Raising a Conscience
by Catherine Killebrew
For several months I have been trying to observe the different qualities of my essential conscience (the "still, small voice" mentioned in the Bible), and the voice of that noisy, hyperactive character that Freud so brilliantly named the "Superego" - that part (in my case a very large part) of one's ego that contains society's programming about right and wrong.
What seems brilliant about the name superego to me is that mine has gotten such a workout over the years, scolding, admonishing and warning me, that a cartoon charicature of it would be a hard-bodied superhero, always trying to save the day (by keeping me awake all night?). It isn't that I'm not grateful for my superego, and all it tries to do - without it, I suppose, I'd be a sociopath - I just think this perfectionist can do even better, and I;ve been trying to do this by attending more to my conscience - an inborn potential for knowing, instantly, the wisest, most loving thing to do or say in any situation.
Compared with the superego, one's conscience is usually puny. It speaks without words in the "still small voice" of feeling, or intuition, and as one grows up and develops verbal skills, its subleties tend to be ignored more and more, drowned out by internal dialogue. It starves for lack of attention, and atrophies from lack of exercise. I have begun to correct this distortion in myself.
First, it is very important, in my Self-Observation practice, to practice being present in my body, in order to receive non-verbal communication by becoming aware of, and feeling subtle sensations. In addition, Robert has given me a simply, but challenging test for determining what is probably a direction from my android (ego), and what may be a hint from my real conscience. If I am observing myself even a little during a social interaction, and notice that I feel good about what I say or do in that moment, but something later rebukes me and tells me I acted stupidly, selfishly, "thoughtlessly", I should give more weight to the feeling that I had as I spoke or acted.
I've noticed that during many work days, I have felt fine about my actions, but during the commute home, or perhaps later that evening, a thought that I had done something horrible or dumb would impose itself and torment me with fear, guilt, and embarrassment, usually replaying itself tirelessly. Just being able to question the authority of these belated regrets has given me many more hours of relative peace and quiet, but superego hasn't always given up its turf easily.
This test was itself put to the test a couple of months ago. There was no moral dilemma involved, just a question of appropriate choices. I and several other employees of the agency I work for were competing for a few promotional slots by taking a newly devised written exam. It was more difficult than any test I'd taken in school, largely because one question that was worth 50% of the exam was ambiguous. During the test, I remembered to observe myself occasionally. Immediately afterward I felt exhausted, but soon thereafter felt refreshed and cleansed, as if from a vigorous physical workout. I felt that I had done very well, at least by my own standards.
After an exhilarating ride home, I celebrated with a special dinner followed by a hot bath; but as I soaked, the obscure question from the test ticker-taped thourgh my brain, bearing a completely new interpretation. I was soon convinced that I had wasted all that time and effort on an irrelevant response, and that I must have seemed stupid - that I couldn't follow directions. I slept badly all night, jostled awake by recriminations, and the next morning felt bruised inside. In a few days I learned that my answer was exactly what had been requested, had done well on the entire exam and would be promoted. I also learned something important about the communications of my essential self and conscience, and about the needless suffering I can experience when I mistake the taunts of my ego, or android, for the so-called "wisdom of hindsight."
Recently I have observed vague feelings of uneasiness when I have been about to say something clever, but usually have said it anyway. I very quickly thereafter have discovered what the uneasiness was about. It usually has indicated that I was about to say something I would immediately regret saying, but the possibility of learning to distinguish android from essence and superego from true conscience seems worth my allowing myself to make mistakes along the way.