AS HUMANS, WE THINK PRETTY HIGHLY OF OURSELVES

By Paul

It is probably not much of a stretch for humans to think of ourselves as pretty wonderful creatures, by and large at least.  After all, look at everything we have accomplished, not only in the present era, but in all of the history of the race.  We have moved rapidly from tiny groups of hunter-gatherers scratching out a living, to highly organized groups of farmers and city dwellers with multiple hierarchies of job specialization, from users of rocks to break open the bones of hunted animals to creators of machines that fly and, very nearly, ones that think, as well.  And these enormous leaps in both cognition and tool-making have taken place in an almost unbelievably short period of time.

As such, we often forget that the first animal that could accurately be associated with “anatomical human beings” emerged only something like 200,000 years ago.  That’s astounding enough, but then imagine that it was only 60,000 years ago that what we might call “true humans” first claimed their place upon the planet.  60,000 years!  That’s even less than the blink of an eye, shorter than the flash of lightning in the summer sky, compared to the 4.5 billion years of the planet’s existence, to say nothing of the 13.8 billion years the universe is known to exist.  In other words, in spite of all the importance we grandly give to ourselves, we are the newest of newcomers.

So, the question remains, what exactly was it that distinguished us from our simian cousins, or from any other creature on the planet for that matter?  And when did that “distinguishing something” emerge?  We won’t even ask the question of how it happened, since no one appears to have the slightest clue when it comes to answering that inscrutable question.  But the replies to the first two queries (i.e. when and what) are simpler to give.  Most scientists agree, as mentioned above, that “true humans” emerged in Africa approximately 60,000 years ago, and then somewhere between that point and 50,000 years ago we began several successive waves of migration from that continent.  Slowly, we drifted from place to place, populating one continent after another, and making homes for ourselves.  In the process, we ran into some earlier cousins of ours, namely Neanderthals (homo Neanderthalensis), the last of whom probably died out about 20,000 years ago, probably as a result of direct interaction with homo Sapiens (that is, with us).  So, what was it that “made us human,” and in the meantime what gave us such an edge over other creatures, including the bigger and stronger Neanderthals?  The answer is simple, if the act of doing so and its consequences are not:  humans were capable of symbolic thinking.  We’ve seen this because we have the archeological record that dates back into the early ages of prehistory, and that shows that humans were able to make not only artifacts, but also art. We know, for example, that our ancestors created pictures (i.e. cave paintings) and they carved statues that, in a sense, “stood for” something else.  No doubt, it was about this time, too, that language, as we think of it today, also first emerged, allowing and encouraging high levels of communication and organization.  And after that, the poor Neanderthals, to say nothing of all the even more mute beasts of the wild world, never had a chance.

In the tiniest of nutshells, that is a very quick overview of the evolving history of humankind.  We emerged from creatures who descended from trees and learned to live and thrive on the savannas and who organized themselves into coherent groupings of thinking, communicative, and self-referential beings, and in the process we have come to utterly dominate planet Earth.  And all this with lightning speed, such that there are now well over 7 billion of us living in every part of the world, even the most inhospitable, which – through our technology – we have made hospitable.  Our big brains have indeed served us well.

But if we are to continue to think highly of ourselves, we had better take a long, hard look at who we are and what we have become.  In terms of evolutionary maturity, as a race, we human beings are probably at best in our rebellious adolescent phase.  I want to emphasize that I am speaking of mass, or collective, consciousness here, not of individual examples of human beings.  Naturally, there have always been, and always will be, some people who are more advanced in terms of consciousness than others.  But again I am talking here about the pooled level of communal thinking that together shows our shared human consciousness.  In these terms, we have to admit, it is hard to think of us as highly mature.  If we were, why would we rely so continually and so insistently on violence as an obviously useless way of solving so many of our problems?  How many decades, how many years, indeed how many weeks or even days pass by on this planet, when somehow, someplace there are not people who are shooting at each other, hurling bombs or missiles at each other, putting others in jail, torturing, mutilating, even killing one another, because they are thought not to belong to the proper race, religion, political party, or sexual identity etc.?   How many of us consistently act with compassion when it comes to others, how many are quick to condemn but slow to forgive, how many dismiss and diminish those who look, sound, or act differently from themselves?   Indeed, as a species we may be highly intelligent, but we have learned little wisdom.

But given all this, the question can be asked, should we expect any more from ourselves?  We are after all, as we have already shown, very young in evolutionary terms.  Perhaps even to claim that we have reached the adolescent phase may be something of a stretch.  Remember how brief 60,000 years is in terms of planetary and cosmic history.  And yet, if we are to survive, it is surely in our own best interest, to say nothing of the interest of the planet as a whole and of all things living upon it, for us to hurry along in this maturation process.

The only way I know of to do so is for each individual to work on herself and himself, to put the time and the energy that it takes into learning, and growing, and developing, first of all in our thinking, and then in our actions.  In the end, there is no “deus ex machina,” no great hero to save us from ourselves.  Or, put another way, each one must become the hero of the story.  We have, in other words, no one to rely on but ourselves, and if we do not do the work, then we can be sure that it will not happen.  You may think that it all sounds too ominous to say that time is running out, but the truth is that it is.  Symbolic thinking is all fine, and it turns out we are quite good at it.  But what is needed now is not so much symbol, as action.  Run-away over population, pollution of the air, continued acidification of the oceans, warming of the globe, loss of biodiversity, extinction of whole species, diminishing land and water resources, growing scarcity of food, increasing disparity between the have and the have-nots, and threat of the use of nuclear weapons, are only some of the problems that come to mind.

But time has not yet run completely out.  We can still make a difference.  Let us honor our clever ancestors, but at the same time do whatever we can today for humanity and for the world we live in.  We know that we have such great potential.  It is the job of each of us to help maximize that potential, while at the same time minimizing the mistakes we have made in the past.  We owe it to ourselves and to our children, and to all life forms on Earth.  We have made a huge difference, and we will continue to do so.  But let that difference not draw from what is lowest and most negative within our human nature, but from whatever is highest, most positive, and most life-affirming.  We know we have the capacity; only now let us muster the energy and the will to make it happen.

EARTH: HOW FAR CAN IT BE PUSHED?

By Paul

The earth is alive.  It is a conscious being.  It suffers and rejoices and feels, just as you and I do, just as any animal or tree or other plant does.  That does not mean that it has consciousness in exactly the same way that human beings do.  It is emblematic of our human arrogance, and our ignorance, that we believe that only we have consciousness, that only we can feel and reflect.  That is not so.  All sentient beings, as the Buddhists say, are capable of doing these things, even if we all do them in very different ways.

Human consciousness is brilliant and glorious, if limited most of the time.  Plant consciousness is also limited, but plants are more than capable of feeling joy in the movement of the breeze or the falling rain.  Plants move and sway and feel and breathe, and, in a very real sense, they are quite aware of their surroundings.  They love their rootedness, their ability to continually grow and reproduce, and in cold climates they sleep, bear-like, for the winter months and awake to the warming touch of the spring sun.  They feel a kind of happiness, or at least an exhilaration, in being able to continually grow and produce offspring.  Each type of animal, too, has its own kind of consciousness.  Predators, for example, do not kill out of anger (unless they have somehow been tortured and tormented and rendered “crazy” through pain and confinement), but instead they do so out of a desire to survive and to feed their young.  It is also true that the preyed upon feel fear in the moment of the chase.  They do not, however, feel the same type of fear of death that human beings normally do, but experience it more as a continuation of the cycle of being.

The earth itself has a vaster, more all-encompassing consciousness.  It is quite aware of all of the transitory beings who live and walk and crawl on its body, and has a kind of love for these creatures, made from its own body.  This is why many people feel a natural tendency to refer to the earth as “Mother,” because we can, if we attune to it, feel that love.  But the earth takes what might be called the long-term view of things.  A few thousand, or even a few million years, as humans reckon time, represents only the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the earth.  As such, the death of an individual insect, or a tree, or a wolf, or a rabbit, or a man, or a woman is not a cause for sadness to the earth.  The earth knows that all life is born, matures, and eventually passes away.  The same is true for its own life, just as it is and will be for the star of our galaxy, the sun, or for our galaxy itself, or for the entire universe for that matter.  There is no escaping this universal law, which all manifest creation must abide by.  Therefore, a great storm, or a fire, or an earthquake, or the eruption of a volcano, which wipes away “all life” in its path is recognized by the earth as part of this unfolding of creation, in a similar way to the death of a rabbit in the jaws of a coyote.  It is not a tragedy (as much as it may seem to be in our eyes), but a continuation of the change that must always move forward.

The earth strives always for balance.  It is balanced in its daily rotation and its revolution around the sun.  It spins for a reason, so that it experiences constant movement and with it an ability to go through its own set of regular changes, those of day and night, winter to summer, year to year, millennium to millennium, age to age.  It could also be said that the earth loved and rejoiced, that it felt something akin to pride even, at the emergence of the first tentative signs of “life” on it.  There is no need to attempt to define when life, as we normally speak of it, began on the planet.  The earth is already – has always been – alive.  What we usually think of as life is merely the culmination of certain processes that lead to movement or reproduction and to a different kind of consciousness of the self.

Initially, this desire to live was mostly manifest in the need to reproduce, first of all non-sexually, and then later through sexual means.  The first bacteria had their own awareness, not self-awareness exactly, at least not in the self-reflective sense in which we usually use that term, but a consciousness whereby they knew they had a desire to keep on living.  Life, again as we normally think of it, was snuffed out more than once in various ways, most of which had to do with the crashing into the earth of fragments of the primordial universe.  However, the evolution of life was strong, and continued to show itself, and eventually to advance and expand.  Life is a glorious reflection of the aliveness of the Divine Spirit, and mimics that ability to go on and on, no matter what.   That is why it is foolish, and yet another example of our arrogance and ignorance, to maintain that there is no other life in the universe.  Of course there is, and its forms are vast and beautiful and almost unending.

Just as any parent has to sometimes discipline unruly children, so too the earth sometimes brings its own brand of discipline to the creatures that it supports.  While it is part of what it means to be alive in the usual sense of that term to grow and to propagate, there is also what could be called a kind of natural selfishness in that desire.  This impetus  is, in fact, so strong that one life form is quite willing to push all other life aside in order to take over, if opportunity arises.  However, the innate wisdom of the earth to maintain balance has so far always come to the rescue in such cases.  Otherwise, one species, or one animal, or one life form, whatever it may be, might utterly dominate all else on earth, leading in its most egregious form to the elimination of the others.  Additionally, the earth knows that life, which has evolved so beautifully and with such incalculable variety upon it, must have that variation in order to continue to grow and prosper.  As such, the over predominance of one single life form on the earth can ultimately result in the death of all other life forms.  This cannot be tolerated, inasmuch as that result could eventually signal the demise of all life forms on the planet, ironically including the life of the one species that had taken over.

This is the predicament in which we, human beings, currently find ourselves today.  And it is not completely unfair to harken back once again to human arrogance and ignorance as a cause.  Even so, as noted above, any life form would do the same thing, any one would take advantage just as humans have, if they had the strength and resources to do so.  It is in the very nature of what is meant by the overpowering urge to grow and to propagate.  There is clearly a kind of selfishness in our desire to exist at all cost.  But again, for the most part, over the course of millennia the earth has been quite able to maintain this balance, with periods of excessive heat, or cold, or long stretches of flooding, or drought maintaining the equilibrium whenever one life form, or a few of them, threatened to take over.  So, too, may be the case today with human beings.

We are unfortunately not nearly as smart as we usually give ourselves credit for.  Or at least our ability to see, and even to imagine, is quite restricted.  By nature, we are barely capable of thinking of our own lifetime – some seventy or eighty years on average – as “the long term.”  Add to that the innate urge to propagate, and we have what is happening on earth today.  Demographers tell us that there are already well over seven billion people on the earth.  It is axiomatic to say that the planet is vastly overpopulated.  On top of all this, we have a great ability to create new technologies, and in doing so, we have pushed back the earlier limitations on lifespan, as well as on our ability to raise and care for offspring.  This combination of too many people, and not caring what their predation causes, has brought us to the brink.  To be more precise, it has brought us, humans, to the brink, though not necessarily the earth.  We do not yet have the power to obliterate an entire planet, as much as it is not inconceivable that such a day could at some point arrive.  But unless we radically change our ways and make new and different choices, it will not be long before the earth, our mother, if you will, will chastise her wayward children.  Imbalance can only be allowed to go on for so long before something must take place that will redress the imbalance.  It is true that humans have evolved beautifully, but we are not the highest life forms in the universe, as we normally think of ourselves.  And the earth is capable of making whatever changes are needed in order to rebalance itself.

In spite of this, all is not lost for humanity’s survival.  Not yet, at least.  The earth is a patient mother, and is willing to put up with wayward children, in a way similar to a mother bear, huge and powerful as she is, who willingly endures her cubs biting her ears and tail.  But she may occasionally give them a warning swat from time to time, just as a reminder not to go too far.  We have seen some of these warning swats already delivered by the earth, although so far with depressingly little effect in the longer term.  Many human beings consider it an impossible leap of faith to think that even animals have consciousness, let alone plants, and there are fewer still who can imagine the earth itself as having a kind of consciousness.

I understand that some may see these views I have expressed as being extreme.  Others may consider them utterly fanciful, or at best symbolic or allegorical.  To me, they are simple, straightforward, and truthful.  However they may be viewed, it seems clear enough that one way to unburden the earth is to lessen the population of human beings inhabiting it.  Let us hope that it will not come to a kind of radical cleansing, due to unpredictable weather patterns that could devastate large swaths of humanity, but that we can do so voluntarily by reducing the number of births.  As is so often the case, though, religions have not been of much help when they preach against and even outlaw reasonable forms of birth control.  It is a travesty, and a sin (to use their own language) to cite books written thousands of years ago, when the planet was far less populated, to justify an outdated belief that people ought not to limit the number of their offspring.  No matter what may have once been the case, these days no one couple should give birth to any more than one child, and the more people who produce no children the better.

Overpopulation is, of course, only one part of a long list of problems.  Overuse of fossil fuels, fracking, and other ways of pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere are others.  What I return to again, though, is the place of the consciousness of the earth itself in the equation.  The earth insists on balance, and balance will be achieved one way or another, with – as it were – or without our cooperation.  Morally, ethically, spiritually, even economically, however, it is our duty to make an all out effort to do what we can to help restore that balance.

Let us remember that humans have lived and bred and dabbled in life here for only an extremely short period.  In “earth time,” if it can be put that way, it is the length of an infinitesimally brief flash of lightning in the summer sky in comparison to the four and a half billion years lived by our mother planet.  We forget this, and mistakenly feel as though we have always been.  But it also behooves us to imagine a time when we might not to be here.  The great Creative Force of life would then have to carve out a new path, some new race perhaps, which might live and grow and prosper and reflect intelligently upon itself.  If that were to happen, all of the great inventions, all of the knowledge gained by science, all the most insightful books, all the deepest thoughts and most inspired art ever made by women and men would be utterly lost.

This is not what the earth wants.  It remains a loving mother, who has so far had compassion on her wayward children, but even the patience of the most loving mother can be pushed too far.  Therefore, the time for us to act is now.

SOME THOUGHTS ON KEVIN’S COMMENTS AND HIS PAINTING

By Paul

What a fascinating and mysterious painting Kevin uses to accompany his piece below entitled “Being and Consciousness!”  And how appropriate an illustration of what it may mean to be conscious, at least in some larger sense of the term.

We have to wonder if the painting originates in the unconscious mind, either personal or collective (to use Jung’s term); or does it specifically depict the conscious mind of a gifted artist, which may be different from the consciousness most of us operate on as we go about our daily activities?  My guess, and my view, is that it is something else yet, something above and beyond either of these, associated neither with our normal everyday consciousness, nor with the unconscious mind, but instead with some higher level of awareness.    

Let us look a little more closely at the painting itself.  The two figures in the center are locked in a passionate embrace, a kiss that brings them as close to union as two beings can normally get.  They are male and female, I think that is clear, but not necessarily “man” and “woman.”  No, they are beings seemingly of some other time and place, representatives if you will, archetypes of maleness and femaleness, that each of us carries within.  They appear to be staring into each other’s eyes, and at the same time staring out at us.  That is, they are lost in each other (i.e. in oneness), but also cognizant of the otherness of the world “out there.”  In other words, they who were two have become one, while still rooted in the daily world of what the Daoists call “the 10,000 things.”  This is the realm of endless multiplicity that we see constantly surrounding us all the time.  However, through the union of their male and femaleness they have become enlightened, and they are now able to perceive the singleness of the One among the many.  They also appear to have a single nose to share between them; and so we assume they breathe as one.  This, I think, references the kundalini force, as the yogis call it, the spiritual, mystic energy that comes down from above (figuratively), rests at the base of the spine (in chakra one) and then rises, uncoiled, snake like, in yogic meditation until chakra seven, that of the Thousand Petal Lotus, has been achieved.  This is the energy that flows through the One, who otherwise appears to be two, because the state of consciousness they have reached is one wherein the duality of subject and object no longer pertain.   They – or no longer they – neither male nor female (because such duality is no longer pertinent), can now be called Enlightened.    

Each also has his or her own totem animal as a companion.  There is a long mythological tradition of enlightened beings having animal companions.  In Hinduism, for example, the Lord Vishnu is accompanied by Garuda, the golden bird with the face and wings of an eagle and the body of a man; Shiva sits astride his great Bull Nandi, and his consort (or one of them), Durga, rides a fierce tiger.   In Kevin’s painting, a serpent emerges from the forehead of the female figure.  This again refers to the great spiritual kundalini energy that has risen from the lowest level, and which is now at the sixth chakra, the Spiritual Eye.  In this state of consciousness, you see that all of creation is one with the Oneness of Spirit.  It is through love and intuition, the female “side,” that this level of awareness has been achieved.  On the male side, we see a strange creature.  It could be a dog, or a wolf, or a coyote, or some combination of all three.  The dog is the faithfulness of human affection spiritualized to that of Divine Love (bhakti yoga, the Way of Devotion), the wolf is the strength and braveness of truth and intellectual activity (jnana yoga, the Way of Knowledge), and the coyote, that great trickster of many an American Indian story, reminds us that delusion, maya, as the Hindus call it, is never far away, even when we have reached the highest levels of spiritual development, so long as one is still in the body. 

The last to appear (in my view) is the gnome-like creature below and beside the male figure.  Who is this strange fellow?  He appears to be part human, part skeleton, part dwarf.  In the old European fairy tales, gnomes are the guardians of underground treasure.  Here, the figure represents the lower consciousness of the male (i.e., chakras one through three), the part that once faithfully and even jealously guarded his coveted treasures of sex and power, but out of which the greater awareness of the unified figure has since emerged.  We can see his spine, or at least part of it.  This reminds us of and connects us once more with the kundalini power that has become fully manifest on the female side.  And his expression is both one of envy (in the lower aspect of his consciousness) of the ecstatic union that is emblematic of higher consciousness, but also of a kind of awe or prayerfulness, once he emerges more fully into human form. 

Finally, the colors in the painting are important, too.  The background behind the embracing figures is of deepest blue, as in the depths of the cosmic night. It is, however, studded with stars both golden and silver, reminiscent of the colors of the male and female figures.  They are the sun and the moon, the light of intellect and of love.  Interestingly, the artist has surprised us and switched the usual associations we have with these colors.  In this case, it is the male that is pale, moon-like, silvery-blue, a “cold color,” associated now (in my mind at least) with the precision and power of the active intellect.  The female is depicted as much warmer, with golden earth tones, associating her with the bounty of the planet, and the great humanness of the love that can and should very much be part of being in a body.  But in her case, her level of higher consciousness and enlightenment is such that even the body (i.e., in this case, her shoulder) “sees” with the light of spiritual discernment and discrimination. 

This is how I understand this lovely painting that Kevin has used to accompany his reaction to my earlier article on the nature of consciousness.  In it, and in a wholly different and, obviously, non-verbal way, he has taken the discussion to a very different level.  As he says later (in the verbal part), we cannot forget that there are many forms of consciousness, other than the merely human.  Animals, too, have their own awareness, as do plants, and even the great silent mineral life of Mother Earth. 

All of these things are reflected, and referenced, and depicted in Kevin’s painting, and in his thoughts on Being and Consciousness, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to extend so fully my own initial musings on the nature of consciousness. 

 

 

 

Kevin’s BlogTalkRadio.com Interview 7pm EDT Sept 18: “Eco-Anxiety — what to do about it?”

“Eco Anxiety” is one of six posters Kevin created for the “HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity” (see our page on FaceBook) to help inspire ideation for local action.

Kate Loving Shenk will interview Kevin on “Eco-Anxiety — what to do about it?” tonight, Sept 18, 2012, 7pm EDT. Listen to the interview live today at http://m.blogtalkradio.com/kateloving/2012/09/18/eco-anxiety-what-to-do-about-it

The interview will be archived for listening at a later time or day. Here’s how:

  1. Copy and paste (or retype) in your browser address box, http://m.blogtalkradio.com/kateloving
  2. When Kate’s page comes up, click on “shows & blogs.” You will see “Eco-Anxiety…” at or near the top of the list of radio shows.
  3. Click “Play” several lines below “Eco-Anxiety…” You may need to wait briefly for the recording to start with a musical interlude

For background information about the interview, scroll down within this blog to Kevin’s article “What Can You and I Do to Save the Earth?” as well as his essay “Population Explosion + Climate Change = THE END,” and other articles available on Two Old Liberals. While you are visiting our blog Paul and Kevin invite you to read our recent exchange of thoughts about the nature of consciousness, and other essays.

Being and Consciousness

by Kevin

Paul’s recent essay, “The Nature of Consciousness, or Your Tooth Has Already Been Pulled,” is brilliant, mysterious and fascinating. For many years I have felt that there is no topic more interesting than this one, and Paul has elucidated it beautifully. Consciousness, it seems to me, is at the root of “being,” but exactly what it is seems to be an ever evolving revelation. And the more one knows, the less one knows… or to put it another way, each flash of understanding about consciousness seems to light up vistas of inquiry, mystery and questions. Are there three levels of human consciousness as some people say — superconsciousness, consciousness and sub-consciousness? If so, what exactly defines those states? What is unconsciousness, and does it mean that we do not exist when we are in that state of being? What is “elevated” consciousness, and how can we get there?

What is the nature of the consciousness of animals? Surely they are conscious, but who among us can say that we can see clearly through the eyes of our beloved animal friends and know for sure what the reality of their being is like? What about trees and other plants? Do they have some kind of consciousness? There are empirical studies that produce convincing data showing how plants respond to music, pleasant talking, violence, unpleasant noise, and even prayer. What does this mean? Are they conscious on some level? Does the mineral world have some form of consciousness that we cannot begin to imagine? Do the rocks and boulders and mountains dream for thousands or millions of years? Is the planet itself a living organism with some kind of consciousness that we cannot fathom? After all, we call the Earth our “Mother.”

Robert and I live with lots of animals here at the dead end of a dirt road, deep in the woods. I am constantly aware of their consciousness as we interact with them, and frustrated by the distinctions and barriers between our various kinds of consciousness, being, and communication methods. I often feel that they know things I don’t know, and wish I could “talk” with them and understand more about the world. Many times both Robert and I have felt that the scores of large colorful koi in our half-acre pond, each one with its own name and “personality,” were trying to tell us something. Sometimes when they see us by the pond, they begin to perform elaborately beautiful aquatic dances, tracing patterns in the surface of the pond water, as if they were trying to spell it out for us. Some of them leap repeatedly out of the water or scuttle across its surface like Flipper used to do on TV back in the 60s. I’d give a lot to trade my consciousness with that of one of our koi for just a few minutes and find out what it is to be koi.

I suspect that all living species may experience this same interspecies consciousness veil among our various groups. I’m thinking here not only of communication, but something greater — a sense of what it is like to BE the other — an understanding of each other’s consciousness. Living with lots of species, we frequently see interactions among them. While many of these interspecies scenes are violent and predatory, some of them are playful, and a few suggest a tangible sense of wonder between members of very different species. Two of our last eight dogs have been so fascinated by fish and frogs and anything that lives in the water, that they were happy to crouch by the shore and stare into that other watery world for an hour at a time.

Recently our white Cairn Terrier, Scrappy, experienced a week of interaction with a large bass in our pond. Every evening when we walked the dogs down to the pond, the bass came right up to the shore at the surface. Scrappy would run to the water’s edge and crouch nose to nose with the bass, each animal staring into the other’s eyes. If one of them moved along the shore, the other one followed, back and forth. They were clearly fascinated by one another, and I by them. The scene was such a poignant demonstration of the division among the species, each one living in its own world with its own form of consciousness, isolated from the other in its own way of being, wondering about the other.

Leaving aside the mineral kingdom and the rest of the animal kingdom for the moment, there is more than enough mystery on the unexplored frontiers of human consciousness to keep us occupied for eternity. Today I had the pleasure of watching a series of very interesting documentaries on the Science Channel (an all too rare TV experience) about the nature of consciousness as revealed in autistic savants and brain trauma savants. Some of these half-hour documentaries were about people who were born with brain anomalies. Others were portraits of people who had experienced strokes or accidents that left them with changed brains. What they all had in common were strikingly brilliant capabilities that we would normally expect from people we label “geniuses,” but these people were very impaired in other ways.

The stories of accident victims who immediately became excellent artists or musicians virtually overnight suggest particularly compelling implications. After surviving serious head trauma, one man who had never sat at a keyboard before suddenly became an amazingly proficient pianist, even though he could not read or write music. Another head trauma victim has become famous for his beautiful, prolific artwork, and yet another for his fine sculptures. These people did not exhibit such capabilities before their brains were altered. What does this say about consciousness? Doesn’t it suggest that the consciousness of a musician, an artist and a sculptor lay dormant within them before their accidents? Does it also suggest that perhaps we all possess magnificent genius and proficiencies in areas that we think are completely beyond our understanding?

I suspect that we are all much more than we know. There may be a sleeping genius within each of us. The stories of the trauma survivor savants suggest that our “consciousness” is only the tip of the iceberg and that we live in a constant state of self-imposed limitations.

As Paul suggests, memory seems to have a lot to do with our perception that we are conscious. Are we less conscious as we age and become forgetful? What if we could remember all the way back to our birth… and before that? What would our consciousness be like then? It seems likely to me that each of us has forgotten many orders of magnitude more than we remember. Is it possible that in some altered state of consciousness – some other state of being – we could access all of those memories? Is our forgetfulness and our limited consciousness itself just a temporary condition? How can we recover?

Perhaps the most controversial question about consciousness concerns whether or not it is necessarily tied to the body and the brain at all. There are metaphysicians and scientific researchers who claim that some practitioners of eastern meditation techniques are capable of entering into deep trance-like states of bliss during which their hearts eventually stop beating, their blood stops flowing, they stop breathing, and they appear to be dead. Even if they remain in this “living death state” for an hour, they come out of their meditations not only quite alive, but refreshed, rejuvenated and enlightened.

These reports may be very difficult for westerners to believe, but even the occidental mind knows that when we sit very still and enter into a state of deep contemplation or prayer or simple rest, our breathing and metabolic processes slow down dramatically, whereas our state of consciousness expands and our feeling of wellbeing improves. There is much more to learn and demonstrate about this phenomenon, but it clearly suggests that consciousness may not necessarily be entirely dependent upon the physical body or even linked to it at all in certain states of life and death. We are on the threshold of real empirical evidence that our “Being” does not depend on life or death, but is much more a matter of our “Consciousness.”

THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, OR YOUR TOOTH HAS ALREADY BEEN PULLED

By Paul

Not long ago, I had the same experience that many of us have had over the years; I got a wisdom tooth removed.  Instead of my usual dentist tackling the job, he recommended that I see an oral surgeon.  I made an appointment, found her (the surgeon) to be excellent, and we set a date for the work to be done a week or so later.  It will be a long time before I forget what happened that day, not because of the trauma of the event, but more so because everything was so untraumatic.  Here is exactly what I remember:  sitting in the chair, the assistant hooking me up to some kind of tube, and waiting in the chair for what seemed like a long time.  During this period, I was totally convinced that I was conscious.  I kept wondering when the drugs were going to kick in, and when they were going to start the procedure.  I’ll admit, in fact, that I was anxious for it to be over and done with.  Finally, once I saw the assistant come back into the room, I said to her:  “When do you think the doctor will begin?”  She looked at me quizzically, and said with a smile: “But it’s all over.  The tooth is out!” 

Now, these observations are not meant merely to be reflections on dentistry, or on wisdom teeth and their removal, or even on pain and trauma (or lack thereof).  Instead, what struck me then, and what has been on my mind ever since, has more to do with the nature of what it means to be conscious.  Most of the time, we understand it to be some kind of direct personal awareness of ourselves, that is, of our person, our bodies, and what we call our personalities, as well as of the world around us with all of its usual component parts.  After all, we say we know when we are awake and conscious.  Or at least we think we do.  And we know the difference between waking consciousness and the unconscious state of dreaming.  When we emerge from sleep, for example, we say that we wake up, that is, we transition from the unconscious to the conscious state. Furthermore, all of us are familiar with what is sometimes referred to as the hypnagogic state, that twilight experience somewhere between full wakefulness and the state of sleep.  During this time, it is not unusual to “see” abstract forms or shapes or colors, or even to experience what appear to be faces or people or objects that may or may not be familiar.  So, at this point can we say that we are conscious, or unconscious, or merely in some sort of limbo in between? 

To a certain extent, there is a kind of circularity about our thinking when it comes to a normal understanding of consciousness.  In other words, it may not at all be unfair to say that we are aware because we are aware.  Remember Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am?  He might well have said “I am, because I think I am” (Sum, quia cogito sum).  And yet, it is also possible to be, and not to know it.  Otherwise, how is it that we come back to consciousness each morning upon awakening, after having been unconscious of the fact that “we are” (at least in our normal state) for seven or eight hours?   And how did I “know” that I was conscious in the dentist chair, and yet not know that the oral surgeon had yanked a tooth out of my head?  Consciousness, then, must be something more than mere awareness of ourselves, our bodies, our feelings, and our surroundings.  It must somehow “endure” periods of unconsciousness, that is, when we are not fully aware of ourselves and our surroundings, but when we are “somewhere else.”  As an old friend of mine used to say, “Where do I go when I am not here?”  Another way to think of this is to say that consciousness is not necessarily tied only to our being in a body.  I am aware that this is a somewhat controversial statement, and many a neuroscientist might want to rush in to prove me wrong.  Just as many a believer, or a mystic for that matter, would say, well of course that is the case. 

What is definitely clear is that we go in and out of consciousness.  This happens to all of us with a frequency that may be astounding, and which many of us may not at all be comfortable admitting to.  But who has not had the experience of doing something in an automatic way?  Did I put those car keys on the dresser, or on the kitchen table, or for that matter are they still in the car?  And here we begin, too, associating the notion of memory with that of consciousness.  What is memory, after all, if not a conscious thought in the present about a conscious action (or an event, or person or thing consciously experienced) sometime in the past?   But we can also remember dreams.  Therefore, it must be said that memory is bigger than that, and it can capture both conscious and unconscious events.  Without memory, our experience of ourselves (and our bodies, our feelings, our surroundings, our loves etc.) would be a paltry thing indeed.  We would have to reinvent ourselves from moment to moment, as we became conscious of ourselves in each new instant.  And what kind of life would that be?  Who would want to be conscious, if that were what it meant to be aware?            

And then there are also so-called states of altered consciousness.  Some of these may be alcohol or drug-induced (purposefully or not), or merely something that happens “out of the blue,” as with déjà vu,when we have a clear feeling of having experienced something or been somewhere before, but we “know” we have not.  Altered states can be experienced in deep meditative trances, as well, or again in the hypnagogic, or the hypnopompic, state (the latter occurring between the end of sleep and the beginning of full wakefulness).   And who has not occasionally had a dream so real as to be convinced we were fully there, just as in our normal state of wakefulness?   For the most part, reality is something we are convinced exists only when we are awake and aware, in other words, when we are conscious.  But does reality, itself, not have its own kind of existence?  Otherwise, what exactly do we return to after having been unconscious?  Is it merely our memories of earlier experience?  And is there nothing but this flimsy hope that we and others, our loved ones in particular perhaps, will have similar simultaneous memories of similar past experiences?   Is that the sum total of our reality? 

I think not.  I think that consciousness, and memories of consciousness, and the nature of reality itself, are all far more than our normal awareness of these phenomena.  That has been my experience anyway.  I think that it is quite possible to be conscious, while no longer being aware of, or even particularly needing, the body.  Reality, consciousness if you will, is so much more than our daily experience of it would lead us to believe.  I cannot offer proof of this in the sense of something empirically verifiable and repeatable, as is normally required by science.  No one can.  Neither can it, of course, be disproved.  All we can say is that we have now entered into the realm of belief, or of subjective, personal experience, and not that of unassailable physical proof. 

At least most of the time, we can all unequivocally agree that each of us also has his or her own perfectly acceptable and workable normal sense of what it means to be conscious.  And isn’t that enough?  The answer is, yes, at least for the most part.  Otherwise, life could become awfully complicated, and we normally need all of our energies simply to deal with the duties and requirements of day-to-day existence.  But then, every so often, we get a sense that work and play, and pleasure and pain, are not the sum total of all there is.  We see, or we intuit, or we experience something larger, something filled with wonder, with grandeur, with resplendence, something more than the tug and pull of the ebb and flow of everyday existence.  The tooth is out.  You were there, but you were also not there.  You were somewhere else not governed, not ruled by the laws of normal, waking consciousness.  Is it a dream, a wish, a fantasy?  Each person must answer that question for him or herself.  But, I would advise, do not rush to judgment.  Don’t assume too much, just because we have not devised ways to measure what cannot be measured. 

Consciousness of reality is not necessarily limited to conscious reality.  To see has never been restricted to the physical eyes alone, to hear is not a function only of the ears, and to know, to envision, and to experience can be far, far beyond what any of us normally, in our everyday lives, allows it to be. 

There is an old Zen koan that asks “Where are you between two thoughts?”  Where do I go when I am not here?  The answer given in the Indian scriptures, the Upanishads, is as follows:  “There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind…Other it is than the known.  And moreover above the unknown.”* 

In the end, whatever consciousness may be, it is not restricted, it is not limited, and it surely is more than we can ever devise to say about it. 

*As quoted in Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By (New York: Bantam Books, 1972 through 1988), p. 132