The Soul That Rises With Us

There is a movement within me, an awareness—a deeply personal transcendent awareness—which, from my perspective, clearly does not originate from some temporal source in the world. There are those who might say such concepts are an illusion. I have often thought that they said such things to make the world seem more comprehensible—to make them feel better about not truly knowing.

The same might be said about some of the things that have happened to me, which seemed objectively real to me. I know my consciousness exists IN the world, and that I have become manifest as a sentient being in the physical world, and yet, everything within me harkens back to the beginning, starting with my first memories, and when I reflect on those earliest recollections of existing as a “self,” it inevitably reminds me of how mysterious life seemed at that time. There were so many questions, and so much of what took place in the world that evoked within me, a deep sense of mystery. William Wordsworth wrote:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Had hath elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

–excerpt from Wordsworth’s poem, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

We often think as we arrive into our advanced years that we have conquered some of these mysteries—that we have penetrated them somehow—at least to a degree. In some ways, of course, we actually have unraveled portions of what previously had been considered ineffable and mysterious.

The comprehension of brain physiology has been enormously illuminating for someone like me, and the advances in neuroscience have expanded our understanding of our mental life exponentially. It often makes me laugh when some prominent neuroscientist feels so confident to assert some “discovery” of why things work the way they do, or what makes us human.

Of all the aspects of our advances in understanding, of all the qualities of our human physiology that distinguish us as creatures who possess a uniquely “human perspective,” our grasp of how the human brain operates, and our ever-increasing knowledge of our particular neural architecture, explain with generally accepted agreement among neuroscientists, the basic fundamentals of how it is that we possess such an astonishing array of cognitive functions.

So much of our ability to make good use of our experience of the world is made possible by our higher cognitive functioning—by the firing of neurons, which send out electrical impulses, which propagate along the strings of dendrites, and by the transfer of ions across synapses—chemicals crossing cellular barriers between neurons—and by the eventual cooperation and coordination of whole brain regions. So much of sensation and comprehension and cognition require this exchange of energy and information, and even the small understanding that we currently possess is absolutely astonishing!

As miraculous as all of this seems, for me, it mostly shines a light on the SOURCE of consciousness, and the FOUNDATIONAL MECHANISM of our ability to be aware of our subjective experience. Everything I see and know and understand, and everything I feel, points toward an appreciation of our cognitive capacities, as a MEANS to access the phenomenon of human subjective experience, which is the link between our temporal existence and our true nature as manifestations of a non-physical reality. I recognize that there are cognitive illusions, and that there is bias, and limited apprehension by humanity of the physical universe currently.

As much as we see and understand, we see and understand so little, compared to what there IS to see and understand. It seems to me and to many others, that most of what we think we know only scratches the surface of what there is to know. Our fullest and most current understanding of our existence as physical beings in a physical universe only POINTS in the direction of the fullness of understanding that is achievable.

We constantly approach thresholds where all of our knowledge and complex scientific comprehension leave us empty-handed when they try to explain the true and full nature of our subjective experience of being alive as sentient cognitive beings. It’s not a failure of our scientific talents and it’s not an indictment of our human version of intelligence as being inadequate to the task.

Author and lifelong teacher, Joseph Campbell, who was the leading mythologist and former member of the literature faculty at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, expressed it best when he wrote that all of our efforts in life are not a search for meaning, but instead, he believed that “…we are seeking an experience of being alive that resonates with our innermost being and reality.” According to Campbell, the life experiences that we have are intended to help us “…feel the rapture of being alive.” In his view, myths are “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

With an expectation that you will find some causal link between brain physiology and the full explanation of the phenomenon of human subjective experience of consciousness, it seems to me, that you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

It is my most fervent hope in this life, that there is still sufficient time for me to share all that I have learned by being who I am, and that as many people as possible, hear the message—the song of the universe—the song of absolute balance in life—not giving everything away and not withholding anything, just being, surviving and helping anyone we can.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the world as it could be—there are those who seek to control and manipulate rather than allow and cooperate. As a result, those of us who seek balance have to work hard to prevent as much suffering in the world as we can.

One day, all of us, regardless of what side of the fence we are on, will be confronted by circumstances which require our best life-affirming response. At that moment, we will know what to do. If we are able to do as much right as possible, the world will turn out better in the long run.

Evolution of Cognition

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The evolution of life on our planet has produced an extraordinary variety and diversity of species, and the paths followed by many of the branches on the tree of life have held sway for millions of years before ending completely or splitting off into whole new species. The ability of each branch to continue into the future has depended on the ability of each particular organism to adapt to changing circumstances, or to develop capacities, talents, or skills which conferred some increased survival advantage. Those organisms which acquired the necessary advantages were able to pass them along to the next generation of offspring through a combination of genetic inheritance and by demonstrating useful survival strategies through their specific nurturing behaviors.

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Anyone who spends time reviewing the recent publications in neuroscientific and cognitive studies is bound to come across the persistent urge of scientists and reductionists to equate “being conscious”–i.e. being awake, alert, and alive–with “consciousness,” which is more correctly viewed as a unified, subjective, and integrated whole phenomena, composed of and supported by a great deal more than that. This disparity within the ranks of those who investigate brain functioning leads many of them to conclude that consciousness is “generated” by the brain alone.

To be fair, every investigation into the subjective nature of human consciousness clearly must address the role of our complex cognitive apparatus in facilitating access to our subjective experience of it. Without a nominally functional brain, educated through a basic selection of life experiences, supported by a rich variety of sensory stimulation, a minimal degree of specific learning activities, access to the storage and retrieval of memories, and some proficiency with language, access to our subjective experience–the “what-it’s-like” character of being would still be taking place, but would be far less useful and be of a wholly different quality.

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Our early hominid ancestors, the earliest versions of Homo sapiens, and perhaps even Homo erectus and Homo habilis, must have possessed some degree of access to consciousness, in spite of having developed only a limited capacity for cognitive awareness. When we examine what is known about the early history of humanity, and compare the progress through the millennia from the earlier versions of “modern” humans who painted images on cave walls some 35,000 years ago, to that of our 21st century human experience, it becomes clear that simply possessing the same requisite brain structure as those previous ancestors was not sufficient to allow them the immediate acquisition of sophisticated and comprehensive appreciation of our subjective experience of consciousness.

The unfolding of human consciousness, the gradual sophistication of human activities, the evolution of the human body and brain structures, and the subsequent increases in cognitive talent, eventually provided the first modern humans with an adequate foundation for apprehending the “what-it’s-like” subjective awareness of being alive, and initiated a coordination of the gradually improving array of brain functions to make use of the more unified subjective awareness of existing as a physical being in the physical universe. In order for these early humans to achieve a penetrating and subjective self-awareness required them to possess not only a nominally functional brain, supported by an equally functional central nervous system, enhanced by each of the sensory systems which provided the necessary neural stimulation for the developing brain, but also to have a reasonably healthy body that was ambulatory with basic cardiovascular and digestive functionality as well. The sustained integration of all these bodily and cognitive functions over tens of thousands of years eventually became sufficient to bring subjective awareness into fullness, which established the groundwork for the development of language, and the subsequent ability to express that awareness in a meaningful way.

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Clearly, even before the arrival of Homo sapiens, some previous and more limited versions of this basic awareness, which might have been present in the hominid populations as the threshold for our more comprehensive cognitive awareness approached a minimal level, may have provided the seeds for the blossoming of our ability to more fully access consciousness as we do in our 21st century world. Many of the advantages and advances along the way for human beings socially, culturally, and cognitively have been enriched and expanded by our subsequent evolution since humans first began to demonstrate their capacity for intelligence and self-awareness, and became more evident as a fuller and more comprehensive human subjective awareness became commonplace.

As with most other human capacities, cognition is absolutely essential to our survival, and while we need our miraculous brains to make sense of experiences, to retain memories, and to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe, each of our capacities provides a vital component, and our bodies and each of our sensory and biological systems contribute essential elements that make experiential functionality useful. While our brain represents the central locus of our mental activity, and acts as the coordinator of both bodily and cognitive functions, simply “being conscious,”–alert and awake–does not describe the comprehensive phenomena of consciousness, and to suggest that the brain alone “generates” consciousness reduces this profoundly important aspect of our humanity to merely being another bodily function like respiration and digestion.

Enormously important contributions are being made all the time in neuroscience and cognitive studies, and pursuing the goals of these endeavors helps us to more fully appreciate the astonishing array of important discoveries that often result from attention to them. Surely, in the interest of scientific curiosity and advancement in all areas of human understanding DEMANDS that we remain open to other possible areas of contribution to such a complex and profoundly important phenomena as our subjective experience of consciousness.

Welcome!

According to most specialists in cognitive studies, there is a stream of consciousness within each of us that never ceases, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep. Exactly what is responsible for our experience of consciousness and a comprehensive explanation of its functioning are still subjects of considerable speculation and study. Assuming that we continue to expand our knowledge and insight into cognitive functioning, it seems reasonable to conclude that we will eventually gain a greater comprehension of its workings, perhaps resulting in a greater degree of access to this stream. We must therefore seek it out, and nourish our individual paths which connect us to it, and also be open to what we uncover as we search.

The nature and study of human consciousness has been a compelling subject for me for more than twenty years. I have spent a great deal of my time and energies trying to come to terms with my own very particular “inner experience” of life, and to somehow understand how the events and flow of my temporal life have directly been influenced by the workings within. Sharing what I have come to understand about my own “Inner Evolution,” has tasked my intellect and communications skills in a big way. I am only just beginning to feel confident enough in the results of my study and contemplation to bring the many various aspects of what I have uncovered within myself. I am hopeful that my own subjective and personal experience of my own “human spirit” will resonate with others, and encourage them to explore their own.

Way back in 1973, as a young man embarking on the journey of a lifetime, I experienced what Carl Jung described as “the eruption of unconscious contents,” which compelled me to seek the path I continue to pursue to this day. The path of discovery has led me through an astonishingly diverse range of explorations in philosophy, science, and religion, as well as the many compelling ideas in the literature and scriptures of the cultures of the world. There is, in my view, a compelling thread made up of components of each, that runs through the fabric of life

What do the sages, and the world’s religious leaders, and the great scientists and philosophers of human history say about the nature of existence and consciousness? What are the modern philosophical and cutting edge scientific minds struggling to understand still? Will the advances in physics and neuroscience and cognitive studies eventually result in a comprehensive theory of consciousness? There is hope for the future, but we must be willing to allow ourselves to explore our own inner landscape to see where it will lead us.

JJHIII – January 2011