Why Must We Master Consciousness and Why Is It So Hard?
READING TIME: 6 MINUTES
Human history is rife with tales of pursuit toward enlightenment. Buddha sat under the tree for weeks without moving to attain Nirvana, the Indian yogis disciplined their minds to ignore pain out of their awareness, and the Christians devoted their lives to perfecting various methods for reining their thoughts and desires. In many different times throughout many different cultures, this process of mastering our consciousness goes by different names and takes on different forms, but its core purpose remains the same: to liberate ourselves from the influences of outside sources.
Humans have known for a long time that the quality of our lives depends on the harmony we are able to cultivate within ourselves. Controlling our external circumstances can make us happy, but only to a certain extent. As time goes by, people slowly awaken to the sobering realization that external goals and gratifications can only take us so far. How much joy we can derive from our lives ultimately depend directly on how the mind interprets everyday experiences, and how much we are able to master our consciousness.
The Frustrating Treadmill of Rising Expectations
There is no doubt that our society has made tremendous strides when it comes to improving the quality of our lives and increasing material comfort, yet we remain to be confronted by the same lingering sense of dissatisfaction and discontentment that afflicted our ancestors. Freed from basic concerns of survival, humans move on to new needs and desires. With each passing era, our expectations continue to escalate. And with every desire materialized, it never takes long until our sense of satisfaction evaporates and we find ourselves yearning for more. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the sometimes aching desire for human progress, we miss out on opportunities to experience joy in the present moment when we have tunnel vision about achieving our goals without learning how to enjoy the process.
The Buddhists, for example, were aware of this insatiable nature of human desire long before our psychologists understood it from a scientific standpoint. They understood that for as long as we continue to live within the confines of our mind, body, and circumstances, we will continue to suffer. Mastering our consciousness breaks us free from all of those—It is the only path to liberation from our universal human suffering. But if humans have spent such a long time trying to achieve it, why have we made so little progress?
One section of the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaily Csikzentmihalyi briefly touches on this and offers two possible explanations:
1. Wisdom is not cumulative and cannot be condensed into a formula.
Unlike knowledge, wisdom speaks of a deeper knowing that is gained by an individual, generation after generation. Experience and practice lie in the gap between the two. While knowledge can be passed on in the form of a formula, wisdom can only be earned with time. And while knowledge can be memorized, wisdom has to be understood through personal processes of trial-and-error. Knowledge is mere facts and data, while wisdom is the ability to discern which of that knowledge is true. Mastery of our consciousness requires the latter. Like other complex forms of expertise, such as a mature political judgment or a refined aesthetic sense, wisdom cannot be memorized and then routinely applied.
A person who has memorized the Bhagavad Gita without applying its prescriptions in life will be left off as frustrated as he was before, and the psychologist who devotes his entire life to understanding human nature will never escape its suffering even if he had a logical grasp of the irrationality behind it.
In the book ‘Why Buddhism Is True’, the author Robert Wright describes this exact predicament as someone who understood but has never meditated. He said:
“Knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn't necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You're still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking-- what psychologists sometimes call "the hedonic treadmill”--but now you have new reason to see the absurdity of it. In other words, now you see that it's a treadmill, a treadmill specifically designed to keep you running, often without really getting anywhere—yet you keep running!."
According to Mihaily, control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the discipline of emotions and will. Knowing how to do it is not enough. One must practice it consistently if it were to amount to anything in the same way athletes or artists must practice the knowledge they have gained in theory. In fields like physics or genetics where knowledge is directly applied to the material world, progress can be relatively quick. But it is painfully slow when our habits and desires are involved.
2. Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized
Throughout history, we have witnessed the slippery slopes of routinizing our efforts to enhance our freedom. Freud’s quest to liberate the ego was pertinent to those who suffered from psychological conditions during his time, but soon turned into a rigidly regulated profession and a staid ideology that became a form of coercive social controls in bourgeois Vienna. Karl Marx’s attempts to free us from economic exploitation was relevant in nineteenth-century Europe where the inhumane conditions of factory labor desperately called for a solution, but beyond it, turned into a system of repression that would have baffled the founder. Early Christianity freed the masses from an imperial regime that only gave meaning to the rich and the powerful. It liberated them from the political and ideological exploitation by the Roman Church, and the reformation released the grips of kings, popes, and aristocracy through the American Constitution. Although all these attempts had been useful, they certainly exhaust neither the problems nor the solutions.
As the conditions in our lives shift through generations, it becomes important to rethink what is required to establish our autonomy in consciousness. Routinization and institutionalization often dilute the original power of systems that might have been effective within its cultural context. The wisdom of the Zen masters or the Sufi, or mystics might have been powerful in their own time, but without being stripped of its accidental components that are irrelevant to our culture, run the risk prioritizing ritual form over substance. Unfortunately, as soon as achieving freedom becomes integrated into a set of social rules and norms, it ceases to become as effective as it originally was intended to be.
Ultimately, our path to freedom must not get overthrown by empty rituals, and substance must not be forgotten. The only way we can improve the quality of our experiences in life is by mastering our consciousness—a feat that is by no means easy nor linear but must be undertaken if we were to lead truly meaningful, rich, and enjoyable lives.