This chapter has been published in the book The Art of Gentle Living. For ordering information, please click here.
Our conscious self mediates between the ideals of the spiritual self and the physical and emotional instincts of the natural self. This conscious self is like an island between the endless sky and the ocean of unconscious nature. Our conscious awareness is limited; but it is most important to us because this is our actual conscious experience. We are consciously aware of what we focus on that comes to us through the senses, our feelings, and thoughts. We are able to direct the conscious self with our will by using attention, concentration, and intention. Our attention may focus our eyes, listening, and other senses to specific parts of our environment, evaluate our feelings, and use our mind to remember, imagine, follow associations, reason with logical steps, and receive intuitions. Intention is using our will to choose purposive action. The self that is reading this book is the conscious self. We can only hold so much information at any one time in our conscious awareness, but information is retained by the memory in the natural self. We are constantly making choices as to where to direct our attention. These choices determine the direction of our lives and experiences. The conscious self can learn about the divine principles from the spiritual self and about our physical needs and desires from the natural self. The conscious self is responsible for choosing among various possibilities.
In learning about ourselves we discover that below the surface of our conscious awareness is a child-like self that represents our body and feelings. This natural self has also been called the lower or basic self. The natural self experiences and informs us of pain, hunger, thirst, satisfaction and satiety, fatigue, the need to urinate or defecate, sexual desire, pleasure, and other desires, hopes, wishes, and fears. The natural self learns how to do many physical things for us and by repetition develops habits, which become automatic in similar circumstances. Many of our physical functions and habits are unconsciously guided by the body's natural instincts unless we consciously intervene with a decision. Our conscious self is responsible for deliberating and choosing, and we are consciously aware in varying degrees of what our natural self is doing and feeling.
Loving ourselves and gentle living begin with treating our natural self with great kindness and sensitivity, because it is like a child. We can consciously teach and program the natural self to cooperate with our objectives. We need to nurture and care for our natural self. If we neglect or ignore the needs of our natural self, we will usually suffer some reaction. The process of self-mastery is learning how to discipline the natural self so that we can experience harmony between our levels of awareness and cooperate in achieving our goals. The natural self will serve, but it wants to have a kind and gentle master that cares about its concerns.
Sigmund Freud pioneered the investigation of the unconscious and founded the modern study of depth psychology. He called the natural self the id, the conscious self the ego, and the spiritual self the ego ideal. Freud's description of the super-ego reflects his peculiar views of psychology, and much of its conditioning in relation to parental figures becomes part of the natural self; yet in some ways the super-ego is analogous to the spiritual self. Freud emphasized the sexual drive of the natural self, and his concept of the super-ego reflected the limitations of his philosophy. Carl Jung and Roberto Assagioli explored much farther into the spiritual self. The natural self is analogous to a child, the conscious self to an adult, and the spiritual self to a wise parent or guardian angel. Our personalities are expressed mostly by the combination of the conscious self and the natural self. The conscience operates by the interaction between the conscious self and the spiritual self.
The natural self develops along with the fetus in the womb and is influenced by both the genetic pattern and the environment. The fetus is nourished by the body of the mother and does not need to make conscious choices before birth. The soul in consultation with the spiritual self and the heavenly counselors has chosen a body; but usually it does not enter into the physical form until birth with the first breath. The previous experiences and wisdom of the soul influence the spiritual self, while the conscious self begins each life with a fresh start or like a "blank slate." The conscious self represents the intelligence of the soul and has the ability to perceive and learn from experiences, but it takes months and years to learn how to use the body and understand its environment. The child is able to walk after about one year, and the mind accelerates in language development after about two years by beginning to speak. The large and sophisticated human brain enables the human soul to use language and engage in many other creative activities that reflect advanced thinking skills. Humans have a long period of development during which they are dependent on their parents or care-givers. Gradually the conscious self learns how to make choices and decisions based on the memories of its experiences and improving perceptions and conceptions.
The quality of the loving care given by the parents or their surrogates has a powerful influence on the conditioning of the natural self and its relationship with the conscious self. The loving received by the child is what enables him or her to learn how to love and care for others. As the anthropologist Ashley Montagu observed, we learn how to love by being loved. If the child's needs are met consistently with sensitivity, that child will feel secure and will naturally be trusting of other humans; but if the parents or others abuse or neglect the child, then the child is likely to feel insecure and afraid of other people. Thus gentle living begins with the tender loving care of the parents for the child.
Other animals also have natural selves with complex instincts for survival and reproduction, but most of them lack the conscious awareness and understanding of spiritual principles. Life on Earth is diverse, and the range of animals extends from single-celled organisms up to advanced mammals such as dolphins, whales, elephants, primates, and humans. Studying other animals can help us to understand our natural selves, but the best way to know our own natural self is by self-examination and close observation of our behavior and that of other humans. The natural self is first concerned with self-preservation by avoiding danger and by fulfilling the needs for air, water, food, rest, and shelter from excessive cold or heat. These instincts have the highest priority in consciousness. If the conscious self neglects such concerns, the natural self will suffer pain and deprivation until they are met.
The next major motivation that is programmed into organisms by the natural selection of evolution is the urge to reproduce. Every living organism is descended from organisms that did reproduce. Thus Freud's emphasis on the sexual drive followed logically after Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. A primary motivation used by nature to promote sexual interest is the enjoyment of the physical pleasure. The needs for air, water, and food are also reinforced by pleasure, but much more so by pain when they are lacking. The sex drive is an option because it is not required for immediate personal survival and because excessive pain does not occur if it is ignored. Because humans have a long period of childhood development, the nurturing and protective care of parents is also an important instinct needed to make sure that the next generation survives to reproduce. Thus humans, perhaps more than any other species, are programmed to provide loving care. This gentle caring is essential to human survival.
Humans have developed advanced technology that has multiplied destructive potential to such a great extent that now the human race faces the danger of destroying itself if we do not learn how to live in peace. This brings us to two other basic instincts known as fighting and fleeing, which along with feeding and fornicating make up the four Fs that impel all animals. Some believe that fighting is part of human nature and can never be changed. However, not all humans fight, and human fighting can take various forms. Most species that come into confrontation or competition with each other over territory or a mate usually manage to resolve the conflict by one of them fleeing. Yet as studies with rats have shown, as more rats are put into a small space, the tendency toward violence increases. This pattern can also be seen in human history with the development of agriculture and civilization that brought humans together in limited space and resulted in the series of wars that began more than five thousand years ago. Human population did not reach one billion until 1800 CE, but additional billions of people were added by 1930, 1960, 1975, 1987, and 1999. As of 2005 about six and a half billion people were living on Earth. Humans now face the crisis of learning how to limit reproduction in combination with learning how to get along with each other without destroying ourselves. Thus I suggest that the art of gentle living that cares about everyone is essential to maintaining human life on Earth. The nurturing process is evidence that love is the true nature of humans, and with spiritual guidance we can overcome baser instincts and redirect the urge to fight in a crisis to working for justice and solutions that are nonviolent.
The instinct to fight usually comes out in desperate situations when one fears that survival is threatened. Some may use their power to increase their wealth and pleasures in ways that cause others to suffer deprivation or such threats to their lives. Thus we need to learn how to care for all humans on Earth so that none will feel so threatened. (These larger social and political issues will be discussed more fully in my next book BEST FOR ALL: How We Can Save the World.) Personal conflicts do not threaten the entire species, but they can disrupt gentle living. We need to learn how to resolve these conflicts with compassionate communication in order to avoid physical fighting.
Like a child, the natural self may be taught how to behave properly in various situations. Toilet training is one of the first big challenges for children, and parents need to realize that the natural process of development cannot be pushed too soon without frustrating the child and possibly causing psychological damage. As the muscles develop, the baby eventually learns how to control urination and defecation. The natural self wants to be loved, and physical punishment can harm the sense of security and well being. Gently training children to stay out of trouble and cooperate is a challenge for parents and teachers, and alternatives to corporal punishment can be found. Just as a child does not want to suffer the pain and rejection of punishment, the natural self does not want to be alienated either. Children do need training and discipline, but these can be done gently with patience and understanding. We also need to discipline our own natural selves without being too hard on ourselves. Self-discipline and self-mastery managed by the conscious self enable us to develop freely, while discipline and mastery imposed by others tends to be resented and in the extreme case is slavery. If one does not adequately discipline oneself not to inflict harm on others, then one will find the discipline coming back when others hold one to account for one's harmful actions.
The natural self has innate knowledge based on its instincts that are genetically programmed and can teach the conscious self much about physical processes. The natural self also collects memories from experience, learning much by trial and error. Thus a wise conscious self will learn from the natural self just as a good teacher learns from students how to teach them. The natural self is continually concerned about physical and emotional well being and will seek to be secure and comfortable. Like a child, the natural self is playful and enjoys physical expression that is fun, satisfying, and safe. Under direction from the conscious self, the natural self will work, exercise, and perform, especially if some physical or emotional rewards are involved. The natural self tends to like rituals or routines that allow it to flow into its habit patterns. As habits of the natural self unconsciously take over in routine situations, the conscious self is able to focus on other things. The natural self usually obeys and may imitate what is perceived. However, if the natural self is mistreated or betrayed by the conscious self or others, it may rebel in self-defense. Changing established habit patterns requires redirection and training by the conscious self to prevent reverting to the old pattern. The natural self will often remind the conscious self of its habits as well as its needs.
As a soul our experience includes not only the spiritual self and the conscious self but the natural self as well. We are responsible for all of these forms of conscious and subconscious awareness. Human beings are multi-dimensional, and many mysteries of our existence have yet to be explored.
By the age of seven the conscious self has usually become dominant over the natural self. The conscious self is constantly learning by making choices and seeing the consequences. The conscious self also communicates directly with the conscious selves of other people by language and observation while the natural selves interact in more subconscious ways. As we direct our experience through our conscious self, that is where we can best exercise our will by focusing our attention and intention. Knowing oneself means the conscious self is becoming more aware of one's human characteristics and personal idiosyncrasies. Every person is unique, and so the challenge is slightly different for each person. Although others such as psychologists and counselors may assist one, no one can undertake this work but yourself. The conscious self has the ability and responsibility to make decisions that determine one's life. Although the spiritual self may offer higher guidance, it will not make decisions nor interfere with the development of the conscious self. By exercising our freedom we learn from our experiences how to master ourselves. If we do not control ourselves properly and interfere with others, then in reaction they will probably try to alter our behavior in self-defense. Also if we try to control others without respecting their freedom of choice, they will often rebel and resist our attempts at manipulation. The art of gentle living means mastering oneself in order to be loving while respecting the freedom and autonomy of others.
The conscious self can direct the learning process by inquiring and analyzing experience and facts. In one's daily life the results of one's actions and words can be reviewed in order to see what works well and what brings adverse consequences. The conscious mind has great intellectual abilities and can use logic and intuition as well as memory, imagination, and emotions to understand various situations. The conscious self gains knowledge about oneself by paying attention to what one is doing. Intentions and actions can be analyzed by looking at the motivation, the goals, the methods of attaining them, and the various effects. The conscious self has the responsibility of organizing the various aspects of one's life. The conscious self has the ability to change one's attitude quickly. If you observe yourself upset or frustrated, you can evaluate why, take a breath, and start again, even if you are still pursuing the same challenged objective. Sometimes perseverance enables one to overcome the problem by determined effort; other times one may take time to meditate on the issue and go back to it later with a fresh perspective.
Accepting what is happening is an essential principle of consciousness. Denying or avoiding reality merely postpones the problem and can make it worse. When we accept what is, that does not mean that we necessarily agree with what others have done; but by accepting the facts we begin to understand and can then cooperate. The conscious self may take responsibility by bringing actions to their best completion. This enables the natural self to have direction and feel a sense of accomplishment. By increasing self-knowledge the conscious self knows better how one may act most effectively because of one's personal abilities and situation. The conscious self is responsible for setting goals and making decisions about how to work toward those objectives. Doing each thing as well and perfectly as one can establishes a pattern of mastery. Everyone wants to do their best, and we each must decide how much time and energy we want to devote to each endeavor. By setting standards oneself one can adjust them if necessary. Obviously setting goals that are too difficult to accomplish can be frustrating. Although we may aim high, we can be gentle with our natural self by accepting the results at each stage. A conscious self that is too strict of a disciplinarian on the natural self may find it rebels and refuses to cooperate. The conscious self that is too lazy to discipline may allow the natural self to indulge too much in habits that may not be beneficial.
In addition to self-knowledge, the conscious mind also gains knowledge by studying others and various subjects. This learning may take place through schools, other associations, or on one's own. The wise conscious self keeps an open mind to new ideas and understandings but carefully compares them to what already is known. Research helps us to draw on the collective wisdom of humanity so that we can avoid mistakes others have already made and find ways that work. Adapting to what works is the pragmatic skill of the conscious self. By evaluating the results of one's own actions one may occasionally find that even what was working before may be improved with new methods, or new goals may require new approaches. The art of gentle living applies the conscious endeavor of continual learning to considering one's effects on other people so that everyone may have a better life. By expanding our conscious awareness beyond ourselves we extend our love and spirit.
We can consciously improve the quality of our lives by helping the natural self to develop healthy habits. Parents and teachers in early childhood have a powerful influence on children and the habits they form; but once the conscious self is in control, it has the primary responsibility to monitor and discipline the natural self. If the conscious self is an enlightened master, then the natural self will be a good disciple. Loving and caring attention helps these interactions work well. Tendencies toward bad habits need to be monitored and gently redirected. Habits often are transformed into other patterns of behavior. For example, babies that have been weaned have a tendency to suck their thumbs, and parents may use a pacifier. Eventually this habit will be abandoned, but in a nervous child it could change into a tendency to bite one's fingernails.
A teenager then might take up smoking cigarettes, a very unhealthy and addictive habit. Smokers are suckers in more ways than one. Smoking not only damages one's own lungs and affects the brain with habit-forming patterns, it also pollutes the air that others are breathing. Good education is important in preventing young people from taking up this deadly habit. For the person who has already become addicted to nicotine, the challenge is to refrain from smoking. Obviously it is easier not to start than it is to break an addictive habit. Yet the conscious self is in command, and no one smokes without the consent of the conscious self. Learning how to break such a habit builds character and strength of purpose, while failing to do so exposes one not only to the continuing dangers of smoke but also to a loss of self-esteem by the personal embarrassment before others. Although nicotine may stimulate the brain temporarily, in the long run the effects are harmful. The stronger the pathways in the brain are made by the drug the more difficult it becomes to break the habit. Yet many heavy smokers have completely abandoned the smoking habit.
Those selling services to help people break such habits may suggest that will power alone cannot conquer such habits, but no matter what methods are used ultimately the conscious self will decide whether to smoke or not. Because the natural self is conditioned by habits and has a tendency to repeat them, the conscious self can help retrain and reprogram the natural self by giving it clear instructions and new imagery for better habits. The stronger the habit is, the more often and urgently will the natural self tend to remind and nag at the conscious self to go back into the habit. Thus the conscious self needs to monitor the natural self and remain constantly vigilant. Self-mastery means that the conscious self stays in command. Good communication between the conscious self and the natural self is important in changing these habits. Habits are combinations of memory from prior behaviors, and so associated memories may need to be replaced with new patterns of behavior that support the new habits.
Although it is not as addictive nor as harmful as nicotine, caffeine is the drug to which the most people are addicted. Found in coffee, tea, colas, and cocoa (chocolate), caffeine is another temporary stimulant that establishes an addictive habit. Often people who are addicted wake up each morning craving caffeine and feeling they need it to get their day started, when normally the rest of sleep by itself gives a person a refreshed attitude toward life. Surveys of modern society have found that more than 80% of the people use caffeine regularly.
Alcohol is another drug that can become habit-forming. The physiological effects leave the body unless one is a heavy drinker. Thus alcohol tends to be more psychologically habit-forming because of its effects on one's mood. Moderate drinking as a social lubricant helps many feel relaxed and at ease with other people, especially with those who are drinking. Everyone needs to make their own choices about these habits. Others find certain illegal drugs are stimulating to the mind and perceptions. Some of these are even more addicting physically than nicotine, while others such as cannabis are only psychologically addicting. Legal prohibitions make the use of these drugs much more complicated and dangerous socially.
I have found that the greatest freedom comes from not using any of these drugs. Studies have shown that meditation or other spiritual methods may stimulate the creative parts of the brain, and there are no ill effects. Certainly practicing a spiritual discipline may become a habit, and it may even seem like a dependency to some observers; but it seems to me that such habits that calm the mind and refresh the spirit and feelings are healthy habits that benefit people.
In addition to exercising our spirits, we need also to exercise our physical bodies to keep them in a healthy condition. Some may find physical work they like to do that helps keep them in shape, and those who walk often or ride a bicycle for transportation are getting exercise in a useful way. Others need to find recreational forms of exercise. Because these need to be done often and regularly, they usually become habits. People who have become too lazy will have to overcome those habit patterns by consciously exercising until new habits are developed. Everyone can choose the forms of exercise they prefer. Yoga and other Asian disciplines such as the various martial arts may have a spiritual appeal for some. Those who love music may dance or exercise to music. People who love athletics may swim, run, or use weights, and those who like games may take up various sports. Those who like nature may go hiking and camping. Even while confined in a room or a bed one may do isometric exercises. Physical exercise has also been shown to have beneficial effects on the brain and one's mood.
In recent decades the pharmaceutical industry has been increasingly promoting new drugs as solutions to various diagnoses. Although many of these are for physical pain, others are prescribed as treatments for psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, or various "disorders." In extreme cases such drugs may be useful temporarily to help individuals through a difficult period, but others may eventually discover that they have become hooked on legal drugs to maintain mental stability and a moderate mood. Yet it may be that such drugs are preventing people from learning important spiritual lessons from their experiences, and they may also be restricting their ability to experience life to its fullest extent. Studies and experiments need to be done in these new areas, but I recommend caution and self-restraint in regard to taking drugs on a regular basis for an indefinite period of time. Some of these drugs may be physically or psychologically addicting so that people feel a "need" for them if they stop taking the medication. These patterns can be insidious, and I suggest that those who want to be truly free avoid both illegal and legal drugs unless one's health is clearly in danger.
Every living body must take in nourishment in order to sustain itself. Our digestive system knows naturally how to convert the water, minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and other nutrients in food into the materials and energy our body needs to operate. The human body functions best at a rather warm temperature, and much of the energy thus is "lost as heat," as Newton put it in his second law of thermodynamics. This heat and other activities can be measured in calories, and so can the potential energy of the food we eat. People gain weight as stored energy by taking in more calories than they expend, and they lose weight by taking in less than they exert. The human body is rather adaptable and can survive on very little nourishment, though it will get very thin and eventually begin to consume itself if food is lacking. Today we live in a world in which many of the poor suffer from malnutrition and desperately need food. Even more die of diseases because they do not have access to clean water. Yet in the wealthy nations an increasing number of people are eating much more than they need for optimum health. In the United States, for example, more than 130 million people are considered overweight, and of these about sixty million are defined as obese. This has now become the leading cause of preventable death in this culture, overtaking smoking.
The original impetus for writing this book came to me from a dream in which I was explaining to the slightly overweight wife of a friend how gentle eating could help. Inspiration then soon led me to plan to write a book on the art of gentle living. I learned about "gentle eating" from a Franciscan sister named Laurel Keyes when I was living at the Santa Barbara mission during the summer of 1969. The method involves training our natural self to eat in such a way that it can enjoy food and be satisfied without eating too much. First, it is recommended that you serve yourself small portions of the food you want to eat. Yet the natural self is made to understand that it can go back for more if it wants to do so. Second, take small bites and chew the food well, savoring the flavors and relishing their enjoyment. Third, relax and eat slowly, pausing between bites. Perhaps take a drink of water to cleanse the palate. By really enjoying the food and chewing it well so that it can be digested easily one has a full and rich eating experience. If you go back for more, repeat the process of taking small portions and eating slowly. Usually in this way people are satisfied without eating as much because the process of enjoyment is spread over more time. Of course a certain amount of self-discipline is required, but that is inevitable in any diet or process of eating.
We can also extend the concept of gentle eating to include other aspects. I know that when I want to take a little weight off my stomach, the answer is simply, "Eat less." I find that I prefer to eat only two meals a day-breakfast and dinner. In fact when I know I am going to a feast, that is my only meal that day, other than some juice at another time. The ancient Greeks usually ate two meals a day. Some people find that they need to eat more often, but they can eat smaller meals or snacks. In our modern society we have so many convenient technologies that most of us do not exert ourselves very much. Thus we may not need to eat as much.
Another theme of this book, that we may consider the consequences of our actions to live more gently, also applies to eating. With six and a half billion humans on Earth now, the sustainable use of the land is becoming an increasing concern. John Robbins in his Diet for a New America has made a very persuasive case for being vegetarian. The eating of mammals uses much more agricultural land and water to provide those mammals with nourishment than is used for the grains, vegetables, and fruits that humans consume directly. If humans are going to share this Earth without fighting each other over water and land resources, then we need to eat less meat. Also mammals are more evolved and have more consciousness. Since we are also mammals, we may identify more with their suffering. The way livestock are treated in the mass production of meat causes many conscientious people to forgo eating red meat. A third reason to avoid eating meat is because it is not very healthy for humans, whose digestive tract evolved primarily for a vegetarian diet. Humans only began eating meat a few million years ago. Unlike predators, which have a short digestive tract, humans have a long one. Cholesterol is only found in animal products, but those who consume it from meat may suffer from its excess in the heart and circulatory system. Toxins increase higher up on the food chain. This is an important reason for avoiding or being careful about eating not only meat but also fish and seafood, especially the larger fish such as tuna, shark, and swordfish. As the oceans and fresh water sources are becoming polluted, this is an increasing health concern.
A vegetarian diet offers excellent nutrients and scrumptious flavors. Nuts, seeds, and fruits can be eaten without even killing any creature, and vegetables can be grown and eaten without inflicting much suffering. The great African-American scientist George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and cowpeas, prophesied that we must turn to the things that grow, Nature's true storehouse, to replace even the ores and oils that were put on Earth to give humanity a breathing spell. I believe that people will eventually discover that a nut-burger, for example, not only is more healthy than a hamburger, but it tastes much better too and is easier to digest. Since the history of human civilization began to be recorded about five thousand years ago, some humans have tried to live by raiding the livestock and possessions of others. Such behavior can no longer be tolerated if the human species is to survive. We cannot allow the extensive exploitation of some to threaten and use violence against others. Many have predicted that future wars may be fought over access to fresh water. We can help the process of sharing the Earth's resources fairly by being gentle eaters of plants rather than ferocious consumers of red meat.
Gentle living means being considerate of others while still
being true to ourselves. Eating is often a social activity that
we share with others. I admire vegans (strict vegetarians) who
forgo any animal products at all. Many people are semi-vegetarians
and either eat some animal products such as fish, fowl, eggs,
and dairy products, or they may eat animal products and maybe
even meat on some occasions. We each must make these choices by
our own conscience. I personally use very little animal products
when I am preparing food for myself or others; but when I am partaking
of food from or with others I may eat fish, fowl, eggs, or dairy
products, though I draw the line and avoid red meat. Jesus advised
his disciples to eat what was offered to them, and he made the
important spiritual point that what comes out of our mouth is
much more significant spiritually than what goes into it. Buddhists,
Jains, and Hindus in their respect for all life are often vegetarians.
Seventh Day Adventists are strict vegetarians, and studies have
shown that they are the healthiest group on Earth.
This chapter has been published in the book The Art of Gentle Living. For ordering information, please click here.