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

NO LOOKING BACK

Forma aucta  fuga, Ovid’s Metamorphosis

By Paul

Memory is a funny thing.  It can be fiction every bit as much as fact.  We sometimes use it to create in ways similar to the creation of the future.  In fact, it may be more accurate to say that we participate in the creation and the actualization of each of these phases of our lives, rather than that we actually create them. 

In Ovid’s story of Apollo and Daphne, Phoebus (Apollo) kills the great snake Python, and then, filled with pride, speaks dismissively to Cupid, that wanton boy, who possesses only what appears to Apollo as a toy bow, nothing compared to his bow of a true man.  As so often happens, the smaller winds up triumphing over the larger, and in the end Cupid shoots his dart of undying love and attraction into the great god, while Daphne he pierces with the arrow of eternal aversion.  She then flees Apollo’s advances, running breathless through the wood with the god just behind her in hot pursuit.  Forma aucta est fuga – “beauty is enhanced by flight,” Ovid tells us.  And who indeed has not experienced that in life?  It is the very definition of unrequited love.  In the end, the great deity of light manages just to touch the object of his love, but she prays to her father for deliverance and is immediately turned into a laurel tree, ever and forever more the favorite of great, grieving Apollo.

Not only does beauty flee from us, as in the story (our own as well as that of others), no matter how breathlessly we pursue it, but so does the span of our very lives.  I have been reminded of this lately, having recently received an invitation to a 50th high school class reunion.  How pedestrian and prosaic such an invitation seems, you may say, compared to the great stories of undying mythology!  But such stories are themselves the very narratives of our lives, are they not?  And a reunion is in essence no more than an opportunity to look back on our own personal life’s chronicle.  In youth, for example, we think ourselves to be invincible, or if not invincible, at least we are convinced that the tale of our life is an eternal one.  We believe we will be capable of ceaselessly pursuing the object of our attraction, however we define it.  And to be sure, that object is never merely one thing, but is instead a constellation of goals, of imagined prizes, that changes continually in accord with the various stages of our lives. 

For those still in the youthful stage, the figure of Daphne might well equate to an actual glorious young woman, or to a handsome man, someone whom we think we must possess at all cost.  Dream-like, we often find that the figure of this person changes as we ourselves change, and if we are lucky, it will metamorphose from the unattainable into the attainable.  We will seize upon it, that is, upon him or her.   Having found at last the object of our love, he or she is ours, and if fortune smiles, the attraction and the love will be fully mutual.  Even so, no sooner have we attained it than we realize that this, too, is actually no longer enough.  I am speaking here not of some never-ending search for a new and “better lover”, although some do get lost in the dizzying round of that endless circle.  More often, and more to the point, the new conquest, the new object of our desire is within the world of work, where each of us feels we must make our mark.  We have achieved one goal and found it wanting, that is, we have seen that it is not enough only to be a lover, or only to be an object of love.  No, we humans are an insatiable lot.  Always wanting more, we relentlessly pursue all of our needs and desires.  We also wish to be something in the world.  To make our life count, as we may think of it.  And if we fail at this, often we are faced with a mid-life crisis.  No one has written more eloquently, or at greater length, about midlife crises, than Dante Alighieri.  The very opening lines of his magnum opus, the Inferno, begin with this declaration:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi retrouvai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.   

(Mid way on the path of our life

I found myself in a dark wood,

The true way having been lost.)

Note in this clumsy translation of my own devising that Dante uses the term in the middle of “OUR life” – nostra vita – not “my life.”  He is speaking here not merely of his own journey, but of the one each of us takes in our life.  And a journey implies a destination, does it not?  In Dante’s case, accompanied by his mentor, Aeneas, he must travel through hell itself before he is capable of climbing the heights and merging with Beatrice, and ultimately with the Beatific Vision Itself.  We may quibble (as I do) in regard to some of the “sinners” with whom Dante, with his medieval sense of propriety and morality, populates hell.  But still, can any of us conceive of a greater personal voyage?

Not that anyone now, or even 700 years ago when it first appeared, takes the Inferno literally.  Of course, we are talking here about a dreamscape, a mythological landscape, a great fiction, which attempts to tell an even greater truth about ourselves.  Hell is populated by Dante himself, as well as by all of us.  Each of us carries within both our greatest dreams and our greatest failings.  Looking back on 50 years of one’s life can be a daunting challenge.  Who does not see things he or she might have changed, roads not taken, opportunities passed by, treasures left by the wayside?  These are beauties we may still occasionally chase, however much we know that the chase itself only makes them more desirable, and as much as we may never attain them.  As in the story of Daphne and Apollo, they metamorphose at the very touch.  But neither is life always and only about what might have been.  My own life, the life of any of us (again, remember, we are talking about “nostra vita) is also filled with real events, real people, real accomplishments.  For me, there are things I would never change, and for which I can feel only the greatest of gratitude.  My life with my partner is fisrt and foremost among these, as is the great gift of friendship with those most cherished by me.  Each person, no doubt, similarly cherishes certain things in life, whether it be the choice of a mate, the birth of a child, the selection of a career path that has actually brought us what we hoped we might have achieved.  Or it may be something as simple as a move from one place to another, which then opened doors we never even knew were there. 

Memory, never iron clad, may help us regulate and modulate the past.  But as for regrets, there is no point, as regrets only steal from us the joy of the present.  They are the darkened woods of Dante (he goes on later to describe those woods as “selvaggia e aspra e forte, savage, bitter, and strong), just as they are Apollo’s fleeting dream, which disappears at the very touch. And so, I will attend my reunion as planned in late October, but more to see whom we have all become, whom I have become, than to recall who we were.  That was a kind of fiction anyway, a creation of dreams and desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled.  Better by far to live in the present, with an occasional nod and a grin to the past, and a wish and a plan for an ever more present present in a future we dream we create for ourselves.

THE LANGUAGE OF MYTHOLOGY, AS VITAL TODAY AS EVER

By Paul

The Blackfeet Indians have an old legend about a man and his two wives, who were living off by themselves.  The younger of the two wives wonders off one day on her daily rounds and meets a handsome young man, who invites her to his lodge.  Now in those “far-back days,” animals could, and sometimes did, change themselves back and forth from animal into human form.  As it turned out, the handsome young man who met the young woman was the son of Beaver Chief.  He invites her to go and meet his parents, and she does so, although with some amount of fear and misgiving.  She stays with them the requisite four nights, during which time Beaver Chief, through his magic, can see that the husband of the young woman, while worried, does not give in to anger.  Beaver Chief then allows her to return to her husband, but she goes off yet one more time back to Beaver Chief’s lodge.  Yet, sensing something “bigger,” something spiritual here, still the husband is not moved to anger.  In return, Beaver Chief finally allows the young woman to return to her human family for good, but this time laden with great gifts.  First of all, she has learned the sacred song of the Beaver Clan, very powerful medicine, and secondly she is given a beaver skin roll filled with sacred objects inside, which she presents to her husband and to the entire tribe.  These songs, and these sacred objects, save the tribe more than once in the ensuing generations, and the people rejoice that their ancestors were able to connect with such great spiritual power.

What are we to make of such a story?  It no doubt sounds quaint, even strange to our modern ears, until we begin to remember some of the dreams we, ourselves, or someone close to us, has had just the night before. It is no more strange, for example, than the dream my good friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, told me of recently in which he and Al and Tipper Gore were wondering about on gorgeous, intricately woven, gossamer bridges, hung high in the stratosphere.  Nor is it any more odd than a dream I myself once had in which I escaped from a contingent of policemen (it wasn’t clear what I had done to cause their pursuit) by becoming invisible and flying up to a higher astral plane.  I could not sustain myself there for too long, however, and when I came back, the police were there waiting to arrest me.  When they asked where I had gone to, I figured it was best just to tell the truth, and told them I’d flown to a higher plane, which was invisible to them, even though I knew it was unlikely they would ever believe me. 

What this Blackfeet story, and thousands like it from every conceivable culture in the world, and these dreams (and millions of others like them) all have in common is the language of mythology, which is another way of saying, the language of symbols.  In each case, that is, both of mythology properly so called, and of personal dreams, there is an attempt on the part of fallible human beings to deal with themselves as they take their place in society, and with the harsh world of what we blithely call “reality.”   If there is a difference between the two, that is, between myth and dreams, it is that mythology is a kind of collective dream.  It is a world which uses archetypal imagery designed for and channeled through the experience of an entire people, a culturally similar group that can, as it were, read and understand the particular language of symbols used in any given story. 

If we return for just a moment to the Blackfeet legend, we note that it is set in a world of animals and people.  This was, in fact, the world of the tribe before the onslaught of what is called western civilization ripped apart the traditional life of these hunting peoples.  In those “far-back” times, that is, in the land of symbols and generally accepted archetypes, when animals could speak and when they were recognized as having power of their own, such creatures came to represent highly powerful parts of the psyche of the people.  In this particular story, the man also had two wives, one who helped him with his everyday needs, but the other of whom helped him spiritually.  It was the latter who brought him the sacred song and the sacred Beaver Roll, filled with powerful magic (we think, too, of the Biblical story of Martha and Mary in this instance, where Martha chooses to busy herself with food preperation, instead of listening to the words of the Master, as does Mary).  The man, for his part, does not give way to anger at her.  In other words, at some level of his consciousness, he recognizes her as a spiritual helper.  The symbolism here is one in which a person has evolved to the point where he (or she – the actual gender of a “real person” makes no difference) has accepted and is open to Wholeness, that is, to a combination of both the male and female sides of one’s personality, and so, as a “whole person,” he (or again, she) has access to great spiritual power.  

The entire Blackfeet nation, not just one individual, was able to benefit from this story, to use it to understand their place in the world.  It, and many other stories like it, served them very well for a long time (until that world essentially ceased to exist), precisely because it used a set of symbols known to and understood by an entire people.  The language of dream, on the other hand, is highly personalized, and as such is normally only readily understood by and meant for the individual who is dreaming the dream. 

In the case of my own dream, which took place some years ago by the way, the symbolism is equally clear to me.  The police are those parts of my psyche which demand adherence to the law, that is, to daily duty, or to the conventions and regulations of culture and society, even of religion, which in the course of my personal life history I have internalized and made my own (for better or for worse!).  There is another part of me, however (as there is of each one of us), which yearns to escape these policing rules that hem us in and “arrest us” (i.e. they stunt our spiritual growth, tethering us to the physical world of everyday living in ways similar to the elder wife in the Blackfeet legend, or to Martha in the Biblical story).  Through personal spiritual effort we can eventually become invisible to these policing parts of our psyche, that is, we can escape them and “fly to a higher plane,” one not bound by the Law of Opposites.  This higher plane is, of course, spiritual not physical; it is one of expanded consciousness, which has no use, no need for the laws and regulations required in day-to-day living.  In the dream, unfortunately, I was unable to sustain this elevated level of consciousness, but in the end I did “tell the truth” to these enforcers of rules.  In other words, I was able to incorporate some of the “spiritual power” of a higher level of consciousness into my daily activities.  Not perfect, to be sure, but at least something.  And that is the key to any so-called spiritual power.  We have to be able to “bring it back”, and it has to make a difference in our every day lives.

The same was true for the Blackfeet story.  It infused spiritual power into an entire people.  It is an example of the archetype of the Great Hero who journeys to a “far off place,” but who returns after various trials and tribulations with a tremendous gift for his or her people.  And the people rejoice, because they understand at some level that they have been touched by something beyond the toil and labor of their everyday lives.  They have, to an extent, seen Spirit, at least in symbol, and are the better for it. 

So, what mythologies do we possess today?  That is a good, if a disturbing, question.  My own view, though not one shared by everybody, is that the great myths of the established religions are slowly sinking into the sands of time, no longer full of the life-sustaining energy that once infused them.  Of course, with enough will and enough personal power, they may occasionally still once more overflow with energy.  We continually see images of the Virgin Mary, for example, popping up here and there in trees, or even in food, and people flock to them, as to an apparition.  The archetype of the Great Virgin Mother of the Universe, who does not need sex to procreate (i.e. again, She is already Whole, fully embodying both male and female sides), can use any medium to communicate to Her people.  Still, for the most part, I believe that modern humans are desperately searching for some new and vital set of symbols needed to energize and inspire them, to help them through the tremendous challenges of potential nuclear war, of the ever more apparent ravages of global climate change, and of out-of-control pandemics, to enumerate but a few of the frightening problems facing us in the 21st century.

This is perhaps to some extent what helps give the world of space exploration such tremendous emotional power and energy for so many people today.  It is an attempt on the part of human beings to “fly up and beyond” the endless challenges of living our daily lives on this planet.  It could be interpreted as a kind of collective waking dream, a semi-conscious mythologizing, which we are living both actually and symbolically, and one which – like all good myths – also brings something useful back to earth, something that helps and makes a real difference in our workaday lives

I am not suggesting that NASA is the myth of the New Age, but I might go so far as to say that science in general is beginning to replace some of the old stories of “far off times,” when gods and saints and great heroes traveled to other worlds and then returned, Bodhisattva-like, to aid struggling humanity.  One way or another, people still need such stories to sustain them.  Life is hard; we all struggle not only for our daily bread, but also in hope of a greater, a better, time when all will be well.  We may know in our hearts that such a time will never come, at least not on the physical plane of existence, but without such hopes and dreams, without art, which at it highest is a materialization of these longings, and without science, which embodies at some profound level what it means to best understand today’s world, everyday life on the planet can be a sad and dreary affair indeed. With it, on the other hand, with these great stories, whatever they may be and wherever they come from, we feel some measure of hopefulness, our lives are energized, and once again we feel as though we have something to live for.