Reflection 124: Idioms of Consciousness

July 3, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

We recognize from the diversity of people we meet that consciousness must come in a wide variety of colors (flavors, patterns, classes) because, though no two of us are outwardly or inwardly the same, we effectively ally ourselves with groups having similar characteristics. I use the term idioms of consciousness in referring to the different sorts of mental configurations I infer from the types of behavior people exhibit in similar circumstances or situations.

Human consciousness is shaped by a strange blend of natural and cultural influences. “Strange” in that the fine-grained biological structure of the brain allows ancient natural and modern cultural awareness to exist side-by-side in mutual yet wholly unpredictable relationships. Who, for example, can foresee which of us will be driven by financial setbacks to commit suicide? Who can understand cultures that routinely amputate with a stone knife the clitoris and inner labia of young women to appease the sexual insecurity of their future husbands? Who finds it rational behavior for political parties to pitch into each other because of their respective stands on abortion? And to conclude this short sampling of mysteries of the conscious mind, who is not stunned by the irony in fighting wars as a way of making a living?

But there it is: one part of the mind at odds with another. As I have said before, consciousness plays by the rules it derives from the situation it finds itself in at the time. Different situations as perceived, different rules, different behaviors chosen or tolerated. We entertain an odd mix of drives, judgments, values, and awareness, and must sort them out as best we can. When public figures don’t do a very good job of managing their conflicted parts—think Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer, Bernard Madoff, teens who risk unprotected sex, or mothers of octuplets—their failings make news, often bigtime because we crave examples teaching us how to avoid the pity and ridicule they invite.

But consciousness, because of its unfathomable mixing of culture and biology, is inherently ridiculous in itself. Nobody could have planned such a creature as we turn out to be. We claim to be wise, but seldom make sense to ourselves. Culture changes too rapidly for our biology to keep up. The best we can do is recognize our personal balance of strengths and weaknesses, accept it for what it is, then look around for others similarly inclined (or condemned) to live out the same idiom or predicament. Banding with them, perhaps we can stretch our chances of surviving a little longer.

An idiom is a manner of expression peculiar to a group of people, so an idiom of consciousness is the underlying structure of the mind giving rise to that outward manner. Other terms for sorting people into types based on inferred mental structures are temperament, personality, character, profession, traits, creativity, originality, or even pathology. Some aspects of these human differences are innate, others are learned through study, training, or imitation of those we admire. However we acquire them, our manners of being in the world reflect the integral makeup of personal consciousness by which we become known to ourselves and to groups with which we associate.

The makeup of our particular idiom varies considerably in relying on different facets of consciousness such as acting, perceiving, feeling, thinking, interpreting, judging, and speaking. Some of us are doers, others are noticers, empathizers, thinkers, seekers, arbiters, talkers, listeners. Externalizing these personal traits, we sort ourselves into social roles we feel comfortable with, some becoming nurses, machinists, carpenters, or astronauts, others salesmen, teachers, hermits, poets, drug lords, or warriors.

The subjects we study in school are aimed at exercising different facets of consciousness so that we develop an ease not only in dealing with specific tasks but more in harnessing our own mental powers. The disciplines of higher education appeal to the different idioms of consciousness by which we choose to develop ourselves and the lifestyles we aspire to. Part of our animal nature, as Aristotle pointed out, is political, complementing other parts which may be caring, curious, hungry, athletic, artistic, philosophical, verbally fluent, or spiritual—forming together with other faculties of consciousness a particular idiom for being true to ourselves and our group in a diversified world.

To take an example, organized religion is one idiom of consciousness providing a framework for being in the world. It governs not only thought and perception, but a mix of expectancy, judgment, feeling, and meaning in experience. Too, religion translates states of consciousness into suitable behaviors, converting faith and intentions into the disciplined and habitual practice of a religious way of life.

As an idiom of culture, religion is not inherent in biological consciousness itself but is learned through experience largely modeled on the behavior of others in social situations such as gatherings for celebration and worship. Stemming from organized cultural events, religion has a history often going back hundreds or thousands of years to a beginning in the consciousness of a particular individual who conceived the idea of a right way of being in the world in response to formative lifetime events. The development of that right way of being is told in the sacred historical narrative by which it is revealed to new generations, narratives such as the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Bhagavad-Gita, or Book of Mormon.

People of the various sacred books tend to be people who believe what they read in (or hear read aloud from) works they take to be authoritative. Such beliefs are reinforced and acted out in prescribed rites and rituals, ensuring harmony between the inner world of consciousness and the world of action. The point being to act in the world as one is allowed or expected to act, letting biology and culture—no matter how conflicted—come to terms. The illogic of the resulting balance must be accepted on faith as a sign of true belief—or denied as farfetched—whichever the case. Either way, the idiom of a particular belief system serves to bind the faithful to the group while at the same time excluding nonbelievers.

Quakers, for instance, emerged during the mid-seventeenth- century English Civil Wars when the established social order of monarchy-church-gentry-judiciary was briefly overturned by a Parliament and populace in revolt. Charles I was executed, Oliver Cromwell made lord protector. But the realm was accustomed to monarchy, so following an eleven-year interlude, Charles II succeeded his father to the throne, and order was restored much as before. For budding Quakers, the issue was inequality and social injustice imposed by the alliance of those claiming to be superior to the average person. The idiom Quakers adopted was the religious claim to equality before God as revealed in the recently translated King James Bible. That equality was not restricted to steeple houses of a particular denomination, to one sex or social class, and was not administered by the gentry or royal courts. Leader George Fox summed up the essence of Quaker belief in 1674: 

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing.

Coupling a drive toward equality to the sacred authority of the new translation of the Bible, Quakers invented a new idiom of consciousness that served their need for social justice and respect. The notion that God is present in every person cut across class distinctions, rendering them invalid from a Quaker point of view. Asserting their self-declared equality by refusing to remove their hats as a sign of honor to their supposed superiors, they bore the wrath of those higher up in the traditional social hierarchy, and were thrown in prison to suffer the rewards of cultural noncompliance. And suffer they did, not only indignity, but deprivation, illness, pain, and death. In many cases, the attempted balance between self-integrity and physical wellbeing was self-destructive. Yet as a matter of faith, the founding Quakers stuck to the defining principles—the new idiom—that turbulent times called up in them. And their successors have kept that idiom of equality and social justice alive to this day.

The essence of Quaker consciousness is respect for the equal dignity of all persons. This leads to social actions in support of the deprived, downtrodden, defeated, and destitute. And beyond these, in broad support for disarmament and world peace. Two forces came together in the mid-seventeenth century that gave rise to this idiom of awareness: wide distribution of the King James Bible, and harsh social injustice inflicted by the privileged classes in England upon their supposed inferiors. Quakers are only one example from the spectrum of Protestant sects that arose in common response to the top-heavy social structure in England at that time under a Catholic monarch who favored hierarchical (trickle-down) solutions to state problems.

What history often leaves out (because there is no adequate record) is the transformation in personal consciousness spurred by such times, giving rise to wholly new idioms in response to the intolerable imbalance between cultural and biological forces in the minds of the people. Idioms of consciousness require solutions in the here-and-now. They cannot afford to wait for evolution to come to their aid. Stress spurs new alignments within consciousness itself, allowing new priorities, new attitudes, new judgments, new interpretations—all leading to new idioms, new paradigms, new ways of being, and new actions on the world stage.

As I see it 360 years after the execution of Charles I, I live in a similar stage of cultural collapse as I write these words, a stage that can only be redressed by an idiom of consciousness that can deal collectively with economic injustice, global warming, pollution, excessive consumption of Earth resources, human over-population, wastefulness, abuse by powerful corporations, and failed governance. Has consciousness made headway since 1649? Certainly it has changed, but whether it has advanced is an open question. Are things better for people around the globe? For the privileged few, certainly, at high cost to the rest.

True history is written in the minds of the people—all the people. Narratives by those in power don’t tell the whole truth. Barack Obama is making history today as a man with a new idiom of consciousness in a position of power. But he is not the whole story. He cannot improve the climate of our times by himself, even with the administration he appointed to back him up. It takes a committed nation to raise a new nation. I am part of that nation, as are you, and you, and you.

So here we are with our shopworn, tired old models of consciousness, in an era crying out for new ways of being in our neighborhoods, our nations, and around the Earth. Given what we know today, the challenge is to reconcile the inconsistencies between our biological and cultural consciousness so to forge a new mind adapted to living in what we call the 21st century, but is really closer to life’s four-millionth century on this long-suffering planet.

I know we can do it—find that new idiom within ourselves, the new alignment between facets of consciousness. We’re working on it, each of us doing what she can. But as of now, whether our collective wisdom and experience can produce the new paradigm in time to stave off pending disaster is unknown. If we fail for lack of effort or imagination, so be it, let that be our epitaph: THEY HAD GOOD INTENTIONS.

Lunar Eclipse-72

 

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One Response to “Reflection 124: Idioms of Consciousness”

  1. Mothers said

    […] Reflection 124: Idioms of Consciousness […]

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