Many people have periods in their lives where they turn inward and question who they are. This self-inquisition can originate in almost any set of circumstances and comes about not as a result of the circumstances themselves but as a result of the reaction of internal psychic forces to these circumstances. Other people explore this question more consistently. Either way, this question defines each of our existence and only by answering this question can we live our fullest lives, not on autopilot, but at the very least as rationale (semi) observers and at best as captains of our fate.
For me, it started a couple of years ago and seemed to originate with some economic difficulties I was facing at work. I experienced feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. My reaction was to address the direct problem by diving into topics like marketing and business management, but I also began to explore Buddhism and meditation in attempt to bring calm and perspective to a situation that seemed overwhelming at the time. While the immediate crisis passed, it did not yet prompt the self-exploration necessary to get down to root causes.
The unresolved questions remained though and I began digging deeper. I began questioning my choices and patterns in life and wondering why. I questioned my career and my marriage. Ultimately, I ended my marriage. The pain of this dissolution forced my search even deeper. I had to understand who I was and why I acted the way I did. Why did I espouse certain ideals and why did I act against them? Why did I want to be a certain type of person but then not achieve that vision? Why did I repeat harmful patterns? Where did these patterns originate? What parts of me were truly “me” and which parts had I accepted by default through outside programming? Who was I?
The question “Who am I” is the question that begins the search for consciousness. When I speak of consciousness, I am not speaking of the state most of us walk around in from day to day. Nor am I speaking of a simple realization that our body is occupied by a unique being. Instead, I am speaking of being aware of all of the forces that shape our thinking and ultimately developing the ability to control them.
Our thought processes are made of many different layers. These layers include 1) neurological tendencies common to all humans and derived from evolution, 2) archetypal ideas that we share in common with all of mankind, 3) our individual genetic makeup, 4) our own individual experiences, triumphs and traumas, 5) ideas, myths, and values from our generation 6) ideas, myths and values from our generation or epoch, 6) ideas, myths, and values from our religion, and 7) our family experiences and values. We spring from the womb with the first three of these and then pick up the others as baggage as we progress through life.
Krishnamurti puts it this way: “Does one realize, see that one’s consciousness is its content? The content of your consciousness, all the beliefs, the dogmas, the rituals, the reactions, the attachments, the anxieties, the fears, the sorrows, the aspirations, the images which you have built about yourself and about others, all your conclusions, your prejudices, all that is the content of your consciousness. It is so. So your consciousness is made up of the things it contains. And the content of consciousness is filled by the things of thought–your scholastic knowledge, the knowledge of your own experiences, prejudices and so on. So your consciousness is fragmentary. And within that area, we are trying to find reality, truth by expanding it and trying to go beyond it.” Krishnamurti, J. A Relationship to the World.
In addition, to the contents of our conscious minds, our subconscious heavily influences our behavior. Our subconscious mind drives our behavior in ways that we often are not aware and is shaped by the first four factors listed above. In addition, when we have negative experiences in childhood, we often blame ourselves for these experiences and push aspects of our character to which we attribute this conduct into our subconscious. These repressed aspects of our personality become our Shadow and tend to manifest themselves in unpredictable ways if we do not come to grips with them and manifest them in healthy ways. The goal of the search for consciousness includes not only the search for the conscious thoughts that influence us, but also those unconscious ones. By bringing these to light, we can change patterns that result from them. Jungian psychotherapists call this process of bringing the subconscious to light individuation.
Many people undertake the quest for individuation. In fact, this quest provides the basis for “the mid-life crisis” which does not have to be a crisis at all but can be a healthy time for reevaluation. Here is an informative video on the origins of the the term, midlife crisis.
Carl Jung and Erik Erikson, in particular, discuss the process of individuation in the context of middle age. If you want to begin the journey to Consciousness (with a capital C) The following books will guide you: