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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?

Recently my colleagues and I explored these questions in a report titled “Worldview Transformation and the Development of Social Consciousness” for the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Based on decades of research on consciousness transformation, IONS researchers have developed a theoretical framework for understanding social consciousness. In this way, we have sought to understand the ways in which people are both conscious and unconscious about the world around them. More importantly, we seek to understand the powers and potentials of individual consciousness to move toward collective well-being.

It’s clear that we are social beings from the very beginning of our lives. 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 the car commercials we’re constantly exposed to impact what we drive and how we feel about it.

The complex dynamics of social identity unfold through five nested levels of social consciousness. These, in turn, relate to transformations in worldview.

1. 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. Psychological studies of inattentional blindness, 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.

2. With greater human choice and creativity, we may begin to express our human spirit in the face of ongoing 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 are working together to broaden our awareness of the world and our place in it. Psychologist and religious historian Louise Sundararajan emphasizes that it is the capacity for self-reflexivity—the ability to step back and reflect on our thought process—that stimulates shifts in our mental representations. Whether it’s insight meditation, a Catholic confession, or taking inventory of one’s behavior in a 12-step program, a self-reflection exercise can help us to become more self-aware. In this process, we can begin to analyze our own biases and remove our perceptual blinders.

3. 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 well-being 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. Other research indicates that we have built-in drives that spur us to search for purpose in our lives. This suggests that our brains are social organs.

4. 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 projectbased learning—each was developed to enhance the nature of collaborative social consciousness through discourse and conversation. Such forums as Wisdom Cafes, Open Space Technology, and Bohmian Dialogue Groups offer collaborative explorations and life-affirming actions.

5. 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 and unspoken communication have all been expressed as a stage in social consciousness by spiritual teachers, educators and psychologists. These notions are further developed by research, such as that conducted at IONS, that speaks 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. In so doing, we can begin to recognize a broader picture of our collective human potential.

About the Author:

For three decades, scientist and anthropologist Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, Ph.D., has pioneered clinical and field-based research in the area of human transformation and healing. She is a thought leader on matters of individual and social change whose respected voice offers new insights into the most pressing challenges of our time. Marilyn’s books include Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life and Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind Body Medicine. A researcher, speaker, change consultant and writer, Marilyn serves as the CEO and president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, where she has worked for 15 years.