Listening to Your Conscience
It is generally recognised that every human being regardless of their situation or background has a conscience as their inner guide. It’s just that some seem more able to listen to it and be guided by it than others. Sometimes the funny thing about ‘conscience’ is how we expect others to follow what we believe their conscience ‘should’ say to them and yet we so easily prefer not to notice how we ignore our own.
Conscience is that in-built capacity that we all have that allows is to know, sense and feel the ‘right’ thing to do and avoid doing the wrong thing. It turns up in almost all religious philosophies, wisdom paths and spiritual teachings. It is generally recognised to be that aspect of our consciousness that is our source of goodness, our virtuous intentions, our inner rudder that keeps us on the straight and narrow path known as ‘truth’. Not truth in an objective, prescriptive and absolutist sense. But truth in a subjective sense where we are ‘living out’ our life moment-by-moment with an honesty and integrity that is aligned with our ‘true nature’, and where no two moments or situations are ever the same.
The Origins of Guilt
While we use the word conscience in different ways it’s most common use tends to be in reference to right and wrong. When we listen to and are guided by our conscience we are said to be doing the ‘right thing’ while the ‘wrong thing’ is seen as an action or decision against our conscience. We often refer to someone who lives their life with great honesty and integrity as a person of ‘good conscience’ while we have all heard of the ‘conscientious objector’; a person who refuses to blindly follow others into war as they believe it’s an act against the ‘true’ nature of humanity The most common use however is when we talk of having a ‘guilty conscience’. We all know that moment when our conscience ‘bites’ and we sense we have not done the ‘right thing. But ‘in truth’ the conscience can never be guilty, and it certainly doesn’t generate the feeling of guilt. It’s the ego that does that. And it’s the ego that hijacks our conscience almost every day of our life. Here is why.
When we were young we learned to become dependent on the approval of others, usually adults and authority figures like parents and teachers. When we did something right in their eyes we were given the accolade of ‘being good’ while being on the receiving end of a wave of warm ‘approving’ energy that we mistook for love! But when we did something wrong in their eyes we were labelled ‘bad’ and were denied that wave of warm energy to which we had become dependent. It is during these formative childhood moments that we learned to believe in good and bad and that we were sometimes a ‘bad person’ and at other times a ‘good person’. Many of us were therefore encouraged to create and feel guilt by others as a kind of punishment. Not least because it allowed those big people to sustain their illusion that they had us under their control!
The Emotions of Guilt
Guilt is made up of three emotions – sadness, anger and fear. And like all emotions they are not created by others but by our self. Sadness always follows a sense of loss. Anger is the projection of our suffering in the form of blame. And fear is either of the future recurrence of such loss or of being found out (future loss of reputation/approval). As children we learned to oscillate between ‘good person’ and ‘bad person’ depending on the judgements of those ‘big people’. So when we now act against our conscience we have the tendency to re-energise the ‘I am a bad person’ self- image and the ‘I am a good person’ self-image, which is generally preferred, is lost, hence the sadness. In life in general anger is most often directed at others but in ‘guilt’ our anger is directed towards our self for what we perceive is a self-inflicted loss of goodness. And the fear is most often based on the possibility that others will find out that we have ‘done bad’! This is all egos game simply because all ego is based on a ‘mistaken self identity’. In the case of guilt our self-identity is based on an image of ‘being good’ and when we seem to contradict that image with ‘bad behaviour’, even bad thoughts, we create guilt (sadness/anger/fear) for our self. But ‘in truth’ neither image of being good or being bad is the true image of ones self simply because ‘the self’ can never be an image!!
The ‘goodness’ that is often referred to as conscience, that is also referred to as the innate true nature if every human being, has no opposite. There are only degrees of alignment or misalignment with the goodness of our true nature.
In reality the true self is prior to images therefore prior to the ‘ideas’ of good and bad and therefore prior to the judgments of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Here is where things get a little tricky or subtle. In the universe of consciousness there is no right and wrong! It’s hard to see this because we have been so deeply conditioned to ‘believe’ in right and wrong, to judge others actions as right or wrong. But the ideas of right and wrong are simply functions of duality, which is a condition of the outer material world. Consciousness itself is prior to this duality. There are no opposites in consciousness. And consciousness is essentially what we are.
Conscience is our innate awareness of what is true. Not truth in an absolute and philosophically definable sense. But truth in sense that a compass is always pointing to ‘true north’ no matter where in the world it may be. Conscience is our compass and it always points toward our ‘true north’. There is however no opposite to this ‘trueness’ only shades of obscurity clouding our ability to be aware of the where our compass is pointing us, only levels of distortion of our ability to discern the ‘best’ direction to take, only various degrees of cloudiness around what thoughts, feelings and decisions to create. For example in the world ‘out there’ (in society) stealing is seen as something wrong and therefore bad. Society has to deem it so at this time otherwise there would be chaos. But in the context of the world ‘in here’ (consciousness) the intention to steal and covet is not wrong as opposed to right, it is simply an act that is out of alignment with our truth, or our true nature. So what then is the truth in this case?
From Belief to Truth
There are usually three reasons why people steal a) they believe that if they can have the object that they covet it will in some way complete them b) they believe that when they get what they covet it will make them happy c) they believe that they can possess objects. All these beliefs are not the ‘truth’ within the universe of the self or consciousness. The truth is we are already complete but we have lost our awareness of it. The truth is no material object can give us authentic happiness because that kind of happiness truly is an inside job! And lastly the truth reminds that at the level of ‘consciousness’ it is impossible to possess anything. These are not easy insights (truths) to grasp, as they are not factored into our childhood education. In fact these beliefs (that acquiring things brings completeness/happiness etc.) are given to us as truths – hence our confusion when we do get what we want and we still feel incomplete, still feel unhappy and live in fear of losing what we mistakenly think we now possess!
So when we steal it’s not BAD or WRONG as opposed to GOOD and RIGHT it’s just that we have lost our awareness of our truth (true nature) and we are therefore acting out of alignment with our truth (true nature). If we do steal our conscience will nudge us, it will try to remind us that we are acting out of alignment with our true nature, that our integrity is being broken, but we may ignore and even suppress it, especially if everyone else around us is doing so. And unfortunately many have now learned to suppress their conscience and are acting out of alignment with such truths, and that’s why society has to make laws to keep huge numbers from stealing. If we were all guided by our conscience (our true nature) then societal laws would be largely unnecessary.
In some ways this can sound like permission to go and do anything we like but that’s not the key inference here. There are already enough people doing that anyway, despite the laws of the land attempting to define what is right and wrong and therefore good and bad. The inference here is that every human being has a conscience i.e. an innate awareness of how to live and how to create their life in alignment with the truth (their true nature). Our conscience is the container of such truths, such goodness, such virtuousness – not as intellectual ideas and concepts but as a deep sense of what will maintain harmony within our being and what will be ‘out of harmony’ within our being.
Nature or Nurture
In the context of our relationships it ultimately comes down to one question. Is a human being born 'good' and learns to be 'bad' or is a human being born with badness built in? This of course is the question of nature versus nurture. But actually the way the question is asked makes all the difference. More accurately it is best phrased like this. Is a human being born honest, integrated and naturally harmonious and is then ‘influenced’ away from creating (thinking and acting) harmoniously. Or is a human being born with absolutely no awareness of how to create and act in harmony with others.
It is a personal question and only each one of us can answer for our self. But the answer does make a difference to how we ‘see’ others and therefore how we relate to others. Perhaps a good example is as follows.
In some cultures there seems to be a new generation that is growing up with almost no idea of how to live in harmony with others, whose actions seem to come from a violent inner specie in such a way that they seem to have no conscience. These youths have been deemed hopeless cases by many and as a consequence efforts to help them have been abandoned. They have been irrevocably labelled as bad people. Unfortunately when they get that label they tend to accept it and identify with it and therefore live up to it! And yet there are a growing number of cases where such youths have been redeemed, where their conscience has been brought back to life. This seems to happen only when they receive intense personal mentoring by one other person who gives them what they missed in their childhood i.e. unconditional regard and respect as human beings. Slowly but surely, over time, the suppressed and avoided conscience begins to reawaken and guide the thoughts, decisions and actions of such young people. Not because they are told what is right and wrong by an outside force, but through the gradual realisation of how to live with honesty and integrity and thereby integrate harmoniously within the context of their relationships. Their true nature is redeemed.
It appears that the ‘truth guide’ of human consciousness known as conscience never dies but it’s guidance is either ignored or suppressed. That means there are no bad people only unaware, forgetful, misled people whose conscience is temporarily absent. This understanding frees us from judging, labelling and condemning others with the ‘you are a bad person’ label. It releases us from our own attachment to our self-image based on the ‘I am a bad person’ label. It ultimately frees us from that debilitating emotional matrix we know as ‘guilt’. It may even help propel us into an enlightened state where one of the primary realisations is …in ‘reality’ there are no bad people.
But after a lifetime of conditioning and cultivating the mental habit of judging, after years of being exposed to the judgments of others, after a lifetime of conditioned thinking in terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’, this is not such an easy space to be in and live from. And then again perhaps it is what the world now awaits.
Question: How would you define conscience?
Reflection: Remember a time when you listen to and were guided by your conscience. Remember a time when you ignored your conscience.
Action: Before making decisions this week take five minutes to be quiet and ‘listen in’.
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