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The ART OF LIVING CONSCIOUSLY: The Power of Awareness to Transform Everyday Life Hardcover – April 21, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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About the Author

With a Ph.D. in psychology, and a background in philosophy, Nathaniel Branden is a practicing psychotherapist and a corporate consultant, and is widely recognized as the world authority on self-esteem, a field he pioneered more than three decades ago. His many books include The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Taking Responsibility, Self-Esteem at Work, and A Woman's Self-Esteem. His newest book is My Years with Ayn Rand. He lives and works in Beverly Hills, California. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


A few months after completing my previous book, Taking Responsibility, I was at a dinner party, and someone asked me what I was writing next. I answered that I was about to embark on a book that would examine what it means to live consciously.

An older woman, her face lined with bitterness, frowned and shook her head disapprovingly. "Live consciously?" she said. "Not a good idea. Who would want to live consciously? Life would be too painful."

I asked, "Is it less painful if we live unconsciously and mechanically, without knowing what we are doing, and blind to opportunities to make things better?" But she did not answer.

Someone else at the table remarked, "Well, even if living consciously does have advantages -- isn't it still a lot of work?"

Like a light that can be turned brighter or dimmer, consciousness exists on a continuum.

It is true that living consciously obliges us at times to confront painful realities. It is also true that it demands an effort. As a way Of operating in the world, living consciously has its costs, and we will examine them. A central theme of this book, however, is that the rewards are overwhelmingly greater than any apparent drawback. Living consciously is a source of power and liberation. It does not weigh us down -- it lifts us up.

Like a light that can be turned brighter or dimmer, consciousness exists on a continuum. We can be more conscious or less conscious, more aware or less aware. So the choice is not between absolute optimal consciousness and literal unconsciousness (as in a coma). The choice is between living more consciously and less consciously. Or we might say: between living consciously and living mechanically. And it is always a matter of degree.

The tragedy of so many people is precisely that, to a great extent, they live mechanically: their thinking is stale, . they don't examine their motives, and they respond to events automatically. They rarely take a fresh look at anything and rarely have a new thought. They exist at a low or shallow level of awareness. One of the consequences is that they live lives drained of color, excitement, or passion. It is not difficult to see that consciousness energizes, while its absence produces boredom and enervation.

To live consciously is to be committed to awareness as a way of being in the world and to bring to each activity a level of awareness appropriate to it. But what this means is not obvious. "Living consciously" is an enormous abstraction. We will examine its meaning in the chapters that follow.

I use consciousness here in its primary meaning: the state of being conscious or aware of some aspect of reality. Why is consciousness important? The short answer is that for all species that possess it, consciousness is the basic tool of survival and of adaptation to reality -- the ability to be aware of the environment in some way, at some level, and to guide action accordingly. One might as well ask: Why is sight important?

Living consciously is a state of being mentally active rather than passive. It is the ability to look at the worm through fresh eyes. It is intelligence taking joy in its own function. Living consciously is seeking to be aware of everything that bears on our interests, actions, values, purposes, and goals. It is the willingness to confront facts, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the desire to discover our mistakes and correct them. Within the range of our interests and concerns, it is the quest to keep expanding our awareness and understanding, both of the world external to self and of the worm within. It is respect for reality and respect for the distinction between the real and the unreal. It is the commitment to see what we see and know what we know. It is recognition that the act of dismissing reality is the root of all evil.

The issue of living consciously versus unconsciously takes many forms. Here are two examples taken from my practice of psychotherapy, in which we can see what living unconsciously may look like. Note that these examples merely illustrate the problem; they do not yet suggest the path to a solution.

Arnold K. was a forty-seven-year-old professor of history who imagined he was deeply in love with his wife and was unkind to her in a hundred ways he did not notice. When she needed to talk to him about something of importance to her, he typically was preoccupied, only half listened, and rarely responded in any meaningful way. When she expressed a desire, he smiled and said nothing and soon drifted off to another subject. When she disagreed with him, he swung off into another monologue without dealing with what she had said. When she tried to tell him of ways he hurt her, he did not hear, or apologized instantly and forgot her words within an hour. He knew how devoted he felt, so he believed he was a loving husband. And when the mood struck, he could be truly generous, considerate, and caring. Essentially, however, he lived in a private cocoon that contained himself and his love for her and his image of her but not the actual woman: she was exiled to that foreign realm, reality. So that in real-world terms, she was not part of his marriage. His wife was not the woman he lived with; he lived with a fantasy existing only inside his head. In some subjective sense of his own he may have loved her, but he did not love her consciously, did not day by day give the relationship the awareness it needed and deserved. Eventually she became ill and abruptly was gone from his life. Standing at her graveside in agony, he saw that during the twelve years of their marriage he had not been there -- he had been lost inside his own mind. He saw that he had abandoned his wife long before she had "abandoned" him (by dying). What love had not accomplished, death had accomplished: jolted him into waking up, at least for a time.

For many of us, suffering is the only teacher to whom we listen. In Arnold's case, as with the case below, suffering precipitated the decision to seek psychotherapy.

Rebecca L. was a thirty-nine-year-old leader of personal growth workshops. She saw herself as a person who was on a spiritual path and who had attained a high level of consciousness, yet she was oblivious to the wreckage she had created in her family life. Her lofty view of herself was based on the fact that she was a student of the I Ching, took classes in Tantric Yoga, immersed herself in the literature of the contemplative traditions, and had had thirteen years of Jungian analysis. She subjected her two teenage daughters to endless hours of psychological interpretation of their behavior. At dinner she would invite her husband to tell his dreams, which she would then proceed to analyze. If any of her interpretations were challenged, she would respond with gentle compassion; if the challenge persisted, she became first irritated and then increasingly angry -- until everyone retreated into sullen exhaustion. She could quote interminably from many spiritual masters and had no idea that in the privacy of their bedroom her daughters would sometimes talk about how pleasant life could be if only mother would die. Her husband did not appear to indulge in daydreams; he merely barricaded himself behind his work and spent as little time alone with her as possible. She moved through her life in a kind of trance while priding herself on being more "awake," more "conscious," than those around her. She could not understand why she so often felt a vague, generalized anxiety.

Neither of these people was asleep in the literal sense, and neither was awake in the sense required for a successful life. Their stories give us a preliminary sense of the territory we need to explore -- or, more precisely, certain aspects of it; we will see that there fire many others.

Sometimes, when we reflect on our life and on the mistakes we have made and regretted, it seems to us we were sleeping when we imagined we were awake. We wonder how we could have failed to see that which now stands out in such bold relief. Of course, this may be self-deceiving, in that hindsight always sees more clearly. At that earlier time, we may have been as conscious as we knew how to be.

However, sometimes our sense of having been sleepwalking through our existence reflects an accurate assessment. We know we were not mindful when we needed to be. Our awareness was diffuse or distracted rather than focused and disciplined. No doubt there were reasons, but reasons do not alter facts. In retrospect, we wish we had been more conscious.

We think, for example of all the danger signals we had ignored at the start of what turned out to be a disastrous love affair -- for example, our lover's incongruous behavior, conflicting statements, mysterious nonexplanations, sudden and inexplicable emotional outbursts. We ask ourselves, Where was my mind at the time? Or we remember all the warnings our supervisor gave us long before we were discharged, and we wonder why the words did not penetrate. Or we reflect on the opportunities we let slip by because in our trancelike state we did not appreciate them for what they were, and we ask ourselves how that was possible. Where was I, we wonder, when my life was happening?

When I discussed the practice of living consciously in previous books, it was exclusively from the perspective of its importance to self-esteem. Here, the focus is wider. What does it mean to act consciously? To love consciously? To parent consciously? To feel consciously? To Work consciously? To struggle consciously? To vote consciously? To legislate consciously? To address the great issues of life consciously?

To offer an example from the political realm: When legislators pass laws on the expediency of the moment, such as price and wage controls, without thinking through the long-term, foreseeable consequences of their programs, which unfortunately is the pattern of most legislation -- and the results are worse than the problem the ... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 21, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684810840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684810843
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #306,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D. is a lecturer, a practicing psychotherapist, and the author of twenty books on the psychology of self-esteem, romantic love, and the life and thought of Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. His work has been translated into eighteen languages and has sold more than 4 million copies, and includes such titles as Taking Responsibility, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, and My Years with Ayn Rand. Branden's name has become synonymous with the psychology of self-esteem, a field he pioneered more than thirty years ago.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I thought I knew how to live consciously after meditating (in the Buddhist tradition) for many years, doing all kinds of psycho-spiritual self-help work, two years of psychotherapy, you name it, I have at least tried it. Mr. Brandon's book opened me up to a whole new level of awareness about myself and the world around me. I would consider this required reading for almost anyone who wants to grow in any way, in any direction. It starts out kind of abstract, but hang in there. There are big payoffs all throughout this book. I cannot imagine you will be disappointd.
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Format: Hardcover
If you have a pulse, can read, and understand this book can cause you to reflect more consciously about the everyday things that you do in your life than you may have in a long time. If you can withstand that, then doing Nathaniel Branden's exercises which he presents throughout the book will push the envelope even further. He doesn't settle for feel-good platitudes, but the medicines he offers can open us up to possibilities that we have previously not seen through the haze of unconscious behavior and thinking.
I have become extremely jaded by a lot of the feel-good new-agey speak that has become closely identified in my mind with "self-esteem" and these days. Initially that association caused me to hesitate in buying this book. To the contrary, and to my relief I found Branden's message free from that kind of shallowness. If you merely seek self-flattery Branden offers none. On a personal note, in this book Branden even succeeded in rehabilitating the word "spirituality" for this once self-identified "atheist" who still occasionally refers to himself as a "secular humanist." On the whole his message proved very accessible, and I even found myself eager to reread it after getting through it the first time.
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In the early seventies just after the publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, I went to the library looking for other books on the subject. I found only one other book with self-esteem in its title. Over the years, I've watched closely as the word self-esteem has exploded into American culture, and has become as American as the proverbial apple pie, often with undercurrents of confusion and ignorance. Yet, with Nathaniel Branden, the innovator of the whole movement, the definition has always been the same; what has changed is his ever-increasing knowledge and awareness of the subject, much of which he shares In The Art Of Living Consciously. For those interested in the role of consciousness in improving one's life and one's self esteem -- that one is competent to know one's world, and worthy of happiness -- this will be the book for you. Once again, Nathaniel offers up a treasure chest of personal examples, as well as the examples of his clients. Also, offered is a facinating look into the world of ¨spirituality¨ as seen through the eyes of Mr. Rationality. Here, again, is another powerful and entertaining book from the man who launched the term into public discussion.
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What a fantastic book! I've been staying up late reading it the past two nights, and am so excited about what it has to say that I can't sleep.
Here's a quote: "Too often, when we suffer the consequences of our unconsciousness, we do not ask, 'How can I learn to be more conscious?' Instead we ask, 'Why is life so difficult? Why do unhappy things always happen to me?"
And another one: "Many people have an affair with or marry not a person but a fantasy - then resent the person for not being like their fantasy and then withdraw in bitterness, telling themselves, 'So much for romantic love.' They do not examine the mental processes that led to their selection of a partner; instead, they are angry at a universe in which the road of unconsciousness does not lead to fulfillment."
Mr. Branden encourages us to bring full awareness to what we're doing, offering many stories, exercises and much encouragement for doing so. I especially like the chapter on consciousness and spirituality.
To the reader below who deplores her new state of awareness: Now you know what you want to do. Buck up your courage, girl, and do it! Have faith in your own abilities, however latent they may be. You can do it!
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Starting from the solid base of objectivist rationality, Mr Branden explains the meaning of our most fundamental moral responsibility, which is to live consciously. It also is the only way to develop a consistent , free-of-contradictions view of ourselves and the context in which we seek to live. For a broader treatment you need to dig deep into the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, for sharper focus he has given us two: one on accepting responsibility and his latest on sustaining an active consciousness. A necessary conversation with yourself is what ensues in deciding the meaning to you. I doubt you can have anything better to do.
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The Art of Living Consciously was Nathaniel Branden's sixteenth book and, in many respects, remains his most valuable offering.

Though Branden favors the phrase "living consciously," with its lack of philosophical baggage, the book is clearly an inspired discussion of what it means to practice the virtue of rationality -- a theme of great value and significance to anyone who understands the tremendous power of the human mind.

Dr. Branden's earlier writings on the subject of living consciously, most notably the chapter by that title in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, were always from the perspective of its role in building self-esteem. Here, his analysis is considerably deeper and includes, for the first time since his writings from the Sixties, many sojourns into metaphysics and epistemology.

Though written for the lay reader, the book's subject matter is to the field of psychology what epistemology is to the field of philosophy, addressing many of its most fundamental questions, such as the interplay among mental health, awareness, and reality.

* * *

Chapters One and Two present the "first principles" of living consciously and lay the groundwork for Branden's theory by exploring the nature of human consciousness and its proper relationship to reality. Branden's facility in explaining these subjects is inspirational.

His discussion is centered around the requirements of developing an appropriate "sense of reality." His analysis includes an explanation of the laws of identity, causality, and non-contradiction, and the role each plays in facilitating consciousness and mental health.
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