We are sure that we have a good consciousness, desiring to act honorably in all things.
Mindfulness has become increasingly commonplace in our modern world. The fruits of sustained attention to our experience has been discovered to be a treatment for ailment of variety of mental conditions that many of us struggle with. I myself, for instance, have taken to employing the Wheel of Awareness practice as developed by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel that promotes sustained attention to the traditional five senses, to somatosensation, to awareness of the contents of thinking, and our interconnections with other people and the world around us. In seeking for God’s Spirit to be at work in me through this process and praying to God for well-being for myself and others at the end of the practice, I have been able to integrate it into my life that has cultivated marked benefits for me in a relatively quick manner.
Having struggled with PTSD that was thrown on top of a mild ADHD, I was often easily distracted from things I was seeking to focus on, where the pains of the past and the loneliness of the present wet intrude into my attention. Furthermore, having dealt with the PTSD symptom of a foreshortened future that comes with PTSD often made me feel like any real future career and marriage was not a realistic possibility, I was often mired in feelings of the hopelessness of life when I had a down mood, especially when I woke up in the morning. I prayed to God and sought after Him, with much benefits to my life as I freshly rediscovered God’s faithfulness. The occurrence of these symptoms did reduce as I grew in faith, but my faith did not directly empower me to overcome many of these basic, physiological and cognitive symptoms of PTSD when they occurred. On top of that, because of the many struggles that come with loneliness, I often felt many temptations in my heart to address this loneliness that I never gave into, but because I was often in such a negative mood, I would consider myself to be a terrible person for having even thought certain things or said something that could be distally associated with those thoughts as if those thoughts were who I essentially was. Such thinking would often make me feel unworthy of love.
Yet, as I have implemented the Wheel of Awareness practice, I have discovered my attention has become markedly improved in a short time. Additionally, I am more able to create a separation between my feelings about myself and the future and the current ‘mood’ I am in: to be in a ‘bad’ mood is simply to not be joyful, but it doesn’t mean I am steeped in gloominess. Discovering God’s faithfulness lead to an improvement in my life so that PTSD symptoms were reduced, but managing the experiences of those symptoms in the moment became improved with the Wheel of Awareness practice. Additionally, I felt a greater distance from my overactive conscience, recognizing that a thought does not define me, enabling me to feel free to live life as a good, well-intended person.
The point of this post, however, is not to proselytize about the Wheel of Awareness. By itself, it is a useful tool, but it is exactly that: a tool. Not everyone would receive the same benefits from it, and the benefits will be determined by how you use this tool. Nor is there any deep meaning by the practice itself though some might attribute to mindfulness other than it helps facilitate the linking of various parts of experiences together in life. The point, instead, is to put forward something else: what if the early Christian faith was much more concerned about the contents of conscious awareness than we might have been lead to believe? What if my experience with the Wheel of Awareness combined with my faith was actually a closer return to the nature of Christian faith and life as exemplified in the New Testament?
There is a Greek word that is synonymous with our modern idea of awareness and consciousness: συνείδησις. Yet, our translations have often rendered this term with a subtly different sense: conscience. Both consciousness and the conscience as we understand them are related to awareness, but there are notable distinctions between the two. Consciousness relates to the experience of attention itself whereas conscience relates to how we judge our own self-experience. When we talk about the conscience, we think of that voice inside our head that tells us if what we are doing is good or bad. Later represented in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory as the superego, the conscience is a judgmental faculty of the brain that marks. Consciousness refers the experience of awareness whereas the conscience is a particular form of moral judgment.
This distinction might seem subtle, but if you know anything about mindfulness, you know there is a world of difference between mindfulness and judgment. To be mindful entails that we don’t judge our experiences, but that we pay attention to them without a judgmental frame of reference. Judgment alters experience and consciousness. So, how we translate συνείδησις may have potential ramifications for whether we are open to the practice of mindfulness of not.
If we take the term to refer to the moral judgments of the conscience, then it isn’t the same as the practice of mindfulness. There are some good reason for this as we often see συνείδησις linked with a sense of goodness and badness. However, συνείδησις may not be used to refer to the self-judgment of the personal conscience, but rather something that is closer to the consciousness of our intentionality. In other words, a good συνείδησις may be taken to be a type of awareness where one attentively seeks good, kind, life-giving intentions on behalf of others. If that is a more fitting definition, then συνείδησις may be understood as a moral awareness that is a specific type of mindfulness, where the focus on a marked awareness for one’s intentions in relating to others.
The phrase καλὴν συνείδησιν (“good consciousness” or “clear conscience”) in Hebrews 13.18 provides a good case example to consider the two different possibilities. Often translated as clear conscience, this translation runs into a particular problem. If the preacher is referring to how he judges his own actions and intentions, then he switches away from the language of self-judgment to the language of intentionality (θέλοντες). While a good intention can certainly be envisioned as a reasonable basis for having a clear conscience, the switch from self-judgment to intentionality creates a mild discursive discontinuity in the abrupt shift between the two concepts that is not explicitly encoded. Alternatively, if καλὴν συνείδησιν is a description of positive intentionality instead, then the clause that follows is addressing the same conceptual domain of intentionality while giving a more detailed expansion on the nature of this good intentionality to act in an honorable fashion.
συνείδησις as an awareness of one’s intention fits better with how the preacher uses it in Hebrews. Falling within the domain of intentionality, it makes sense of how the blood of Christ purifies the consciousness from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9.14). To “purify” the conscience would be to perhaps absolve ourselves from feeling guilty, either by making us feel forgiven or taking away the sin that would make us feel guilty. That seems to be mildly dissonant with what the preacher describes they are being cleansed of. However, to purify awareness would lead to an alteration of what one intended to do, seeing past actions as worthless (that is, dead) and instead looking to the goodness of God. The awareness and intentionality that impacts behavior, not personal judgment, seems more likely to be in view here.
We can think about the nature of this new conscious awareness and intentionality as follow. An awareness of a new reality emerges from the sacrifice of Christ, where people leave behind all the types of things they used to seek after and instead become much more aware of the goodness of God. When we begin to perceive the goodness and faithfulness of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ, our sense of what is good and loving and beautiful begins to be transformed, thereby changing the way we think about others, the world, and even ourselves and what we are intending to bring about by our actions. We don’t just simply change what we do, but the very way we think that forms what we do is changed because our sense of what is good, holy, and righteous have been dramatically altered.
While the awareness that turns to worship the preacher of Hebrews talks about may seem to be different from the mindful practices of today, I would suggest they aren’t as different as they might look on the surface. What if worship is itself to be an act of mindfulness, where we are mindful of the love, character, and faithfulness of God that then also permeates our mindful intentionality towards others? What if the true nature of Christian worship is to behold the amazing grace, mercy, and powerful love of God and to then seek to reflect that ourselves in our lives? Worship could then be understood as a particular type of mindful awareness for a particular type of moral consciousness.
However, the present nature of Christian worship seems to be particularly directed towards address the workings of the moral conscience, not consciousness. Looking to Jesus as the sacrificial expiation for our sins, we want to be reminded that God is near and close to us so that we can feel loved. Many of us feel disconnected and alienated from God, and perhaps with others, and worship is where we seek to remember how God has covered the divide that our sins have had on us. However, what if this is simply the power of an overactive, highly judgmental conscience that overestimates God’s judgment and minimizes God’s mercy and love? In this case, Christian worship becomes about coping with our feeling of spiritual and social disconnection.
But with Christian worship as a specific specifies of mindfulness, we change the script. Worship is not about addressing our guilt and feeling of disconnection, but instead a mindfully deepening of awareness of God’s love that then deepens the depth of our loving intentions for others. Instead of trying to address and manage our conscience, we are trying to transform our consciousness.
To be clear in all of this, though, I am not trying to malign the idea of a conscience. My hope and purpose is to see a deeper sense of righteousness and peace, not to diminish it. However, from my own experience, a hyper-active conscience, one that is judgmental of even the most remote of thoughts, can be a detriment to the fullness of life in Christ. To overemphasize our own capacity for moral judgment and to make sure we are don’t right can become a detriment over the long haul. We need a conscience that prevents us from doing great harm, but it isn’t our own inner voice that is going to propel us to super-righteous status. It is instead by beholding God’s grace, by deepening an awareness and appreciation for the depths of love that comes from the Son of God, by seeking the Spirit to guide and strengthen us for a deepened intentionality into our lives that we can plumb the depths of righteousness.
Perhaps there is a place for Christian mindfulness, particularly in the mindfulness of our thinking and relationships with others, not as a special practice for the spiritually super-committed, but that stands at the centered of our worship and life together. Something to ponder and to reflect on in the future.