Consciousness in the World: Ancient Ideas Still Resonate Today

“The reflective understanding of reality has seemed to me helped by the incursion into the present moment of remembered situations from which one gains his bearings and his stance as a human being. Thus the re-collective understanding of one’s actual experience is intimately connected with the reflective understanding of reality…Above all else, then, I trust in the remembrance of what I have loved and respected; remembrance in which love and respect are clarified. And I trust in such remembrance to guide my reflections in the path of essential truth.”

— Henry Bugbee from “The Inward Morning,” July 1953

Egypt farmer2

Image from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Egypt; Scene: Plowing farmer.

Part of my fascination with the study of human consciousness clearly stems from my intense interest in ancient human history, which was originally piqued by its introduction in my earliest educational experiences. As far back as I can remember, images of ancient peoples and civilizations always seemed to engage my mind whenever I encountered them. In particular, images from the first books of children’s stories of mythological creatures and ancient hunters, and early text books which contained stories and illustrations of ancient cultures in distant lands, all excited my imagination and prompted me to imagine myself participating in the lives of such cultures. The intensity of this interest has stayed with me my whole life, and in the unfolding of my education through the years, I accumulated dozens of books about a variety of ancient civilizations. Our complex modern-day existence and our deepest sense of our humanity has been built upon ancient beginnings, and even as our modern lives become entangled in advancing technological innovations of every sort, there are indications of our ancient beginnings which resonate in our modern consciousness.

Farming scenes in the Tomb_of_Nakht

Agricultural scene from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes

One of the most important adaptations which resulted from a shift in the sophistication of human consciousness was the one which saw the transition of the many nomadic groups of early human hunter gatherers to the development of agriculture and small communities of individuals engaged in farming the ancient lands. According to most estimates, (Wikipedia) deliberate and organized “sowing and harvesting of plants,” appeared somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 years ago, and arose independently in the various continents of the world, but was quickly adopted among many adjacent civilizations as the advantages of food production which would support “increased population densities,” necessary to support expansion of the various cultures of antiquity. In Egypt, as farming developed in the fertile Nile Valley, images like the one above began to appear in many of the illustrations of life in those times. Eventually, this shift to agriculture contributed significantly to the expansion of communities into cities, cities into regions, and larger and larger aggregations of humans into empires and great civilizations.

modern farmers2

Recently, I visited the location of a brand new farm in the early stages of being established locally by my son and several others, and as I photographed them on the modern bulldozer which was clearing the land in preparation for planting, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come in some ways from those ancient “farmers,” and how much we owe to those intrepid innovators of antiquity for so much of our modern mindset. The ancient farmers had no such advantages as bulldozers or modern day tractors:

modern tractor2

The path of illumination and discovery, not to mention technological innovation over the centuries, could only have occurred with a commensurate expansion of human consciousness. We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed a remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, it seems apparent that they were not initially as fully and cognitively self-aware in a way that would allow them to utilize that awareness for much of that time. From an evolutionary perspective, any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, and at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us with a capacity for art, music, and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery, and the development of language to express that imagery as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions like farming, and led to contemplation about the mysterious workings of the world around us.

According to Carl Jung, in his writings on Gnosticism:

“The ancient mind rejected the material world and felt that everything originated outside of himself. The modern mind rejects the gods and is smugly satisfied with the false material nature of both himself and the world. The mind of today must acknowledge the origins of self in the unconscious and the duality of humanity as being both material and non-material.”

Deep within us lies a tremendous storehouse of knowledge–not knowledge in the sense of information, statistics, or formulas–but rather, knowledge of centuries old memories, ancient thoughts, and the progressive synthesis of understanding inherited from the dawn of humanity. The synthesis of old and new, much like the changes that occur in us genetically through periodic advantageous mutations, produces variations of our inner life that did not exist previously. While those changes may be incrementally small and subtle, after a time they result in profound differences in the depth and breadth of our inner lives. The signposts of these changes range from subtle cultural changes as are evident in the ebb and flow of conventional wisdom, to the unfolding of dramatic alterations that come to define a shift in the direction of our species. One need only contemplate the progression of humanity from ancient times to today to realize that it required not only imagination, intuition, and innovation, but also a fundamental alteration in the depth and breadth of our inner worlds to support those possibilities…

When A Tree Falls In The Forest…

tree fall new

As I was stirring slowly to consciousness this morning, reluctant to relinquish sleep as the light peeked through the curtains, I wandered in and out of awareness for some time, drifting between a lucid dream and my resistance to let it go. The image above which I took some years ago while on a camping trip kept appearing in my mind’s eye, and the perennial philosophical question kept playing over and over in my thoughts.

“If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The question is mostly intended to stir our thoughts to consider the inherent connection all events have in light of either the presence or absence of a conscious awareness that it has taken place. Since most events at any given time in the world escape our personal awareness, taking place when we are asleep, far distant from us, or when we are otherwise occupied, we are generally only able to be conscious of our personal environment at any given time. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to witness certain far distant events with live news coverage and satellite communications, but the event of a tree falling in the woods, when we are present, has a much different impact than when we are absent. In the photo above, I was greatly impressed by the size of the tree which had fallen in my absence, and I imagined that it must have made quite a loud noise when it fell. Even being fully aware that trees fall all the time in my absence, and that it is a natural consequence of many different variables depending on the conditions in the forest, I felt a clearly personal sense of loss, that such variables resulted in the demise of this particular living organism. As I admired the beauty of all the other trees surrounding the one that fell, it occurred to me that the other trees almost appeared to have caught the falling tree. I felt a twinge of sadness as I stood reviewing the scene, and walked around to the base of the tree, which provided a spectacular view of the bed of roots which had given way during a storm.

tree roots

From a strictly temporal viewpoint, it seems completely reasonable to conclude that when this tree fell, there was indeed a loud crashing sound of some sort, whether or not anyone was physically present at the time. When large objects fall and come in contact with another surface or object, we observe all the time that such events are accompanied by sounds of one degree or another, and each of us can probably recall hearing some loud bang or crashing noise in the distance, which we later discover was the result of some object falling or crashing, even though we weren’t near enough to see it or to be present as it crashed. The more central issue contained in the original question, is whether our awareness of the event is necessary in order for the event to have actually occurred, or to have significance, and by inference, we are made to consider what significance there might be to ANYTHING, were there no consciously aware creatures such as ourselves to register the event and to assign some sort of value to our awareness. If no one is aware of an event, does whether or not it actually occurred make any difference in the world?

mushroom views

A lot depends on how you look at it! The two images of the mushroom above are the same scene from two different angles. Most mushrooms appear in a forest landscape completely unobserved in most cases, and the one above was off the beaten path, discovered a fair distance away from the trail I was following, and it seemed likely to me that I may have been the first one to be aware that it existed at all. Had I not taken that specific path, or if I hadn’t been searching for a particular image to record, it may not have been discovered ever. I took a number of images in the forest during that time, and made a number of trips into the forest in search of images for a photo essay. It seems likely that many such events take place all over the world, and that in spite of a human presence in nearly every corner of the world, many events go unnoticed and of which no one is aware, and yet, we infer that they occur from the evidence we discover at a later date. No one was around when the Milky Way galaxy was forming, nor when the earth and other planets came into being, and yet we know they are there now, and must have been long before awareness was born on our tiny little speck in the universe.

galaxy cluster

As we look further and further into the cosmos with our latest technologies, we begin to see that not only are we only a small part of a much larger galaxy, but also that there are innumerable galaxies out beyond our own, and other even larger clusters of galaxies, each of which may support some form of life, with beings who enjoy levels of awareness and creativity beyond anything we have yet been able to conjure here on Earth. There may also be no other life form with our cognitive assets, but in spite of whatever may or may not be out there, our existence is known to us, and we modern humans have been expanding our awareness, intelligence, and creativity for hundreds of thousands of years, and the existence of our ancestors provided the foundation for our existence. Our genetic inheritance as humans and as families continues to provide a foundation for our descendents, and ensures a degree of continuity in that progression. We cannot lose sight of what binds us together, and feeds the spirit of life.

Mars Spirit

I found it fascinating when the creative teams that sent the rover vehicles to Mars named one of them “Spirit,” because exploring the universe so clearly requires us to be in touch with the spirit of life, the spirit of adventure, and the human spirit, and it is an enormously creative endeavor. My belief is that what we refer to as “creative,” is, in its most essential nature, a spiritual phenomenon, and that our consciousness is a conduit through which the unmanifest becomes manifest. It is through a symbiosis of the temporal and the spiritual that such endeavors are made manifest. The desire of critics to reduce the spirit to a phenomenon that rationality can dispel or refute completely misses the mark in my view. It was once considered “irrational” to believe that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, and that “invisible entities,” like bacteria and germs were causing illness. All rational thoughts are judged to be so, relevant to the times in which they are presented, and while we may not be able to resolve issues of transcendence and spirit to the satisfaction of the materialists and skeptics, it is largely in the world of subjective experience where these issues are confronted. Our inclinations toward the spiritual as human beings may be a natural consequence of our evolutionary development. Such a predisposition, should it be established, would not eliminate the possibility of the spiritual as an essential component in any of it. The human spirit may manifest within us precisely due to our inclinations, and we may have them in order for us to be aware of the existence of the spirit.

In his now famous book, “A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking wrote:

“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.”

…..more to come….