- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Touchstone; 5/17/99 edition (June 16, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0684838494
- ISBN-13: 978-0684838496
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #57,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Art of Living Consciously: The Power of Awareness to Transform Everyday Life Paperback – June 16, 1999
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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.
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
All joking aside, I really like Nathaniel Branden. He went through an extraordinary experience of being Ayn Rand's lover / 'John Galt' / Hero ... etc. and then the opposite. I really think he lent the balance to what Ayn Rand's message was (you may also want to read Judgement Day, his autobiography). Some people think his writing is clumsy, but I like his style, he's a really courageous fellow. Personally I've used some of the techniques in this book to widen my perception and increase the productivity of my own life. The message from Branden is really positive and the premise is that within you lies all the answers and great potential.
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. From there, he analyzes the various meanings of consciousness, defines and explains the significance of the faculty of reason, and explains why there is no need for conflict between reason and emotion, properly understood.
It is unusual to discover such a lucid defense of reason in a book on personal development. "Reason (or rationality) is the faculty that grasps relationships," Branden writes. "It is the faculty that makes distinctions and connections, that abstracts and unites, that differentiates and integrates. Reason generates general principles from concrete facts (induction), applies general principles to concrete facts (deduction), and relates new knowledge and information to our existing context of knowledge. Its guide is the law of noncontradiction" (36). [All page numbers are from the hardcover first edition.]
Branden characterizes reason as the highest manifestation of the integrative function inherent in life itself. Reason is the principle of integration made conscious. "The quest of reason -- this can hardly be stated often enough -- is for the noncontradictory integration of experience" (38).
Branden finishes laying his theoretical groundwork by discussing the role and importance of free will, including the responsibility each of us bears for maintaining an appropriate level of focus. In such matters, he explains, context determines what mental state is necessary.
"Generally speaking, it is our actions, values and goals that determine what is the appropriate mind-state in any particular situation" (50). Of course, there may be many reasons for avoiding such mind-states -- fear of responsibility, fear of failure, fear of the truth -- and Branden shows us several of the relevant "avoidance strategies" we use from time to time to pull off such heists.
* * *
With this theoretical foundation in place, Branden spends the next four chapters elaborating upon what he means by living consciously. Its essence, he explains, is "knowing what we are doing while we are doing it" without losing the wider context. In several key areas -- the realms of work, of relationships, of private experience -- he invites us to ask of ourselves, "What would it mean to live more consciously in this context?"
One of Branden's key assumptions in the book is that the reality-orientation he advocates is not inborn. It must be acquired through practice, and the way to do this is not always obvious, even when we accept the desirability of being more conscious.
One of the great assets of The Art of Living Consciously is that it walks us through many situations we each encounter in life, each time asking us, "How could we be more conscious in this area? What would it look like? How can we tell when we are doing it right?" We vicariously experience what it means to live more consciously, and we bring that awareness back to our own actions.
Many of the topics Branden addresses in his book -- the importance of reason, the commitment to awareness, the problems with evading -- have been discussed before. What makes this discussion unique, however, is Branden's developmental approach. His primary concern here is not defending the validity of his principles per se, but examining the experiences and habits, from childhood on, which affect one's ability to practice the principles. Through stories about himself and his clients, he engages us in a world where the practices leading to consciousness stand in stark relief against those which bury us in unconsciousness.
One advantage of this developmental approach is its accessibility to the uninitiated. Presented in this fashion, the theory is more readily understood, because it speaks to people's experience, as well as to their intellect.
These very characteristics may cause some readers to have a difficult time with the book. A friend once told me in regard to a Branden book, "I really didn't "get it" until about half way through, when I stopped reading it like an essay or a novel and started reading it as a life-manual."
Like his other books, The Art of Living Consciously contains a strong element of material designed to bring the reader nearer to the type of experience Branden is advocating. Through stories, suggested exercises, and discussions, he invites us not just to understand his position, but to enter a state of mind where his principles make a difference in our own life. He does not just describe the good life, he invites us to discover it ourselves.
Like many manuals, the impatient will be tempted to skip ahead to the parts they find most immediately relevant. But as Branden says in his afterword, "This book contains doors that sometimes open only at the second or third touch of the handle."
* * *
Branden's discussion in the first six chapters suggests a certain view of the self, a sort of spirituality of reason. In the seventh, last, chapter he takes up the subject explicitly by raising the questions, "What is the relationship, if any, between living consciously and pursuing a spiritual path? If there is a connection between living consciously and spirituality, where and how does a belief in God fit into the picture -- or does it? What is the relation, if any, between living consciously, spirituality, and the teachings of mysticism?" (178).
To avoid the shifting sands that take place in many discussions of spirituality, he begins by addressing the significance of definitions in this context and offers his own definition of spirituality: "pertaining to consciousness and to the needs and development of consciousness." He explains, "Whoever continually strives to achieve a clearer and clearer vision of reality and his or her place in it -- whoever is pulled forward by a passion for clarity -- is, to that extent, leading a spiritual life" (180-1).
Seen from this perspective, it is clear that simply attending church every Sunday, accepting uncritically one's parents" values, renouncing the self in favor of some higher authority -- the trappings of conventional "spirituality" -- may actually subvert spiritual growth.
All people need a sense of pursuing an important spiritual path, of continually striving for their own development. Obviously, this conception of spirituality does not require, as many people would otherwise assume, a belief in God. Nor does it entail any belief in mysticism, although, Branden notes, it may well entail some of the practices traditionally associated with mystics, such as meditation -- which, he observes, many Westerners are pursuing as a path to "self-understanding, enhanced creativity, a deeper appreciation of what is important in life, a clearer grasp of one's own mental processes, a more profound perception of reality, and the experience of greater serenity" (184).
Granting the strong traditional association between spirituality and mysticism, Branden then strongly distinguishes his view of spirituality from that of mysticism -- which he defines as "the claim that there are aspects of existence that can be known by means of a unique cognitive faculty whose judgments are above the authority of sensory observation or reason" (200).
After refuting several beliefs advanced today by Eastern mystics, including the ideal of self-transcendence and an argument similar to David Hume's famous argument that self is an illusion, Branden concludes his discussion of the spirituality of reason by examining what happens when we apply the principle of living consciously to the realm of personal values. "What is this book," he asks, "but an attempt to demonstrate that living consciously -- clearly a moral as well as psychological ideal -- is to one's selfish interest?" (213).
By providing his readers with both the insight and the inspiration to do the job, Dr. Branden has provided us with an invaluable tool for applying philosophy to life -- and then reaping the rewards.