In my last article, I ended with the notion of finding courage, tuning into our conscience and doing what is honorable. I’ve been sitting with that concept, realizing that in many ways, tuning into, and more specifically listening to, our conscience is probably a task that requires more courage than anything else in our lives. How often are you confronted with ideas, suggestions, requests, pressures, etc. that are not in alignment with what you really believe in or value? How often do you submit to those simply because it would require more effort to honor what you really care about? How many times have you not wanted to upset the apple cart by sharing your honest feelings about something, or doing something that is not in agreement with what others are doing? I wish to share my personal thoughts, interpretations and understandings of what it means to live with conscience.
Conscience by definition is a “sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, together with a feeling of obligation to do right.” (quoted from Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) It is a knowledge within oneself for oneself. In breaking this down further, I found that moral goodness is defined as virtuousness or uprightness, also associated with honesty and honor. I thought of the word honor in considering these definitions and how doing the “honorable thing” ultimately requires us to tune into our conscience. How can we tune into that inner knowing, that sense within us that guides us if we are able and willing to listen? Why is it often so difficult to do so? We all have our own “Jiminy Cricket” walking around with us, and yet just like Pinnochio, we don’t always pay attention to him.
We hear so much these days about awakening and becoming conscious. Consciousness is a buzzword that is frequently used in promoting programs to change ourselves or the world. Yet, what do we do with consciousness once we have it? There are many examples of humanity obtaining greater consciousness or awareness in one way or another, through science, religion, healthcare, etc. However, obtaining this consciousness has not always resulted in changing the world or humanity for the better. We need only consider the domains of nuclear energy, fundamentalism, pharmaceuticals and processed or altered food to see the many ways in which greater awareness did not necessarily benefit the world. Why? I offer the interpretation that this consciousness or awareness was not coupled with conscience. We may find ourselves with a new awareness of something, but not be conscious “of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of our conduct” with that awareness. We as human beings have the choice to use what we become aware of in service of the good, or not. How do we know if we are applying our consciousness toward the good of humanity and the world? By listening to the voice of conscience within us, which requires courage.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the voice of conscience from the voice of our own ego or lower nature. We often cannot hear the voice of conscience until we become conscious of what we are doing and how it might be affecting ourselves, others and the world around us. I experienced this with food and nutrition. When I became conscious of the toxicity of certain foods, my conscience wouldn’t stop nagging me! Every time I ate certain foods, I could hear an inner voice that said, “That’s not honoring your body!” If I encountered someone who was very devoted to healthy eating, I found myself feeling guilty that I wasn’t more devoted. My tendency was to beat myself up for not being “good enough,” yet sometimes I would inwardly condemn the other for being too rigid or righteous. I didn’t like the pain that came with being conscious of healthier ways, and encountering devoted individuals reminding me that I wasn’t paying attention. My conscience was engaged, and I was uncomfortable.
Over the years, as I’ve become much more devoted and disciplined, I’ve come to realize that the guilt I felt was simply telling me that there was something important to pay attention to, and that it had everything to do with me and my conscience, and nothing to do with anyone “making” me feel guilty. Now that I am one others encounter and experience as being devoted, I have found that others sometimes want to shame me, blame me, get me to conform or get defensive because of my choice to follow my conscience. Following our own conscience seems to trigger the conscience in those around us. My closest and most authentic friends have shared that while they may feel inspired by what I do, they sometimes feel intimidated or don’t want me to know about some of their lifestyle choices. I have deeply appreciated their willingness to be authentic with their feelings and allow for greater learning and empathy. We have had beautiful conversations that have helped me to understand more about how people experience devotion to conscience, particularly when it is counter to cultural norms.
I have certainly had plenty of times in my life in which I was so enthusiastic about something I learned, such as a new way of eating or a new mode of healthcare, that I felt “everyone” should be doing it. This enthusiasm was often interpreted as righteousness or judgment, sometimes rightly so. At even more times, I’ve kept myself from sharing what I’ve learned so as not to make waves or make others uncomfortable, thus holding back from sharing my authentic self with others. Whether we inflate ourselves by believing we know what’s best for everyone, or deflate ourselves by trying to make everyone comfortable at the expense of our selves, we are still being egotistical. These actions come from our lower self, not the voice of our conscience or higher self. Our conscience does not set the standard or value for the community, only for our self. Our conscience is also not interested in making others comfortable. It is simply interested in showing us how to be our most authentic selves. Our ego doesn’t want us listen to the voice of conscience, as separation is it‘s mission. Seeing that following our own conscience can trigger the conscience in another seems to indicate to me that following our conscience might unite us in ways we have yet to fully understand.
In this day of the significant and opposite extremes of fundamentalism and devotion to nothing, it is difficult to speak of such things as conscience, honor, morality or virtue. After all, what is the “right” thing to do? Who says it’s right? If I have standards for myself or my life, am I being dogmatic or fundamentalist? If I don’t honor or be devoted to the values that I feel inwardly, am I betraying my soul? I’ve wrestled with these questions for most of my life, noticing that there is often a conflict between what my inner knowing is telling me and what the outer world is suggesting.
In my contemplations, I began to realize that conscience and shame or guilt seem to be closely related, or at least show up together in many instances. If we consider that shame is the feeling we get when we feel we have somehow gone against the standards or values of our community, and guilt is the feeling we get when we feel we have gone against our own personal standards or values, then we can begin to see that the voice of conscience may play a role in these emotions. We sometimes confuse the voice of conscience with the voice of our community or cultural discourse. Conscience is our inner knowing, while the cultural discourse is the knowing determined and followed by the community. What is considered right for the community or culture may not feel at all right within. We feel a struggle between what our community defines as right or wrong, and what we as unique and conscious individuals feel is right or wrong within. When we follow what we feel is right, and it is not in line with what our community feels is right (and by the way, a community only needs to be two or more people, so it could be a spouse, your family, your co-workers, your town, etc.), we can experience a sense of shame. This is painful to bear, thus making it difficult for us to honor that inner voice of conscience. Yet if we don’t honor that voice of conscience, we are left with a sense of guilt because we have gone against an inner value we have for ourself.
We tend to experience shame when we tune into and listen to our conscience, and it is counter to what our community says is right for us to do. On the flip side, when someone in our community tunes into their conscience and follows its guidance, going against what we would expect, we may feel guilt. At first, we may feel that we are being judged, criticized or opposed, and perhaps even get defensive of our position, ultimately wanting to shame the one we feel opposed by. Yet, if we go deeper with this, we often find that there is something within us that has a personal value similar to that of the person who follows their conscience. We frequently don’t want to go to this place because it means admitting our “blameworthiness” or the fact that we ourselves aren’t listening to our own conscience. We deny our conscience by blaming or shaming another for listening to theirs.
The experiences of shame and guilt tend to be quite painful. None of us want to feel them. What if we consider that every emotion we have is telling or teaching us something? What if we are feeling shame when we follow our conscience and act counter to community standards because we are being shown the importance of following our conscience with humility, understanding of others, and gentility? What if we are feeling guilt when we don’t follow our conscience because we are being told the importance of being authentic? What if when a person in our community follows their conscience and it triggers guilt in us, we are being shown that there is something important to us that we are not paying attention to?
In considering that we each are unique individuals with our own unique mission and path to walk in this lifetime, and that each individual’s voice of conscience will speak to them differently according to their unique needs and mission, I also have found that the voice of conscience seems to come from a higher place that is common to everyone. Perhaps this is why when one person follows their voice of conscience, it often triggers the voice of conscience to speak in others. Even children seem to come into the world with an inherent sense of inner knowing of right and wrong. Yes, they learn much of it as well, but at their core, I feel as if there is a sense of morality built in. I have never spoken the definition of honor with my two young boys, yet when I asked them each individually what they thought it meant to be honorable, they both said, “It means to be respectful.” Somehow, the word honor has not lost its meaning over the centuries, and most of us still connect with what it means, feeling an inner sense of guilt or lack of fulfillment when we are not living honorably. This is our voice of conscience telling us that we are not being authentic and honoring who we truly are or what we truly care about.
Can we find the courage to die a little bit every day out of the voice of ego and be born into the voice of conscience? Can we find the courage to name our sense of guilt in not following our conscience and own it without blaming others? What would our lives and the world look like if we were guided solely by our conscience? Can you picture it? Some say that if we’re on the right path, things will be easy. I offer a different perspective and suggest that the right path, if we define the right path as that aligned with our conscience and our most authentic self, is never the easy path. It is a path that requires, among other virtues, great courage and humility, and when followed offers a great sense of satisfaction and joy. May we all stand courageously and humbly in our authenticity and with conscience as our guide, and may we all learn to listen to our voice of conscience when it is triggered in us.