Awake and Aware

“The mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-à-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.” – Oscar Wilde

“There seems to be a renewed interest these days in themes around the idea of expanding consciousness. You’ve included in this blog links to some of the modern writers and artists spearheading such inquiry, such as Oliver Sacks, Kendrick Lamar, Nick Cave, Maria Popova, and Jonathan Haidt.

Question: How do you see information related to this process; in other words, is it important to be ‘up to date’ on what’s happening internationally in our pursuit of expanding our own consciousness? Or is that collection of information just another indulgence in, as you say, ‘unhappy, paralyzing voyeurism’? And related to this, what do you think about public speakers/philosophers such as Jordan Peterson, Daniel Schmachtenberger, and Ken Wilber?”

I think we each need to find an appropriate balance with how much information we take in about the external world beyond our personal influence. I have friends who seem to thrive on a wide spectrum of international politics, social issues, and events, and others who become depleted and distracted if they spend too much time trying to keep up with it all. For decades now, I keep recalling a quote from Sherlock Holmes: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out… Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.”

As suggested in my last post on Sphere of Influence – from my perspective as an educator of human potential and personal development – one could look at the issues we each face personally in our daily lives as being fully representative of the larger issues in our communities and in the world at large. We all have our own versions of the war in Ukraine, derisive arguments, and closed-minded hubris that waste precious resources and cause suffering, and there are superior ways to engage those. Which, in turn, not only improves the quality of our lives and those near us but also reveals pathways to solutions for larger issues beyond our control. We’re also surrounded by, and even made of, extraordinarily intricate beauty, with life-altering opportunities often (some would argue always) within range of wherever we are at any given moment, much of which goes entirely unnoticed. Even by very intelligent, highly educated, in-the-know people. So, I don’t see being well-informed in itself as an indicator of a more fully conscious and capable individual (and wielded by an unawake, unaware person can in fact be dreadful).

“Expanding consciousness” is a fairly modern term that has become popular in cognitive science, depth psychology, and secular spirituality circles. The American Psychology Association defines expanding consciousness as “A sense that one’s mind has been opened to a new or larger kind of awareness, associated particularly with mystical experiences, meditation, or hallucinogenic drug use.” Cognitive science research, in particular, has taken big strides in trying to identify and organize techniques that lead to the kinds of mind-expanding experiences that redefine our sense of reality and our place within it.

The speakers/philosophers you mention are each very smart, articulate, and provocative, and seem fully invested in their work. Daniel Schmachtenberger and Ken Wilber are certainly among those at the forefront of the more science-based explorations into expanding consciousness. Personally, I’m sometimes left a little frustrated by their drive to spend so many words on ideas that a good poet could condense into a well-crafted couplet or an artist convey with a few enlightened strokes of her brush.

A good friend and I were having a conversation recently in which we agreed that the best overview of expanding consciousness can be found for free in a 50-lecture series by John Vervaeke, entitled Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. I find his honest, sincere, extremely well-researched, non-political, and unprejudiced presentation to be the most illuminating and all-inclusive from what I’ve come across. These lectures are challenging and may sometimes be too academic for some, but they provide an excellent history of consciousness evolution (including philosophy, comparative religion, psychology, and mind-expanding practices from diverse cultures), with scores of additional books and pathways to explore. If you only make it through a few of these lectures, it’s well worth the time and the space in your attic. The introduction is easy to follow, and absorbing:

Having said that, I would like to add that consciousness means “the state of being awake and aware,” which goes well beyond collecting information and intellectual understanding. Wakefulness and awareness involve all of our senses and each of our “bodies” of perception and interaction (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual). Finding some kind of expansion of consciousness – a significant breakthrough in our experience as well as our understanding of life and living – comes through events that cause us to transcend pre-existing, limiting prejudices, habits, and definitions we use to organize and engage ourselves and the world around us. No small trick, that.

Such events may be accessed through rigorous intellectual pursuits, but in my experience and that of many of my colleagues, they are more likely to occur when we’re viscerally engaged in some activity that causes us to literally forget about those pre-existing, limiting prejudices, habits, and definitions. Usually, that happens when the event itself is more immediately compelling, meaningful, and far-reaching. And we find that we’ve entered into a more mysteriously expansive and fulfilling connection to reality. That’s not only “A sense that one’s mind has been opened to a new or larger kind of awareness;” it’s also awakening to a more vital, heart-and-soul-driven, virtuosity-demanding participation. (Even if you’re just sitting on a cushion or taking a full breath to begin your workout.)

About the people you’ve listed as spearheading inquiry into expanding consciousness, that’s an impressive group of sharp and creative contemporary thinkers. Maria Popova especially is on a roll these days, and she offers an ongoing collection of alluring essays – and a pleasing feminine sensibility to counterbalance all the masculine intellectuality – that has been described as “mind-broadening and heart-lifting reflections spanning art, science, poetry, philosophy, and other tendrils of our search for truth, beauty, meaning, and creative vitality.” (Scroll down to the bottom of the page for access to dozens of articles.):

As an enlivening coda, here’s a fun performance about this very subject of searching for expanding consciousness by one of the masters of wakefulness and awareness of the last century:

“I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision…”

Image: Photo of Acilius diving beetle front tarsus by Igor Siwanowicz

(Thank you, Shahar)


  1. Herzl says:

    Excellent elaboration on the subject. Thank you.

  2. SmokyRose says:

    Thank you for such a thorough response to my queries, with all these additional resources to explore (and that great quote from Sherlock Holmes).
    That image you have up there for this post is both mind-blowing and hilarious – that creature definitely looks awake and aware.
    Much appreciation.

  3. Mihai says:

    Thank you Smokyrose for asking this question. I’ve watched videos of some of the people you mention with a similar uncertainty about the actual benefit of and reason for it.

    John Vervaeke’s series of videos, choice of topic and humbleness is a fantastic find. There is something quite likeable in his
    “I can’t be unbiased. That’s not a thing.”
    “I am aware that I am not, and nobody should be, claiming to offer you the absolute, uncontested truth. I am going to offer you good arguments, good evidence.”

    A couple of his statements, from the video, that I found related to the subject:
    “[the meaning crisis] is not a problem for which there are simplistic answers. If anybody offers you an answer to this crisis in an hour, I would wager that they are deceiving you, manipulating or that they are themselves significantly self-deceived. There is a reason why we’re stuck, there is a reason why this is hard. This is a complex and difficult thing we’re undertaking.”
    “Increasing sense of more and more bullshit pervading.”

    The latter I would interpret as relating to the growing amount of thoughts and accompanying attachment to drama, perceived in my experience, particularly in the last few years, in contrast to an empty brain attic and to being “viscerally engaged in some activity that causes us to literally forget”.

    PS links to mp3 versions of the 50 talks on “Awakening from the meaning crisis” are here:

  4. shahar says:

    Indeed a great, wonderful and awe inspiring conversation/s…

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