As we enter the New Year, resolutions always seem to rise to the front and center of everybody’s thoughts. We make personal resolutions to lose weight, drink less, exercise more, spend more time with family and friends, eliminate all the clutter in our homes, etc. While we don’t always succeed at keeping our resolutions, it feels good to take stock of the things we feel might benefit us to change, and to make an honest effort to bring about those changes for our own good.
Why then, I’ve been wondering, doesn’t humanity as a whole make resolutions that would benefit our shared society? Wouldn’t it be helpful to us as a species if we could agree on certain behavioral shifts we think might improve the quality of life on Earth for all living beings? Worst case, making resolutions gets us thinking and talking about what we believe needs changing, which in turn elevates our awareness around what it is we might be doing better. And the thing is, the more people who consciously decide to pay attention to what it is we might do better, the higher the odds we’ll uplift our society.
One of the amazing things about human consciousness is that, inevitably, we each must pass through a four-step process that transports us from ignorance of to absolute mastery of anything it is we wish to achieve. For example, we can’t wake up one day and decide we want to be the world’s best novelist and then go out and achieve it tomorrow; it takes work. Hard work. It also takes commitment, struggle, effort and conscious focus, along with a willingness to look foolish when we inevitably stumble. The reward for undergoing this struggle is that, eventually, we feel joy when we perform the task because we do it so well and so effortlessly it becomes a pleasure for us instead of a chore.
It seems then, there’s a mechanism hard-wired into our consciousness that enables us to shift a task out of our bandwidth of conscious effort and into our unconscious bandwidth, but it requires time and effort for that to occur. Imagine, for example, what life would be like if you had to concentrate constantly on remembering to breathe to ensure your survival. How much ‘space’ do you think would remain in your conscious awareness for you to wonder about other things, or to tackle other, more complex thought processes? That we are able to master things like breathing through evolutionary design then and shift them to our autonomic nervous system is a tribute to the brilliance of consciousness itself. Whenever we master a skill and it becomes an unconscious process for us, consciousness rewards us with the freedom to tackle something new, something fresh, something even more complex and perhaps more beneficial to us than the task we’ve finally mastered. Consciousness, it appears, possesses an eternal ability to collapse in on itself, thereby creating infinite volumes of space within its own awareness for higher learning to emerge as life evolves.
The four-steps we each must pass through as we move from ignorance to mastery of any given skill or ability are these:
1) Unconscious incompetence – this stage is represented by the Fool’s Journey in Tarot, and can best be described as the blissful ignorance of early childhood. Our journey begins the instant we decide we want to learn a new skill or ability, although we possess virtually no understanding of the effort it might require to master that skill. The Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden describes life just prior to the fool’s journey, when it speaks glowingly of the time before humanity undertook the Herculean task of mastering an understanding of the difference between good and evil. Had we known before we undertook that task how much evil we’d have to experience in order to learn the difference between the two, we might have been so daunted by the challenge that we’d never have found the courage to begin. Thankfully, ignorance truly is bliss when it comes to undertaking any fool’s journey! Being blissfully unaware of how much we don’t know, we cheerfully set out to fulfill our mission, confident (in our ignorance) of our innate capacity to achieve our objective.
2) Conscious Incompetence – Once her journey has begun, it doesn’t take the fool long to encounter unforeseen challenges. Quickly she realizes she isn’t yet all she’d imagined herself to be, and how much she needs to learn if she’s to succeed in her objective. The fool looks around and suddenly notices all the others who appear far more capable of performing the task she’s undertaken for herself. Conscious at last of her own ignorance, she feels humbled. She now understands the effort that will be required if she’s to succeed. She needs to become a sponge, actively seeking information and learning as much as she can – trying (and often failing) repeatedly – as practice, study and hard work supplant the bliss of her former ignorance. It’s here we so often give up in disgust, deciding we didn’t want to achieve our objective nearly as much as we’d once thought, because it’s harder than we ever imagined it’d be. This stage is represented by the student, the young acolyte coiled expectantly at the feet of an aging guru, eagerly awaiting the wisdom the master delivers.
3) Conscious Competence – In this stage of the learning process, our former student has pushed through the many frustrating struggles of learning, practicing, failing and learning anew and has finally hit upon a personal formula that enables her to achieve success in her chosen field. At times she even experiences flashes of brilliance, but it’s not yet consistent enough to depend upon. Here is where discernment at last arises, enabling her to weed through a massive influx of unhelpful or distracting information, so she can focus instead on the wisdom that moves her forward. She knows exactly what she needs to do to master her chosen skill; however, she needs to remain focused and maintain a conscious commitment if she’s to succeed. This is the stage of the scholar, the one who studiously dedicates herself to her work, and does it quite well when she puts her heart and mind to it.
4) Unconscious Competence – When we enter this phase, something amazing – miraculous really – transpires. Our former scholar no longer needs to read as many books or concentrate on her notes when speaking to others. The hard-won wisdom she's accumulated has become second nature to her. Others may ask her difficult or perplexing questions, challenge her or seek her out for advice. Whatever the situation, this master knows which answers to offer without having to refer back to her writings or read more books on the subject. She feels confident she can perform well at any moment without having to concentrate on performing her skill. This stage represents the musician who can play beautifully with total strangers, the poet who can offer a rhyme on the spur of the moment, the chef who can enter a strange kitchen and prepare a fabulous meal with whatever ingredients he finds. It is at this stage we take our well-deserved rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor …before our now-empty consciousness grows restless and sets out on the next fool’s journey it’s chosen for our evolution!
When we understand how our personal consciousness works, we can feel confident it works the same for the collective, because human society is but a fractal mirror of the many individuals it serves. That being the case, I have come to believe that when humanity first climbed down from the trees and began our long, slow march toward civilization, we were collectively undertaking a fool’s journey of breathtakingly epic proportions. For eons now we’ve been struggling to figure out how to build a civil society. We’ve taught ourselves how to feed, clothe, house and educate ourselves in ways that advance the human condition, and that improve the quality of life for all concerned. We’ve run countless social experiments over the ages, most of which have failed, but all of which have taught us valuable lessons. We’ve played with power/dominator social structures and have seen the great evil that arises when power becomes overly concentrated in the hands of just a few. We’ve exploited the resources of our home planet and have learned there’s a price to pay when we don’t respect her longstanding replenishment cycles. We’ve domesticated animals and plants for our advantage, and are coming to understand that risks accompany the benefits of tampering with natural evolution. We’ve improved our technology, expanded our creative capacities and put together a compendium of human wisdom that is breathtaking in scope and volume. Even so, we continue to struggle as a species for the simple things in life, which informs us we’ve not yet mastered the art of building a sustainable civilization.
In that spirit - and given that the arc of human evolution is far broader and longer than the arc of personal human development - I would like to propose a New Century Resolution for all of humanity, and I invite you to hold this intention along with me. It is my fervent hope that we agree to decide that the 21st Century will at last be the one in which we come together as a species and focus our collective attention on ensuring that all people worldwide receive adequate food, shelter, clean water, clothing, medical care and a proper education without having to struggle so hard to acquire those things. I would like to see us develop a planetary infrastructure worthy of fulfilling this mission, so we can free up the hearts, minds and bodies of the seven billion remarkable others with whom we’re sharing this space. If we do that, we could then apply ourselves to tackling the enormous challenges we’re facing as a species. We already have enough productive capacity and technology to achieve this goal; we simply haven’t yet developed the willpower – inspired by a powerful supporting motivation – to attempt it. It’s therefore time, I believe, for us set out on this new fool’s journey as a species and commit ourselves to the mastery of this task, though as yet we have no understanding of the challenges we might face as we proceed.
Imagine what we could accomplish if most people didn’t have to work all day just to meet their basic needs! We could dedicate ourselves to replenishing the resources we’ve depleted through our ignorance of the natural living system in which we’re embedded. We could clean up the pollution we’ve created and better steward the delicate ecosystems we’ve carelessly damaged. We could focus on building sustainable housing for all, using renewable resources and with zero carbon footprints. We could invite more of our artists, philosophers and research scientists to beautify society and expand our understanding of the cosmos. We could even explore the farthest reaches of space, not out of desperation or necessity, but driven by awe and a profound curiosity about the larger realm that contains our tiny, fragile world, and that has given birth to the wonder that is us.
That dream explains why, these days, whenever someone laughs or calls me a fool for my ideas, I thank them with love. I can’t imagine a better fool’s journey for us all to undertake.