The Realm of Possibility

Time has never been my friend especially. Like many of us, what we call “time” frequently feels like there’s never enough of it—not enough for what needs to be done nor for what we want to do. Just as often, it feels as though we are racing against it, trying to squeeze as much out of it as we can, or lamenting that we must relinquish it too soon, especially when it expires during a favorite activity.

Time is relentlessly ticking away at the exact same pace at all times according to our devices which measure it, display it, and remind us of its passing in one way or another, but from our unique perspective, it rarely seems to proceed at a consistent rate.

As a young child, a mild summer afternoon can seem to endure endlessly, and events which we know will occur in a few months can seem like a year away or more. As we age, mild summer afternoons are still delightful in many of the same ways, but often pass much too soon to our mature sensibilities. Even as the sun lingers long into the evening hours at the height of summer, these days, I often turn to see the sun setting on the horizon and think to myself, “already?” Events which I know will take place in a few months often seem to arrive unexpectedly soon, sometimes only garnering my attention at the last minute.

It’s not just the passing of years, of course, which appears to twist and distort the passing of time, and it’s not just the degree of delight which hastens its passing or a particularly challenging burden which slows it down to a snail’s pace. How we perceive time is a mental exercise assisted or hindered by our approach to whatever task is set before us, and the way we proceed when working toward our goals, either with vigor and enthusiasm, or without either of those assets, can influence our perception of time profoundly.

We hear a lot these days about “being in the moment,” and practicing “mindfulness,” giving our full attention to the very moment in which we are experiencing life, and in doing so with regularity, proponents of these ideas suggest that we may begin to experience the passage of time in a more balanced manner. The idea is meant to address our tendency to spend too much of our time worrying about what is to come or lamenting about what has taken place in the past, and to encourage us to concentrate our focus more often on where we are and what we are doing and experiencing right now.

Most of us can probably recall a period of time in our lives, however brief or at length, when everything seemed to be running along smoothly and with a satisfying synchronicity with our expectations and desires, and when we eventually reflect on that period of time, it seems to have taken place in a much shorter amount of time than what we supposed in our minds. It seems like we just got started a short time ago, when we actually had been engaged in the activity for hours. Deepok Chopra calls this experience of losing track of time as “timeless awareness.” Our awareness of the passage of time is lost due to being so in tune with the right path and being in the flow of life.

Each of us, regardless of our age or circumstance, is living on time borrowed from the field of infinite possibility. Potentiality for every possible outcome in every single spirit ever born is initially without limit. The circumstances of our lives, and our perceptions of those circumstances, can frequently become mismatched due to adopting the mistaken assumption that what we expect out of life is what will happen simply by applying the right kind and amount of effort. While those attributes are certainly an important part of achieving the desired results of our goals, the world is not made up of only ourselves, and our motivations and intentions while we pursue them can be equally influential.

In one lifetime, each of us draws from a reservoir of life’s limitless potential, but we are also bound in the very same way to acknowledging that being born into a world with such potential also places us at the mercy of the realm of infinite possibility, which may include the development of misfortune. We clearly have a certain amount of control over some things, and possessing potential won’t produce much without a sustained and vigorous effort. However, as I wrote some months ago, in a poem entitled, “Tomorrow’s Promise:”

“Time passes in moments, some rushing by,
We don’t often stop to ask ourselves why.

Contained in reflections, words, thoughts and deeds,
Are every last one of life’s hopeful seeds.

With yesterday’s joys, our hearts we can lift,
Tomorrow’s promise—an uncertain gift.”

Timeless awareness is an acknowledgement of the true nature of life. While the universe seems to be governed mainly by predictable physical laws and exists as a physical phenomenon, manifested in our participation in “time,” within a limited region of our material world here on Earth, life is far more mysterious and consists of additional ineffable components that interact with our subjective experience of life, in ways that have inspired many great writers and thinkers throughout human history.

This is our time. We exist here and now. We are part of a dynamic synergy of life that is both tangible and ineffable, and we can either plod along with our clocks and our measurements of time, or we can strive to transcend the material aspects of existence, and open ourselves fully to the realm of possibility.

Letters Between A Young Man Serving Overseas And His Mom at Christmas

Since I personally have direct experience in being away from home on military assignment during the holidays, I felt compelled to share with you an excerpt from an historical exchange, which took place at that time, by way of excerpts from two important letters, written while I served overseas in the winter of 1975, between me and my mother.

November 29, 1975

My Dear son,

First of all, we received your recent letter, written while on duty today. I was very happy to receive it, and all read your letter with feelings of concern, yet also happiness. It is hard to explain. We all love you, and hope that the time you must give to the Army goes as quickly as you would wish it to go…in spite of everything.

(What follows is a section of that letter, which contained my description of the experience of being on duty at the border station.)

“Dear Mom and Dad and everyone,

By the time you receive this letter, I will have returned to Augsburg, with the mission completed. I won’t be able to send it until I get back. We are on a border site mission, which means that right now, your son is sitting about 5 km from the East German border. We are on top of a small mountain from which you can see into East Germany. Right at this particular moment it’s snowing pretty well, after having snowed yesterday about a half a foot before it stopped last night. It’s really quite cold; however, I am relatively comfortable considering the circumstances. We work in shifts so no one is out in the cold for too long. When we finish work for the day, they drive us into a nearby town to take showers and have a few beers. It’s really not too bad actually.

The one thing I really wanted to tell you all about was the feeling I had last night as I watched the snow fall over the other side of a large barbed-wire fence that separates the East Germans from the free world. It’s not a spectacular scene really, but the implications, at least for me, are very graphic. The fence itself and the area within about 50 meters are lit up like it was daytime. Every hundred meters or so, you see a guard tower with the East German border guards sitting up there just watching you watch them. There was hardly a sound to be heard.

The snowfall seemed to make everything peaceful, and I began to think a little bit about just what it must be like to live on the other side of that fence. How does that East German soldier feel about his lot, and how he must wonder about what I’m thinking? Needless to say, it was a very sobering moment. I thought of you all, just at that moment and I have to admit I cried just a little bit and wished I was home. I was tired and cold and I guess a little lonesome for my family—a feeling that I learned to appreciate a while ago, emphasized somewhat by my surroundings; one that I could not have known without having had the experience.”

(Back to Mom’s response)

“By the way, I mailed a Christmas package. A couple of things are to be opened immediately, but others should remain until Christmas. It’s hard to be away for the holidays, son, but remember, we are thinking of you, and when you are home again, we shall have the biggest homecoming party you have ever seen!

The whole house is starting to become active with secret shopping and the Christmas Spirit! Your sister tells me, “It’s building!” We have our nativity scene up on the mantel piece. We are hearing more and more Christmas songs on the radio. Stores are decorated and it’s cold out—down to the low 20’s tonight. No snow yet!

We expect your sister and her family on Christmas Day; both your brothers will be here Christmas Eve also. We have a limited Pollyanna because both married children, plus our military son, will not be here on Christmas Eve. Your older brother is going to cut down the tree tomorrow. The girls and your younger brother are going with him. We expect to trim the tree Sunday.

Everyone is getting excited as usual. They all have come to me at different times and said how much they miss you, and how much they wish you were here for Christmas. My dear son, your mother thinks of you often and also of our talks in the kitchen when you were home. They are a great comfort to me. I love you and miss you.

God Bless You, with Love…Mother”

As you can see from this exchange, the circumstances for me and for the whole family were affected by my assignment and deployment, and while the situation wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as those brave soldiers serving in combat zones, the stresses and responsibilities are still daunting in their own way. I know my parents and siblings were worried about me and missed me. It was difficult to be away from home for so long and through times when we were traditionally together, but it was vitally important work that we were doing in defense of our country, and at the end of it all, once that duty was finished, the lessons learned stayed with us.

In the photo above, at Christmas time one year later, my parents and four of my siblings came over to visit me in West Germany, and we were joined by the German family who hosted me in Augsburg, more than making up for the lonely Christmas the year before.  My German friends understood well the important American values held by our family.

Being far away from home, during the holidays especially, our appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy in America, and the love we have for our families and for our way of life as Americans, become something more than just words on a patriotic poster, or in some speech by a politician. The deeper meaning of our values and our heritage as citizens of the United States comes into sharper focus, in a way that just reading about such things could never impart.

The changes you go through, the challenges you face, and the altering of your view of the world, acquired as a result of participation in the defense of your country overseas, regardless of the motivations you may have had when you entered the service, will very likely stay with you for the rest of your life, just as they have for those of us who have served in the past.

We all recognize that the sacrifices made by our military men and women in uniform are necessary in order to fulfill their responsibilities, and we must support them unconditionally in their endeavors.  I recommend to all military folks out there to be sure and write or communicate in some way with your loved ones. Take it from me, it’s the best way to get you through whatever comes.

May God bless them all and keep them safe always, and continue to bless the United States of America!

Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery

From one perspective, the month of December signals the arrival of that part of the year after the crops have been harvested, the trees and vines have yielded their ripened fruits, and the leaves have all withered and fallen to the ground. The light of day is at its shortest duration, and the longest periods of darkness at night hold sway until the Earth once again tilts more toward the sun in our hemisphere. The majesty of the renewal of all life in the Spring, the lushness of Summer, and the brilliant colors of Autumn have waned, and the bitter cold misery of Winter nips at the edges of our flesh for weeks to come.

Depending on one’s point-of-view, each of these generalizations about the seasons might ring true, but to those with an open heart and mind, the determination of whether one is experiencing misery or enjoying the majesty may fluctuate in any number of ways. The Spring also brings, for some, the misery of airborne allergens and high pollen counts, as well as seasonal flooding; the Summer also brings days of stifling heat and humidity, and the dangers of heat ailments and sunburn; the Autumn also brings to an end, the lush green symphony of all the plants and trees, the shortening of daylight hours, and the toils of the harvest.

None of these characterizations are necessarily good or bad inherently, and the cycles of the natural world are neither malicious nor benevolent by design; each season simply proceeds through its cycles according to its nature, and as a consequence of the physical laws which govern the actions and reactions of planets and solar systems, contained within our galaxy and beyond. There clearly are aspects of our existence, as we commonly perceive it, which are governed by predictable physical principles, and to which we are all subjected without any deliberate discrimination detectable through our current methods of scientific inquiry. The Universe is what it is and we are unquestionably bound by its nature to either endure or enjoy whatever transpires within it, for whatever time we are granted in this life.

Recent rereading of John Keats’ poetry as a result of a posting by my friend Anthony brought me to review another of Keats’ works called “Bright Star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art,” and this morning, as I slowly returned to waking consciousness, the terms Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery, floated up from my subconscious in a period of contemplation before committing to place my feet on the floor and begin the day. The concepts of each of these terms has been “percolating” within me this past week, and Keats’ poem really brings home the significance of their meaning in an important way.

Keats himself was only twenty-five years along in his life when he was consumed by tuberculosis and perished after an agonizingly difficult period of time suffering with the disease. His brilliance as a poet, and his urgency to express what was within him were enhanced greatly by his awareness that he would not survive long into his twenties, and by his passionate interest in every aspect of his existence, especially in consideration of the brief amount of time he would have to experience it.

The “majesty” part of this poem is in the awareness of the durability of the star, the unparalleled view of the world upon which it shines in the night sky, and its longevity, which Keats envied in a way. He also recognized that while the star enjoyed these advantages, that such longevity for Keats would not be necessary for him to fully appreciate his own life, but simply to live long enough to grow to maturity, and to experience a lifetime in the usual way, with the advantages and simple pleasures of human love, might well seem like an eternity to someone facing their own mortality. The “misery” part might well go beyond the difficulty of disease, and into the longing for something more, and the impending loss of all that might have been.

The “miracles” of our modern lives, no longer simply a phenomenon within the purview of an esoteric religious viewpoint, consist of the broad range of potentials inherent in the birth of every living thing, in the blossoming of that life, and even in the cycles which govern those lifeforms through whatever span of time they take place. Our own experience of life can contain many such moments as those described by Keats, and are all the more precious and miraculous when we consider how he would not survive long after describing those which mattered to him.

The “mystery” aspect of all these ideas are where we have the most fertile soil for contemplation and philosophy. Many of life’s secrets have been revealed by our scientific and medical research over centuries now, and the life of our current poets and philosophers, artists and acrobats, scientists and sensualists, no matter what their persuasion, can be either bitterly brief or roundly robust, but ultimately, how it is that we are born into this world in whatever circumstance and with whatever advantage or lack thereof, we have the opportunity to embrace life and to ponder its mysteries, and even with only a very short time to do so, Keats pointed the way toward the apprehension of life’s mystery–through the recognition of the majesty of life, acceptance of the experience of misery which can occur, the wonder of life’s miracles, and the pursuit of those mysteries, for however long we are granted in this life.

Here at John’s Consciousness, the pursuit of apprehending life’s mysteries continues; the appreciation of life’s miracles are frequently expressed, the periods of misery are acknowledged, and the full embrace of life’s majesty is often recommended and expressed.

Looking forward to my tenth year of sharing the miracles and mysteries in 2020!

Three Hundreth Blog Post; Falling Back

As the ever-changing fall weather begins to manifest into cooler nights and milder days, this particular change of seasons nearly always finds me looking backwards in time. The inspiration for this rearward journey has its roots in both my personal history, and in the relentless search for understanding that has occupied me for decades. It usually begins without deliberate intention or planning, but immediately feels familiar as my mind wanders into seasons past, reminding me that I have been here many times before.

As I drift off into an autumnal reverie, I often feel as though I am moving through the world in reverse. Relaxing on the deck out back with my morning coffee, I pause momentarily to sit back, inhale the cool fresh air, embracing the warmth of the late morning sun as it softly spreads across the yard, and all at once, I find myself adrift.

Going back now—back through time. In some ways, it’s almost like falling, only it’s more like being in a vehicle that’s moving in reverse at a very high speed. The other day I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the local grocery store, next to a large puddle which had a whole bunch of fallen leaves floating upon it, and I looked down to my left out the window, momentarily losing my bearings—the leaves were floating across the surface of the puddle with the wind, in a way that made me think the car was moving, and I briefly endured the sensation of backwards movement.

Instinctively, I let out an exclamation of surprise, and abruptly grabbed the steering wheel while stepping on the brakes. For just a moment, I felt as though I had lost control of my vehicle through some accidental warping of time. Once I realized that it was not me who was moving, it occurred to me that if one day someone does invent some mechanism for time travel, that it might require the traveler to endure a similarly abrupt and unexpected sensation.

Way back in my personal lifetime, on another early autumn day, very likely in October, I remember sitting on the lawn out front of my childhood home; the sun was out, but there were a number of white, puffy clouds floating across the otherwise bluish sky, with perhaps a slightly gentler breeze than the one I was experiencing on this day, but it still was sufficiently strong to stir the leaves on the large chestnut tree which covered the front lawn years ago, forcing the crackling noise of the decaying and brittle leaves, scraping up against each other, along with the whooshing sound that we hear so often when the wind gusts during this time of year.

I was sitting cross-legged, up on my hands at the top of the hill; it was maybe midday or a little later, and the air was cool and fresh, and the sun felt warm on my face. I had nowhere to go. I was not responsible for anything. I knew nothing of the world outside of my own small world. At that moment, without knowing exactly why, I memorized that moment. I looked around carefully, noting every detail; there was no traffic on the street, no pedestrians walking by, and the only thing moving was the limbs of the trees and the leaves as they let go their tenuous hold on the fragile branches—the gusting wind would occasionally blow through the blades of grass, bending them in a swirling pattern across the lawn. As a young man, I had virtually no hair to speak of, most often sporting the common sight of a “crew cut,” so popular among the parents of young boys in those days. Somehow, I knew that one day this moment would have meaning for me, even though at the time I had no framework for discerning why. I committed those moments to memory, knowing that I would be glad some day in the future.

Further along in my grammar school education, I used to walk every day back and forth to school, and I remember my feet swishing through the leaves on the sidewalks, and I loved the sound that the fragile brown leaves would make as I floated through them—and the pleasure of admiring the beautiful colors all mixed together as I made my way to and from my home each day, and for a short time, this ritual would sometimes include a shower of leaves as they broke loose and were falling all around me.

It seems to me now, in retrospect, that I was falling too…

The Fading of the Light

Watching out my window this evening as the sky slowly abandoned the light of day, fading slowly into twilight, my heart was following along as the sky darkened. In some ways, my heart knows me better than my mind. Within the realm of thoughts and emotions, thoughts have always seemed to eventually defer to my emotions, not because my thoughts were faulty in some way necessarily, but more because the way I feel sometimes tends to be more accurate than my thinking.

In a recent preparation to deliver remarks at a memorial service, I quoted Descartes well-known axiom, “I think, therefore I am,” and suggested that for me personally, it seemed more correct to say, “I feel, therefore I am.” Feeling any potent emotion has always felt more compelling to me as an indication that I truly existed, as opposed to even the most considered and volatile thoughts. Of course, in order to “know” what I felt required the ability to acknowledge intellectually the arrival of the emotion within me, or to even recognize that emotions were active in my experiential awareness. Cognition and awareness of existing subjectively are vitally important partners in experiential reality.

Looking out my window at the still reasonably bright sky, when I initially arrived in the chair which provided the view out the window, found me both thoughtful and emotional. Intellectually, I knew that the time of day and the view out the window were already conspiring to reveal the day’s relentless progression toward the night, but my emotional state was not only reluctant to allow this acknowledgement to take hold, but also fully engaged in the recognition of how keenly the gradual diminishment of light in the sky mirrored the same in my heart.

Intellectually, I was fully cognitive of the causes for the light to fade, and the expectations one must have as the day concludes and the night arrives, but emotionally, even though my mind told me that it was inevitable and unstoppable, my heart wanted the light to linger, and felt keenly how much I longed for the light to remain. This longing held sway mostly due to how I felt about it, rather than what my mind knew was the cause of it. In my mind, I knew it was inevitable, but for my heart, it was a painful and lamentable development, for which no amount of thinking would provide even the slightest solace.

Aside from these meandering thoughts and feelings about the loss of the light, which were mostly secondary in the moment, there was an emotional reverie taking place in both my heart and mind, which formed the foundation for the contrast in the first place. Having nearly a lifetime of sunrises and sunsets to look back on gives each new arrival and departure of daylight and nightfall greater import, based on the recognition that there are clearly fewer opportunities remaining to experience them, compared to the approximately 21,000 which I have already experienced.

Reviewing the hundreds of photographs from my family history that I inherited some years ago, I was struck by the absolute lack of images other than those of family members and family occasions. Even when the images in the family archive began to appear in color in the late fifties and early sixties, there were perhaps less than a handful which consisted of landscapes or mountain vistas, and most of them had someone else in the foreground.

The same review of my own personal collection of photographs showed a relatively greater number of images of the natural world that surrounded me, regardless of whether or not the final images included friends or family members. Almost immediately, as I became more familiar with the process of photography, it occurred to me that the world itself provided many scenes which were worthwhile to capture, and which, in some cases, meant more to me than the simple fact of their existence at the time they were photographed. The motivation for me to remember the beauty and the atmosphere of some of these places was often on the same footing, and was informed by the same degree of interest, that I had in remembering the people who occupied those spaces.

Reflecting now, after all this time, on the experiences surrounding the events and the locations in which they took place, it seems to me that the environment and the scope of the surroundings themselves became such a vital aspect of these experiences for me, that in order to fully represent the totality of particular events, and to help me to subsequently reconstruct the fullness of my experiences, it became necessary to expand the collection of photographs to include whatever else made those experiences feel the way they did to me. It may have been the natural inclinations of the budding artist within me, or it may have been the impending spiritual awakening which was, unbeknownst to me, shortly to appear on the horizon, but as time passed, my photographs began to reflect a much more thoughtful approach, and often were created from the wellspring of emotion bubbling under the surface of my life. Looking back on it now, I am almost embarrassed to report that I had not even the slightest inkling of what was transpiring within me at the time, but by the time I had reached the period of my life which took place overseas, the universe had conspired to point it out to me in ways that I could never have anticipated.

After the abrupt and traumatic events in 1973, the escalation emotionally and psychologically of my world view was the perfect vehicle to launch my intense interest in photography, and it clearly fed the fervor of my investigations into the world within me to such a degree, that almost every important moment of those times required me to record that urgency in every way at my disposal.

The depth of my understanding of the world, and my awareness of the extent to which spirituality would eventually direct the course of my life, prior to my awakening in the autumn of 1973 in Massachusetts, was so limited and incomplete, it hardly seems possible that such an expansion of my artistic and spiritual senses could even have taken place without some drastic change or pivotal event.

Whatever indications there were in my personal photographic evidence, and in the products of my various artistic endeavors up to that point, none of them apparently penetrated sufficiently into my daily waking states of consciousness to provide the necessary spark of creativity that would press me toward my destiny.

***more to come***

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.