The Politics of Consciousness
What is it that makes the intractable problems in society intractable?
Why is it that year after year, decade after decade, and century after century we are unable to solve problems like hunger and poverty? It’s not because there is not enough food. We routinely throw away leftovers. It’s not because there’s not enough money. Many people have more money than they could ever spend. What makes intractable problems intractable is a lack of attention.
The greatest attention deficit disorder is not individual, but societal. And we share the burden collectively.
I notice that the books we read to my son and the stories we share with him deal with love, kindness, sharing, finding common ground, respect, joy, potential, exploration. It seems strange that these are the ideals we share with our children, yet don’t often share with each other as adults. At some point, love, common ground, and exploration turn into getting a steady job, paying the bills, one-upping each other, and finding a way to make retirement feasible. We go from thriving, learning, and growing to surviving, competing, and scrapping.
Somewhere along the growth curve from baby to child to youth, we begin to think that all those stories were just fairy tales. They’re not real. They don’t actually apply in my life. After all, look at what’s on TV. Look who wins in the news. That’s the way it really works. The old fairy tales are replaced with a new fairy tale.
But we are forgetting something. We are forgetting something so simple, so fundamental, that it’s all too easy to miss amidst all the distractions.
We are conscious beings in a conscious world. In the absence of this consciousness, nothing is known — no plant, no animal, no human, no thing, no idea, no feeling. Consciousness is the ground state that is common to all of us, individually and collectively.
This fundamental consciousness is what we’re reminding our kids of when we speak of love and sharing. We’re teaching them to not forget that place in them that is common to everyone, from which love and sharing naturally spring forth. We teach them as we teach ourselves, because deep down there is a recognition that perhaps we have forgotten something important. Consciousness is the ground that even sworn enemies share. And we have forgotten about it.
The price is steep.
The moment we forget our common ground, we embrace mental models of the world that lock us into a tailspin. We lose the ability to share meaning. We embrace scarcity as reality, instead of embracing innovation and daring to engage it as an antidote. We embrace competition as a way of life, instead of finding a way to meet each others needs. It is such models that keep our intractable problems intractable on a personal, organizational, sectoral, societal, and international level.
It would be easy to say that “they” are the problem, whoever they are. But consciousness is collective. We are all the solution, and so we all have a hand in the problem. Consciousness excludes nobody. Your conscious experience shifts mine and my conscious experience shifts yours. We all have a role to play.
This is not a new idea — simply because consciousness is not new. It has always been. Similar sentiments have been echoed throughout history. But we are now in a historical period because science, one the greatest influences on our worldview, is beginning to approach the topic of consciousness. You can see it in the philosophy of panpsychism and idealism. You can feel it in the words of Max Planck, founder of quantum theory, who said
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” -Max Planck
Because consciousness is so fundamental, it is also political. It is about who we are and where we want to go — the essence of true politics. It is not politics as we know it — gridlocked, distant, waves of hope and disillusionment dissipating into seeming irrelevance. It is politics as it truly is — the politics of sharing meaning, daring to heal, daring to embrace people and ways of thinking that seem so different.
Do we want a healthy and sustainable society for each and every one of us — the world over — for the first time in… forever? If so, the price of inattention to our collective consciousness is too steep to pay.
Together, we are.
Anoop Kumar, MD