Consciousness and Dreaming

A few years ago, I wrote a book review of David Gelernter’s book, “The Tides of Mind,” which opened new avenues of thought, and in particular, I appreciated his use of the imagery of a “spectrum of consciousness,” with descending and ascending layers from being wide awake and alert to dreams and unconsciousness. Although interesting as a means of describing the aspects of our mental machinery, his approach illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject.

Our window into the world of dreams, while slowly revealing layers of involvement with both a physiological and psychological nature, also reveals that there is still much that is not understood about the processes involved in dreaming. The appearance of specific dream events not drawn from conscious memory, and elaborate scenarios conjured in an imaginative frenzy, suggest to me that there may be far more complex interactions that cannot be fully explained by the neurophysiology and metabolic activity in the brain, just as the true nature of consciousness itself and its link to our cognitive systems continues to elude scientists and philosophers alike.

Reflecting recently on a particularly vivid dream experience, it was clear that the content was a combination of both objective and subjective components, somehow all meshed together into a collaborative panorama. It seemed at times that I was directing the action in the dream, and at other times I seemed to be casually observing the action. My sense of delight was real enough, but the dream seemed more of how I would imagine such an experience to be, rather than how it might actually be. In the context of my research into the nature of consciousness, I am more convinced than ever that the sleeping and dreaming components of neurological functioning, while clearly acted upon and influenced by the physiological changes that take place, are a window into a much wider world that we are only glimpsing presently.

We now have access to research utilizing positron emission tomography that tracks the blood flow through the brain in the different stages of REM sleep and slow wave sleep, which can verify the findings in sleep studies in a reasonable fashion, but the ability to focus in on the metabolic isolation of the regions of the brain that consolidate and retrieve memories is perhaps the most interesting element of the current state of dream research.

The integration by the brain of visual patterns conducted in the subcortical regions is essential to what we “see” in our dreams. The lessening of activity in the prefrontal cortex and the increased activity in the complex sensory processing areas, where emotions and memories are managed, does contribute in an important way to our understanding of the process which takes place while dreaming, but it doesn’t explain how we are somehow able to conjure images that have never previously occurred in our living experience. Complex construction of elaborate scenarios that have never taken place may be partially the result of contributions from our imaginings or daydreams, but dreams like one I experienced recently seem to defy explanation.



Dream Journal Entry

“I came in to the back of the room. You were at the piano, playing a lively classical piece, unaware of my presence. You were focused on the music. I could feel you; your focus—your radiant inner world—the music always brought it out in you. It was also the one place where we never had any conflict.

 

As I approached slowly from the back of the room, I imagined us dancing along with the music—a spotlight shining on the middle of the dance floor following us. The diversion to thoughts about the dance only lasted a moment, until I once again resumed my approach slowly.

 

I was close enough now to see your fingers gliding across the keys. You were lost in the music, and I was lost in a reverie of a scene in which I imagined slipping up close to you, placing my hands gently on your shoulders, without disturbing your performance. For a moment, I was standing behind you, swaying in unison to the undulating rhythm of the music, but quickly snapped back, realizing that I was still behind you approaching slowly, coming around on your blind side.

 

Barely breathing, deeply engaged in my dream state, you still don’t seem to know, nor do you show any signs of knowing, that I am present. I am hitching a ride—with the harmony, with the sounds, with the beautiful melody. I’m on the very edge of where you might see me if you turn your head slightly, so I stop. I close my eyes, bringing me all the way to the heights…”


In an interesting sidebar, David pointed out that even as cognitive creatures known for our capacity to reason, we also “…long for our minds to be flooded with powerful emotion, so that we can only feel and can’t think, so that we can’t reason.” In the middle of all that, he points to one of the most human longings we possess–one that is central to my own dilemma–“…we long for pure experience.” I’m not as sure as David seems to be that this implies we “only” want to feel, and in a way that prevents us from thinking and reasoning. Cognition, in its most essential human form, is an acknowledgement of what we are feeling, and memory seems to me to be more a recollection of how we once “felt,” in a particular moment.

Our all-too-human longings, if we are able to acknowledge them, and to contemplate the connection we have to them–the “why” of our obsession with them–informs us about our nature as human beings in the broadest sense, but more specifically as an individual spirit in the world. Residing in our innermost personal world, our longings take on a much greater meaning–one that can only be understood well when considered as an image composed of the events of our lives–the moment-to-moment record of our innermost life as it unfolds in our daily lives and in our dreams.

Wishing all of the readers here, all the best in the coming year, and look forward to sharing more with you all in 2020.

John H.

Pickwick Papers

The beginning of this story goes very far back into the past, but the significance of it is as clear now as it was when it began. Many generations ago, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Scotland, and England were streaming into America–the land of promise and hope–and in the mid to late 19th century, our distant ancestors arrived in New York through Ellis island, and became American citizens in a very different world than the one we know today. After several generations of children were born in this country, the paths of a number of individuals from those generations came together, and began the foundations of our current extended family.

From these beginnings, two young hearts, brought into being, a tradition of love and togetherness, under circumstances that were by no means guaranteed to succeed, but which nonetheless did succeed in the long run because those two hearts both agreed that nothing was going to stop them.

Christmas time has always been a special time in our family, and over the years, through all the trials, tribulations, triumphs, and tragedies, our family has endured whatever came, and our generation now has stepped up to lead the way, as each of our ancestors has done before us. We each have made a unique contribution to the history of our family legacy, and each one of you…will one day be where we are now, and when that time comes, we hope you will all feel a sense of urgency to continue to gather as we are doing today.

“The Pickwick Papers” were written by Charles Dickens, and originally published in small installments between 1836 and 1837. This collection of stories was the first fictional work of Charles Dickens, published when he was 24 years old. As you will notice upon reading this brief excerpt, Dickens was clearly wise beyond his years at the time.

It is about Christmas, but it is more precisely about why Christmas is so important to us. He describes the feelings which make it such a significant time to share with our families, by describing to us, the way in which those who came before us, and who are no longer with us, still reverberate in our memories of Christmas celebrations.

The reality of life in the early 1820’s and 30’s made such descriptions less powerful than they are for us today, since it was much more common for people to experience the loss of family members in those days. Dickens himself only lived to age 58. At one point in this excerpt, he uses the word “unalloyed” which means “not mixed or intermingled with any other thing, pure.”



PICKWICK PAPERS

“Christmas was close at hand, in all its bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.

…And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then re-united, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual good will, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight,

How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmastime awaken!

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped have grown cold; the eyes we sought have hid their luster in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday! Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!”

May each of the visitors and readers here enjoy the spirit of the season in whatever way they feel most at home, and can find a way to get back in touch with “the delusions of our childhood days,” and “recall the pleasures of their youth,” back to their own traditions in whatever way holds meaning for them.

Blessings to all…John H.

The Dance of Memory

Le Moulin de la Galette’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

There is a thread running through the coincidental events of late in my daily travels. As I notice them, I try to integrate these events into my broader perspective; being careful not to place too much emphasis on any single coincidence when attempting to decide what the implications might be. Unlike Icarus, I have no interest in flying myself recklessly toward the sun.

What stands out, though, upon reflection, is the connection between all of the coincidences, which has only become possible for me to notice more readily now through repeated experience over a fairly long stretch of time. My awareness of these links helped me to understand that I was experiencing aspects of my existence, which had no corresponding temporal source. As a very young boy, I knew that something “out-of-the-ordinary” was transpiring within me, and that I was viewing the world in a way that others did not seem to see. Even as those early years were accumulating and leading me toward my future, I wasn’t fully aware of what might be responsible for the extraordinary nature of my experiential awareness of non-material phenomena. It is only now, in reconsidering those events, and in view of my increased awareness of the events taking place in my present life, that the significance of what we often describe as coincidence is finally beginning to reveal itself.

It’s interesting to me to go back and read some of my earlier writings, when I first started to become aware of this parade of synchronous events and intuitive sensations that had been occurring all along. I often expressed surprise and delight when life seemed to bring me together with people and locating me in precisely the right venue for dealing with whatever I was struggling with at the time. There were certain periods of my life where they seemed to be coming at me on a regular basis, and other times when they were few and far between, but as I progressed in my understanding, and knew the feelings well enough to recognize them more readily when they appeared, I also began to appreciate that having these experiences were in some way necessary, just as it was necessary to have gaps in between at times, in order for me to figure out just what the importance of them might be.

Recently, I was reviewing one such written account of an encounter with a young woman, when I was a young military man stationed in Massachusetts, and it illustrates well how the power of these special connections can affect the flow along our path in life, and why time in between can be equally important in discerning the significance of each event:

The Dance

Painting of a Woman by Abbey Altson (on the left)


“Her eyes were dark—like a deep summer nighttime sky—and her flowing dark brown hair framed her face in such a way that I could not help but wonder if I might eventually get to kiss that face. She was radiant and beautiful in a way that stood out more than with other women in my limited experience. At the time, my typically low self-esteem would not have permitted me to imagine myself at the local neighborhood festival slow-dancing with her. Beautiful women had never seemed much interested in spending time with me over the years. I always thought that I just wasn’t that interesting or flashy or whatever it is that a man has to be to get a date with a beauty like her.


My confidence was never really able to get off the ground in cases like that, but in this case, I was surprised to be standing with her, talking to her about the festival, and actually found the courage to ask her if she would be willing to go with me. When she said “yes,” I could hardly believe it.

I arrived to pick her up a few minutes early. She was in a pretty white dress with thin shoulder straps and she looked like an angel to me. We greeted each other with a hug and, for a brief moment, when we were standing together still in the embrace, she smiled at me widely.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“It’s a lovely evening, and I haven’t been out in ages.” We both laughed and I told her it should be nice for us both.

When we arrived there weren’t many people on the dance floor, but the music was lovely—a live band playing a good variety of popular songs—and after a few minutes to get reacquainted, we finally stepped out on the dance floor. It was a lively song. I honestly don’t remember what it was because at that moment I could only wonder how it was even possible to be dancing with the beauty in front of me. I loved her laugh. It was infectious and sweet, and she seemed to enjoy laughing in a way that makes you want to laugh. We seemed to spend a fair amount of time giggling at one thing or another, and we were having a really good time.

Suddenly, standing on the floor listening to a story she was telling me, the band started to play a slow song. This time I remembered the song, because after just a moment of the beginning being played, she just reached out, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to the center of the floor. They were playing, “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons),” one of my favorites from Nat King Cole. When I grabbed her hand and placed my arm around her, I must have had a huge smile on my face, because she seemed amused.

“What?” I asked.

“You seem so happy,” she replied.

“Well, I am,” I said. “You really look nice tonight, too,” I added.

After just a few seconds of silence, she replied, “It makes me feel special to be here with you.”

She pulled me closer, and we were suddenly cheek-to-cheek. My heart started racing. The music was swelling right along with my heart. She placed her hand on the back of my neck, and my whole body began to quiver slightly. I felt her embrace tightening, and it relaxed me a bit. I pulled my face back slightly and looked her in the eye. There was a slight hint of her perfume mixed with the warmth of the evening air. Our bodies were pressed together, and our embrace allowed me to notice the contours of her body, which was warm, and soft, and fit perfectly in my arms.

She seemed completely comfortable with my hand placement, and when my right hand slid down her lower back, she didn’t seem to mind at all. The dance was heating up.”

I wouldn’t have occasion to think much about how this event would matter to me until some years later, when I was waiting to depart America for an assignment overseas. We had exchanged letters for a time after my reassignment, but our correspondence dropped off after a while, and when I was about to embark on the next phase of my journey, I thought of her and that extraordinary dance, wondering if it really even happened at all.

Some months after arriving overseas, I received a letter from her announcing her engagement to another guy, and while it made me feel a degree of melancholy at first, unbeknownst to me at the time, it would set the stage for one of the most intense love affairs of my young life.

In the New Year, I will be writing more about this period of my journey, and elaborating further on the importance of these synchronous events as they ebbed and flowed in the years that followed. Extending to all my readers and visitors here best wishes for whatever holiday you celebrate, and hope you all make the New Year in 2020, not only memorable, but the best it can be.

Letters Between A Young Man Serving Overseas And His Mom at Christmas

Since I personally have direct experience in being away from home on military assignment during the holidays, I felt compelled to share with you an excerpt from an historical exchange, which took place at that time, by way of excerpts from two important letters, written while I served overseas in the winter of 1975, between me and my mother.

November 29, 1975

My Dear son,

First of all, we received your recent letter, written while on duty today. I was very happy to receive it, and all read your letter with feelings of concern, yet also happiness. It is hard to explain. We all love you, and hope that the time you must give to the Army goes as quickly as you would wish it to go…in spite of everything.

(What follows is a section of that letter, which contained my description of the experience of being on duty at the border station.)

“Dear Mom and Dad and everyone,

By the time you receive this letter, I will have returned to Augsburg, with the mission completed. I won’t be able to send it until I get back. We are on a border site mission, which means that right now, your son is sitting about 5 km from the East German border. We are on top of a small mountain from which you can see into East Germany. Right at this particular moment it’s snowing pretty well, after having snowed yesterday about a half a foot before it stopped last night. It’s really quite cold; however, I am relatively comfortable considering the circumstances. We work in shifts so no one is out in the cold for too long. When we finish work for the day, they drive us into a nearby town to take showers and have a few beers. It’s really not too bad actually.

The one thing I really wanted to tell you all about was the feeling I had last night as I watched the snow fall over the other side of a large barbed-wire fence that separates the East Germans from the free world. It’s not a spectacular scene really, but the implications, at least for me, are very graphic. The fence itself and the area within about 50 meters are lit up like it was daytime. Every hundred meters or so, you see a guard tower with the East German border guards sitting up there just watching you watch them. There was hardly a sound to be heard.

The snowfall seemed to make everything peaceful, and I began to think a little bit about just what it must be like to live on the other side of that fence. How does that East German soldier feel about his lot, and how he must wonder about what I’m thinking? Needless to say, it was a very sobering moment. I thought of you all, just at that moment and I have to admit I cried just a little bit and wished I was home. I was tired and cold and I guess a little lonesome for my family—a feeling that I learned to appreciate a while ago, emphasized somewhat by my surroundings; one that I could not have known without having had the experience.”

(Back to Mom’s response)

“By the way, I mailed a Christmas package. A couple of things are to be opened immediately, but others should remain until Christmas. It’s hard to be away for the holidays, son, but remember, we are thinking of you, and when you are home again, we shall have the biggest homecoming party you have ever seen!

The whole house is starting to become active with secret shopping and the Christmas Spirit! Your sister tells me, “It’s building!” We have our nativity scene up on the mantel piece. We are hearing more and more Christmas songs on the radio. Stores are decorated and it’s cold out—down to the low 20’s tonight. No snow yet!

We expect your sister and her family on Christmas Day; both your brothers will be here Christmas Eve also. We have a limited Pollyanna because both married children, plus our military son, will not be here on Christmas Eve. Your older brother is going to cut down the tree tomorrow. The girls and your younger brother are going with him. We expect to trim the tree Sunday.

Everyone is getting excited as usual. They all have come to me at different times and said how much they miss you, and how much they wish you were here for Christmas. My dear son, your mother thinks of you often and also of our talks in the kitchen when you were home. They are a great comfort to me. I love you and miss you.

God Bless You, with Love…Mother”

As you can see from this exchange, the circumstances for me and for the whole family were affected by my assignment and deployment, and while the situation wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as those brave soldiers serving in combat zones, the stresses and responsibilities are still daunting in their own way. I know my parents and siblings were worried about me and missed me. It was difficult to be away from home for so long and through times when we were traditionally together, but it was vitally important work that we were doing in defense of our country, and at the end of it all, once that duty was finished, the lessons learned stayed with us.

In the photo above, at Christmas time one year later, my parents and four of my siblings came over to visit me in West Germany, and we were joined by the German family who hosted me in Augsburg, more than making up for the lonely Christmas the year before.  My German friends understood well the important American values held by our family.

Being far away from home, during the holidays especially, our appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy in America, and the love we have for our families and for our way of life as Americans, become something more than just words on a patriotic poster, or in some speech by a politician. The deeper meaning of our values and our heritage as citizens of the United States comes into sharper focus, in a way that just reading about such things could never impart.

The changes you go through, the challenges you face, and the altering of your view of the world, acquired as a result of participation in the defense of your country overseas, regardless of the motivations you may have had when you entered the service, will very likely stay with you for the rest of your life, just as they have for those of us who have served in the past.

We all recognize that the sacrifices made by our military men and women in uniform are necessary in order to fulfill their responsibilities, and we must support them unconditionally in their endeavors.  I recommend to all military folks out there to be sure and write or communicate in some way with your loved ones. Take it from me, it’s the best way to get you through whatever comes.

May God bless them all and keep them safe always, and continue to bless the United States of America!

Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery

From one perspective, the month of December signals the arrival of that part of the year after the crops have been harvested, the trees and vines have yielded their ripened fruits, and the leaves have all withered and fallen to the ground. The light of day is at its shortest duration, and the longest periods of darkness at night hold sway until the Earth once again tilts more toward the sun in our hemisphere. The majesty of the renewal of all life in the Spring, the lushness of Summer, and the brilliant colors of Autumn have waned, and the bitter cold misery of Winter nips at the edges of our flesh for weeks to come.

Depending on one’s point-of-view, each of these generalizations about the seasons might ring true, but to those with an open heart and mind, the determination of whether one is experiencing misery or enjoying the majesty may fluctuate in any number of ways. The Spring also brings, for some, the misery of airborne allergens and high pollen counts, as well as seasonal flooding; the Summer also brings days of stifling heat and humidity, and the dangers of heat ailments and sunburn; the Autumn also brings to an end, the lush green symphony of all the plants and trees, the shortening of daylight hours, and the toils of the harvest.

None of these characterizations are necessarily good or bad inherently, and the cycles of the natural world are neither malicious nor benevolent by design; each season simply proceeds through its cycles according to its nature, and as a consequence of the physical laws which govern the actions and reactions of planets and solar systems, contained within our galaxy and beyond. There clearly are aspects of our existence, as we commonly perceive it, which are governed by predictable physical principles, and to which we are all subjected without any deliberate discrimination detectable through our current methods of scientific inquiry. The Universe is what it is and we are unquestionably bound by its nature to either endure or enjoy whatever transpires within it, for whatever time we are granted in this life.

Recent rereading of John Keats’ poetry as a result of a posting by my friend Anthony brought me to review another of Keats’ works called “Bright Star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art,” and this morning, as I slowly returned to waking consciousness, the terms Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery, floated up from my subconscious in a period of contemplation before committing to place my feet on the floor and begin the day. The concepts of each of these terms has been “percolating” within me this past week, and Keats’ poem really brings home the significance of their meaning in an important way.

Keats himself was only twenty-five years along in his life when he was consumed by tuberculosis and perished after an agonizingly difficult period of time suffering with the disease. His brilliance as a poet, and his urgency to express what was within him were enhanced greatly by his awareness that he would not survive long into his twenties, and by his passionate interest in every aspect of his existence, especially in consideration of the brief amount of time he would have to experience it.

The “majesty” part of this poem is in the awareness of the durability of the star, the unparalleled view of the world upon which it shines in the night sky, and its longevity, which Keats envied in a way. He also recognized that while the star enjoyed these advantages, that such longevity for Keats would not be necessary for him to fully appreciate his own life, but simply to live long enough to grow to maturity, and to experience a lifetime in the usual way, with the advantages and simple pleasures of human love, might well seem like an eternity to someone facing their own mortality. The “misery” part might well go beyond the difficulty of disease, and into the longing for something more, and the impending loss of all that might have been.

The “miracles” of our modern lives, no longer simply a phenomenon within the purview of an esoteric religious viewpoint, consist of the broad range of potentials inherent in the birth of every living thing, in the blossoming of that life, and even in the cycles which govern those lifeforms through whatever span of time they take place. Our own experience of life can contain many such moments as those described by Keats, and are all the more precious and miraculous when we consider how he would not survive long after describing those which mattered to him.

The “mystery” aspect of all these ideas are where we have the most fertile soil for contemplation and philosophy. Many of life’s secrets have been revealed by our scientific and medical research over centuries now, and the life of our current poets and philosophers, artists and acrobats, scientists and sensualists, no matter what their persuasion, can be either bitterly brief or roundly robust, but ultimately, how it is that we are born into this world in whatever circumstance and with whatever advantage or lack thereof, we have the opportunity to embrace life and to ponder its mysteries, and even with only a very short time to do so, Keats pointed the way toward the apprehension of life’s mystery–through the recognition of the majesty of life, acceptance of the experience of misery which can occur, the wonder of life’s miracles, and the pursuit of those mysteries, for however long we are granted in this life.

Here at John’s Consciousness, the pursuit of apprehending life’s mysteries continues; the appreciation of life’s miracles are frequently expressed, the periods of misery are acknowledged, and the full embrace of life’s majesty is often recommended and expressed.

Looking forward to my tenth year of sharing the miracles and mysteries in 2020!