Religious theology and principles, contrasts and commonalities, expressed from a transmodern perspective
The Liberated Conscience
The Liberated Conscience
Those practicing a spiritual tradition frequently seek liberation from conventional worldviews in the hope of finding release from suffering and securing lasting happiness. Seeking this truth, which many are told is right before them if only they would be mindfully present, often contributes to one of two self-defeating behaviors. One rigidly adheres to a set of strict principles and morals with an accompanying set of practices, or one takes no responsibility for one’s actions claiming there is no self and all is perfect as it is, God’s will. The first a form of fundamentalism that doesn’t tolerate questioning doctrine or acceptance of other worldviews, the latter an ego-inflated selfish nihilism often used to ignore societal mores. Not only do these misunderstandings hinder spiritual growth, they result in harm to the practitioner, e.g. spiritual bypassing, and harm to others, e.g. religious discrimination. Frustratingly, given the nature of reality, a universal philosophy and standard of conduct is not readily accessible.
Nondual psychology with its emphasis on the self and no-self being one and the same, two aspects of a single nondual all knowing Source, provides an interesting perspective for what might be called a liberated conscience. A conscience not based solely on one’s thoughts and beliefs, societally or culturally conditioned principles, or mythological truths but one that while including these elements, is predicated on the information and direction given to a person by the Source or God in the context of the present moment. Conceptualized variously as transcendence, unitive consciousness, or emptiness this consciousness is deemed to be more knowledgeable than the individual egoic self. When understood to provide useful wisdom, guidance, or direction spiritual traditions call it revelation, vision, or direct knowing; nondual psychology refers to it as a nonconceptual (a-cognitive) intuition. Most familiarly experienced in spiritual ritual, usually in meditative or mindfulness practice or prayer, the aspirant is required to cultivate this state of consciousness outside of formal practice if one is to be guided by it in the manner of conscience. When practiced well one is guided by an inspired moral and ethical code of the highest caliber founded on the paradoxical aspects of transcendent consciousness: unity with nonattachment, direct knowing beyond reason, authentic engagement with beatific fearlessness, no-self projecting unconditional love.
Whether in spiritual practice, professional service, or everyday mundane activities the liberated conscience provides a spiritual discernment and enables one to spontaneously act righteously. One’s spiritual doctrine, readily available in awareness and believed and felt as truth, determines one’s decisions and behavior. New habits of virtue and love have been formed and are now effortlessly exhibited in one’s conduct. Willful, sequential mental effort to assess and decide how to act in a situation is not necessary, there is a natural “action without action” that emanates from direct knowing. Rather than dogmatic dictates or reassuring rationalizations, the principles and virtues of ones spiritual worldview are applied in the context of present circumstances providing a spiritual situational ethics that unfolds moment to moment. Paradoxically, one discovers there are now fewer restrictions placed upon oneself even as one is required to adhere to a higher standard of conduct than others live. A restraint naturally arises that is not neurotically concerned with being bad or safe, nor with being good or meeting particular obligations. Instead, one feels compelled to act one’s best in a situation, with best defined as promoting the positive and contributing to others’ happiness while committing no offense and doing no harm. This can range from small compliments that affirm, to the kindness of understanding and nurturing, to acts of personal sacrifice risking one’s own welfare.
The liberated conscience is most often associated with compassion practice and the holiness of the saint, which emphasize that ones spiritual purpose is to benefit others. One has identified with the Source/God, and as long as one’s spiritual efforts maintain this identity/relationship one’s conscience is pure. More nonattached to the world and its illusions, less invested in personal outcomes, and regularly unconditionally accepting of others unburdens one. This inspired resiliency liberates, freeing one from preconceived ideas and stories about oneself in the world and the accompanying obligations that restrict options and constrict experience. Concomitantly but secondarily, one feels a joy and delight as part of the freedom that comes from relinquishing the ego, surrendering the self to the Source/God. The liberated conscience provides equanimity as one acts in an authentic manner, congruent in mind, body, and spirit. Open and receptive to the present moment and what it requires, there exists within oneself a subtle yet true strength characterized by humility. Experiences are increasingly characterized by gnosis, beatific peace, and divine love. Frequently feeling in love with the world one enjoys its creations of all types and magnitude, desired and not. All the while finding oneself humbly expressing appreciation and gratitude to the Source/God for all that occurs. One not only acts at ones best, one feels one’s best.
Of course, there is no free lunch. The liberated conscience requires a renunciation of the world to continuously live it and so this level of practice is not for everyone. This is not a rejection of the world per se but a renunciation of the world as perceived and created by an egoic self. One participates in the world with priorities different from others: one’s schedule becomes organized around practice, not practice fit into mundane preoccupations and routine as before; choices are made to promote the best for others, relinquishing one’s self-interest; both manifest and mystery, the Source/God is one’s lover and one devotes oneself to the Lover. This approach to life is succinctly stated in spiritual practice as “striving without striving” and it involves some simple principles. First and foremost, one accepts that a particular level of spiritual development has been reached in which one has not only formed a relationship with the Source/God but that one experiences the Source/God as one’s mind. Remarkably, one’s mind is no longer one’s own when accessing transcendence and its guidance; a divine identification is in operation. Cognitively, one surrenders to reality as it is; events once having occurred, are accepted as fate or destiny. Additionally, one’s own and others’ faults, shortcomings, and bad actions are compassionately addressed as the Source/God would have one do. To maintain this submission of will to the Source/God one disciplines oneself to continuously monitor one’s consciousness, realigning with the Source/God whenever the mind has wandered; not unlike frequently spending time in reverie about one’s lover when in a romantic relationship. To do so requires prioritizing this effort above all else, worldly concerns becoming secondary. Most importantly, because these principles and actions emanate from the Source/God there is an obligation to obey that which it directs and/or guides one to do. With the ability to distinguish between the small-self mind and the big-Self mind, or oneself and the Source/God, comes the responsibility to act according to the higher standard as instructed: no debate, no argument. To do otherwise is to act other than from the liberated conscience, and subjects oneself and others to possible harm from an inflated ego that ignores the restraint of spiritual discernment, e.g. using one’s higher intuition to exploit a situation for personal gain. Finally, because there is this inherent complexity to cultivating and maintaining a liberated conscience, one tends to analyze and problem-solve when feeling challenged by the process. Whether confusion about handling an intimate situation or persevering through the isolation of a dark night of the soul, the spiritual traditions advise that one resist egoic problem solving and instead turn to the Source/God. It is an absolute necessity to cultivate and maintain an attitude of dependence on the Source/God. This reliance on the Source/God to deal with all concerns epitomizes the awakened awareness of “striving without striving”. It is the enactment of “being” in which one does not focus directly on one’s or another’s wellbeing or spiritual development but on the Source/God from which all originates. One is shown what one needs to know, and instructed what to do, all the while securely ensconced in the Source/God.
The liberated conscience reflects the paradoxical nature of absolute or nondual reality. From relinquishing personal independence through sacrifice and submission one is liberated from the illusion of an individual self in a permanent world. Practice requires significant discipline, yet all one need do is turn to the Source/God. In doing so one is able to effortlessly act in a most virtuous manner benefitting others. One lives an ongoing grace and renewal, a faith consciousness in which the Source/God is trusted to provide, and one selflessly shares the gifts one receives.
(A version of this article first appeared in the Vermont Psychological Association Newsletter in 2013)