Consciousness in the World: Ancient Ideas Still Resonate Today

“The reflective understanding of reality has seemed to me helped by the incursion into the present moment of remembered situations from which one gains his bearings and his stance as a human being. Thus the re-collective understanding of one’s actual experience is intimately connected with the reflective understanding of reality…Above all else, then, I trust in the remembrance of what I have loved and respected; remembrance in which love and respect are clarified. And I trust in such remembrance to guide my reflections in the path of essential truth.”

— Henry Bugbee from “The Inward Morning,” July 1953

Egypt farmer2

Image from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Egypt; Scene: Plowing farmer.

Part of my fascination with the study of human consciousness clearly stems from my intense interest in ancient human history, which was originally piqued by its introduction in my earliest educational experiences. As far back as I can remember, images of ancient peoples and civilizations always seemed to engage my mind whenever I encountered them. In particular, images from the first books of children’s stories of mythological creatures and ancient hunters, and early text books which contained stories and illustrations of ancient cultures in distant lands, all excited my imagination and prompted me to imagine myself participating in the lives of such cultures. The intensity of this interest has stayed with me my whole life, and in the unfolding of my education through the years, I accumulated dozens of books about a variety of ancient civilizations. Our complex modern-day existence and our deepest sense of our humanity has been built upon ancient beginnings, and even as our modern lives become entangled in advancing technological innovations of every sort, there are indications of our ancient beginnings which resonate in our modern consciousness.

Farming scenes in the Tomb_of_Nakht

Agricultural scene from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes

One of the most important adaptations which resulted from a shift in the sophistication of human consciousness was the one which saw the transition of the many nomadic groups of early human hunter gatherers to the development of agriculture and small communities of individuals engaged in farming the ancient lands. According to most estimates, (Wikipedia) deliberate and organized “sowing and harvesting of plants,” appeared somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 years ago, and arose independently in the various continents of the world, but was quickly adopted among many adjacent civilizations as the advantages of food production which would support “increased population densities,” necessary to support expansion of the various cultures of antiquity. In Egypt, as farming developed in the fertile Nile Valley, images like the one above began to appear in many of the illustrations of life in those times. Eventually, this shift to agriculture contributed significantly to the expansion of communities into cities, cities into regions, and larger and larger aggregations of humans into empires and great civilizations.

modern farmers2

Recently, I visited the location of a brand new farm in the early stages of being established locally by my son and several others, and as I photographed them on the modern bulldozer which was clearing the land in preparation for planting, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come in some ways from those ancient “farmers,” and how much we owe to those intrepid innovators of antiquity for so much of our modern mindset. The ancient farmers had no such advantages as bulldozers or modern day tractors:

modern tractor2

The path of illumination and discovery, not to mention technological innovation over the centuries, could only have occurred with a commensurate expansion of human consciousness. We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed a remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, it seems apparent that they were not initially as fully and cognitively self-aware in a way that would allow them to utilize that awareness for much of that time. From an evolutionary perspective, any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, and at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us with a capacity for art, music, and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery, and the development of language to express that imagery as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions like farming, and led to contemplation about the mysterious workings of the world around us.

According to Carl Jung, in his writings on Gnosticism:

“The ancient mind rejected the material world and felt that everything originated outside of himself. The modern mind rejects the gods and is smugly satisfied with the false material nature of both himself and the world. The mind of today must acknowledge the origins of self in the unconscious and the duality of humanity as being both material and non-material.”

Deep within us lies a tremendous storehouse of knowledge–not knowledge in the sense of information, statistics, or formulas–but rather, knowledge of centuries old memories, ancient thoughts, and the progressive synthesis of understanding inherited from the dawn of humanity. The synthesis of old and new, much like the changes that occur in us genetically through periodic advantageous mutations, produces variations of our inner life that did not exist previously. While those changes may be incrementally small and subtle, after a time they result in profound differences in the depth and breadth of our inner lives. The signposts of these changes range from subtle cultural changes as are evident in the ebb and flow of conventional wisdom, to the unfolding of dramatic alterations that come to define a shift in the direction of our species. One need only contemplate the progression of humanity from ancient times to today to realize that it required not only imagination, intuition, and innovation, but also a fundamental alteration in the depth and breadth of our inner worlds to support those possibilities…

The Universal Flow

There is a stream of consciousness flowing within each of us that never ceases, nor diminishes throughout our years as self-aware sentient creatures. In our everyday awareness, we can be consciously connected to this stream to the degree that we seek it out, and as we attend to the matter of nourishing the path which connects us to it. There are many different ways we can detect the stream, and they are limited only by our willingness to be open to them. For some of us, it is simply a matter of persistent effort. For others of us, it may be a struggle to first sift through an avalanche of chaos, before settling into a place where we can discern the flow routinely.

In my early life, it was a constant struggle emotionally and psychologically, to feel the pull toward the flow so strongly, but to be so severely limited in gaining insights; forced to adhere to a strict religious regimen with regard to spiritual matters, every effort to veer away from the established course was thoroughly and effectively suppressed. Once I began my life as an independent person, safely beyond the grasp of my upbringing, the powerful rush of the internal flow burst forth from within me like a volcano. Unprepared for the intensity of its streaming energies, I submitted to it only haltingly at first, stumbling as I attempted to remain with one foot in the past, and the other in the stream.

Intense fear of the unknown nature of my experiences at that time were contrasted by the tremendous excitement I felt at the revelations they contained. While I understood little of what it meant to be connected to this mysterious flow, I sensed immediately that there was a profound nature within it, and was enthralled by my sudden awareness of an expanded potential within me. These many years later, I am finally coming to not only acknowledge my lifelong connection to a universal flow of consciousness, but can now proceed deliberately and willingly towards it.

Even in spite of this advantage I don’t, at every moment, know exactly where I am going or how it is that I feel what is within me now. The moorings seem to have broken loose and I feel often as though I am drifting without direction in an uncertain world. I cannot reconcile my longings with any rationale, nor can I say with certainty that I will find my way. The light in the afternoon sky grows dimmer as I seek shelter. In the distance, the rumblings of a storm can be heard. It may pass or it may strike with full force, I cannot say which. Even so, there are aspects to the uncertainty which can be quite appealing too. Within the discomfort of “not-knowing,” is also the promise of change, however disadvantageous in the immediate sense, and the long term consequences are never completely known.

Breaking loose from the restrictions and suppression of my early life, I stumbled at first, and made errors so glaring now in retrospect, even I have to shake my head at myself. These past few years have been stable enough to gain a bearing of sorts, and having attained some stability, I can at least be said to be considering these ideas from a vantage point. The tumultuous years of my youth, not entirely ill-spent, have not produced the precise figure of my youthful visions. The disparate pieces of my life have not combined as yet to form a complete character that I can identify unambiguously as myself. In retrospect, the course I followed satisfied the obligations I had incurred, and in so doing, performed a necessary function that prevented me from falling off the cliff of self-destruction. It may well have been a necessary adaptation for my survival.

Carl Jung once wrote:

“We do not know how far the process of coming to consciousness can extend or where it will lead. It is a new element in the story of creation and there are no parallels we can look to (nor can we) know what potentialities are inherent in it. If we assume that there is anything at all beyond our sense perception, then we can speak of psychic elements whose existence is only indirectly accessible to us.”

The proliferation over recorded time of the various intellectual and spiritual movements is representative of the entire spectrum of inner human life. As a direct result of these movements, complex social and environmental changes have occurred. Unless all such activity ceases, it seems likely that our species will continue to progress along these lines, transforming our present level of understanding and consciousness to levels never before imagined.

Exploring Below the Surface

A recent article in the New York Times, (“Decoding the Brain’s Cacophony” by Benedict Carey-Published: October 31, 2011) reports on research by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which suggests that the functioning of our left brain hemisphere is responsible our familiar view of ourselves–an interpreter–and that what we view as our “coherent self,” is a construct of mental processes that are, in large part, unconscious:

“We are not who we think we are. We narrate our lives, shading every last detail, and even changing the script retrospectively, depending on the event, most of the time subconsciously.”

In his most recent book, “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” (Ecco/HarperCollins) Dr. Gazzaniga addresses his ideas at length, and presents a strong case for resisting the urge to equate all of our behaviors and explain our humanity by “studying neural circuits:”

“Can brain science tell exactly where automatic processes end and self-directed “responsible” ones end? Not now and not likely ever, Dr. Gazzaniga argues in his book. Social constructs like good judgment and free will are even further removed, and trying to define them in terms of biological processes is, in the end, a fool’s game.”

Dr. Gazzaniga says our inclinations to be generous or loving, ruthless or responsible, are not properties of brain function, but rather a “strongly emergent” property — a property that, though derived from biological mechanisms, is fundamentally distinct and obeys different laws, as do ice and water.”

Writer Benedict Carey reports Dr. Gazzaniga’s contention that with all the benefits of research in neuroscience, the tendency to draw conclusions, particularly in a courtroom setting, may be premature:

“Brain-scanning technology is not ready for prime time in the legal system; it provides less information than people presume. Brain images are snapshots, for one thing; they capture a brain state at only one moment in time and say nothing about its function before or after. For another, the images vary widely among people with healthy brains — that is, a “high” level of activity in one person may be normal in another.”

Carl G. Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, wrote extensively about our unconscious nature, concentrating his formidable intellect in the pursuit of understanding the psyche by exploring the worlds of dreams, art, mythology, world religion and philosophy. In what may be his most important work, “Symbols of Transformation,” (from his Collective Works, Volume 5) Jung described his idea of a “collective unconscious:”

“The psyche is not of today; its ancestry goes back many millions of years. Individual consciousness is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome ( perpetual root) beneath the earth; and it would find itself in better accord with the truth if it took the existence of the rhizome into its calculations. For the root matter is the mother of all things.”

Jung’s theory points to a much larger view of how our conscious awareness may rely on numerous layers of unconscious processes, whose influence and effects come through a synthesis of our cognitive functions, including sense perceptions, the process of recognition, evaluation, intuition, feelings, instincts, and even dreams, which Jung says warrant inclusion on the list:

“…because they are the most important and most obvious results of unconscious psychic processes obtruding themselves upon consciousness. The dream as such is undoubtedly a content of consciousness, otherwise it could not be an object of immediate experience. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” – (from “The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Vol. 8”)

Expanding our views of what might be contributing to our humanity through consciousness, beyond what we discover through cognitive neuroscience, as amazing and important as this work can be, requires an exploration below the surface.