Cultivating Social Consciousness

What does it mean to be part of a greater whole? How does our worldview, or model of reality, impact what we understand about who we are and how we relate to others? And how can we become more aware of all the ways we are part of an interrelated, global community?

It’s clear that we are social beings from the very beginning of life. Social relations impact every aspect of our being. Of course, there is developmental variability in the extent to which each of us is aware of culture’s impact on us. It takes a level of perceptual acuity, for example, to realize how all those car commercials impact what we drive and how we feel about it.

Based on research that has been published in various contexts, including Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Everyday Life, my colleagues and I have argued that the complex dynamics of our social identity unfold through five nested levels of social consciousness. These in turn relate to transformations in our shared worldview.

Level One of social consciousness is what we refer to as embedded. Here consciousness is shaped without our awareness by social, cultural, and biological factors. It’s a kind of presocial consciousness that serves as a baseline for our own development. Social factors interact with our cognitive and biological processes, limiting our ability to know what shapes our inner experiences. Studies of inattentional blindness by psychologists, for instance, illustrate how our human brains are often “hard-wired” to exclude information that does not fit into our current meaning system. We see what we expect to see – and can consistently miss things we are not anticipating or that don’t support our belief system.

With greater human choice and creativity, we may begin to express our human spirit in the face of on-going social and political influences. This leads to Level Two, which we call self-reflexive social consciousness. Here people gain awareness of how their experiences are conditioned by the social world. This can be accomplished through personal reflection and contemplative practices such as meditation. Scientists and spiritual teachers alike are working together to broaden our awareness of the world and our place in it. Psychologist and religious historian Louise Sundarararajan emphasizes that it is the capacity for self-reflexivity – the ability to step back and reflect on our thought process – that stimulate shifts in our mental representations. From insight meditation to the confessional in the Catholic tradition, to taking inventory of one’s behavior in the 12-step programs, each practice can help us to become more self-aware. In this process, we can begin to analyze our own biases and remove our perceptual blinders.

Level Three is what we term engaged social consciousness. At this stage, we are not only aware of the social environment but begin to mobilize our intention to contribute to the greater good. There is a movement from “me” to “we” as our awareness moves us to actively engage in the wellbeing of others and the world. There is also an expansion of perspective-taking, in which we get better at seeing things from another person’s point of view. Scientific data from interpersonal neurobiology suggests that our brains develop through our connections to others. Additional data point to built in drives within us that lead us to search for purpose in our lives, suggesting that our brains are social organs.

Level Four involves what we call collaborative social consciousness. Gaining greater awareness of ourselves in relation to the social world may lead us to participate in co-creating solutions with others. Here we begin to shape the social environment through collaborative actions. Within education, for example, we find an increasing focus on participatory learning, service learning, and project-based learning – each was developed to enhance the nature of collaborative social consciousness through discourse and conversation. Wisdom Cafes, Open Space Technology, and Bohmian Dialogue Groups offer collaborative explorations and life-affirming actions.

Level Five is what we call resonant consciousness. At this stage of development people, report a sense of essential interrelatedness with others. They describe a “field” of shared experience and emergence that is felt and expressed in social groups. Mystical states of interconnectedness, deep rapport, unspoken communication, have all been expressed by spiritual teachers, educators, and psychologists alike, as a stage in social consciousness. These notions are further developed by research that speak to measurable links between one person’s intention and another person’s physiological activity, revealing an underlying entanglement between us. Such studies are evocative and provide an empirical basis for connections that lie beyond our physical relations.

Scientists, scholars, and contemplative teachers are finally beginning to work together to explore the ways in which people are conditioned by the biological, social, and physical world in which they are embedded, and in so doing to recognize a broader picture of our collective human potential.

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This essay is based on a report entitled “Worldview Transformation and the Development of Social Consciousness” for the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Schlitz, Vieten, and Miller; 17, no. 7–8 (2010): 18–36). Based on decades of research on consciousness transformation at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and beyond, my colleagues and I developed a theoretical framework for understanding social consciousness. In this way, we offer a framework for understanding ways in which people are both conscious and unconscious about the world around them. The work sheds light on the powers and potentials of individual consciousness to move toward collective well-being.

About Marilyn Schlitz

Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D. is a social anthropologist, researcher, award winning writer, and charismatic public speaker. She serves as President Emeritus and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Additionally, she is a Senior Scientist at the California Pacific Medical Center, where she focuses on health and healing, and board member of Pacifica Graduate Institute. For more than three decades, Marilyn has been a leader in the field of consciousness studies. Her research and extensive publications focus on personal and social transformation, cultural pluralism, extended human capacities, and mind body medicine. She has a depth of leadership experience in government, business, and the not-for-profit sectors. Her broad and varied work has given her a unique ability to help individuals and organizations identify and develop personal and interpersonal skills and capacities needed by 21st century leaders. Her books include: Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind Body Medicine; Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life; and Death Makes Life Possible. She also wrote and produced a feature film, Death Makes Life Possible, with Deepak Chopra, that has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is currently creating enrichment programs for life long learning and health professionals.
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