Did you ever hear of someone travelling to a distant land in search of a guru who would reveal the path to happiness, peace of mind, and a meaningful life? If you had the time and means, would you want to take such a trip? Suppose a spiritual master moved into your neighborhood and welcomed seekers into his home for audiences at no charge, would you want to attend? Guess what? A Great Guru not only lives in your community, but has chosen your home as their residence; in fact, this Great Teacher lives in you! The name of the teacher you search for is CONSCIENCE.
Our conscience is more than a Great Teacher; it is a Great Treasure. For if we choose to follow the gentle urgings of this Great Gift, we will know happiness, have peace of mind, and experience a life rich with meaning. On the other hand, should we choose to ignore the prodding of this Great Friend, our constant companions will be stress, regret, worry, fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, grief, and despair. Those who wander on the path of life without the guidance of their conscience are a pitiful sight, for as St. Anthony of Padua writes, “Blind are they who see not their own conscience; lame are they who wander from the right way.”
Consciousness is awareness of all things while conscience is specialized awareness; it is the awareness of morality or the difference between right and wrong, as well as the awareness of perfection. The soft whispering of our conscience directs us to avoid wrongdoing and to carry out acts of goodness. It also inspires excellence, for it is an urge to become more godlike. So, we have a natural inclination, when it is unimpeded, toward endless growth.
Our conscience is not the Voice of God, but the Gift of God. Why? Because God’s ‘Voice,’ or Truth, is eternal and changeless. Yet, our conscience changes throughout history. Here’s an example. In 1748, at the age of 16, George Washington wrote, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” Throughout his life he worked hard to follow the urgings of the Divine Spark flickering in his breast. Yet, when he started farming at age 22, he did so with the assistance of 36 slaves. Over the years, the number of slaves grew, until at his death in 1799, his estate had 316 slaves. So, you see, despite his wish to live a moral life, he suffered no pangs of conscience regarding slavery. But today we know better; we know slavery is grossly immoral.
Our sense of right and wrong is inculcated. It is taught to us by society, and it becomes part of our belief system. Although society shapes us, we also shape society. Some of the more enlightened among us question things. They rebel and reform society, so future generations are brought up with consciences more attuned to truth and justice. Conscience, then, is not the Voice of God but His Gift. It is a mechanism that evaluates the worthiness of our desires, urges, and actions. It is a moral compass that points to goodness and excellence, as it is understood at that time. It is dangerous to believe our conscience is the Voice of God, for when we do so, we may use an unenlightened or perverted conscience to justify slavery, genocide, war, and other atrocities.
Our conscience is a Great Gift because it leads us to the path of happiness and excellence. It is also called our Inner Voice, Higher Self, Inner Wisdom, Voice of Reason, True Self, Inner Light, or Divine Spark. However, because of the endless chatter in our minds, confusion often reigns. You see, we don’t hear one voice in our head, but two. The second voice also has many names. It is called our Ego, Lower Self, Inner Child, Inner Critic, Wounded Self, False Self, or Inner Demon(s).
The second voice, or False Self, is created by identifying with the false opinions that were foisted upon us during our childhood. Born innocent, trusting, and fearless, we may have been told by our caregivers that we were clumsy, stupid, and bad. Not knowing any better, we accepted these opinions as our own, which became part of us, and for many, they continue to be the source of pain and unhappiness. To return to the path of happiness, we need to re-establish communication with our True Self or Conscience. But its voice is often drowned out by the clamor belched out by our False or Negative Self. Here are some steps you can take to enter into dialogue with your conscience and benefit by its advice.
1. Learn to distinguish between the two voices. Your False Self tries to gain advantages over others and control them. Its motivation to act is based on fear, suspicion, revenge, anger, and hostility. It believes that the world does not provide enough to go around and you have to take your share before someone else beats you to it. It lives in a world of distrust, worry, and anxiety. It is negative in outlook. On the other hand, the promptings of your conscience are based on trust, compassion, unconditional acceptance, understanding, and kindness. It seeks harmonious relationships in which both sides win. In a word, one voice makes you better, the other bitter. One is about what you want and can take from life and the other is about how you can contribute to it. One is about living with a grateful heart, no matter how dire the circumstances; the other is about living with a greedy heart, no matter how large your bank account.
2. Learn to hear your conscience. To bypass the chatter of negative thoughts, raging emotions, and tempestuous temptations, you will need to spend some quiet time with yourself. Your conscience is your best friend. Relax in a comfortable chair, without distraction, and give it the opportunity to speak to you. With patience and practice, your conscience will always be at your side, available for guidance.
3. Learn to think before you act. Instead of acting in the heat of the moment, pause; think things over, and act rationally and morally rather than emotionally. Faced with a choice, choose to do the right thing, to be responsible. Develop sensitivity with constant awareness and practice. A highly refined conscience reacts to wrongdoing as quickly as an eyelid reacts to dust.
4. Act quickly. The first twinges of conscience are a warning, but those that follow will lead to feelings of guilt, unless acted upon. Listen to your conscience and it will be your friend. Ignore it and it will be your judge.
5. Rethink your code of ethics. Is it up-to-date? Do some reading or take a course on philosophy, ethics, or morality.
6. Remember that the voice of conscience is not a suggestion, but an obligation.
7. Also remember that to know what is right and not do it is as bad as doing wrong.
8. Measure your happiness. It is the barometer of your conscience. The extent of your unhappiness indicates the degree to which you have stayed on or strayed from the path.
9. Judge your progress by your actions, not your good intentions.
10. Keep a spiritual journal. List your achievements. Indicate what areas you plan to improve. Monitor your results.
11. Evaluate your motives. Don’t do good for acclaim or happiness, but because it is the right thing to do.
12. Gain liberation by becoming the master of your life. Do this by becoming the slave of your conscience. The freedom you will gain is not the right to do what you want, but the power to do what you ought.
13. Follow your conscience religiously. The more you do so, the better acquainted you will become with the most wonderful being in the world, your True Self.
14. Spiritual and ethical everyday living is about moving forward and growing. When you study your conscience, what are the places where you believe you are stuck or are going backwards? You will need to face these challenges so that you can move on. Furthermore, you’ve got to be honest enough to get to the causes of the problems..
Additional Points, Tidbits, and Clarifications about Our Conscience
1. Life is a gift and there is a price to pay for this gift. The price is our duty and obligation to respect, cooperate with, and assist others who have received the same gift. Our conscience recognizes this responsibility, and, like a GPS System, points out the right path to follow and alerts us if we make a wrong turn.
2. Conscience is both an innate desire to do what is right and a judge that monitors our behavior, praising us for doing good and admonishing us when we deviate from the path of righteousness. It is not the knowledge of right and wrong, but the tool that guides us once we learn right from wrong. We learn morality from our parents, teachers, society, and our culture. Our moral code is gradually developed and only as good as that of our culture, our understanding of it, and our practicing of it.
3. There are many ways to interpret the nature of our conscience. It can be thought of as a Divine Spark, our Higher Self, our True Self, Our Soul, Inner Wisdom, Collective Consciousness, or even intuition, but it is always something that transcends our physical self.
4. Don’t underestimate the power of this gift. Consider these words of Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the moral law (our conscience) within.”
5. A conscience without moral law is like a court without a judge.
6. We use our conscience to monitor our behaviour, understand our duties and obligations, and develop our character.
7. Conscience is consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character along with a sense of obligation to do right or be good.
8. Develop your conscience by practicing empathy. To be able to genuinely see things from various perspectives is important. Therefore, pay attention to what people say and attempt to understand them before deciding what is right or wrong.
9. Who are examples of decent people that you respect and admire? What type of people do you abhor? By adopting the behavior of those you respect and admire and avoiding acting like those you disrespect, you will further develop your conscience.
10. We become like the people we hang out with and read about, so to cultivate your conscience, associate with and read about people that will inspire you.
11. There’s a duty to continually train and cultivate our conscience, so it will grow in sensitivity. When we experience difficulty seeing clearly, we use eye glasses or contacts to improve our eyesight to make sure we can see things accurately. Similarly, we occasionally should correct our conscience.
12. When using your conscience, apply the 4 D’s:
1. Dig out the facts. What’s involved? What are the consequences? Is what I am about to do helpful or harmful?
2. Deliberate among options.
3. Determine the best course of action
4. Do implement your decision.
Quotations about Our Conscience
A good conscience is to the soul what health is to the body; it preserves constant ease and serenity within us; and more than countervails all the calamities and afflictions which can befall us from without. (Joseph Addison)
Conscience warns us before it reproaches us. (Maria De Beausacq)
Conscience is the root of all true courage; if a man would be brave let him obey his conscience. (James Freeman Clarke)
Nothing is more powerful than an individual acting out of his conscience, thus helping to bring the collective conscience to life. (Norman Cousins)
Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it. (Albert Einstein)
He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes. (Chinese Proverb)
The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. (Anne Germain De Stael)
One should be more concerned about what his conscience whispers than about what other people shout. (Author Unknown)
Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. (George Washington)
Every human has four endowments ─ self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom… The power to choose, to respond, to change. (Stephen Covey)
- The Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau
- Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments: A Stone Reader by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley (Editors)
- The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics by Nina Rosenstand
- Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott Rae
- Conscience: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Strohm
- Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis
Chuck Gallozzi lived, studied, and worked in Japan for 15 years, immersing himself in the wisdom of the Far East and graduating with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Asian Studies. He is a Certified NLP Practitioner, speaker, seminar leader, and coach. Corporations, church groups, teachers, counselors, and caregivers use his more than 400 articles as a resource to help others. Among his diverse accomplishments, he is also the Grand Prix Winner of a Ricoh International Photo Competition, the Canadian National Champion of a Toastmasters International Humorous Speech Contest, and the Founder and Head of the Positive Thinkers Group that has been meeting at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto since 1999. His articles are published in books, newsletters, magazines, and newspapers. He was interviewed on CBC’s “Steven and Chris Show,” appearing nationally on Canadian TV. Chuck can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. View his photography at https://500px.com/chuckgallozzi. This article cannot be re-published without permission.