Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with a degree of cognitive talent that still surpasses any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and with purpose. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional process during the Aurignacian epoch, where the full development of the higher functions were made possible by a significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex. While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleontologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.
Cognitive self awareness is, so far as we know, an exclusively human attribute that allows us to know we exist as a unique, individual person. It is my contention that it is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.
The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for self awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitude, which was directly influenced by the development of self awareness.
Imagine the early Homo sapiens as they gradually began to make use of their newly acquired “functional consciousness,” awakening to the world of objects like never before. Modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings discovered in Ardeche, France in the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 35,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. These were not mental giants compared to 21st century Homo sapiens. They were not very sophisticated at all by today’s standards, but they were quantitatively more sophisticated cognitively than the Neanderthals, and were better able to compete for limited resources, enabling them to outlast their predecessors by thousands of years.
No matter what concepts or images or ideas may have occurred to the early humans, there was no way to overtly confirm the existence of a thought until there was a way to express a thought. It was no accident that the first demonstrations of consciousness were images—primitive symbols painted on cave walls—as visualization within the brain originally had no other way to be expressed than the memory of what the objects looked like in the world. Whatever level and degree of brain activity led to the development of language, visualizing the objects and events of the ancient consciousness became the symbol of those same entities, just as the sounds uttered by the early humans expanded their abilities to express them and to pass these symbols on to future generations.
It is also not surprising that the early attempts at producing formal symbols to represent the world resulted in pictographic languages such as cuneiform by the Sumerians and hieroglyphics by the Egyptians, all of which were precursors of ancient alphabets. Spoken language, once it took hold, became the voice of thought.
…more to come
Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit. ~Carl Jung; CW 13; Paragraph 229.
Travel with me for a moment or two. Back…Back in time…even further back…to the dawn of the fullness of true self-awareness in our primitive ancestors.
What a moment it must have been when humans were able to finally know with certainty…”We are here–we exist.” Sentient human beings, at some point, were able to acknowledge, “I know that I am.” It seems likely that it was not possible to articulate this acknowledgement at first. The realization may have been simply a very rudimentary kind of “knowing.” It must have taken much longer to develop a means of expressing this fundamental acquisition. It is also likely that the earliest form of cognition was visual or composed mostly of mental images, and perhaps the initial apprehension of awareness consisted mostly of abstractions that had no practical means to be expressed except through gestures and actions which eventually drove the necessity of expressing them through the early forms of language.
Countless eons passed with no true appreciation of this fuller and more specific form of awareness or knowledge of existing as an individual, and as a larger social group or species. But when it finally appeared, it must have been astonishing to those who experienced it. Some initial form of it must have been percolating below the surface–protruding into the primitive mind. There was no formal oral language. Perhaps some rudimentary signalling or series of gestures appeared at first, which communicated urgent instinctual needs and desires. At some point, the first truly sentient humans became meaningfully self-aware. At that moment, I can only imagine how they must have opened their eyes one morning, and knew that something was completely different than the day before. It clearly must have been a gradual unfolding, not an instantaneous realization, but when it finally took hold, it began the journey toward self-realization until it eventually blossomed into modern consciousness. On that morning, the early Homo sapiens must have been awestruck, and may not have known what to do with it, or why it was there. Without language, it would be impossible to express the experience in a meaningful way. It may have been frightening in a way, even disturbing. Imagine yourself having an extraordinary experience or brand new sensation and NOT being able to ask yourself or another with words, “What is this strange sensation?” “What does it mean?”
As time progressed, the earliest individuals with this new capacity, may have begun to notice this same strange new awareness in others. Perhaps, a glance, a signal, which on a previous day would have naturally resulted in an instinctual response, at some point, saw a day when that instinctual response rose up, but was quieted, suddenly paused, or halted, or stifled. It must have been confusing, having a sense that what was happening had never happened before. Gradually, every experience which followed must have seemed, in an important way, like a new experience, unlike the others before it. The emotional response to such a radical alteration of their daily experience might have produced a degree of chaos initially, making them fearful to some degree. We can only imagine how the experience of self-awareness in each individual may have affected their interactions with others as they struggled to comprehend the ancient world. It may have been like waking up from a dream, suddenly realizing you’re awake. We all know that experience, when maybe we have a repetitious dream, one we’ve had many times, and it suddenly goes quiet. There’s a transitional moment or two when you awake and you’re startled, and you think to yourself, “My God…it was a dream,” or even, “What WAS that?…it felt so real.” For those ancient humans, it WAS real.
This capacity to be aware of being aware, might very well have been the driving force behind the development of a more complex and grammatical language, beyond the practical necessities of communicating the day-to-day urgencies of life during those early epochs. Think of all the questions that must have come up, with no words and no one to answer them but themselves. No one to look to, no guidance, no reference books, no wise elder who had already been aware for many years–nothing could have prepared them for the acquisition of such a radical alteration of their daily existence. Try to imagine what it might have been like to experience those first days and nights with full self-awareness, when it truly all came together and was realized by the individual having that experience! When we think back to our earliest childhood memories, they are like little glimpses–fleeting moments where aspects of our experiences suddenly made sense. It must have been very much like that for those early humans, perhaps having been asleep and upon waking, able now to wonder what it was all about. All those moments when they had brief flickering episodes of awareness, now could have a fuller sense of a context within which to better understand the nature of their everyday experiences.
Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. Think about what it must have been like for them to have the realization, for example, of how every clear morning they would see the sun rise above the horizon, and perhaps, before awareness, they would point to it and usually make a sound or a gesture, without realizing what it was, and now, with awareness, it felt necessary to associate that brilliant, blazing, yellow-orange ball in the sky with the gesture or by uttering a sound, as if to indicate, “There it is again, look at it!” Attempting to communicate the sentiment of the idea, not the idea itself, but the feeling which arose within them, may have been the very vehicle for associating what they saw with the gesture or sound that they uttered. At some point, others in those social groups started making the same gesture or sound when they saw the sun in the morning, and whenever any individual had that experience, they also would repeat the sound, and eventually, through repetition, that concept became accepted and associated with that sound.
After many years of primitive associative activity, and the spread of humanity throughout the different regions of the world, different developmental achievements from the various social groups were acquired, shared, and assimilated into the local cultures. The instinctive usefulness of fundamental tasks which enabled the early humans to survive, with this new awareness, could be enhanced and expanded through a more complex cultural and social development. With the eventual creation of language, the ability to teach what had been learned to ensure the survival of their children gave the early humans a unique advantage over every other species. When, at last, they descended into what would become known as the Caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, the pictures that they drew of the animals became symbols of the animals that they encountered in the world. It took many thousands of years more for the very first pictographic languages to appear, but the groundwork had been established, and the beginnings of self-awareness that gave rise to the NEED for self-expression, altered the landscape of humanity forever.
The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. Many theorists today suggest that language was acquired and spread rapidly throughout the human population once it began to appear, and although a rudimentary form of subjective consciousness may not have required it in order to exist, it may very well have made its development essential in order for the fullness of the capacity to be self-aware to unfold.
–more to come–
The evolution of life on our planet has produced an extraordinary variety and diversity of species, and the paths followed by many of the branches on the tree of life have held sway for millions of years before ending completely or splitting off into whole new species. The ability of each branch to continue into the future has depended on the ability of each particular organism to adapt to changing circumstances, or to develop capacities, talents, or skills which conferred some increased survival advantage. Those organisms which acquired the necessary advantages were able to pass them along to the next generation of offspring through a combination of genetic inheritance and by demonstrating useful survival strategies through their specific nurturing behaviors.
Anyone who spends time reviewing the recent publications in neuroscientific and cognitive studies is bound to come across the persistent urge of scientists and reductionists to equate “being conscious”–i.e. being awake, alert, and alive–with “consciousness,” which is more correctly viewed as a unified, subjective, and integrated whole phenomena, composed of and supported by a great deal more than that. This disparity within the ranks of those who investigate brain functioning leads many of them to conclude that consciousness is “generated” by the brain alone.
To be fair, every investigation into the subjective nature of human consciousness clearly must address the role of our complex cognitive apparatus in facilitating access to our subjective experience of it. Without a nominally functional brain, educated through a basic selection of life experiences, supported by a rich variety of sensory stimulation, a minimal degree of specific learning activities, access to the storage and retrieval of memories, and some proficiency with language, access to our subjective experience–the “what-it’s-like” character of being would still be taking place, but would be far less useful and be of a wholly different quality.
Our early hominid ancestors, the earliest versions of Homo sapiens, and perhaps even Homo erectus and Homo habilis, must have possessed some degree of access to consciousness, in spite of having developed only a limited capacity for cognitive awareness. When we examine what is known about the early history of humanity, and compare the progress through the millennia from the earlier versions of “modern” humans who painted images on cave walls some 35,000 years ago, to that of our 21st century human experience, it becomes clear that simply possessing the same requisite brain structure as those previous ancestors was not sufficient to allow them the immediate acquisition of sophisticated and comprehensive appreciation of our subjective experience of consciousness.
The unfolding of human consciousness, the gradual sophistication of human activities, the evolution of the human body and brain structures, and the subsequent increases in cognitive talent, eventually provided the first modern humans with an adequate foundation for apprehending the “what-it’s-like” subjective awareness of being alive, and initiated a coordination of the gradually improving array of brain functions to make use of the more unified subjective awareness of existing as a physical being in the physical universe. In order for these early humans to achieve a penetrating and subjective self-awareness required them to possess not only a nominally functional brain, supported by an equally functional central nervous system, enhanced by each of the sensory systems which provided the necessary neural stimulation for the developing brain, but also to have a reasonably healthy body that was ambulatory with basic cardiovascular and digestive functionality as well. The sustained integration of all these bodily and cognitive functions over tens of thousands of years eventually became sufficient to bring subjective awareness into fullness, which established the groundwork for the development of language, and the subsequent ability to express that awareness in a meaningful way.
Clearly, even before the arrival of Homo sapiens, some previous and more limited versions of this basic awareness, which might have been present in the hominid populations as the threshold for our more comprehensive cognitive awareness approached a minimal level, may have provided the seeds for the blossoming of our ability to more fully access consciousness as we do in our 21st century world. Many of the advantages and advances along the way for human beings socially, culturally, and cognitively have been enriched and expanded by our subsequent evolution since humans first began to demonstrate their capacity for intelligence and self-awareness, and became more evident as a fuller and more comprehensive human subjective awareness became commonplace.
As with most other human capacities, cognition is absolutely essential to our survival, and while we need our miraculous brains to make sense of experiences, to retain memories, and to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe, each of our capacities provides a vital component, and our bodies and each of our sensory and biological systems contribute essential elements that make experiential functionality useful. While our brain represents the central locus of our mental activity, and acts as the coordinator of both bodily and cognitive functions, simply “being conscious,”–alert and awake–does not describe the comprehensive phenomena of consciousness, and to suggest that the brain alone “generates” consciousness reduces this profoundly important aspect of our humanity to merely being another bodily function like respiration and digestion.
Enormously important contributions are being made all the time in neuroscience and cognitive studies, and pursuing the goals of these endeavors helps us to more fully appreciate the astonishing array of important discoveries that often result from attention to them. Surely, in the interest of scientific curiosity and advancement in all areas of human understanding DEMANDS that we remain open to other possible areas of contribution to such a complex and profoundly important phenomena as our subjective experience of consciousness.
In our fast-paced, technologically-driven, and supposedly “hyper-connected” existence in the 21st century, we often do not recognize or appreciate fully the depth of our interconnectedness to all the other living entities, and at times, even less to the natural environment in which we exist, and upon which we are so dependent for our existence. The connections that do seem to pervade modern life these days are often superficially brief in length, shallow in depth, and far less enduring and substantial than our capacities as sentient beings have provided since we first walked upright as modern humans. The capacity to “be aware of…sensitive to…and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others,” without necessarily having to communicate them “in an objectively explicit manner,” imparts an invaluable and clear survival advantage, and unless we begin to reduce the emphasis on the technological side of communicating, and balance it with a greater appreciation for the full range of “feelings, thoughts, and experiences,” of all the varieties of life on our planet, our ability to utilize this capacity may, like any other skill, eventually atrophy from neglect.
How might we reasonably reduce our increasing dependence on the less personal and ubiquitous forms of interaction, and tip the balance back toward a greater understanding and appreciation of the whole community of life on Earth? The most important first step is to raise our awareness of our unique potential as individuals. Achieving this awareness requires a deliberate, persistent effort, and a mindfulness of purpose. Just as the millions of individual neurons in the brain act together in a symbiosis of numerous neural systems to permit access to a unified individual human consciousness, the collective and coordinated efforts of millions of human individuals could ultimately manifest as a kind of planetary consciousness; a metaphorical “global-self,” that would enrich and support a global community, increasing the likelihood of the achievement of a more peaceful and bountiful world.
In order to pursue this objective successfully, we must be willing to open our hearts and minds, and to consider the possibility that our lives, and our very existence in the physical universe, may be supported by forces or energies which, while clearly existent in some form or dimension of that universe, cannot presently be perceived directly by our physical sensory systems. Empathy in this context demonstrates this possibility well. Gaining a true understanding and vicarious appreciation of the experiences of another sentient being, while acknowledging no objective or explicit means of accomplishing the task, points toward a capacity that, in some way, creates opportunities for moments of transcendence. We all have them; a hunch that a particular way of solving a problem will work; a worrisome feeling that something is wrong with someone we love; an immediate and overwhelming sensation of connection and familiarity with someone we’ve just met; having the same thought at the same time as someone with us; even particularly vivid dream events that later manifest as real-time events–or a strong feeling of deja vu.
Photo is of a Moroccan ammonite from the Cretaceous period (Albian stage approx. 100 mya), cut longitudinally and polished.
As inexplicable as these moments can be when they occur, often with no discernible cause or clear conscious motivation, we are compelled to respond to them because we intuitively “know” that we must. If we examine these intuitive urges and the significance of the connections associated with them, we can begin to uncover what it might be that links us to each other, and to every epoch of time. Life on our planet today still resonates with the ancient life from millions of years ago, as is evidenced in the photo above, which shows the fossilized shell of an extinct ammonite, which is related to our modern octopus and squid. Discerning some sort of connection to an extinct life form, (or indeed to an octopus) while far from being a clear or direct link for most people, can be accomplished when placed in the context of the abundant life that has flourished on our humble planet since life first emerged billions of years ago. We tend not to think of such life as even relevant to us today, except when we examine life intimately, and contemplate the complex paths of evolution and contingency which led to mammals and primates and ultimately to humans. The very survival of our species may depend on our ability to apprehend the full significance of our interconnection to life in all of its manifestations.
In my previous post, I suggested that we need to consider more comprehensively how we are altering the changing landscape of our own evolution as cognitive creatures in ways that may end up being disadvantageous, by focusing too narrowly on aspects which offer only temporary or limited advantages. Our progress as modern humans, which resulted from adaptive utilization of our increased cognitive abilities over thousands of years, points to important developmental differences, which may indicate that further variance can be expected, and we must consider the profound implications of the character of that variance, before we lose our way.
David Lewis-Williams, in his recent book entitled, “The Mind in the Cave,” reports the reactions of three individuals who investigated the now famous cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in Ardeche, France, placed there by our ancient ancestors some 35,000 years ago:
“Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artist’s souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.”
David goes on to question how it is that modern people are “rational enough to travel to the moon,” but still believe in “supernatural entities and forces that transcend all the laws of physics on which (the) moon journey depended.” The suggestion that the laws of physics are somehow incompatible with the existence of supernatural forces is at the very heart of many of the barriers to progress in understanding consciousness. These are not really opposing forces or mutually exclusive in my view. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the difficulty in coming to terms with or to attempt to explain the nature of the subjective experience of human consciousness. There are all sorts of unanswered questions that may, at some point, be answerable through empirical methodology, and what we know already is nothing short of miraculous in its own way.
Just as we can determine a link to extinct ancient marine life forms to those existent in our oceans currently, these modern explorers experienced what could only be described as a moment of some sort of “shared consciousness,” which not only suggests an intimate link to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the cave artists, but also to a profound connection to all life, in every epoch, and along the way on the journey of discovery to unveil the true nature of subjective experience, it is completely plausible to me that our capacity for empathy, and the intimate nature of consciousness itself, may contain elements which we inherited or somehow retained from our distant ancestors. The link, I believe lies in the very nature of consciousness itself. Many of the people involved in the research of the subject struggle with the inexplicable nature of subjective experience because they seem insistent on finding an empirical solution which eludes us. Resisting our intuitive, empathetic, and natural inclinations, or shutting the door on alternative viewpoints because we are unable to demonstrate some empirical cause and effect is, in my view, one of the main obstacles to achieving further progress.
We have become so enamored of the scientific in our technology-driven world, that any theory which even hints at the possibility of a metaphysical component is increasingly considered daydreaming or irrelevant. And yet, throughout human history, there have been otherwise scientifically sound ideas which have been considered equally irrelevant in their time, whose proponents were either dismissed or even arrested for advocating them. Today, we should recognize that it is only through encouraging new or alternative ideas that we can expand our understanding of our complex nature. If we can find a way to open up the range of our current social context with regard to our ideas about consciousness, we may also find our way back to increased empathy and intimacy, which will tip the balance back toward our inherited capacities, and may even ensure the survival of our species.
Freedom of the Human Spirit, is a 28-foot-tall bronze figurative sculpture that sits just to the east of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was created by Marshall M. Fredericks for the 1964 World’s Fair.
“The development of science and of the creative activities of the spirit in general requires still another kind of freedom, which may be characterized as inward freedom. It is this freedom of the spirit which consists in the independence of thought from the restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudices as well as from un-philosophical routinizing and habit in general. This inward freedom is an infrequent gift of nature and a worthy objective for the individual.”
–from an article “On Freedom,” Einstein, 1954
In my previous post, I began an exploration of how our subjective experience of consciousness suggests to me that there may be a kind of intimacy at the very heart of it, connecting our temporal existence with a transcendent aspect of our nature as humans. Since it is our experience of the world which results in the establishment of new neural networks and strengthening of existent ones in some cases, we can follow the process within which these activities manifest as actual physical changes in the structure of the brain, demonstrating in a much clearer way, how there may be a connection between this process and our intimate relationship with the subjective experience of consciousness. In both postings, I began with a quote from Albert Einstein, in which one of the greatest scientific minds of human history, somehow found a way to link our experience of the world to the human spirit, while also acknowledging our intimate connection to everyone and everything else in the universe. The quote suggests that an “inward freedom,” to pursue our thoughts without interference or prejudice is not only a necessity, but an outright gift only infrequently enjoyed in those pursuits.
As usual, while my mind is so occupied with the subjects of my writing, it is in a fierce competition with my heart and my emotions, which makes my subjective experience feel tumultuous and profoundly affective. At times like these, my inner life stirs to almost fever pitch, and the mundane tasks and topics for conversation seem almost intrusive to me. I crave the connection to the intimacy of consciousness, and to commune with like spirits who connect with me there, but I cannot abandon social conventions completely, in consideration of others. And yet, I could easily wish to fly away from most other circumstances in order to delve into the intimate world of consciousness, in favor of a connection that brings me directly into the heart of it. The photo above came out of a moment of intense solitude as the day ended recently, while simultaneously sensing my connection to a deeper experience of the world just beyond the horizon.
An intense feeling of restlessness, which began in earnest more than 30 years ago now, has never left me and weighs heavily on my heart as I write. Contemplating the passage of time, and the lives of my ancestors both ancient and familial, has brought my thoughts of the human spirit to the forefront of my mind. I sense that there is a connection between my personal heritage and the heritage as a human being on Earth, and at moments such as these, the rhythms of my heart, mind, and soul seem to merge in the fullness of the moment. I believe it is an important component of any attempt to define or describe our subjective experience to at least examine the delicate balance between the science and the mystery of what might be behind all the science, and to consider the distinction between what makes the brain work, and what there is about cognitive creatures whose brains work this way that results in access to the subjective experience of the world, with regard to both the phenomenal and the abstract.
Over the millennia since humans first became truly conscious in a meaningful way, able to demonstrate in a clear way that they not only knew they existed, but could recall events, thoughts, and ideas and convey them adequately to other sentient beings, human consciousness has continued to evolve, allowing for an expansion of cognitive functions far more useful than what these earliest humans possessed. Our own 21st century version of cognitive ability is mirrored in our advancing technological innovation, and increased our access to a fuller and far richer experience of consciousness today. As with most periods of prodigious innovation and adaptation, we suffer losses and gain advantages, and the changes which offer the most advantageous outcomes are usually selected. We humans are beginning to alter this scenario profoundly by periodically selecting disadvantageous behaviors, and by focusing too narrowly on others, which may only offer a temporary or limited advantage.
During the Enlightenment, a particularly important period of transition in our understanding of the world generally, and the true birth and burgeoning of modern science, we increased and expanded our comprehension of the world in such a profound way, that we began to develop our responses to our increased understanding, seeing further and digging deeper, both temporally and spiritually, without necessarily realizing the full spectrum of consequences that would result from doing so. It is not so surprising, that modern scientists and materialists of every variety have such a difficult time reconciling the facts of neuroscience with the subjective experience of consciousness, since by far, the most astonishing aspect of our understanding is that consciousness even exists at all. Based on what is currently known of our neural functioning, since there is no definitive scientific evidence that consciousness even exists, our subjective experience of it, which is so real to us as individuals living inside ourselves, flies completely in the face of the materialist view.
It is becoming clearer, as we view the behaviors of humans all over the world, that an even greater expansion of consciousness, and achieving a better understanding of the full range of its power and source, may be one of the most important undertakings of this and all future generations.
“The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history; here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals.” – C.G.Jung, 1934
Recent events in my life have shaken me to the core. In spite of all my efforts to come to terms with my very human nature, and to understand and appreciate more fully the human experience, I still struggle to comprehend it all. Even in view of what might be described as a degree of progress toward a greater understanding, my life as an individual continues to require additional reflection and contemplation, in order to approach the transformation that Jung addressed in the quote above.
Our individual lives are, to some degree, a mirror of the development of all life on this planet. Our beginnings are microscopic; our progression as a fetus in the womb has many of the features and developmental qualities of the life forms which existed prior to the emergence of 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 growth 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 generations of advancement in human consciousness, which in many ways has accounted for our continued survival as a species.
Looking at the events in the march of humanity from ancient times demonstrates a progression that could be compared to the maturation of a human child into adulthood. Two-thousand years ago the Mayans built pyramids in Mexico and Central America and developed their own version of a hieroglyphic writing system, mathematics, and a functional calendar.
More than a thousand years ago, Buddhist worshipers dug by hand the caves of Kumtura in Western China, hoping to attain advancement in the next life, painting elaborate portraits of the bodhisattvas on domes constructed in the shrines.
Seven hundred years ago, tens of thousands of Anasazi Indians practiced ancestral religious rituals on the Colorado plateau, suddenly abandoning their cliff dwellings around 1300 A.D., leaving behind symbolic artwork on the sheer rock walls.
As recently as five hundred years ago, in the Peruvian Andes, a young teenage girl was ritually sacrificed on the summit of Ampato as an act of worship to the “mountain gods.” Slowly, the world of the ancients started to unravel and the ancient models of Aristotle and Ptolemy eventually gave way to the heliocentric solar system of Copernicus, the laws of planetary motion of Kepler, and the gravitational theory of Newton. This momentous revolution in human awareness brought with it an upheaval of almost every long-held conception of cause and effect in the world. Humanity began to re-evaluate their individual experiences in relation to these changes, turning away from age-old mythologies as a means of coming to terms with the inexplicable, setting the stage for the accelerating momentum towards a more comprehensive perspective.
In virtually every culture in the world people have progressed socially and gained psychologically from the individual perspective achieved through introspection. Once Homo sapiens acquired this capacity, they began to see themselves as part of a much larger and more expansive world. They started painting images on cave walls, indicating a growing comprehension of who they were, and developing a whole range of skills which enhanced their survival. Over thousands of years, as our comprehension grew, so too did our ability to gain from a greater understanding of ourselves. Once writing and formal grammatical language became commonplace, and humans had a way of expressing this understanding, the awakening to an inner world of thought provided the foundation for the many great intellectual achievements of human history.
Some of the greatest minds in that history, from the ancient world of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, through the epoch of Newton, Galileo, Da Vinci, and Shakespeare, all the way through to the modern world of Descartes, Darwin, Emerson, and Einstein, not only embraced the value of introspection, but also left us a record of the results of their contemplation in volumes of notebooks and journals which are rich in the benefits gleaned from their individual “self-reflection.”
Through the acquisition of self-knowledge and the nurturing of our inner worlds, we can attune ourselves to the realm of what can be, and through determined effort, eventually create an environment conducive to shaping future events. In this way, each individual contributes to the currents that steer them, and that is our doorway to tomorrow.
Life, for me, began rather precariously and very nearly ended as soon as it began. As I entered the world, all of the normal techniques for encouraging a baby to breathe were not succeeding. I was, in the terminology of the day, a “blue baby.” According to my parents, in a last desperate attempt to stimulate breathing, the doctor struck me on the back of the head, which (thankfully) was sufficient to urge the first cry to fill my lungs with the necessary oxygen. From that day forward, many of my finest moments, as well as movements in new directions, have come about as a result of similarly abrupt events.
As each of us begins life, we aren’t exactly a blank slate. We are programmed to an extent by our human DNA, constructed of genetic material contributed by our parents, commingled in the dance of conception, created in a confluence of chromosomes, and we inherit a variety of characteristics as a member of our species. For some, this represents a formidable source of predisposal to all sorts of inclinations, and constitutes an overwhelming tendency toward an irrevocable human nature. However, neuronal development in the human brain from before birth to adolescence involves an amazingly complex process, which ultimately results in the writing of our essential mental record. Assuming generally good health and a sufficient degree of nurturing by our circumstances after birth (and providing that we are not deliberately manipulated), in general terms, we are essentially an unwritten record.
Nature has equipped us to survive and thrive by perpetuating a marvelous and rare evolutionary flexibility. We are, under most circumstances, purely and simply, a bundle of potentiality, unencumbered at birth by deliberate or malicious influences. Much depends on what happens after we are born. In spite of an array of inherited obstacles over the millennia, humans have displayed an exceptional capacity for innovation and may follow any number of paths.
There are both daunting limitations and extraordinary possibilities inherent in the evolutionary process, and in spite of powerful genetic predisposition, humans have demonstrated time and again the ability to overcome these limitations and take advantage of the possibilities that result from our adaptive nature. No one may violate the laws of physics, of course, but determined effort and persistence have led humanity through some of the most daunting challenges that nature can conjure.
Wholly separate from the science of life–biology, evolution, and cosmology–lies the underlying source of life–some sort of primal causality. Somewhere over the hundreds of thousands of years since the first inklings of conscious awareness stirred within us as a species, we eventually reached a level of cognitive ability that permitted us to wonder about the nature of phenomenal existence. As we evolved, we sought to understand what it is that animates the living of a phenomenal life. With the advent of civilization and symbolic writing, we began to record our ideas and images, eventually creating everything from ancient rituals to virtual reality, from astrology to astrophysics, from pharaohs to philosophy.
Is life simply just mysterious, or are there transcendent aspects of perception, or ineffable components to consciousness, or certain undiscovered capacities within us, that leave open the possibility of an essential and fundamental mystical element? One need only review their most profound experiences, their most intuitive responses to the unexpected events in their lives, and become acquainted with the whole range of inscrutable human experience through history, to begin to suspect that there may be more to life than meets the eye. Whether this equates to something that defies explanation, or to a mystery that simply hasn’t been unraveled as yet, the full exploration of our very human nature sometimes requires us to reach beyond what is definitive, and ponder the possible in whatever direction our hearts and minds and spirits lead us. To do anything else is to limit our search and our selves.