The Phenomenon of Consciousness

Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo, Borgo, Roma, Vatican

Relief sculpture of battle scene in the Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy.

“In these confused and restless zones, in which present blends with future in a world of upheaval, we stand face-to-face with all the grandeur—the unprecedented grandeur—of the phenomenon of man. What has made us so different from our forbearers, so ambitious too, and so worried, is not merely that we have discovered and mastered other forces of nature, it is that we have become conscious of the movement which is carrying us along.”

– excerpt from “The Phenomenon of Man,” by Teilhard de Chardin

There are many different views of what exactly qualifies one as being “conscious” but I still think that most of the time, we end up confusing “being conscious” with “consciousness.” The functioning of the brain facilitates a kind of unified condition which results in what we often describe as “the mind,” which is a consequence of the functionality and architecture of the brain itself. When all of our brain regions and physiological processes function nominally, we are “conscious,” and can think, remember, walk, talk, act, and understand others. We are generally considered “conscious” when we are “awake,” and “unconscious” when we are asleep or sedated or otherwise mentally incapacitated. The term, “consciousness,” is much broader in scope and refers to a foundational, ubiquitous, and transcendent concept, which according to Teilhard de Chardin, encompasses and provides the foundation for all existence. It supports our existence, and our lives, and our subjective experiential awareness–the “what it’s like” experience of being.”

I have spent the past two years blogging here, mostly about the phenomenon of consciousness, supported by a number of years of research and study prior to beginning this adventure. As 2012 slowly recedes into our collective memories, as it often happens when the new year approaches, I generally become reflective and try to evaluate my progress and contemplate the journey itself. It has been an amazing journey, and I am looking very much forward to the months to come as I continue to investigate and contemplate the important questions which have driven me for so many years now.

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Some time ago, I wrote about my experiences overseas in Europe, and posted an image of myself from those days. It’s hard to believe that the image was created more than thirty years ago, but a recent visit with my son at his apartment produced an image that makes the previous one even more striking. Setting the two images side-by-side is startling in one way, but it also provides a small window into the journey of the mind which currently labors here at WordPress.com. The real work of investigating and writing about human consciousness began long ago for me, but the spirit which resides within me and sustains me to this day is visible in both images.

Last year, I had about the same number of postings, roughly one per week, give or take a posting here or there, and received less than 5,000 visits. In 2012, the same number of postings were offered, but I received over 20,000 visits! It also seems impossible that people in 141 different countries stopped by for a look. It has been an especially difficult year for me personally, but through it all, I have found solace and hope as I struggled to express the hills and valleys of my “inner evolution.”

I decided to finally change the gravatar image which I’ve had for two years, and replaced it with a more recent one. A few of the visitors mentioned that I seemed a bit stoic in the previous image, and in the interest of positivity, I decided to use one of me actually smiling, which I try to do occasionally when I can. I also decided to try a new theme, in preparation for the New Year, and with the hope for a fresh outlook as I move forward into the coming year. It’s probably mostly smoke and mirrors anyway, but I figured….what the heck!

heads at vatican

In a recent article by Robert Lanza in “American Scholar,” called “A New Theory of the Universe,” he expresses what is at the very heart of my work currently, and his thoughts will be included in a future posting in January. Here is what he wrote:

“We need a revolution in our understanding of science and of the world. Living in an age dominated by science, we have come more and more to believe in an objective, empirical reality and in the goal of reaching a complete understanding of that reality…These theories reflect some of the important work that is occurring in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, but they are theories of structure and function. They tell us nothing about how the performance of these functions is accompanied by a conscious experience; and yet the difficulty in understanding consciousness lies precisely here, in this gap in our understanding…”

In January, I hope to begin to broaden my investigations of consciousness, and to delve even deeper into the world of consciousness in a way that moves us forward in our understanding. I am certain that when we continuously press our energies to the work of discernment, in consideration of the broad range of thoughts and ideas in the world today, we cannot help but progress. I am greatly encouraged by the support and friendship I share here with my fellow bloggers, some of whom have now become cherished friends, and all of you who have accompanied me along the way.

With hope for peace and beauty and greater understanding in the years to come, everywhere in the world…….John H.

A Spirit Born To Be Yours

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A Spirit Born To Be Yours

A long time ago,
In centuries past,
You and I existed
On a plane that can
No longer be reached.
It is in the past,
But it is also now,
And it is also tomorrow.

We were lovers.
We breathed the same air.
Our lips pressed together;
Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison.
I gazed deeply into your eyes.
I inhaled the scent
Which arose from your body.
I embraced the spirit inside you.

Though our bodies only touched,
And our hearts beat apart,
There was only one—
We—were—one.

Part of me was inside you.
My heart would rise,
My spirit would expand,
Encompass, and merge with yours.

It’s already happened, a hundred times a hundred times
Over the centuries,
And now, I know your spirit;
I see myself inside you.
My whole being swirls around you.

There is no now.
There is no yesterday.
There is no tomorrow.
There is only the memory of you and me as one.

I cannot say the words aloud,
Nor can I act as I might wish—
As I feel compelled to do;
For to do so, is to break the flow of life,
As it unfolds around me, and around you.

We have no patience.
We cannot say what makes all of us one.
But, with luck, you will find me.
And when you do, I will greet you with open arms,
Open heart, and a spirit born to be yours.

© December 2012 by JJHIII

Grief and Hope

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(c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / eric1513

Everywhere we look in the world, no matter how remote or distant from us, we find the two great opposing forces of grief and hope. At times, especially when the grief is very near, our initial response at first tends toward the abandonment of hope. It really doesn’t matter if it arrives unexpectedly “out of the blue,” against all expectations, or after a prolonged period of expectation. When it strikes, if we are very near the event, it can tear into the very fabric of our lives. Anyone who has experienced grief of this sort can attest to the power such events can bring to the moment when it occurs, and to the seemingly impassable chasm it can produce between the ensuing grief and the expectation of hope to come.

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Every parent in this country, and the many others around the world who have heard of the tragic loss of life in Connecticut this past week know something about this chasm. It doesn’t require being at the center of the tragedy to have a potent effect on the heart and spirit of anyone who has brought children into the world, or who may have grown up alongside other children, or who genuinely loved anyone to the same degree. It grips us all, no matter who we are or what our background might be. Our very humanity pulls at us when such awful events result in the loss that leads to grief. These events are not confined to America, although we seem lately to have suffered a great many such tragedies. There are children dying from violence all over the world. It never makes any sense no matter where it happens–from Connecticut to China, from Afghanistan to Africa, from Gaza to Syria–the innocent victims both young and old and their loved ones must endure this grief, and at some point, all of us–young and old and in between–need to find a way back to hope.

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In response to a recent comment about such grief, I replied that “There are no easy answers to our most perplexing sorrows–none that will normally soothe us well while in the grip of such emotions–and so we seek comfort as we can, knowing full well that only time, distance, and the release one may find through acceptance or forgiveness–whichever it is that we need the most–only these few avenues offer any hope for solace.”

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“Think of the experience of tending to the fire. Once the fire is fully blazing, either by design like a campfire, or by accident or mishap, when we are up against the flames or too close to the inferno, we feel the intense pain that can burn. If we step away or back off slowly from the source, the heat begins to subside, even though we can still feel the heat for some distance. If we cannot back off far enough to gain release from the heat at first, over time, the fuel is consumed, and the flames subside slowly, until there are only embers which may glow indefinitely. We have been burned by an intense flame of sorrow, and there is no one to blame, and no immediate detour from the pain. The flame will always burn if we are too close, but it will also light up the darkness, and save us from the bitter cold of the winter nights of sorrow.”

May those who grieve this week, no matter where or for whom, find solace in time, and eventually bridge the chasm back to hope.

Consciousness in the World: The Universe is Alive

“The greatest achievement was, at first and for a time, a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn; the bird waits in the egg. And in the highest vision of a soul, a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities.” – James Allen, “Visions and Ideals, 1902

“A man becomes calm in the measure that he understands himself as a thought evolved being, for such knowledge necessitates the understanding of others as the result of thought, and as he develops a right understanding, and sees more and more clearly the internal relations of things by the action of cause and effect he ceases to fuss and fume and worry and grieve, and remains poised, steadfast, serene.” – James Allen, “Serenity” 1902

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I have seen how the power of thought can work in the world, and I have been moved many times in my life by the power of my own thoughts, even in my youth, when I was not so fully aware of how these thoughts came to exist within me. Our persistent focus on a particular idea can give it life, and often, through such efforts, we can achieve a great deal, in spite of daunting obstacles. Sustaining the power of our thoughts takes genuine effort, and as James Allen suggests, “The strength of the effort is the measure of the result.” He goes on to remind us that we become who we are as a result of “the vision that you glorify in your mind….the ideal that you enthrone in your heart.”

I captured the image above when the scene caught my eye this afternoon, and as I sat out on the back porch as daylight faded into twilight and then into evening, I found myself contemplating memories of my childhood, the emotional landscape within me, as well as the temporal landscape above me in the evening sky. Submitting myself to the power of my own thoughts, a mixture of the temporal and ineffable began to arise within me, and brought me to the writing desk to work on a poem that’s been in limbo these past few months. It seemed natural to share it here this evening.

earth at night

Image: AFP/Getty Images (Composite image assembled over 22 days by the new NASA Suomi NPP satellite) posted on Eyewitness:Photographs from the Guardian

Ancient Star

The evening sky hums with darkness,
As the wind rustles the sorrowful leaves;
Tilted back in my chair,
Sinking slowly inward under
The purple panorama,
Sifting through twilight thoughts,
My eyes land upon an ancient star.

Delight descends upon the moment now,
As it once did to see
The tiny spots of light,
Reflecting in the shiny globes
Above your cheeks.

The universe is alive.
It breathes and sighs, barely thrives,
Holding on just beyond endurance;
Lives falter–
The boat gets rocked over,
But the light abides.

My heart rises gently to greet
The radiant waves;
Helpless to avoid the relentless
Barrage of photons,
I brace myself against the
Uncertainty of what will be.

Childhood memories of journeys
Far beyond the stars,
Illuminate life behind the walls.
Between the layers of leaves,
Little green fingers of hope,
Suspend my longings for the
Great pastures of life.

Reluctantly embracing growth
In this foreign land,
Recovery and rediscovery follow,
Across the immeasurable distances
Between us.

© December 2012 by JJHIII

It occurred to me, as I frequently search the night sky, that one of the most unifying experiences for all cognitive beings surely must be this very practice of reflecting while casting our eyes upward at the tiny points of light from all the distant suns available to be seen in the darkness, as our own sun flees behind the earth each night. Regardless of the degree of consciousness enjoyed by our ancient ancestors, the sensory experience of looking up at the stars must have been similar. Even though our understanding may be greater now as to what it is we are seeing, how we interpret what we see isn’t as important as how it feels to experience those pinpoints of light.

One of the compelling reasons for my interest in ancient cultures, aside from the fascination they hold due to how little we know about their lives in a directly experiential way, is how much different their understanding of the universe must have been. Thanks to modern technology and advanced satellites, we have the privilege of viewing the earth from outer space in the 21st century, but the sense of wonder and curiosity provoked by the night sky may very well be very nearly the same for us, as the experience of such moments would have been for the ancient peoples, since the events in the night sky are, in large part, the same exact events that we are witnessing. The consistency of that experience, based on the repeated patterns throughout the seasons at each point around the globe, assures us that what they saw was, within predictable patterns, the same as what we see, whether it occurred last week or only a week after consciousness arose to fullness in ancient times.

On Being A Conscious Human

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What is it about being human that separates us from all the other species on the planet? Why is it that our fellow creatures on Earth don’t enjoy the same level of cognitive talent as we do? What separates us from even those creatures with virtually the same parts and similar brain structures as ours? What makes us so special?

A recent comment posted in my “About” section posed several questions related to the unique nature of human consciousness—how it affects our basic nature, how it affects our ability to survive and thrive, as well as how it identifies us as the only known terrestrial species making use of our cognitive talents in exactly the way we do. Since these questions are central to the understanding of human consciousness, I decided to respond by posting my thoughts about these issues here this week. These are important questions to ask, and understanding how possessing such unique talents has enabled us to achieve so much more than any other species has been able to do, can not only broaden our appreciation of our own place in the world, but that of our fellow creatures as well.

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“If all the animals have some degree of consciousness, do they also share our sense of being special, our instinctive drive to survive, a sense of purpose? Why do WE feel these things?”

It’s difficult for us to imagine what it might be like to be any of the other animal species on our planet, not because we are so much different from any of them physically or because we are so much more advanced biologically or mentally, but because as remarkably similar as we are in so many ways, our unique combination of physical attributes in our brains, which gives us a discernible edge in the range of our capacities, particularly with grammatical language and symbolic thought, is what makes imagination possible in the first place. Without Broca’s area, which regulates our ability to speak, and Wernicke’s area which regulates language development and our ability to comprehend speech, as well as our unique version of the cerebral cortex, being able to express the results of our imagination would not be possible. There is a growing indication through neuroscientific research that Broca’s area is also involved in music, working memory, movement, and even calculation. Even Kanzi, the bonobo, who has learned to communicate in a variety of ways, is very limited by comparison, and although this amazing animal may not be on a par with humans functionally, it demonstrates just how significant a relatively small difference can be.

brocas area

While we also have some of the same instinctive drives that all animals have, discerning what might constitute a purpose to our existence, being aware of such a purpose, and contemplating, planning, and then acting to fulfill a deliberately chosen purpose, requires a capacity like the one provided by our “upgraded” human cognitive apparatus. We see a broad range in the degree of consciousness in all the species on Earth, but over the millennia, humans have expanded and built upon this capacity to a degree that simply is not evident in any other creature.

I believe that our love for animals and all living entities is a reflection of our sense of unity with all life in the universe, and recognizing that the very same “stream” of consciousness that manifests within US is also present in everything that lives, gives us good cause to suppose that all life forms are a manifestation of a much deeper, profound, and intangible energy at the heart of existence.

human body

“So then why do humans commit suicide if they are programmed to survive, like all other life? Are we the only species that commits suicide? Is our consciousness the missing factor in animals that allows us to commit suicide?”

Human beings have a unique capacity for contemplation, imagination, producing and expressing complex ideas, and as a result of the complexity of our cognitive apparatus, are prone to all sorts of mental illnesses, brain injuries, disease, and defects which can affect us in numerous ways. We are not born into this world as a completely “blank” slate. We are constructed out of the inherited genetic material of our species generally, and that of our familial inheritance specifically. Our genes, chromosomes, DNA, and all the aspects of our human biology, construct our bodies and our brains in the womb, and from the moment of conception through whatever growth and aging that we are able to accomplish, we can experience any number of successes or failures of that inheritance. This represents a formidable force in determining how well or how poorly we will fare in our lives, and depending on the environment in which it all takes place, a whole other set of problems and opportunities might hold sway as we live from day to day.

We are not “programmed” to survive in the sense that it is not a hard and fast or unbreakable instruction encoded in our genes. Survival is a natural inclination of all living entities, and evolution has demonstrated that the will to survive is an advantageous adaptation for living species which ensures the continuation of life. It is instinctive—we don’t have to learn to want to survive—but it is far from being a directive. Species with the ability to survive—characteristics and talents which promote survival—will generally prevail if they have the right stuff—if they can adapt to the changing environments—but our cognitive capacities as humans allows us to deliberately choose whether we want to survive or not.

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Most often, even this choice may not be a completely conscious choice. According to Thomas E. Joiner, a psychologist and author who wrote, “Why People Die by Suicide,” “Virtually everyone who dies by suicide has a mental disorder at the time of death.” Depression, mental illness, and any number of psychological difficulties can initiate such thoughts, but there are a number of contributing factors that rule out being “programmed” to either survive or give up on living. Most people DO want to survive, and the degree of consciousness that humans possess generally is adequate to acknowledge our instinctive drives when they come into play, and potent enough to overcome those instincts when there is sufficient motivation to do so.

In my view, human consciousness represents a temporal connection to a much more complex and intangible aspect to our existence. It seems likely to me that consciousness is ubiquitous in the universe and both permeates and transcends the temporal world. Our unique position as a consciously aware and cognitively talented species, far from being simply a temporal advantage, gives us a responsibility to discern our connection to all life, and to act to preserve it, protect it, and appreciate it while we have the opportunity.

Neuroscience and Near Death Experiences

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“Wind” by Andrew Wyeth

For many people, the idea of being “near death,” is one they would rather not contemplate, but as anyone who has survived an accidental or unintentional brush with death can tell you, suddenly finding yourself at the edge of such a possibility tends to narrow your focus sharply on whatever action might be possible to prevent it. Our instinct for self-preservation–our natural tendency to step back from the edge of a precipice–is completely reasonable in view of our interest in staying alive. We value our lives most notably as a result of being accustomed to waking up and living it everyday, but philosophically speaking, we resist contemplating the idea of our own demise since we are so uncertain intellectually as to what might be awaiting us when the inevitable moment arrives.

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Those who have a strong background in any of the numerous religious faiths generally take solace in their beliefs of an afterlife, and there are many different explanations and theories which address such issues for those who take a more secular approach to understanding the world, but no matter what background we come from we still most often want our temporal lives to continue without having to consider too often what might transpire once we reach the limit of our abilities to sustain life, whatever the reason. We all hope that we can “grow old gracefully,” and can suffer greatly when those we love perish for any reason. My own recent experience of the loss of my beloved brother was heart-wrenching in the extreme, even knowing well in advance that the moment was approaching. At the memorial, I spoke of his journey through his temporal life, as well as the continuation into the next life–eternal life.

Copy of BrainSparks

Such reassurances are not of much comfort to those who profess disbelief in any sort of continuation of existence once the temporal portion of life ends. Dr. Eben Alexander was one such person. He had been an academic neurosurgeon for more than twenty years, and trained in some of the most elite medical institutions in the world, including Harvard Medical School. A dedicated scientist and surgeon, Dr. Alexander had operated on more than a thousand brains, and cared for many different patients in dire circumstances. His knowledge of the workings of the human brain extended well beyond the point of hoping for miracles for his patients. All that changed when the good doctor suddenly found himself near death from a life-threatening illness.

His recently published book, “Proof of Heaven,” is the story of his life and death struggle with a rare form of bacterial meningitis, which severely compromised his own brain, putting him in a deep coma for seven days, and how it changed everything he supposed he knew about life and death. The story of his life prior to the coma, and of his survival and recovery, would be startling and nearly miraculous all by itself. Against all odds, he not only survived the devastating effects of the normally fatal strain of meningitis, but made a full recovery which permitted him to eventually resume his life as a neurosurgeon. His case was apparently unprecedented in numerous ways in medical terms, but when Dr. Alexander awoke after seven days, the story he had to tell went way beyond the particulars of his medical condition and his former life.

soul leaving body

Near Death Experiences have recently received much closer attention by the scientific community, but as Eben Alexander acknowledged himself, prior to experiencing one first-hand as he lay in a deep coma, he was always sympathetic to his patients who told him of such events, but he never really gave them much thought, and like many scientists, he felt there was some more logical or prosaic explanation that would eventually be revealed through scientific research.

The book reports in great detail the doctor’s elaborate and fantastic near death experience as it unfolded. While the author’s body and brain approached what was quickly becoming the point of no return, Dr. Alexander the neurosurgeon was touring eternity, and with no awareness of his identity as a person, he describes being given the opportunity to learn about an existence beyond experience. Whereas most N.D.E.’s occur with the individual being aware of who they are, and who report meeting individuals they recognize on “the other side,” due to his acute brain infection, Dr. Alexander’s neocortex was completely “offline,” and none of the most often cited scientific explanations for such experiences could be applied to his circumstances. Without access to the neocortex, not even dreams or hallucinations are possible. This time, there was no way to explain.

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I can wholeheartedly recommend this book, even to those who may already have decided that such things are not possible. With the powerful authority of a highly respected neuroscientist, Dr. Alexander holds up his experience to a remarkably thorough scientific scrutiny, and nearly abandoned his own belief in the experience, until after an exhaustive examination of the facts that led him to a startling conclusion. Even the most skeptical reader will find it enormously compelling reading.