“Never in the world were any two opinions alike, any more than any two hairs or grains of sand. Their most universal quality is diversity.” –Montaigne, Essays, 1580
In a letter-writing conversation with a thoughtful friend some years ago, the topic turned to how to engage others more deeply without abandoning our own sense of self or compromising our ability to function as an individual spirit in the world. My friend wrote, “…deep engagement without reluctance, in my opinion does turn the world upside down, and the only way to engage at that deep level, unless you are still in the womb, is to let go of your own consciousness. But there is a conflict because what we seem to hope for is deep engagement not with our primal undifferentiated selves, but with our developed selves; but the developed self by nature is separate, has evolved to live independently of the host, the mother.”
In response, I turned to the writings of C.G.Jung, and his ideas about the process of individuation, which, according to a notation in Wikipedia, “…is the process in which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious – seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become integrated over time into a well-functioning whole.” Jung believed that “…the essentially ‘internal’ process of individuation does not go on in some inner space cut off from the world. Rather, it can only be realized within the larger context of life as it is lived.” Our developed selves, brought about by individuation are, in my opinion, perhaps more accurately described as being founded upon our primal undifferentiated selves, rather than as something separate from it, but it seems pretty clear that it is our developed selves which inspire conflict when it does occur. Conflict seems to me to be more of a cultural problem than one of the host being separate from the mother.
In a letter he wrote a few months before his death, Jung stated:
“It is quite possible that we look at the world from the wrong side and that we might find the right answer by changing our point of view and looking at it from the other side, that is, not from the outside, but from inside.”
For me, the connections I recognize as those which I strive to engage without reluctance and without turning the world upside down, transcend the developed self. The crucial point of the matter here seems to be our connection to the infinite. In his autobiography, Jung wrote:
“If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change…In our relationships…the crucial question is whether an element of boundlessness is expressed in the relationship…Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious…In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination—that is, ultimately limited—we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite.”
– excerpt from Jung’s autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” 1963, New York: Random House.
I have struggled to come to terms with the compelling inner sense of a connection to the infinite that has appeared regularly in my writings these many years. I often struggle also with attempting to articulate this inner urging and to describe it in ways that can be appreciated by my readers here. Of necessity as temporal beings, we often resort to temporal references in order to allude to that which cannot be described in temporal terms. The nature of life, temporal existence, the physical universe, and everything relevant to that existence cannot be described completely in terms belonging only to that physical existence. We have devised ways of referring to these other aspects of life and existence, particularly as they relate to our very human nature, and acknowledge them as existing in a domain far removed from the temporal–as far removed from the temporal plane as we are from the quantum world of the very small, and the farthest reaches of the physical universe. Although we are, in some important ways, defined by these two opposing aspects, the truth seems to reside between them.
Sometimes, we all need to step away from the table, to catch up on our sleep, or to clear our hearts and minds from all the clutter that can accumulate. Wellness requires periods of rest; mental health requires periods of sleep and occasional disconnects. No one goes on vacation all the time, just every once in a while. It is unlikely to find peace in even a deep connection unless we are able to find some peace in ourselves. This is the absolute goal in successful relationships, and I feel strongly that I DO have some peace within me now. I may have some additional work to do through contemplation and ruminating on my path that brought me to my present place in the world, and psychologically we should all be continuously working to engage our hearts and minds in the pursuit of progressing as a person, but the foundation I now possess has been hard-won and warrants consideration when I sometimes still feel that twinge of the memory of the pain that led to the peace of where I am now.
Each of us suffers subjectively in ways that cannot meaningfully be compared to the suffering of others. As a person who cannot seem to avoid empathizing with the suffering of others, I have endured my own suffering with a fairly unique perspective as a man. My mother told me that as a young boy, when one of the other children in the neighborhood would fall down or be crying for some reason, I would also cry. As I witnessed the birth of each of my children, I cried buckets of tears, and holding one of my grandchildren now or when I see any newborn child, my heart absolutely melts. Reading about the tragic circumstances that seem to appear regularly in the news these days frequently brings me to tears. I can’t say I know many other men who have this problem. These experiences clearly are of the “very human” variety, and it seems to me that our very human nature is more complex and mysterious than any of the science, psychology, or philosophy of mind currently can illuminate.
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.
Some months ago, I wrote a few brief remarks to share for the memorial service marking one year since my Mom’s passing, and while preparing to deliver the remarks, I recorded myself reciting them in order to review them before the service. The first attempts with just my voice were helpful in the editing process, but it felt like something was lacking in the delivery, so I decided to try adding a musical component to help set the mood. I eventually chose a selection from the movie, “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams called, “Song on the Beach.” It’s a lovely piano solo from the film score composed by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet. I posted a link above to the mp3 version of my reading and posted the text below so you could follow along if you wish.
The memories of our lives have a central role in forming who we eventually become, and even though we all realize that memorable experiences aren’t always going to be happy ones, we still naturally tend to suppress those memories which are unpleasant, in favor of those which remind us of happy times. Unfortunately, at certain times, unpleasant memories of trauma or loss can overwhelm us and prevent us from considering the broad scope of our memories, which generally include a more balanced or nuanced collection. We are only human, and must allow ourselves these episodes of being or feeling overwhelmed, recognizing that these feelings will eventually subside with time, although no specific time frame applies to any one of us. Each of us must find our way back in our own time.
As cognitive creatures, we are able to form memories from our subjective experiences, and to utilize those memories for learning and teaching, for calculation and contemplation, for innovation and intuition, and to improve our abilities and increase our level of awareness. Our memories can enslave us or empower us, depending on our interpersonal skills, the degree of support and caring we experience throughout our lives, and often on how well we are able to develop our abilities throughout our lives. Our emphasis can sap the life out of us, or enable us to grow and live abundantly, although frequently it ends up being somewhere in between.
Now that I have introduced the category of “Life,” the next few posts will introduce the role of “Evolution,” in the theory I presented recently, and I hope my readers will be patient while I struggle to find my way to the writing desk. Memory is not just something only humans possess, and it can present both opportunities and obstacles depending on how it is employed in our daily lives, but it clearly can challenge us with difficulties to endure, just as easily as it enables us to enhance our lives. It’s really up to us.
Memory is Feeling
When we go out walking in the brisk, autumn air now, inhaling deeply, listening to the rustling of the leaves that are left, taking in the beauty in every color surrounding us, it stirs our memories of autumns from years ago. The sweetness in the air, the crystal clarity between us and the world, all of the experiences of this time of year, have meaning as a consequence of our humanity. It evokes mystery; it evokes contemplation, and in the most ordinary of ways. We can close our eyes, listen to the sounds, feel the warmth of the sun against our skin, the rising and falling of our chests as we breathe, the air flowing in and out of our lungs, the pulse throbbing in our wrists.
Conventional wisdom, first written by Rene Descartes ( in “Principles of Philosophy,”) said “I think, therefore I am,” but for me, it is more correct to say, “I feel, therefore I am,” in spite of having to think about how we feel. For me, feeling has always been the one indisputable proof of my existence. It FEELS like something to be an individual human person. And our miraculous capacity for memory, which we now know is not like a transcript, or a videotape, or a digital rendering of our experiences, but actually, every time we remember, it is a reconstruction—a recreation in our minds of the way it felt to be in those moments. Our experience of those moments feels like life-I feel, therefore I am alive.
We don’t often stop during the day to consider at length what we are feeling. Our busy lives often prevent us from spending too much time in quiet contemplation of such things, but when we allow ourselves to become quiet, when we are able to pause even for a few minutes of silence, that is when our capacity for memory can move us most deeply.
It’s often during the times when we are at our quietest, when we think of those we love who are no longer with us. They are there still, lingering in memory. It is perhaps, as a memory, that the full measure of the delight we knew with them is clearer than when they were among us. We look back on those experiences now, as a lovely memory, to see that they contain particular elements which we want to hold on to and which mean the most to us. The feeling of connection to those we love does not perish with the body. We continue to feel those connections as strongly as ever.
We are gathered today as a family to honor our memories of our mother, whom we adored, and to whom we are still very much connected. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of loss. Even though they are no longer with us physically, the soul continues, and the memory of the feeling will not perish.
—more to come—
“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.
“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…