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Consciousness as a “Work-In-Progress” Makes All of Life Better


Consciousness is humanity’s distinctive feature, but what implications does that hold for how we live?

There’s likely no quality more fundamental to the human being than consciousness. Everything we are and what we’ve built, everything we can think about, our histories, and the possibilities for our futures, all of our knowledge, and the initial steps of our actions, have in common the same origins: consciousness.

Perhaps because of this, because it’s a quality that makes us what we are, consciousness continues to astound us. As far as we know, no other species has developed a degree of self-consciousness anything like that of a human being.

Why us? It’s a question we might never answer and to which, quite likely, no answer exists. Perhaps consciousness developed as an accident of evolution or of life (and thus, it could be the result of mere chance) and, if so, no final reason will satisfactorily answer the question.

Thus, we might understand, and more so, exercise the consciousness. Understanding consciousness has led to its “discovery.” Though it was said already during the time of the ancient Vedas (that is, some 3,000 years ago), it seems that in every epoch it has to be “discovered” and said again. Consciousness as a trait is also a process. Put more simply, it’s not that consciousness exists at a specific point in the brain. Rather, it’s a sum of operations occurring simultaneously and which result in this extraordinary fact we refer to as “being conscious.” We’re aware that we’re alive. We’re conscious of reality, and we’re also aware of others. And for this to happen, a lot of the brain needs to work in unison.

Karl Friston, a physicist and psychiatrist, in an article published on the website Aeon, explained in some detail why consciousness must be considered a “complex system.” It’s one in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that’s why it’s so difficult to establish causal relationships.

Understanding consciousness this way has some implications for the very idea have of the “human being” and for our own lives. As a species, it might lead us to question the historical discourse that’s been woven around us as one above the forms of life, for a trait which, so far as we know, no other animal possesses. Does that make us better than the other creatures on the planet? Does it give us the right to consider ourselves above everything else and to act accordingly?

Even if the trait of consciousness is not just unique, but also distinctive, and not an accident of chaos but the manifestation of a higher will, wouldn’t it be more consistent to believe ourselves the guardians of life and not its destroyers? If life in the universe is so unique and even more so when it has consciousness, then as the only beings in possession of both, should we not be guardians of consciousness? Should we not preserve both life and consciousness and care for the conditions that made them possible?

On an individual level, looking at consciousness as the result of a process and the operation of a system could help us to consider a frequently overlooked fact: consciousness is not a finished object but a work in progress – always. What effect might this have on our lives? Among other things, we might just look with much greater flexibility at what we believe makes us unique and what gives us an identity. The good and the bad, so to speak. These are things we usually think of with pride and even with love, but they’re also all of those things we prefer to avoid or to frankly ignore. If we think of any of these components as a “work in progress”, it means that they are neither fixed nor immutable, but rather the result of a process which, once learned can effect our consciousness, but which we can also “learn to unlearn” and possibly replace with still further learning.

Everything is a matter of exercising consciousness. That is, it’s a matter of being aware of where we put our attention, our mental and physical resources, and our ability to be aware of who we are and the world that surrounds us.

It simply can’t be otherwise that human beings make their history.

Also in Faena Aleph: Deepak Chopra's Theory of Consciousness

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