Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of October 15, 2012

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Conscience

(Growing a Spiritual Life: Part 5)

We can hardly imagine a spiritual person not also being a person of conscience. The two go hand in hand. If being spiritual means, in part, being kind, devoted, peaceful and present then certainly to that list we would add the quality of doing the right thing, not doing the wrong thing, as revealed to us by our conscience. Yet the notion of conscience is very slippery and can easily be twisted to serve either our ego or some group ego we adopt. After all, what is right? Who defines that? If my conscience is personal to me, which it most certainly is, then am I not free to define right and wrong as I wish?

Not exactly. It is a matter of being honest, unblinkingly honest, with ourselves. Let us assume that there is a universal morality, an objective force of justice and compassion that transcends all religions. This is not something that could ever be written down, for it is the eye of truth and compassion that looks afresh at every situation. Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: though itís hard to define, ďI know it when I see it.Ē This is just how conscience works. We know right from wrong when we see it. We feel it, we intuit it directly in our heart and mind. Everyone one of us is endowed with this capacity.

So far so good, but the obvious problem is that we either do not listen for the promptings of conscience or we even actively squelch them, bury them. Further, if we do know what our conscience is telling us in a particular situation ó for itís always about the particulars ó we may and often do act otherwise, contrary to our own conscience. And what do we gain thereby but a temporary satisfaction of one of our desires? Then weíre faced with the same contrary choice to against ourselves, again and again and again, until the voice of our conscience grows so faint that we cease hearing it and it no longer bothers us.

This lack of adherence to conscience is the source of many of our personal and societal problems, on all scales. For example, we take what we can and go for even more, without considering whom we take from and whether our body or our planet can afford our excessive taking.

Yet freedom lies in just the opposite, in listening for and acting on the promptings of our conscience, in doing the right thing every time. Yes, craziness can sneak in through this door, so we notice what our conscience tells us and we test it by the light of day, by the sanity check, the legality check, the compassion check, and the moral norms of our society. If it passes these tests, then maybe itís the real thing. There can be no rule about this; itís a personal judgment and intuition of truth.

We can ask ourselves what is the right thing to do in this situation. But we need to be very, very careful about whether at some subtle level we are shaping or twisting the response to accord with some self-centered motivations. Is the response truly from our conscience, from our better angels, our higher nature? Or does it flow from a back-door egoistic impulse, disguised as purity itself? There is an art to this discrimination, an art we learn through practice. While the vigilance always remains necessary, the wisdom of conscience, if nurtured by respecting it, does grow in us.

Asking ourselves what is the right thing to do, or noticing what our heart tells us in a given situation, is a way of opening ourselves to the perception of that objective force of justice and compassion that is sacred. So conscience is our most intimate and direct channel to the Divine. In striving to become a person of conscience, we strive for that connection.

Obeying our conscience is often not so easy. Conscience tends to be inconvenient: derailing us or depriving us or imposing on us. This is why we call it inner work: it takes effort, determination, self-sincerity, and a readiness to let go of identifying with self-centered motivations. Yet following conscience gives us the great gift of inner peace. Knowing that we have done and will do the right thing, leaves our heart at peace and full of satisfaction

Conscience may seem to be something other than ourselves, especially when it sets up some inner struggle between two choices. Thereís me wanting to do option 1 and thereís my conscience wanting me to do option 2. Yet the true voice of conscience is our own voice, our own higher nature. We are our conscience. So it comes down to whom we choose to be: our true self or our desire or identification of the moment.

For this week, please be yourself: listen for and follow your conscience.


     

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