About 8 years ago I had a personal ‘wake-up' call, an epiphany of sorts; one of those wake-ups where your view of the world shifts so radically and rapidly that there's a giant "Aha!" and a new conceptual framework (your relationship to the world) is born. In my case, it arose in response to a melanoma diagnosis that pushed me beyond the ‘edge of reason'. By that I mean the predictable routine of the world I had known.

Fear, particularly the fear of death and its uncertainty - has a way of doing that. It's probably why ‘near-death' experiences often result in changing people's lives - because fear pushes us beyond the known enabling new ways of relating to the world to arise.

I've become exceedingly curious about the process itself- awakening - where consciousness shifts so radically that the world as you know it alters. While the physical world is unchanged, your relationship to it is dramatically different. These alterations happen all the time as we grow up, age, and die - new awakenings of a mini nature occur and as we integrate that knowledge into our existing conceptual frameworks we may increase in wisdom. It's why wisdom tends to grow with age because of the accumulation of these mini awakenings throughout life.

It's led me to wonder what it was like when our human ancestors first experienced the shift in consciousness to realize self (awareness of an independent ‘I' that could imagine a future and remember a past - to have an awareness of time). And since humans were widespread, the evolution of self-consciousness did not reach everyone at the same time. What might it have been like for those with self-consciousness to communicate and live side by side with those without?

While scientists struggle to define, measure, and understand self-consciousness and its origins, it seems obvious that such a radical shift was probably one big ‘Aha!' moment. And it likely generated mass fear and anxiety (no concept of death to a knowing that one will die). That fear likely played a big role in the origins of religion as a means of coping with the uncertainty of death.

I would guess that those with newly discovered ‘self' probably wanted to revert back to their ‘old world view' at times - likely a much less fearful state of affairs. That's why waking up is hard to do. A new conceptual framework of the world - perhaps one unshared by many can be uncomfortable at best (or even detrimental to one's health if it radically alters a cultural view (e.g. Galileo). It's why great creative moments in science may go generations before they spread or are rediscovered again. And it's why shifts in consciousness that don't match the cultural norm at the time are often ignored or hidden in the face of cultural pressures.

Take the other extreme, periods of intense cultural ignorance that can lead to inhumane behavior - apartheid, slavery, gender inequality - and the difficulties a few may have trying to get a majority to ‘wake-up'. When people finally do wake-up' to their own ignorance, the remorse can be overwhelming and often the pain inflicted requires generations to be reconciled.

As discoveries and ideas continue to expand our knowledge, our awareness is increasing faster (realized in our technological expansion at exponential rates). Right now we are becoming more and more aware of our interdependent nature (to one another, the earth, and the universe at large) revealed by genomics (DNA sharing within and across species), ecology, the Internet, and Facebook. Perhaps human kindness - our humanity - is on a fast-track of increase as we see more clearly this interdependent nature - for why would we choose to hurt a part of ourselves?

Waking up is hard to do, particularly when behaviors stemming from it are not accepted by the cultural norm. Today I read in a magazine a headline: ‘Being big in a skinny world'. It made me think about how tough it is to be different from a cultural norm - like being a vegan in a meat-eating culture, or being older in a youth-oriented culture, or being low tech in a high tech world. Waking up is hard to do, particularly if actions stemming from it are out of sync with the cultural norm at the time.

I think we may be shifting or evolving toward a kinder, more compassionate species as we become more conscious of our interdependency; whether that idea is in sync or out of sync with the cultural norm, I'm not really sure; I'm just happy to see it that way.

Look Around and Look Within

The Science and Art of Human Behavior
Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D.

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at the UCLA Semel Institute and the Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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