Consciousness & Conscience: The Interior Life of Humans

Maybe one reason we humans are bad at governing and being governed is that we ignore our inner lives, our interior lives, the relation between our outer work and our inner work.


Representation of consciousness from the seventeenth century by Robert Fludd, an English Paracelsian physician, 1619. Wikimedia Commons.

Hildegard of Bingen tells us “there is no creature that lacks an interior life.” 

I often apply this teaching when discussing the diversity of beings in the universe—atoms and molecules, stars and our sun, trees and plants, animals, fishes and stone and rocks. 

It is a very contemporary question in today’s science: Where does consciousness begin and end?  Is there consciousness in all beings?  Is the universe conscious?  Is Gaia, our home, conscious? 

Hildegard proposed her answer nine centuries ago: “There is no creature that lacks an interior life.”

But I want to steer this question now to humanity.  Do humans truly possess an interior life? 

Is it possible for humans to reject their interior life, to turn their back on it, to become so thoroughly narcissistic and ego-driven and power driven and money driven and distracted that they put their interior life to sleep?  Sit on it?  Ignore it entirely? 

The Elephant Ambassador first approached Deena Metzger in Chobe, Botswana, in 1999, and later told her in vision: “The stones are what the human race has become. You are no longer sentient creatures. You increasingly become the drones, the robots, the weapons that you have invented as you disconnect from, injure and attack the natural world and all its creatures. The only way to save Creation is to re-enter it.” Photo by Michele Daniel, from Deena’s blog Ruin and Beauty.

Can humans choose to live so external and outer a life that we turn our back on our interior life?

And what is an interior life for humans?

For me, the four paths of creation spirituality help immeasurably in naming our interior lives.  They also help to bring conscience and consciousness together.

In the Via Positiva, we undergo awe and wonder, joy and delight, gratitude and reverence.  It is perhaps summarized best by Meister Eckhart, “if the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.

In the Via Negativa, we face silence and solitude, letting go and letting be, and all Silence has to teach us.  Perhaps it is best summarized by the psalmist: “Be still and learn that I am God.”  Emptying the mind of thoughts and busyness, meditation is integral to that practice of being still.

But also in the Via Negativa we undergo grief and loss and pain and suffering, which breaks our hearts and bring their own experience of letting go and letting be.

Portrait of Deb Haaland, first Native American Secretary of the U.S. Interior, also honoring her heritage. Art by Nissa Tzun, photo by Vince Reinhart on Flickr.

In the Via Creativa, we dig deeply for our own images, our own responses to the world and our life experiences in order to give birth and give back and learn.  In the process we often learn what is deepest within us. 

And in the Via Transformativa, all the previous interior responses to life come to fruition as we put our moral imaginations to work to heal and celebrate, to do justice and compassion.  Here conscience marries our work.

Indeed, humans do not lack an interior life.  But there is inner work to do to explore and express that interior life.  As Eckhart puts it so wonderfully, 

The outward work can never be small if the inward one is great, and the outward work can never be great or good if the inward is small or of little worth.  The inward work always includes in itself all size, all breadth and all length. 


Adapted from Matthew Fox, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint For Our Times, pp. 16f.

And Fox, The Reinvention of Work, p. 58.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Modern voices for justice and compassion: Wangari Maathai, Winona LaDuke, Arundhati Roy, Malala Yosafzai, the Dalai Lama, Senator John Lewis (photos from Wikimedia Commons); Chase Iron Eyes (photo from TedX Charlottesville); Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Wikimedia Commons).

Queries for Contemplation

Where do you stand on the question whether every being possesses an “interior life?”  And do the four paths assist you to recognize your interior life and that of your fellow humans?


Recommended Reading

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

Matthew Fox writes in Hildegard of Bingen about this amazing woman and what we can learn from her.
In an era when women were marginalized, Hildegard was an outspoken, controversial figure. Yet so visionary was her insight that she was sought out by kings, popes, abbots, and bishops for advice.
“This book gives strong, sterling, and unvarnished evidence that everything – everything – we ourselves become will affect what women after us may also become….This is a truly marvelous, useful, profound, and creative book.” ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter


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12 thoughts on “Consciousness & Conscience: The Interior Life of Humans”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you begin by saying: “Maybe one reason we humans are bad at governing and being governed is that we ignore our inner lives, our interior lives, the relation between our outer work and our inner work.” Then you point out that St. Hildegard of Bingen tells us “there is no creature that lacks an interior life.” Then you ask, if it is possible for humans to reject their interior life, to become so thoroughly and power driven and money driven and distracted that they put their interior life to sleep? And of course, your point is, “Yes, we can do this.” You ask us today, “Where do you stand on the question whether every being possesses an “interior life?” Many in the Process Philosophy/Theology community believe that all entities have experience and an inner life. This teaching is called, “panpsychism.” I see glimpses of this in Kant with his, “ding an sich” or the “thing in itself,” and in a similar way in Heidegger’s “Dasein” or “Being.” You also ask us if the Four Paths assist us in recognizing our interior life? Of course, for we are more apt to recognize when we are having a Via Positiva experience or a Via Negativa experience or whether we’re feeling and doing things creative, or are we in prophet mode–as we have been over the election….

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    My stance is yes, every being possesses an interior life; however not all choose to acknowledge, engage with, or respond to this reality. There are several pathways that I embrace, to experience the reality of this interior life. Some of these are the Indigenious/Shamanic teachings, rituals and ceremonies… the Mystic/Goddess Spiritual teachings, and the contemplative and meditative practices… the teachings and spiritual practice of self-reflection and the examin of conscience and consciousness as taught by St. Ignatius… sacred journalling as a spiritual practice of Lectio Divina… expressive arts therapy… the use of the Tarot, not as a method of divination, but rather as a spiritual practice of gnosis… spending time in nature… engaging with sacred sound through music, chanting and prayer; as well as yoga… reading the teachings and testimonies of others experiences of this interior reality, which helps me trust my own experiences… and yes, Mathew’s four pathways of Creation Spiritually have also been woven into the tapestry of all the threads that create the reality of my interior life and that which unfolds, evolves and emerges from this.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, You write today: “There are several pathways that I embrace, to experience the reality of this interior life.” Then you list a number of your spiritual practices, such as: Indigenous/Shamanic teachings, rituals and ceremonies, Mystic/Goddess Spiritual teachings, contemplative and meditative practices, the examining of conscience as taught by St. Ignatius, sacred journaling, Lectio Divina, and a even more spiritual practices. But now I’m going to stop here and focus one that you use, and that is the Tarot as a spiritual practice of gnosis. I have written a book titled, “Tarot Meditations: Inspired by Creation Spirituality.” I just want to say that I think that since these cards and their images were created in the mid 1400s, in Norther Italy–which was totally Catholic then, as was most of Europe. They were not something which came out of the New Age movement or Atlantis, but medieval Christian Europe. And I commend you for not being scared away buy all of the devil-talk, that “They’re of the Devil…

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    Great DM. I was very moved by the words of the Elephant Ambassador. Gave me goosebumps. I agree with Hildegard’s statement because I think interior life is the source and beginning of all life. Therefore, all life has an interior life.

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    Yes, most definitely so every living thing possesses an interior life. Why else would your dog be so happy at your return and whine when you are gone? Or why would you a plant grow better just because you talk to it? These 4 paths are new to me and I am excited to explore them more. Thank you for the introduction!

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    Matthew, it’s true, every person possesses an “interior life.” However, unfortunately, humanity has been led astray from a more wholistic, feminine consciousness to a more limited, narrow, egocentric consciousness the past 6000 years by the growth of patriarchy and toxic patriarchal values and destructive actions, especially in Western societies, up to our present modern times existentially imperiling our planet, most living species, including our own human species. Now, humanity and our planet are at a profound spiritual shift that hopefully and gracefully will lead to our transformation towards a new humanity/consciousness of Loving Diverse Oneness with-in our Divine Creator and Her~His Evolving Creation/Cosmos of Divine Love….
    ????

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    The “inner life” is one of listening (obedire) to the heart—

    Obedience—a word many of us disdain

    An old friend and mentor wrote a book titled A Long Obedience In The Same Direction— “You are, in a sense, on your own with an open invitation to listen and receive and enjoy our Lord.” But why don’t we embrace the invitation? “The most obvious answer is that we’re in a hurry and not used to listening.”

    https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/blog/interview-eugene-peterson-why-cant-i-hear-god

    Hoofnote: The word ‘obedience’ has its roots in Latin—To obey is to be obedient, and both words come from the Latin obedire, which literally means “listen to.”

    Also, obedience in Hebrew is: shama (שָׁמַע) or shema. It means to hear, to listen, to give attention, to understand, to submit to, and to obey. There is only one word in Hebrew for obedience, and it is this word – shama. Even in Arabic the word has a meaning closer to devotion than submission.

    Hoofnote 2: In my own country many Christians have succumbed to the fear-based obedience of patriarchal authority. They hear/listen to false prophets and teachers, corrupt leaders (wolves in sheep’s clothing). But Divine LOVE (God) speaks mercy and compassion to human hearts.

    }:- a.m.

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      Thank you for reminding me of the Hebrew word Shama/ Shema: to listen and give hope to. The Navajo/Diné word Shimá (pronounced shi-mah) is the word for Grandmother, Mother Earth. Connecting these two words will be helpful (for me) moving forward this month.

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    Magdalena Ezoe, OP

    I do agree that all humanity has this internal spiritual life, EXCEPT perhaps Donald Trump that’s why he thinks and acts the way he does to detriment of all. Thank you.

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    I agree that all beings have an interior life of some sort and that too many humans have ignored this aspect or allowed it to be filled with greed, hatefulness, violence, and an addiction to power. Over the past 6 years, I have both nourished mine with contemplative practices, including the daily DM’s of Matthew and Richard Rohr, and also become more active in my community politically and spiritually. There is both the deep grief and suffering and the transformational hope that comes with the 4 paths. Thank you, Matthew, for your steadfast and loving witness.

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