Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of April 6, 2009

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The Way of Conscience

Part 2: Acting in Accord

When we perceive our conscience telling us what to do or what not to do, we may choose to act accordingly. Doing so encourages conscience to return to us. Not doing so, buries it deeper. When it comes as remorse about a prior misdeed, we can examine how our wrong act arose, what led us into it. We do this soberly, without beating ourselves emotionally or otherwise, but resolving not to make the same mistake again.

It may seem at first that occasions of moral dilemmas that call forth conscience are few and far between. But on the contrary, they are frequent. Every time we face a task or chore that is necessary but somehow distasteful to us, something we would rather not do, we confront a juxtaposition of right and wrong, of need versus desire, of responsibility versus attachment, of freedom versus identification. Conscience will nearly always prompt us to freely and responsibly serve the necessary. But laziness, dislike, self-indulgence, greed, distraction and desire pull us in the other direction. So there we have a visceral choice on a fairly frequent basis: whether to strengthen and purify our will and thereby our connection to the sacred or to take the way of least resistance and go with the flow of our desires. Dilemmas that call forth conscience also arise in many other types of situations, for example regarding what we do or say when we’re upset.

If we make a habit of choosing to ignore our conscience, it gradually recedes from our awareness and eventually ceases to trouble us with truth. If we choose the way of conscience despite our contrary and sometimes strong and even rebellious inclinations, we knock the rough edges off our egoism and build our I.

For all our inner promptings, including those that we believe arise from our conscience, we may need to do a rationality check. For example, we take as a baseline for all our acts obedience to the laws of the land and to the moral and ethical norms of our society. If we feel an impulse that may be from conscience, we can ask ourselves whether it meets that first test of rationality. Further, does it accord with our goals and direction in life? Will it harm anyone? The test of rationality, however, does not preclude unusual and creative acts or departures from our personality patterns. Nor does it preclude lawful acts that conform to a higher standard than societal norms.

Because the overbearing voice of our ego drowns out the voice of conscience, our perception of conscience can be murky and uncertain. Is that conscience speaking to me, or is it my ego? One clear indication that an action or omission of ours failed the test of conscience occurs when we feel remorse afterward. But we distinguish between guilt and remorse. Guilt comes from going against some learned behavioral norm and is a paralyzing, destructive emotion directed against myself. Guilt is about me, about ego. Remorse comes from our innate sense of right and wrong, from our conscience-based perception of how we acted wrongly or failed to act rightly. Remorse, though painful, is not paralyzing. Rather it spurs us to improve, to not repeat the same mistake, and, if possible, to repair or make amends for our wrong acts. Remorse teaches us how to discriminate between the voice of ego and the voice of conscience.

But recognizing the true impulse of conscience turns out to be the easier part. The more difficult is to accept and obey, to act in accord with what we know to be right. At times we are called to sacrifice our desire, to relinquish identifying with our desire in order to follow the way of conscience in what seems like an internal tug of war. But we need only let go of that rope to not be pulled by our conflicting desires and to accept the call of conscience.

For this week, notice the promptings of your conscience and notice occasions on which you inwardly rebel against it. Act in accord with your conscience nevertheless.

See also:

The Way of Conscience 1: Discerning

The Way of Conscience 3: Merging


     

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