Memories and Humble Beginnings

Life moves forward always. It swirls and slides and strikes at the very heart of me. At this point in my life, having accumulated more than sixty years of living memory, looking back, for me, is long. For at least that long, I have held on to some specific recollections of my early days. Of course, before memory even appears on our radar as children, we pass through a number of earlier stages, as a newborn and a toddler, where unconscious experiences contribute to our formative years in ways that we are only now beginning to truly appreciate.

My maternal and paternal grandparents taking turns holding me in 1953.

My first ordinary memories as a young boy, playing outside in the yard at the first home I remember, sitting in the window sill in the living room watching my older sister and brothers going off to school, were in stark contrast to some of my dreams. One particularly memorable dream began with all of us sitting on the floor with the front door open in the summertime, my father looking out the window, with some sort of giant approaching—stomp—stomp—stomp—the vibrations were shaking me. I was strangely unafraid, with the anticipation being greater than my anxiety.

Another especially clear childhood memory involved playing outside on a steamy hot summer day. As we occasionally did on a typical day, we snuck around the fence into Mr. Nicholson’s garden, only this time, he was there. Although he didn’t seem angry or mean, he did seem like he didn’t want us there. We stopped right in our tracks, looked at him wide-eyed and after a moment of silence, turned and ran back into our own yard, huffing and puffing to catch our breath, vowing never to try it again.

I remember sitting out on our back porch with my brothers, talking and laughing, waiting for dinner to be ready. Eventually, Mom would call us in and remind us, as always, “Go upstairs and wash your hands,” since she knew we had probably been playing in the dirt or just getting dirty. We’d all run up to the landing in the corner of the kitchen, up the hardwood stairs to the bathroom, and wait our turn at the sink. I remember turning the bargain brand of bar soap around in my hands for maybe thirty seconds, setting it down for the next one, rubbing for a minute and then rinsing off. There was usually a tug of war at the towel too. When we were done, we would race back down the stairs to the dining room, to stand behind our assigned seats.

Rummaging recently through the enormous volume of photographs and memories, as I sifted through the piles of accumulated stuff in my office, I came across this amazing image of my kindergarten class at the local public school taken in 1958. There are only a few of the faces of my classmates in the image that still jog a memory of their name, but I doubt I will ever forget the woman who first introduced me to the world outside of my family, Mrs. Derr. Her gentle way of nurturing us and encouraging us to think about the world made me think of her as much more than my first schoolteacher.

At age five, I remember my mother walking with me to school on the first day, holding her hand as I crossed the six or seven streets along the way, stopping at the one traffic light at the end, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the one “busy street.” A handful of specific memories of particular days still exist in my mind. I remember sitting in a little chair next to a little table, drinking out of a half pint carton of milk, eating cookies, with several pretty ladies and the teacher all talking at the same time, supervising us and towering above me.

There was also one particular day when I was given the opportunity to occupy the “playhouse,” with pretend dishes and pans and other household items, along with a six bottle wooden holder with wooden milk bottles. At one point, a girl came up to me and asked if she could play too. At first I said no, that these were my milk bottles, since I was the milkman. She then asked me, “Can I have just one?” I replied, “Alright, you can have one.” For the rest of that year, I walked by myself back and forth to school every day, and thought nothing of it. Those were very different times.

Aristotle and Experience

In Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:

“In man, experience is a result of his memory, for many memories of doing the same thing end in creating a sense of a single experience. Experience seems almost the same as science and art. But in fact science and art come to men through experience.”

Our ability to recall our experiences provides a framework within which we can construct a context, in order to reflect on them, analyze them, and place them in perspective. So, in one sense, Aristotle was correct, in that without memory, all the experience in the world would be for naught. Indeed, our ability to remember makes it possible to synthesize an entire lifetime of memorable experiences. Damage to the brain can impair the process of memory to the point where it no longer accumulates, and it could be argued that if we cannot remember our experiences, for all practical purposes, it would be the same as not having them. But, in fact, whether we remember them or not, experiences occur.

The subjective experience of consciousness—that richly textured sense of being—doesn’t require recollection in order to occur. Being is most vividly experienced in this very moment. Our awareness of being is an event of the “here and now.” Every moment that follows such an event (in a cognitively advanced and functional brain) contains a memory of the previous moment of experience. Memory is essential to make sense of the world and to glean the benefit of experience, but it does not manufacture experience. Our ability to recall previous experiences and to integrate them into the planning of future actions has been one of the main contributing factors for our survival as a species, but remembering our experiences and having them are two totally distinct phenomena.

The process in the brain that makes it possible to remember our experiences and the process that makes it possible to have experiences in the first place are not the same process at all. Our eyes, nose, skin, ears, and taste buds all send signals to the brain through the nervous system with information about what they are perceiving, and the brain interprets that information as our sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Descartes theorized that because we are able to think, we are able to know that we exist. Without our senses, we could not gather information about the physical world. Without a sufficiently sophisticated brain to process the information gathered by our senses, the information would be far less useful. Without our ability to think, we could not know that we exist.

Although all of these processes exist and could operate without memory, our ability to remember what happened while these processes were operating, and to then reflect on it, makes it possible to learn from the experiences that our senses and brain record. Without memory, we would not be able to remember the information our senses provided to us yesterday, nor would we be able to reaffirm that we exist with the same information we gathered the last time we used our brains, and we would have to start over all the time. The brain records that information and stores it in a marvelously sophisticated process, making it available for future reference when evaluating new experiences. So, while the processes work together in important ways to make sense of consciousness, and to enable us to demonstrate consciousness to others, they also function independently in important ways.

Neuroscience has advanced now to the point where we can clearly see that consciousness is the result of many different processes working together, and that memory is an ever-changing sequence of neural activities within coordinating brain areas and systems. No one area of the brain or neurological process alone can account for either. It is a collection of neurological instruments that orchestrates the symphony of consciousness.

Aristotle also clearly understood that we come to science and art and all manner of human endeavors through experience. We utilize the power of experience to learn and grow, in a way that no other known species has demonstrated. We develop technologies and strategies based largely on what we learn from experience. Our ancient hominid ancestors were, in some cases, not able to survive, and in the case of Homo sapiens, not able to truly flourish and evolve, until they reached a sufficiently advanced level of consciousness.

Once it was achieved, humans developed a truly significant sense of having and remembering experiences, and as a result, a more fully developed sense of how to utilize those memories. Species with only limited awareness and far less cognitive skill have had to carve out a niche in the world of experience that falls significantly short of the one currently occupied by humanity. The ability of humans to exceed what all other known species have been able to accomplish experientially is a direct result of possessing a measurably greater degree of cognitive ability.

Ancient Beginnings

–Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.

“We must fight…against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper.”

“How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.”

—excerpts from Cicero’s essay, “On Old Age,” —44 B.C.

An orator, philosopher, poet, and activist politician in his day, Cicero became consul of Rome in 63 BC—Rome’s highest political office. He wrote much that is worth reviewing and the quote above seemed to resonate for me currently, as I am paying “even more attention to (my) mind and spirit, so that they won’t “…grow dim with time.” My life is not what I would describe as “leisurely” exactly, and although I do have more time to devote to “knowledge and learning,” it’s still a struggle to balance what is possible to do and what is required of me.

This month I wanted to set the stage for a review of some of the main foundational subjects about which I have been writing, particularly for those who may be only recently encountering the nearly three hundred postings here. Over the past several weeks, I have spent a fair amount of time in support of my newest granddaughter, who just arrived home from the hospital this past weekend, and I’m happy to report that she is not only well and healthy, but simply perfect in every way.

Holding my beautiful granddaughter and sharing intimate family moments is not only a privilege of great value to me, but perhaps even more importantly, it is an unambiguous affirmation of the existence of the human spirit, which may not be possible to achieve in another way. The awareness of the presence of spirit in this situation is primarily intuitive and subjective, but unmistakable.

Her arrival on Earth has been a momentous one for the family and watching my son and his wife caring for their first child, feeling all of the emotions and concerns that come along with it, I can’t help but reflect on these very same moments in my own life, when I brought my son home for the first time.

 

 

The experiences I have known as a grandfather or any number of individual phenomena clearly cannot, by themselves, fully explain or illuminate comprehensively the broader subject of the nature of our subjective experience of human consciousness, nor do they necessarily compare in intensity or magnitude to other reported mystical or spiritual awakenings over the centuries, but considered together in the broadest sense of human experience, they do provide a window into the character and quality of our humanity, and since I bring decades of serious contemplation of the subject with me to such experiences, for me, they lead to at least a solid opening for a discussion.

In order to begin to understand our subjective inner experience, we have to imagine what life must have been like for our earliest ancestors, who possessed all the requisite physical structures for a comprehensive cognitive system in their brain architecture, but were only slowly becoming self-aware in a meaningful way, and who were beginning to devise ways of demonstrating it to themselves and to their fellow Homo sapiens. These capacities did not develop suddenly, nor were our early ancestors equipped initially to make use of them once they did appear. Our ancient beginnings were humble indeed.

Although several locations in Europe boast of ancient cave paintings with remarkably detailed renderings of a variety of animals known to exist in prehistory, there have been very few discoveries of images or objects depicting human figures recovered in excavations of prehistoric archeological sites in Europe, and the earliest occurrence of such images in any significant number now appear to have been located in South Africa, in the Drakensberg Mountains.

According to the popular PBS documentary series, “Civilizations,” the San Bushmen hunter/gatherer culture produced a number of displays of prehistoric artwork, placed there tens of thousands of years ago, which feature multiple instances of human figures included in the paintings on the cave walls of those ancient sites, indicating some of the earliest links to what the narrator describes as “…clues to the birth of the creative impulse, and modern human self-consciousness.” I highly recommend you locate this series on your local PBS station or other outlet, and several of these images are from the series.

Discoveries in several locations throughout the African continent provide remnants from the ancient world, which suggest evidence of the earliest attempts to build large communities, based on practical considerations of sustenance and survival, like the early development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago.

About seven thousand years ago, in what we refer to as the “fertile crescent,” and “the cradle of civilization,” in the area between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, the first evidence of the establishment of “true cities,” can be found in areas where the remains of ancient cities like Eridu and Uruk were once located.

Perhaps as early as five thousand years ago, artwork became more deliberate and more potent as these early civilizations became more complex as unified cultures, and centers of power. Some of the earliest recorded writings in ancient scripts, according to the narration in the series, recorded ordinary events like “…the payment of taxes,” but sometimes “…told the stories of gods and heroes.”

Around four thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians began to establish trade with the Minoans, on the island of Crete, part of modern day Greece. The gradual rise and eventual disappearance of many of the ancient civilizations led to a blending of traditions, and the dissemination of a variety of languages and cultural influences, which are still evident today in our modern societies.

Even more intriguing, was the discovery of the ancient city of Petra in modern day Jordan, established by the Nabataean Empire around 400 B.C., where the thriving culture carved out some of the most spectacular stone edifices of ancient times. Although the living, breathing trade center and creative culture in what was then the capital city of the time, only lasted approximately three hundred years, they left behind an extraordinary legacy of engineering acumen, evidenced in the “…cisterns and reservoirs,” to trap the winter rains, and a flourishing artistic heritage in the stone sculptures, elaborate mosaics, and legendary gardens, enjoyed by a population at its peak of about 30,000 people.

Looking back over the millennia through recorded human history, it appears that while our cognitive and creative capacities during these early epochs, began to gradually produce ever-more elaborate demonstrations of “modern human self-consciousness,” it would take tens of thousands of years to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated capacity for our modern day form of human consciousness.

…more to come…