What does it mean to be “Conscious”?

What does it mean to be “Conscious”?
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What does it mean to be “Conscious”?

What is Consciousness?

At the beginning of a workshop I run on conscious leadership, one of the first questions I ask people is ‘what does it mean to be conscious?’ It is fascinating to observe the looks on people’s faces around the room! It’s not a question most of us will contemplate. I always add in a qualification that I don’t mean the fact that by being ‘conscious’ you are awake rather than being asleep!

However, at the root consciousness actually is being awake, having your eyes open and seeing the world around you as it really is. And it’s not only seeing, it is using all (or as many of) the senses five senses you have available to really experience the world. Using your senses to tune in and notice what’s around you, being curious, asking questions and paying compassionate close attention to other people.

So rather than being simply ‘awake’ it is cultivating a strong awareness of the world.

Being conscious was defined by John Mackey, in his book Conscious Capitalism as meaning ‘to be fully awake and mindful, to see reality more clearly, and to more fully understand all the consequences – short term and long term – of our actions. It means we have a greater awareness of our inner self, our external reality, and the impacts we have on the world.’ An important component of consciousness is committing to understanding the real truth and being more responsible in how we act, based on what we now know to be true.

What does it mean to be ‘aware’?

Society has become more aware over the years. Things once considered acceptable are now thankfully unthinkable. It is only 170 years ago that slavery was widely accepted in the United States, just over 100 years since women in the UK were still fighting for the right to vote, and only 60 years since the end of most colonialism and the majority of the British Empire being dismantled.

40 years ago, most people didn’t even know or think about humanity’s devastating impact on the planet. 20 years ago the LGBT+ community were still fighting for civil partnerships, which ultimately paved the way for gay marriage in the UK. 15 years ago, “#metoo” was only just getting started and little more than five years ago did it become a global social movement, acknowledging and deploring sexual harassment and sexual abuse against women, and leading to widespread conversations and changes to promote greater diversity, equity and inclusion.

There are practices commonplace today that in 10 or 20 years’ time will equally be considered archaic, cruel or intolerable.

Taking the “Red Pill”

Human consciousness has risen for a number of reasons, such as more widely educated, better connected and more informed than previous generations. By and large, the world (for most of the world) is safer and life expectancies are longer. This combined has led to the scope of our concerns being much wider, with greater care and empathy for people in other parts of the world, as well as living beings other than human beings.

As well as this gradual evolution, people are consciously seeking to become more aware.

Have you ever seen the film ‘The Matrix’? In one pivotal scene, the main character Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is given the option of taking a blue pill or a red pill. Taking the blue pill meant life remaining how it was, implying still being part of the accepted systems of the world. Whereas taking the red pill would allow ‘escape’ to the ‘real world’, being exposed to truths about how things actually are, ultimately harsher and more difficult due to knowing what the world is really like, yet ultimately more rewarding and with greater agency and control. The red pill is the path to escape from the blue pill’s confined and false comfort.

Consciously seeking to change how you think and see the world, and therefore act and behave, is to ‘take the red pill’ – as Neo did in The Matrix, joining the rebellion. 

N.B. I’m aware that some right wing political groups, especially in the United States, have incorrectly co-opted the term ‘red pill’ to promote conspiracy theories, attack more left leaning and forward thinking groups and propagate hate against marginalised groups. This is the opposite of being conscious.

Looking Inside as well as Outside

The starting point of deepening our consciousness is greater self-awareness, essentially understanding ourselves better. Once we know more about who we are, we develop more self-compassion, resources for successfully navigating the increasing complex world around us and the better able to see ourselves as part of a community and society much wider than ourselves, our family and friends.

We have more capacity to care for other peoples’ well-being and a desire for change so the world is a fairer place for everyone. Essentially caring for and accepting ourselves at a deeper level and learning to have greater empathy – being able to metaphorically stand in the shoes of other people and see the world through their eyes.

Becoming more self-aware and empathic are core components of emotional intelligence, now recognised as a core competency of becoming a successful leader in the modern world. Today, people care about different things than previous generations and have higher expectations of their relationships as team members, customers, investors, suppliers, and members of local and global communities.

Linking Consciousness and Intelligence

Since the development of homo sapiens as a species, the greatest evolution in our development has been cultural and self-driven, through both consciousness and intelligence.

When we consider intelligence, this has typically meant analytical or cognitive intelligence, as measured by IQ. However, within fields of intelligence is understood as being much less binary and more complex, with four types of intelligence commonly being referred to. These are labelled by Mackey as

IQ – Cognitive Intelligence, concerned with how we are able to analyse information in an academic way. This is measured not only by IQ tests, also by traditional exams at school, college and university.

EQ – Emotional Intelligence, which is the set of emotional and social skills we use to perceive and operate within the world around us. Our relationship with ourselves and others.

SQ – Spiritual Intelligence, which is concerned with how we access our deepest meanings, values, sense of purpose and higher motivation. Essentially our moral compass, how we determine between right and wrong. The word ‘spiritual’ is often confused with religion or being religious, which is quite different, although for some people it is linked to or integral to their spiritual intelligence.

SyQ – Systems Intelligence, which is the ability to observe how ecosystems work, essentially being able to see the bigger picture. In a business context, the complex relationships between different departments of an organisation or the different types of organisations within an industry and how that links more widely economically and geopolitically.

Fifty years ago, having a high IQ was seen as the most important component of intelligence. Now, in our increasingly complex world with greater social, political and environmental challenges, great leaders, conscious leaders need to have high levels of all four types of intelligence. In simple terms, the requirements for great leaders are much higher than in the past. The good news: EQ, SQ and SyQ are developmental and can be learned and developed, unlike IQ, where potential peaks in young adulthood and will decline to varying degrees as we get older.

Characteristics of Conscious Leaders

Developing our consciousness and three of the four types of intelligence are, to a large extent, a choice.

So what happens when leaders choose to take the ‘red pill’? They become conscious leaders and develop the attributes recognised now as being desirable to lead – with the potential to play a part in creating a kinder, fairer society, adapting to climate change and safeguarding the environment.

Some of the traits or characteristics are:

  • Empathy
  • Integrity
  • Moral Courage
  • Purpose Driven
  • Fairness
  • Loving and Caring
  • Heart Centred
  • Consistent flow state
  • Live their calling
  • Develop others
  • Appreciate joy and beauty in the world
  • Shoulder responsibility
  • Lead by example