The Mystery of the Ordinary

magritte face of genius 2

“Our experience of the world involves us in a mystery which can be intelligible to us only as a mystery. The more we experience things in depth, the more we participate in a mystery intelligible to us only as such, and the more we understand our world to be an unknown world. Our true home is wilderness, even the world of everyday.”

“Unfortunately, (a) true sense of the mystery of things which may, in fact, deepen in the course of scientific investigation…finds no articulate place in the articulated results of scientific investigation…Philosophical interpretation of the experience of the activity of scientific investigation is seldom offered. Thus the wonder, respect, and love for things investigated, which may be at the heart of scientific experience, virtually escape reflective interpretation and testimony.”

– Henry Bugbee from “Inward Morning.”

The title of this post was inspired by the announcement of an exhibition of the works of Rene Magritte, the quintessential surrealist artist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While contemplating the subject of this posting, it occurred to me that what I may have been struggling with all this time is the mystery of the ordinary. We take so much for granted as temporal beings in a material world, supposing that since we have come to unravel so much of the mystery of our existence through science and technology, that it is simply a matter of time before we unravel it all. It seems unlikely to me that we could continue to thrive or even exist without coming to terms with the mysterious, and the quote from Henry Bugbee puts it in perspective for us.

far away looks magritte

The events of my personal life recently have given me some pause in this regard. I must confess to a certain degree of reluctance to submit myself to the trials inherent in the process of assimilating the many different aspects of spiritual discovery, and of coming to terms with my own experience of consciousness. My heightened sense of awareness of other people’s emotions and their spiritual selves has been unsettling at times, creating a degree of conflict as a direct result of my sensitivity. Occasionally, contact with the stream of life from their inner worlds has evoked emotional responses and triggered instinctive behaviors that might no have occurred ordinarily. Particularly high degrees of openness in a few cases have resulted in a commensurate degree of confusion. and I have not always been adequately prepared for the unrestrained response in my own inner world.

Even when there is an intellectual awareness of the possibilities which may arise in such situations, depending on which end of the spectrum one finds oneself, it can either enhance the experience or send it wildly out of control. There is also a potential for an unavoidable encounter with individuals who we perceive as particularly spiritually vital, but who are, for whatever reason, inadequately prepared for such an encounter themselves.

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Opening ourselves to another individual, exposing our inner world and having another’s put before us, can be a considerable risk in some ways. Without careful consideration regarding the possible effects of unrestrained responses, or of insufficient control of one’s emotions, it is unpredictable what may happen. Sometimes, it requires a true leap of faith.

Recently, I was formally introduced to an engineering consultant from the upper levels of management, and ended up in a lengthy discussion, surprisingly not only about philosophy and religion which are of particular interest to me, but also about personal beliefs and the news regarding the state of our culture in the United States and abroad. This bright and engaging fellow is from Pakistan, a Muslim by birth, and a curious mixture of enlightened intellect and pessimistic practicality. His double major of Mechanical Engineering and Religion at the university level struck me as uncommon, although not entirely unrelated. On the surface one doesn’t seem to have much in common with the other, but as is often the case, perceived divisions between subject areas can be dispelled with a persistent effort to find commonalities. At the heart of all knowledge, there is some kind of ultimate reality which reflects the unifying force within life itself. E. O. Wilson wrote a book called, “Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge,” in which he makes a compelling case for finding our modern day version of “Ariadne’s Thread,” the one which assisted Theseus to “…retrace his steps through and out of the labyrinth.” The enthusiasm of our philosophical discussion easily diverted our attention away from the task at hand. Several reminders were needed from others about what we were supposed to be doing, because we repeatedly got caught up in our conversation and didn’t realize how much time had passed between reminders.

magritte empty mask

The ease with which our conversations progressed and the similarity in our areas of interest were powerful incentives to continue with them, and to discover such a common interest base with an individual raised and educated in such a radically different worldview almost defied belief. We were both struck by the notion, and delightfully surprised to find a degree of personal compatibility which resulted in becoming such fast friends. Lately, it seems that I have been approached by many of the people who come across my path, who have required my attention or counsel. It has resulted in an odd mixture of anxiety and anticipation, and in the coming together of certain aspects of my inner voice and spirit with the external world. At times, it feels synchronistic like signposts of crossroads, and I am alternately encouraged and uplifted, as well as a bit fearful and anxious, from the feelings inspired by progress spiritually, as well as what feels like a widening gap between the world being revealed to me in the process and the world in which I must engage the process. Within the world of the ordinary experiences, it seems that I am being drawn inexorably deeper and further away from the everyday world, and moving toward the uncertainty of new experience.

Magritte’s surreal artworks are intriguing and thought-provoking. I remain in awe of the flow of the stream of life, and must trust in the wisdom that guides us on our journey of the spirit.

Consciousness in the World: Memory and the Extended Mind

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“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Nature.”

Every year, particularly for those living in regions which experience the full range of seasonal changes from Spring through Winter, Emerson reminds us to use an “attentive eye,” to see the beauty contained in every season. Each period of the year has its particular rewards: the renewal of all life in the Spring is an affirmation of life; the warmth and lush greenery of Summer is an experience of the fullness of life; the brilliant colors and easing of the summer heat provide both beauty and solace at its peak; and scenes of pristine snowfalls and brilliantly clear winter skies at night remind us that all life is finite in one sense, and limitless in another. Emerson also reminds us that beauty is not confined to the temporal world:

“Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty;for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.” – from his essay, “Beauty,” (1860)

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It was in the Autumn of 1956 when I first began to establish moments of conscious experience in memory, and had the first recollections of acknowledging my existence as an individual person. I can recall only brief moments of awareness for the most part, but they are potent and remarkably clear to a degree I find surprising these many years later. The image above was an attempt to recreate one such moment, in which I found myself staring at length at a patch of autumn leaves on the lawn of my childhood home. While similar scenes are easily reproduced each year as the leaves begin to accumulate wherever there are trees in seasonal transition, as Emerson suggests, every moment is unique in its own way, and will never be repeated precisely.

At this tender age, even though I had acquired a fair talent for both language and the association of words with objects and people, I wasn’t able to fully comprehend the implications of my experiences, nor was I fully competent cognitively. My brain was clearly functional in every way that the age would permit, and my ability to learn and respond to typical social interactions was well established, but the level of awareness was still in the process of unfolding to fullness, in spite of all that I was capable of doing with my brain. We tend to think of memory as something that only accumulates in the immediate experience of our lives, but as an emerging adult and after years of deliberate and steady contemplation of the significance of my life experiences, so many of the notions of familiarity with the content of those experiences are remarkably varied in their character that it seems possible their origins could be the result of a much wider range of sources and levels of consciousness. The theory of a “collective unconscious” from C. G. Jung suggests a framework for a collection of forms or “archetypes,” elementary constructs that already exist within us, which are filled in by conscious experience, and which resonate in the psyche in ways that we are just beginning to understand.

Copy of BrainSparks

We know now that memory is not an isolated process that takes place in any localized region of the brain, but is rather a symphony of processes acting fluidly in harmonious cooperation to stimulate an astonishing array of neural pathways, which reassemble the components of our recollections. We also know that memory is not like a video recording of events reproduced in exacting detail, but rather more like reconstructing those elements as we perceived them when they occurred. In many cases, we remember more precisely how we felt at the time the memory was formed. The more significant the event or the greater importance our interpretation of the event holds, the more profound and detailed the memory may be. This fluid processing is directly linked to the structure of the brain, formed as the human embryo develops during a nearly miraculous process of cell migration governed by instructions from our inherited genome. As complex and intricately woven as these neural pathways end up, since memory is a combined form of energy and information, stored and recalled through electro-chemical impulses between neurons, the process necessarily depends on particular structural foundations in order to function properly and must, at least to some degree, reflect the nature of that structure.

extend mind

http://consc.net/papers/extended.html

With the publication of their essay, “The Extended Mind,” – – David Chalmers and Andy Clark began the conversation about just how far the process of mind may actually go. We tend to think of the mind as something inside our heads, or at least contained within or constructed by the brain, but as we investigate and contemplate these matters in the 21st century, we are beginning to see that our understanding generally may only be scratching the surface. There are clearly very specific and necessary neural substrates which support our ability to access consciousness, and if they become compromised by some sort of injury or illness, that access can be diminished accordingly. What is not so clear is the exact relationship between the source of consciousness and the temporal structures which support our access to it. Homo sapiens required hundreds of thousands of years to achieve a level of useful cognitive awareness before even the simplest demonstrations of possessing a mind could be made.

In this important essay, Clark and Chalmers make the case for categorizing some of our uses of modern technologies as not simply a means for producing gadgets for consumption, but as manifestations of our cognitive abilities–an actual “extension” of our human mind out into the world:

“Language appears to be a central means by which cognitive processes are extended into the world. Think of a group of people brainstorming around a table, or a philosopher who thinks best by writing, developing her ideas as she goes. It may be that language evolved, in part, to enable such extensions of our cognitive resources within actively coupled systems.”

“It is widely accepted that all sorts of processes beyond the borders of consciousness play a crucial role in cognitive processing: in the retrieval of memories, linguistic processes, and skill acquisition, for example. So the mere fact that external processes are external where consciousness is internal is no reason to deny that those processes are cognitive.”

Excerpts from “The Extended Mind” (with Dave Chalmers) ANALYSIS 58: 1: 1998 p.7-19

What I am proposing in my own work here, while advocating my own interpretations with enthusiasm, is not an especially radical departure from the mainstream views found elsewhere, but might be viewed by some as being a bit “outside-the-box,” in both its premise and development. My life experiences in my years on this planet encompass qualities and characteristics which suggest a range of possibilities which might explain the nature of the mind and consciousness in ways that mirror ideas like the extended mind. Many of the writings and ideas of history’s most notable philosophers and revolutionary thinkers and innovators have been met with great resistance initially, and only gained more widespread acceptance after much consideration and review by a more measured or deliberate approach.

Characterizing external processes and devices as extensions of the human mind, as controversial as this may seem to some, is an intriguing component of the search for a comprehensive understanding of the mind, and the arguments put forward by Clark and Chalmers are coherent and substantial in supporting their premise. It clearly requires a profoundly sophisticated cognitive structure to produce devices which qualify as extensions of those structures. The parallels between our own cognitive components and those which we have produced as cognitive creatures in the modern world are not so far fetched as some would suggest. There are arguably several potential fields of endeavor currently which may well produce what may appear as a genuine cognitive system, with some degree of similarity to our own. At the same time, we should not expect those devices to begin spontaneously producing other extensions of themselves, nor should we expect them to be on a par with the human mind by any comprehensive standard. My overriding sense is that no manufactured device could be expected to appreciate human experiences without actually having them. Not every human can fully appreciate the experience of another human in every case. As C. G. Jung wrote:

“The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual. In their present form, religion, science, philosophy, and ethics are variants of archetypal ideas. It is the function of consciousness to not only assimilate the external world through the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” – from Jung’s “Symbols of Transformation.”

The Throne of the Invisible

Coasting to Eternity, Near Big Sur, California2

“By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
Dark-heaving; boundless, endless, and sublime,
the image of Eternity,–the throne of the Invisible!”

– George Gordon Noel Byron from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

 

The words that normally flow in great waves from my heart have, of late, fallen silent, even though my life has been pressing me into contemplation and reflection much more than usual.  I have been engaged in a cooperative process with my siblings of caring for my mother, who is, in her own words, “facing eternity.”  In the face of this perplexing “drought,” what I feel seems to make no sense at all.   I have been in a heightened state of awareness, as the world around me swirls with an avalanche of decisions, distractions, and intrusions, all which seem to be disrupting the momentum of my life.  I can barely assimilate the many notions and questions which press on me currently,  and the circumstances of my existence hardly seem like a life presently.  This posting is an attempt to see through the chaos and to attempt to find the light.  I need to move forward toward the future in some way in order to see clearer, and to feel stronger.

I feel sometimes that I am bound away, destined to be far removed from all that I know, into a future which I could not know or see in a million years.  It might be a heartbeat away or not to come for many years, but I know it is there waiting.  An avalanche of distraction is not dissuading me from the task at hand, and there may yet be some purposeful element to be revealed.  My mind is going in so many directions simultaneously that concentration has become challenging.  As is often the case, when such conditions present themselves, I tend to turn inward.  Resting in bed this morning, I was reminded of a passage from “Anam Cara,” by John O’Donohue:

“If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.  In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, the visible and the invisible together.”

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Time seeks us out occasionally to remind us of its passing, sometimes in subtle ways, and at other times dramatically. The passing of time can mark the ending of a period of joy that evokes melancholy, or it can signal the relief from the pressure of a deadline. It can deliver us regrettably at a point of agonizing separation, or finally to a point beyond prolonged pain. In every case there is likely some underlying wisdom to be gleaned at that moment. For better or worse, our response can ultimately only be to move forward, each of us at our own pace, if we are to live fully and well thereafter. With the additional perspective of passing time, we can usually see more clearly, the wisdom contained in these pivotal moments, and whatever degree of difficult pain we may have endured, in retrospect, usually seems less daunting, however indelibly imprinted it may be in our memory.

One of the major disadvantages of the accelerated pace of modern life is the increasingly shorter time there seems to be allocated for contemplation. So rare can the opportunity present itself to engage in it, that when we are standing at a significant crossroad in life, which may require a choice with long-term consequences, we are wholly unprepared for contemplation. In order to reverse this trend, it is necessary to make a dedicated effort to increasing our regular attention to shifting our awareness in a quiet, thoughtful manner. A consistent practice of setting aside even small blocks of time everyday to simply stop the world and get off for a few minutes can work wonders. Taking a walk outside briefly if the conditions permit, looking up at the sky; sitting quietly and breathing deeply if it is safe to do so; even just sitting in the shade or out of the weather if it is inclement can bring a moment of beneficial repose. The idea is to fully withdraw from the routines and scenes of everyday activities briefly to give you the opportunity to disengage from the flow and let the constant stream of thoughts subside.

tranquility

Reading this afternoon when the house finally got quiet, I was reviewing Colin McGinn’s book, “The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World,” and I was struck by his insistence that as humans we “postulate unobservable entities…because otherwise, we would not be able to explain what we observe.” This strikes me as argumentative rather than instructive. While our psychological desire for explanation and inclination to rationalize are fairly universal in human development, it seems unlikely to me that it is strictly due to having no other avenue to pursue in every case. As is often the case with our hunches, expectations, and even during anticipation, our intuitive responses and instinctive awareness can often alert us to the presence of actual phenomena. When we sense danger, or have expectations of success after becoming reasonably expert at certain tasks, we are tapping into our inner awareness and memories of our previous experiences. We are not predicting the future when we have a hunch about what is wrong with the car that turns out to be correct, but neither are we conjuring “unobservable entities.”

evolution of consciousness

Postulating the existence of molecules, atoms, quarks, and the like may seem like an attempt to explain our observations, but it may also be that we are connecting to a level of awareness which is an enhanced perception of an independent reality, made possible by capacities which we have totally independent of our inclinations to conjure and explain. We have seen throughout the history of science, an “unobservable nature,” or quality to many phenomena that did not preclude an explanation and an eventual comprehension of it. It has always been my contention that we must first imagine a possibility before we can ever determine if it has any basis in temporal reality. There are some phenomena that are observable and known, and some that are unobservable and known, so it seems reasonable to me that my inclinations to consider a spiritual component to humanity in general, and to consciousness in particular, may simply be currently unobservable, but subjectively very real. I have been in the presence of certain individuals with whom I have felt a powerful, yet unobservable, spiritual connection, even though they themselves could not explain the awareness of it. In my own case, I have been sometimes painfully aware of my own nature in this regard, but have not been certain just how to make any useful progress in getting others to become more aware of what is clear to me, though not observable through any temporal methodology.

What seems to be consistently missing from McGinn’s arguments is a willingness to pursue them to other possible resolutions. Although he acknowledges the existence of a variety of possible explanations for consciousness, he prefers to argue that it makes more sense to say that we are “unable” to comprehend it, rather than suggest any solution which cannot be empirically demonstrated.

The Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote about the “two aspects of mind,” calling them “ordinary mind – flickering, unstable, grasping… and the nature of mind – a primordial, pure, pristine awareness, that is at once, intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.” This idea is quite a leap from conventional thinking, but if there is a subjectively real interaction with a transcendent nature to our existence, it implies a reference to that which cannot be understood simply through normal sensory experience, and by its very nature, cannot be comprehended or described accurately in temporal terms alone. Its source may very well exist beyond what is observable and accessible as a temporal phenomenon.

Before we are born, and after we cease to exist within our bodies, we may reside in a state of being so radically outside of our understanding, and unobservable in temporal terms, that our attempts to reconcile what we are able to understand, and what is beyond our understanding, forces us to contemplate and consider the very transcendent source we seek….