Contradiction and Truth

                                         Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,

                                        A stern respect withheld us farther yet,

                                        So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,

                                        And less acquainted than when we first met.

 

                                        We two were one while we did sympathize,

                                        So could we not the simplest bargain drive;

                                        And what avails it now that we are wise,

                                        If absence doth this doubleness contrive?

 

                                       –excerpt from the poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau, 1840

 

Having recently reviewed the 2014 film, “Ask Me Anything,” written and directed by Allison Burnett, which is based on his novel, “Undiscovered Gyrl,” I was struck by a scene in the film where the female lead in the film is presented with a list of “Ten Bitter Truths,” supposedly in response to her request for “lessons about adulthood.”

What struck me most was how cynically slanted the list was and, as a result, I felt compelled to respond with my own less cynical commentary.  The list appears below and the numbering of my comments mirror the numbers in the list.

                                                                                              Guernica by Picasso

Ten Bitter Truths

1.    Complete honesty is a complete lie.

2.    Marriage is sacred only to those who have never been married.

3.    Money is more integral to happiness than romantic love.

4.    Every human being is a contradiction; some hide it better than others.

5.    Never underestimate the tendency of human beings to act contrary to their own best interests.

6.    Were it not for the fear of being caught, most of us would behave like savages.

7.    All sex has consequences, most of them dire.

8.    The older you get the faster time flies until months pass like days.

9.    There’s no such thing as living happily ever after.

10.  Everything gets worse.

 

Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. 

1.    It isn’t so much that complete honesty is unachievable or that we are somehow incapable of it, but rather that complete honesty isn’t always the most advantageous approach to every situation. There’s no reliably clear advantage to being brutally honest at all times, and even when we might be uncertain, to varying degrees, about what the complete truth of a certain circumstance might be, expressing that uncertainty under some conditions may work against us. The framing of our responses, in a way that mitigates the consequences of those circumstances, it could be argued, can ultimately produce a more desirable outcome, depending on the particulars.  Humans are adaptable by nature, and if we can enhance our ability to adapt, and also improve our ability to survive and thrive simultaneously through sharing a proportionate degree of honesty, in specific instances, the benefits of doing so can outweigh the rigid structural framework of what might be described as “complete honesty.” This is not to suggest that such mitigation is appropriate in EVERY circumstance, but rather, that mindless conformity to any absolute principle of unmitigated honesty or to its opposite, at all times, could sabotage our human abilities for adaptation and mitigation, which might be essential to our long term survivability.      

 

2.    The nature of human interactions with regard to the sacred or the divine aspects of our humanity are not dependent upon any specific institution, and what we describe as “sacred,” refers to elements that have no universal criteria to define them or by which we could, in every case, fairly judge them to be so described. Even in a common social relationship or in a specific religious context, the “sacred” can exist within it, regardless of the milieu in which it occurs. Marriage can either be sacred or not, and relationships which exist outside of institutional marriage can embody the “sacred,” just as reliably as those within it. The idea that only people who are not married think of marriage as sacred underestimates everyone.        

3.    Determining what constitutes happiness is a completely subjective judgment, and while financial stability can be an important component of our well-being generally, to say that it is more integral to happiness than romantic love is to denigrate the value of both money and romantic love.  “What does it profit a man to gain the entire world, if he suffers the loss of his soul?”  How could any amount of money compensate for a bitter loneliness or an absence of any meaningful interaction with our fellow humans? How often have we heard about couples who have very little in the material sense who are otherwise living happy and balanced lives? Romance is not a cure-all certainly, and it ebbs and flows in every loving relationship, but suggesting that money is MORE integral than romantic love to happiness is just plain wrong.           

4.    Contradiction in a person or in an argument implies some sort of logical incongruity or denial of what otherwise represents an expectation or understanding of a person’s character or the premise of an argument. The entire universe is a conglomeration of opposites—hot and cold; north and south; east and west; male and female; fast and slow; young and old. To suppose that we might be able to escape our contradictions in the way we feel, the way we think, and in many of the ways we live our lives, would be to deny our very nature as a part of the entire universe. Each of us must decide which of the tendencies toward the opposites we will assume as we navigate through our lives, and rarely does anyone follow a single inclination in any of the innumerable ways in which we might engage life through the years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a contradiction at all times and that some people are just good at hiding it.  To be human is to change, and to adapt, and to innovate, and to grow, and to learn. Some of us accomplish these tasks with greater ease and ability than others, but changing is less a contradiction than it is a part of our nature to adapt and grow—to progress.           

5.    This is just a variation of the contradiction argument. What may appear to others as an action that is against our own best interest might actually serve us better in the long term. We are constantly changing and adapting and learning from our mistakes, and we as we navigate through the trials and tribulations we encounter, we sometimes fail to choose our actions as wisely as we could. Deciding which actions are in our own best interest and which are not requires a learning curve usually, but to assume that we should expect it as a matter of course ignores the obvious benefits of failure which can serve as a guidepost to making better decisions in the future.       

6.    This item is one of the most cynical of all these ideas.  Anyone with even a minimal amount of life experience can recognize the value of civilized behavior, and if we are minimally observant—just reasonably astute—we can figure out that acting like a savage is a zero-sum game. In the earliest history of humankind, life was indeed savage, brutal, and short. Tribal warfare was common and weaker groups were routinely conquered by the stronger ones. Civilization took a really long time to get past the most savage stage of our development through the centuries.  Suggesting that we are now still all just savages beneath the surface, and only restrained by the consequences of savagery is to ignore the historical record of humanity’s progress into the modern world.  Of course, there are individuals and groups that can act in ways that are reminiscent of our savage roots, and we haven’t completely conquered our instinctive drives in every corner of the world, but empathy and altruistic instincts also are strong within us now, having evolved beyond the early history of our species, and rational, intelligent, and generous humans exist on a much greater scale now than ever before in our history, and to suggest otherwise is cynical in the extreme.     

 

                                                                Balance of Energy is a painting by Deidre Harris    

 

7.    The consequences of engaging in sexual activities can fall within a whole spectrum of results, depending on the individuals and circumstances in which they take place. Most of them are not dire, thankfully, but engaging in them recklessly or irresponsibly can have serious consequences, and if we simply use reasonable caution these days to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, the consequences can be far less dire than suggested by this idea. Most of the dire circumstances that result these days aren’t because of simply engaging in sexual activity, but by doing so without regard for routine precautions, or when inappropriate or unwelcomed by the other person.  To say that most consequences are dire is simply not true.  

 

 

8.    While the years definitely seem to pass more rapidly as we age, even as we approach the later years of our lives, it takes exactly the same amount of time for a year, a month, and a day to pass. When we are five years old, one year represents a fifth of our lives.  When we are 70, a year is 1/70th of our lives. The perspective of years is an obvious factor in how we view time, but even as an older person, months don’t seem like days and the exaggeration isn’t really helpful.  Each and every day is an opportunity to engage with life and to experience a limitless variety of possibilities to fill up the days, weeks, months, and years. If we proceed mindlessly through the hours and days of our lives without a deliberate choice of some sort or without some degree of urgency regarding a purposeful action to serve those choices, time will catch up with us eventually.  Learning is a life-long activity and whatever our circumstances, with personal effort, and maybe some help from our fellow travelers, we can find a way to make use of our time that can slow things down a bit.      

 

 

9.    While the concept of living “happily ever after” is usually introduced at a very early age in children’s stories and fairy tales, it isn’t meant to suggest that living “happily” means without any challenges or difficulties for the rest of our lives. We can live a life that we can consider “happy” generally, even though it may contain “bumps in the road.” Children need time to accumulate life experience in order to grasp the broader implications of how one might be able to live as life progresses, but they will usually bounce back in spite of encountering innumerable challenges at a young age. Even in the face of some personal tragedy which might occur, they often demonstrate a resilience that can surprise most adults. A happy life isn’t one free of difficulty.  Inevitably, it is one that has some capacity for overcoming adversity when it occurs; one that appreciates the joys when they arrive; and one that strives to make something worthwhile out of the time they are given.   

 

10.  This one is the most cynical of all.  Lots of things can get worse given the right conditions, but there are plenty of things that can get better given the same chance.  We can either actively contribute to our own betterment or allow our actions or inaction to result in our own detriment at any given time.  Of course, there are times when detrimental events occur that are beyond our control, and we don’t always have the luxury of choosing the results when life occasionally “happens,” but we usually have a choice as to how we respond to what happens, or at least how we think about what happens.  Not everything gets worse.   

 

“Eternity may not the chance repeat,

But I must tread my single way alone,

In sad remembrance that we once did meet,

And know that bliss irrevocably gone.”

–excerpt from poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau

 

Adulthood does have its challenges, and our lives and ways of being are not without a degree of contradiction, trials, and imbalance, but even as we reflect on any “sad remembrance,” each of us must recognize that for every “bliss irrevocably gone,” there is inevitably a subsequent opportunity for new experience—another opportunity to say, “We two were one while we did sympathize.”

Our True Nature

 

“The Buddha taught that our true nature is emptiness- a lack of a permanent Self- and when this true nature is realized, the divine states of the Brahma-viharas – loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity- emerge.”

“In the teachings of the great yoga masters, our true nature is Brahman, the universal soul, of which the individual soul is simply a part. When this is realized there is ‘satchidananda,’ the awareness of bliss, from the knowing that pure awareness is our ultimate nature.”

“There are moments small and large when we are filled with the transcendent, as though we have been lifted out of our bodies or the Divine has entered us as grace.”

“Both the path of transcendence and the path of immanence are beautiful, whole, and worthy. It is your heart that must find its true path.”

–excerpts from “Realizing Your True Nature,” by Phillip Moffitt

 

 

Inspired this week by a personal challenge to the true nature of our world and our humanity, it occurred to me that any unnecessarily extreme version of a worldview, whether it is based on science or religion or philosophy, can mitigate our ability to navigate  in the world of our everyday living, and if we could only see that much of the discord in the world could be lessened significantly by striving for a balanced approach to addressing any of the most vexing questions we are engaged in answering, we might find that greater progress is possible.

No matter how much effort we pour into finding an explanation of how everything works in the physical universe, and no matter how much progress we achieve in all of the related sciences surrounding our subjective experience of human consciousness, any effort to compose a comprehensive accounting for every aspect of our existence, if it does not include the contributions made possible through transcendence and immanence, will likely fall short of an actual understanding of our true nature.

One need not be an advocate of Buddhism in order to arrive at a better understanding of our true nature as living beings, and although ideas like the ones expressed by Phillip Moffitt provide an excellent starting place for approaching the subject in conversation and study, even those with no inclination generally to support specific religious viewpoints can join the conversation by examining the basic principles they address.  Whether or not we embrace such ideas as a matter of course or bring other opposing views to such interactions,  giving consideration to the full realm of possibility, at least as a starting point to explore the ideas presented in the quotes above, is a helpful tool in our progressive discernment process.

 

 

We are beginning to see a few hopeful signs in the willingness of scientists, philosophers, and poets, to at least listen to a greater range of ideas from their unique viewpoints, which include sincere scientific approaches, as well as genuine philosophical and spiritual inclinations found often in music, art, and poetry.  Just because some ideas come from a creative approach to human expression, they shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as “wishful thinking,” and well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and innovative scientific ideas should be given commensurate consideration when they are presented in the interest of moving our understanding forward.

In asking ourselves questions such as, “What could account for our intuitive sense of the unity of all life, when such clear divisions exist between species and among all levels within major branches of the tree of life?,” or “Why does anyone suppose because we are not able currently to fully account for experiences of transcendence and immanence as measurable phenomena, that giving consideration to the potential existence of such an idea isn’t worthwhile?,” we begin a dialog that can lead to an expansion of the realm of what’s possible.

 

 

I was recently able to review a National Geographic documentary, distributed by PBS, and appearing on Disney Plus streaming service, called, “The Greeks,” and prior to the Greek Civilization, much of what occurred in the world was cloaked in superstition and thought to be the result of the influence of benign Gods and malicious demons, but according to this presentation, that all changed once the Greeks set out to understand the world through reasoning and focused attention on philosophical thinking.  The mini-series is informative and interesting with a number of modern-day thinkers contributing to an overall view of how the Greeks contributed to important changes in the course of human history.

Did our inclination to abandon the notion of Gods and Demons influencing and directing the fate of humanity in the world originate in Ancient Greece?  According to historian, J.M. Roberts, who wrote a volume of “Ancient History,” published by Duncan Baird Publishing, 2004:

 

 

“The Greek challenge to the weight of irrationality in social and intellectual activity tempered its force as it had never been tempered before…They invented the philosophical question as part and parcel of one of the greatest intuitions of all time, which was that a coherent and logical explanation of things could be found…the liberating effect of this emphasis was felt again and again for thousands of years…It was the greatest single Greek achievement.”

Whether or not a “coherent and logical” accounting of consciousness might eventually include aspects of transcendence and immanence as essential components is still an open question, but a comprehensive account of the true nature of things begs the question, and requires a serious look at the kind of philosophical thinking inspired by the Greeks!

Poetry and the World Within

 

“The language and topics of the art of poetry are ultimately decisions of the poet himself. William Wordsworth believes the poet is someone who has the ability to be affected by absence. He is “a man pleased with his own passions… [and] rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life” (1502) and uses his imagination to create a presence which others cannot conceive.”

“This view is intensely optimistic and shows the power of the mind in the world Wordsworth is subject to. He believes that poets have a greater ability to comprehend nature and they are ‘nothing different in kind from other men, only in degree.” (1505).

“The ordinary man, Wordsworth believes, is closer to nature; and therefore closer to human-nature. Wordsworth’s faith in the ability of poetry to express the mind leads to an ultimate truth that is deeper than that which is tangible.”

–excerpt from Stephen Greenblatt, “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” 8th ed. Vol 2. (pgs. 1498-1505).

 

Have you ever been transported to another time as you became lost in a powerfully written book, or suddenly relocated to another environment by imagining yourself there? Have you ever found yourself totally immersed in a world created by an especially captivating motion picture? Our mental projection into those thoughts and feelings during those experiences often make it seem as though we are actually “experiencing” those imaginings, although they actually have only a virtual existence and not a physical one.

Indeed, what transpires in our minds during experiential awareness of our journey can occasionally seem less real than our imagined journey, lacking some degree of fulfillment of our expectations.  Wordsworth straddled these two worlds often and well, including this gem from “Lyrical Ballads:”

Artists and poets can sometimes evoke an experience of a moment in another world by presenting us with the most essential markers of an experience, which we then use to “fill in the rest.” Andrew Wyeth was particularly talented in this way.  Many of his works transport us into a particular moment in time, where what is most essential to the experience of that moment come vividly alive. 

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth — American painter, 1948 The Museum of Modern Art, New York Tempera

 

Ever since the invention of languages and the realization of a deeper meaning to our existence, human beings have felt the need to express what they find within. Our inner worlds, far richer and profoundly more expansive than the world without, permit the creative expression of that world, but in terms that must attempt to communicate its ineffable nature.

A well-executed and pleasing piece of poetry invites us to appreciate the many assets we all might find within ourselves if we would only look. I find much encouragement in gentle words and heart-felt lines, rich in the poetic. For me, poetry has always been a release or a letting go or a spilling out. Many times, I am surprised by what arrives on the page when I set the poetry wheels in motion.

When poetry erupts and breaks the smooth surface of conscious awareness, it can feel like an intrusion, even though it is a welcomed one. The ripples are often felt long after the words arrive, and I feel compelled to return to the poem for another look.

I have had the urge to write down my thoughts as poems ever since being introduced to poetry as a schoolboy. I recall vividly the experience of my mother reading poetry to us from a volume of children’s rhymes, and the first time that poetry was introduced in the classroom.

In the spirit of Wordsworth’s poem, I offer one of my own original works from years ago, which reaches for this ideal of assets we all might find within ourselves, if we would only look:”

 

 

 

 

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.

Mixing Solar Energy with Summer Melancholy

 

There was a curious mixture this past week of 21st century technology and the pleasure one can only experience in a natural setting, surrounded by nature’s greenery. While I sat out in the backyard, sipping on my morning coffee, a half-dozen men set siege to the roof and commandeered our electric service in the kitchen pantry, in the process of installing an array of solar panels on the front of the house.

 


It’s been a curious mixture in the sense that I often spend time amongst the summer greenery in the backyard when the weather is agreeable, but most often it is a solitary and almost meditative experience of quiet contemplation, with an occasional interruption of birdsong or the rustling of the trees all around me, which is predictably pleasing in its own way.

 


This particular morning introduced an assortment of unfamiliar interruptions and various other forms of strangeness as a professional crew of electricians and installers intermittently initiated a barrage of grinding, drilling, and hammering sounds as they progressed through the installation process.

 


Most of us tend to gain an appreciation of our decisions and choices in retrospect generally, as the consequences become more apparent, but for several mornings over the past week, I watched as the drama unfolded in front of me, and it was a much more immediate visceral response that captured my attention—right as I sat there observing the process—when I realized I was no longer only an investigator or an observer of the technological revolution, but truly a participant in it, taking the deliberate step to install the state-of-the-art equipment necessary for harnessing the power of solar energy.

 

 

Ninety-three million miles away, the sun is radiating its light energy directly toward the Earth, and after some eight minutes of travel at the speed of light, that energy will now be captured by an array of solar panels on the roof, generating electric power through an astonishingly simple process, converting sunlight into electricity by “exciting electrons in silicon cells using the photons of light from the sun.”

 

 

I checked out the science of solar cells on miro.medium.com and found this fascinating explanation:

 

“Solar panels, also known as modules, contain photovoltaic cells made from silicon that transform incoming sunlight into electricity rather than heat.


(“Photovoltaic” means electricity from light—photo=light, voltaic=electricity.”)


As the photons of sunlight beat down upon these cells, they knock the electrons off the silicon. The negatively-charged free electrons are preferentially attracted to one side of the silicon cell, which creates an electric voltage that can be collected and channeled.  This current is gathered by wiring the individual solar panels together in a series to form a solar photovoltaic array.”

https://jjhiii24.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/c9849-1ywtau6iog8c2cqs-h_ah1a.gif

 

 

The introduction of a very robust and noisy process of implementing 21st century solar science into my normally sedate and quiet morning routine brought out the philosopher in me, as I considered just how interconnected we all are by virtue of our common experiences of sunlight in one sense, but also unique in our perceptions of new experience, which can unfold before us in unexpected ways, while still containing common elements, and inform our thoughts and help us to assimilate that which is uncommon.

 

In a bittersweet almost melancholy moment, I took notice that the view from the ground on this day still included an over-the-rooftop view of the uppermost branches of the tree out in front of the house, which for some reason seemed to me to appear much taller than they did last summer, and it wasn’t lost on me that this would be one of the last opportunities to enjoy such a view, since the tree is slated for removal shortly. While I have been aware of the inevitability of all of these changes for some time now, actually having witnessed the predicted events as they unfolded prompted me to appreciate the gravity of the decision to go forward with them in real-time.

 

While contemplating these changes I was inspired to respond poetically to the “melancholy moment,” and decided to include it with this post. You can listen to my recital of the poem at this link:



 

 

A Moment of Repose

 

After months of hibernating, like many of us, when the travel restrictions were eased, I took the opportunity to visit a nearby East Coast location called Moore’s Beach, which is a landmark on the Delaware Bay, currently being restored after enduring damage from Hurricane Sandy. It also happens to be a protected area since it plays host to a number of migratory birds. Since it was during the time frame when the birds were present, we weren’t able to walk as far as we normally do, but it still provided a satisfying walk in the spring air, and an opportunity to capture some images of the natural beauty available along the coastline.

 

 

According to the official website, Moore’s Beach has an important role in supporting a variety of bird species during their annual migration:

“A migratory stopover for arctic nesting shorebirds must provide each bird the energy necessary to get to the next stopover or to the ultimate destination, the wintering or breeding area. Delaware Bay stands out among these shorebird refueling stops because it delivers fuel in the form of horseshoe crab eggs giving birds options. Our telemetry has shown that Red knots, the species we best understand, may leave Delaware Bay and go directly to their Arctic breeding areas or stopover on Hudson Bay.’

http://www.restorenjbayshore.org/moores-beach.html

 

 

Walking along the weathered roadway leading up to the beach was a welcome change from our typical hike through our limited range of neighborhood streets, and when we arrived at the shoreline, we were met by several signs explaining the reason for the limited access. This image captured hundreds of small birds and several other varieties flying by in formation—a formidable sight!

 

 

Standing on the edge of the beach, inhaling the cool spring air and enjoying the benefits of a gentle offshore breeze, I closed my eyes and focused momentarily on my breath, feeling like an essential part of the landscape, and allowing the moment to refresh my spirit, grateful to have even a few moments of communing with nature.

 

 

With hope in our hearts, and with gratitude for the opportunity to experience our natural world, we can glean a degree of optimism as we move forward toward the future.

 

The Blossoming of Consciousness

Contemplating recent comments about what it means to be a conscious human, I began to consider what really distinguishes us from all the other inhabitants of our planet. There are some distinctively human traits to be sure, but it seems more like a combination of several important capacities and foundational characteristics that sets us apart.

Most living creatures with an adequately developed brain and functional central nervous system, given sufficient stimulation in the appropriate circumstance, will generally demonstrate a fairly predictable response in their behavior, including, many times, human beings. The familiar “fight-or-flight” response when in close proximity to a dangerous carnivore would be a good example. Under most circumstances, depending on the degree of danger and the creature’s inherited abilities and previous conditioning with regard to facing such danger, if adequate motivation was present for either running away or standing up to the danger, most organisms would instinctively tend to select the behavior which provided the best option for survival. While this behavior could still ultimately result in the demise of the organism, in spite of whatever resources may be available to them, when the behavior is instinctively chosen, no judgment or further implication can be inferred.

Conversely, as cognitive creatures, with both instinctual and volitional capacities, humans can not only deliberately override instinctive tendencies, but can also consciously review the available behavioral selections, calculate the likelihood of success of any choice, contemplate previously untried alternatives, innovate extemporaneously with available resources, and even in the face of very low probabilities of success, choose behaviors which instinct alone would generally not permit. In the human brain, with all of its genetically inherited and deeply-rooted predispositions, as well as a variety of involuntary and unconscious functions, we observe mitigation of this sort by virtue of the capacities provided by our distinctly human version of the cerebral cortex, particularly from activity within the frontal lobe. The capacity to deliberately alter or mitigate our instinctive responses, and purposefully alter our environment and behaviors is a characteristic of our species, and one of the distinguishing hallmarks that separates humans from all other living creatures.

One might wish to argue that humans respond instinctively all the time, or that we tend to confer deliberate choice to our actions far more often than is actually the case, but we cannot easily disregard millions of years of evolution simply because we now have a sufficiently sophisticated cognitive capacity. We are, by most cosmic standards, a fledgling species, whose progress from being primarily impulsive creatures with a survival instinct to the more modern self-aware variety has spanned less than a hundred thousand years. Whatever degree of cognitive skill might have been adequate to qualify the earliest version of modern humans as “conscious” or “significantly self-aware,” the earliest evidence of such characteristics being demonstrated seems to fall during the Upper Paleolithic period, which saw the coexistence of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon.

In the waning years of survival for the Neanderthals, some evidence of expanding skills with tools has been found, and examinations of Neanderthal fossils show that the skull architecture would have supported the ability to produce language if they were able, but the available fossil evidence is not adequate to support a definitive conclusion in this regard, and there is a fair amount of speculation and disagreement as to what exactly constitutes a fully developed and meaningful vocal communication. However, the capacity and ability with language is another one of the predominant characteristics of modern Homo sapiens, and represents a significant evolutionary survival advantage.

Along with the ability to communicate through language, modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings in Ardeche, France in the Caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 34,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. However the actual progressive skills of Homo sapiens unfolded, it is clear that when it finally became possible for our ancient ancestors to make significant and meaningful use of their cognitive skills, human beings were profoundly altered, and were no longer simply another primate species struggling for survival in the ancient world.

If we begin with the idea that truly modern humans had finally achieved a significant degree of useful and discernable “consciousness” around this time, it would take another 30,000 years for the first appearance of “writing” to occur, when the Sumerians created their “cuneiform” writing system, and by definition, the beginning of “recorded history.” Everything that happened in between these two landmark developments represents a period of “blossoming” of our human consciousness, within which both language and culture flourished and expanded into what would become a global phenomenon.

Methods for communication have also been documented among other species on our planet, and we have observed a whole range of behaviors which could be described as an indication of various degrees of “consciousness,” in those life forms, including astonishing achievements in the construction of habitats, particularly tenacious species surviving unimaginable adversity, and mind-boggling evolutionary adaptations within species, over the millions of years of evolution. As amazing as they are, these accomplishments pale in comparison to what one lonely branch of primates has managed in the last 50,000 years.


Overcoming instinctive behaviors, deliberately and “consciously” choosing our path through the millennia, as disastrous as some of those choices have been and continue to be, distinguishes humans from every other known species. Whether we are able to survive and thrive in the future, could very well depend not just on our progress toward understanding human consciousness, but also on our willingness to transcend both our history and our narrow view of what might possibly explain “consciousness.”

Preparing for the Unknown

In a recent review of my writings from my time in Europe as a young soldier, I was prompted to reflect upon how the events prior to my departure from America set the stage for my experiences in that time frame, which sparked additional reflection on what has been a lifelong concern–taking the initial steps on a journey toward the unknown.

 

 

As a young boy, without fully understanding the cause or having any clear explanation for certain personal experiences, or being able to associate those events with any sort of sophisticated theory or philosophy, I still somehow seemed to know that what I had experienced at certain times contained elements or aspects outside of normal temporal boundaries. I could not yet describe them as such when they occurred, and was profoundly naïve about the world in a number of ways, but I accepted that the nature of these happenings were true and real, even though they did not fit well into the narratives I was being taught during a strict religious upbringing.

I can vividly recall moments in my youth when I felt, what seemed to me at the time to be, the presence of another life-force or energy that was somehow influencing my responses to the unexplained events, and thought of them as either some kind of guidance or warning. As a five year old child, coming home from school, I once narrowly missed being struck by a car as I was about to run out from between two other cars. For some reason, I suddenly stopped myself and hesitated just long enough to witness the fenders and side panels of a passing car go whooshing by me. There were other moments too, just as vivid in their own way, when I recall expecting to see particular individuals who suddenly appeared, and when anticipated events inexplicably unfolded right in front of me.

 

 

In several other especially troubling moments, I felt as though I was outside of myself, witnessing events from a short distance away from my body, alternately experiencing moments of dread, as well as moments of incredible lightness of being or delight, for no apparent reason. Even though I did not yet have the vocabulary to express these events in those terms, in retrospect, I now understand that many of them were simply moments of synchronicity with the environment I occupied at that time, without truly understanding how it was possible.

All of these indications slowly began to make more sense as I struggled to come to terms with my experiences during my military training in Massachusetts. Whatever the explanation actually might have been, it was clear that I needed to attend to exploring these matters with some urgency, since they seemed to be accelerating in frequency, and increasing in intensity.

 

 

For a time, they would occur almost daily, and it took me by surprise on a number of occasions to find myself “zoning out,” during Morse code training, typing the dots and dashes on a manual typewriter, when I noticed that the coded groups of random characters suddenly dropped off the page to become words and sentences. Had I not been most often in voluntary sessions of practice, it might have become more noticeable to my instructors. There were times when I had to take off my headset and walk away briefly in order to clear my mind so that I could return to copying the required code.

Sadly, I was not always able to retrieve these sheets in a timely manner, and was only occasionally able to hide them in my pocket and take them with me. Classroom protocol prohibited such actions, and papers from practice sessions were routinely burned afterwards. Often I would simply have to memorize as much as I could of key phrases or of particular passages in order to write them down afterwards.

 

 

Once I had completed that phase of my training, I knew that I was on a path leading me somewhere important to my well-being, and I discovered that once I began to be more accepting of these “eruptions,” I seemed to have more control over them. Resisting them had only led to an increased difficulty in managing them, so I decided instead to embrace the process and not to resist the flow of this energy through me. That decision, in turn, facilitated a more balanced response when I encountered these events and increased my ability to retain the spirit of those episodes until a more advantageous opportunity came to record them.

By the time I had completed my training in Massachusetts, I was in the running to graduate at the top of my class. There was an intense competition for that top slot and on the day of the final exam, I was in a head-to-head battle with my associate, Marilyn, who had matched me grade-for-grade through most of the course. As the test progressed, the senior instructors were all standing around our positions at the mock equipment stations, meticulously recording our every response to the preplanned scenarios that had been fed into the machines, mimicking a live mission in the field. Others who had already been disqualified eventually joined in the intense monitoring of the two remaining operators—myself and Marilyn.

 

 

When the exercise was completed, we had both obtained the correct result, and the report which printed out matched the requirements precisely. The instructors began conferring like referees trying to decide on a controversial call on a close play. Much to my dismay, one of the instructors had noticed that I had not set one of the standard controls for ensuring a clear signal, which required the operator to set a knob on the control panel to boost the RF gain to maximum. In this case, that boost wasn’t necessary to get the correct result, but it was the only difference between the two competitors, and since it was a standard part of the procedure, the win went to Marilyn.

I protested briefly that the goal of the test exercise was to capture the signal precisely, which I had accomplished, but the senior instructor insisted that under different conditions it might not have been sufficient, and that the standard was set for that reason. Our fellow students applauded as I shook Marilyn’s hand and congratulated her on her victory. She smiled widely at me and thanked me for being so gracious in defeat.

 

 

It was an exceptional moment at the apex of my military training in Massachusetts, and even as I watched her receive her reward, a promotion and a bonus weekend of leave added to her record, circumstances were already swirling around a sudden change in the trajectory of my journey, which would have a profound effect beyond anything I could have anticipated.

Time Passes Away, But Slowly

 

“Quartering the topmost branches of one of the tall trees, an invisible bird was striving to make the day seem shorter, exploring with a long-drawn note the solitude that pressed it on every side, but it received at once so unanimous an answer, so powerful a repercussion of silence and of immobility, that one felt it had arrested for all eternity the moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly.” ― Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

 

As I wrote in a previous post, the time will soon arrive when the tree out front of the house will have to be removed, but with the pandemic slowing everything down, it has been postponed for the time being, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to photograph both the tree out front and the larger one out in the backyard. Reviewing the images, I was struck by the sense of how much larger they seemed to be these days, and decided to see if I could find some earlier pictures to compare. Much to my surprise, I was able to locate several from the day we moved in back in 1990, almost exactly thirty years ago. It seemed like a natural development to then place them side-by-side and the resulting images showed a degree of growth and expansion that is eye-catching.

Aside from the notable differences in the appearance of the house from the various improvements and replacement windows, the girth and height of the limbs is clearly visible, and several of the limbs from years of storms and wind are clearly missing in the recent images. Periodically, the power company trims the branches near the power lines as a matter of course also, but it’s usually just a few of the higher branches, and now the necessity of having to lop off so many of the larger branches has sealed the fate of our arboreal friend. We’ve accepted this necessity and understand that all lifespans are finite throughout the life cycles of every organism, but all life forms have their own unique value in the ecosystem and should be preserved and protected as far as possible. In this instance, we have acknowledged that there is sufficient cause for clearing the area, and will honor the importance of the tree by storing the wood for future use.

 

 

Digging a little deeper through the family archive, I was able to locate several images I took of the tree in the backyard, and again was quite surprised by the huge difference in the width and growth upwards that took place over the last thirty years. The backyard tree was one of the key selling points when we were first considering several of the homes in the area, not only because it would obviously be an asset as far as providing shade in the summer months, but also because it seemed to dominate the landscape in the yard in a way that gave me confidence that it would provide much more as a backdrop for all the future events that would take place in the years to come. We were going to be raising our children in whatever home we chose, and it felt like this tree represented a solid foundation for taking on that important task. Shortly after moving in, in the first Spring, I photographed our gang standing by the old girl.

 

 

They are all grown up now, but the backyard tree was a constant presence during every outdoor family event at our home in their young lives, and it has been a constant companion for us all. It’s especially interesting to look at the early image now, side-by-side with the recent one, to see the other changes that took place all around the tree. Even to my attentive eye, the tree never actually seemed to change at all as the years passed, but in fact, as the time slowly passed, enormous changes were taking place inside the tree, hidden from our eyes by the nature of such gradual exponential growth on such a small scale that it was virtually invisible. Every year the branches would come alive in the Spring, dropping the seed packs all over the yard and the deck, and every Summer the lush greenery would sprout predictably turning the view into a jungle of green and shade, and every Autumn, the leaves faithfully burst into vivid colors that could reliably astound.

 

 

Even in Winter, the tree became a vital part of the backyard landscape, and provided the same steady, constant, reliable presence, all throughout the blizzards and bitter cold.

 

 

 

 

 

There are many changes that take place in a lifetime, some are fleeting and some lasting, which can alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward the person we WILL be. We cannot always predict the consequences of change, regardless of whether we initiate the change deliberately or it is thrust upon us by circumstance. Ultimately, change will come, one way or another, and the only sensible role we can play in the process, once it takes hold, is in shaping our response to the change. The degree to which it can be said that we might actually be able to participate in directing the course of change when it comes, depends largely on the person we are when it occurs, and our level of experience in dealing with the changes we encountered in the past.

The very nature of life, as demonstrated over hundreds of millions of years of evolution on our planet, is to adapt to changing circumstances. We rarely consider this background of change over many epochs of time as relevant to our cosmically brief existence as sentient beings, but it seems clear that our lives today, even down to the changes that occur within our own sphere of influence over a single, human lifetime, are one of the many consequences of the countless changes that have manifested over the millennia, and by that reckoning, we must then suppose that our adaptive responses to the changes occurring in our own lives, in some way, affect the continuum of which we are all an essential component.

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.