Birds of a Feather

mike bird2
photo by Mike Hyland

“Once we reach a certain age, we often worry that those precious hours and days–the ones which we remember so fondly and so well–will never come again. We think that all of our best experiences are contained within them, and that all we really have now are our memories of them. While none of us knows well what the future holds beyond our basic understanding of the limitations of our bodies to sustain us indefinitely, all that we have experienced in our lives–every nuance of the totality of our contributions to life and those of life to us–every single twist and turn that led us to this moment in time, lives within us at every moment, and the reverberations of all those moments and memories echo in each of our thoughts and actions as we breathe in this very moment now.”
– excerpt from a recent correspondence with a friend

Sitting at my desk this afternoon, trying to resolve some of the inevitable clutter that accumulates during the all-too-brief time I get to spend at it writing, I finally felt comfortable enough with the clear view of the desktop to settle in to my writing, when I suddenly noticed a thumping sound outside my window. At first it was on the periphery which I dismissed as a branch from the tree outside banging against the window in the wind. Each time I heard the noise I would look over at the window, and after a moment, it seemed to be quiet, so I continued with my reading. After several minutes, the thumping sound would return and it started to make me wonder, so I stopped what I was doing and simply stared at the window, waiting for the sound to return.

bird window

To my astonishment, the thumping sound was being perpetrated by a robin, who apparently found some sort of fascination with my window. At first I was mostly curious as to what might be attracting the bird, which appeared to be attempting to land on the middle ledge where the two windows met. Some confusion may have been possible, I thought, and so I adjusted the window to change the appearance, hoping that would dissuade the bird. It did not. I decided to attend to some other chores for a time, figuring that the bird would get tired of failing to land or get through the window or whatever it was trying to do, but after several delays away from the desk, each time I returned to it, the bird returned as well.

Now I was starting to get a bit anxious. Why wouldn’t this bird get tired and just give up? I opened up the inner window to expose the screen, and when the bird came near I made loud noises and tried to wave it away with my hand. It still came back. I went so far as to walk outside, waiting for it to appear outside the window, and started throwing sticks in the air to discourage it from landing on the branches outside the window. It flew away, and when I went back to my desk, it would start thumping against the window again. This went on for several hours. I decided to call my sister to talk with someone calm and steady to question about this. We checked for a solution on the internet: “Block the window with something so that the bird can see that it’s not an open window.” This seemed to work for a while, but then the bird returned again. I started up Skype to show my sister what the bird was doing. It was so…persistent.

bird window2

We talked wistfully about how uncanny the whole thing seemed, and talked about our dear late brother, Mike, who not only was a bird fanatic, but whose last weeks of life were filled twice daily with flocks of birds–once in the morning and once in the evening, as they flocked in the tree outside his window as he lay dying. We marveled at the many such instances where birds seemed to appear since then in our daily routines, and how it always seemed like there might be some connection in the strangeness which always surrounded such appearances. I almost got through writing this post, some seven hours after the thumping began, when the bird appeared again. I opened the window all the way, and left it open while I typed. The air felt cool and the gentle breeze was soothing to my spirit. The daylight was fading as it past 7:30 PM here on the East Coast of the United States. I put on some classical music, and continued to write.

bird window3

The photo at the top of this posting was one of my brother’s favorites, and it was on his desktop background for many months after he took it at a nearby bird sanctuary. We all felt that there was some importance to the image of the bird, and today, as we skyped, we felt as though we must have needed to talk, and the persistent bird thumping at my window was the catalyst for our conversation. That seemed to satisfy us all, and whether or not the prompting was in spirit or just a practical matter, we enjoyed the conversation, and as night fell, I looked out the window, contemplating the words I had written to my friend. All of our wonderful memories of our lives which included our dear brother, as fine as they are, contributed to our lives in THIS moment now, and perhaps, that is the best conclusion of all.

The Tides of My Heart’s Longings

paris at night

“Dreams are but momentary stays against the relentless throbbing of my pulse in waking hours, a pause amidst the endless tide of my heart’s longings….the very essence of desire.” – JJHIII

I had a dream last night about the time I spent in Paris back in the mid-1970’s. It felt like I had traveled through time to stand in those same places once again, wandering the streets, inhaling the scents, embracing the sights, absorbing the sounds, and floating amidst the powerful memories of those moments. It seemed like an impossible dream had come true once again, and even though it has been many years since I last walked those streets, in the first few moments after I sat up in my bed upon waking in the middle of the night, it felt like it could have been yesterday.

Streets of Paris 1975

The dream felt viscerally real and my response seemed almost prescient in those first few moments, sending me this afternoon to the archives in search of a passage I remembered recording in my personal journal:

October 25, 1976

“I am beginning to wonder now, as always, how this experience will affect the stream of events to come, and what new realizations will arrive within me when at some future time, I reflect upon them in silence. Paris is alive. It vibrates with life. It engulfs you with its intoxicating air. To walk the streets of Paris has felt alternately like a stroll through my fondest dreams, and in certain moments, like some kind of horrid nightmare. Swift though the moments seem, and as alone as I have felt in the nights by my window, this city breathes and pulsates with passionate feeling to the discerning eye. Time passes in Paris unseen, unheard, and unnoticed, almost as though it were never there from the beginning–lingering somewhere outside of perception, or as some distant memory.”

john in paris2

At age twenty-three, assigned as a soldier in what was then described as “Western Europe,” engaged in gathering military intelligence on our counterparts in Eastern Europe, my travels took me to a variety of technically non-military locations, and concerned matters far beyond anything I might have anticipated in my life prior to that assignment. The process of intelligence gathering seemed to be moving at a much swifter pace than anything else in my life, which hardly seemed to move at a snail’s pace when I look back on it. Without actually realizing it during that time frame, I raised my level of knowledge and experience to such an extent, that as I reflected on the dream in the early hours of a cool spring morning, I wondered what might have become of my life in another place or through another time.

Direction and purpose were strange entities for me then; vague and fluctuating between the minutes in a day. Not once did I ever truly concern myself with what might become of me. My influence on the world-at-large, in my mind at least, was at best a matter of chance, and certainly not within my power to determine. Having entered the military at the age of 19, I went from being a mostly unremarkable young man of limited means and experience to suddenly being engaged in matters of national security, with my every move a matter of close scrutiny by myself and by those around me.

Hotel de Mont Marte

While my military activities required much of my attention in those days, occasionally my assignment would allow or open up opportunities for downtime, and I often would explore on my own, sometimes secretly, and occasionally, I would lapse back into my personal reveries, and flirt with the tides of my heart’s longings. It was during such moments that my awareness seemed to be expanding into a wider world than the one in which I found myself embroiled so often as a soldier. Looking back at my life as a young boy, I regard with much fondness my life before this expansion of awareness. I never really thought that my life would be anything more than that which occurred from day-to-day; moment-to-moment, year after year. It was, I thought, a secure environment; beyond the reach of any sort of violent change. It was a rude awakening indeed that found me thousands of miles away from all that I had known. All that was once my reality suddenly seemed a lark–a crystal-clear pond in paradise.

….more to come….

Back to Square One

spiral background2

Over the years, I have consistently focused on the subjective experience of my own consciousness as a starting point for exploring most ideas I have considered related to human consciousness, as it seemed to me that, in doing so, I could speak with greater confidence about them and explore them more fully. If I couldn’t find a way to apprehend an idea as it related my own experience, how could I accurately express it or expect it to be viable for others? In that spirit, I have made a practice of maintaining a personal journal for many years, recording my thoughts, impressions, experiences, and investigations as they occurred whenever I could. Every so often, I try to review these writings in the interest of illuminating my current views, and recently I came across a passage that seemed timely:

“There is a connection to the consciousness of humanity, and to the interaction of emotions and cognitive functions of the brain, with an essence that is clearly transcendent of human nature. Our natural inclinations, particularly with regard to the arts, demonstrate a capacity within us that has as its source, a force or character that is inexplicable in terms of neurobiology alone. The ineffable aspects of our existence, and their connection to our very human nature, driven as it is in large part by biology, are never going to yield to vigorous empirical scrutiny, no matter how profound the comprehension of our biology becomes.”

While this passage attempts to address the ineffable, it actually only describes the problem, and it expresses the heart of my concerns regarding how we might discover a path that can address the challenges the are embodied in the essence of this matter.

purpose

The long path of human history, which now seems so familiar to us, was once a future as yet unrealized. As life evolved on our singularly fertile planet at the edge of an unremarkable spiral galaxy, history itself was also forming a foundation of both progress and gradual enhancement of our natural cognitive endowment. The well-worn path of human evolution has provided modern humans with a marvelously complex and adaptive hominid brain, and continues to provide us with access to richly-textured sense of subjective awareness, as yet unrivaled (to our knowledge) by any other known species. The entire spectrum of life on Earth seems to possess some degree of consciousness, and while it is particularly evident in those species whose structure and component systems resemble our own, there is much evidence to support the existence of various degrees and types of consciousness in nearly every living entity known to us.

With the hundreds of thousands of years of a relatively stable environment on earth, humans have been provided with the opportunity to take our natural cognitive endowment, and to evolve and expand our access to consciousness, permitting us to begin to unravel some of the most daunting mysteries of the universe, and to piece together many of the components of the extraordinary progression of life here on Earth. In spite of all our accomplishments, utilizing the cognitive skills made possible by evolution, and the physiological processes of the electrochemical and neural networks within the brain, somehow, the very existence of human consciousness itself remains an elusive mystery, and has eluded all of our attempts to construct a comprehensive understanding of its essential nature.

Some scientists and philosophers have suggested that the intricate web of interdependent systems within the universe itself, not to mention those within the billions of cells and trillions of neural network connections that compose a human brain, by their very nature, are so vast and overwhelmingly complex, that supposing we can unravel them and force them to yield to our scrutiny is somewhere between arrogantly preposterous and laughably hopeless. For those of you who have been following along in my blog here, you know that I tend to disagree with any such evaluation. But in fairness to those who take such a position, examining the development of life on Earth, and in consideration of the astonishing convergence of essential conditions that made intelligent life here possible, you could see how such a conclusion might be drawn.

The-Universe-in-a-Test-Tube-2

Conditions in the early universe were chaotic. They fluctuated wildly for billions of years. The temperatures early on were inhospitable to all but the most fundamental of forces and elements. As the universe cooled and expanded, the heavier elements formed. Swirling clouds of dust and debris only began to coalesce into a semblance of discernible matter after a considerable amount of time had passed. The formation of stars and planets and galaxies followed in accordance with physical laws that took unimaginably long stretches of time to stimulate cause and effect.

What is perhaps most astonishing is that any sort of “life” ever got off the ground in the first place. If the various fluctuations in temperature, dispersal of matter, and sufficiently advantageous conditions which permitted life had even been only slightly different in any of the essential requirements, it is highly unlikely that any “beginning” would have resulted in a physical universe of the sort we observe today. Additionally, on our own blue and white oasis in the Milky Way galaxy, there were so many opportunities for the existence of life to fail, that our very existence as “intelligent humans,” constitutes a victory over every potential variation in those conditions which might have prevented it, not to mention the potential for some sort of cosmic disaster which may have been (and may yet be) the cause of our demise.

Since it is reasonable to assume that many such planetary “failures” have occurred throughout the apparently limitless expanses of our universe, even given such far-flung potential for both disaster and failure, by modern scientific estimations, statistical probability predicts that other “successes” such as ours are also conceivable. By virtue of the improbability of our OWN existence, since we DO exist, seems to suggest that we may not be alone in the universe. Even given this improbability, the potential for other intelligent life to exist elsewhere in the universe, should there be any, must surely, at some point, result in a species of some sort which will acquire a cognitive capacity to acknowledge the existence of consciousness in some manner. A natural inclination for the existence of “intelligent life” elsewhere, should it be discovered, would illuminate and inform our awareness of consciousness as a natural consequence of life anywhere.