“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953
“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10
The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.
Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.
No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.
In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:
“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”
When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”
As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!
It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.
We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.
But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.
“Once we reach a certain age, we often worry that those precious hours and days–the ones which we remember so fondly and so well–will never come again. We think that all of our best experiences are contained within them, and that all we really have now are our memories of them. While none of us knows well what the future holds beyond our basic understanding of the limitations of our bodies to sustain us indefinitely, all that we have experienced in our lives–every nuance of the totality of our contributions to life and those of life to us–every single twist and turn that led us to this moment in time, lives within us at every moment, and the reverberations of all those moments and memories echo in each of our thoughts and actions as we breathe in this very moment now.”
– excerpt from a recent correspondence with a friend
Sitting at my desk this afternoon, trying to resolve some of the inevitable clutter that accumulates during the all-too-brief time I get to spend at it writing, I finally felt comfortable enough with the clear view of the desktop to settle in to my writing, when I suddenly noticed a thumping sound outside my window. At first it was on the periphery which I dismissed as a branch from the tree outside banging against the window in the wind. Each time I heard the noise I would look over at the window, and after a moment, it seemed to be quiet, so I continued with my reading. After several minutes, the thumping sound would return and it started to make me wonder, so I stopped what I was doing and simply stared at the window, waiting for the sound to return.
To my astonishment, the thumping sound was being perpetrated by a robin, who apparently found some sort of fascination with my window. At first I was mostly curious as to what might be attracting the bird, which appeared to be attempting to land on the middle ledge where the two windows met. Some confusion may have been possible, I thought, and so I adjusted the window to change the appearance, hoping that would dissuade the bird. It did not. I decided to attend to some other chores for a time, figuring that the bird would get tired of failing to land or get through the window or whatever it was trying to do, but after several delays away from the desk, each time I returned to it, the bird returned as well.
Now I was starting to get a bit anxious. Why wouldn’t this bird get tired and just give up? I opened up the inner window to expose the screen, and when the bird came near I made loud noises and tried to wave it away with my hand. It still came back. I went so far as to walk outside, waiting for it to appear outside the window, and started throwing sticks in the air to discourage it from landing on the branches outside the window. It flew away, and when I went back to my desk, it would start thumping against the window again. This went on for several hours. I decided to call my sister to talk with someone calm and steady to question about this. We checked for a solution on the internet: “Block the window with something so that the bird can see that it’s not an open window.” This seemed to work for a while, but then the bird returned again. I started up Skype to show my sister what the bird was doing. It was so…persistent.
We talked wistfully about how uncanny the whole thing seemed, and talked about our dear late brother, Mike, who not only was a bird fanatic, but whose last weeks of life were filled twice daily with flocks of birds–once in the morning and once in the evening, as they flocked in the tree outside his window as he lay dying. We marveled at the many such instances where birds seemed to appear since then in our daily routines, and how it always seemed like there might be some connection in the strangeness which always surrounded such appearances. I almost got through writing this post, some seven hours after the thumping began, when the bird appeared again. I opened the window all the way, and left it open while I typed. The air felt cool and the gentle breeze was soothing to my spirit. The daylight was fading as it past 7:30 PM here on the East Coast of the United States. I put on some classical music, and continued to write.
The photo at the top of this posting was one of my brother’s favorites, and it was on his desktop background for many months after he took it at a nearby bird sanctuary. We all felt that there was some importance to the image of the bird, and today, as we skyped, we felt as though we must have needed to talk, and the persistent bird thumping at my window was the catalyst for our conversation. That seemed to satisfy us all, and whether or not the prompting was in spirit or just a practical matter, we enjoyed the conversation, and as night fell, I looked out the window, contemplating the words I had written to my friend. All of our wonderful memories of our lives which included our dear brother, as fine as they are, contributed to our lives in THIS moment now, and perhaps, that is the best conclusion of all.
“Dreams are but momentary stays against the relentless throbbing of my pulse in waking hours, a pause amidst the endless tide of my heart’s longings….the very essence of desire.” – JJHIII
I had a dream last night about the time I spent in Paris back in the mid-1970′s. It felt like I had traveled through time to stand in those same places once again, wandering the streets, inhaling the scents, embracing the sights, absorbing the sounds, and floating amidst the powerful memories of those moments. It seemed like an impossible dream had come true once again, and even though it has been many years since I last walked those streets, in the first few moments after I sat up in my bed upon waking in the middle of the night, it felt like it could have been yesterday.
The dream felt viscerally real and my response seemed almost prescient in those first few moments, sending me this afternoon to the archives in search of a passage I remembered recording in my personal journal:
October 25, 1976
“I am beginning to wonder now, as always, how this experience will affect the stream of events to come, and what new realizations will arrive within me when at some future time, I reflect upon them in silence. Paris is alive. It vibrates with life. It engulfs you with its intoxicating air. To walk the streets of Paris has felt alternately like a stroll through my fondest dreams, and in certain moments, like some kind of horrid nightmare. Swift though the moments seem, and as alone as I have felt in the nights by my window, this city breathes and pulsates with passionate feeling to the discerning eye. Time passes in Paris unseen, unheard, and unnoticed, almost as though it were never there from the beginning–lingering somewhere outside of perception, or as some distant memory.”
At age twenty-three, assigned as a soldier in what was then described as “Western Europe,” engaged in gathering military intelligence on our counterparts in Eastern Europe, my travels took me to a variety of technically non-military locations, and concerned matters far beyond anything I might have anticipated in my life prior to that assignment. The process of intelligence gathering seemed to be moving at a much swifter pace than anything else in my life, which hardly seemed to move at a snail’s pace when I look back on it. Without actually realizing it during that time frame, I raised my level of knowledge and experience to such an extent, that as I reflected on the dream in the early hours of a cool spring morning, I wondered what might have become of my life in another place or through another time.
Direction and purpose were strange entities for me then; vague and fluctuating between the minutes in a day. Not once did I ever truly concern myself with what might become of me. My influence on the world-at-large, in my mind at least, was at best a matter of chance, and certainly not within my power to determine. Having entered the military at the age of 19, I went from being a mostly unremarkable young man of limited means and experience to suddenly being engaged in matters of national security, with my every move a matter of close scrutiny by myself and by those around me.
While my military activities required much of my attention in those days, occasionally my assignment would allow or open up opportunities for downtime, and I often would explore on my own, sometimes secretly, and occasionally, I would lapse back into my personal reveries, and flirt with the tides of my heart’s longings. It was during such moments that my awareness seemed to be expanding into a wider world than the one in which I found myself embroiled so often as a soldier. Looking back at my life as a young boy, I regard with much fondness my life before this expansion of awareness. I never really thought that my life would be anything more than that which occurred from day-to-day; moment-to-moment, year after year. It was, I thought, a secure environment; beyond the reach of any sort of violent change. It was a rude awakening indeed that found me thousands of miles away from all that I had known. All that was once my reality suddenly seemed a lark–a crystal-clear pond in paradise.
….more to come….
We seldom look back over the years of our lives and view them together as a comprehensive whole, but rather, most often, in retrospect, we see ourselves as having experienced a number of “turning points,” and while this terminology does address the sometimes “sudden” nature of what feels like pivotal moments of our lives, it seems to me that these moments are actually more accurately described as the “peaks of transitions.”
We are all on a journey through time. This is not a journey in the sense of the H.G. Wells novel, or the film, “Back to the Future,” but in the sense of a lifetime, or the time in which we live, or the time it takes to accomplish our goals or reach certain hallmarks. The journey is through time, and since the beginning of time, humans have contemplated the passage of time, looking for ways to make use of it, to master it, and to comprehend the meaning of our journey through it.
Throughout our daily lives, although through the night there can be a peculiar sense of time possible in our dreams, our days begin as we awaken, and through whatever routines and habits compose our days generally, we experience a continuum of mental and physical events. Many of these events go unnoticed, or slip quickly into the background of our day, but some days in particular are punctuated occasionally by more urgent or important events that soon become our memories of that day. Our days end at whatever time we relinquish waking consciousness, once again suspended as we enter dream-time.
Looking back over the past week, certain events stand out—the sluggish beginning on Monday morning due to a late night conversation on Sunday evening—the surprise visit on Tuesday by my daughter—the aching back that kept me awake on Wednesday night—the daunting effort to close out the workday on Thursday—and the preparation for this discussion after the house got quiet on Friday. In between all of these events, were innumerable others, each of which composed the transitions between the minutes, hours, and days of the week.
Looking back over the years, even larger gaps between events, and the avalanche of moments, hours, and days, all of this turned into the weeks and months, and then the totality of the years. All the while, as life progressed through these measurements of time, memories of potent experiences, endings and beginnings, and the relentless cycle of change and stability, composed the transitions between who we used to be, and the person we are constantly becoming.
When we do finally achieve even a moderate degree of longevity in life, and take the time to consider the passage of whatever time we have accumulated, this progression of all the transitions from where we were to where we are at that moment reveals certain “peaks,” sometimes described as “turning points,” which can range from the most subtle realization of change, to the stark realization that nothing will ever be the same again.
For me, there seems to have been many “peaks” which occurred in my youth and early stages of life, and with a fair amount of regularity. The early memory of life as a middle child—the loss of a beloved brother at age eight—the end of innocence as adolescence arrived—the first real torment of lost love in high school—the collapse of my relationship with my father during my tenure as a college student—my agony and successful completion of basic training in the Army—all of these “events” signaled a change in the direction of my life from the perspective of youthful innocence to the harsh realities of independence. Once established finally as a truly independent person, the stage was set for a stunning “peak experience,” which stands out even today as the one irrevocable and life-altering event. This most potent “turning point,” took place almost two years into my training in the military, and set me on a path that continues to this day.
In the autumn of 1973, I experienced what C. G. Jung described as “an eruption of unconscious contents” which led to the creation of a document entitled, “The Beginning, The Foundation, The Entrance. Although I did not fully recognize it as such at the time, I gradually came to view the experience as a pivotal event in my life, and I have spent much of the time since it occurred attempting to decipher its message. The bulk of the document’s contents remained poorly understood by me for many years afterwards, and only in recent years have I finally begun to comprehend it more fully and place it in perspective.
Reviewing the cryptic writing in this document has always been problematical for me, as doing so not only reminds me of how it came into existence, but of how much I have struggled since then to extract some kind of useful information from the stream-of-“unconsciousness.” Over the past twenty years or so, I have devoted every available temporal and mental resource to enhancing my understanding of the content of the original document, although the opportunities to do so have been far fewer than my own inclinations would have provided. My temporal life during this time, all too often, “pushed” active pursuit of my goals to “another day.” Forced to find ways of getting to the research, I resorted to recording my incremental progress and my relevant observations in a series of journals, which provided a consistent location where I could continue to work as time permitted.
Our individual lives, to some degree, are a mirror of the development of all life on this planet. Our beginnings are microscopic; our progression as a fetus has many of the features and developmental qualities of life forms that existed prior to our own species; our development from a child into adulthood is marked by sequential growth through physiological stages, levels of consciousness, accumulation of knowledge, and sophistication through experience. With only a little effort, one could draw many parallels from our individual development as a person, to that of our collective development from a primitive, upright mammal to modern Homo sapiens. I also feel strongly that the metaphor could be extended to the progressive development in sophistication of human consciousness, which in many ways is responsible for our continued survival as a species.
I recognized at this point that all I had endured, suffered, and learned prior to that day had created the foundation for all that was to come. If we arrive at such a moment reasonably intact, where we finally abandon our naïve notions of the world, leaving behind our childhood, we may then hopefully embark on a truly original individual human life.
The journey upon which I embarked as a result of the creation of this document had been in the making for twenty years. My arrival at that moment in time and every twist and turn and significant event of my life–every moment–was a preparation for that day. The foundation had been established for an extraordinary journey.
As my story developed, I began to see links from the writings that flowed from me to temporal events which transpired both in the past and in my immediate world. The story was being written long before I began writing it. I began to search for ways to explain the document within the body of the story. The document soon became an important story element.
For me, it has been a struggle to sift through the avalanche of chaos which surrounded my awakening to the existence of the stream. Since I was not given much latitude regarding spiritual matters as a young man, when it finally was possible to explore freely, it seems to have burst forth from me like a volcano. This past October, I suffered another potent life-changing transition, when I lost my dear older brother to brain cancer. Although life can consist of many potent losses, this most recent one shook me to my very roots. Although the immediate pain of loss has subsided, it has caused me to reflect like never before on all that has come before.
We are meant to understand our lives, not so much in what feels like the sudden “turning,” from one point to another, but in the longer view, which is punctuated by these “turning points.”
One of the greatest musicians of our time, and featured on one of my all-time favorite recordings, Van Cliburn demonstrated some of the finest qualities to which a person can aspire. Some of my earliest memories include listening to recordings of Van Cliburn performing as he did all over the world, and it seems I have loved to listen to his musical performances my whole life.
As a young lad, I was exposed to a variety of musical influences, but in our home, Van Cliburn was admired in particular by my parents, who made sure we were given plenty of opportunities to listen to him play, since they loved to listen as well. My older sister started taking piano lessons at a very young age, and Van Cliburn was held as a role model for being a virtuoso, and an inspiration to all young people who aspired to learn the piano.
The Washington Times article By Angela K. Brown – Associated Press said this:
Mr. Cliburn played for every U.S. president since Harry Truman, plus royalty and heads of state worldwide.
Mr. Cliburn also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, held every four years. Created in 1962 by a group of Fort Worth teachers and citizens, it remains among the top showcases for the world’s best pianists.
Despite his phenomenal success over five decades, Mr. Cliburn remained humble and gracious, friends said.
Throughout his life, Van Cliburn represented what is best about our humanity–with great talent and determined effort–he gave us all a gift of love and beauty and grace that is everywhere in our world, but so rarely contained within one soul so willing to share it.
On the website : http://www.cliburn.org/
“It is with great sadness that we announce that our dear friend and inspiration Van Cliburn died peacefully in his home in Fort Worth, Texas, surrounded by loved ones, on February 27, 2013.”
Godspeed, Mr. Cliburn…..
As human beings, we are, in large part, unremarkably different from many other species on our planet in our physical core components and basic constituent parts and systems. In our most fundamental nature, we exist physically as they do, we are made up of the same essential molecular structures, we rely on very similar biological systems, and we require the same physical environment to sustain us. Our genetic structures and specific biological architecture are unique in some important ways, and our complex cognitive functioning distinguishes us from most other species to a degree that has permitted us to achieve dominance as a species overall, but these differences could easily be made irrelevant by catastrophic changes in our physical environment, similar to those which resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs.
Life has many layers and levels. Evolution has changed and continues to change the character of our existence in microscopically small increments, and we are only now, in this epoch of human history, beginning to see just how important our contributions as subjectively aware, cognitively capable, and intelligent beings has been and will be to the future of our world. For all the bluster and bravado of our human sciences, and the deeply entrenched and volatile pronouncements of our human religions, we still seem unable to reach beyond it all to come to terms with the true nature of our existence. None of it seems completely satisfying to most of us. It has always been my feeling that the reason for this has much less to do with the comprehensibility of our sciences or the verity of our spiritual inclinations, as it does with our understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness itself.
Reviewing material related to artificial intelligence lately has given me some cause to reflect on precisely what it is that we may be missing in all of the fascinating and thought-provoking conversations taking place around the issue. There are a number of efforts being made to recreate the physical structure of the human brain in some of the most prestigious institutions of our day, and several of the key figures of these efforts are genuinely striving to understand the processes which drive the cognitive apparatus inside our heads, in an effort to enhance the process of producing an artificial construct that can mimic the human brain. As compelling as these efforts are and as important as they may be for our understanding generally, (not to mention the progress we may achieve in correcting and alleviating brain pathologies,) what we will ultimately achieve by these efforts is still a matter of much speculation.
In a fascinating book by V.S. Ramachandran entitled, “The Tell-tale Brain,” we see not only a scientist enthralled by the subject of brain physiology, pathology, and functionality, but one captured by the implications of our struggle to understand how it all fits together with our experience of the world provided by the nearly miraculous capacities that our brains provide as a result of both function and comprehension:
“We are vertebrates. We are pulpy, throbbing colonies of tens of trillions of cells. We are all of these things, but we are not ‘merely’ these things. And we are, in addition to all of these things, something unique, something unprecedented, something transcendent. We are something truly new under the sun, with uncharted and perhaps unlimited potential. We are the first and only species whose fate has rested in its own hands, and NOT just in the hands of chemistry and instinct.”
I was especially intrigued by chapter nine, in which he deals with the phenomenon of introspection:
“Sometime in the twenty-first century, science will confront one of its last great mysteries:the nature of the self. That lump of flesh in your cranial vault not only generates an ‘objective’ account of the outside world, but also directly experiences an internal world–a rich mental life of sensations, meanings, and feelings. Most mysteriously, your brain also turns its view back on itself to generate your sense of self-awareness…Qualia (the immediate experiential qualities of sensation such as the redness of red) are vexing to philosophers and scientists alike because even though they are palpably real and seem to lie at the very core of mental experience, physical and computational theories about brain function are utterly silent on the question of how they might arise or why they might exist.”
In his most recent book, “How to Create a Mind,” inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that our efforts in artificial intelligence will eventually result in machines that will “become indistinguishable from biological humans, and they will share in the spiritual value we ascribe to consciousness.” In an attempt to explain the use of the term, “spiritual,” in a way that justifies his ideas to a broader audience, Kurzweil only succeeds in making the problem worse:
“Many people don’t like to use such terminology in relation to consciousness because it implies a set of beliefs that they may not subscribe to. But if we strip away the mystical complexities of religious traditions and simply respect ‘spiritual’ as implying something of profound meaning to humans, then the concept of consciousness fits the bill. It reflects the ultimate spiritual value.”
In my view, regardless of one’s position on the definition of “spiritual,” reducing our ability to access transcendent consciousness to merely putting enough neurons and synapses into one place in the way our brains arranges them, denigrates the profound nature of our humanity, and does little to promote the achievement of a fundamental theory of consciousness. As complex biological creatures, what we possess that the most sophisticated replica of a brain cannot fully manifest is our very human spirit which animates our “pulpy, throbbing colony of cells.” It is my belief that our rich inner life, our “experience” of existence, while facilitated by our complex cognitive functioning, making it intelligible to the degree that we currently enjoy, resists empirical scrutiny precisely because it does not “arise” from our physical systems, even though it may rely on them as a means of making awareness possible in the first place.
What we perceive as “experience” may, in fact, owe a great deal to the physical nervous system, and the foundational and cognitive functions of the brain, but consciousness itself, this ineffable vehicle of experience, may not spring from physical systems at all. It seems much more likely to me, as one who has these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and profoundly beyond the natural world for them to be solely dependent on it for their existence. I suppose that removing the question of consciousness from the natural world makes scientists and philosophers a little nervous. Who could blame them? We are only recently ridding the world of many of its superstitions through science and modern philosophy, and all of our spiritual traditions, as diverse and marvelously well-suited to addressing the transcendent as they can be, quite often fall short of any better explanation.
One of the most compelling refutations to those who eschew the existence of anything transcendent or spiritual can be found in the genuine connections we sense between our own and other human spirits. Though these connections can be powerfully real “subjectively,” they cannot be demonstrated empirically. Any potentially tangible evidence that one might perceive for the existence of such connections, should it ever be forthcoming, is unlikely to convincingly persuade those whose experiences in this regard are limited or non-existent. For me though, when we find ourselves standing by the ocean, gazing out beyond the horizon, both the temporal and the transcendent can be viscerally experienced if we are open to them. Being given the privilege of looking deeply into the eyes of our beloved, or holding our newborn children in our arms, has never failed to convince me unerringly of the existence of the spirit. Convincing the world-at-large is a wholly different matter. In the weeks to come, I hope to illuminate some of the ways that we might become convinced to at least consider what a fundamental theory of consciousness might look like if we expand our view to include the ineffable.
Recent reading brought my attention back to a book of Celtic wisdom that I read years ago called, “Anam Cara,” written by John O’Donahue. In that wonderful collection of words, O’Donahue explains the meaning of the phrase like this:
“The anam cara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul.”
So many of us spend a great deal of time searching–hoping to experience such a friendship–and even when we do, we don’t always recognize it right away. We often have expectations and interests that divert our attention away from that recognition at first. Friendship usually takes time to unfold under the best of circumstances, but “anam cara” is a relationship that is born long before we appear on the planet. Some may call it destiny, some might prefer a term like “kindred souls,” but no matter how we arrive at such a recognition, when we do arrive, we often find ourselves confronted with the most perplexing of mysteries; we know there are forces at work in such an arrangement that do not fit neatly into our temporal existence, and yet we still know somehow that as O’Donahue says, we are “joined in an ancient and eternal way.”
In one lifetime, we may encounter and come to recognize such individuals only rarely, and there are no restrictions or limitations as to the circumstances that might lead us to them, or where and when our recognition might occur. After the loss of such a soul in my own life, I found myself confronted with the perplexing mystery, and had an unusual experience which gave me a rare insight, and I wrote about it in my journal:
“Unable to sleep this morning, I sat out on the back porch and watched the sky brighten with the morning’s first light. It was a spectacular morning sky, cloudless and deep blue. What sounded like hundreds of birds were already busy with their morning conversations, chirping in a cacophonous symphony, and I wondered momentarily, what they could possibly find so compelling to talk about at such an hour. Reflecting on what I had lost, rather than what I had gained by their presence in my life, I nearly missed realizing what all the fuss was about. The realization came to me suddenly, when I understood that the dawn of each new day brings with it, the awakening of all life–truly cause for celebration! We are, each of us, birds, people, everything that lives, blessed with the chance to begin again, to renew ourselves, and to say “yes” to life.
The famous philosopher, William James, once told the story of man who found himself at night, slipping down the side of a steep slope toward the edge of a cliff. To his surprise, he managed to catch a branch which stopped his fall. He remained clinging to it, in misery, for hours. But finally, his fingers let loose their hold, and with a despairing farewell to life, he let himself drop.
He fell just six inches.
The man in this story, because he was unable to see, had clung to the mistaken idea, that there is a way to hold off the inevitable. What he was unable to appreciate under the circumstances, was just what that inevitable event might hold for him. Had he given up the struggle earlier, his agony would have been spared. We cling to life in a completely understandable human way most of our lives, suffering terribly when it is lost too soon, and sometimes despair even when it dwindles slowly in the latter part of a long and fruitful life. There is no magic formula for coming to terms with the many varieties of loss we can experience in our lives, but eventually, as difficult as it is, we must find a way to move forward, as best we can, until the sorrow fades.
Recently, on the way home from a long week at work, I was so struck by the setting sun in the sky that I had to pull over and snap a photo of it. What appeared to be a long swath of darkness was actually receding to the left, leaving the startlingly beautiful panorama on the right, and it occurred to me while I was standing there staring at the sight, that what has felt like a long swath of darkness in my personal life, needed to be viewed as receding as well. It’s not that the darkness won’t ever return, nor that it seemed to hold its sway with me for such a long time, that made me think of the sunrise and sunset as a metaphor for life. We are born into this life in a miraculous awakening that holds an infinite variety of possibilities, not all of which are filled with light and joy, but it is rather a sequence from the realm of infinite possibilities that transpires over a lifetime, no matter how long or how short that lifetime may be.
As I stood alone on that remote highway, staring off into the sunset, I was struck by both the beauty and the majesty of existence, as well as by the painful realization of having endured a swath of sadness, neither of which could be viewed in the same way, never having stood on the edge of darkness, or clung to a branch in despair, or having endured the changing seasons of life. Our gift of life, embodied in the sunrise and sunset, promises only to illuminate the path of possibility, but it does not direct it.
The title of this posting is a bit overreaching, I admit, but if you will be patient and have been following along here, I think I can point the conversation in that direction, even if it takes a few additional postings to get through it.
My friend and fellow blogger, Marc Schuster, passed along a link to an article in the “Atlantic Monthly,” called “Awakening,” regarding the problem of patients in surgery who, though sedated, apparently wake up or are otherwise aware of what is transpiring while in surgery, and the story addresses the steps that have been taken to eliminate this terrible situation, by developing ways of monitoring a person’s level of conscious awareness. Although the percentages of such incidents are small compared to the number of surgeries which take place in the world, imagine how you might react if you woke up or became aware during a major surgery!
Here is the link to the article:
Anesthetics is a fascinating subject, and it clearly does beg some questions of the nature of consciousness to be sure. I was particularly intrigued by this notion by Chamoun, which described consciousness:
“…as a spectrum of discrete phases that flowed one into the next, each marked by a different electrical fingerprint.”
Since our experiential awareness–what is referred to in the article as the “subjectivity of conscious experience,”–is not so easily quantified or measured, precisely because of its subjective nature, it seems that nearly every scientist involved in the subject tries to narrow the focus of a theory of consciousness into a phenomenon that is generated by brain physiology, which clearly can be measured.
A good example of this is Tonini’s “integrated-information theory,” which posits that:
“First, consciousness is informative. Every waking moment of your life provides a nearly infinite reservoir of possible experiences, each one different from the next. Second, consciousness is integrated: you can’t process this information in parts. When you see a red ball, you can’t experience the color red separately from the shape of the ball. When you hear a word, you can’t experience the sound of it separately from its meaning.”
No matter how we dance around it, what Tonini and others are discussing are the “mechanisms–the physical substrates” which demonstrate the consequences of possessing our distinct version of human consciousness–the one which permits the subjective awareness of “what it’s like” to experience our existence, and to be able to contemplate it, ponder it, and express our experience of it. It is, perhaps, most evident in our attempts to describe consciousness, to articulate the process, to measure it and theorize about it, that we realize it cannot be reduced to physiology alone.
It doesn’t help much that our ability to acknowledge and contemplate the nature of consciousness REQUIRES our physiology to be precisely what it is–a cognitive apparatus attached to a central nervous system and an array of sensory inputs supported by heart, lungs, and nutritional systems to sustain it. This essential apparatus, which merely FACILITATES the expression of what Kant called “transcendental consciousness,” is inseparable from our ability to possess our subjective awareness, but it does NOT define the foundational and transcendent principle which makes our cognitive apparatus most useful–as a conduit for consciousness. There is a huge gap between “being conscious” and “having access to a transcendental consciousness.”
Without even considering the many spiritual paths which emphasize the transcendent aspects of our existence, for me, one need only look within themselves, to quiet the mind, and open themselves to the infinite realm of possibilities, in order to begin to apprehend a quality or character to our existence which cannot be quantified or measured in the way these guys are attempting. I know it’s not very scientific, but not everything can be reduced to temporal measurements. I’m not suggesting I know any more than anyone else about what may account for our subjective experience, but I am certain that it will take more than just our understanding of the science of the brain to unravel it.
Without consciousness there could be no awareness of existence, and without a temporal existence, we could not gain access to a subjective awareness of consciousness. If our existence is a manifestation of a transcendent consciousness (Kant) then the two are inseparable and intimately intertwined.
…..more to come….
Recently in email I received a link to a video that presented a poem by Kate Nowak called, “May You Be Blessed.” It’s a very nice sentiment expressed in the poem, and her efforts have been re-posted quite often. I couldn’t help admiring her idea, but I really felt like it needed a response. Here is the poem and the link to the video on YouTube:
May You Be Blessed by Kate Nowak
May you be blessed
with all things good
May your joys
like the stars at night
be too numerous to count
May your victories
be more abundant
than all the grains of sand
on all the beaches
on all the oceans
in all the world
May lack and struggle
be always only serve
to make you stronger
and may beauty order
be your constant companions
May every pathway you choose
lead to that which is pure
and good and lovely
May every doubt and fear
be replaced by a deep abiding trust
as you behold evidence
of a Higher Power
all around you
And when there is
and the storms of life are closing in
May the light
at the core of your being
illuminate the world
May you always be aware
you are loved beyond measure
and may you be willing to
love unconditionally in return
May you always feel protected
in the arms of God
like the cherished child you are
And when you are tempted
to judge may you be
reminded that we are ALL ONE
and that every thought you think
reverberates across the universe
touching everyone and everything
And when you
are tempted to hold back
may you remember that love flows best
when it flows freely
and it is in
giving that we receive
the greatest gift
May you always have music and laughter
and may a rainbow
follow every storm
May gladness wash away
may joy dissolve every sorrow
and may love ease every pain
May every wound bring wisdom
and every trial bring triumph
and with each passing day
may you live more abundantly
than the day before
May you be blessed
And may others
be blessed by you
This is my heartfelt wish for you
May you be blessed
There is much to admire in what Kate wrote here, but it seemed to me that her thoughts didn’t go quite far enough, and needed some additional thinking. After a fair amount of thought on what she wrote, I penned this response:
THE ABUNDANCE OF LIFE AND LOVE: A Response to Kate Nowak
May you share in the abundance of all that is good, and feel compelled to share your portion, whatever it is, with others.
May you know joy often and well, and when sorrow finds you, understand that it finds us all in one way or another; it’s simply a matter of degree.
Don’t attempt to compare the portions of joy or sorrow in your life to anyone else’s. We earn it sometimes, and at other times it just arrives unannounced. Be glad for what joy may come, and don’t allow what sorrow may come to prevent the return to joy in due time.
Know that every path we choose is simply the path we choose—nothing more or less. What happens along that path depends on who we are as we navigate through it. It is not the path which forms us; it is the form we inhabit as we walk the path that leads us as we go.
When diverted from our path by circumstances beyond our control, it is best to direct our attention to the task of finding our way back as soon as possible. Once we return to the path of our own choosing, we should look forward to the road ahead, and focus on every step we take in the moment it is taken.
Doubt and fear are the result of uncertainty within us and facing the unknown outside of us. As the only known species with the capacity for the higher cognitive tasks of imagination, intuition, and abstract thinking, we have the singular privilege of entertaining doubt. Don’t waste it!
Doubt is a necessary prerequisite to wisdom, and drives us to search with vigor to uncover the truth. It cannot be eliminated in a single lifetime, but it can be diminished when we seek in earnest to move forward with a firm belief in the value of our individual life, recognizing that each of us has a contribution to make to the unfolding of life everywhere.
If we can observe the beauty, order, and abundance all around us in nature, with all its intricate nuances and sweeping natural vistas, and not conclude that it is a consequence of something much greater than ourselves, we cannot hope to discover the source of that beauty, order, and abundance.
It is through giving love unconditionally that we open ourselves enough to receive love in return, and it is through the creation of the universe that everything and everyone we know and love came into existence in the first place. However you wish to describe the source of all creation, the opening of the universe in the act of creation, and our very existence as human beings, is the result of the most unconditionally loving gesture ever made. Sharing our love, in all its various forms, with every living entity in creation, is simply giving back what was unconditionally opened for us.
Life is an expression and manifestation of creation, and while the whole range of existence includes all the pairs of opposites and everything in between, we can either embrace both the darkness and the light, or choose to limit ourselves to a narrow band of the spectrum of life. Every life, whether it lasts a few moments, a few years, or a hundred years, is not measured well by how it is spent, but most clearly by how it is earned.
May you be blessed to know the broad range of what life can be, and share as much as you can of what you experience in life with as many others as may be possible during your time on Earth.
May you be blessed, and may others be blessed by you.
John J. Hyland January 2013
It was early morning on the last day of summer vacation in the mountains, and I rose early to take in the sunrise on the river. Having spent the last few days constructing a raft, as I had learned to do from one older and wiser, I felt confident that I could navigate the lazy waters of the nearby river. A soft breeze floated gently through the trees, still lush and green with no sign of autumn’s turning tide. The tiny black silhouettes of hundreds of birds against the orange and pink hue of early morning dotted the sky like stars at night.
As the morning progressed, the sun rose higher over the water, emitting warmth to the cold dark river. There was a profound silence at most every moment, with the exception of the usual background murmur of nature, which I had come to accept as silence. As I drifted along in that almost utter silence of nature, my mind drifted into reverie, feeling like an invisible man, in a hidden cove, out of sight and mind, totally alone. Far in the distance, I could hear the barely audible sounds of tumbling thunder, rolling along the sky like the vibrations from a desert tumbleweed against the parched earth.
As I made my way further along the shapeless snake of the river’s edge, my reverie became a sudden slap in the face as the water began to swirl and crash all around me. While enraptured by my conjured, boastful bliss, the forces within the water had built up around me, and my tiny raft began to creak and pop under the pressure of the angry river.
I had all I could do to prevent myself from being tossed over into the roaring mass, which had now grabbed my craft and was throwing it about violently without discretion. I could feel my heart pounding rapidly against my chest, and the grasp I had on my normal calm began to resemble my tenuous grasp on my float. Putting my life in the hands of the river’s raging waters now felt like a consequence of an insult to the power of nature itself, for which I now would answer. My fate was suddenly at the mercy of an uncaring, unfeeling, inhuman mass of water. As the pace quickened, my mind was working furiously for a way out.
In the midst of my panic, descending like a gift from heaven, a long overhanging branch appeared directly on my path ahead–a path which now clearly was leading toward an abrupt change in altitude at the edge of an unexpected waterfall. I would only have one very brief opportunity to grab on to it, because once I let go of the raft, there would be no where else to go. My breathing was rapid and frantic. My mind was racing in its calculating of the trajectory and timing, until finally, with a true leap of faith, I flung myself upward as I grasped for the life-saver.
I felt my hands clasp desperately on the wood of the tree’s extension, as I watched the last few moments of horizontal travel by my raft before it plummeted over the falls.
Reluctant at first to move, I could feel my stomach slowly begin to relax, and I let out a long, low whistle. I gradually found the strength to navigate to the bottom of the tree, and when I set foot once again on solid ground, I laid down on the grassy mound near the water’s edge with my eyes closed and my heart open. The phenomenal world seemed to evaporate into a wisp of remembered steam floating aimlessly away from my awareness.
Standing at last, trudging along the path back to the campsite, I cast myself with reckless abandon into the uncertainty of what might yet be, and wondered… Why I felt I must do it again……