Freedom and Objective Conscience
Photo from the 2016 film 'Arrival'
It is…said that our time is the age of the decisive fight between freedom and tyranny. It is true that such a fight is going on. But it has always been fought and I don’t believe that I could justifiably be called a pessimist for expressing my belief that this fight will never be over. It will go on, generation after generation, as long as human beings are human beings. Furthermore, this is basically not a struggle between political systems and ideologies, but a struggle within and for the hearts of men (and women), including our own. There is a Swedish proverb which says that it is always easy to agree on fighting the devil when you have him painted on the wall. But we can never forget that the real devil may also be within ourselves and all the more dangerous for not being...
There is a sphericity to the experience of life, accessed through learning to expand the attention, or arriving through the instantaneous illusion shattering strike of baraka (grace), that can hold a field of interpenetrating simultaneity between the part and the whole, time and eternity, the horizontal and vertical axis, and the lower and higher being parts of the human. “This reconstitution of the scale of things” comes about by way of what the Western Wisdom tradition terms, remorse of conscience.[ii]
Remorse of conscience becomes the necessary, albeit costly, turn-key to fulfill the creative calling of our species. Mirroring the words of the poet David Whyte:
“... to be human
is to become visible
what is hidden
as a gift to others...”[iii]
The fault-line coursing through the irreconcilable lower and higher being parts of the human machinery[iv] becomes the cruciform apex of the Lenten pilgrimage as remorse of conscience fills the crack between the poles of these tectonic plates of our makeup, widening the chasm, engulfing the ego, producing an activated middle, joining the mouth of our will with the mouth of a higher, wholly integral will.
This union or rather, unification, is the access point for the birth of real, or, objective conscience. Where our lives become disposed of rather than reflected upon. Connected to all through the eyes of faith-objectively accessed through sensation in the unified web of a field the Christian path hankers after as, Resurrection. Life lived from the resonant note of an inner song pulsing throughout, everything. And as we correspond and coincide with its rhythm, we awaken its likeness in everything we touch. Holographically sounded through as persons. Mirroring the ancient psalmist’s words-Deep calls unto deep-living our lives as verbs, in the great Logoic “resurrection parade.”[v]
In Conscience all are the same; all of us in our Conscience touch the same place and are open to the same world. This means that people can understand one another and their lives and be harmonized, but only to the extent that they are able to be open to their Conscience. I said our conscience; I should have said “conscience” because it is not a private possession of any one of us. That of which I can say “I,” “you” is the way to it-the way that we have to find in ourselves. Attention is the extraordinary instrument that is able to make that journey, a journey that must always go through uncharted territory because no knowledge will help us in this journey to that part of ourselves where we are able to stand in front of the possibilities of the Whole. Although that vision of the Whole is very remote from us such as we are now, something can nevertheless be transmitted to our ordinary state. It may help us to see this if we compare Conscience itself to the light of the sun. Some light passes even through the thickest clouds, and because of this light, everyone is sensitive to the need to find Conscience. However much we may run away from what it implies, and however much we have been encouraged, and encouraged ourselves, to prefer dreams to reality, something in us cannot be quite at peace with that. That “not quite at peace” state presents itself to us in the form of some question. If we face that question with the determination to find an answer, we are led step-by-step to the point where we realize that it is not in what we do but in consciousness of what we are that the transformation has to be accomplished.[vi]
However, like the intelligence of the ancient, extensive and ever spreading network of mycelium underground, the buried seed of conscience must remain buried to crack the mushrooming code that is human flourishing.
Meaning we humans must not only abandon our precious and valued methods of looking back at ourselves as arbitrarily measured objects; digging ourselves up to determine whether we are successes or failures. But we must also internalize the humiliation of accepting that we don’t know how to abandon this incessancy for asking and answering the isolated notion of how we’re doing essentially every moment of our lives.
Seeing does not come from thinking. It comes from the shock at the moment when, feeling an urgency to know what is true, I suddenly realize that my thinking mind cannot perceive reality. To understand what I really am at this moment, I need sincerity and humility, and an unmasked exposure that I do not know. This would mean to refuse nothing, exclude nothing, and enter into the experience of discovering what I think, what I sense, what I wish, all at this very moment.[vii]
In other words, we must fertilize the ground of our lives by bearing the pain of the accurate seeing of our own hypocrisy, allowing that felt sense of remorse to become the placental access to receiving assistance from Divine Mercy. Not as an attempt to escape our human condition and get on with “successful living” but as a permanent ground for receiving, becoming and transmitting Wisdom. Here, remorse of conscience transmutes itself into compassion, or the seeing of the heart-conscience as the impartial and non-judgmental bearing of our own and a part of the collective pain of the planet.
Where do we begin such an undertaking of mining for this buried seed of conscience?
The short answer is right where we are. Unfortunately, though, the simplicity of that answer can’t be conveyed with all due force without first looking at the dilemma of how our brains (and therefore our culture) typically locate the idea of freedom. On top of recognizing that we’re not actually really here.
The now late metaphysician and contemplative philosopher Beatrice Bruteau contrasts two types of freedom that correlate strongly with the Western Wisdom Tradition’s notions of acquired versus real/objective conscience (in the way described above by J.G. Bennett).
“I make a distinction between choice-freedom and creative freedom,” she writes, “The stimulus for choice-freedom originates in the environment, which presents me with alternatives: should I order steak or fish, pie or cake? The various foods are there in the outer environment, and my own hunger as part of my inner environment puts pressure on me to make a choice. What is specific about choice-freedom is that both alternatives among which you may choose and the inner urgency to make such choices come from the environment-where environment includes feelings that are inside yourself. Usually when people think of freedom, they have in mind this kind of ability to make choices among alternatives.”[viii]
‘Choice freedom’ as the modus operandi of the best of our culture and mind, in isolation from the heart and the collective, cannot not check how it’s doing by digging up the seed of conscience-it does so to keep it in the cultural field of pseudo light, or acquired conscience. That is to say, acquired conscience is always informed by a culturally conditioned metric and dependence on self-reflective consciousness and its default attachment to the emotional programs of happiness of seeking security, survival, power, control, affection, esteem or a combination of any or all of the above.[ix]
The best that choice freedom can produce, in terms of moving humans towards higher purpose, is culturally conditioned duty-externally motivated or internally conditioned action arising from a place of separation. In this place, living conversations regarding human obligations and responsibility are eventually, if not mainly, seen as burdens; rather than privileges of service energized from generative and ever-renewable energy sources, sustained by inspiration instead of anxiety ridden pressure, be it externally or internally.[x] This is because the best reward duty can promise as I’m referring to it here, is an ego stroke. Honor is equated with winning and the best dying can become is a martyrdom of exclusion moving us further from our shared purpose as makers of wholeness.
In fact, Bruteau equates acts of evil as arising from the agent’s desire (as an isolated finite ego) to keep itself alive.[xi] Self-preservation-always a form of choice-freedom reacting to external stimuli, or internal anxiety, unable to act originally or against the grain of culturally conditioned morality or group pressure. We see the practical examples and consequences of this at every level of society. In fact, we confuse the identification with our stories about ourselves, our personal myths if you will, as the best we can aim for in this life. But herein lies the problem. If your story is good you won’t be here to know.
We all know this on some level. And we all know that more choices do not equal more freedom, neither for ourselves in the insatiability of satisfying these programs for happiness nor for the good of the whole for what these programs produce in propping up the illusion of separation between ourselves and our neighbors. Be them human or otherwise.
Though Bruteau, and the Western Wisdom Tradition, I believe, offer us a viable alternative in both theory and practice.
“But there is another kind of freedom, namely, creative freedom. It means that you act from yourself as author, as from a first origin or source.”[xii]
Creative freedom, like objective conscience, cannot act against what it is. It is therefore generative in and of itself, original in the truest sense of the term, always operative in the Now-though mostly hidden and buried from our everyday awareness-always impartial in its impact as it seeks the most good for the most recipients arising from and reflecting the whole from which it emerges. It is choiceless in this way. It does what it is. Integral, in aligned action.
Conversely, acquired conscience, and its sister motivator, choice freedom, cannot move beyond culturally defined categories of morality as it is biologically encoded into the survival mechanism of our species’ brains.[xiii] It is therefore reactive. It can do no better than the best group’s thinking-isolated from the infusion of higher assistance and the harmonized base of the centers of intelligence of the human being.
Objective conscience, and its sister fuel, creative freedom, cannot be taken from you nor given to you by another, as it is the seed of the core of your makeup as a human being.[xiv] Yet, most typically, it is awakened, at least initially, through getting an accurate picture of the unconscious impact of your sleepwalking behavior and emotionally allowing that impact to be owned and accepted for oneself. Including the powerlessness to change what it is that we see.
But conscience is the fire which alone can fuse all the powders in the glass retort which was mentioned before and create the unity which a man lacks in that state in which he begins to study himself. The concept ‘conscience’ has nothing in common with the concept of ‘morality.’ Conscience is a general and a permanent phenomenon. Conscience is the same for all men and conscience is possible only in the absence of ‘buffers.’ From the point of view of understanding the different categories of man we may say that there exists the conscience of a man in whom there are no contradictions. This conscience is not suffering; it is joy of a totally new character which we are unable to understand. But even a momentary awakening of conscience in a man who has thousands of different I’s is bound to involve suffering. And if these moments of conscience become longer and if a man does not fear them but on the contrary co-operates with them and tries to keep and prolong them, an element of very subtle joy, a foretaste of the future ‘clear consciousness’ will gradually enter into these moments.[xv]
The “bottoms” and emptiness that we try our best to avoid or climb desperately out of as quick as we can, are the very nothingness of our being that is the beginning of allowing the buried conscience of our “Real I” to grow and make manifest the gifts of life disposed from the source of life versus the source of our ego’s reflection on itself.
This is true recovery. The recovery of our claim to the birthright of our own embodied originality and goodness; ongoingly through the mutual beatidunal exchange of staying planted in the energy that flows at the cross-section of human and divine vulnerability. Herein lies, what some call heartfulness, where life blooms its way as dynamic, integrous, and singular seeing of the whole as conscious participation with the unfoldment of emergent knowing. Real conscience meeting the evolution of consciousness in “the axis and the arrow.”[xvi] Where indeed a tree is known by its fruits.
And its fruits are, I believe, a growing commitment to a universal highest good, grounded courage that comes from living on the other side of that commitment, along with a contemplative seeing that is the wielding of love in all of its finest manifestations embodied as compassion in its purest most potent concentration.
These fruits of commitment, courage and contemplation are then taken up as the gifts and practical tools that they are-objective pathways of energetic alchemy in the ancient and evolving sciences of prayer, imagination, and love. These pathways as human gifts for the whole human family are housed in the very religions that we must make peace with in discovering their common Source at their deepest depths.
This is not, necessarily, a call to improve or conserve our forms and structures of religion let alone to “draw people back” into what many have rightly rejected, but rather a call to take responsibility for those of us who claim faith on any level. To take up an inheritance, perhaps discovering it for the first time, that can only be lived and always on behalf of the whole. Reconstituting religion, not as central and static, but as a catalyst of evolution and transformation of consciousness by design. Now exiles by choice. Not claiming victimhood, having abandoned our own “personal rights” in favor of service to the whole from a deeper particpation.
I believe the only really valid thing that can be accomplished in the direction of world peace and unity at the moment is the preparation of the way by the formation of men and women who, isolated, perhaps not accepted or understood by any 'movement,' are able to unite in themselves and experience in their own lives all that is best and most true in the various great spiritual traditions. Such men and women can become as it were 'sacraments' or signs of peace, at least. They can do much to open up the minds of their contemporaries to receive, in the future, new seeds of thought. Our task is one of very remote preparation, a kind of arduous and unthanked pioneering.[xvii]
And like Merton we discover that the traditional and perennial practices of solitude, silence and stillness at the heart of our religious traditions are recapitulated in an evolutionary framework as, solidarity and communion with all sentient beings, presence in non-localized inter-abiding relationships of mutuality and dynamic creativity as the fountainhead and base of being.
In rediscovering who we are as bearers of traditions now perhaps knowing them for the first time, we can then do the liberating work of combating evil and systemic injustice from a context both bigger than we’ve allowed ourselves to see and more integrous with the evolutionary trajectory of our lives and planet integrally woven through with the fruits of the energy streams of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control and gentleness.[xviii]
The divine energies are rushing past us at every nanosecond of time. Why not reach out and catch them by continuing acts of self-surrender and trust?[xix]
Wisdom can maintain what life will begin on its own terms if we allow it-that is, open the door to awakening Real I. And often in the falling apart of what we are trying so hard to keep together, keeping the heart open as the path of awakening consciousness through the harvesting of real conscience on the foundation of a human being who is present to true human potential and purpose in its largest most practical sense. The ancient sciences held in our great spiritual traditions are pathways to begin to, not only reorient ourselves towards conscience and human purpose but, to give us a solid, secure, foundation and connection. One rooted in embodied presence, contentment, and an ability to participate in life free of fear-come what may.
This journey then, is nothing more, yet nothing less than a period of acclimating to a new way of seeing, a time of transition and revelation as it gradually comes upon "that" which remains when there is no self. this is not a journey for those who expect love and bliss, rather, it is for the hardy who have been tried by fire and have come to rest in a tough, immovable trust in "that" which lies beyond the known, beyond the self, beyond union and even beyond love and trust itself.[xx]
[i] Words from Dag Hammarskjold as quoted in: Roger Lipsey, Politics and Conscience (Boulder: Shambala, 2020), 88.
[ii] See Cynthia Bourgeault’s teaching on ‘Remorse of Conscience’ from 2021 Enneagram Summit
[iii] David Whyte, David Whyte: Essentials (Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2020), 53.
[iv] If you can’t see it in your own life-see the traditional and theological reflection of this state from St. Paul in chapter 7 of the book of Romans.
[v] See Colossians 1:18-20 in Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
[vi] J.G. Bennett, Making a Soul (Santa Fe: Bennett Books, 1995), 44.
[vii] Jeanne de Salzmann, The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambala, 2010), 205.
[viii] Beatrice Bruteau, Radical Optimism (Boulder: Sentient Publications, 2002), 81.
[ix] See Thomas Keating’s teaching on emotional programs for happiness through Contemplative Outreach.
[x] The pressure of constriction of time, relationships of commitment like family, and deadlines do play an important role in not only the conditions in which we live but in assisting us towards moving into action. But this in and of itself is not able to sustainably produce original, generative and truly creative objective art. Either lived as conscience or through another mode of artistic expression.
[xi] Bruteau, Radical Optimism, 81.
[xiii] Patricia S. Churchland, Conscience (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).
[xiv] Though it can be awakened in us by another who has attained it.
[xv] G.I. Gurdjieff
[xvi] Pierre de Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon (Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 2015), 7.
[xvii] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985), 126.
[xviii] St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit…for an extensive exploration of this theme see Cynthia Bourgeault, Eye of the Heart (Boulder: Shambala, 2020).
[xix] Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable (New York: Lantern Publish & Media, 2014) Chap. 2, Kindle.
[xx] Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self: A Contempative Journey (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 13.
4/28/2021 10:37:55 am
So refreshing my Conscience friend!
4/28/2021 12:12:54 pm
AHHH...so rich Jonathan. I have always had an affinity for Beatrice and your throwing her alongside Bennett in this Conscience unfurling is wondrous and deep!
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Jonathan lives in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas with his wife, dogs and three children. His teaching blends the Christian Contemplative tradition, 4th Way spirituality and the teachings behind the Enneagram - with a focus on companioning others from the unified and collective field accessed through the heart. He is a life-long seeker who offers, retreats, workshops and private Spiritual Direction in person or by zoom, one-to-one or in groups.