Adirondack Dreams

Simply taking a slow, deep breath out in the woods in the Adirondack region of New York State is so near to a transcendent experience by itself that whenever I arrive there I feel confident in my ability to achieve an even more intense transcendent state with some effort and focus. When I was a young boy our family often visited the area in the late summer, and the appeal of the Adirondacks was very nearly mystical in my mind even then, although I clearly lacked a context within which I could describe it to myself in those terms. The sense of a divine nature to the natural setting, which I understood at the time as “being close to God,” now resonates in the same way, but with a much clearer adult context more than forty years later.

The ineffable nature of the subjective experience of consciousness, that richly-textured awareness of being, is so vividly present at such moments, that even as I experience my own personal consciousness in this extraordinary setting, I can barely contain myself to attempt to express it in words. As most people experience it, consciousness is mostly taken for granted, and contemplating its complexities and subtleties is hardly a concern, if ever. And yet, for me, the subject beckons me to explore it with such power, that whenever I am presented with the opportunity, my inclination is to spend every available moment in contemplation of its intricate nature and far-reaching implications.

Preparing to meet with the darkness at the campsite, as the light of day slowly recedes into the gentle evening air, I sit recording my thoughts on my laptop, almost imperceptibly sliding into a comfortable degree of both melancholy and relief, deep in the burrow of the pine forest, under the canopy of what Emerson described as the “plantations of God.” Already fully prepared to begin, I set the flames of the evening campfire in motion, parked my chair agreeably close to the fire, and settled in to release whatever might escape from within me.

For me, experiencing the campfire is almost the whole point of camping in the first place. I keep thinking of my ancient ancestors from the earliest days of human awareness, filled as I am in my time, with a sense of wonder and oneness with the natural world. While gazing intently into the fire, I seem to gaze beyond the present moment, across the eons of time to share the moment with them. Surely, some of the first truly important moments of conscious awareness in humans included such moments by the fire, even if the intention was to stay warm or to gain a sense of safety from night predators.

The waves of heat seen rippling through the white-hot embers at the core of the fire, and the fluid motion of the flames lapping along the edges of the arrangement of logs, evoked for me a heightened sense of the flow of the unseen which I felt all around me, and of which we generally only become aware through moments of transcendent awareness. Surrendering to the moment, I began to view the fire as a good metaphor for temporal life. The energy that is released as the wood burns is the energy of life, and as the wood is consumed by the fire, so too does life consume the body, though as it burns, it releases the most brilliant light.

For many of us, moments of transcendence are only possible to experience fleetingly. Flashes of insight, simultaneous thoughts occurring between two or more individuals, sudden awareness of impending danger, (most often followed by an instinctual decision to meet it head on or to avoid collision with it) empathy with a complete stranger, visions, hunches, and even hopes, all hint at our connection to something much greater than ourselves that also feels essential to our nature as living, sentient beings. The more we open ourselves to these moments–deliberately placing ourselves in the path of transcendence–the closer we come to perceiving our connection to the wider world of the spirit that animates us.

During one of my most recent journeys into the deep forest, I inadvertently left one of my books out at the campsite during the day and when I returned that evening, I realized that it must have rained in my absence and suddenly my concern for the transcendent was briefly interrupted by a fairly mundane temporal concern–drying out my reading material! It’s always good to be reminded, even in the deep forest, that we are also made of flesh and blood, and exist in the physical universe!

Conversation with a Silent Friend

A passing train howls in the distance. A cool breeze brushes up against my face, and the full moon reflects the sun’s light toward the half-darkened earth. As I scan the evening sky, I deeply inhale the brisk autumn air and turn my gaze fondly upon my silent friend, the backyard tree, which slowly sways, patiently awaiting the fullness of the season.

Ever since I arrived at this little corner of the world, I have loved to stand near this immense, living, arboreal being, a genetically and evolutionary distant cousin with whom I feel great kinship. There are those who might say that kinship with a tree is a one-sided arrangement, but they would not find it so if they simply took the time to get acquainted.

Humanity has recently begun to search the distant cosmos for signs of other intelligent life, and yet we have not truly and completely absorbed the varieties of abundant life all around us. William Blake suggested we might be able to see the world in a grain of sand if we looked at it the right way. Over the years, after spending many happy hours in silent appreciation, I have grown to love the backyard tree, and while there hasn’t been any overt communication, our nonverbal exchanges–silent conversations as I like to call them–have been eminently satisfying for me. Since it continues to come back to life in the spring every year, I assume that we are on good terms. The only time I really worry is when it comes time to chop something off it.

Even though I know that it is ultimately for the overall health of the tree to occasionally trim its branches, I am always reluctant to shorten the beautiful outstretched limbs, still full and green, or blazing with autumn colors, or even bare in the heart of winter, since then the branches look more like outstretched hands, waving blissfully in the winter sky. Many landscaping experts recommend periodic trimming, but there’s just some kind of curious mental block that makes me feel terrible about lopping off a limb or removing anything that is still colorful and alive. I’m even reluctant to cut the grass that surrounds the tree. Yes, it looks much neater when kept trimmed, but is how it looks more important than its own natural growth? A lot depends on how you view the living organisms of the world.

Is a tree, even my familiar backyard tree, like a person? Well, not exactly. Our similarities as organisms, particularly in outward appearance and function, appear on the surface to be few in number, but there are certain essential qualities which, if examined closely, reveal some wonderful resemblances. Science has provided us with much greater knowledge regarding life on earth, and we now know that the proteins involved with cell chemistry and the molecules of DNA which carry hereditary information are virtually identical in every plant and animal. The late Carl Sagan, in his popular TV series, “Cosmos,” put it this way:

“We human beings don’t look very much like a tree. We certainly view the world differently than a tree does. But down deep, at the molecular heart of life, we are essentially identical to trees.”

Beyond these fundamental similarities on the molecular level, our own development from the microscopic union of cells to our formidably intricate structure as a human being, corresponds to the development of a tree from seedling to full-grown tree. We take in nutrients from the food we eat and process them to become bones and flesh, while a tree takes in nutrients from the soil and turns them into limbs and leaves. We distribute oxygen and blood throughout our bodies by a circulatory system, taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide by breathing. Trees, in a contrasting but complementary process, take in carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis expel oxygen, circulating food and moisture throughout the web of limbs to the tiniest leaf. Given the ideal environment and nurtured by mutually advantageous circumstances, both trees and humans will inevitably flourish.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous naturalist and author, wrote that “All natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” When we contemplate Emerson’s words, we begin to see our explicit connection to everything that lives and the importance of preserving our earthly environment.

For me, the development of my awareness of kinship with every living entity explains well why I so love walking in the woods or across fields and meadows, or even sitting contentedly on the back porch on a cool autumn evening, contemplating and communicating with the backyard tree.

____________________ I think that I shall never see
____________________ A poem lovely as a tree.

____________________ A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
____________________ Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

____________________ A tree that looks at God all day,
____________________ And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

____________________ A tree that may in summer wear
____________________ A nest of robins in her hair;

____________________ Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
____________________ Who intimately lives with rain.

____________________ Poems are made by fools like me,
____________________ But only God can make a tree.”

____________________ – Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918, Trees

The Dynamics of Consciousness

The only means of strengthening one’s intelligence is to make up one’s mind about nothing– to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. – John Keats (1795 – 1821)

No matter what aspect of conscious experience we wish to consider, whether it involves a clearly temporal action or event like wrestling an alligator, or something more subtle like daydreaming with eyes closed in a silent and temperate room or even meditating, consciousness provides us with a capacity for awareness of the “what-it’s-like” subjective experience of those circumstances. The contrasting quality of those experiences, one dynamically physical in emphasis and the other more mentally or “internally” oriented, points both to a broad range of conscious experience and to what might be described as a “spectrum” of consciousness.

Much like the spectrum of light, which includes a relatively narrow band of the visible sort, as well as an expansive range not visible to the human eye, including frequencies at the low end and the high end, the full range of consciousness may indeed exceed all of our perceptual and conceptual limitations as humans. Just as the results of our encounters with the unknown in our human explorations of the physical universe prompted us to develop sensors for x-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet and infrared frequencies of light, these same urgings applied properly and persistently to our inner landscape may reveal a greater range than our current awareness permits within the spectrum of consciousness.

Considering that a fundamental or minimally functional and reportable sort of “human” consciousness only recently appeared on our planet in our hominid ancestors, it hardly seems unreasonable at all that we are still trying to determine its true nature. In spite of the fact that, by most estimates, our truly meaningful or evidential tenure as “modern humans,” encompasses at least tens of thousands and at most hundreds of thousands of years, we have been unable to locate any significant evidence of “modern civilization” prior to the Upper Paleolithic period some 40,000 years ago. However you prefer to define “modern” or “civilization,” a clear demonstration of “modern” cognitive function, which includes “self-awareness” beyond stone tools and survival skills, is a fairly recent development cosmically speaking.

A tomb painting of Seti I as reconstructed by Giovanni Battista Belzoni (d. 1823),public domain

Advanced conceptual skills which resulted in grammatical languages came along even later, and the beginnings of symbolic writing appeared maybe only 6,000 years ago. While our ancient civilizations and cultures were rapidly and simultaneously evolving into an astonishingly diverse and demonstrably intelligent bunch, one could argue that even the Sumerians, Babylonians, East Asians, and Egyptians, who were making astronomical observations, developing medicines, and recording mathematical principles, were only laying the foundations of modern science. The ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman civilizations were already in full development before human cultures even began to truly unravel the tangled web of mystery and superstition which would persist well into the Renaissance. It wasn’t until the early 1700’s that serious attention was given to scientific methodology and reasoning during what is described as “The Age of Enlightenment.”

While all sorts of thoughts about mental states and numerous philosophical ideas had been considered for centuries before, it has only been since the early part of the seventeenth century that consciousness became the object of consideration as an important concept. As more and more attention was given to the mind, by the mid-nineteenth century, the real work of discerning what might possibly explain “consciousness” finally began to develop in scientific studies, and persisted in spite of skepticism and neglect by a number of prominent thinkers that arose in the early twentieth century.

Given that we have only recently begun to devote direct attention to developing a comprehensive theory of consciousness, I find it both amusing and perplexing that anyone supposes they could have more than a cursory understanding of what the process of consciousness and the resulting subjective experience of the self could reasonably include. My own efforts here are not intended to represent anything more or less than a report of my own investigations and musings from my years of independent study and contemplation of the subject. Where I seem to diverge from the mainstream thinking is mostly in the degree of willingness I possess to consider the inclusion of non-physical elements in the equation, and my absolutely unabashed confidence that it is completely possible for the human mind to achieve a comprehensive theory about its own consciousness.

It may also be said that as a non-scientist/scholar in the formal sense of those terms, I do not suffer from any sort of anxiety or reluctance to entertain any thoughtful or reasonable ideas expressed with the intention of expanding our understanding. Our western culture generally, and our academic culture in particular, do not, in my view, encourage nor support anything even remotely metaphysical in its approach to consciousness, simply because these ideas do not conform well in every instance to the rigors and parameters of our current scientific mindset, and this dissuades many of our modern scientists and philosophers from giving them even a glance usually.

I’m not suggesting that we should recklessly abandon reason and science in this effort, and there are a few hopeful glimmers of open-mindedness to new ideas in some of the recent publications and seminars on the subject of consciousness. My own views are more a result of experiences and thought processes which, as a relative outsider, have provided me with opportunities and produced results that simply aren’t encouraged in academic circles. Perhaps, if we could just “lighten up” a little, by at least considering and maybe even actively encouraging “out-of-the-box” thinkers, we may find that they provide insights and open doors that could very well lead to progress.

There are very few serious modern thinkers who believe that any problem can be solved by only one way of looking at it, but it’s clear that we still have a long way to go before we can truly be said to be “open-minded” about consciousness. The irony here, of course, is that in order to be “open-minded” about our brains and how the mind and consciousness work, we are required to utilize the very thing we are examining in the first place! There is nothing quite as astonishing as the source of our own amazement!

The Tree of Life – a film by Terrence Malick

This week, I was finally able to view the film “The Tree of Life,” directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. As expected, I was deeply moved by the powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual experience of this masterful rendering of the experience of life. There is much of value to be gleaned from viewing this intensely provocative and enormously absorbing film which takes on the whole universe from its spectacular beginnings to the minute by minute unraveling of life in the modern world. We are led through a kaleidoscopic journey of a Texas family in 1950’s Texas, which unravels through tragedy, leaving many unanswered questions and a haunted Sean Penn as the grownup version of the young boy who lost his brother as a young man and who lost his way as a grown man.

Even though I hadn’t slept the whole night, I stayed up for another two hours and twenty minutes to take advantage of the opportunity to view the film and I was not disappointed. I spent much of the next day exhausted from both lack of sleep and from the emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride created by Malick’s masterwork. The film is not an easy experience to endure. Malick challenges the viewer to delve deeply and focus intently on some disturbingly emotional vignettes that punctuate a surreal mental landscape of memories from a childhood which began in the 1950’s. The film evokes the period vividly for anyone who remembers those years, and as a child of the 1950’s myself, much of the film resonated uncannily at times with my own experiences.

This is a photo of my siblings and me out in front of our home in 1956.

Malick has composed a patchwork symphony of pivotal intimate moments of childhood experiences, and woven his richly-textured cloth into a complex and, at times, disparate pattern that frequently struck at the very core of my being. I found myself oddly vacillating between exceptionally emotional highs and lows as I moved through my own emotional and psychological panorama, which was provoked by the extraordinary force of Malick’s vision. Viewing the film put me in a state of discomfort so often that by the end of the film I felt shell-shocked–unprepared as I was for the barrage of unrestrained emotional upheaval.

One of the most profound aspects of the film for me resulted from the inclusion of a phenomenally vivid and lavish reconstruction of the creation of the universe and the ensuing development of stars, galaxies, and our familiar solar system, culminating in the evolution of life on earth and the dawn of consciousness itself through the evolution of humanity.

Malick seems to suggest to us that our subjective experience of the world is not simply a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, and that supporting it all is an underlying non-physical substrate–that beyond the physical universe there exists a transcendent reality of which we are subjectively aware, but sadly lacking in understanding fully how these other layers of existence gave form and substance to the physical universe in the first place.

While each of the characters in the film are compelling in their own way, none is more compelling for me than the mother of the story played by Jessica Chastain. Throughout the film, I am constantly drawn in by her extraordinarily keen sensitivity and powerful connection to her children. In the opening scene, her portrayal of the mother struck by the news contained in a telegram of the loss of her child grabbed a hold of me so intently, that I could not take my eyes off her whenever she appeared.

It was “Mrs. Obrien,” who gave voice to the main theme of the story, which was that we must choose either the way of nature or the way of grace, and she articulates the difference in the two approaches by characterizing the way of grace as one which “doesn’t try to please itself,” and the way of nature as one which “only wants to please itself…to have its own way.” Throughout the film, Malick places these two opposites up against each other in numerous ways, and the tension it creates presents the viewer with some of the film’s most potent and emotional moments.

It seems very likely that there will be more discussion of this film finding its way into some of my future posts.

Discovery and Wonder

NASA / ESA and Jeff Hester (Arizona State University)
The Hubble Space Telescope has caught the most detailed view of the Crab Nebula in one of the largest images ever assembled by the space-based observatory.

When I look out into the night sky, especially when I consider the vastness of space and contemplate the cosmic proportions of the distances between earth and the nearest objects we see beyond our own solar system, I can’t help but feel a genuine sense of awe and mystery, in spite of the astonishing technologies which allow us to view such spectacular images as the one displayed at the top of this page. Even though those technologies have opened our eyes and expanded the reach of our very human minds to include such wonders, as an earthly species with no other as-yet-apparent cohabitants in the vastness of the universe, we have to wonder about the implications of each new discovery, and try to figure out where we fit in all this vastness.

A recent study by scientists about the Crab nebula in the constellation Orion detected gamma ray emissions far greater in intensity than any ever observed before, turning our understanding of the phenomenon on its ear:

The study was led by Nepomuk Otte, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz:

“These new details of the Crab pulsar could change scientists’ understanding of gamma-ray emissions and how they are generated,”

Andrew McCann, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a co-author of the new study:

“We thought we understood the gamma-ray emission, and this was really becoming a foundational feature of our models, but that’s now thrown out,” McCann explained. The gamma-ray beams that were detected from the Crab pulsar exceeded 100 billion electron-volts, stronger than anyone or any theories projected — a million times more energetic than medical X-rays and 100 billion times stronger than visible light, the researchers said.

“Possible explanations for the Crab pulsar’s intense beams have been suggested, but the researchers said that plenty more data will need to be collected before the mechanisms behind these gamma-ray pulses can be better understood.”

See the full article here:

Even spending just a little time looking up into the vast ocean of stars on a brisk autumn night into the area of the “W” shaped constellation Cassiopeia can reveal wonders almost beyond imagining. The Andromeda galaxy pictured above is approximately the same size as our own Milky Way galaxy, and is one of the few objects which because of its brightness can be seen with the naked eye, or viewed more easily with binoculars. It is situated some 2.5 million light years distant from our own galaxy, and contains hundreds of billions of stars, the light from which only reaches us after a trip at the speed of light lasting 2.5 million years.

I find it impossible to contemplate these concepts without wondering how anyone could view such wonders and not contemplate the astonishing evolution on earth which produced creatures who not only found ways to reveal the existence of distant galaxies and detect enormously intense gamma radiation beyond anything known previously, but who also experience these wonders as consciously aware entities in what appears to be a nearly infinite realm. The subjective experience of consciousness facilitates an awareness that even today, with all our advantages intellectually and technologically, is only a fraction of what might be awaiting the cognitive creatures of the centuries to come.

Victory over Disharmony

Radio Telescopes – ESO – Chile

There wasn’t any reason in particular to step out into the mitigated darkness of late evening, other than to follow an urge to move past the sometimes bewildering blur my life has been of late. Somehow, as I turned my gaze to the canopy of stars in the cool autumn night, I felt as though taking an unexpected turn might send me off the path for a while. Any change of direction can briefly alleviate the pangs of our everyday unrealized desires, but I had no reason to expect any real change to occur no matter how blindly I turned from one avenue of chaos to another.

It has always seemed to me whenever the moment approached to make a bold choice, fraught with either danger or excitement, that I rarely felt able to engage my genuine inclinations to go in one direction or another. After countless clashes with just about every imaginable consequence resulting from what might be described as risky spontaneous surges in my past, I have become much less likely to shut down my brain long enough to follow such urgings. My heart and mind are often at odds in one way or another, but not because I somehow haven’t been able to work through the requisite deliberations regarding the consequences of disharmony provided by the clash of interests.

Artist Image by h.koppdelaney who writes: “This picture is my interpretation of the antagonistic energies and the unity behind.”

Several pressing matters have intruded into my daily deliberations of late, and it fascinates me how so many of the everyday matters of daily life jump out at me which have relevance to my investigations into consciousness. At times, the juxtaposition of several key elements is illuminating in a way no single confrontation of opposites could be, but more often than not, the cacophonous meshing of several different streams of consciousness is mostly just distracting, leading to confusion and uncertainty. The crux of the matter seems to be that the disparate elements vying for my attention all seem equally urgent to me in their own way, and that puts me at a distinct disadvantage that, in itself, I find fascinating.

What propels me to investigate human consciousness is clearly my passionate interest for the subject generally, but also due to a compelling drive to comprehend my own subjective experience, particularly in the face of what feels like an overarching imbalance of reductionist thinking which occasionally dominates the arena. Why I should be so concerned with the sometimes outrageous assertions of narrow-minded reductionist thinkers eludes me presently, other than perhaps to provide some degree of counterbalance for such extreme viewpoints which advocate a kind of “scientific fundamentalism,” that is equally abhorrent as any other form of fundamentalism.


What I am proposing in my own work, while clearly advocating my own interpretations with enthusiasm, is victory over the disharmony that seems to permeate the field at most every level. The quest to discover a fundamental theory of consciousness shares a degree of interconnectedness with every related discipline, and where we sometimes fail is when one side or the other dismisses a potential fundamental feature of our humanity, due to some sociocultural or religious paradigm, which in many cases is designed specifically to limit such connections. Discovery of a powerful and universal human nature which does not require social approval, cultural agreement, or a compatible religious dogma threatens the very fabric of these institutions.

Even the scientists, who often thrive on the secular nature of explanations, free from any cultural or even vaguely metaphysical influences, are threatened by the suggestion that consciousness may require the unity of scientific and spiritual notions, and vigorously resist any mention of the ineffable or the spiritual. What often results is the rejection by all sides of what the Buddhists call, “The Middle Path,” leaving compromise and symbiotic construction out of a comprehensive theory.

Denying the facts of science, rejecting sound empirical reasoning, and refusing to consider any suggestion of evolutionary or natural causes for complex phenomena, is just as absurd as dismissing the possibility of a non-physical reality existing as a vital component to our temporal existence. What can seem so apparent to us subjectively, that we exist as both temporal and spiritual beings, may not seem empirically tenable objectively, and many of the fundamental aspects of our physical universe, which science and mathematics illuminate so exquisitely say virtually nothing when it comes to our fantastically vibrant subjective experience of existence within that universe.

It is my belief that we cannot dispense with either viewpoint without diminishing both, and that we serve best the goals of progress and comprehension by seeking a middle-ground where both may flourish and create an opening for our future generations to expand and evolve beyond the limitations of the past.