“Understand that the body is merely the foam of a wave, the shadow of a shadow.” — Buddha
Eric Kandel, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons in 2000, in his book, “In Search of Memory,” emphasized the “biology of mind,” by reminding us that:
“Each mental function in the brain–from the simplest reflex to the most creative acts in language, music, and art–is carried out by specialized neural circuits in different regions of the brain…the cellular mechanisms of learning and memory reside not in the special properties of the neuron itself, but in the connections it receives and makes with other cells in the neural circuit to which it belongs.”
He announces at the outset that his personal quest to understand memory “…has intersected with one of the greatest scientific endeavors–the attempt to understand mind in cellular and molecular biological terms.” Amazingly, on page 149, he still acknowledged that he “…learned from experience that there are many situations in which one cannot decide on the basis of cold facts alone, because facts are often insufficient. One ultimately has to trust one’s unconscious, one’s instincts, one’s creative urge.”
The more I learn about brain physiology and the complex interactions amongst the microscopic neural substrates, and the subsequent results of such interactions, the more it seems to me that all of it points toward a synthesis–or symbiosis–of many functions that ultimately provides us with the means to achieve an awareness of our subjective experience.
The complex physiology of brain functions; the interdependence of multiple neural networks; the coordination and integration of numerous brain regions–all these and more as-yet-undetected or poorly-understood components of cognitive function, when operating at a minimally functional level, allow the perception of our subjective experience of our existence to enter conscious awareness. What we describe as “the perception of subjective experience,” is the result of these “components of cognitive function,” operating at least at a minimally optimal level. However, while all varieties of perception–the perception of light by the eye; of scents by the nose; of sound by the ear; of taste by the tongue; and of touch by the skin–require each relative sensory system to be sufficiently functional, those systems do not “create” the light, the scent, the sound, the taste or the touch. Perception, while essential to experience, does not “create” experience, but rather, it facilitates our awareness of the experience.
This is one of the main reasons that attempting to define the subjective experience of consciousness as the result of brain physiology alone misses the mark in my opinion. A much more likely explanation for the “what it’s like” experience of our existence could come from broadening our views to include a recognition that the Universe and every temporal aspect and condition of that existence might well be a manifest expression of some form of cosmically inclusive and fundamentally inherent force like electromagnetism or gravity. The precise nature of this force, while elusive and profoundly complex, may well be a phenomenon which is expressed by and which becomes visible and tangible as the Universe. It is due to our cognitive abilities as humans with a highly complex brain and central nervous system that we are able to enjoy experience and to express our awareness of it. It is much more likely in my view that human consciousness is a consciousness that is not produced BY us, but rather one of which we are aware and that is made manifest THROUGH us.
Our extraordinary brains allow us to quickly process an astonishing array of sensory and cognitive data, and to integrate both conscious experience and unconscious contents, through which we gain access to an expanded awareness. Knowing we exist, being able to think, and being able to express our awareness of existing and thinking, through our higher cognitive functions, provides us with a conduit for consciousness–a transcendent link between the tangible and the intangible. The life that we know as sentient beings may well be like the foam of a wave. The fragility of the foam is only a harbinger of the force of the ocean tides, which are brought to life through a much greater force beyond the earth itself. We do not experience the pull of the moon’s gravity directly, but we are, nonetheless, existent within a universe which includes that gravity–a shadow of a shadow.
“Memory performs the impossible for man; holds together past and present, gives continuity and dignity to human life.” — Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education, 1943
“In a large sense, learning and memory are central to our very identity. They make us who we are.” — Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory, 2006
“Has it ever struck you…that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going? It’s really all memory…except for each passing moment.” — Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, 1963
As I contemplated the landscapes along the highways on my way across the United States in 1975, I began to sense more than just the wider world through which I was passing, and often found myself absorbed by persistent thoughts in my mind, still bubbling from all that I had experienced in the extraordinary hills and valleys of California, and still haunted by the traumatic events in Massachusetts. The world had suddenly become utterly incomprehensible in some ways, and every moment of the journey held another new experience–each equally fascinating from my perspective as a traveler, and oddly troublesome in the degree of uncertainty I felt as I approached the unknown.
The stark desert scenes along the way through the American West were startling to me in a way that felt both unsettling and wondrous. Traversing the sweeping desert vistas of New Mexico and Arizona, I often felt the urge to pull the car over and just stare at these scenes. As oddly as it seemed, they felt familiar to me. I couldn’t understand the feeling at the time, but somehow knew that it would all start to make sense before long. The stunning and occasionally unnerving dreams that had been pervasive and even intrusive in Massachusetts and California, subsided during this trip, and I slept peacefully most nights in a way that seemed to escape me at all other times.
My arrival back on the East Coast was triumphant in my mind. I had survived the dark night of the soul, and the threat of death, and journeyed thousands of miles across the USA in a remarkable and healing transitional experience. For a short time, the dreams that had interposed themselves in my psyche faded, and I was able to recuperate, and reclaim some of my previous confidence in going forward to the next stop along the way. Visiting with my family was always restorative and rejuvenating; an oasis in the desert of uncertainty that I always seemed to find myself in those days. As the time for returning to military service approached, I felt compelled to review my writings, and as I did, new images and thoughts started to appear in my nightly dreams. In the excerpt that follows, I begin to sense a connection to the “ancient mountain of memory,” and prepared to go deeper into the abyss:
The Forest Within
“Away from the routines of the everyday, I find my heart in turmoil, withholding the silent sound of my true voice. I can hear the strains of music that have sparked hidden fires, whose embers refuse to be extinguished, nor can I seem to leave them undisturbed long enough for them to simply run out of fuel. The spirit that embodies these fires haunts me in the tremulous strains of familiar and beloved memory. Held at bay by the thinnest of barriers, my most persistent attempts have failed utterly to relinquish the wisps of flame that languish in the furthest reaches of the forest within. The trees grow even still in splendor that penetrates my visions of centuries past, and through the countless millenniums of ancient memory.
When not persuaded by necessity to avoid them, I walk these woods, through dazed states of mind and melancholy. Occasional streams of sunlight peak through the dense forest canopy to reach my face and my heart. Echoes of ancient music reverberate through the thick layers of trees and against the faces of the great cliffs of stone, which hold the forest to the earth. Every so often, the strains of a familiar pattern of notes catches me unaware, and I am transported momentarily to that place–the clearing at the center of the forest–where I find the living memory itself. Each time, I am undone by the clarity and the durability of these memories, and each time, they penetrate deeper within, and stay hidden longer.”
Jonas Rice lived in colonial America, and was one of the founders of the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. He served as a soldier in the struggle of American independence and made important contributions to that effort. Jonas and I came to be linked when his name appeared in the writings that burst forth from me during what Jung describes as an “eruption of unconscious contents,” that brought forth the original document from that experience. My discovery of his tombstone in the center of Worcester literally took my breath away, and I could not shake the sense that he was a part of me somehow.
In those early days, before I had a clear idea about what was happening to me, I felt as though Jonas was alive in me. As a member of an active continental regiment with the U.S.Army, I felt certain that my role in that organization was part of my destiny. There clearly was a purpose to these events, but it was clear also, that it would take time for me to understand it all.
…..next time….the document itself…