A Culture of Consciousness
An existentialist perspective
Written by Patrick Wentorp for the MIND Blog.
“Man is either the victim of his fate or the master of his destiny.”
The concept of Bewusstseinskultur (engl.: culture of consciousness) has recently gained a lot of attention. This blog post will focus on how the application of some of its key elements may be beneficial for both the individual and society.
In order to formulate this practical approach as clearly and understandably as possible, I will not linger over the theoretical background. Instead, I will focus on where Bewusstseinskultur is directly relevant to the average individual confronted with existence. I have studied philosophy and consider the existential perspective very valuable, so I will stick with this approach.
I aim to show that everyone who seeks to determine the quality of their own states of consciousness can effectively apply Bewusstseinskultur. First and foremost, I will define Bewusstseinskultur using a three-step framework which is at the heart of this blog post:
- Assessing the quality of (one’s own) states of consciousness,
- Determining which states are valuable, and
- Cultivating these valuable states.
After clarifying the existential perspective, I will explain these three steps in greater detail. Lastly, I will discuss challenges in the process of furthering Bewusstseinskultur in society and give an outlook on the potential societal impact of Bewusstseinskultur.
Bewusstseinskultur from an existential perspective
The existential perspective is concerned with the human condition, the condition in which all human beings live. This perspective does not so much refer to the culture or the political system in which individuals exist. Instead, it stresses the existential fundamentals that characterize everyone’s life, independent of state, religion, culture, and other factors that vary across the globe. Existentialists ask: what is left when you put aside these factors? What are the constants of human life?
Everyone is confronted with their own mortality. The inevitability of death does not change in different regions of the earth. Also, everyone is searching for meaning in life. Everyone seeks things that make life worth living. In doing so, every human being may recognize that it is necessary to take responsibility for one’s own life. Without an effort to determine one’s own life, one can be controlled by external factors — or even adopt the role of the victim.
These are some of the key elements of the human condition: mortality, meaning, responsibility. But what is the connection between Bewusstseinskultur and the human condition? The short answer is: consciousness. As we live our lives, confront our mortality, search for meaning, and take responsibility, we are also conscious of ourselves. Human beings do not only have a subjective experience as such, they also have the ability to reflect upon their experience. This reflection enables us to make judgments. Simply put: We can decide which experiences we want to have more of and which experiences we want to avoid in the future.
Using a more technical vocabulary, experiences can be divided into a number of states of consciousness. At every point in time a certain state of consciousness is present. These states constitute what we experience as our lives. It is fair to say that there are states of consciousness that we favor over others. In the course of life, every individual experiences states of consciousness that they consider beneficial and valuable, as well as states that are less valuable or even destructive.
Very simplistically, there are at least three constituents of a state of consciousness to consider here: thoughts, emotions, and behavior. States may entail stronger or subtler, positive or negative emotions, more or fewer thoughts, and behavior that is more active or more passive (the most passive behavior might be deep sleep). However, it is important to acknowledge this in order to understand how Bewusstseinskultur can help to deal with the human condition. By changing one’s thoughts, emotions and actions, the quality of a state of consciousness can be manipulated and in the best case, improved.
But what is a valuable state of consciousness?
The totality of states of consciousness is assessed differently by different individuals. But I do believe, like Prof. Thomas Metzinger, that there might be states that can be valuable to the majority of human beings. While not denying freedom of choice, we can examine what characterizes these states and how they can be willingly evoked.
In fact, everyone may come up with their own criteria for what a valuable state is. I suggest that every individual should have the freedom to experience the states they want to experience, unless they harm other individuals in that process (with the exception of self-defense to prevent harm that is done unto oneself). This may sound familiar: it is one application of the Golden Rule.
Metzinger suggests three criteria to determine what a good state of consciousness is:
- It should minimize suffering,
- It should have epistemic value, and
- It should increase the probability for the occurrence of more valuable states.
I find this suggestion quite appealing, however, there might be states which do not fit these criteria and which could nevertheless be considered valuable by certain individuals. Instead of investigating the criteria for what a good state of consciousness is, I want to focus on the motivation behind this investigation. Why would you ask a question like: What is a valuable state of consciousness?
The answer seems quite trivial: The life of every human being consists of a series of states of consciousness. Therefore, the question could also be formulated as: In what states of consciousness do I primarily want to live my life? What kinds of states constitute a life worth living? What states of consciousness are desirable for a society?
Ultimately, behind these questions lies one of the biggest philosophical questions of all times: What is a good life?
The focus on states of consciousness may make the question of what is a good life more specific and tangible and, therefore easier to answer. Many people will say that they do not want to suffer in their lives, yet all human beings suffer at times. If more is known about what states of consciousness cause suffering, these states may be more often avoided. And if more is also known about states that prevent suffering, these states may be cultivated. As an illustration showing the practical relevance of this perspective, consider the following example from mental health research.
It goes without saying that states leading to violent behavior cause suffering. But human beings can also suffer in the absence of (violent) actions by other people. Many forms of suffering may stem from the resistance against reality, as well as attempting to avoid negative feelings like grief, pain, or inadequacy. Once the resistance is subdued and the individual surrenders to unchangeable facts or negative emotions, suffering may paradoxically decrease.
This interpretation does not account for all forms of suffering, yet many researchers in the field of psychiatry and psychotherapy give it credit. And some of those same researchers have proposed that “acceptance” may be a key factor in the treatment of mental illnesses, such as depression. This may encompass, among other things, the acceptance of challenging aspects of life (e.g. mortality), the acceptance of one’s own emotions, or the acceptance of one’s own character .
Hence, the state of “letting go”, “accepting”, or “surrendering to life” may be an example of applied Bewusstseinskultur. Most of all, people do not want to suffer. We can investigate what states of consciousness cause suffering and what states prevent suffering. The evidence suggests that some form of suffering is caused by states of avoidance and resistance. Thus, if you want to live a life with less suffering, you may decide to cultivate states characterized by acceptance of unchangeable facts and surrender to emotions, instead of choosing states that are comprised of avoidance or resistance.
Once an individual has decided what kinds of states are valuable, an even more important step is required: acting on that decision. Bewusstseinskultur, i.e. the systematic cultivation of valuable states of consciousness, can only be realized through making decisions and acting on them. While deciding which states of consciousness one wants to experience, one simultaneously decides against other states.
Through reflection, one can continuously recognize one’s current state of consciousness and strive to change it to a state that is as valuable as possible. This is not to be confused with a compulsively trying to generate positive feelings.
Decisions are, therefore, purposeful actions that influence the state of consciousness. Whether this influence is positive or negative depends on the individual. The word decision (Greek: krisis) was originally used to describe the judge’s verdict on right and wrong. For one’s own states of consciousness the individual has the same responsibility as a judge in court. This requires adopting an ethical and responsible attitude towards one’s own states of consciousness. Holding oneself accountable for one’s own states of consciousness, the individual may also be prepared to remedy destructive states of consciousness.
Decision-making power and ethical reflection constitute the second important step of the framework of Bewusstseinskultur. Here, one must recognize the power to guide one’s own states of consciousness in a direction that is useful and valuable. Taking responsibility for one’s own states of consciousness is the starting point to making more constructive decisions in the future.
It should be noted that in real life, the distinction between valuable and destructive states is less categorical, but rather gradual. Hence, a series of smaller changes in the state of consciousness can be sufficient to bring about a positive change. However, the prerequisite for this — and this is critical — is that a certain degree of awareness and responsibility towards one’s states is already assumed. Thomas Metzinger describes this prerequisite as mental autonomy.
Decisions are events. These events reflect that a (mental) action was performed which influenced the state of consciousness. Conversely, when one thinks of cultivating desirable states, the time period is much longer and the focus is not on changing, but on maintaining a state of consciousness. Cultivation is a continuous action with the intent to transform a certain state of consciousness into a more permanent state.
However, it is absurd to believe that any particular state of consciousness lasts forever. To put it more correctly, cultivation aims towards a class of similar states. For example, there are many conceivable states in which one is conscious and mindful, but these states can be distinguished by the fact that different feelings and thoughts emerge in one’s consciousness. But given that the individual wants to cultivate ‘mindful states’, all such states would fall into this category.
One valid objection to this notion of cultivation could be that, actually, cultivation essentially consists of many serial decisions. For example, it is unrealistic to assume that a person will only once decide to take responsibility for their life and cultivate this state forever after this one-time decision. Rather, there is a need for constant decisions that pursue the goal of returning to a state of self-responsibility once it has dissipated. Arguably though, major decisions made with a strong commitment make it easier to cultivate states that are aligned with this decision.
But why does it make sense to put so much emphasis on cultivation? Why bother trying to transform a certain state of consciousness into a more permanent state? The mechanism described in the next section will hopefully give an answer to that question.
The term neuroplasticity refers to several related characteristics of the brain. One of these is that the connections between nerve cells in the brain are constantly adapting to activity–even in adult brains. The brain is continuously re-structuring itself according to experience, as well as to its own activity.
At the level of individual neurons, neuroplasticity goes like this: “If the axon of cell A is sufficiently close to exciting cell B and stimulates this cell repeatedly and consistently, a growth process (or metabolic change) takes place in one or both cells and increases the efficiency with which cell A excites cell B”. From this rather complex definition, the Hebbian learning rule was formed: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’.
Neurons that are activated together increasingly connect. The reverse also applies: Neurons which are decreasingly activated together eliminate their connections. This is called activity-dependent adaptation. Neuronal activity is partly determined by human actions: Different actions and states of consciousness cause different activity patterns. Thus, people have partial influence over their neuronal activity, and therefore also on how the connections in the brain adapt.
Furthermore, the more often a certain activity pattern is evoked, the stronger the neuronal connections characterizing that state become. Put simply: A certain state of consciousness, if it occurs repeatedly, is increasingly anchored in the brain. Does this learning effect perhaps have benefits for dealing with the human condition?
There is indeed preliminary evidence suggesting that certain meditation practices have a long-term impact on brain structure and can change the way an individual perceives the world. But does long-term impact also account for other practices like the cultivation of acceptance and responsibility?
What we know about neuroplasticity suggests just that, although it’s not obvious how one can cultivate a state of acceptance or responsibility with similar effects to meditative states. Moreover, it is easy to say that one should cultivate an accepting attitude towards all states of consciousness, but what does that actually mean? How can people learn to choose and cultivate certain states of consciousness?
At least as much as for philosophers, this is also a question for psychotherapists and psychiatrists. In fact, well-known concepts from mindfulness-based behavioral therapy can also be described as ‘methods for attaining and preserving valuable states of consciousness’: “The entire treatment is designed to get out of depressive loops of brooding or not to get involved in them in the first place.”
This is where the individual perspective of Bewusstseinskultur connects to the collective perspective. Every individual may decide which states are valuable to them, and may cultivate those states privately and responsibly. But at the same time, we are living in a world that can be described as a co-created reality: People can impede or support each other in cultivating valuable states of consciousness. Furthermore, every individual contributes to some degree to the quality of society’s Bewusstseinskultur.
Next to the work of therapists and psychiatrists, there are also other sources of guidance and support. But why should the individual accept helping hands?
It is now obvious that decisions for valuable states of consciousness are themselves valuable states. This is because a certain degree of reflection and mindfulness may be required for choosing valuable states over destructive ones. But it is fair to say that some individuals may not have these capacities.
This is where methods like mentoring can be valuable. In the terminology of this work, mentoring may be described as follows: People who already successfully practice Bewusstseinskultur, i.e. have the experience and abilities necessary to cultivate valuable states, support people who do not yet possess these abilities. Experienced mentors help people help themselves, and they represent role models toward which others can orient themselves. This empowers their mentees to cultivate valuable states with increasing responsibility.
Besides mutual support systems, other forms of interactive and practical learning may be helpful for cultivating valuable states. This would also be in alignment with the second criterion from Metzinger (valuable states should have epistemic value). Among other things, this network may consist of journal clubs and discussion groups that focus on expanding or deepening knowledge, especially in the field of the mind and brain sciences and consciousness research.
In fact, this educational MIND blog post, as well as the uniMIND Project and the MIND Academy, have grown from exactly this motivation. We–as the MIND Foundation–want to create the social spaces and the supportive network to explore and cultivate potentially valuable states of consciousness together.
Good to have you with us!
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References appear in the original article.