“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.
The cherries in the bowl above were picked just outside the kitchen window in the back of my apartment in Germany years ago, but for me they have come to symbolize a great deal more than just a pleasing subject for photography. It was during this period of my life that I truly began to open to the world within me, and as I look back now, I can appreciate more fully the true importance of this beginning. While serving as an intelligence specialist in the sleepy little town of Kaiserslautern, I began a series of writings, originally intended to document my experiences during the course of my service in Europe. As the writing progressed, an awareness of the profound changes and events that were shaping my personal life prompted me to examine more closely the “why” of what was happening to me. This concern led not only to a more in-depth analysis of my inner experience, but was also responsible for influencing my interactions with those closest to me.
Having spent most of my tenure with the military in a variety of barracks and military housing, as a senior analyst in my section, I finally became eligible for housing off-base. This arrangement turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my service, and I was determined to make the best possible use out of the time. On a quiet street in the suburbs, I was surrounded by the native citizens, and as a German linguist, I was able to communicate well with my landlord and my neighbors. When I would return home at the end of the day, along the short walk from the bus stop, I would often find myself engaged in conversations right out on the street, as many of my neighbors would be leaning out of their front windows and say hello. My presence there was a novelty at first, but when it became apparent that I could converse reasonably well in German, it eventually became an accepted part of life in my neighborhood.
About that same time, a burgeoning interest in 35mm photography had begun to bear fruit (pun intended). With much the same enthusiasm which was manifested in my writing, it was not altogether surprising that my photographs began to reflect the growth and development characterized in the writings. The view out the kitchen window was spectacular when the cherry tree was in full bloom, and I enjoyed many hours in my kitchen, in a variety of ways.
Normally, there’s nothing quite as isolating as the solitude which can result from living alone in a strange city, but in this case, it seemed only to provide just the right degree of solitude as I needed it, and offered plentiful opportunities for socializing and a sense of community as well. The cherries were a little tart, but absolutely stunning in their redness and ripeness as the photo reveals.
There were quiet mornings in the kitchen with my favorite music, and freshly ground German coffee that accompanied me in my moments of solitude, and I doubt seriously if I ever enjoyed morning coffee quite as much as I did while residing there. Writing became an essential aspect of my days, and on this particular morning, after settling down on a rare day off, I decided to attempt to write about what was weighing on my mind and living inside my heart:
“My awareness of a higher level of consciousness becoming available to me has brought me to sense an awakening to a world I can scarcely believe exists within me. My entire being seems to be undergoing a transformation. Although it is subtle in nature, it creeps up on me silently, occasionally stirring me gently into a state of heightened awareness, but still seeming to assimilate itself into my daily waking state. I have become more contemplative, reflecting more often on what is transpiring within me. Urgent matters which used to occupy my mind seem less significant, and every thought becomes a candidate for reevaluation. Though not obsessive, I balance each effort with concern for how it might assist me in achieving an even greater level of consciousness, and in doing so, I continually encounter a curious resistance, as these evaluations often conflict with some of my long-standing attitudes and beliefs.”
After a long day of duty, I would often return home and spend some time after dinner reading and writing in my living room. Living in the United States had always seemed easier by comparison to living overseas. There were no concerns about finding the right way to say what I was thinking, and my familiarity with life in America made me take so much for granted. In Germany, the circumstances were quite different. My knowledge of the language and the culture in which I was living in was very helpful, and it took me some time to really become comfortable sharing my familiarity, but I enjoyed a much more receptive attitude in my interactions whenever I did.
One of my favorite rooms in the apartment was the little greenhouse porch that led out to the back of the apartment where the cherry tree stood. A narrow hallway led to a brightly lit space filled with a variety of plants and flowers that constantly changed throughout the year. I would occasionally tend to the plants when the landlord was away, and enjoyed standing there surrounded by green leaves and colorful plants with the sun streaming through. It was as nearly perfect a place as I could have hoped for, and when I stop to think of all the places I’ve been, this little corner of Germany is near the top of the list.
Living in Germany was one of the most well documented phases of my life, and it was there that many of my documentary habits were formed. The time spent overseas was a bonanza for my writing, and I spent much of the available time I had recording my thoughts and feelings and emotions in a way that led to years of growth and expansion of my skills in expressing them. In the days to come, I hope to share some of those early efforts in my struggle to make sense out of what has been transpiring within me all these years. I hope you will all follow along with me as I explore the path once more.
….more to come….