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Conscious people, step forward. The rest of you, stay in your herd, follow your shepherds.

Some readers might have stopped reading already, having seen the headline. The message is an insult; it is patronizing and arrogant and stinks with superior attitude. Who does Jeanes think he is?

I could not agree more.

The trouble is, everywhere I turn to find people thinking about the evolution of “more conscious humans”, of  “advancement in spiritual growth”, of seekers “questing for a higher awareness” – there I find the same attitudes. Read Ken Wilber. Don Beck. Barbara Marx Hubbard. Steve Dinan. Jeremy Rifkin.

If I say with a straight face, “I am conscious and aware, but there are masses of people asleep and/ or submerged in ego, materialism, fear, ignorance, and hatred” – why should I have anyone willing to listen to me? And people do say this with a straight face, write about it, lecture on it, take fees for teaching it.

Comparison of consciousness in past and present, whether our minds grow better or worse, bears heavily on answers to questions about “evil”. I am still preoccupied with the definition of evil that I raised in my last column. I’ll say this question must be answered in the context of consciousness and conscience.

In that last column, I alluded to our entire culture’s assumption that we are superior to all foregoing civilizations on the basis of our manifestly-superior material science and technology. A Canadian of ordinary means and education is extremely likely to hold this view of the past; the past is below us on the ladder of progress. However, there are not a few contrary voices challenging this opinion.

An Indian guru is quite likely to assert that Westerners are generally “not conscious”. He or she might not say most Indians are spiritually ahead of Canadians, but the assumption that the West is miserable despite its material accomplishments is common in Asia. Addictions to drugs-sex-money-things, family breakdown, social pathologies (e.g. homelessness, violent gangs), mental illnesses (e.g. depression, neurosis) are the facts non-Western people cite to conclude that we are not as happy as we pretend. Westerners who visit India or Tibet or parts of Africa or Latin America say the same thing. We are irreligious, secular, materialistic -- and apparently, rather more ill than not. But hey, we’ve got so much.

Western science has lately fastened its steely-eyed gaze on a subject that the East’s meditation traditions have long studied: Defining consciousness. What is mind/ ego/ self? What is real? Science will find out.

 It is my conviction that what humans have thought about their gods, and about life and death, are good measures of their consciousness. Westerners, afraid of death, believing in no other world than the material one, wanting to prolong their lives with medical sciences, measuring the meaning of their lives by making “bucket lists” (i.e. of experiences/things they must have before dying) -- are to me acting less conscious than people who never stop asking about the meaning and purpose of life, death, good, evil, divinity, spirit and love.

In my readings on the subject of consciousness, I find it heartening to read scientists who admit that the mere matter and energy in our brains and bodies is not an answer to why we have consciousness. Whatever ancient humans experienced as mind, consciousness, and selfhood, we today have largely jettisoned the old religions. We stumble in the dark awaiting a new sense of certainty, and both science and new spiritual paths are willing to provide solutions; the new paths promise to lead us “upward.”

The quality of being consciousness will emerge from matter, and only in certain organisms with a particular structure of brain, is one hypothesis. But I like another. An animal with brain-matter and intelligence and knowledge does not have to have consciousness or sentience. Consciousness is not a necessity -- it is not integral to the physical property of neurons. Brains can lack mind.

Consciousness is accidental in the matter/energy world; author Ronald Wright, visiting Nelson October 10 at the Capitol, is of this view; Wright argues that science and technology might still save civilization.

I noted last column that one thesis about consciousness asserts humans around the year 1,000 BCE transitioned from “bicameral mind” -- wherein two voices spoke, one divine and one human -- into  minds like our own. Professor J. Jaynes says nabi Samuel had bicameral mind but King David was not. Greeks of the Homeric era were on cusp between bicameral mind and consciousness, Jaynes argues; Ulysses was like Saul, a man of the transitional phase. Jaynes says mind grew through a first to a second stage.

It seems to me a fair statement to describe the writing in the Judeo-Christian bible as a recording of how human minds in past cultures “evolved” in understanding of the infinite and the divine, of the reality of the material world, and of life, death, mystery. It can be studied as a source for observing the emergence of different kinds of consciousness in cultures: in other words, a key text in the evolution of human mind.

What was spiritual truth and practical wisdom for people 3,000 years before us is revealed in words, in the Old Testament and in Egyptian and Sumerian religious ideas too. Words of course are notoriously a problem in any estimation of the interior life of minds. I do not know what my closest friend or child “is really like” inside their heads, so how can I presume to get inside the minds of people so long ago? I cannot really know. But what is written is what those people could tell us and the best we have.

Many commentators on ancient belief stress two concepts that we have, that ancient people lacked – an idea of “religion” as a particular sphere of their lives, and a sense of selfhood, ego, and interior mind-space.

Religion is a word we need, but ancients did not. “Whose gods do you worship?” was a meaningful query, not “What religion/ faith/ creed do you have?” A god was a very personal thing: not-me, yet always here.

 “Personal” had a different meaning too. My person, in the year 1,000 BCE, was not my ego. Ego was not developed then as now. No word for it existed in the most ancient biblical texts. It was a great innovation for a writer of the 800’s to say that god was not the wind nor the thunder, but a “small, still voice” inside the prophet Elijah. Much later, Jeremiah would use a word for  “heart” for the inside, for the conscience, of an Israelite, saying God would write his torah on the hearts of his people. They would have consciences.

Egyptian ideas of a ka and a ba make a distinction between the experience-self [personality] and the animal-being [life-force]. Hebrew words for living being [nephesh hhayyah] and for breath-of-life [ruach] indicate a concept of what makes animals and humans alive. Life was present in blood and so there were exquisitely meticulous regulations for the shedding of blood, for sacrifice, and for meat consumption. Meaning for soul or spirit is perilous in a Hebrew context, and Greek writers used psyche for nephesh; that word-use did not make it easy for English translators. We now say “psychology” casually, referring to our mental states. “Psyche” for the Greeks was no easy concept; it needed a grand myth-metaphor to explain what mind is. (“Logos” is another, meaning word, reason, order, creativity). Hebrew concepts pre-date the Greek words we use to translate them. It seems a mystery; a muddle, even.

We are muddled because the Bible was not motivated by the sort of inquiring rationalism personified by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the philosophical/scientific giants of our Western intellectual tradition. The biblical writers were not trying to explain mind or reality or methods for thinking.

The scientific path is not Semitic but Hellenic, and we Westerners are heirs of both. Since around 1700 CE we’ve been taught by our elites to exalt the Hellenic past. The Bible has dimmed in our cultural consciousness. Religion, by social consensus, is a very personal private phenomenon.

Do these developments signal our cultural progress? Or is our way different but neither better nor worse?

The Bible is a book about relationships, one relationship above all – the extremely strange one between an entity called God and a collective humanity called Israel. Israelites were taught by their literate political and religious elite to believe in a divinity who was theirs alone, contracted to them by Covenants with obligations and expectations for both parties. Common people kept sliding into easier ritual practices learned from other cultures: baals, asherahs, magic, sorcery -- all such folk custom among the Israelites drove their leaders to fury. (Even kings might deviate.) Prophets promised dire consequences for errors.

Today’s ascended-conscious observers call ignorant people unconscious or asleep, a.k.a. the sheeple.

An illustrative quote from Mountain Culture magazine: “I once watched a documentary about Shambhala… It seemed a giant sinkhole of human terribleness… you can be high as a kite… and experience awakenings and epiphanies you’ll never remember… Festivals used to be fun celebrations of individuality but now everyone has a tribal tattoo they don’t understand… they’ve become progressively stupid…  [If this] is emblematic of a higher level of consciousness, we’re all in trouble.”

Wow. An old-testament prophet would hardly be more angry at watching Israelites fall into heathen-cult ecstasies than this modern observer is, describing the behavior of “new-age festival-goers”.

To judge another person’s level of consciousness is an intrinsically unhelpful act, not making you more conscious and not adding to the world’s supply of compassion. In my opinion. So, have you ascended from the levels of past mind and consciousness? Naturally that is entirely up to you in your individual opinion to decide for yourself.

I said that the question of evil must be part of any understanding of growth in consciousness. We act in evil ways but we have no consciousness of that because evil has lost meaning. A system of formation of mind that trivializes conscience – except for the ego-individual’s personal “values and choices” -- renders impossible any consensus code of morals and ethics.

Evil in such a system is a matter of opinion, and that would have been unthinkable to ancient minds, not only the Israelite authors of the Bible. Humans thought about good and evil in primordial times, because to do evil would bring dire consequences. Believing that, those humans were very unlike you and I.

Conclusions?  What forms our minds is system -- the organizing qualities of society, economy, culture, politics, we live in. System is what you see when iron filings fall on white paper under which is a magnet. It gives order to what we call “the world.” System shapes every act we perform with the exterior, with other people, with things; it is not an interior Truth, but we call it reality. Ours is materialist, “capitalist” and non-religious -- alien in a vast multitude of ways from the consciouness of ancient humans. For one ancient people, their god (the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel”, to use the biblical phrase) structured all relationships with the outside, and was inside each of them. That was their system. Different, not worse.

How do we moderns measure up to long-ago humanity? Today we watch eminent “statesmen” tell us Iran (Soviet Russia, terrorists, etc) is “evil” with all serious intent. Many declare disgust for politics and disengage from the “overworld” of power and money, to retreat into what seems a saner isolated existence -- if they have that luxury. I rather think many of my readers do enjoy such a luxury.

Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.