January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.
The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.
After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:
“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”
While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.
On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.
I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.
With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.
Some of the most personally compelling spiritual experiences of my life took place long before I could even identify them as being spiritual. My earliest memories of childhood were punctuated periodically with moments of a kind of “unconscious awareness” of energies or forces beyond my direct experience of the world; occasionally precipitating unplanned and unexpected eruptions from within me, which would often feel like being immersed in water for a brief time. Several early episodes of actually being immersed in water over my head in the lake during family vacations brought this feeling on as well, but the feelings were just as vivid and occasionally overwhelming when they occurred during equally compelling moments on dry land. I vividly remember the visceral experience of immersion in lake water bringing to mind these “spiritual immersions”– moments of profound mystery and perplexing confusion as a child, which felt like a completely normal part of my experience of the world at that time, but which now, upon reflection, seem almost “other-worldly.”
There were a number of episodes where I felt certain that I was seeing the world through the eyes of someone else; as though another personality had taken up temporary residence within me, and I felt as though my presence in those moments was simply as a witness, as this other person perceived the goings on around me. Although it was a bit confusing at times, and not especially pleasant to have these experiences, I never felt anxious or afraid while having them. Fear of what took place inside me was something that only became real during my indoctrination into the world of religious fervor in the years of primary education in the Catholic school system. As my training in catechism and church doctrines progressed, I eventually became fearful that there was something wrong inside of me, and after hearing about what happened to the “fallen angels,” who went against God during the beginning stages of the creation of heaven and earth, I concluded that it would be best not to tell anyone about these experiences.
Dreams that I had as a child often contained extraordinary content, well beyond my limited ability to decipher them or to understand the imagery in any comprehensible way. Again, just as it seemed in my waking experience of the world, although I could not identify specifically the nature or source of the dream imagery at all times, the vivid experiences within the dreams themselves felt absolutely real to me and I did not question their validity or reality in any way. It was simply part of the fabric of my experience, which I innocently accepted as completely natural and normal in a child’s eye-view. Reporting the content of my dreams or expressing confusion about what I felt inside was always met with either dismissal as being “silly,” or discouraged as a topic for conversation. For years after starting school, I felt increasingly uneasy about not being “allowed” to talk about my experiences, and eventually abandoned hope that I would ever understand any of it well.
The death of my beloved brother when I was only eight years old was pivotal in this regard. The absolute silence which accompanied this tragedy caused me great concern that I might somehow have contributed to his demise, even though it was never inferred or spoken of out loud. My inner world was thrown into a degree of chaos and grief that was unprecedented in my brief life, but in some ways, it solidified my belief that there were forces and energies beyond my comprehension at work in the world, and somehow, I was aware of their existence without any expectation of gaining an understanding from my small circle of family, school, and church. I was utterly alone within myself, and eventually began to suppress all such inclinations, except when forced by some extraordinary event to consider them again.
Death became something to be feared, and thoughts about death were to be avoided at all costs. A young girl who was hit by a car and killed when I was in third or fourth grade became a traumatic experience for me when I was forced to attend the viewing along with everyone else in my class at the time. It was explained that our attendance would be of great comfort to the grieving parents, and our display of sadness would let them know they were not alone in their grief. I was not sad. I was terrified.
As I grew up, the death of other loved ones, particularly my grandparents, and a beloved uncle, forced me to consider what it meant to be a living person, and what losing life truly meant. The church seemed to categorize life as a temporary housing of the soul within a body, with conception before birth constituting the moment when a soul was introduced into a body, and the loss of life as the moment when the soul left the body. This imagery made a strange kind of sense to me, although it was also still incomplete and unsatisfying as an explanation of my own experience of being alive. I hungered to understand more completely, and for a time, seriously tried to allow the Catholic worldview to fill in the gaps. The devotion to the church and its teachings displayed by my parents and extended family of adults gave me the idea that I was somehow missing the necessary components of faith, belief, and devotion, and I did my best to participate in the rituals and adhere to the rules, hoping that an understanding might eventually just dawn on me.
When I entered high school, I secretly began to question the years of indoctrination into the Catholic worldview, and as I did, my spiritual life began to unravel. I complied unquestioningly with the expectations of my parents and teachers, joining several of the extracurricular religious activities sponsored by the Franciscan priests who taught at the school, but for every actual “spiritual” experience that I encountered there and elsewhere, there were many others that made me question what I was being taught in theology class. I enjoyed the opportunity to read the more advanced writings of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assisi, and found books about saints like St. Theresa of Avila inspiring and interesting, but they did not seem to satisfactorily address the questions that kept arising within me about my own soul, and my own experience of the world.
Although it was only in later life that I was fully able to appreciate it, I know now that I was extremely fortunate, as it turned out, to have a Catholic priest in my immediate family; Rev. Thomas Flanigan, affectionately known as “Father Tom,” a cousin who grew up with my mother. As a young boy, we would visit the Flanigans in upstate New York, and inevitably, at the conclusion of our visits, we would all kneel down, and my father would ask Father Tom to give us his blessing. Several times, I was lucky enough to be the one kneeling in front of him when this moment came, and he would place his hand on my head, giving me the momentary sensation of floating, infusing me with a fullness of spirit in that brief moment that I never experienced at any other time in exactly that way, or to that degree. There was something extraordinary about Father Tom, and as an adult, I sought him out several times when I was in some sort of crisis spiritually.
Just being in his presence was spiritually uplifting. I could feel myself opening to the radiance of his spirit as soon as I saw him. His unconditional acceptance of me as a person, and his non-judgmental approach to counseling was unprecedented in all my other interactions with religious people of every sort. One experience in particular produced in me one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of my life.
I had been invited by Father Tom to stay with him in the priest’s rectory during a weekend visit to attend a wedding of one of my own first cousins. When the invitation was offered, it was enthusiastically accepted by me, even though it seemed a bit strange that it was only offered to me. I was struggling at the time with my faith, and even though I hadn’t spoken to him directly about it, he seemed to recognize the need in me, and when I arrived at the rectory, he greeted me warmly and embraced me in the hallway entrance.
We talked briefly about the schedule for the wedding, and he extended the invitation to include serving as the altar boy at mass on the Sunday following the wedding. I agreed immediately and looked forward to the privilege of serving mass with him. I had been an altar boy in my own church for years, but it had been a while since my last opportunity to serve and I was a little nervous that morning as I prepared to join him at the church. It was an early mass, and there were only a handful of people in the pews, but from witnessing the actions and demeanor of Father Tom, you might have thought there were hundreds of parishioners in attendance. I assisted him in preparing for the service, just as I always had with other priests, but at that moment it felt much more like a sacred duty, and although it was conducted in silence, I felt completely confident in responding to his unspoken instructions.
Right before the service was about to begin, I stood off to the side of the altar, in the doorway leading out into the church, and watched as Father Tom prepared the altar and set up the items he would use to celebrate the mass. I was immediately struck by the degree of reverence he gave to the task, and marveled at the painstaking attention he gave to the details of his preparation. For several minutes, I felt an overwhelming sense of my own personal spirit rising up within me. Father Tom seemed to be glowing–radiant–amazingly calm and reverent. It was an unforgettable moment. At the conclusion of the service, during which I had to be periodically reminded of what to do, I was once again in silence in the sacristy, assisting Father Tom with changing out of his ritual attire, and when the moment came, I knelt down in front of him, and he laid his hand on my head, and gave me his blessing. I was near tears, but with a joyful heart.
When the time came to leave, I found it difficult to gather up my clothes and put them into my overnight bag, and even more difficult to say goodbye at the door to the rectory. Prior to departing, the day before, I had found a greeting card in the local drugstore with the Ziggy cartoon character on the front, with the words, “Thank Heaven…” On the inside of the card it said, “…for people like you.” I left it on the dresser of his room on the way out. For a long time afterwards, I felt as though I had reconnected to my personal spirit in a way that I had fervently wished to do, but had not been able to do for a long time.
There were a few other opportunities over the years to enjoy time with Father Tom, including one in which he invited me to spend the weekend with him at his lakefront retirement home in upstate New York. During what would be my last visit with him before he died, I was given the privilege to join him in his daily “vespers,” the prayers that he was obligated to say every day upon rising and before beginning his day as a priest. I was stunned to be permitted to share in what was normally a private ritual, and was able to recite most of the appropriate prayer responses during our walk around the lake, as the sun peeked out above the horizon. In spite of being mostly estranged from the church at the time, I never recall feeling more like a participant in the ritual of prayer than I did on that morning.
These recollections span nearly my whole conscious experience of being alive, and connect me to the core of my familial history in ways that would have been impossible to imagine in their absence. I am profoundly grateful to have known these particular spiritual experiences during my lifetime, but these moments, as significant as they were, took place amidst an even greater variety of spiritual events, and it seems likely to me that my introduction to the diverse paths of the “specific avenues to spirituality,” which began in my early twenties as a young soldier in Europe during the “Cold War,” and which continue to this day as I enter my sixth decade of life, contributed in numerous significant ways to the broad scope of my current appreciation of the spiritual nature of humanity in general, and of consciousness in particular.
For most of my early adult life, I struggled with my place in the world, searching for ways to express the deeper truth I felt certain resided within me, and several important and occasionally traumatic events in my youth and early adulthood inspired me to pursue a greater understanding of the nature of humanity itself, which I came to believe had a clearly spiritual foundation, which was unambiguously expressed in the human subjective experience of consciousness. The journey has been, at times, arduous and painful in the extreme, but also, at other times, astonishing and illuminating in equal measure. Based on several decades of investigation into a wide range of spiritual, scientific, philosophical, and psychological subjects, I recently began to describe and elucidate the results of my investigations into these experiences in my personal blog called, “John’s Consciousness,” on WordPress.com. While I have worked diligently to include both the empirical and the ineffable in my ruminations, the avenues of spirituality seem to resonate as those which point most prominently in the direction of my personal understanding. I do not now adhere to any particular religious practice, and while I recognize that many other people are able to find their spiritual center in a specific formal religion, all of my encounters with them have continuously pointed toward a more universal character to spirituality that does not require a specific framework in order to achieve a profound and rich spiritual life.
The subjects related to investigating the very beginnings of and foundation for consciousness, and the evidence for its first inklings in our ancient ancestors, is so compelling for me that I can barely contain myself when the subject comes up, and although there is a fairly wide range of opinion about the implications which can be drawn from earliest indications of the awareness of subjective experience by the early humans, for me, the evidence available in this regard, and the ubiquity of spiritual avenues and pursuits in nearly every human culture since the dawn of humanity, are an unambiguous expression of a deeply spiritual character to life itself, and by implication, to our inner lives as cognitive human beings.
After surviving a profound psychological, spiritual, and emotional event in my early twenties, which erupted within me as a young soldier in the service of my country, I began to search for some way to reconcile my experience by investigating the science of the brain, various principles in psychology and philosophy, as well as a number of avenues to spirituality. Without holding one above the other, or limiting myself to what was familiar, my reading and research often suggested avenues of investigation which I followed willingly, hoping to gain some further appreciation of my own inner turmoil.
One of the first and most influential sources of spiritual illumination came with my introduction to the writings of the famous Lebanese philosopher, poet, and spiritual author, Kahlil Gibran. As a young man, I served in the military overseas in Europe for two years. During that time, I came across Gibran’s writings as a result of a gift from a friend of his book, “The Prophet.” Within its pages, Gibran speaks to many of the central issues of human and spiritual life. Few have been able to express so eloquently, a view of the universal truths of our nature as both human and spiritual beings. His grasp of the inner workings of the human spirit, and his ability to inspire a sense of lightness and joy regarding human life, makes him one of the truly timeless spiritual writers for the wisdom of any age. I often sought him out throughout my many investigations, in moments of repose, as well as those of despair and need.
One of the most important passages for me, taken from his book, “Secrets of the Heart,” speaks of the beauty of life and in all of nature:
“Beauty is that which attracts the soul…when you meet Beauty, you feel that the hands deep within your inner self are stretched forth to bring it into the domain of your heart…
It is the Unseen, which you see…And the Vague, which you understand…
And the Mute, which you hear…
It is the Holy of Holies, that begins in yourself and ends vastly beyond any earthly imagining.
Truly, I say to you that thoughts have a higher dwelling place than the visible world.”
With these words, I began to understand the relationship between the mind of thoughts and the spirit of the inner self that transcends “the visible world.” He intimates that our perception of beauty is the natural result of our longing for something which exists “vastly beyond any earthly imagining.” While reading Gibran’s, “The Tempest,” I was amazed at the depth of his spirituality and his ability to express so clearly the thoughts and feelings related to the questions we all seek to answer. Many of Gibran’s writings have informed my spiritual views over the years, and he was one of the first individuals who was able to speak to the very heart of my spiritual self, and he remains relevant to me today as I navigate through my research into the non-physical aspects of our very human nature.
Another profoundly influential source of spiritual guidance and illumination came when I began to investigate the principles of transcendental meditation. While living in what was then called the “Federal Republic of Germany,” (West Germany was divided from East Germany at the time.) I began to take a serious interest in writing poetry, which I had done periodically in high school and in my early college years, and during my review of books of poetry and about poets, starting with Gibran, I came across a reference to the Upanishads, the mystical writings of Hinduism, which have many passages that include poetry, and some that are completely in verse. At the time, I had not looked into Hinduism before, and wasn’t familiar with the ideas it contained, but was intrigued by the verses which seemed to speak to the idea of a “universal soul,” or Brahman, as well as the “innermost individual soul,” or atman. These were unfamiliar terms to me then, and as I reviewed the material further, it spoke of “the nature and purpose of existence,” as well as the methods of meditation and the “Transmigration of the Soul.”
While at the library, I saw a flier posted on a bulletin board about a school in town which had classes on “The Science of Creative Intelligence,” based on the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had been visited by the Beatles and other luminaries of the day, and who founded the community of schools which offered his teachings. It seemed like an interesting opportunity and I spoke with a representative at the school and arranged to take the class. It was particularly challenging since the class was normally attended by Germans, and was being presented in the German language. I managed to become familiar with a fellow associate at the school who knew English well, and was able to get a more nuanced explanation of some of the more complex ideas when I needed it. For each practitioner of transcendental meditation, there is a unique word or “mantra,” which facilitates the silencing of the mind and the opening of the soul of the individual to the transcendent aspect of “self,” and acts as a means of reaching within to our deepest sense of our individual nature or “atman.” The Science of Creative Intelligence expresses a belief in a higher reality than that of sense experience; a higher kind of knowledge than that achieved by human reason, dividing reality into the realm of the spirit and the realm of matter. The practice of meditation as a means to access the inner realm exposes us to the philosophical concept of transcendence, i.e., existing outside of nature. According to this view, there is a direct connection between the universe and the individual soul. Intuition, rather than reason, is regarded as the highest human faculty. I enthusiastically embraced the practice of meditation, and it sparked a long association with the supporting Vedic literature.
The final exam in the course required giving an oral presentation of one of the main ideas from the class, and I chose to illustrate the idea of how each of us contributes to the whole of humanity, like a small piece of a very large puzzle, and each of our creative acts and efforts spring from an intelligence of which we are all a part. From that moment on whenever the Vedas came up in my reading, I immediately looked it up and related it directly to what I was reading.
When I returned to the United States in the late seventies, I had become fairly well acquainted with a variety of selections from the Hindu “Vedas,” or “Vedanta,” and eventually encountered the Bhagavad Gita, and was immediately enthralled by the story of Arjuna, with whom I quickly identified as someone struggling with both his temporal role in life, and with his inner life as well. The story addresses Arjuna’s struggles as a soldier and his doubts about his duties–a struggle I knew well. His mentor, Krishna, actually was a historical figure, but his significance in the Gita is as a “symbol of the divine dealings with humanity”, while Arjuna typifies a “struggling human soul.” The story is viewed as “an allegory of the inner life, and has nothing to do with our outward human life and actions”–(Wikipedia)
Shortly after returning to the USA, I once again attended to my university studies at Rowan College in Glassboro, where I took a class on mythology, based on Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” and it altered my consciousness in ways that are still being felt these many years later. Campbell opened me up to a diverse selection of paths to understanding, including a much richer and expanded appreciation of the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads, as “profound metaphysical and speculative works closely linked to the “Brahmanas,” (commentaries on the Vedic literature). According to Campbell, these works “emphasize knowledge and meditation, and are the first Hindu attempts at a systematic treatment of speculative thought.”
Perhaps the most important ideas that I encountered in these writings concern differentiating between the phenomenal aspects of existence, and the universal soul or “Brahman,” and the individual soul or “atman.” The texts were originally written in Sanskrit, but have been translated notably by “Shankara,” a man who lived between 788 and 820 A.D. His translation expresses the belief that “Brahman and Atman are identical,” and that “the individual self is prevented by ‘avidya,’ or ‘ignorance,’ from understanding the non-dual universal nature of pure being (Brahman.).” He writes:
“As long as the self remains without real knowledge, it will blindly look for its true self in the phenomenal world. It remains enmeshed in that world, again and again experiencing samsara, a series of existences, deaths, and rebirths each unenlightened soul undergoes as a consequence of its karma…Through the proper knowledge of the Vedanta, the individual soul recognizes the limitless reality forever existing behind the cosmic veil of maya (illusion)…realizes that its own true nature is identical with the Brahman, and through self-realization achieves moksha (release from samsara and karma) and Nirvana.”
In an anthology of Vedic writings entitled, “The Vedic Experience,” by Raimundo Panikkar, I found a good summary of what I derived from my reading of this literature:
“There is a constitutive dissatisfaction in human life. Even if one has done one’s best, other possible actions have remained undone. Disillusionment is, according to the Indian tradition, the beginning of philosophy. It may also be said to initiate the process of transcending the human condition.”
But perhaps more than any other benefit that I gleaned from the course, was being exposed to the writings of C.G. Jung, who introduced me to the idea of archetypal images, and inspired me to investigate further, many of his collective works, which frequently site passages from the Vedas. Jung’s insightful and scholarly treatment of psychological states, as well as his writings on the collective unconscious, and the personal unconscious, shook my foundation right down to my roots. I spent every available moment I could acquiring and devoting my energies to Jung’s writings, and after searching determinedly through those I could locate, I found this passage from Psychology and Religion:
“The unconscious process…when brought to the surface…reveals contents that offer a striking contrast to the general run of conscious thinking and feeling… The first effect is usually conflict, because the conscious attitude resists the intrusion of apparently incompatible and extraneous tendencies, thoughts, and feelings, etc. Under normal conditions, every conflict stimulates the mind to activity for the purpose of creating a satisfactory solution…Dreams, fantasies, and psychoses produce images to appearances identical with mythological motifs of which the individuals concerned had absolutely no knowledge…
The moment of irruption can be very sudden…so that consciousness is instantaneously flooded with extremely strange and apparently quite unsuspected contents…In so far as the forms or patterns of the unconscious belong to no time in particular, being seemingly eternal, they convey a peculiar feeling of timelessness when consciously revealed.”
Finally, I had a perspective from Jung that helped me to understand the traumatic event which led me to investigate the many “specific avenues to spirituality” these many years.
“Finally we must make use of all the aids which intellect, imagination, sense-perception, and memory afford in order, firstly, to intuit simple propositions distinctly; secondly, to combine correctly (compare) the matters under investigation with what we already know, so that they too may be known; and thirdly, to find out what things should be compared with each other so that we may make the most thorough use of all our human powers.” — Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, circa 1628
Throughout each of my personal investigations of the subjects related to my experiences in the early seventies, especially those which catapulted me into the most astonishing, chaotic, and emotional period of my life, I have been compelled to attempt to penetrate their mysteries and implications, based on both the intellectual and metaphysical foundations of human endeavors. At first, as an uninitiated and rudderless spirit in the world, I could only take stabs in the dark–disoriented in the extreme as I was–and while it took some time to decipher and organize these efforts, I gradually progressed beyond the chaotic stage and began to comprehend the experiences more broadly.
After applying years of persistent and determined mental effort, it seems to me, that we may only be said to truly comprehend our lives experientially, while still requiring and receiving much benefit from research and expansion of our knowledge generally. Our perceptions of the world, through an array of sensory faculties and cognitive skills, assist us as we construct and try to make sense of our daily reality, and although there are characteristics of our sensory systems which are subject to potentially erroneous interpretation of their input, as is the case with optical illusions, there are adequate safeguards available to nominally functionally brains and sense organs to feel confident in making judgements regarding the true nature of what we perceive, and to determine with reasonable certainty that we exist in the physical universe, as a substantial living entity. There have been a variety of accomplished thinkers throughout human history who have written at length regarding the range of what we might express with confidence in this regard, and I am not so enamored of the conclusions drawn from my own experiences to suppose that they represent some sort of comprehensive explanation. I present my ideas and thoughts here more as an explanation of what has brought me to suggest them as a beginning to unravel it all.
With basic functionality of all our perceptual and intellectual systems intact, we are able to propose judgements regarding our perceptions. Quite independent from the actual quality or accuracy of those judgements, we have good cause to feel at least reasonably confident that as conscious cognitive creatures, that we are HAVING experiences based on our ability to perceive. Acute perceptual disabilities caused by disease or injury to the brain, and heightened perceptual capacities such as the many varieties of synesthesia, represent the low and high range of quality possible in our experiences, and to some degree, we generally rely on the agreement of our fellow sentient beings to assist us in gauging the reliability of our interpretations, along with whatever previous experiences we might have available to us in memory. It is clear that we each enjoy a unique perspective as an independent observer of our own experiences, and that we interpret them from a relatively narrow subjective viewpoint most of the time. Not surprisingly, we may occasionally find ourselves as the lone possessor of a solitary interpretation of a particular subjective experience, as with personal trauma, as well as sharing what might ultimately turn out to be a mistaken view of the ideas and experiences of thousands of other confident perceivers, as with those who believed that the earth was flat, or that the earth was the center of the universe.
Numerous considerations including social, cultural, biological, and specific neurological components can contribute to the general run of experience for most of us, but our individual interpretations of our unique experience of existence, while clearly difficult to verify subjectively for those who are NOT us, even when they are standing right next to us, rely on what can constitute a remarkably different perspective, and in spite of possessing a similar range of shared experiences and education, may seem quite out-of-the-ordinary to other sentient beings.
“Just as the imagination employs figures in order to conceive of bodies, so, in order to frame ideas of spiritual things, the intellect makes use of certain bodies which are perceived through the senses, such as wind and light…The wind signifies spirit; movement with the passage of time signifies life; light signifies knowledge; heat signifies love; and instantaneous activity signifies creation…It may seem surprising to find weighty judgements in the writings of the poets rather than the philosophers. The reason is that the poets were driven to write by enthusiasm and the force of imagination. We have within us the sparks of knowledge, as in a flint: philosophers extract them through reason, but poets force them out through the sharp blows of the imagination, so that they shine more brightly.” — Olympian Matters, Rene Descartes, 1619
Think of the varying degrees of culture shock when an individual is transplanted from a previously narrow or isolated environment of a rural character to a big city or urban center. The individual, having developed keen instincts in the previous realm of experience may find themselves virtually without adequate resources to make sense of the altered environment. Likewise, a sophisticated city dweller who handles the intricacies of city life and who may have a fine command of the urban environment, might find a remote rural landscape equally challenging. In each case, the perceptual and cognitive apparatus are fully functional, but require an additional number of experiences before comprehension can catch up. Imagine now how my own limited experience of the world thwarted my early attempts at comprehending the “eruption of unconscious contents,” (Jung) in 1973. Is it any wonder that I turned to philosophy, poetry, and investigation of the whole range of human thought and experience through the ages in order to come to terms with what happened?
If it is true, as my research and contemplation of the subject of the subjective experience of the human version of consciousness suggests, that consciousness is a manifestation and an expression of a non-physical reality which is the source of all life in the universe, and if we are able to affirm consciousness as a means through which we are able to gain access to the transcendent source of our awareness, aside from the many intellectual and spiritual benefits such knowledge might provide, it may provide, among other things, a source of genuine solace for all sentient beings who might be facing their own mortality or that of another. Reviewing my ideas on the spiritual aspects of existence generally and of consciousness particularly, it seems more urgent than ever to attend to the conclusions they infer for me, based on these ideas.
In the next few weeks, I will be posting some of the foundational ideas and conclusions drawn from the years of developing myself as a philosopher, poet, and serious student of the science of consciousness, and hope to expand the conversation throughout the new year here at WordPress.com.
“Sixsmith, I climb the steps of the Scott monument every morning and all becomes clear. Wish I could make you see this brightness. Don’t worry, all is well. All is so perfectly, damnably well. I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”
— Robert Frobisher. Letter to Rufus Sixsmith (from the film, Cloud Atlas)
In the recent film, “Cloud Atlas,” conventional boundaries of every sort are explored, transcended, and obliterated through a process of being transposed across generations of time, limitless space, and through the amazing interplay of personal liaisons which, in some way, contain a haunting awareness of connections that defy our commonsense notions of our temporal “limitations.”
Each of us, no matter how obscure or prominent we are in our day, are connected in ways that we seldom appreciate fully. There are many ways in which people can be connected, but certain connections are especially prescient, when we find ourselves confronted by the presence of particular kindred spirits, whose character, personality, or personal history, resonate so well with ours, that we are compelled to engage them, without necessarily understanding precisely why we feel so compelled. In his novel, “Cloud Atlas,” Mitchell expresses this idea well:
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
As we all know, the heart is not a logical organ. It can bring us to our knees in moments of pain from betrayal, or when the pain of separation strikes. Such circumstances not only affect us emotionally, but the pain we experience can be accompanied by confusion and bewilderment on a scale which exceeds our ability to cope. Imagine, if you will, this very same pain being accompanied by the inclusion of memories that clearly could not have taken place during that period of temporal incarnation. Ordinarily, such experiences would be thought of as unusual, encompassing a most controversial and speculative subject. However, it is not without precedent, nor are such beliefs uncommon in cultures throughout the world.
“Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity and principals of uncertainty. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives. Yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish. Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment. That each point of intersection, each encounter, suggests a new potential direction. Proposition, I have fallen in love with Luisa Rey. Is this possible? I just met her and yet, I feel like something important has happened to me.”
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
I have had, throughout my entire adult life, difficulty adjusting to the awareness of memories which clearly do not seem to have been possible to acquire during my current existence. Periodically, since the initial encounter with the story of Jonas Rice, the character at the heart of these recollections, I have encountered individuals who have brought these issues, sometimes abruptly and inconveniently, to the surface. Each encounter with this kindred spirit in Massachusetts, whose presence always seemed to precipitate such extraordinary experiences, led me to pursue intuitive and occasionally obscure paths and directions in the course of my investigations. I do not pretend to completely understand what it was exactly that led me to become aware of this information, and while it stretches the imagination just to entertain the notion of the possibility of connections between lives over generations as depicted in the film, “Cloud Atlas,” I can only report that I sensed these kinds of connections profoundly in my own experience, and cannot offer much in the way of empirical proof beyond my own subjective recall of these experiences and my vivid personal sense of their integrity. I have not wished for any of it, and quite frankly would rather have been a wiz at math or a Maytag repairman.
Over the years, I have endeavored with all my strength to avoid these thoughts and to deny them to myself. I have spent countless hours in a variety of different forms of pain–seemingly endless stretches of unavoidable suffering, attempting to evade even acknowledging that such thoughts existed within me. There were even times when, for brief periods, I was able to convince myself that I had gotten past the danger, and that by somehow dodging and not confronting them for a long enough time, I could quell them and silence my mind. But each new encounter brought me within proximity to a miracle–a spirit so dynamic and wondrous, that whenever I drew near, my very life force trembled. I seemed to abandon all my senses; my psyche would be flooded with memories and feelings that made me feel as though I was someone else–assuming a different identity and personality–acting in ways that I could not explain even to myself.
–next time….the reckoning before the journey overseas…
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” — Einstein
A recent conversation with a dear friend with an extraordinary gift for insight and artistry, inspired me to examine the character and quality of our very human consciousness in a way that not only solidified some of my own inclinations, but also clarified them in my own mind, in a way that I previously had not considered. It is a testimony to the power of collaboration, and of opening ourselves to new ideas. I can enthusiastically recommend a visit to their blog:
After many long hours of conversation and contemplation, the images and ideas that we conjured began to coalesce within me, and our collaboration brought forth a keen sense that there is an intimacy to the subjective experience of human consciousness, which points toward not only the many potentials existent in our subjective awareness, but also to the intimate connection between every aspect of our temporal existence with the transcendent aspects of our nature as humans. It requires a kind of “leap of faith,” to even entertain the notion that consciousness may permeate every single particle within the universe, and that the sufficient agglomeration of those particles, in advantageous arrangements, ultimately results in a range of expressions that encompass everything from the beauty of flowers to the bounty of the future; from the proliferation of cells reproducing to the profundity of consciousness evolving; from the simplest relationship between subatomic particles. to the complex relationships between dear friends.
Another wonderful inspiration also recently took place in the comments section for my previous post, “The Fault In Our Stars,” from another gifted writer and poet, Tina Blackledge. Her gifts are abundant, and she possesses an enviable degree of curiosity and tenacity in the pursuit of her art that warrant a visit to her writing as well.
In my previous posting, I wrote about how the sight of the vastness of space affects me, and how my participation in viewing that expanse seems somehow to be a vital part of the experience, and (in a revised version) I responded in this way:
“What I SEE when I observe the vastness of space isn’t as important to me as what I FEEL. It may be that my personal response is atypical in some way, or perhaps I am just more sensitive when it comes to natural phenomena, but I feel CONNECTED to the vastness. In a strange and inexplicable way, I feel as though that open expanse of the universe mirrors something inside me. Whatever it is that I feel when I look out into the depths of space, it matters to me on a deeply personal level that I am so affected by the sight, and like so many of our in-depth subjective feelings about the natural world generally, our internal responses do not always lend themselves well to articulation. I can tell you though, that my view of it is that the depths of space contain much more than simply the elements and components of matter that formed the many galaxies, and my subjective experience of the world we live in, as well as my response to viewing the world outside of our galaxy, feels deeply personal, and intrigues me beyond words.”
The complexity of the neural underpinnings of our cognitive apparatus (our brains) provides us with access to an extraordinary range of functionality. Our experience of the world creates neural networks in the brain which permit neurological functioning, which allows for the production of thoughts, which construct and illuminate the mind, which facilitates the expression of consciousness, which manifests as subjective experience, which creates memories, which provide the basis for discrimination, which supplies us with the raw material for creativity, which relies on intuition, which requires contemplation, which feeds our dreams. In all of this activity, we see the complex relationships between each of the components that contribute to our experience of the world. All of our intimate relationships are a direct result of our intimate relationship with consciousness, and the intimacy of consciousness permeates every moment of our lives.
There are literally millions of significant moments in a person’s lifetime, and each one is essential as a component of that life. Changing even one or two of them with regard to the outcome of those moments could very well alter the path a person follows significantly. We rarely think of our lives as a series of vitally essential moments, but as I sit here and type this, even though this moment may not seem consequential, it surely must be. Important relationships may not result from every encounter we have with another person, but when we begin to feel a sufficient degree of connection to another person’s mind or spirit, the intimacy of consciousness becomes even more apparent.
Just as the minute subatomic particles of our atoms, and the structure of our genetic material, govern a large portion of our continued existence as a physical being, so too do the moment-to-moment components of our daily experiences and memories contribute to the person we are, and to the person we are becoming as the days accumulate. The more we advance in scientific knowledge and probe the mysteries of life, the more we can see that there must be a great deal more to our existence than simple genetics or particle physics, in spite of how much we rely on these temporal aspects as a foundation for the expression of our very human version of consciousness. Intimacy with another human spirit, particularly when we finally become aware of their significance to us in the sometimes mysterious ways that such connections come to be, we realize that no matter how clever we become at tinkering with even our human genes, and no matter how elaborate our understanding of particle physics may someday be, we are compelled to consider the role which our human spirit plays, as a component of our experience within the physical body, and how consciousness contributes to our continuing efforts to unravel the mysteries of life.
Excerpts from “A Lament…” written by Japanese Poet, Yamanoue no Okura (660-733 A.D.)”
What we must accept as we journey through the world
is that time will pass like the waters of a stream;
in countless numbers,
in relentless succession,
it will besiege us with assaults we must endure…
Precious though life is,
it is beyond our power to stay the passing of time.
Would that I might stand a rock through eternity,
but life does not allow us to halt the passing of time.
– translation by Helen Craig McCullough
“To think creatively is first to feel. The desire to understand must be whipped together with sensual and emotional feelings and blended with intellect to yield imaginative insight…Our feelings–our intuitions–are not impediments to rational thinking, they form its origin and bases.” – Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein, “Sparks of Genius,” 1999
Although I have traveled a bit and been to a number of very different places in the world, there are still many more that I have not seen and circumstances I have never experienced. In my travels, I have met people who know so little, even almost nothing about the world, some of whom really don’t care to know about it either. Conversely, I have met up from time to time with people who know so much more than I do, who have seen more, and done greater things than I could hope to do. While no one usually knows exactly how much time they have remaining to experience life, it seems that I am now beginning to sense more vividly the undercurrents of the spirit at work within me. Having been drawn periodically to individuals who were clearly kindred souls, I have occasionally sensed not only how the spirit is strong within me, but have also sensed the same strength of spiritual connectedness being reciprocated when interacting with them. When there is movement within me, when I have been stirred in profound ways by these interactions, even though I am fully aware that it is active within me at those moments, it has been a mixed blessing, as I have had to endure some fairly intense emotional pain, as well as great joy as a result.
The sense we have of this connectedness to others when we observe or interact with them is partly recognition of potentials and partly intuition. We experience our own abilities and potentials subjectively as individuals and can at least compare ours to others as we go. We recognize exceptional behaviors both in accomplishments we achieve and also in the ones we do not achieve. Many times, whether we are interacting with an exceptionally bright individual or with one who might be impaired in some way is generally quickly apparent, and we often may get an intuitive sense of the character of a particular individual based on our own inner response, and by comparison based on our experiences with others of similar talents. The broader our range of experience becomes, the greater our intuitive responses can assist us in discerning differences between individuals. In my experience, it has often occurred that a powerful response within me is what motivates me to pay attention and to explore such connections.
Intellectual exchanges, heartfelt emotional sharing, the stirring of passions, stimulation of every sort, through the power of the mind, are made manifest in our temporal world of experience, clearly indicating, at certain times, the existence of a potent spiritual connection, particularly when they are the result of intuitive responses, and not specifically as a result of any physical interactions with another. Virtual worlds, long-distance communications, and any number of other challenging circumstances can affect us through the power of suggestion and imagination, in surprising ways. The spiritual energy of our intentions and longings and emotions can stimulate a response in our inner worlds and alert us to their existence in such a way that brings the consciousness of others to us and sends ours outward to them. It’s not simply a matter of stimulus and response. It is a spiritual connection.
image from http://www.thefourwinds.com
In the literal sense, the measurement of time is a human invention, devised to quantify the distance between who we were and who we are. We change from day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute, but no matter what incremental reference we give it, there is only this moment now–timeless and ever-present. Our finite world on a planet with a known beginning and a limited lifespan may expand someday in ways unimagined by us as a terrestrial species. Other finite worlds, existing within our unfathomably large and seemingly boundless universe, may have developed different natures altogether, based on life cycles far shorter or greater in length and breadth than ours, measuring the passage of what we call “time” by completely different standards. Elsewhere in the universe, although surely held by the same physical laws governing energy and matter, there may exist other worlds where the natural rhythms would seem “worlds apart” from those here on earth. The measurement of time millions of light years away may take a form so completely different that it would fundamentally alter our understanding of it, and perhaps many other human ideas and concepts as well. Our perceptions and cognitive abilities, shaped as they are by the many factors governing our existence in this tiny segment of the universe, can only allow us to imagine what other wonders are yet to be discovered by our descendents as they push further out into it.
Even with all that we do know today, we have only a limited view of the vastness of the universe, and as a result of the deficiencies in our knowledge and in our ability to probe the depths of space beyond earth, we are prevented presently from saying definitively what may or may not be possible, regarding movement within what we refer to as “time.” We cling to the relative certainty of our notions of what life is like here on earth, and function within those constraints with increasing efficiency and advancing technology, and yet, we have virtually no idea of what may exist beyond our known world. While we may eventually come to understand the precise workings of the temporal world, and of our world within us, we can only progress as sentient beings when we acknowledge and explore the connection between the two worlds, and must deepen our appreciation for what we can inwardly experience and acknowledge as subjectively true.