You may not think that you can consciously direct your own evolution. But there's increasing evidence that you're able to evolve your conscious being -- the driver of your personality, cognitive capacities, emotions and actions.
Of course, we normally think of evolution in terms of physical changes over eons. However, recent observations raise the possibility that some evolution is occurring right now, perhaps spurred by need or desire. For example, the noted nature writer and photographer Boyd Norton recently caught on video a baboon that suddenly began walking and running upright. And the Moken people of Southeast Asia, who live off the sea, are able to evolve the capacity of their eyes to have superior vision underwater, by maximally constricting the pupil to achieve superior vision. This is something other humans are unable to do.
But even more interesting, I think, is the prospect of being able to evolve your whole person in specific new, healthy directions. I've often heard my psychotherapy patients as well as my corporate executive clients ask -- or lament -- why they don't think they can change or grow.
Here, I'll describe some of the evidence that conscious evolution is possible and a part of building psychological health, and then I'll show five steps you can take to evolve yourself.
Much research indicates that the capacity for self-evolution -- of your personality, mental capacities, relationships and actions in the world -- is based on conscious intent. That is, shaping your being is an art form, the way an artist develops, evolves and creates a painting or a composer creates music. You can make your conscious being and all that emanates from it a work of art.
I think today's highly interconnected, interdependent world is arousing in people a new need or intent: to evolve capacities that support both personal well-being and service to the common good, the larger human community. That is, capacities that promote the benefit of all, not just the few. This shift is both psychological and spiritual, in the sense that the Dalai Lama described as "the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all."
This shift is the counterweight to the tendency toward "social psychosis" that I previously wrote about. Psychological and societal health now require heightened self-awareness, positive values, emotions that support collaborative engagement and policies that serve the larger good. These are qualities of mind, emotion and behavior. Research shows we can shape and grow them within ourselves and promote greater mental health. Here are some examples:
Stretching Toward New Challenges
When you challenge yourself to stretch toward a higher level of your abilities, you also increase your overall well-being. Interestingly, research from the University of Texas demonstrates the power of having a vision of what you want to stretch your capacities and abilities toward. Holding a vision of possibility in your consciousness tends to pulls you toward it. Research shows that your actions that follow lead to noticeably increased happiness with your life. Other studies indicate that people who consciously build positive emotions, such as empathy and compassion, also increase their resilience in the face of new challenges. Moreover, a longitudinal study of the impact adverse events have upon people found just going through adversity tends to increase resilience and positive adaptation to new, unexpected situations. There's apparently some truth to the old adage, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Seeding Well-being in Yourself and Others
What goes around, comes around. Studies at UC Berkeley and elsewhere find that when people consciously behave generously and compassionately towards others, they become more valued and esteemed by others in return. And that this, in turn, contributes to the common good.
Behaving "Outside the Box"
There's evidence that you can evolve by choosing to behave in ways that are different from -- even counter to -- what you think of as your usual or "fixed" personality traits and characteristics. That is, you can evolve by acting more like the person you want to be. This isn't faking; it's pushing yourself outside the box of your usual "self" and bringing your behavior into alignment with a picture of what those new features would look like if you demonstrated them. Moreover, learning to disengage from your usual reactions can help you deal with disappointments and conflict.
Altering Your Brain
It's well-documented, now, from several research studies that meditation affects brain circuitry related to cognitive processes and positive emotions; that the brain is much more susceptible to change than has been thought. But another aspect of your capacity to evolve your brain toward positive emotions and thoughts is that such efforts are also associated with less age-related decline of your brain volume, compared with people who maintain more neurotic and self-focused personality traits. And as Joshua Foer has described in his recent book, "Moonwalking with Einstein," anyone can learn 2,500-year-old techniques for dramatically improving your memory, feats that can seem impossible or super-human.
Much of the research that indicates the capacity to self-evolve links with a growing perspective among scientists that, as Deepak Chopra has written, "Consciousness is destiny. ... Instead of being dictated to by your genes and chemical processes in the brain, it may turn out that you are the author of your own life -- capable of change, healing, creativity and personal transformation."
Actually, everything in existence is experienced through our consciousness. And scientists increasingly explore the point of view that a unifying reality underlies the physical world -- what the physicist David Bohm called the "implicate order" -- and that this unifies the totality of existence. That is, nothing is separate from anything else. Chopra and others have proposed that science will eventually find that the universe itself is conscious. So it's not far-fetched to think that we can direct our consciousness -- that undefinable experience that cannot be explained by the physical brain -- in ways that we desire.
Five Steps For Evolving Yourself
Given what we know so far, we probably have enormous potential to self-direct how we evolve new personality traits, mental capacities, emotions and positive engagement as a citizen of the planet. Here are five steps for doing so:
- Begin by listing some specific qualities or capacities that you believe are underdeveloped, dormant or even nonexistent, but ones you want to grow and become visible.
- For each one, envision what it would look like if you did embody that quality in your daily life. Use examples for each, as much as possible. It can help to imagine seeing your evolved self as though a character in a movie.
- Describe the totality of that broadened, expanded picture of your evolved self in a few sentences or paragraph.
- Then, envision a tether is attached at one end to those qualities you want to evolve, above, and the other end attached to yourself, below. Picture the tether pulling you steadily upwards toward those evolved qualities.
- Finally, list what you can do each day that strengthens and practices those qualities you're evolving toward, as the tether pulls you towards them; like you're strengthening a muscle through exercises.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may email him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org.