Moments of Being

“Driftwood,” by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

“I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favorable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now, if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into a wall; and listen in to the past…I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

—excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being,” published as a collection of essays in 1976.

Homer’s painting appeared in 1909, a short time before his death, but is reflective of a lifetime of creativity and artistic acumen. Combined with the quote from Woolf, it inspires contemplation of a much more profound idea concerning the nature of being and the significance of the foundational experiences which lead us to become who we are in our lives.

Currently, I am engaged in exploring a number of the complete works of Virginia Woolf, and recently came across a selection of her essays published in 1976 entitled, “Moments of Being.” This collection of her writings has become an important part of my reading regimen, and has sparked a number of recollections, and inspired some self-examination about my own life experience. Her suggestion in the quote above about a device that one might “plug into a wall,” and “listen in to the past,” struck me as precisely what I have been doing these days, recording my recollections of “strong emotion,” and then listening to them with my audio device as a way of once again “getting attached” to them.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

As an additional aid in recalling my own memories, I have been rereading what Woolf described as “A Sketch of the Past,” and sifting again through some of the photographic evidence of my early life, and the practice has stirred my creative juices in some surprising ways. What follows are a few samples of the results that have appeared lately.

In Woolf’s accounts of her memories of her mother, who passed away when she was only thirteen in 1895, she describes moments which struck a chord within me in recollections of my own mother. To me, when I was similarly youthful, my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and even though she was quite attractive in a number of ways, my child-like view of her exceeded any of the other mother’s in my admittedly limited circle.

My mother holding me on the occasion of my christening in 1953

I feel fortunate to have many happy memories of sitting either with her or beside her as she read books to us, or told us stories about her own life growing up. Woolf’s accounts are particularly vivid and have sparked a host of “moments of being” within me.

There are moments in a lifetime, some fleeting and some lasting, which alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward becoming who we WILL be. We fill in the spaces between those moments, if we are fortunate enough, with a search for who that person might be. If we can recognize that person as who we are, at that time, we might then get to choose our path forward with greater confidence. We don’t always get the chance to make that choice for ourselves, but we do dream of the day when our life’s choices are more frequently founded in this person we have become. It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees, but I believe we must first acknowledge that something is possible, before it ever will be.

In a stroller in 1954

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another.

These images of my earlier self along with my parents and siblings are now even more startling, as I begin to contemplate how those early connections set the stage for those which would follow and form as I grew into adulthood.

My father, myself, and my son pictured at age six in first grade

We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say….spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been very few individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection as those of my parents and siblings, and even though our individual temporal lives may go in completely different directions, continuing a unique relationship is very important, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

We must expect that when we forge new paths, listen to the beat of our own hearts, and follow what is, for us, the only true choice we can make and remain who we are, there will be those who cannot see what you see, who cannot feel what you feel, and who genuinely could not know life in precisely the same light that you do. Be as gracious as you can be with those who do not share your vision, but do not be persuaded beyond reason and what’s in your own heart and mind.

What I am embarked upon is nothing less than the assignment of a lifetime. These many years I have struggled to maintain the continuity of my family, and to eek out a semblance of a beginning to understanding what it is that makes us uniquely human. The search has taken me to the limits of credulity, tested me more than any temporal challenge whether of my own choosing, or thrust upon me, as has been so often the case lately. There can be no doubt that I have struck upon something of great importance to my stated goal, which is to come to terms with the person I have become.

A Developing Inner Life

As we begin to consider the role that “non-physical components” might play in coming to terms with the nature of consciousness, a good place to begin is with our own very human emotions. In spite of having a clear and powerful biological foundation in brain physiology, our emotional responses are highly subjective in nature and what immediately stirs the feelings of one human being can produce nothing but indifference in another. Difficult to define, feelings can direct us in ways that are, in one instance, intuitive and insightful and in another, self-destructive and violent. Our response to stimulus of every sort can be examined, analyzed, and traced to specific locations within the brain, but our physiological response is only part of the story. Our emotions and feelings can also be influenced by forces far removed from simple biology.

Much has been written regarding the evolution of species on our planet, and we can infer a great deal from our increasing knowledge of the nature of life on our planet over the millions of years cognitive creatures have been evolving on it. Emotions served our primitive ancestors in their struggle to survive the dangers and challenges of life long ago, in the now familiar “fight or flight response” which still exists within us today, as well as in the development of nurturing inclinations. What began as an advantageous survival strategy has blossomed into a highly complex psycho-social phenomenon with far reaching implications in the study of the cognitive processes which are at the heart of consciousness. All of our evolutionary progress has built steadily upon the increasing capacity for cognitive development, and on the subsequent dependence on our emotional responses for survival. Over the millennia, we have taken the raw material provided by evolution, and slowly manipulated our mental and emotional environment to the point where we can now “rationalize” our emotional responses, and analyze them as a “component” of our burgeoning cognitive potential.

Beyond these considerations, and largely a result of our increased cognitive skills, our comprehension of the interrelatedness of all life on our planet, has also made us aware of the interactive nature of cognition. No longer are we simply the victims of a brutal world of “survival of the fittest,” but rather, the stewards of a global community of life forms which are remarkably dependent on each other not just for survival, but for fulfillment of a potential that expands well beyond the physiology of any one species. Humans are slowly coming to understand the importance of diversity not only within ecosystems and cultures, but also within their own individual consciousness.

The interrelatedness of all life in the phenomenal world reflects the even more complex and comprehensive relationships that support our profoundly dynamic inner life, represented in the relationships between cognition and physiology, between neurons and experience, between electrochemical phenomenology and synaptic function. Indeed, one could easily draw parallels that reach all the way from the most basic subatomic phenomena to the vastness of the known universe. The complexity of the brain is a perfect metaphor for the complexity of the universe!

The relationships between these various components of life in the physical universe, like all such associations, have some aspects in common which are visible and comprehensible, others that are a great deal more subtle, and yet others which are, for the present, utterly incomprehensible. In many cases, we can infer relationships between objects and phenomena based on observation or analysis of data relevant to the circumstances in which they occur, or by examining the bits and pieces left behind after centuries have passed. As cognitive creatures, with millions of years of evolution to support us, we can advance theories based on the observations and data accumulated over centuries of reflection and contemplation.

The story of humanity is in every way an accumulation of knowledge and experience, and the resulting expansion of human consciousness. Even if the acquisition of consciousness was initiated by our acquisition of an adequately equipped brain architecture, the accumulation of knowledge and experience made available to us as a result of that acquisition, is entirely our own doing.

Give someone a fish fillet, and they eat for a day. Teach them how to catch their own fish, and they eat for a lifetime. Give a hominid species a fully developed brain and nervous system, and eventually they will paint pictures on cave walls. Teach them through knowledge and experience to be creative and to innovate, and they will expand their consciousness beyond mere survival. Eventually, they will begin to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

As solid and predictable as the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the possibility of the existence of the spirit. And while the many diverse paths of spirituality offer an exciting array of avenues for us to pursue the spirit, not one of them can eliminate the laws of physics as they apply to the phenomenal world.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both exist, and that both rely on the existence of the other. Our sense of being relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not bring us into being, nor do they attribute significance to our existence. They are our window to the world of experience and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.

Connecting to the World Within

Giving deliberate and purposeful attention to developing some form of contemplative practice is essential for promoting a greater degree of self-awareness, and for encouraging us to conduct the deep inner searching necessary to reach and explore the world within us. In order to begin this process, we must be able to still the mind and quiet the relentless inner voice of conscious thoughts. Allowing the mind to settle down and become quiet, releases us from thoughts about daily activities and concerns, and prepares our mind to turn its attention to a more directed period of contemplation.

My own daily practice usually includes early morning meditation, typically lasting twenty to thirty minutes after breakfast and before consuming my morning coffee. I generally spend my coffee time catching up on correspondence, reading the paper if I have time, and then looking at whatever tasks I hope to achieve in the day ahead, with the purpose of deciding on whatever amount of time I can set aside throughout the day for deliberate thoughtful reflection, which often includes some deliberate choice of gentle musical accompaniment that assists me in achieving a relaxed state of mind. There is no set formula, and there are times when it isn’t possible at all to do so. The important part of any program isn’t a precise adherence to a rigid routine, but rather, a deliberate choice to incorporate time for contemplation on whatever schedule the day allows.

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With regular attention and consistent effort, it is possible to find a number of opportunities for even short periods of time each day to disengage from daily routines, long enough to give consideration to contemplative endeavors. I also find it useful at the end of the day to review whatever conclusions may have occurred during my time in contemplation, if any, and record those thoughts in either my writing journal or in my recent alternative “audio journaling” recording sessions. Seeing progress in a written journal, and reviewing audio recordings I’ve made over time, helps me to reinforce the ideas that have resulted from those efforts, recorded when they were freshly arrived in a deliberately chosen and purposeful state of consciousness.

Many illuminating moments can be encountered during directed contemplation, particularly when it is preceded by a clearly delineated mental and spiritual preparation to withdraw from the temporal world, as well as a reasonable degree of either silence or a calming environment, with at least no more than a background murmur to contend with that doesn’t distract me.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I spend as much time as I can in some variety of a natural setting in the wilderness or a recreational area in the temperate times of the year, which always seems to have an effortless transformational effect on me. Even during the winter, a walk in the early morning snow or a late night stroll around the block can elicit a profound inner connection to the world within. For me, though, communing with the natural world and escaping the daily routines in any significant way is my link to the phenomenon of consciousness, that richly-textured subjective experience of existence, which, for me, points so clearly to the non-material aspects of that existence.

Currently, we can only verify consciousness subjectively, but this does not mean that the door is closed exactly on searching for other ways to do so. I may not be able to verify YOUR consciousness with the same subjective certainty that I can verify my own, but we limit ourselves when we look at the physical plane and temporal existence as the “real world,” and everything else as unreal. Non-material aspects, while not having any demonstrable material existence, can still exist just as certainly as those which can be seen with a telescope or under a microscope, only in a manner inaccessible to our science.

Modern physicists have recently proposed string theory as a way of resolving the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics, and it posits the idea that our universe has many more dimensions than are discernible to us as physical beings, suggesting that the material world itself may also be composed of some variety of non-material aspects.

If we examine the currently available evidence of human evolution over millions of years, allowing for informed inferences based on as much of both science and metaphysics as can be tolerated; there is a path that leads toward a greater understanding of the evolution of consciousness, its role in the temporal, and its foundation in the non-material.

I sometimes like to frame the argument for differentiating consciousness from cognition by comparing them in terms of a radio broadcast. The radio transmitter, the radio antenna, the propagation of radio waves through the atmosphere, and the radio receiver are the mechanisms of radio transmission and reception. The radio equipment doesn’t CREATE the content of the radio broadcast. All the radio equipment in the world is useless without the person who INITIATES the transmission and composes a comprehensible message. A conscious entity of sufficient intelligence can design, build, and operate the equipment, but without the capacity for creating some message or transmission to communicate, the mere existence of the equipment is insufficient to make productive use of its abilities. That requires something more—a creator of the message!

In the same way, I do not believe that human consciousness is generated solely by our EQUIPMENT. Our neurons, synapses, coordinated brain regions and sufficiently developed frontal lobes—all of it evolved finally in hominids to the point where we became aware of a wider existence beyond simply experiencing life. As I experience it, the life within me is my real life. Neurons and synapses provide the means to access consciousness. That is a distinction which is, in my view, unavoidable.

It will become even clearer when the technology eventually catches up to the brain with a manufactured device that somehow utilizes trillions of switches, emulating our interconnected networks of neurons that mirror in some fashion the architecture of the brain. It is my view, that when they are finally able to construct even the most sophisticated version of a precisely constructed BRAIN INSTRUMENT, which is comparable to the architecture of a human brain, it may produce a very sophisticated device that mimics brain activity, but is unlikely to possess anything truly comparable to human consciousness. Simply recreating the structure of the brain will be insufficient to bring to life a fully developed living being, with all the capacities and richness of our experiential subjective aliveness, since it hasn’t been established at all that brain activity alone can account for our own subjective experience.

There is so much more to human subjective experience than brain activity alone, and even our own ancient human ancestors had a structurally similar physical brain for thousands of years before demonstrating significant self-awareness and the ability to begin to comprehend the world. The stark difference between what took nature millions of years of biological evolution to produce, and what a future technology might produce with whatever synthetic materials are developed along the way, will very likely show this contrast definitively.

Whatever capabilities such technologies will enable in a manufactured device, it will not be ALIVE, nor will it be able to comprehensively assume the identity or house the consciousness of a preexistent biological human. Science fiction stories of such developments gloss over the finer points of our humanity, and often neglect to acknowledge that our bodies and brains are receptacles—mechanisms which are animated by energies and aspects which have no corresponding physical existence in the same way that our bodies do.

Our current medical technologies can ensure that virtually every single human bodily function operates at a nominal level. With the exception of brain cells, we can reconstruct or repair virtually any damage to human tissue, and, in some cases, even stimulate artificially the process of regenerating cells, but no matter how sophisticated we get, we won’t be able to precisely produce a human egg or sperm synthetically. We cannot even produce a human zygote by synthetic means, without starting off with genuine human biological tissues.

We may end up manipulating the biological components produced by our human biological inheritance, and even though we risk a great deal by doing so, it may alter future generations in ways we could not now anticipate, but any process or procedure that utilizes materials that are not wholly biological cannot hope to produce some variation of a truly biological human.

The reason for this is because what underlies, supports, and is ESSENTIAL to those living components and materials—the very kernel of their nature—is NON-MATERIAL. When you begin to consider the nature of human existence by supposing that a non-material dimension or aspect to existence is a given, then it seems conceivable to me that we may one day achieve a comprehensive understanding of the nature of human consciousness, which will not be forthcoming unless we integrate these essential aspects.

In order for us to continue to evolve as a species and to survive in the eons which lay before us, we must seek a greater understanding of our true nature. It is not religion, but it is not purely science either, and it is DEFINITELY NOT dogma from either area of study that will ultimately illuminate our comprehension of human consciousness.