A Writer’s Journey

Reflecting back over the years of my life now has taken on a wholly different character and sense of urgency. Each time I sit down to write these days, I am reminded by all of the objects surrounding me that the accumulation of years has also resulted in an enormous accumulation of memories and souvenirs of the many experiences of my life.

There was a prolonged period when I barely had even the shortest amount of time for such reminiscing, and I told myself over and over that the objects and documents and articles that I set aside would one day be a rich resource for writing about the times of my life. 

It seemed urgent to take this approach at that time since there were so few opportunities to review the important aspects of my experience of life. I feared I might lose the thread that would lead me back through the labyrinth of time when I finally was able to withdraw from the relentless burden of obligation to generate income.

$CoMmEntU

Even now, as I type these words, I am still not entirely certain that my intention to review the important objects which surround me will result in a sufficiently satisfying conclusion that will allow me to let go of them.  There are so many thoughts all jumbled up in my mind already—the flood of a lifetime of thoughts and memories often seems to overwhelm me—even as I attempt to organize them and convert them into some sort of coherent expression.

My online blog, “John’s Consciousness,” began as an earnest effort to begin to formulate the foundation of a much larger work.  While my current life is finally less crammed with the immediacy of unavoidable daily tasks for the most part, the daunting volume and immensity of the accumulated objects and documents weighs heavily on me. 

At first it seemed to me that all the efforts at preservation were primarily for my own benefit, and while I wasn’t certain about the specific motivation being employed at every moment, in the back of my mind, I supposed that the why and the wherefore would become evident upon review at some later time.

Looking back now over decades, there were many instances when I was either forced to choose a path at a crossroad or when I had to make a conscious, deliberate choice as I approached a crossroad, when I also found myself wondering if I was making the right choice. We cannot know with certainty, at any given moment, the full range of consequences which might ensue when making such choices, and we must often rely on some intuitive or instinctive inclination.  The perspective of time is needed to compare our achievements with whatever hard lessons may have resulted, in order to evaluate our current circumstance. Even though those hard lessons may have subsequently resulted in some benefit, it may not be sufficient to mitigate regrets.

Recent events and current circumstances have pressed me to reflect with much greater intensity on the balance of the costs versus the benefits, and it seems to me that there has been a reasonably fair balance between them.  We cannot reverse time nor can we untangle whatever confusion or uncertainty governed the circumstances surrounding any choice made in the swirling maelstrom of the past, but this acknowledgement hasn’t yet dissuaded me from meandering from time to time through the perennial realm of what might have been, or its close companion—what still might be possible.

Dwelling on anxiety over what might have been isn’t especially helpful, but traversing the road leading to what still might be possible is no cakewalk either. Whenever we project ourselves forward into the realm of what might still be possible, we are often limited by what we have already experienced as a starting point, so we must be able to somehow suspend our expectations based on previous experience in order to move forward.  What we sometimes describe as “thinking outside the box,” may provide the necessary degree of difference in our thought process, but it also requires an additional degree of willingness to venture outside of our comfort zone in important ways.  Such measures also require a degree of courage in treading a path previously untried.

In all of my deliberations thus far, I have steadfastly applied a deliberate effort to forge a new approach to the path forward, and aside from helping me to recognize just how difficult it can be to move ahead in this way, it has been suggested by my experience that failure is one of the best teachers, as well as an absolutely necessary component of any true success, which eventually appears when we make an earnest effort to forge ahead.

In the weeks to come I will be reviewing some of the components and accumulated memories, stories, documents and objects that I retained as souvenirs which surround me in my writing space, as I attempt to sort through them and decide which of them to keep and which of them I can safely let go.

Hopefully, in the process, my readers and visitors might find some benefit for themselves from following along with my struggle to sort it all out. As I happen upon important topics suggested by this review, I may veer off the beaten path for a bit to elaborate and/or mitigate the process, just to keep it interesting.

Looking forward to sharing this part of what continues to be a challenging journey with you all…..John H

Enriched Beyond Measure

View of the lake in the Pennsylvania mountains

Several times during the year, I have recently been able to enjoy the exceptional privilege to be invited to my sister’s lakehouse in Pennsylvania, occasionally for family gatherings, and sometimes simply for the pleasure of a visit. As someone who savors opportunities for communing with the natural world, over many years now I have also learned to appreciate well the bounty available in the mountains and woodlands as an avid camping enthusiast. I have written about my experiences in this regard several times in this blog, and posted photos of some of my favorite locations.

View of the lake in the Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County in New York

Far from the maddening crowd, completely removed from the daily grind and the routines of everyday home life, spending time out in the woods is always a welcome respite, which has very few of the creature comforts of life in our modest home, but is so rich in the benefits of being outdoors among the natural landscapes in the northeast corridor of the USA, that it outweighs any inconvenience or extra effort required to sustain whatever amount of time that is possible to participate in the cherished time away.

Creek along the Cascades Trail within the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia

My good friend and fellow blogger Anthony at zenothestoic.com recently inspired me to revisit a particularly important and relevant episode in my writing life by referencing the famous book by Henry David Thoreau called, “Walden.” In so many ways, Thoreau’s account of his years living in his “cabin-in-the-woods,” exemplifies not only the many benefits of spending time in solitude in the natural world, highlighting his extraordinary ideas about what constitutes “necessary” with regard to living well, but also presented him with numerous opportunities for personal growth and raising his awareness of what truly matters in life.

Sign at the site of Thoreau’s cabin next to the pile of stones left by visitors from all over the world

Visit to Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, April 25, 1998

Sitting by the shore of Walden Pond, I experience an odd sense of euphoria. Dashing behind passing clouds, the sun, when it emerges, feels warm on my face, and the air is filled with the intoxicating aroma of the surrounding woods. It is early afternoon and there is barely a sound to be heard, aside from my footsteps crunching rhythmically along the stony path leading to the site of Thoreau’s original cabin. A gentle breeze stirs the tops of the narrow pine trees, which now sway in a graceful natural ballet.

At the edge of the pond, in the cove just below the site, I set up my camera to capture an image of myself, standing in the spot where I imagined Thoreau himself must surely have stood once, possibly admiring a glorious spring day like this one. A guided path for visitors to the site ends abruptly at the edge of the cove, and I am left to discover my own way. Surprisingly, there are no other travelers whatsoever on this path, and I am alone as I approach the famous pile of stones near the markers delineating the boundaries of the Walden hut.

Imbedded in the ground, a stone memorial is carved into the foundation for the cabin’s chimney, discovered in 1945 by members of the Thoreau Society. A wooden sign stands near the memorial displaying the well-known quotation pictured above.

The view of the pond from where the cabin once stood gives a good indication of why Thoreau selected the location. Near enough to make good use of the water, but not so near as to be exposed to any hazard, the dwelling sits in the high ground providing both seclusion and an advantageous sight line to the shimmering pond.

Standing in the very place where the words were written, Thoreau’s descriptions of the surroundings and the pleasures of solitude come vividly alive for me, and I am nearly hypnotized by the symphony of sights and sensations that surround me. I sat for nearly an hour, soaking in the experience, savoring the beauty and serenity of Walden Pond.

Included in the preservation efforts of the area by the Thoreau Society is a replica of the Walden hut, built at the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, which was constructed according to Thoreau’s descriptions and plans. He used mostly recycled wood and building materials from pieces of an abandoned shanty, hand-cutting many of the components, reportedly spending a whopping $28.12.

Along the return path, I paused periodically, reluctant to relinquish the moment. Turning to the panorama one last time, it occurred to me that I had not managed to make this pilgramage until the age of 44, the same age as Thoreau when he died in 1862. The writer in me grinned widely. Perhaps he was with me this day, whispering encouragement to continue writing. I drove away enlivened and enriched beyond measure.

Jung’s Psychological Reflections at Year’s End

“Without consciousness there would, practically speaking, be no world, for the world exists for us only in so far as it is consciously reflected by a psyche.  Consciousness is a precondition of being. Thus the psyche is endowed with the dignity of a cosmic principle, which philosophically and in fact gives it a position co-equal with the principle of physical being.  The carrier of this consciousness is the individual, who does not produce the psyche of his own volition, but is, on the contrary, pre-formed by it, and nourished by the gradual awakening of consciousness during childhood.”  106:528

As each year comes to a close, I generally try to spend some time reflecting on the events and experiences contained within that time frame, with the hope of gleaning some measure of progress brought about by my efforts to better understand and appreciate my place in the world.  This past year has seemed to me to be as tumultuous as they come, with a number of epic challenges, difficult days, and wondrous moments of life-affirming experience, all wrapped up in both inspiration and exasperation.

Many of these experiences and events are deeply personal in nature, and involve aspects of my life which are clearly relevant to my topic here at “John’s Consciousness,” and while I have tried to include those which fit this description as much as possible in my blog posts during the year, I frequently find myself reluctant to do so, mostly because I prefer to express the deeper meaning of these events, rather than the particular events themselves.  My main goal is to present my ideas in a way that might inspire others to consider their own lives and to reflect on their own experiences, rather than to simply describe mine.

Jung’s words at the top of this post are particularly powerful in my mind because they address one of the central themes of my own work—which is that the nature of physical being and the nature of our non-physical being are co-equal, and must carry the same weight in any comprehensive explanation of our human nature.

The collection of essays and quotes in the book I’ve been reading this year, “Jung: Psychological Reflections—Collected Works 1915-1961,” is rich with material for anyone wishing to explore the subjective experience of consciousness.  His extraordinary insights and intellectual discipline in addressing the most important aspects of understanding our true nature as human beings results in some of the most compelling ideas I’ve ever encountered regarding our inner lives.

In particular, I have been struck by Jung’s concept of the archetypes of the unconscious—primordial symbols, images, and possibilities of ideas, inherited as members of the human species, Homo sapiens, which are of particular interest to me personally, since I have had numerous encounters with my own “unconscious contents,” and have developed some of my own ideas based on my appreciation of this interpretation by Jung.

“The great problems of life…are always related to the primordial images of the collective unconscious. These images are balancing and compensating factors that correspond to the problems which life confronts us with in reality.  This is no matter for astonishment, since these images are deposits of thousands of years of experience of the struggle for existence and for adaptation.  Every great experience in life, every profound conflict, evokes the accumulated treasure of these images and brings about their inner constellation.  But they become accessible to consciousness only when the individual possesses so much self-awareness and power of understanding that he also reflects on what he experiences instead of just living it blindly.”

69:373f

Part of the reason that Jung’s words are so compelling for me, is that I have a fascination already with prehistory—before there were established religions during the Neolithic epoch, which began around 20,000 BCE, when some of the most interesting cave paintings were being done, although some were created as much as 35,000 years ago.  Looking at the development of humans during that time and moving forward, we see that agriculture appeared around 10,000 BCE; irrigation and agriculture began in earnest in Mesopotamia around 5,000 BCE; the megaliths at the Stonehenge site began around 3,100 BCE; and the Neolithic period ended around 1,900 BCE, right before the beginning of the Bronze Age. 

My fascination with prehistory stems partly from observing how the trends taking hold in our modern world have clearly resulted in the loss of the concept of mystery that the early humans accepted as simply being part of the way of our existence—explanations of the strange and inexplicable in prehistory had none of the restrictions or prejudicial roadblocks of modern thinking.

We tend to suppose in our current epoch that we have surpassed our prehistoric ancestors in every way, and while modern life does have an enormous advantage in almost every area of knowledge and accumulated wisdom, we seem to have lost that unfettered capacity for consideration of the mysterious and ineffable, so matter-of-factly assumed in prehistory.  Jung describes the archetypes as:

“Living symbols that rise up from the creative unconscious of the living man.  The immense significance of such symbols can be denied only by those for whom the history of the world begins with the present day.”     69:202f

We cannot lose sight of the existence of the mysterious and elusive aspects of our very human nature, for to do so would cut us off from what constitutes the very essence of our foundation as a self-aware and cognitively talented species.  The early humans, in spite of possessing the very same physiological structures in the brain, took thousands of years to blossom into creatures with the capacity for creating symbolic representations of objective phenomena observed in the world included in the early cave paintings.  It took thousands more years to develop grammatical languages to express those concepts, and thousands more years to develop writing.

As always, we are limited in our ability to describe our ineffable aspects and inherited foundational sources, since they are, in important ways, transcendent of the physical universe, but with a sustained and determined approach to the subject, we may eventually break through our current limitations.

I look forward to continuing to do research and to consider these ideas more fully in the coming year, and wish to express my gratitude to all those who visit and comment here at John’s Consciousness.

Wishing you all the best in the coming year!

The Light We Leave Behind

“Were a star quenched on high,

For ages would its light,

Still travelling downward from the sky,

Shine on our mortal sight.

So when a great man dies,

For years beyond our ken,

The light he leaves behind him lies

Upon the paths of men.”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from his poem,

“Ode to Charles Sumner”

While recently reviewing an speech written by the famous orator, Daniel Webster, entitled, “The Seventh of March Speech—The Constitution and the Union,” delivered to the Senate of the United States on March 7, 1850, I was completely surprised by the power and the tone of the speech, which should clearly be recited once again in the United States Senate.

Daniel Webster was the Senator from Massachusetts at the time, and he was making a case against the institution of slavery.  Tensions were high in the United States at that time, and the competing views of what to do about the future of our country were front and center.  What he said in that speech could easily be a description of our current circumstances:

“It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions and government. The imprisoned winds are let loose.”

Recognizing the parallels to our modern day circumstances, which seem no less worrisome to the American people now, I thought to write about those parallels for this post, and decided to search for an image of Daniel Webster to include with my commentary. Upon conducting that search, I came across a website with an image of a more recent individual named Daniel Webster that struck me as being even more relevant to my efforts here, and felt compelled to share it with my readers.

One of the most startling aspects of the website posting was the image of the man himself.  He appeared in every way to be a kindred spirit.  His face radiated what must have been a joyful, living soul, and as I began to read further, it quickly became apparent that the parallels between my own life and his were just too strong to be simply a coincidence.

It was unfortunately an obituary of a man who lost his life one year ago today, after a long battle with cancer. The loss of any life for any reason is cause for us to pause and reflect, but in this case, the description of his life, combined with the image, really struck a chord within me.

He was “…An accomplished guitarist, pianist, singer and songwriter, in the mid-1970s he performed at clubs in the Boulder area, once opening for Tom Waits. Later performing and recording several albums under the stage name Dan Oakenhead, he continued to write, perform, and record his music until the last months of his life… His love of travel frequently found him and (his wife) Margaret in mountains and canyons around the world… Dan’s other great passion was his lifelong study of philosophy, Yogic teachings and Tibetan Buddhism. For many years he was an active member of the Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram, where he was known as Tukaram.”

His devotion to the spiritual aspects of his existence were central to his life endeavors, and combined with the particulars of his life, his devotion to his family, and to the creative arts, just seemed too much of a coincidence to skip over.

He was described also as “…a wonderful and caring husband and father, sharing his love of music and nature, and his curiosity.”

The fact that he passed away at the age of 68, the age at which I will also arrive this summer, also rendered the encounter with a kind of purposeful meaning that felt important to consider.  While my own accomplishments were clearly of a different sort and which, by comparison, resulted in far less notoriety, I couldn’t help but notice how closely our lives could be measured in a number of strikingly similar ways.  The important differences really didn’t seem all that different, and the similarities seemed significantly important as I read about his life.

In many ways, his life seemed enviable and wonderful, and his efforts to make a life for himself that had meaning and purpose were not all that different from my own efforts in the same way.  I do not suppose that either one of us would necessarily want a different life than the one we experienced up to this point.  No one wants to have cancer or to depart from this life prematurely, but our lives are what they are and we must live them as best we can, while striving for whatever goals seem right for us as individuals and as members of a family and as a larger community of people.

The poem by Longfellow expressed the sentiments I was feeling as I contemplated the parallels and the differences in our two lives, and the thoughts expressed by the original Daniel Webster, himself a notable figure in the history of our country, all show unequivocally the importance of every life, regardless of the status achieved or the accomplishments accumulated.

In his conclusion to the speech on March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster wrote:

“Let us make our generation one of the strongest and brightest links in that golden chain, which is destined, I fondly believe, to grapple the people of all the states to this Constitution for ages to come.”

Both of the men named Daniel Webster lived important lives that “left a light behind them, which lies upon the paths of men.”

I can only hope that my own life will have some portion of light that will be left in a similar manner.

An Extraordinary Life

“See, hear, learn, and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.” –Ernest Hemingway

It’s good advice to use your experience of life, to take in what you perceive in the interest of a better understanding of life, and then to write when you feel a degree of confidence in what you think you know.  There still may be a bit more to add based on what you think you know, but it’s probably a good idea to limit your conclusions afterwards.  Don’t take too much for granted.

I have a vivid memory of typing on my father’s manual typewriter as a very young person.  I do not remember being very serious about it, nor having any concept of what I might put on the paper of any significance. The keys required a fair amount of pressure to make their marks, and the ribbons were always so overused and threadbare by the time I would be able to have my turn at it that there wasn’t much point in being serious in the first place. Seeing the close-ups of those keys in the PBS series, “Hemingway,” brought the memory of that childhood experience vividly back to life as I watched.

Seeing Ernest as a young boy with his mother made my own image at the same age seem ordinary by comparison.  We all start out in life in whatever circumstance we are born into without any say in the matter, and those circumstances can be formative in one way or another, but can also be compensated for in a number of ways later on if we have the right approach and enough encouragement from those around us.  

I was not especially serious as a student in my early education, and didn’t respond especially well to the environment in which I found myself, but I did love books and reading when the choice of subject was my own. I remember resisting the choices that were forced upon me in this regard all throughout my formal education, and was also very interested in writing by the time I arrived in high school.  Courses in English grammar and spelling were my favorites, and the requirements of courses in reading comprehension only worked well for me when the selections were appealing to me in some way.  I contributed to the school papers and was the editor of our literary magazine, but I enjoyed much more creating and organizing my own writing projects along the way.

I was an enthusiastic student at Temple University in Philadelphia, and accepted an invitation to participate in an honors seminar program at the ripe old age of eighteen. I also very much enjoyed all of the resources made available to me as a student in that program, but it seems I was ill-prepared for the wide range of opportunities which existed outside of the classroom. After two years of mixed results both inside and outside of the course work, I left the university to enlist in the military. There can be little doubt that the adventures which followed were well beyond anything I would have likely encountered otherwise, and while there wasn’t any way I could have known that at the time, it felt completely right to make that choice, even though I knew virtually nothing about the world when I made it.

 

As a young boy, Hemingway’s room was on the third floor of the family home, the same as it was for me in our family home, and I remember retreating there often when I felt troubled or lonely or ill. You never pay very close attention to those things when you are a young person, but reflecting on those days now I can get a very clear sense of what it felt like to be in that room and some of my memories of being there are so vivid, that the mention of it in the series stood out to me.

At one point in the program, upon receiving a letter informing Ernest of the decision to marry another man by a woman he had very much wanted to marry, I was struck by the coincidence of having experienced the same dilemma as a young soldier, and it struck such a familiar chord within me at that point in the film that I felt the sting of the words from the letter I received all over again.  The letter from his mother telling him to move on and make something of himself also had a ring of familiarity to it, enhanced by the date at the top of the page, July 24th, 1920, thirty-three years to the day before I would make my first appearance in the world.

The image of Hemingway as young man at the beginning of his life as a writer is startling and evocative of an intensity that I recall having myself as a young man; only I wasn’t courageous enough to make the same kind of choices that he made along the way. For some, the pursuit of fame and fortune holds a particular appeal that I never really understood completely. Our modern society seems to promote it at nearly every turn, in spite of the many lessons of human history, which have often demonstrated just how fleeting and unpredictable it usually is or can be.

It seems I was destined to suffer a degree of obscurity that he would not have been able to tolerate.  At the same time, his struggles and tragic events far exceeded any that I encountered, and while my life could not compare in any number of ways, it also held much less tragedy and destructive power. What made Hemingway’s writing so compelling had less to do with his personal strengths and failings and had much more to do with his creative talent, unique style, prolific output, and dogged determination to produce reliable results as a writer.

While his fame was reaching its zenith, his personal life was slowly unraveling and devolving into a destructive pattern that eventually led to his decision to end his life by his own hand.  The trail of disappointment and disrupted and diminished lives he left behind does little to recommend such a life as the one Hemingway lived, but it clearly provided a great deal of resource material for him to incorporate into his stories and novels. 

While I would not generally wish to describe my own life as being “ordinary,” at least not in retrospect, especially considering the extraordinary nature of some parts of my life’s experiences, viewing the PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick gives one pause to consider the price of fame, and I highly recommend the program for anyone interested in a better understanding of a writer’s life, and of how fortunes can change, even for those lives which seem privileged and enviable.

Blue Skies and Biocentrism

 

Brilliantly blue sunlit skies combined with especially brisk winter temperatures this morning, and presented me with two seemingly contradictory experiences simultaneously.  As I sat alone at my desk, sunlight streamed through the windows of my home office, and I could feel the warmth of its rays on my hand as the pen I was using glided across the page.

 

 

Wherever the shafts of light penetrated the room, objects in its path were gradually caught in the glow, and almost appeared to be lit from within.

 

 

In spite of this celebration of illumination, the room itself is usually on the chilly side this time of year, and when I briefly opened the window to investigate a problem with a recently installed fifty-foot Ethernet cable, I encountered a surprisingly robust degree of damage to the screens, apparently caused by one of the neighborhood squirrels. 

 

 

Sure enough, not only had the animal penetrated the screens, but for some reason it decided to make a meal out of the wire which ran over the window sill.

 

 

It’s no wonder that there wasn’t any signal getting through, but even holding the window open for just those few moments reminded me that no matter how warm the sun appears and feels inside, winter currently reigns supreme in the world outside. It took me a few minutes to warm back up at my desk, and as I contemplated continuing with my work, I took notice of how the sunlit scene in the room had changed in just those few moments. The movement of the light throughout the day is subtle; even watching at length, I could not detect any motion at all. Only when I turned my attention temporarily elsewhere and then once again returned for another look, could I see how the area of light had shifted along the floor.

 

 

All of this activity resulted in prompting me to consider my recent review of three books by Dr. Robert Lanza, in which he describes at length his theory of Biocentrism.   It’s fascinating reading if you are interested in human nature as well as the nature of the reality within which we exist.  Since these subjects are both central to my own deliberations, I’ve taken a keen interest in exploring them. 

 

 

Of particular note is the third book in the series entitled, “The Grand Biocentric Design.”  The subject itself is quite complex and requires some appreciation for quantum theory and modern theoretical physics, but Dr. Lanza takes great pains to describe his ideas fully and his explanations are clearly written to reach a broad range of readers.

 

In chapter nine, Dr. Lanza gives a number of detailed and plainly written examples of how our perceptions of phenomenal events are not always revealing of the true nature of those events, and when I encountered the phrase, “If a tree falls in a forest,” I knew I was about to encounter ideas that would alter my own.  He makes a reasonable case to reconsider the nature of sound, and points out that while sound waves created by a tree falling travel through the air, they are only “rapid, complex pulsations in air pressure,” and are “in and of themselves…silent.” Our brains respond to the vibrations of our tympanic membranes and convert those signals into specific sounds. 

 

 

He rightly points out that “all sensory data is processed in the brain,” and even extends this idea to conclude that “time and space are projections created inside the mind.” He points out that we humans often “place ourselves in a radio-static mode, attuned to no sense whatsoever, lost in the internal world of our thoughts,” and concludes that:

 

“As far as we know, humans are the only animals who cease attending to their external awareness in this way, attending instead to our own thinking—or even, as you’ve done while reading this book—thinking about thinking.”

 

 

“…a part of us is connected to the dandelion, the loon, and the fish in the pond.  It is the part that experiences consciousness, not our external embodiments but our inner being. According to biocentrism, our individual separateness is an illusion. Everything you experience is a whirl of information arising in your brain. Space and time are simply the mind’s tools for putting it all together.”

 

Indeed, the conclusions he puts forth give a great deal of weight to our experience of consciousness as being central to our very existence in the first place. 

 

 

It has been a long and oftentimes tumultuous road from my beginnings as a human person, when I first realized that I could think and therefore know that I exist. In retrospect, as is often the case, I can see much more clearly how convoluted my path has been, and, in a way, how all the twists, turns, reversals, and leaps forward contributed to my current arrangement of predicaments and advantages.  The tide has ever-so-slowly turned toward a modest increase in advantage, and away from the firestorm of predicaments which often characterized my youth.

 

 

As a mature person now, approaching my seventh decade of life, it seems that my fortunes have finally started to settle down a bit, and while opportunities for chaos still exist in some ways, my footing is far less precarious.  I tend to consider alternatives more frequently now, looking ahead further than only a few feet in front of me, when it comes to choosing my actions.

 

What is still unchanged, after all this time, is my insatiable curiosity about the nature of my personal reality, and how it relates to the larger reality of both humanity and the cosmos itself.  My intense interest in these ideas is a direct result of my desire to understand myself and the experiences of my personal life, which have been frequently inexplicable to me, or which presented me with profound questions regarding the cause and purpose of having them in the first place.

 

In the past months of isolation and distancing, I have spent a great deal of time considering the work I have already done and also contemplating the work I still have yet to do.  In the months to come, I hope to share as much as possible with those who visit here and to encourage everyone to give some attention to their own individual experience of consciousness.

 

 

With apologies to Sir Joseph Banks…

Galileo’s Error


Anil Seth Twitter

Finally made substantial progress with Philip Goff’s recent offering on the subject of consciousness, and as someone equally intrigued by the advancements of science and their implications for both neuroscience and the efforts to develop a science of consciousness, I must admit that I find myself in agreement with many of Goff’s assertions, even though I’m not quite completely convinced by all of his arguments. His review of the variety of approaches to understanding the nature of human consciousness and his fairly even-handed treatment of views which differ from his own is especially encouraging, since this approach is less evident in other treatments of the subject.


Justus Sustermans Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One of the most interesting general starting points in Goff’s approach is when he pointed out Galileo’s idea to separate our subjective experience of objects from the objects themselves: “Just as beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, so colors, smells, tastes, and sounds exist only in the conscious soul of a human being as she experiences the world. In other words, Galileo transformed the sensory qualities from features of things in the world—such as lemons—into forms of consciousness in the souls of human beings.”

This “error” led to the scientific revolution where mathematics could describe the phenomenal world like never before. Galileo also was able to deduce through reasoning alone that objects, no matter how much they weigh, fall at the same rate, by revealing the contradiction in the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. Goff takes great pains to point out the value of philosophy in this way:

“It is sometimes claimed that the scientific revolution, and the great progress which followed it, have rendered philosophy impotent as a tool for understanding the natural world. And yet the father of the scientific revolution is in fact the great vindicator of the philosophical method. Galileo is one of the few philosophers to have produced a philosophical argument which nobody has ever disputed; and with this argument he transformed our understanding of the physical world.”


NASA.gov

As we know, Galileo’s idea that all objects fall at the same rate was demonstrated by Apollo astronaut, David Scott, who dropped a hammer and a feather during his mission on the moon, and they both hit the surface at the same time. While waking consciousness is made coherent by our ability to remember each moment as it happens and becomes the next moment, our dreaming consciousness, while often remembered, as explained by Goff, may not follow logically in the same way:

“Even in the dreams we do remember when we wake up, what is experienced from moment to moment is often not so tightly bound together by memory. One moment we’re back in high school being taught French by Miss Clarke, and the next moment we’re on top of a mountain without noticing anything has changed. Memory is still recording the dream (if it weren’t we wouldn’t be able to remember it upon waking), but it is not binding moment-to-moment experience into a coherent whole as it does in waking life.”

After reading through this section of the book, I awoke suddenly twice that night from two elaborate dreams: Many of the exact details of the first dream escape me, but realizing that it was quite elaborate in its details surprised me upon waking. Briefly recalling such details after having a dream of such length, made me wish I had gotten up and written it down.

In this dream, I was a teacher or an instructor for a relief agency in a third world area and responsible for helping a large community build relationships for local cooperation between groups. I remember answering questions in a group setting, as well as having one-on-one conversations with individuals in a teacher/student situation. I was definitely enjoying the process and feeling a sense of accomplishment in serving this community. Upon waking, I was surprised at the level of detail within the dream, and how long it seemed to go on. There was barely a hint of light evident in the windows, so it must have been near dawn…

The second dream involved an elaborate journey through a large city. My GPS located the vehicle I drove into the city, and after my activity in town was accomplished, the signal on the GPS screen showed the way back to the car, which took me over a much more elaborate return path, including several buildings, an indoor mall location, a large concrete structure which I had to climb down, and past street vendors with colorful framed images displayed. As I approached the destination, the screen of the GPS showed a network of red boxes connected by red lines. I was frustrated and anxious that I was having so much trouble locating my car, right before I was awakened by someone grabbing my toes.

As the room slowly brightened with the morning light, I was reminded of Emerson…

“I see the spectacle of morning…from daybreak to sunrise with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of clouds float like fishes in a sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”

Emerson belonged to the Transcendentalist Movement which expressed the values of “idealism, nonconformity, self-reliance, free thought, and the divinity of nature.” I often find myself in accord with these values in spite of experiences with a fair amount of resistance or push-back from others I have encountered along the way.

Like Carl Jung, who described “a curious resistance” and “an almost total unwillingness to understand,” his choice of psychiatry when he was preparing for his future career, my own experiences with conversations regarding subjective experience as an indication of a non-physical component to human consciousness, which clearly invokes free thought and the divinity of nature, often met with a similar “unwillingness,” even to suppose that such elements exist at all.

As I awaited the fullness of the morning light to brighten in the room, Emerson’s words echoed in my mind, stirring memories of my own struggles with coming to terms with a number of extraordinary experiences in my life. Reflecting on them now, in my maturity, they seem more clearly to embody the transcendentalist values, and re-enforce my resolve to pursue the path I have actively explored these many years. Reading Philip Goff’s book, “Galileo’s Error,” has also provided additional encouragement to persist in my explorations.

Reading in a Quiet House

 

The simple pleasures are often the ones that fall to the side when life gets complicated or hectic in its pace and most often, out of necessity, we are compelled to engage in the more immediate tasks and responsibilities that such circumstances require of us.  When we all recently had to confront the consequences of a global pandemic, again out of necessity, those of us in “non-essential” roles and occupations found ourselves isolated from most of our normal daily routines and social associations. The resulting conditions suddenly presented us with a much greater amount of time alone or at least with very few options with regard to activities and opportunities beyond the boundaries of our immediate locations at home.

 

 

Depending on the personal resources each of us can bring to bear on such circumstances, and the degree of wellness we experience during this time, the “social distancing” mandated by “an invisible enemy” created an environment where the constant stimulation of our modern existence dropped off precipitously, leaving many of us to our own devices as far as how to fill the time normally consumed by the routines of work and social interactions of every sort. Those who depended heavily on such interactions and work obligations for deciding which activity would take priority, suddenly find themselves in a kind of middle ground between the two worlds of routine activity and the strangeness of unexpected isolation.

 

We can certainly appreciate the challenges for parents with small and school-age children at home, as well as caretakers of those who require daily assistance under these conditions, and must acknowledge the difficulty for those whose dependents may be geographically distant. My own familial circumstances, as the parent of six grown children widely dispersed across the Northeast corridor and several southern states, at least has a familiar amount of social distancing experience taking place as a matter of course, but the social limitations and travel restrictions imposed by the current crisis affects even these routines, as visitations which were planned and might have taken place must now be postponed in the interest of reducing the spread of a highly contagious virus wreaking havoc now throughout all fifty states.

 

 

No one would wish to characterize these circumstances as advantageous in any broad sense of the word, and the toll it is taking is nothing short of tragic for thousands of families across the globe.  The pain of loss and the terrible suffering of tens of thousands of individuals across our world now could only be described as completely awful by any measure we might apply to such circumstances. Our own hearts must surely empathize with those inflicted during this time, and the stories of loved ones lost or suffering inflict us all with their potent emotional and psychological effects. We must continue to take every precaution to avoid exposure and maintain vigilance until the threat subsides sufficiently to allow a gradual return to resuming any semblance of our previous daily lives.

 

In the meantime, assuming that our mandatory isolation is taking place in a safe and illness-free environment with our immediate family or normally present occupants, or perhaps even with only ourselves, the task then becomes how to occupy our time and to maintain some degree of equanimity while we endure the crisis.

 

Even a brief review of the online offerings, which show a variety of choices for dealing with the challenge of isolation, and the innovative methods people are employing to encourage and inspire others, have demonstrated a preponderance of creativity and an unexpected level of empathy for our fellow humans that only this kind of seriously difficult circumstance might bring about. We have to decide how we are going to deal with the challenge, and looking for any positive choice possible regarding how to fill this time seems to me to be the only sensible approach, since the alternative would only make our situation worse.

 

 

Whatever method we decide to use, and whatever avenue each of us is inclined to pursue, isolation is now providing us with an opportunity to consider what matters to us personally, and giving serious attention to pursuits that may have been put on hold, as well as returning to simple pleasures that may have fallen to the wayside previously, now assume even greater urgency, given that we are compelled to occupy ourselves in ways that may not have been available before this.

 

For me, this represents a more robust return to quiet contemplation, to long and productive hours of writing, and to actually holding a physical book in my hands, turning pages, and mulling over the worlds represented in those pages, as well as having to step up my game a bit more in order to cover a greater variety of selections.  One such selection came as a suggestion from a fellow writer to review a poem by Wallace Stevens.

 

Isolation Intuition

During this time of social isolation, as we join in the efforts to support each other and to slow the progress of the recent proliferation of the virus spreading across the globe, it is important to keep in mind that even as we must sacrifice our routines and leave our normal social activities unattended for now, there are also a number of opportunities that this situation presents to us, which may have been set aside or pushed off to “another time.”

Wherever you happen to be in the world, the time has come to take stock of what is truly important in our lives, and there could hardly be a more advantageous circumstance than this one for accomplishing that, as we are compelled to spend much more time with ourselves and our loved ones. There are many hopeful stories and reports of heroic efforts in this fight to battle “the invisible enemy,” many of which involve our front line health care professionals, and all of those designated as “essential people,” who are tasked with keeping us safe, and providing basic services under extraordinary circumstances.

As there are many different people and cultures and worldviews to consider, the specific activity that may provide each of us with a degree of solace and offer us opportunities for gaining an appreciation of what is truly important can take a variety of forms, and there is no right or wrong way to deal with the social isolation we now must endure. For me, as someone who is already fairly isolated generally as a writer, and now as a semi-retired person, solitude is available much more often than in previous years as the parent of six children, now all grown up.

In a previous post about the libraries of the world, I placed myself in several scenes using digital photography magic, and a recent review of those images inspired me to place myself digitally in a few additional photos, only this time, as a way of expanding a little on the benefits of both isolation and intuition.

The background photos in these altered images are from the website of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., and while it should be fairly obvious to those who visit here on a regular basis, my interest in Thomas Jefferson’s life and times has been ongoing since I was a small boy in grammar school.

Way back in 2001, in the Spring of that year, I had the privilege of participating in what was the Annual Spring Garden Tour sponsored by the White House, which permitted participants to roam the grounds of the White House freely, including the various gardens established by prior occupants of that fabled structure, like Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the famous “Rose Garden.” Walking past the beautiful flowers and plants was a real treat, but standing on the sidewalk leading up to the “Oval Office,” was especially impressive.

On the website for the Jefferson Hotel was an invitation to stay there and take advantage of the Cherry Blossom display which normally takes place around this time of year. Sadly, this will not be available due to the current situation in the world, but I couldn’t help but reflect on how fabulous it was to be in that place that year. The events which took place in September of that year put an end to people walking freely through the lawns and gardens of the White House.

The quote at the top of the page by Thomas Jefferson struck me as being a very important reminder about what is truly important for everyone to consider, and while many of us are unable to go to our everyday work locations, it seems like a good time to give some serious thought to what would increase our tranquility, and perhaps also to what we might do occupationally going forward. Not everyone is working in the occupation best suited to their talents, out of necessity or other urgent causes, but time away can be advantageous to seeking alternatives and to pondering other important matters.

Tranquility is achievable in many different ways, but being socially isolated at length gives us a rare opportunity to explore the many options available without the usual interruptions, as well as precious time that normally isn’t available.

Our intuitive sensibilities can be enhanced in circumstances such as these, by allowing us an extended opportunity to seek out information regarding methods of developing and exploring our natural endowment as cognitive creatures, and also to practice techniques for tuning in to our own inner strengths and capacities. There are a number of resources available that do not require physical social interaction, which can be a starting point for the uninitiated, and a launching point for a deeper understanding for those already engaged in seeking to improve or enhance their intuitive senses.

One of the most interesting and commonly available areas to explore in this effort is the intuitive response many of us take for granted, when we encounter others in our travels, who immediately strike a familiar chord within us, one way or another, and we somehow know deep down that our response is warranted. This awareness of familiarity or a keen sense of a positive or negative response is often the result of a deeper level of awareness within us, of which we may or may not be fully or consciously aware. A certain degree of intuition seems to be inherent in our basic cognitive capacities, and depending on our upbringing and educational environment, there may be some additional enhancement, especially if we are encouraged by our caretakers to heed this instinctive inclination.

 

As we navigate through these difficult days of social isolation, it will be very important for all of us to keep in mind, that adversity and struggles, while challenging to endure, are vital to the well-being of all of us now, and since we are already required to stay home and to be socially responsible to our fellow humans, we might as well use the opportunity to attend to those important matters we normally try to defer to “another time.”

This is the time. The present moment now is where all possibilities exist, and we can think ahead, ponder the important questions, and imagine a world where sitting in the Jefferson Hotel library and staying there during the future Spring Cherry Blossom displays might just be what the doctor ordered.

Reason and Intuition

 

“It has certainly been true in the past that what we call intelligence and scientific discovery has conveyed a survival advantage…provided the universe has evolved in a regular way, we might expect the reasoning abilities that natural selection has given us would be valid also in our search…and so would not lead us to the wrong conclusions.

– Stephen Hawking quoted in “A Brief History of Time.”

 

“Intuition is the indubitable conception of a clear and attentive mind which proceeds solely from the light of reason…By ‘intuition’ I do not mean the fluctuating testimony of the senses or the deceptive judgement of the imagination as it botches things together, but the conception of a clear and attentive mind, which is so easy and so distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding…another mode of knowing in addition to intuition (is) deduction, by which we mean the inference of something as following necessarily from some other propositions which are known with certainty…because immediate self-evidence is not required for deduction, as it is for intuition…but the first principles themselves are known only through intuition, and the remote conclusions only through deduction.

– Rene Descartes from “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” written circa 1628, first Latin edition published in 1701.

“Language is entwined with human life…it reflects the way we grasp reality…It is…a window into human nature…Human intelligence, with its capacity to think an unlimited number of abstract thoughts, evolved out of primate circuitry for coping with the physical and social world, augmented by a capacity to extend these circuits to new domains by metaphorical abstraction…some metaphors can express truths about the world…So even if language and thought use metaphors, that doesn’t imply that knowledge and truth are obsolete. It may imply that metaphors can objectively and truthfully capture aspects of reality.”

– Steven Pinker, from his book, “The Stuff of Thought.”

 

There is something in the air, out in the world, something inside of me, that is pervasive. It’s always there, relentlessly seeking me. It feels like an embrace, and yet it does not always bring me peace. Sometimes, I cannot easily face it. In my life, I have known there is the possibility of pain–the other side of joy–and also of fear, as there has always been. Early in my life, I did not understand–did not see why I had to feel certain things. It didn’t make any sense to me. Why can’t everything just be okay? When you’re young, there’s no way to process or fully understand thoughts like that. There is a keener sense of the unknown; a resistance to potent emotions, inexplicable or mysterious energies, anything that suggests aspects of our reality which may be beyond our normal understanding.

 

Logically, of course, science and reason can provide us with a methodical and considered approach when it comes to investigating the unknown, and can often point to reasonable scientific principles which are clearly at work in certain situations; we can observe them, we experience them and assume because we know WHY these things happen, that we understand them. In my experience, truly apprehending the nature of things requires something more. Naturally, we see what we see, we hear what we hear; we consider information we bring in from the objective world; we interpret what comes through our senses and process the information utilizing the various talents of specific brain regions. We come to conclusions which often can be affirmed by comparing them to our experiences and memories, and by testing them through our subsequent actions, and we may even make choices regarding potential future actions.

 

As we observe what happens out there, we say, “So that’s why the planets are all traveling in loops around the sun,” or “no wonder it seems that light suddenly appears since it travels so reliably and predictably at the same speed.” All of these aspects of our reality that we can observe and affirm, tell us why things work the way they do, because the laws of physics require them to conform in this way. When all of our observations confirm the laws, we feel confident in establishing those principles as true. I haven’t always been convinced by what I see or hear or observe, not because I supposed that my senses weren’t working properly, but rather because those aspects did not conform precisely with my personal recollections of previous experiences. It’s possible for us to be mistaken about what our senses tell us, as in the case of optical illusions, and we can occasionally be easily misled by the clever application of deliberate or manipulative deception, but it can be much more difficult to persuade us of any suggested explanation of events which does not match up with the way we intuitively feel as we process that input.

 

Experience has taught me to trust the way I feel, especially when it comes to connections to other individuals, places, and ideas which resonate so strongly within me in particular circumstances, but our modern chaotic world doesn’t always encourage us to trust our intuition or to have the confidence always to listen to our genuine “gut” feelings. Throughout my life, there have been innumerable examples of instances where my inner urgings and startling responses to unexpected provocations have been right on the mark. There have been times when it seemed to me that I was virtually “standing on a precipice,” dangerously close to and looking over an edge, either about to fall, or maybe even getting ready to “take a leap of faith.” Conventional wisdom might suggest that if you’re near some sort of a virtual edge and you fall, it’s not necessarily your fault, and yet, at the same time, somehow you got yourself out on that ledge. That same wisdom might suggest that if you find yourself on that proverbial ledge and you decide to jump, for whatever reason, that is a choice for which you alone are responsible.

 

 

We can’t always control what happens TO us, and sometimes we may even feel compelled to make choices that we don’t necessarily agree with completely, and why we feel that way is not always crystal clear. All sorts of influences and pressures from even trusted sources can weigh on us as we contemplate our next steps, distorting or mitigating our normal process of reasoning or, if we are fortunate, clarifying it. Our reasoning can be faulty and we can occasionally even refuse to consider outside influences which are meant to be helpful, but ultimately we must choose, one way or another.

The struggle between reason and intuition has become something of an epic battle these days, and considered and informed opinions may seem less prevalent in our modern social interactions, and so giving attention to sorting it all out is even more important now.