Awareness as an Instrument of Love and Justice in a Transforming World
The human brain developed two valuable tactics in pursuit of our survival: awareness and intellect.
First came awareness; the brain was an input center for information collected by the senses. Later came intellect. This tactic labeled the incoming information and categorized it, allowing for complex data connection.
Throughout history, much emphasis has been put on sharpening human intellect. We socialize children in school for years to build intellect. We are taught that human intellect has been applied to the natural world to create science, law, industry, and even civilization.
However, very little emphasis (at least in the West) has been placed on developing our awareness. And yet our awareness is incredibly powerful. I believe it’s powerful enough, in fact, to be used to heal our broken world.
When I started meditating, my teacher told me to sit still and observe my breath. At first this was an incredibly difficult thing to do. I’d close my eyes and immediately my mind would start to race with thoughts. I would become aware of every itch, ache, or twinge throughout my body.
My teacher told me to just observe the thoughts, to watch them pass through my mind like scenes from a movie. She told me that if I felt a sensation in my body I could simply bring my attention to that spot and just sit with the sensation.
At first this sounded like torture. Why focus on an itch but not scratch it? However, I reluctantly tried it and found that not long after I placed my awareness on the spot, the itch miraculously disappeared,. It was as if the itch just needed to be acknowledged to be satisfied and to move on.
This same concept can be applied to emotions. When we sit quietly, emotions can arise in us that have been reverberating under the surface. Sometimes these emotions are unpleasant, even frightening. But human awareness is powerful—even more powerful than we realize. When we become aware of these emotions and create space for them be, we move through them and they dissipate like morning fog as the sun rises.
We have spent so much time focused on our intellect, yet for all our “intelligence” we live in a world marked by violence, hunger, poverty, and destruction of our earth. Perhaps the next stage in human evolution calls for us to harken back to our original tactic and develop our awareness.
“Mindfulness is paying attention, non-judgmentally, in the present moment, as if your life depends on it.”
Meditation and mindfulness practices are a way to sharpen our awareness. Awareness is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Our brain is constantly changing and adapting based on new input, forming new pathways based on our thoughts. This is the concept of neuroplasticity.
When we worry, we deepen these pathways in our brain and we become better at worrying. Conversely, when we meditate, we practice bringing our awareness into the present moment. The simple act of noticing your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the present moment is like doing an arm curl for your awareness muscle.
The positive effects of meditation are numerous (increased mental clarity, less stress, more joy) and the science is out there to prove it. Meditation helps us to respond with flexibility even when we are overwhelmed and to tune into others through increased compassion, emotional intelligence, and empathy.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
–Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sharpening our awareness and growing our capacity for flexibility and compassion is crucial to human survival at this point in our evolutionary journey. This is because our human intellect has created technology that has brought us to a precipice. Our world is connecting at an exponential pace, and yet it is is full of people who are doing violence to each other and to our natural world. Why? It’s as my granny always said: “Hurt-people, hurt people.” The only way to break the cycle of violence is to tend to the hurt. If we are going to leap into the next stage of human evolution, we must first acknowledge the hurt so we can move forward together.
There is a transformation of human consciousness occurring. Many people are talking about it but find it difficult to articulate. The rules of our society do not seem to apply anymore. Our institutions are crumbling. Decentralization is occurring. The strategies and organizational structure of social movements of the past will not work to create change moving forward. A hierarchal leadership structure is not what we need. Instead, a raising of consciousness one person at a time is in order.
Perhaps the nature-based fractal or a mycelium will be the model for change. The former is used in mathematical modeling to describe seemingly random or chaotic phenomena like crystal growth or galaxy formation. The latter is the detoxifying, adaptive, and highly resilient system of branching, thread-like vegetation created by fungus. Both could be used as models for creating large movements out of individual change: individuals use what they have around them to make small acts of creative change, which then spiral into the larger acts of a movement. The work of Adrienne Maree Brown in her book Emergent Strategy points to both fractals and mycelium as models for building movements.
Current decentralization shows that our reliance on institutions is waning. Every day we can take more Ivy League courses online for free. Financial institutions will soon be disrupted by Bitcoin and other blockchain systems. Social media is now the main news source for many young people. Telemedicine is connecting patients with providers across the world in shorter timeframes for lower costs.
With endless information and instant communication, we can do for ourselves what was never possible before. We have the capacity to take hold of the systems that have ruled our lives. If we steer these systems well through the transformation from central institutions to decentralized networks, we can heal ourselves, our communities, our nation, and our world.
“If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.”
We have wounds that are calling for our attention. Sometimes all it takes is an acknowledgement of the hurt to begin to heal. For example, Black Lives Matter is a call for American society to acknowledge the humanity of black people. Many have seen Brexit and the Trump election as a lashing out from “the forgotten man.” Many people are feeling targeted, unsupported, and disconnected. Attention must be paid. Compassion and empathy are in order. We should be asking those that are different from us: “What is it like to be you?” We need to move closer to each other, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to spend time looking into each other’s eyes.
Beyond acknowledging wounds, we also need to take responsibility for them and make right what we can. For example, in the 1970s and 80s the chief of police of Chicago authorized and oversaw illegal detainment and horrific abuse of African American men. This included electric shocks to the genitals and other body parts, suffocation, mock executions, and beatings accompanied by racial slurs and verbal degradation. There is concrete evidence of these crimes, but by the time they were uncovered the statute of limitation had passed in most instances, and the victims could not pursue justice through criminal court.
In 2015, after much organizing and a push from community organizations, the Chicago City Council passed a landmark police torture reparations ordinance. This ordinance was a holistic approach conceived of by the victims and the community. Along with financial compensation for the victims, the ordinance included a formal apology from the city, specialized counseling services to survivors and their families, free enrollment or job training in city colleges, a requirement that the torture cases and police brutality be taught as part of Chicago public schools history curriculum, and a permanent public memorial to torture survivors.
Because of the work of the victims, their families, and the community, these events will not be forgotten. The city took responsibility for the acts of its former police chief and officers. This is taking responsibility and making right what we can in order to begin heal and move forward. This is tending to the hurt.
“Compassion for others begins with kindness for ourselves.”
While compassion and empathy for others will surely heal our world, how do we get to a place on an individual level to allow these qualities to blossom within us?.
Start inside. It is possible to do anything mindfully, from chores, to walking, playing, or eating. It is merely the practice of bringing your awareness back into the present moment. When all else fails, simply return to the breath, which is always happening in the present moment.
Attend to your well-being first, whatever that means to you. Develop a mediation practice. Grow something. Make something. Be in nature. Play with animals or children. Self-care must be a priority in order to emanate love. When you are ready, go into your community and spread this love in whatever way comes naturally to you. The world needs love. Let’s wash the world in love and move through this transition to the next stage of human evolution.
I’m ready. Will you hold my hand as we leap?
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 Eberhard Fuchs, Gabriele Flügge, Adult Neuroplasticity: More Than 40 Years of Research, Neural Plasticity Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 541870.
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 The increase of a positive reaction through compassion is associated with an activation of a cerebral network that includes the areas of the median orbitofrontal cortex, the ventral striatum, the ventral tegmental section, the nuclei of the brainstem, the nucleus accumbens, the median insula, the pallidum and putamen, all areas of the brain that were previously associated with love (especially maternal love), feelings of belonging and gratification. In the case of empathy, the areas are the anterior insula and the median cingulate cortex. O.M. Klimecki, et al. (2012), op. cit.; O. Klimecki, M. Ricard, and T. Singer (2013), op. cit.
 Brown, A.M., Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, 9781849352604, (2017) AK Press.
 Black Lives Matter, A Herstory of the #Blacklivematter Movement, http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/.
 Laurence Conty, Nathalie George, Jari K. Hietanen. Watching Eyes effects: When others meet the self. Consciousness and Cognition, 2016; 45: 184 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.08.016.
 Amnesty International, CHICAGO CITY COUNCIL PASSES LANDMARK POLICE TORTURE REPARATIONS ORDINANCE, https://www.amnestyusa.org/press-releases/chicago-city-council-passes-landmark-police-torture-reparations-ordinance/ (May 6, 2015).
Photo by Meiying Ng.