Relational consciousness is a psychosocial term that has recently gained attention in the field of religious and spiritual development. It refers to an awareness of our interdependence with other beings, including God, animals, and other humans. It suggests a nuanced sensitivity to the complexity and connection of all creatures. More specifically, the phrase refers to an intuitive, experiential awareness, a felt sense, rather than a mere intellectual awareness. The term was popularized by David Hay in the 1990s through his research into the spirituality of English school children. From interviews with children, Hay came to the conclusion that much of what has been seen as spirituality or religion is actually this awareness of being in relationship with some larger reality.
Hay's work bears many similarities to Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902 by William James who also sought to discover the range and commonalities of paranormal experiences, or what he called an awareness of "the more." James concluded that religious experience cut across all cultures and could be an invigorating force for good. Hay carries James' work further by contributing insights into childhood spirituality. Hay argues that children are born with relational consciousness and that it persists throughout early childhood. However, in the west this sensitivity is suppressed by age 7 to 9. According to Hay, this suppression tends to lead to a societal deterioration of values and loss of social coherence.
The term relational consciousness provides educators (especially those in public schools) a way to talk about spirituality without equating it with a single religious tradition. It is a step toward finding common terminologies among those who lack a common tradition yet want to work together to promote spiritual growth in children. Hay would like to see educators and others protect relational consciousness in children, especially through stories. Re-telling, reading, and discussing stories help children to name familiar experiences (such as flow or point awareness, defined below).
Relational consciousness is an alternative to the "possessive individualism" that has become the norm in the Western world. Possessive individualism holds that
1. The only reliable way of knowing the world is through the physical senses, especially through science.
2. A human being's primary identity is as an individual who defines himself in opposition to other beings (i.e., at odds with other humans and nature).
3. Possession (of things, power, and property) is the most important way of expressing one's value.
In contrast, relational consciousness holds that
1. What can be known extends beyond the physical world and includes supernatural, spiritual, or nonmaterial realities; these can be accessed through other forms of consciousness besides the scientific and rational.
2. A human being's primary identity is in relationship with other beings (intentional connection with God, people, nature).
3. In the large picture, possessions are fleeting and unimportant measures of value.
According to Hay, relational consciousness manifests itself in relationships, specifically four key relationships, including
1. Self and God include concerns about ultimate reality, the transcendent realm, the presence of God, and love of God.
2. Self and people refer to awareness of interpersonal relations.
3. Self and world refer to sensitivity to beauty and nature, including landscapes, plants, and animals.
4. Self and self refer to identity, self-worth, concern about "the real me," and belief in life after death of the body.
Research on relational consciousness grew out of questions about how ordinary children talk about spirituality. During a 3-year qualitative study during the 1990s, Hay, Nye, and others interviewed numerous English school children, most of them irreligious. Hay was especially interested in nonreligious language for articulating felt experiences of interdependence with God or nature. He found that most children could clearly recall memories of relational consciousness from early childhood, but as they matured, they began to discount them, so that by puberty most suppressed relational consciousness altogether. Adults and peers seemed to conspire to convince children that spiritual experiences and beliefs were trivial and misleading. Even for those children who were part of a religious tradition, once they reached a certain age, the experiential component of religion was often supplanted by dogma. As children lost touch with relational consciousness, most accepted a rationalist, materialist worldview. Results of Hay's research were published in The Spirit of the Child in 1998. Although his research methodology has been criticized, many educators have embraced his ideas.
Hay's relational consciousness challenges the dominant view of religious development in childhood (based on the views of Jean Piaget and James Fowler), which holds that children between birth and age 7 are "pre-religious" and thus unable to grasp spiritual reality. Fowler argues that children's spirituality must advance through literalist and conventional stages that necessitate identifying with one belief system; beliefs rather than experience become the most important way of supporting spiritual growth. Fowler also argues that only exceptional individuals grow into a sense of connectedness to all other beings, and then only later in life.
In contrast, Hay argues that children, especially under age 7, have access to important kinds of knowing, even when they lack a belief system that validates such knowing. Hay would like to see schools as well as religious institutions focus upon the experiential aspect of spirituality rather than upon teaching creeds. In this way, relational consciousness could be kept alive and deepened throughout the life cycle. For this to occur, adults should focus children's attention daily toward spiritual awareness (through silence, contemplation, prayer, mantras, etc.) and provide a cultural expression of spirituality (through ritual, stories, and social teachings). These activities need not be aligned with a particular religious tradition. Instead of discounting children's innate spirituality, educators should regard it as a source of insight.