself.

I do this quite naturally when I jog along my usual running route simply allowing my thoughts to run through and evaporate as new thoughts emerge and run through. I am feeling the sun, the pavement, hearing my breathing, and seeing the trees and the path go by. But like beautiful butterflies, the feelings land on my palm, are appreciated, and flutter on. It is floating in William James' "stream of consciousness."

Or I do what my Zen Roshi taught me to just sit comfortably, go with my breathing, and then let all my thoughts whiz by and out like birds in the wind. Or when I fully get into the act and style of an artist while viewing her paintings or watching him perform on stage, or when I participate in a rally for something I believe, or when I listen to a good sermon at church, or when I read an exciting article about the cosmos, I often leave my self as an idea and enter into the creative consciousness of others and myself.

Sometimes I do feel a union with a bigger, universal consciousness all around, though I now feel silly labeling it that way. Perhaps it is "runner's high" or some other kind of stupor; but if it happens I am grateful for the gift. And I return refreshed.

It is awareness attending not to the objects of awareness but to the awareness itself, that which gives birth to all objects. I do not believe that one can ever get to "pure" spirit or mind or consciousness. I am with the phenomenologists who say that all consciousness is of or to something. But I think we can grasp that awareness and know what thinking/acting is only by discovering the origins of words and things, of formulas and scientific laws, of images and the forms of art, of icons and gods, of rules and society in one's self in union with many other selves. I believe it is catching the creative act of myself in union with other persons that stimulates my "high."

Even when alone. Perhaps often when alone. "Numquam minus solus quam cum solus," the monks used to say. Never less alone than when alone.

When I return from my consciousness of consciousness to the objective world, I am not only refreshed. I am bubbling with ideas which I try to write down but do so badly. Some of these ideas had come to me while running or sitting, but many are just outbursts. It is somewhat like trying to get a hold of the contours or story lines of dreams that had no contours and absurd story lines. I try to capture them in words, diagrams, and pictures--but cannot do so adequately.

I do get insights into my behavior and projects. I do rethink what I formerly held true. And I recognize that all that is real is a figment of our imagination, a product of our consciousness/conscience shared in our acts of science, religion, art, and politics. That frees me to further engage in projects that are now defining who I am and choosing to be and to critique, review, and modify them. And to offer them to others for critique, review, and modification.

That is what I believe at this writing is the examination of conscience. I am sure that there are other ways and labels for the exercise--probably as many as there are unique individuals. I believe it is essential to good thinking and good action. But I am still learning.

(Next: Cognitive therapy as a spiritual exercise)

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