The Art of Living Consciously: The Power of Awareness to Transform Everyday Life

The Art of Living Consciously: The Power of Awareness to Transform Everyday Life

by Nathaniel Branden Ph.D.


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The Art of Living Consciously Is an Operating Manual for Our Basic Tool of Survival
In The Art of Living Consciously, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, our foremost authority on self-esteem, takes us into new territory, exploring the actions of our minds when they are operating as our life and well-being require — and also when they are not. No other book illuminates so clearly what true mindfulness means:
* In the workplace
* In the arena of romantic love
* In child-rearing
* In the pursuit of personal development

Today we are exposed to an unprecedented amount of information and an unprecedented number of opinions about every conceivable aspect of life. We are thrown on our own resources as never before — and we have nothing to protect us but the clarity of our thinking. In The Art of Living Consciously, Branden gives us the tools with which to draw out the best within us.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684838496
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 06/16/1999
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 728,869
Product dimensions: 8.28(w) x 5.48(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

With a PhD in psychology, and a background in philosophy, Nathaniel Branden is a practicing psychotherapist and a corporate consultant, and is widely recognized as the world authority on self-esteem, a field he pioneered more than three decades ago. His many books include The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Taking Responsibility, Self-Esteem at Work, and A Woman's Self-Esteem. His newest book is My Years with Ayn Rand. He lives and works in Beverly Hills, California.

Read an Excerpt


A few months after completing my previous book, Taking Responsibility, I was at a dinner party, and someone asked me what I was writing next. I answered that I was about to embark on a book that would examine what it means to live consciously.

An older woman, her face lined with bitterness, frowned and shook her head disapprovingly. "Live consciously?" she said. "Not a good idea. Who would want to live consciously? Life would be too painful."

I asked, "Is it less painful if we live unconsciously and mechanically, without knowing what we are doing, and blind to opportunities to make things better?" But she did not answer.

Someone else at the table remarked, "Well, even if living consciously does have advantages — isn't it still a lot of work?"

Like a light that can be turned brighter or dimmer, consciousness exists on a continuum.

It is true that living consciously obliges us at times to confront painful realities. It is also true that it demands an effort. As a way Of operating in the world, living consciously has its costs, and we will examine them. A central theme of this book, however, is that the rewards are overwhelmingly greater than any apparent drawback. Living consciously is a source of power and liberation. It does not weigh us down — it lifts us up.

Like a light that can be turned brighter or dimmer, consciousness exists on a continuum. We can be more conscious or less conscious, more aware or less aware. So the choice is not between absolute optimal consciousness and literal unconsciousness (as in a coma). The choice is between living more consciously and less consciously. Or we might say: between living consciously and living mechanically. And it is always a matter of degree.

The tragedy of so many people is precisely that, to a great extent, they live mechanically: their thinking is stale, . they don't examine their motives, and they respond to events automatically. They rarely take a fresh look at anything and rarely have a new thought. They exist at a low or shallow level of awareness. One of the consequences is that they live lives drained of color, excitement, or passion. It is not difficult to see that consciousness energizes, while its absence produces boredom and enervation.

To live consciously is to be committed to awareness as a way of being in the world and to bring to each activity a level of awareness appropriate to it. But what this means is not obvious. "Living consciously" is an enormous abstraction. We will examine its meaning in the chapters that follow.

I use consciousness here in its primary meaning: the state of being conscious or aware of some aspect of reality. Why is consciousness important? The short answer is that for all species that possess it, consciousness is the basic tool of survival and of adaptation to reality — the ability to be aware of the environment in some way, at some level, and to guide action accordingly. One might as well ask: Why is sight important?

Living consciously is a state of being mentally active rather than passive. It is the ability to look at the worm through fresh eyes. It is intelligence taking joy in its own function. Living consciously is seeking to be aware of everything that bears on our interests, actions, values, purposes, and goals. It is the willingness to confront facts, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the desire to discover our mistakes and correct them. Within the range of our interests and concerns, it is the quest to keep expanding our awareness and understanding, both of the world external to self and of the worm within. It is respect for reality and respect for the distinction between the real and the unreal. It is the commitment to see what we see and know what we know. It is recognition that the act of dismissing reality is the root of all evil.

The issue of living consciously versus unconsciously takes many forms. Here are two examples taken from my practice of psychotherapy, in which we can see what living unconsciously may look like. Note that these examples merely illustrate the problem; they do not yet suggest the path to a solution.

Arnold K. was a forty-seven-year-old professor of history who imagined he was deeply in love with his wife and was unkind to her in a hundred ways he did not notice. When she needed to talk to him about something of importance to her, he typically was preoccupied, only half listened, and rarely responded in any meaningful way. When she expressed a desire, he smiled and said nothing and soon drifted off to another subject. When she disagreed with him, he swung off into another monologue without dealing with what she had said. When she tried to tell him of ways he hurt her, he did not hear, or apologized instantly and forgot her words within an hour. He knew how devoted he felt, so he believed he was a loving husband. And when the mood struck, he could be truly generous, considerate, and caring. Essentially, however, he lived in a private cocoon that contained himself and his love for her and his image of her but not the actual woman: she was exiled to that foreign realm, reality. So that in real-world terms, she was not part of his marriage. His wife was not the woman he lived with; he lived with a fantasy existing only inside his head. In some subjective sense of his own he may have loved her, but he did not love her consciously, did not day by day give the relationship the awareness it needed and deserved. Eventually she became ill and abruptly was gone from his life. Standing at her graveside in agony, he saw that during the twelve years of their marriage he had not been there — he had been lost inside his own mind. He saw that he had abandoned his wife long before she had "abandoned" him (by dying). What love had not accomplished, death had accomplished: jolted him into waking up, at least for a time.

For many of us, suffering is the only teacher to whom we listen. In Arnold's case, as with the case below, suffering precipitated the decision to seek psychotherapy.

Rebecca L. was a thirty-nine-year-old leader of personal growth workshops. She saw herself as a person who was on a spiritual path and who had attained a high level of consciousness, yet she was oblivious to the wreckage she had created in her family life. Her lofty view of herself was based on the fact that she was a student of the I Ching, took classes in Tantric Yoga, immersed herself in the literature of the contemplative traditions, and had had thirteen years of Jungian analysis. She subjected her two teenage daughters to endless hours of psychological interpretation of their behavior. At dinner she would invite her husband to tell his dreams, which she would then proceed to analyze. If any of her interpretations were challenged, she would respond with gentle compassion; if the challenge persisted, she became first irritated and then increasingly angry — until everyone retreated into sullen exhaustion. She could quote interminably from many spiritual masters and had no idea that in the privacy of their bedroom her daughters would sometimes talk about how pleasant life could be if only mother would die. Her husband did not appear to indulge in daydreams; he merely barricaded himself behind his work and spent as little time alone with her as possible. She moved through her life in a kind of trance while priding herself on being more "awake," more "conscious," than those around her. She could not understand why she so often felt a vague, generalized anxiety.

Neither of these people was asleep in the literal sense, and neither was awake in the sense required for a successful life. Their stories give us a preliminary sense of the territory we need to explore — or, more precisely, certain aspects of it; we will see that there fire many others.

Sometimes, when we reflect on our life and on the mistakes we have made and regretted, it seems to us we were sleeping when we imagined we were awake. We wonder how we could have failed to see that which now stands out in such bold relief. Of course, this may be self-deceiving, in that hindsight always sees more clearly. At that earlier time, we may have been as conscious as we knew how to be.

However, sometimes our sense of having been sleepwalking through our existence reflects an accurate assessment. We know we were not mindful when we needed to be. Our awareness was diffuse or distracted rather than focused and disciplined. No doubt there were reasons, but reasons do not alter facts. In retrospect, we wish we had been more conscious.

We think, for example of all the danger signals we had ignored at the start of what turned out to be a disastrous love affair — for example, our lover's incongruous behavior, conflicting statements, mysterious nonexplanations, sudden and inexplicable emotional outbursts. We ask ourselves, Where was my mind at the time? Or we remember all the warnings our supervisor gave us long before we were discharged, and we wonder why the words did not penetrate. Or we reflect on the opportunities we let slip by because in our trancelike state we did not appreciate them for what they were, and we ask ourselves how that was possible. Where was I, we wonder, when my life was happening?

When I discussed the practice of living consciously in previous books, it was exclusively from the perspective of its importance to self-esteem. Here, the focus is wider. What does it mean to act consciously? To love consciously? To parent consciously? To feel consciously? To Work consciously? To struggle consciously? To vote consciously? To legislate consciously? To address the great issues of life consciously?

To offer an example from the political realm: When legislators pass laws on the expediency of the moment, such as price and wage controls, without thinking through the long-term, foreseeable consequences of their programs, which unfortunately is the pattern of most legislation — and the results are worse than the problem the legislation promised to correct, which is so often the case — an entire nation pays the price for that lack of appropriate consciousness (and conscientiousness).

Almost all of us tend to operate more consciously in some areas than in others. We may bring great consciousness to our work and very little to our personal relationships — or vice versa. We may think far more clearly about our careers than about our political beliefs — or vice versa. We may maintain a high level of mental focus in matters pertaining to our health and a low level in matters pertaining to ethics or religion — or vice versa.

In this book, I examine what operating consciously means across the broad spectrum of human concerns — from dealing with our most intimate emotions, to pursuing a career, to falling in love, to sustaining a marriage, to rearing children, to meeting the challenges of the workplace, to choosing the values that guide our actions, to understanding what self-esteem depends on, to weighing the claims offered by religion and mysticism.

With regard to this last, for many years my readers have been asking me how my concept of living consciously relates to issues of spirituality, religion, mysticism, and the ethical teachings associated with mysticism, and I am happy to have an opportunity to answer them in print. For those with this particular interest, chapters 1 and 7 may be read as a self-contained unit.

Our need to live consciously, with the meaning I develop in this book, is intrinsic to the human condition. But it has acquired a new urgency in the modern age. The more rapid the rate of change, the more dangerous it is to live mechanically, relying on routines of belief and behavior that may be irrelevant or obsolete.

Further, old structures and old traditions are falling away. The voices of official authority grow ever fainter and command less and less respect. Our culture seems to have dissolved or exploded into ten thousand mutually adversarial subcultures. Even committed conformists are finding it increasingly difficult to know what to conform to, so splintered and fragmented has our world become. We are obliged to choose the values by which we live. We are obliged to choose more and more aspects of our existence — from where we reside to what career we pursue to what lifestyle we select to what religion or philosophy we embrace. In earlier periods of our history, we were born into societies where all these choices were, figuratively, made for us by custom and tradition — that is, by people who lived before us. But that time is gone and will not come again. Today we are exposed to an unprecedented amount of information and an unprecedented number of options. We are thrown on our own resources as never before. And we have nothing to protect us but the clarity of our thinking.

The fact that we have evolved from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy to an information economy has its own powerful implications for the value of living consciously. The age of the muscle-worker is past; this is the age of the mind-worker. That our mind is our basic tool of survival is not new; what is new is that this fact has become inescapably clear. The market is rapidly diminishing for people who have nothing to contribute but physical labor. In an economy in which knowledge, information, creativity — and their translation into innovation — are the prime source of wealth, what is needed above all is minds. What is needed are people who are willing and able to think.

If we wish to remain adaptive, we must be committed to continuous learning as a way of life.

And since knowledge is growing at a rate unprecedented in human history, and the training we received yesterday is inadequate to the requirements of tomorrow, if We wish to remain adaptive, we must be committed to continuous learning as a way of life. Today, this is one of the meanings of living consciously.

Whether our focus is on preserving and strengthening family ties in a world of increasingly unstable human relationships, or on gaining access to a decent job, or on growing and evolving as a person, or on guiding a company through the stormy seas of a fiercely competitive global marketplace — whether our goals are material, emotional, or spiritual — the price of success is the same: consciousness; thinking; learning. To be asleep at the wheel — to rely only on the known, familiar, and automatized — is to invite disaster.

We have entered the mind millennium. This book is a wake-up call.

Copyright © 1997 by Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D.

Table of Contents



1. Living Consciously: First Principles

Acquiring a sense of reality

Awareness: Outer and inner

Reason: The noncontradictory integration of experience

Reason and emotion: Challenging the necessity for conflict

2. Choice and Responsibility

Free will: The choice to turn consciousness brighter or dimmer

Context determines what state of consciousness is appropriate

Strategies of avoidance

Against consciousness: Motives for flight from awareness

To be in love with life on earth

3. A Conscious Life — 1: Knowing What We Are Doing While We Are Doing It

What mindfulness entails as a way of life: Areas to be considered

The joy of awareness

Choices and actions

Seeking knowledge

Managing avoidance impulses


4. A Conscious Life — 2: Bringing To Our Pursuits the Awareness They Require

Conscious relationships

Conscious parenting

Consciousness in the workplace

Consciousness of context

Consciousness of our ideas and their roots

5. Self-Awareness: Examining Our Inner World

Consciousness of the body

Consciousness of our needs and wants

Consciousness of our feelings and emotions

Consciousness of our actions and reactions

Concluding observations

6. Consciousness and Self-Esteem

Misconceptions about self-esteem

Awareness of what affects our self-esteem

7. Consciousness and Spirituality

Definitions: The importance of being clear about meanings

Spirituality: A this-worldly interpretation

God: An all-purpose word referring to —?

Self-transcendence: But who is doing the transcending?

Mysticism: What are its claims to legitimacy?

Selflessness: Rethinking our basic assumptions and discovering enlightened selfishness


Appendix: A Sentence-Completion

Program to Facilitate Living Consciously


Selected Bibliography



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