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Cultivating Social Consciousness

by Marilyn Schlitz

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 (Schlitz, Vieten, and Miller; 17, no. 7–8 (2010): 18–36). 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. And, 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 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.

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

  • The first level 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, such as that conducted at IONS, 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.

  • rolandg Nov 07, 2010

    Level Six - to awake enthusiasm for social consciousness, this state is obviously the basic state of mind if we want to learn how we can integrate a new behavior into the human community. Enthusiasm is the key state for our neurons to grow and to build new connections for a new behavior...

  • lmpicard Nov 08, 2010

    Certainly given the quantum realm of possibilities....seems there are multi-levels + dimensions to #5. Resonant consciousness is evident on an emotional and physical realm at one axis then feeling and physical sensing (e.g. visual, audible, etc.) on the other.

    Enthusiasm or I suggest curiosity (or lack of fear) is the key to unlocking level 5.
    This thing called fear is the true inhibitor to action and accessing these levels of social consciousness. Further, fear is the real "laziness" in our existence.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Technoshaman Nov 08, 2010

    The scope of "social consciousness" used in the research could be described as the INDIVIDUALl's experience in the psychological-transpersonal-spiritual continuum.

    If the authors' aspirations include "to recognize a broader picture of our COLLECTIVE human potential," they would need to include or federate with the perspective of the collective consciousness, intelligence, and wisdom of human groups from families, circles, and tribes, to organizations, communities and networks, to global systems and humankind.

    The individual's social consciousness termed "collective" is as different from the collective's social consciousness as a collection of intelligences is different from collective intelligence or a community of learners is different from a community that learns.

    Both the individual and collective scopes of consciousness, intelligence, and wisdom need to be studied and augmented if we are to realize our collective human potential as a society. Without understanding their dynamic inter-relatedness, we would miss the boat to take us to the other shore beyond the turbulent 2010s, into the emergent new civilization.

  • Mindlink0 Nov 09, 2010

    Some of my babe-in-arms experiences, before I understood or used any vocal communications, indicated to me that we humans are born in Level Five, with resonant consciousness and a nonduality perspective. Our human brains are not "hard-wired"; they are programmed by rejection and denial factors in our social, cultural and family environments. Perhaps it would be more effective in the development of the human race for us to focus on maintaining and developing the Level Five consciousness in young children, instead of trying to undo the negative factors after we have already messed up our lives.

    In my humble opinion, the ability for people to exclude information that does not fit into their current worldview and to not see things they are not anticipating are examples of the wonderful human ability each of us has to create the world in which we live. I am delighted that I do not share the attitudes of greed and corruption which pervade our political and economic institutions and that I find happiness and contentment in assuming that everybody I meet is trustworthy.

  • Anonymous Icon

    violinwire May 02, 2011

    Creating Social Cosciousness Through Education

    Effective education extends beyond the school and home into the community. Children need to be involved in their community, ensuring that their streets, playgrounds and schools are a clean, safe, friendly and drug-free environment. By participating in activities like cleaning up drains in their communities, starting recycling programmes, conducting water and air quality tests, or saving trees in their neighborhood, young minds learn complex things about societal, ecological and biological systems. They learn about the human component involved when they work together as a group to investigate health, social or environmental problems and solutions.

    This is an article that I found at a site I hope members would enjoy reading it as its really insightful in to the social consciousness issue.

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