Saturday, October 11, 2008

Consciousness and personal narratives

Phenomenological observations:

In the eleven hours of intense prayer/introspection of Yom Kippur, I found myself contemplating, and critiquing, the narrative (narratives) that I have constructed to give shape, identity, and meaning to my life. In other words, I was researching, editing and rewriting my past.

Everyone does this, altho it seems many or most people do it quite unconsciously. So let me amplify: Our personal (and public) narratives are not just a compendium of all our experiences. Our narratives are constructed with much effort, however unconsciously. We include and exclude events from the sum of our experiences. But the process is not merely a winnowing. We edit, revise, distort, deny, and create ex nihilo, our past as we manage our narratives.

This process is not just limited to people in therapy. It is a day to day part of every human life. Going on a diet, managing anger, engaging in a rant, building a relationship, unraveling a relationship, going to work, staying home from work. These all involve building and editing our personal and public narratives. Indeed, everything we do is grist for the mill of our narrative building. And to observe ourselves doing this is what we call phenomenology.

To say this differently, we not only think our thoughts and do what we do. We also watch ourselves thinking our thoughts and doing what we do. And, as we watch ourselves doing what we do, we edit what and how we remember it. Problem is, what we leave out is not simply gone. What we edit and distort does not simply replace what actually happened. What we create does not simply take its place in the narrative without trace.

Our minds are compendiums of all that we experience, of all that we perceive and all that we misperceive, and all that we distort. The more inaccurate, distorted, and imaginary our narratives, the more limited and burdened and blind we become. The more static and bounded our narrative, the more constrained and choked our lives become.

Thus the process of narrative-editing is an existential necessity, if we are to change, grow, and renew ourselves. We read about this in various holy texts. It is true. The blind can regain sight. The troubled and the burdened can become free (or, more accurately, freer).A moral imperative can emerge in a hedonistic or cynical or sociopathic life.

Need I mention that a significant rethinking of one’s narrative is rarely fast, easy, or pleasant?

Turning back to the phenomenological process itself, we come to realize that we have multiple threads of thought concurrently ongoing in our consciousness. These layers include the obvious intellectual, emotional, and sensory layers. But we also think on supra-rational and supra-sensual (extrasensory) layers, as well as instinctual and autonomic layers. And at the same time we have multiple layers of self-observation overseeing all these processes.

Jung and others have lumped much of this multi-tiered thinking into 2 categories, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. I am trying here to be more precise than that. Being more precise, we can shed light on these “unconscious” realms, and we can more carefully, accurately, and responsibly edit our personal narratives. And thus we might increase our mental and moral development, our sensitivity to and respect for earth and the life it contains, and our awareness of a partnership with the Divine to create a world of kindness.

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