Stillness After The Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They almost seem to be glowing from within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories and Humble Beginnings

Life moves forward always. It swirls and slides and strikes at the very heart of me. At this point in my life, having accumulated more than sixty years of living memory, looking back, for me, is long. For at least that long, I have held on to some specific recollections of my early days. Of course, before memory even appears on our radar as children, we pass through a number of earlier stages, as a newborn and a toddler, where unconscious experiences contribute to our formative years in ways that we are only now beginning to truly appreciate.

My maternal and paternal grandparents taking turns holding me in 1953.

My first ordinary memories as a young boy, playing outside in the yard at the first home I remember, sitting in the window sill in the living room watching my older sister and brothers going off to school, were in stark contrast to some of my dreams. One particularly memorable dream began with all of us sitting on the floor with the front door open in the summertime, my father looking out the window, with some sort of giant approaching—stomp—stomp—stomp—the vibrations were shaking me. I was strangely unafraid, with the anticipation being greater than my anxiety.

Another especially clear childhood memory involved playing outside on a steamy hot summer day. As we occasionally did on a typical day, we snuck around the fence into Mr. Nicholson’s garden, only this time, he was there. Although he didn’t seem angry or mean, he did seem like he didn’t want us there. We stopped right in our tracks, looked at him wide-eyed and after a moment of silence, turned and ran back into our own yard, huffing and puffing to catch our breath, vowing never to try it again.

I remember sitting out on our back porch with my brothers, talking and laughing, waiting for dinner to be ready. Eventually, Mom would call us in and remind us, as always, “Go upstairs and wash your hands,” since she knew we had probably been playing in the dirt or just getting dirty. We’d all run up to the landing in the corner of the kitchen, up the hardwood stairs to the bathroom, and wait our turn at the sink. I remember turning the bargain brand of bar soap around in my hands for maybe thirty seconds, setting it down for the next one, rubbing for a minute and then rinsing off. There was usually a tug of war at the towel too. When we were done, we would race back down the stairs to the dining room, to stand behind our assigned seats.

Rummaging recently through the enormous volume of photographs and memories, as I sifted through the piles of accumulated stuff in my office, I came across this amazing image of my kindergarten class at the local public school taken in 1958. There are only a few of the faces of my classmates in the image that still jog a memory of their name, but I doubt I will ever forget the woman who first introduced me to the world outside of my family, Mrs. Derr. Her gentle way of nurturing us and encouraging us to think about the world made me think of her as much more than my first schoolteacher.

At age five, I remember my mother walking with me to school on the first day, holding her hand as I crossed the six or seven streets along the way, stopping at the one traffic light at the end, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the one “busy street.” A handful of specific memories of particular days still exist in my mind. I remember sitting in a little chair next to a little table, drinking out of a half pint carton of milk, eating cookies, with several pretty ladies and the teacher all talking at the same time, supervising us and towering above me.

There was also one particular day when I was given the opportunity to occupy the “playhouse,” with pretend dishes and pans and other household items, along with a six bottle wooden holder with wooden milk bottles. At one point, a girl came up to me and asked if she could play too. At first I said no, that these were my milk bottles, since I was the milkman. She then asked me, “Can I have just one?” I replied, “Alright, you can have one.” For the rest of that year, I walked by myself back and forth to school every day, and thought nothing of it. Those were very different times.

Aristotle and Experience

In Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:

“In man, experience is a result of his memory, for many memories of doing the same thing end in creating a sense of a single experience. Experience seems almost the same as science and art. But in fact science and art come to men through experience.”

Our ability to recall our experiences provides a framework within which we can construct a context, in order to reflect on them, analyze them, and place them in perspective. So, in one sense, Aristotle was correct, in that without memory, all the experience in the world would be for naught. Indeed, our ability to remember makes it possible to synthesize an entire lifetime of memorable experiences. Damage to the brain can impair the process of memory to the point where it no longer accumulates, and it could be argued that if we cannot remember our experiences, for all practical purposes, it would be the same as not having them. But, in fact, whether we remember them or not, experiences occur.

The subjective experience of consciousness—that richly textured sense of being—doesn’t require recollection in order to occur. Being is most vividly experienced in this very moment. Our awareness of being is an event of the “here and now.” Every moment that follows such an event (in a cognitively advanced and functional brain) contains a memory of the previous moment of experience. Memory is essential to make sense of the world and to glean the benefit of experience, but it does not manufacture experience. Our ability to recall previous experiences and to integrate them into the planning of future actions has been one of the main contributing factors for our survival as a species, but remembering our experiences and having them are two totally distinct phenomena.

The process in the brain that makes it possible to remember our experiences and the process that makes it possible to have experiences in the first place are not the same process at all. Our eyes, nose, skin, ears, and taste buds all send signals to the brain through the nervous system with information about what they are perceiving, and the brain interprets that information as our sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Descartes theorized that because we are able to think, we are able to know that we exist. Without our senses, we could not gather information about the physical world. Without a sufficiently sophisticated brain to process the information gathered by our senses, the information would be far less useful. Without our ability to think, we could not know that we exist.

Although all of these processes exist and could operate without memory, our ability to remember what happened while these processes were operating, and to then reflect on it, makes it possible to learn from the experiences that our senses and brain record. Without memory, we would not be able to remember the information our senses provided to us yesterday, nor would we be able to reaffirm that we exist with the same information we gathered the last time we used our brains, and we would have to start over all the time. The brain records that information and stores it in a marvelously sophisticated process, making it available for future reference when evaluating new experiences. So, while the processes work together in important ways to make sense of consciousness, and to enable us to demonstrate consciousness to others, they also function independently in important ways.

Neuroscience has advanced now to the point where we can clearly see that consciousness is the result of many different processes working together, and that memory is an ever-changing sequence of neural activities within coordinating brain areas and systems. No one area of the brain or neurological process alone can account for either. It is a collection of neurological instruments that orchestrates the symphony of consciousness.

Aristotle also clearly understood that we come to science and art and all manner of human endeavors through experience. We utilize the power of experience to learn and grow, in a way that no other known species has demonstrated. We develop technologies and strategies based largely on what we learn from experience. Our ancient hominid ancestors were, in some cases, not able to survive, and in the case of Homo sapiens, not able to truly flourish and evolve, until they reached a sufficiently advanced level of consciousness.

Once it was achieved, humans developed a truly significant sense of having and remembering experiences, and as a result, a more fully developed sense of how to utilize those memories. Species with only limited awareness and far less cognitive skill have had to carve out a niche in the world of experience that falls significantly short of the one currently occupied by humanity. The ability of humans to exceed what all other known species have been able to accomplish experientially is a direct result of possessing a measurably greater degree of cognitive ability.

Interconnected and Interdependent

“Both intuitive and interactive, the gnostic approach to faith is a sacred quest for greater knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—a deeper penetration of the Mystery. This path leads to a higher degree of the enlightenment experience or gnosis. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas reveals how the reader can use each verse in this scripture as a source of daily contemplation and spiritual growth, while exploring…other mystical and magical teachings.”

–from the description of the text on Amazon.com

In a previous posting, I spoke of a “World Outside of Our World,” and wrote about the difficulties we face, as temporal beings, when we attempt to describe, in any comprehensive manner, those aspects of our existence which do not lend themselves easily to such descriptions. Since by the very nature of our subjective experience of the world, we have a unique view that is only possible for us as individuals to know intimately, we must acknowledge a built-in impediment to empirical verification of what it might be like to experience the world for anyone other than us.

At the same time, based on our own reactions to the experience of temporal life, it seems reasonable to allow ourselves, at least to a small degree, some leeway in considering, from the real-world responses of other sentient beings, that there are commonalities and some shared levels of experience that might be described as universal among human participants with regard to “what it’s like” to be human. It is also possible that we share much more in common with our fellow travelers in this life than we realize or can confirm with any certainty, but as a purely philosophical question, I thought it might be more useful to frame the conversation in terms of what MIGHT be possible, since scientific certainty continues to elude us currently in the 21st century.

“To love, to gain knowledge, to uplift humanity…is the purpose and meaning of this life. This name and form have meaning to the extent that (universal) consciousness is embodied. That is why the soul enters into this life, so that the being of the becoming that is within you might incarnate and the world to come might manifest. If you accomplish something of this great work, then all that you do in this life will be filled with meaning.”

–excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

Great progress is being made in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive studies, and in modern psychiatric research, regarding the roles of specific brain regions in higher cognitive functioning, associative chemical and genetic components in pathology and functionality, and a host of other related research projects that are producing new insights and expanding our understanding generally.

What concerns me greatly, as someone whose major life events have often been characterized by a variety of extraordinary moments and inscrutable experiences, is that not enough attention is being given to experiences that fall outside of our ability to explain empirically, and in the service of giving more attention to those experiences, I’ve consulted a variety of sacred texts and spiritual resources over the years, including, as quoted here, the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas.

While it’s completely reasonable to point out the importance of comprehending the science of the brain, reviewing the full spectrum of thought throughout the thousands of years of human history, as I have done for nearly thirty years now, suggests to me that the more speculative and intangible aspects of human experience may hold even greater significance in coming to terms with human consciousness than any number of studies of the physical brain.

Credit: [ The Art Archive / Kharbine-Tapabor ] ¥ Ref: AA529033

“If you think you are something, if you think you are a substantial and independent self-existence, a solid or fixed entity, it is greatly troubling to discover that your secret center is no-thing, that you are empty of any substantial or independent self-existence. Discovering this, however, you then realize that this is the very nature of everything in existence. You discover that everything is impermanent, that everything changes. Reality is empty of any substantial and independent self-existence.”

–excerpt from Verse 3, Gnostic Gospels

Attempting to describe a “world outside of our world,”—to even call it “a world,”—requires us to acknowledge our current inability to address it in terms that are appropriate as a contrast to the physical world itself. Since we cannot participate fully in or interact directly with any non-physical realm, at least while we participate in our daily waking experience of temporal life, it can appear to the more materialistic among us that such realms fall under the category of either imagination or hallucination.

Many accounts of encounters with mysterious or otherwise temporally inexplicable phenomena often take place under an extreme circumstance like a near-death-experience, during times of great stress, or as the result of trauma. They can also occur while we suspend, in some manner, our usual routines and seek, through the practice of meditation or by an act of deliberate intention, to elicit some temporary deferment of our familiar temporal sensory experience.

“You must seek in order to discover the Spirit and Truth and must continue seeking until you realize the Spirit indwelling you and know the Truth in your own experience. It is not enough that another person has discovered the Truth. Each individual must seek and strive to discover it…”

—excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

If we are reasonably “self-aware,” we can recognize moments where our everyday experience of the senses becomes mitigated enough to approach the threshold of our inner experience of our deeper self. With regular deliberate attention, we open ourselves to acquiring glimpses of this non-corporeal aspect—experiencing moments where the two cross over—and there is an entry point between the two where we encroach upon that threshold, where the spirit which inhabits the body can shine through. As the veneer of physicality recedes, we disassociate ourselves from our physical bodies briefly. It is very difficult to sustain at first, and even with practice, we only seem to be able to persist in such a state for brief periods.

Occasionally, encounters with such mysteries and unexplained phenomena occur spontaneously, or are precipitated by unexpected circumstances over which we have no volitional input. Conversely, just because we actively seek a greater understanding as a matter of course, placing ourselves deliberately on the path toward transcendence and the spirit, we are not necessarily guaranteed an instant or satisfying result in every instance.

“Such is the nature of reality, this magical display of consciousness. The inside and the outside are not separate but are intimately connected. The reality of your experience is the magical display of your own consciousness. A change in consciousness brings about a corresponding change in the reality you encounter. A change in the reality you encounter is an expression of a change in consciousness.”

“The individual, the collective, and the universal consciousness are completely interconnected and interdependent. You alone are not the creator of the reality you experience. Every living being is a unique individual expression of (consciousness)…and a co-creator (with Life) of the reality you experience.”

–edited excerpts from the Gnostic Gospels, Verse 3

This interconnection and interdependence is, in my view, an essential component of our existence as both temporal and spiritual creatures. We are a multifarious conglomeration of systems and circumstances, and in view of this complexity, it seems reasonable to suggest that the whole of our complex human nature cannot be described simply in terms of our physical systems. It may be that we are still too young as a cognitive species, and haven’t had sufficient time to evolve into beings who can broadly perceive this connection—this door opening—this threshold to the world outside of our world.

It might also be true that the spirit which inhabits our bodies, which animates us, which is the vehicle for our awareness of these experiences in this life, also provides access to the world outside of ours, and since it is so difficult to articulate a comprehensive understanding of it, we view it as mysterious and can easily dismiss any potential stimulus from a non-physical source. Experiences which point to the possible existence of a spiritual or non-physical aspect to our nature are also often disregarded because we can provide no rational or empirical cause in temporal terms.

What frequently flies in the face of all such rational objections are the subjective affirmations which occur inside those of us who, without any wish to do so, endure encounters with extraordinary events. Many times, we often seem only to be able to infer possible explanations. How could such an encounter with a purely subjective embrace of a non-material world be explained other than by inference, by an informed awareness, or by some intuitive rationale? Our entire human history is replete with examples of individuals and groups making earnest attempts to do so, and eventually the subject became the purview of scholarly attentions, many of which persist to this day as potential sources of exploration for all varieties of seekers.

The quotes from the Gnostic Gospels are only one example of many which have appeared throughout human history, and there are many others which have appeared here on my blog over the last eight years or so, and even though I would not endorse any one particular viewpoint, so far, as a definitive source providing a holistic explanation for our subjective experience of human consciousness, when viewed in total, and considering the many overlapping points within each source, it seems to me that we must acknowledge, at least in the broadest sense, that all of them point to the value of exploring and being open to what may be possible.

“Everything is interconnected and interdependent; it is the nature of things ever-becoming. You must learn to accept and embrace the whole of life and the whole of yourself if you would discover the Spirit and Truth. The Light and the Darkness must be joined and you must realize the Sacred Unity.”

“When people speak about the gnostic gospels, they are almost always referring to a collection of ancient writings (in Coptic) that were discovered near the upper Nile village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, in 1945. These manuscripts, which scholars have dated to the fourth century, were most likely hidden in an effort to preserve them from destruction following a decree of St. Athanasius banning the use of heretical writings. An English translation of these documents has been published and can be easily referenced online.”

—quote from http://www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality

Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “Intelligence:”

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.

Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe

“Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought,
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature—purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

—excerpt from, “The Prelude,” an autobiographical poem by William Wordsworth, begun in 1798, completed in 1805, and published in 1850 after his death.

Standing on the shoreline the other day, staring out across the churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean, early in the morning on the East Coast of the United States, I reflected at length on recent events in my life, as we all sometimes do, on the anniversary of my birth, only this time, I did so on the occasion of having accumulated sixty-five years, which, in my mind at least, was sufficient to justify such purposeful reflection.

The celebratory events of the day before, although thoroughly pleasing and fully occupying the waking hours of my day, were, by most standards, quite ordinary as these events generally go, but also, in every way, greatly appreciated and precisely what I needed to inspire me to attempt to convert that purposeful reflection into some form of heartfelt expression.

As the morning light begins to rise into fullness, the sun struggles to pierce the “chaos of clouds.” I start to wander along the edge of the tidal movement, creeping ever slowly away from the peak of high tide. I walk slowly, dividing my gaze between what lies at my feet and what transpires in the sky, waiting for the sun to break through. Several small sea creatures, once alive, lay motionless in the sand, their lives now abandoned at the water’s edge. I pause briefly to mourn, and to ponder the loss.

The rising and receding of the tide, a perfect metaphor for the cycle of life, demonstrates well how we are joined in perfect unison with the natural world. The dawn brings the beginning of a new day, just as every birth signals the beginning of a new life. The rhythm and currents of the ocean mirror the rhythmic nature of all life, and with only a small effort, we can draw parallels from our own lives that compare well with the circumstances we observe in a natural setting.

Even the movement of the air can evoke a strange feeling of sameness with our subjective experience of the moment. The wind is mostly brisk, while rising and falling in a kind of erratic rhythm, occasionally failing to push hard enough against me, forcing me to periodically adjust my gait. As my thoughts recede, I lift my sights to the sky:

All of my barriers have fallen.
My mind slips into reverie;
As I slowly traverse the nearly deserted beach,
Everything all around me is in motion;
The relentless lapping of the waves—
The steady rising and falling of the rhythmic wind.
The early morning sun struggles
To squeak past the chaos of clouds;
Its light diffused behind a patchwork of puffy grayness.

I stop to stare at what might become an opening
In this fabric in the sky; impatient, I close my eyes.
Inhaling deeply, I hold my breath—
Then release it slowly, almost reluctantly.
I yearn for even a small bit of stillness,
But I cannot quell the water, wind and sky;
The only possibility for stillness is within me.
As I pause and ponder, a sudden urgency
Overtakes my senses—you are unmistakably near.

In my mind’s eye, I come upon a clearing.
A soft, flowing, musical soundtrack plays in my head;
I drift slowly, steadily toward the center of it all,
When the memory of you appears, my inner world swells,
Just as it always did right before you opened to me.
As you turn, I see your face—you smile;
I am floating as I approach, extending my hand;
Instinctively reciprocal, you reach out for mine—
Contact.

If you would like to hear me recite these words you can follow this link:

Enjoy!

Welcome To The New And Improved John’s Consciousness

Greetings to all of my readers and visitors here at John’s Consciousness!

I recently decided to take it up a notch here and acquired my own new domain, “Johns-Consciousness.com,” and have marked the occasion with the addition of a new theme as well. There have been some changes in my personal life that have prompted me to re-evaluate my approach to both the conduct of my daily life and to the subject which has occupied me almost constantly since I began this blog in earnest in January of 2011. This month, I will have completed my 65th year of life on Earth, and it occurred to me that a great deal has changed even in the almost eight years I have been blogging here at WordPress.

The image above represents one particular aspect of my interest in our subjective experience of human consciousness–one that I have not spoken of much since I began writing this blog. Since October 15, 2006, I have maintained an avatar presence on the website, SecondLife.com, and have had a number of interesting experiences and conversations with other participants from all over the world. For a while, I even maintained a residence and worked an actual paying position as a tour guide for an 18th century palace simulation. Many of the characters I have met along the way have since moved away or stopped visiting the website, but there are still plenty of adventures and opportunities available for anyone with the time and inclination to pursue them.

Part of the reason I decided to participate in the world of Second Life was my fascination with the concept of creating a “second” version of myself through the power of virtual reality technology, which was quite new back in the early 2000’s. As I floundered in the beginning steps towards citizenship, I discovered that the concept of living a virtual life, as opposed to what we like to describe as our “real life,” held many opportunities for contemplating the nature of human life, without many of the distractions of physically interacting in other “real-time” social environments. Much to my surprise, I found the experiences strangely compelling at times, and I continue to enjoy observing and interacting as the opportunity presents itself.

Of course, participating in the “real world,” can often seem unreal at times, and anyone who has been following along here at John’s Consciousness knows that I have had more than my share of seemingly “unreal” experiences. The question that naturally presents itself when you look up at a spectacular and peculiar sky, or experience any sort of “other-worldly” encounter in our daily travels is “What the heck is going on?” If we are paying attention and fully living in the moment when something inexplicable occurs, or perhaps when we suddenly wake up in the middle of the night during a particularly vivid or startling dream, there is a moment or two where we are not at all certain about what is real and what is unreal. It can sometimes take us momentarily to a place where we may question our perceptions and our understanding of our very human nature.

Recently, I left the world of working a job outside the home every day, which had sustained me since I first started working way back in June of 1968. For fifty years, no matter what aspirations I held or what goals I was pursuing outside of work, raising my six children, and supporting my family in all things, I was never really able to give my writing and research and contemplation the full attention they deserved. There were times when I nearly gave up on the idea of fulfilling these aspirations altogether. When the day finally came to step away, it felt like a great stone had been lifted from my chest. I’m still in the early days of disbelief and astonishment at the thought of turning 65 this month, but slowly I’m beginning to feel the compelling sense of participating in a transition to another stage of my life, and I am at least hopeful that it will bear fruit at some point.

Albert Einstein’s quote reminds me that all of the feeling and longing that I have held on to these many years has indeed been a source of creativity in my endeavors, and a motivating force that has kept my blog humming along these past seven and a half years. I hope you will all ride along with me as I navigate through the next phase of my endeavors here, and that we can share in the process of discovery together in the time to come.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary


Recently, I went for a walk–wandering around the neighborhood–and when I came back, I took a look around the house and was struck by a few particular moments of the extraordinary, waiting to be discovered in the ordinary. Every year around this time, all of nature usually comes alive simultaneously, and it is always a relief to once again observe the greenery coming back to life, but this year, nature seems to be bursting out all over the yard, and it almost seems to be trying to swallow the house whole. The image above was taken in a field near the house which I snapped while walking, and it felt relatively safe and ordinary as I paused to capture the scene.

Once I came along the sidewalk in front of the house, I was taken by surprise by what seemed like a jungle creeping up on the house, with our cat, Mittens apparently oblivious to the impending attack. On the right hand side, next to the yellow rose bush, what I had earlier dismissed as simply a small new tree, has suddenly taken root and shot up like a beanstalk. The ivy in the center of the image, which had always seemed like a nice decoration around the light pole at the end of the walkway, now appears to have engulphed the whole thing. Yes, there is a light post under all those leaves.


Honeysuckle has completely obscured the rhododendron bushes on the left side, and while that tangled mess has a lovely scent, you almost can’t even tell there is a bush alive under all that.

It won’t be long before the mailman will have to bring a machete with him to get to the mailbox!

The ivy is starting to take over the whole front of the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s even creeping up to grab anyone coming out the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s getting a bit ridiculous now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But lo and behold! Sitting out on the back porch I notice that a maple seedling from the backyard tree has taken root in the space between the boards. In the most unexpected places, and against tremendous odds, nature has found a way to flourish! Even though it’s clearly doomed in the long run, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at how persistent and unflinchingly the plants and trees and everything alive is growing all around me.

The natural world, of which we are an integral part, shows us even in these humble discoveries on an ordinary day, how it is that we can approach life as something extraordinary, which needs to be appreciated and which should provoke us with wonder and inspire awe. Imperceptibly, but relentlessly, every plant and tree persists under the most daunting circumstances. We cut it out, and it grows back. We rip it out by the roots, and the seedlings drop and the process begins again. Every year, with lethal intent, I decimate the ivy and chop it to bits, and no matter what I do, life finds a way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently unfazed by it all, our cat, Princess, seems blissfully unaware of the tumultuous orchestration of Mother Nature all around her, and found a quiet spot on an old carpet remnant to curl up for an afternoon nap.  As the mammal with the big brain and a penetrating cognitive awareness, I find myself curiously undone by all of these ordinary wonders, and equally cognizant of the extraordinary aspects which serve as the foundation for all life and existence in our little corner of the world.  Time to dig a little deeper…..