Samsara

This week, I was finally able to view a film I’ve been wanting to see for some time called, “Samsara,” directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson, and was stunned at the richness of the diversity of locations filmed, and was both inspired and disturbed by the powerful effect of the contrasts presented in the film.

In Indonesia, Balinese Tari Legong Dancers perform a dance in a tradition that goes back over 100 years. Kilauea Volcano erupts and spews forth massive clouds of steam and smoke and lava in a process that began billions of years ago on the primitive Earth. A human child developing in the womb, almost fully formed, shown in the tiniest graphic detail, with the very beginnings of human life hanging in the balance.

A human corpse of the anonymous Tollund Man, discovered in 1950 in a peat bog in Denmark, perfectly preserved, lies frozen in time, from the 4th century B.C., with the tiniest details of skin and facial hair preserved in its most raw form. The death mask of Tutankhamun displayed in brilliant detail, painted and golden, preserved with equally astonishing verity, from thousands of years ago. Each of these scenarios, in exquisite 70mm format, is part of the lead which introduces the film, “Samsara,” from the creators of the film, “Baraka.”

An extraordinary, almost alien landscape in the early morning haze, presents testimony to the extraordinary contributions that human beings sometimes make to the scenery of the natural world. Thiksey Monastery boys in Ladakh, India turning a prayer wheel. Monks making sand Mandalas. Switch from the barren deserts of Saudia Arabia, to the lush waters of Erupa Falls, in Angola.

Utter destruction from a modern catastrophe is followed by the exquisite beauty and grandeur of a palace in Europe. Natural wonders like spectacular waterfalls in Africa, rock formations in Utah, and volcanos in Hawaii, are contrasted with human-made wonders from ancient times like the pyramids, the Mayan ruins, the Hindu Temples of Angkor Wat, and the great Cathedral of Notre Dame.

According to Wikipedia:

“The official website describes the film, “Expanding on the themes they developed in Baraka (1992) and Chronos (1985), Samsara explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of humanity’s spirituality and the human experience.”

Consulting the BBC.com website, I found a reasonably good explanation of the term, “samsara.”

“Hindus believe that human beings can create good or bad consequences for their actions and might reap the rewards of action in this life, in a future human rebirth in which the self is reborn for a period of time, as a result of their karma, which operates not only in this lifetime but across lifetimes: the results of an action might only be experienced after the present life in a new life.

This process of reincarnation is called samsara, a continuous cycle in which the soul is reborn over and over again according to the law of action and reaction. The goal of liberation (moksha) is to make us free from this cycle of action and reaction, and from rebirth.

An individual under the influence of Samsara will re-incarnate over and over again (not on purpose – only due to lack of knowledge) and always believe in the concept of death. Samsara is the world as created by ego; Samsara is the world of Maya—the world of illusions.”

For me, the most significant takeaway from this extraordinary film was the astonishing variety within the collection of depictions of the works of humanity and of Mother Nature. The presentation is exquisitely executed and it provides a great deal of material for thoughtful reflection without a single word being uttered throughout. It is, at times, mesmerizing and uplifting, and at other times, it is deeply disturbing and thought-provoking. I recommend viewing it when you have sufficient time afterwards to consider the impact it will no doubt have and to allow the messages it carries to sink in.

Library Love and Publication Passion

Chateau de Beloiel Library in Hainaut, Belgium, founded in the 17th century has over 20,000 volumes

Visiting the library was one of the most anticipated activities in my young life as a boy, beginning with many memorable trips to the local library in my hometown. My parents were eager to encourage our love of reading as children, and the pleasure it brought back then still follows me to this day. Even the basic library of my grammar school years was of some interest early on, but the large municipal library in our township was like a magic kingdom to me, and it always filled me with awe to walk among the rows of books, even though in the early 1960’s when I was visiting at least monthly, there were only books and encyclopedias to choose from in those days. The experience today in most modern facilities represents a quantum leap in available resources and options for reading.

Since it isn’t likely that I will ever be able to visit the large variety of book depositories and centers of learning around the world, I decided to have some fun and check out some of the more interesting locations to share with my readers, and also imagine myself surrounded by books in ways that I might have been able to do if I was allowed my choice of a few interesting home libraries, and selected a few special locations to photo-shop myself into the images I found during my investigations.

One of my earliest memories in school was learning about the great library of Alexandria Egypt, where much of the ancient wisdom and knowledge of those early epochs were stored. Although there is some uncertainty about the actual fate of the contents in that great collection, perhaps having suffered damage and loss due to warfare and the reign of unfriendly kings and leaders, my imagination was kindled in a number of ways to suppose what it might have been like to read the scrolls and learn from the ancient thinkers.

In 2002, a brand new “Bibliotecha Alexandrina,” was built in Alexandria, Egypt, and it received 500,000 volumes from the Library of France to get them started once again. The original site of the ancient version hasn’t been officially agreed upon, but the mystique of the original still fires the imagination of scholars and readers alike.

The John Work Garrett Library at John Hopkins University, part of the Sheridan group in Baltimore, has all the beauty and stature of a major depository of medical knowledge that few others can match. Just the thought of standing in that room gives me goosebumps!

One of the most compelling facilities for books in all of the United Kingdom is located in Yorkshire on Commercial Street and it houses some 150,000 volumes within its walls.

Founded in 1768, according to the website, the Leeds is “a proprietary subscription library–the oldest surviving example of this sort of library in the British Isles.” I can only imagine being able to walk through the halls and into the rooms filled with hundreds of books that line the shelves there. (Be still my heart!)

Thanks to my friend Anthony for the suggestion to add the Bodleian Library at Oxford! It was opened to scholars in the 17th century, officially re-opening as the Bodleian in 1602!

I’m envious also of Anthony’s participation at the Library at Christ Church as a young man, and according to the website, “a batch of twelve books given in 1562, several the gift of wealthy outsiders with no obvious connections with Christ Church. It seems that these books are the remnants of those which Christ Church solicited from Arundel (briefly Chancellor of the University in 1559) and other potential benefactors, and this fixes the date of the begging letters and the foundation of the library to 1562.”

And of course, how could I forget visiting one of the most spectacular collections of books in all the world–the Library of Congress! On a class trip at the ripe old age of 13, I was able to walk along with the tour guide, star-struck at the shear volume of over 16 MILLION volumes, some dating back to the beginning of the Republic. One day I might actually be able to visit there again, and maybe do some research on my favorite subject!

And now for some fun with photoshop! I went through my writing files and picked out a handful of images of book nooks and just plain fabulous locations for those who love books and inserted myself into the dreamy and fabulously comfortable looking places, as well as fantasy places from the virtual world of Second Life, where even virtual libraries exist!

This last one with the mile high shelves was my favorite…just imagine!

I found this one in the virtual world and immediately felt like I might enjoy such a place to read to my heart’s content.

Thanks for visiting and looking forward to year ten here on John’s Consciousness!

A Teachable Travel Moment

Recently, I have been reviewing the collections of photographs and other memories from my journey of discovery which began more than forty years ago now, and several pieces of the puzzle have started to be filled in with particular memories, which have sparked new levels of awareness about just how important some of the events which occurred along the way were, leading me inexorably to this moment in time. The image above is one of my most important memories from 1975 when I was living in Augsburg, Germany, and first visited the Ancient Roman Museum there as a young soldier. The photograph depicts one of my very first adult encounters with ancient artifacts, and I will be posting an entry in the coming weeks about those heady days in Europe when so much came together for me.

I’ve also been reading posts by my friend Anthony at zenothestoic.com these days, and his recent posting about travels prompted me to dig through the archive to locate this one special travel memory that now looms much larger in the big picture, which I have been constructing all these years. I am grateful to Anthony for a number of teachable moments of late, and recommend his blog to anyone who has an interest in straightforward, no-nonsense stories that often get right to the core of whatever matter he takes on.

His travelogue in the English landscape stirred my memories of travels through the many small villages and remote country towns when I was a young man exploring the outer world in Europe, and just beginning to awaken to my expansive inner world. This recent stirring reminded me of a more modern memory, and I will tell you about that now, and how it all fits in to the larger story about my focus on consciousness.

It was a dream I had one night long ago. I met a woman on the steps of a university somewhere, and upon the very first glance at her face, I immediately felt a connection and a degree of intimacy that could not be explained by the temporal circumstances. I seemed to accept that it was so—that it was completely normal to encounter someone and to have this response.

I remember as the dream progressed, being close—face—to—face. I distinctly remember the look in her eyes as I spoke. Somehow, I knew that whatever I said had better be the truth, because she would know—she would know whether whatever I said was true or not—and I remember hesitating, only briefly, but deliberately pausing, as I was about to say something non-threatening—something neutral, and when I looked at her directly in the face, I was compelled to tell the truth…and the truth was…that I was absolutely, completely crazy about her.

It’s not like there wasn’t any precedence in my life experience with this phenomenon, but I have to say throughout my lifetime of experience, when attempting to interact with another person with whom I sensed an intimate connection, I almost always knew right away, instinctively, yes or no, and when it was yes, I was frequently met with responses like…”how is it even possible to say these words…it’s only been this amount of time;” the connection for me was always immediate and intimate, and once in a while, it would remain strong and involve a depth of caring for some time.

Most often, though, I remember the response being incredulity or astonishment or confusion, but for me, none of those words applied to my response; I was completely accepting of my own response to the individual. For them, it was always some abrupt expression like, “Wow,” or “really?” For me, it was something like, “Of course,” or “yes, really,” or “I know.” I couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t so.

Looking back over the years, it happened so many times, and just as often the other person had a very difficult time accepting that I could feel the way I truly did feel. For me, it was impossible to deny what I absolutely felt without a doubt. I kept getting the sense that none of them were prepared to accept the truth that I was able to accept easily. Thankfully, it was just at this time when I started to take a serious interest in photography, bought some quality equipment, and began to record more than just images on film. I was also documenting my life at a critical time, and expanding my range of skills.

For a time, it became an issue when I shared these ideas, prompting blank stares or disbelief. One particular example occurred as a young man in the U.S. military living overseas in Europe. One day after work, I met a beautiful young woman, and at the very moment we met on a street corner, waiting for a bus into town, she turned to look at me in a most peculiar way, and I noticed my heart rate accelerated rapidly, without judgement on my part, but the suddenness of it gave me pause. We struck up a lively conversation about local attractions and initiated a polite exchange of information about our shared military duties, and when she asked me where I was headed in town, I reported that I was going home to my off-base apartment downtown. Her eyes suddenly lit up with surprise, her face immediately softened, and she smiled in a way that grabbed me right in the solar plexus. At that very instant, I felt a surge within me that was unmistakably of the same sort as before, only now it hit me like a cresting ocean wave.

The conversation took on a whole new level of urgency at that point, and by the time the bus arrived, we had made an arrangement to meet the next day to visit with me there. The rest of that evening I was unable to settle down or think clearly at all. I found myself oddly unable to go to sleep that night; so instead, I decided to clean out and rearrange the cabinets. I was an emotional wreck, and exhausted from anticipating her arrival the next day, but when she finally arrived, all the anxiety I felt just melted away.

We chatted briefly about locating the ingredients for a recipe she wanted to try for something called, “Hungarian Chicken.” Without having any idea exactly why I felt so compelled to rearrange the kitchen, it now seemed as though my mind had been operating on some level outside of conscious awareness, because it turned out to be the exact task I should have done, even though I couldn’t figure out what was making me act that way the night before.

We ended up spending a great deal of time together in the days following that first meeting, and all the while, outwardly I behaved with courtesy and as one would when first nurturing a friendship, but on the inside, I was a bubbling cauldron of intimate emotions, swirling like a tornado in my head and heart. I was in love. I immediately wanted to be close to her, but it seemed that it was impossible to express it without endangering the whole enterprise. The challenge for me was to avoid giving any overt indication of the inner turmoil, while still behaving in a rational and explicable manner. We laughed often and she seemed completely open to listening to the stories of my adventures over the years, and all I could do was remain totally open to her bright spirit, encouraging her to share time with me on her terms. I just wanted to be where she was.

One night, after a lovely day spent enjoying a warm spring afternoon walking around together in town, we were sitting on the sofa in the living room and I couldn’t hold back any longer. I had to try to express what was going on inside me before I exploded. The beginning of the conversation went well as I recapped all the wonderful parts of our friendship and the time we spent together, and without getting overly emotional or suggesting what might happen next, I simply allowed my heart to gently speak its truth. Her immediate response was a blank stare for about a minute, followed by an expression of agreement with the clear advantages of our friendship, but also noting her astonishment at how it would even be possible to have such a strong sense of connection, adding “It would take me a year to say those things to someone.” My time in Augsburg held some of the most important events of my young life, and when the time came to leave that city, I climbed to the top of the city hall there to take one last look before moving on to Central Germany and a brand new assignment.

Similar circumstances happened to me all the time, even with important friendships with others of every variety. For me, there was no doubt at all. It became clear eventually, after numerous repetitions of this scenario, where I was absolutely certain of what was happening, that the cause had something to do with ME. It was about ME. I was different, but I couldn’t explain it. This and several other pivotal events during this time brought all of the mystery to the forefront of my experience and pressed me to dig deeper. For the longest time, I wasn’t able to see a connection between these events when they occurred, and while some were more intense than others, certain ones were so profound, so in-depth of a connection that it completely enveloped all of my senses and occasionally saturated my entire experiential awareness.

Hopefully, after all this time, and years of paying attention to the particulars in these situations, writing about my experience in the Roman Museum and reflecting on everything that happened to me during that time will assist me now as a mature person, to not only understand myself better, but to have some improved grasp of the phenomenon of the human spirit, which I still see and experience in the same way sometimes.

My subjective experience of my own self continues to force me to confront these connections, and while I continue to see and feel these sensations at particular times and establish similar connections with certain individuals more intensely than others, I recognize it as the same phenomenon of an ineffable nature no matter how it occurs. Consciousness is much more than a result of brain physiology. That much, for me, is certain.

A Spiritual Hunger

“At the turn of the last century, people’s hope was in science, technology, and modern progress. As we approached this millennium, we realized the extent of that progress, and that it hasn’t taken us far enough. There is a part of us that still has a spiritual hunger. We have spent the past century looking at outer space and exploring that, and we’ve realized the importance of reflecting on inner space, the soul within.”

–D. Michael Lindsay, Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University, excerpt from “Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs

From the earliest inklings of creativity in our ancient ancestors, who painted images from their world in the caves of Chauvet some 35,000 years ago, through the development of symbolic writing on cuneiform tablets, which recorded the hymns and prayers of the kingdoms of Mesopotamia in the ancient Near East, to the pictographic hieroglyphs of early Egyptian love poetry, and the ancient verse of India and China, human beings have searched for ways to express the spirit of love and of life, which permeates our existence still today. We have become more sophisticated and technologically advanced, gaining in knowledge and experience exponentially as the centuries have accumulated, but with all the advances and profound alterations of the millennia since the first written accounts appeared, we have never outgrown our need to express the spirit within us.

We are part of a fantastic heritage of poetic expression throughout the history of humanity, and it is as definitive a proof of the existence of the human spirit as we are likely to ever know in any age.

Anonymous (c. 1567-1085 B.C.)

Without your love, my heart would beat no more;
Without your love, sweet cake seems only salt;
Without your love, sweet “shedeh” turns to bile. (*shedeh* = ancient Egyptian drink made from red grapes)
O listen, darling, my heart’s life needs your love;
For when you breathe, mine is the heart that beats.

–excerpt from a Bronze Age Egyptian courtship poem, translated by Ezra Pound and Noel Stock, 1998 volume of World Poetry

Centuries later, as an emerging adult in the 20th century, I penned a courtship poem of my own, which shows, perhaps, how little has changed in human nature, in spite of advancement in numerous other ways:

Spirit of Love

“A long time ago, in centuries past,
We existed on a plane that can no longer be reached.
It is clearly in the past, but it also here and now
In my wandering mind. We breathed the same air.
Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison.
I gazed deeply into your eyes; inhaled the scent
Which rose from your body as I embraced the spirit inside you.

At such moments, though bodies only touch, spirits merge;
We were lovers, with lips pressed together–
We were one–my heart rose with each embrace;
My spirit expanded until it encompassed yours;
It has happened a hundred times a hundred times over centuries
And now, I know your spirit.
I can see myself in you;
Our paths are illuminated by each other.

As a young man, unaware that he was on the threshold of a profound awakening, the tumultuous events which would follow my arrival at the doorstep of my truly independent life were only heightened by a growing acknowledgement of being without a Polestar, for the first time in my young life, and by my inability to turn off the extraordinary natural inclination to open myself to whatever might come. While it may have been the traumatic and unprepared transition to independence that left me vulnerable to the events which followed, the power of my connection to something beyond the immediate moment in which I was living made the impact even greater.

Growing up in a large extended family, an emphasis was often stated not only about my responsibility to care about those within the family circle, but also to those outside of that world and into the world-at-large. As a result, I developed a more conscientious approach to social interactions as I grew into adulthood, and frequently found myself engaged in a greater degree of involvement emotionally and psychologically in a variety of relationships. Consequently, an even greater sense of empathy began to take hold than was already established as an almost inherited trait. Whatever part of the brain that handles our inherent tendency for empathy must surely have been more expanded in my case, to the point of bordering on possessing a pathological condition, given that my experiences many times seemed to exceed those of most others I encountered.

In retrospect, it seems that my own keen sense of extending myself toward others, may have amplified the same natural sense within them, in some cases, sparking a kind of alarm or surprise, which they occasionally found unsettling and unexpected. When this sense within ME was fully engaged, it always felt like a consequence of my inner self RECEIVING stimulus from a source outside of myself, and the resulting heightened perceptions, far from being something I would naturally choose or impose on a given situation, felt completely natural and shared–a resonance of sorts–with empathic waves being directed AT ME.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist described the process of our unfolding development as Individuation, “an expression of that biological process–simple or complicated as the case may be–by which every living thing becomes what it is destined to become from the beginning. This process naturally expresses itself in man as much psychically as somatically.”

There are two competing schools of thought that still persist in pursuing a greater understanding of our true nature, and while I continue to contemplate how they must both be approaching that understanding, these quotes show the ongoing dilemma of the contrast:

“What it means to be me cannot be reduced to or uploaded to a software program running on a robot, no matter how sophisticated. We are flesh and blood biological animals, whose conscious experiences are shaped at all levels by the biological mechanisms that keep us alive.”

–Anil Seth, British professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex

“At the heart of consciousness is the transcendence of thought; a newfound ability of rising above thought, and realizing a dimension within ourselves that is infinitely more vast than thought…Each of us is a vehicle through which consciousness operates.”

–Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now,” and “A New Earth.”

Origins of Consciousness

The actual quote from Dostoevsky’s “Notes From The Underground,” goes as follows:

“And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction.”

Whether or not it is reasonable to conclude that the human version of consciousness is “the greatest misfortune,” or “…a disease,” as Dostoevsky calls it in his novel, it seems clear even to his “underground” character in the story that its existence is valued highly by those possessing it generally, and that our experience of being human, composed as it is by a whole variety of different forms of suffering, along with other more enjoyable circumstances, could be said to have contributed in an important way to its rapid progress once achieved.

I’ve written more than thirty blog posts over the years, which, in one way or another, addressed some aspect of the evolution of consciousness in humans, and recently I encountered an interesting perspective on the subject.

The literary scholar, Brian Boyd, lives in New Zealand, where he is a professor at the University of Auckland, and has devoted much of his career to applying the findings of evolutionary biology to the arts.

In an online article which appeared in the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of The New Atlantis, called, “Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman,” Dr. Micah Mattix, an associate professor of English who currently serves as the English & Communications Studies chair, reports a compelling theoretical explanation offered by Boyd for human cognitive development:

“Boyd begins On the Origin of Stories (2010), his book on the evolution of fiction, by describing the universality of play with patterned language across human cultures. The origin of art, Boyd suggests, may have been as a form of cognitive play — a set of activities “designed to engage human attention through their appeal to our preference for inferentially rich and therefore patterned information.” Play for our proto-human ancestors, as for other animal species, was a way of practicing and training for important activities, like hunting or fighting. But our ancestors played to train not only the body but also the mind, enabling us to interact skillfully with other human beings. Boyd suggests that over time this play modified “key human perceptual, cognitive, and expressive systems,” giving birth to self-awareness and language.”

While these elements may very well have contributed in an important way to our cognitive and linguistic capabilities, it still seems that at some point even these would not suffice to fully explain how it all came together. In a recent blog post here called “Stillness After The Storm,” I referenced the writing of Aeschylus that “announces the law of Zeus that we must learn by suffering, but out of all this suffering comes an important advance in human understanding and civilization.”

Some years ago, I wrote about a particular experience of suffering which spoke to these ideas directly:

I stepped out into the night and took a walk in the falling snow.

I had been struggling with an inner pain that seemed to be eating away at me a little at a time, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I always stepped into the light of each new day with the hope that somehow I would find a way to put it behind me, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to linger deep within the forest of consciousness, and sometimes, the stillness of the night quieted my mind to the point where the echoes of my traumatic past came vividly alive.

The quiet beauty and elegant whisper of the snowflakes as they descended on that particular evening, far from being a welcomed respite from the emotional pain, actually felt like little stones striking my flesh. I stood trembling under the canopy of night, breathing deeply in an attempt to gather my strength for my next leg of the journey, in what I felt was a vain attempt to resume the trek past the pain.

It was a transformative experience in a couple of ways to face the pain and to struggle to overcome the power that the suffering seemed to hold on me.

It was enormously difficult to find a way through it, but something important happened that made me realize if I couldn’t find a way, I might not be able to fully engage in my life or be of much use to the people I love, particularly as a parent to my children. Whatever loss I personally suffered could not compare to a failure to nurture and care for them.”

It would seem that suffering does play an important role in our cognitive development.

Life itself arose in our little corner of a minor galaxy in an astonishing confluence of matter and energy and environment in our solar system, but took billions of years to produce significant results of the sort that permitted intelligent life to unfold. Once established, intelligent life progressed rapidly by comparison, and we see human progress increasing exponentially as the years pass.

When you consider the unlikely way in which life itself sprang into existence on Earth, our own uncertainty in the 21st century starts to look far less daunting. In the earliest epoch of humanity, the first truly useful and meaningful awareness of human consciousness in our ancient ancestors could only have appeared once the hominid brain finally possessed the necessary prerequisites for cognition and awareness. No matter when the architecture of the brain and the physiological structures within the body finally became mature enough to allow heightened sense perception and cognition, possession of these talents alone could not have produced significant results right away, and consciousness must have taken an enormous amount of time to develop into a recognizable phenomenon.

 

Stillness After The Storm

Recently, it seems that we are hearing more frequent reports of a chaotic climate and an increase in unpredictable storms that disrupt the everyday lives of people everywhere, and while the debate continues over what steps we should take now in response to our changing climate, very little has been written about the disruptions which occur within us as we endure the turmoil all around us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1833, recorded these words in his personal journals:

“The wise man in the storm prays God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear. It is the storm within which endangers him, not the storm without.”

These past few weeks have seen an increase in the number of violent thunderstorm systems in the northeastern United States and several of them have passed through the local area here. Strong winds and numerous lightning strikes have occurred during each of these weather fronts, producing downed trees and isolated damage to the areas affected. During these chaotic events, it is easy to see why people are sometimes overwhelmed by the intensity of the wind and rain. Severe weather alerts and flood warnings have become more frequent during these episodes.

This past weekend, during the most recent appearance of one of the local storms, I became concerned as the skies darkened and the winds became more intense while at the supermarket. With no small amount of anxiety, I quickly scrambled to load the car after about an hour shopping for groceries, and was thoroughly soaked in the downpour that resulted from the release of those black clouds that appeared so suddenly overhead. Within a few short minutes, it went from merely overcast, to a veritable deluge. The drive home was a mixture of soaking rain and intense winds, coupled with brief periods of no rain at all as I crossed between long stretches of intermittent storm activity along the interstate highway. It took several minutes to unload the groceries once I returned home, and as soon as the refrigerated items had been safely stowed away, I took the opportunity to change out of the wet clothes and took a few deep breaths.

The early afternoon chaos eventually settled down enough to make it possible to sit out on the deck out in back of the house, as the daylight once again slowly returned to display a gentler and brighter sky. Since the view in the summer months out back is normally filled with the greenery of all the plants and trees that surround the yard, once the sky cleared, the verdure once again appeared in full bloom. I sat in stillness for some time, simply being present in the moment, gazing out into the yard and pondering the transition from an anxious traveler in the storm to casual observer of nature’s play. Participating in the scene in this way became so appealing, it prompted me to record the view, with the intention of capturing the highlights of raindrops which lingered on the leaves and branches all around me. The stillness in this instance did indeed direct my words and actions.

I love how the raindrops lingered upon the tiny leaves and glistened in the radiant sunlight.

They almost seem to be glowing from within.

The sunlight found its way momentarily even to the tiny shrub on the ground next to the backyard fence.

Right above it, the leaves seemed to form a green stairway to the brightening sky…

My eyes were easily led to look up, although I had to avert them to capture the moment.

Every year, tiny new branches appear, sprouting off the main trunk, highlighted by the resurgent sun.

A closer look shows the raindrops have already begun to evaporate, much in the same way as my anxiety.

The newly emergent sunlight illuminates even the densest cluster of leaves on the backyard tree.

The contrast of the aging surface of the tree bark and the newly born sprout was prescient.

As I pondered both the violence of the storm and the display of beauty from the aftermath, I was reminded of an encounter I had years ago with a passage about suffering from “The Oresteia,” a trilogy written by the Greek playwright, Aeschylus:

The translation of this passage is by Robert Fagles, from part one, “Agamemnon,” by Aeschylus:

“Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth. We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart, the pain of pain remembered comes again, and we resist, but ripeness comes as well. From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench* there comes a violent love.” *-the bench of the ship where the helmsman sat

After a few minutes my curiosity got the better of me, so I looked up the passage from Aeschylus and came across an excerpt from the introduction to “The Oresteia,” from the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces:

“The Aeschylean Trilogy is nothing less than an attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.” In the opening ode it announces the law of Zeus that we must learn by suffering, but out of all this suffering comes an important advance in human understanding and civilization. The suffering is shown to us as the fulfillment of a purpose we can understand, a purpose beneficent to humanity.”

If indeed it is suffering that brings us a better understanding of our nature, and if it serves the purpose of helping us to learn and gain in wisdom, then perhaps all of our suffering, whether it seems to help us specifically in our own lives or not, may not be completely without at least some merit. In this instance, enduring the storm and waiting patiently for the skies to clear did at least grant me a pleasing perspective, right in my own back yard.

Our View of the Universe

Map of Christian Constellations from Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.

A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.

“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”

“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”

Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.

We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.

What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.

This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.

What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.

It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.

As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.