Character and Consciousness

Several middle school principals independently came to me in 2000 to see if I could use my performance skills to put together a program on character development to enhance their own initiatives in that area. After presenting several thousand of these character programs across the Midwest during the last decade, I began to see similarities between developing character and embodying consciousness.

Everybody has a different sense of what the words “character” and “consciousness” mean. Unlike the words “sunrise” or “strawberry,” they’re very abstract and not easily boxed into a meaning, because character is subjective and consciousness is subjectivity itself.

For me, character is the disposition to be present to whatever feelings or impulses arise, both uncomfortable as well as comfortable. This presence is not just presence as witness (consciousness) but an embodied open hearted presence that has the potential to engage all of our being. In other words, consciousness is what registers or recognizes what’s there and character is the impulse to respond.

If a friend says something that makes you uncomfortable, consciousness is what allows for the perception, character is what you do with it.

Most of us have the disposition to ignore or actively dismiss discomforting feelings and situations in the hope that they’ll take care of themselves. Shifting into a recognition of yourself as consciousness, which is by nature free and uninvolved, can even reinforce the tendency to back away from the messiness of engaging with our own patterns, others, and the world

Mohandas K. Gandhi said that one of the causes of violence in the world is “knowledge without character.” This is especially true for spiritual knowledge. Many of us on a spiritual path have encountered teachers with vast “spiritual” attainment, but whose behavior was often irresponsible, disrespectful, and even dishonest. Followers often enable spiritual teachers by justifying their questionable actions with some type of cosmic signification such as “he’s connected to universal intelligence, so what he’s doing must be right,” or “I’m just not devoted enough to understand,” thus bypassing their own feelings and sensitivities in the quest for spiritual liberation.

Character is the disposition that connects our consciousness to our body. Character is that embodied consciousness that moves us into the pain and poignancy of living, and character is that which trusts in the mystery of our being to hold the tension of life as well as the flow. In schools the character message is basically the same: lean into, not away from, whatever it is that’s making us uncomfortable. Most of the fears, inhibitions, prejudices, inadequacies, and self-judgments we had growing up are probably still there, still waiting to be seen, still squandering our energy in maintaining avoidances and still denying us full access to the present.

When teaching in schools, I don’t just focus on the outward expressions and definitions of character–honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship–but on inner markers as well. Character is more personally revealing when we discover what and why we avoid doing, speaking, feeling or being than it is when merely trying to conform to some external definitions or ethical guidelines.

Strengthening character means becoming more sensitive to what our body is telling us in any given moment, what it is telling us about ourselves and what it is telling us about others in relation to ourselves. One way that helps kids (and adults) understand our body’s inner language is to ask them to imagine that beside our heart is a spinning star. Every star has points on it, and whenever something needs our attention the spinning star touches our heart and we feel a little pinch, a funny feeling. Maybe this pinch was caused because we hurt somebody, or noticed that somebody needed help, or because we were misunderstood. Whatever the cause we have a choice. We can ignore the pinch or we can feel it and try to resolve the disequilibrium that’s there inside. There may be good reasons for not acting–safety and trust issues, timing, lack of clarity and so on. However if we ignore the signal just out of habit or discomfort, then eventually the points on the star will start to wear down, desensitize, and we’ll find ourselves living at a distance from our feelings, our heart and our humanity.

Character is answering the invitation to feel into an emotional contraction and move toward understanding and resolution. When equilibrium is restored, the unconscious holding of tension is relaxed creating the emotional space necessary for the recognition, embodiment and expression of consciousness in the world. This is a learned response to the challenges of life and relationship. I’ve found the Trillium path to be a safe, direct way to begin and deepen into this learning process.

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