After A Tree Falls…Nature Responds

Just after the tree company demolished the front yard tree, I somberly examined the remaining stump and photographed it for posterity, sadly contemplating the loss as a necessary but unfortunate development.

I even stood upon the stump in a defiant expression of frustration at the total destruction of a long term relationship with a lovely arboreal companion.

The link above tells a little more about what followed this summer, and my astonishment about the power of nature to renew itself, but this next series of photos really adds a fitting follow-up to the disappointment I felt last September when the tree was cut down.

This is the same stump this morning as I took a walk around to the front yard. It is hard to believe that it has simply refused to be extinguished!

This growth is now fuller and amazingly taller than me! It’s getting to the point where I may end up having to trim it down again. It is oddly reassuring to me that the tree seems not to want to “give up the ghost,” and has somehow defiantly asserted itself so that I can’t now stand again on the stump, unless I figure out some way to make my way through the foliage that has erupted all around it.

In an interesting side note, I recently attended the wedding ceremony of a family friend and was pleasantly surprised that the location for the reception included a large meadow out in back of the venue, and when I stepped out into it during a break in the action, I discovered this wonderfully robustly healthy tree cousin of substantial proportions.

In a very comforting way, standing next to this behemoth of the same variety as the one removed from my front yard gave me a sense of calm and admiration for what is possible in Nature when given sufficient opportunity to grow.

I’m actually hoping to see some sort of autumnal transition to occur in the regenerated tree stump out front, and will post something either way when enough time has passed.

Life Revealing Itself

There is a movement taking place within me and around me as the year progresses toward the autumn and winter seasons.  It’s creating a degree of both anticipation and trepidation, which I find a bit unsettling.  Even when we are anticipating the arrival of something wonderful, it alters our outlook if we are paying attention well enough, just as naturally as when we look ahead with some anxiety toward uncertainty or disruption in our immediate circumstance.

It has always been like this for me. Even as a young man I recall both the excitement of the arrival of new experience, especially when it is expected to be of a positive nature, as well as the fear brought about by not knowing what will happen, or how I might endure adverse circumstances.  In my early youth, I was always reacting to whatever circumstances prevailed at the time, and rarely had any time to prepare myself or any idea of how to deal with those circumstances, beyond what I could conjure on the fly.  

I was notoriously impulsive and spontaneous in most every circumstance, and often acted without thinking things through, no matter what the outcome might potentially be. This approach to living my life occasionally served me well when the outcome was advantageous in some way, but more often than not, my lack of sophistication and inability to mitigate my impulsive nature caused either me or someone else a degree of difficulty that was daunting in one way or another, and it took me many years to begin to understand why I always seemed to find out the hard way that my choices needed to be less impulsive. 

Joining the military at age 20 was a turning point like no other before it, and although it forced me to implement a greater degree of self-discipline, once I became more confident and successful in that environment, I still wasn’t completely able to let go of my spontaneous nature altogether.  I had finally stepped back away from the precipice of chaos, at least enough to be more measured in my actions, and the overall percentage of advantageous outcomes increased dramatically.

As a mature person in my thirties, it became a necessity to become more consistently reliable since I had become a parent to small children, and while I was able to provide for them sufficiently in the main, I constantly struggled with my own well-being in the process.  Throughout my working life, even when I had achieved a reasonably stable and prosperous level of income, I constantly had to submerge my personal interests so as not to endanger the well-being of those in my care.

This constant back-and-forth condition was both frustrating when it held me back, and equally compelling when it led to a burst of progress toward my personal goals.  The contrast between the two conditions was maddening at times, and there were moments which tested my resolve in both directions. It took me until well into my fifties to settle down enough to manage my general outlook in a way that didn’t undermine either my daily obligations or my personal well-being.

I know now, after many years of study and contemplation of the subjective experience of human consciousness, that in order to understand it and to move toward it, we need to realize that whatever the source of consciousness may be, it goes much deeper, and is more meaningful and profound than we currently suppose.  This search I have been on all these years has clearly been aided by my willingness to be open to the experiences of my personal journey, even with all of its starts and stops—even with each step forward and back. 

Just as it seems now, in consideration of our current understanding of the laws of physics and quantum theory, that the physical universe which we observe and study is reliant upon unobservable phenomena and additional dimensions outside of our direct perception—in part—a manifestation of non-material aspects—so too now, does consciousness appear to be, at its source, non-material.  The difficulty then becomes, trying to discern how the non-material aspects of the universe and of consciousness affect the physical world and interact with our daily waking awareness of our existence.

Many philosophers and neuroscientists wish to express the phenomenon of consciousness as an emergent property of our brain physiology, and in doing so, eliminate any other possible avenue of exploration and explanation.  We can certainly sympathize with this inclination in view of the enormous progress of the physical sciences generally, and of neuroscience specifically, that has been made without invoking any additional layers of existence or positing immaterial forces or energies that may contribute to the full understanding of both cosmology and consciousness.

Over the decades of my existence, what has consistently led me to be convinced to the contrary has been my own profound inner sense of something taking place within me, which informs me about my existence, in addition to my own personal physical experience of the world.  To the extent that I have studied the physical sciences and the laws of physics, and read and listened to a host of great thinkers of human history, nothing I have encountered along the way has been sufficient to dissuade me from concluding that my own personal awareness—my own subjective experience of existence—my own consciousness—is perhaps the greatest source for acknowledgment and discernment about my existence that I could possibly hope to possess.  There could be no more reliable source of inspiration or self-awareness for any of us than our own subjective experience, and while none of us is infallible or omnipotent, no other aspect of our awareness is more certain than our own experience of existence.

Anyone with generally good health and a reasonably stable physiology experiences their physical existence through the five senses, and processes the signals sent to their brains from the central nervous system as their waking consciousness, and so long as these physical systems remain nominally functional, our experiences of the world can be stored in memory, we can learn new skills, and generally remember most of the important knowledge we gain through experience.  The mechanisms of brain physiology are indeed wondrous and fascinating to study, and without these important functions operating correctly, our ability to be aware and to be able to experience our existence can be compromised. One need only look to the pathologies present in the human population from disease, genetic defects, and serious injuries to the brain, in order to appreciate the importance of these systems in providing us with access to a functional and productive subjective experience.

What may not be quite so clear is the full understanding of how it is exactly that these functions are accompanied by our extraordinary subjective awareness.  My whole life has contained an array of experiences and a keen sense of awareness of a level of existence that cannot be described in temporal terms, and several key experiences have provided me with an affirmation of my general notion that I have carried with me throughout, that everything we see, everything we do, every act, every nuance of experience, is made possible by a source which cannot be defined in material terms alone. 

Especially during times of profound sadness and exquisite joy, during any of the many extreme circumstances that occur in our lives, we are more readily able to sense our closeness to this source if we are open to doing so. 

Even on a much smaller scale, when we encounter other individual human spirits, with whom we immediately feel a sense of connection, even if they don’t recognize it themselves, we may become aware of our connection to THEM, in a way that is so clear and so deep, that we are able to sense something existent within them that connects us with no ambiguity at all. 

The feeling of being connected to other like spirits, even when it is immediate and without precedent in our experience, can overwhelm us at times, making it terribly difficult to ignore, or to dismiss it as some sort of response to a biological process or instinctive reaction within us.  In my experience, reviewing these episodes of connection that have occurred so often in my travels, gives me good cause to suppose, that what we generally attribute to basic instincts or biological imperatives, or even to our physiological responses to stimuli, all of it may well be a manifestation of an ineffable source which subsequently allows us to “instinctively” lean toward the awareness of non-material aspects of life in the physical universe.  When we fall in love or when we feel enormously compelled to seek out certain situations or individuals or when we follow a hunch or are obsessed by certain ideas, all of these are indications of a connection to something larger than ourselves. Since we only have a limited range of responses that we CAN give, we tend to associate the brain’s activity as being the source of those responses, rather than recognizing the possibility that the source might be something else entirely.

What You Hold In Thought

“The evolution of life in the double direction of individuality and association has nothing accidental about it: it is due to the very nature of life.”

“Essential also is the progress to reflection. If our analysis is correct, it is consciousness, or rather supra-consciousness, that is at the origin of life. Consciousness, or supra-consciousness, is the name for the rocket whose extinguished fragments fall back as matter; consciousness, again, is the name for that which subsists of the rocket itself, passing through the fragments and lighting them up into organisms.”

“The effort we make to transcend pure understanding introduces us into that more vast something out of which our understanding is cut, and from which it has detached itself. And, as matter is determined by intelligence, as there is between them an evident agreement, we cannot make the genesis of the one without making the genesis of the other. An identical process must have cut out matter and the intellect, at the same time, from a stuff that contained both. Into this reality we shall get back more and more completely, in proportion as we compel ourselves to transcend pure intelligence.”

“On this new ground philosophy ought then to follow science, in order to superpose on scientific truth knowledge of another kind, which may be called metaphysical. Thus combined, all our knowledge, both scientific and metaphysical, is heightened. In the absolute we live and move and have our being. The knowledge we possess of it is incomplete, no doubt, but not external or relative. It is reality itself, in the profoundest meaning of the word that we reach by the combined and progressive development of science and of philosophy.”

—excerpts from “Creative Evolution,” by Henri Bergson, 1907

The world is neither simply what we perceive it to be, nor is it strictly a metaphysical mystery beyond our understanding.  These two apparently opposing approaches to our understanding are, it seems to me, more correctly to be two components of the same conundrum.  We tend these days to gravitate toward specialization in almost every arena of endeavor, and in doing so, we seem often to be missing the larger picture of what might be most helpful in increasing our understanding generally.

Mr. Bergson, who wrote extensively about the nature of matter and intelligence more than 100 years ago, even without the accelerated advances in knowledge we enjoy currently, correctly framed the question of how we might advance our understanding.  We cannot simply focus on a narrow selection of material, intellectual, or spiritual criteria and cannot reasonably consider only one approach as sufficient to give us the broadest understanding.  Mr. Bergson just wasn’t equipped enough by the technology of his day to take it further.

Today, we know more and understand better about the world in which we live, but we are still struggling to catch up on the broadest inclusion of ideas possible, and we must allow the full investigation to proceed in each of the three realms of material, intellectual, and the spiritual.  It’s not possible to eliminate any reasonable approach just yet, but these three each have important components to contribute.  It’s a generalization in terms of describing the issue, but we definitely need to expand our realm of possibilities to include a variety of approaches which just may support the others in some useful way.

Lots of new material is in progress here at John’s Consciousness, and I hope my visitors and readers will be patient with me as I navigate the path forward.  I have been immersed in some of the most important and profound life works of my nearly 70 years of living this past year or so, and, like most of us, I feel like I just want to break out of isolation into something that truly matters.  I’ve been developing a new approach to sharing my writing here, and when I am ready, I will begin to engage more fully with the content of my writings, and to share more fully the ideas which occupy my heart, mind, and soul. 

Stay tuned.

A Capacity for Intelligence

According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, intelligence is defined as:

noun
1. capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.
2. manifestation of a high mental capacity: “He writes with intelligence and wit.”

In a recent study conducted at the University of Western Ontario, researchers acknowledged the limitations of current scientific research, but offered a basis for suggesting factors to consider. They “looked into the brain areas that are activated by tasks that are typically used to test for intelligence,” and reported their results–

“…based on the set of brain areas that might contribute to those tasks. However don’t get too excited, the methods used have severe limitations and we are still only at the hypothesis level. We do not know how these areas contribute to performance in intelligence tests and we do not know why they are activated and how they interact together to create the behavior.”

http://blog.brainfacts.org/

According to a recently published neuroscientific paper, “a broader definition was agreed to by 52 prominent researchers on 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.”

Reviewing the many related brain structures involved in cognitive functioning, researchers concluded that:

“…variations in these structures and functions may be “endophenotypes” for intelligence — that is, they might be intermediate physiological markers that contribute directly to intelligence. Therefore, genes involved in intelligence might be more closely linked to these variations in brain structure and function than to intelligence itself. In fact, in all studies to date, the genetic influences on these structures and functions were highly correlated with those on general intelligence.”

–excerpts from “The Neuroscience of Human Intelligence Differences,” by Ian J.Deary, Lars Penke and Wendy Johnson

There are a number of individuals today who are beginning to make associations between the technological advances of modern science and some of the ancient esoteric traditions like yoga, in an attempt to explain our subjective experience of consciousness:

“If hypothetical machinery inside neurons fails to explain qualia, (the ‘what-it’s-like’ quality of experience) must we then consider the molecules that make up the neuronal machinery, or the atoms inside the molecules, or the subatomic particles inside the atoms? Where is the difference that causes the qualia of subjective experience? A less problematic explanation is possible. German scientist, Gottfried Leibniz, postulated irreducible quanta of consciousness he termed ‘monads.’ Matter does not create consciousness. Instead, matter is animated by monads. It seems hardly a coincidence that Leibniz’ monads would perfectly fit between the moments of time that lead to Kaivalya, (Yoga term for enlightenment or nirvana.)

Ultimately, Kaivalya is an ineffable experience. But the claim of yoga is that it provides means to experience what is outside of the individualized mind. The experience of going through the center of consciousness and emerging, as it were, on the other side is very much one of turning inside out. In our ordinary consciousness we are turned outwards towards the world-image which we externalized around us.

In going through our consciousness the entire process is reversed, we experience an inversion…that which was without becomes within. In fact, when we succeed in going through our center of consciousness and emerge on the other side, we do not so much realize a new world around us as a new world within us. We seem to be on the surface of a sphere having all within ourselves and yet to be at each point of it simultaneously…the outstanding reality of our experience…is the amazing fact that nothing is outside us.”

–excerpts from article by DONALD J. DEGRACIA, Associate Professor of Physiology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, in EDGESCIENCE MAGAZINE #16 • NOVEMBER 2013

artificial-intelligence-8-638

Recent research in artificial intelligence has begun to approach what might be described as a kind of tipping point, where the lines will likely begin to blur between what is clearly a type of machine intelligence, like the current offerings in robotics and self-driving cars, to something more akin to the kind of intelligence that talks back to you or responds in a more conversational manner like Apple’s “Siri,” and the Windows 10 offering of a personal assistant application called “Cortana.” Many of these innovations are built upon interest in the idea of eventually being able to develop the technologies surrounding A.I. to the point where they will function so much like the human brain, that communicating with them will be virtually indistinguishable from doing so with another live human person.

While this is an enormously appealing concept to our modern sensibilities, and currently fueling a huge amount of research in the industry, even supposing that it might be possible to produce a device or platform commensurate with the trillions of connections between neurons in the human brain, characterizing any resulting machine as either “intelligent” or “conscious,” requires us to re-examine what it means to be intelligent and conscious. Our current understanding of these terms, even as they apply to humans, is still not especially comprehensive or complete, and looking at the development of “human” or “biological” intelligence through the millennia, demonstrates a key component of the challenge in creating an artificial version that might qualify as equivalent.

artificial Human-Evolution1

Early humans and their fellow primates and mammals, along with all the various species endowed with sufficiently complex neural structures and central nervous systems, at some point, eventually possessed a brain or other neural configuration of adequate strength, size, and architecture, which allowed for the retention of memories, and for processing the sensory data gleaned through the available senses. These structures, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, at some point provided the necessary support for adaptive learning or for acquiring a sufficient degree of species-specific abilities, in order for the organism to make efficient use of that information, and to produce a range of results, commensurate with their species-specific capacities and habitation, which enhanced their survival in their respective environments.

Once our ancient ancestors reached a certain level of development, through the integration of incremental evolutionary changes, they achieved a nominal degree of enhanced cognitive talents, attaining a sufficient capacity for what we describe as “human intelligence,” which eventually led to the ability to reason and plan well enough to override emotional distractions, needs and desires, and to awaken to a penetrating level of subjective self-awareness. As any parent of a healthy child can tell you, intelligence does not appear immediately even in modern human children. In spite of advantageous circumstances and environments in which these amazing cognitive human creatures develop, it still requires a minimal degree of relevant experience in the world to accumulate a useful and functional knowledge base, to hone learning skills, and to be able to draw on a collection of memories, which enhance whatever cognitive, genetic, and other physiological resources they might bring to the process.

As a consequence of the random combinations of chromosomes in the human reproductive process, there is a sufficient degree of diversity in the general distribution of combinations available to the human genome, so that each human child has a relatively unique set of circumstances genetically. This diversity is necessary for the health of our species, and as a result, we observe a full range of endowment, which can result in bestowing our descendents with a general baseline capacity for the development of cognitive efficiency, or at the other end of the spectrum, a potential for an enhanced intellectual development, right from the start. A vast array of cultural and environmental variables can either promote or inhibit whatever potential is present, and throughout human history, we have observed how a viable or disadvantageous environment, as well as individual initiative or apathy, can alter the equation in either direction.

It seems likely, in view of these mitigating factors, that it is through a combination of innate cognitive talent, genetic endowment, and environmental conditions that we see contributions to the general flow of intelligence either making a significant appearance, or faltering and struggling to gain ground, in much the same way as it has been since the earliest neural structures appeared in whatever creatures are still existent today. In every case, whatever degree of potential existed within a particular species, it was either successfully developed and exploited for survival, or ended up being thwarted by circumstances from developing successfully enough to sustain a niche for a particular species, resulting in their extinction.

artificial33

Our challenge in the 21st century is finding a way to determine which contributing factors for increasing intelligence can be safely selected by humans for the most productive incorporation into what we are currently describing as “artificial intelligence,” or “machine intelligence.” Unfortunately, no matter what we are ultimately able to do, in my view, we won’t be able to incorporate our humanity fully into machines, nor will we be able to artificially endow them with the experience of “being human.” In order for us to be aware of our experience of existing as a human being, while clearly requiring a variety of nominally functional, finely-tuned, and integrated biological systems, each of which are essential currently, because there is so much more to being a subjectively aware human person, there must be something that it is like to be human, which cannot be precisely replicated by any technological advancement or created through sheer engineering genius. The subjective experience of human consciousness utilizes our very human capacity for intelligence, as well as our access to a penetrating awareness provided by an astonishing array of electrochemical processes in our miraculous brains, but what we are accessing is not PRODUCED by the brain, but rather it is PERCEIVED by it.

It’s interesting to me how some scientists and thinkers in all the various fields of investigation into artificial intelligence believe that it is simply a matter of achieving a sufficient degree of complexity in the structures we devise for the processing of the voluminous data necessary to be equivalent to the human brain, constructing a sufficiently pliable, flexible, and interactive software, driven by the necessary algorithms, and we will eventually produce a sentient, intelligent, and conscious machine.

In his fascinating and expansive book entitled, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” Stephen Hawking posits that if “very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent,” it should follow that “equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way.” He goes on to say that electronic circuits have the same problem as our chemical processes in the brain, which is to process data at a useful speed. He also rightly points out that computers currently have less computational power than “a humble earthworm,” and while they “have the advantage of speed…they show no sign of intelligence.” He also reminds us that even with our capacity for what we call intelligence, that “the human race does not have a very good record of intelligent behavior.”

2 brains

The possession of a capacity for intelligence of any sort, artificial or otherwise, is clearly not a “stand-alone” feature that is sufficient to sustain any species in and of itself. As we have observed throughout the evolutionary history of the natural world, constructing and sustaining a successful organism requires the development of a range of compensatory and complimentary abilities and potentials, commensurate with the designs and functions of a particular species, in order to achieve a requisite degree of balance.

In the case of Homo sapiens, our particular brand of human intelligence, as we currently understand it, appears to be primarily the result of human evolution and progress throughout our history as upright, bipedal, and increasingly cognitive beings. As a result, our species is apparently uniquely well-suited for our evolutionary niche, and dominates currently among the other living organisms, mostly for this very reason. While we share much in common with our primate and mammalian family of creatures, and bearing in mind that we are equally indebted to all living things and to the Earth itself for our continued ability to sustain ourselves, intelligence appears to exist in remarkably adaptive and unique ways in each of the various evolutionary paths for each family of species that coexist with us today.

It would be arrogant to suggest that our variety of intelligence is in any way superior to that enjoyed by other organisms on our planet, except in the context of its usefulness to our specific nature as humans. Our own highly-adaptive nature is fairly well-suited generally to the requirements of our species, and while one might reasonably argue that our inclinations and intelligence are lacking in one way or another, for the most part, even considering our limitations, foibles, and perceived deficits, human intelligence has managed to keep pace with the unfolding of our continued evolution thus far, and providing that we persist in developing and adapting to our ever-changing circumstances, there is cause for optimism in my view.

What we tend to miss in most of our estimations of what sort of artificial intelligence might emerge from our efforts to produce it, is that no matter what results are forthcoming, it will very likely be profoundly different than our own ultimately, in spite of how specifically we aim to recreate the mental processes and physiological structures of our own exquisitely adaptive brains.

A Cascade of Autumn Leaves

 

Last Gasp of Summer

Sitting out in the backyard on a November morning with brilliant sunshine and mild temperatures approaching 75 degrees F, sipping on my morning coffee, it seems almost surreal given the circumstances.  Perhaps it is the last gasp of summer, or simply a consequence of a random twist or turn in the weather patterns bringing warmer air from the south currently, but whatever is responsible, it is a welcome development. The warmth of the sun on my skin is oddly out of sync with the calendar as we approach mid-November, but even as I embrace the experience of the ambient air and savor the flavor of my morning jo, I know well that it cannot last much longer, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and allow the thoughts to flow out of me while it lasts.

 

 

The day is young and there isn’t much activity in the surrounding area yet, so it is relatively quiet, with a few more distant sounds barely discernible in the background. Within there is a barely noticeable sensation of anticipation, which seems to be cautiously awaiting acknowledgement as I let go of the temporal stream of events, and open to the vibrations of my inner life.  So much of what flows through the conscious mind can be ignored or cast aside in favor of the immediate circumstance one finds one’s self in until an effort is made to focus more specifically on a separate task, and it takes an extra degree of attention to filter out what may somehow interrupt the flow of attention and disrupt your focus.

 

As I sat contemplating my next sentence, a tiny baby spider dropped on my laptop screen, momentarily interrupting my concentration, just as a curious young squirrel stirred right beside my chair, apparently expecting some sort of attention as well. 

 

Intermittent Moments of Silence

The silence is intermittent as the neighbors on either side of us stir and attend to their chores, but as I wait for the next moment of silence, I begin to notice other audible intrusions in the distance.  The leaves have begun to fall in earnest now from the backyard tree and with the gentle wind stirring occasionally, bits of tree branches or other debris also drops to the ground, disturbing the intermittent silences.

It is curious to me how much is transpiring at every moment in the yard that is only apparent when sitting in a chair awaiting the moments of quiet.  The movements of nature are generally detectable as they catch my eye, whereas the actions of people are obvious at a much greater distance since they can be heard more easily than seen.  As the sounds reach my ears and are processed by my brain, I am able to discern what they are and to decipher the degree of attention they may or may not deserve, but the activity of the natural inhabitants in the yard barely make a sound.

Now it has become a contest to see how long I can go with near-total silence before being interrupted by one or the other of the distractions currently available.  The relentless drone of distant traffic is easy enough to filter out, and the occasional bird song or squirrel chatter isn’t particularly intrusive, but even a distant single-engine plane can intrude in a way that requires a pause in the absorption of silence.

 

Melancholy Beauty

There’s a distinctly melancholy beauty about such an afternoon.  There’s hardly a cloud in the deeply blue sky; the air is unusually warm and dry; the wind rises and then dissipates in an unpredictable rhythm.  The cats have joined me in the afternoon sun, attending to their routines at my feet, and as I type these words, I feel a degree of calm that is uncommonly pleasing and refreshing.  I’m almost hypnotized by the sweetness and delightful lack of concern I’m experiencing about what comes next. This is a new sensation for me, and even though I know it will not persist as the day rambles on toward the darkness of night, I am content to allow myself to absorb each and every aspect of this sensation for as long as it lasts.  I am able to close my eyes briefly and imagine a time and place where such delight might be available on demand, but quickly realize that the pleasure is heightened by the rarity of opportunity for such experiences, and easily dismiss the idea in favor of the kind of serendipity which produced these circumstances.  When I open my eyes, I begin to look around and observe my world of the moment, to take notice of this melancholy beauty.  

 

The leaves are thinner on the branches than they were yesterday.  They are falling all around me. The air is oddly warmer than usual for the middle of November; there is a gentle breeze that stirs every so often which releases the tenuous leaves for their short trip to the ground, and there are thousands of leaves already laying on every surface outside.  It’s hard to believe that I had swept off the porch out back just yesterday, when I stand at the wall looking out over the scene.

I savor the mildness in the air and the easy breezes which send a cascade of autumn leaves all around me, and I am able to catch a few as they descend in mid-air.  These are the ones I will press into my writer’s journal and preserve them between the pages as I have many times before. 

 

Occasionally, as I peruse one of the hundreds of books on the shelves in my office, looking for a passage to quote or when reviewing the pages from one of my journals, I will encounter a leaf that was placed there years ago, and it always brings a smile to my face, knowing that it was collected from some late autumn day, sitting outside somewhere, fully intending to rediscover it at some later date.

The coffee is starting to cool off now, as I approach the bottom of the cup, and it’s time to refresh it, and review what I have written today.  The words are only pointing toward a thought, a sensation, or a feeling; they reach out in an attempt to capture a moment in time, and to make it possible for the reader to share in that moment.  

For me, it is a delight and a privilege to have this moment of life, on a warm and luminously beautiful autumn afternoon.  One day, on some bitter cold winter morning, as I prepare my coffee in the kitchen, I will bring up this entry on my laptop, and relish the memory of every delightful second, inhaling the fresh air, the sensation of warmth from the sun on my skin, and the periodic moments of silence that inhabit my world as I contemplate the exquisite pleasure I once enjoyed on one fall afternoon, not so long ago.

Epilog:

This morning before I posted this entry, I walked out into the brilliant sunlight out in the backyard; I was astonished to see that overnight nearly every leaf left on the trees just yesterday appeared now to be on the ground.  The trees out back are now almost completely leafless, with a few stragglers still clinging to the nearly bare branches. 

It began to sink in that winter is well on its way now, with cooler temperatures and shorter days, and reluctantly grabbed the rake out of the shed to clear the avalanche of leaves off the deck.  As I began to work, I enjoyed a brief moment of Zen, looking down at the various and multi-colored remnants of the season now ending, embracing with gratitude, the memory of the numerous pleasures experienced during the autumn this year, while still hoping for a gentle or less harsh winter season to come.

 

A Teacher’s Dream

 

A Teacher’s Dream On the Nature of Time

 

After enduring an intense and startling dream about a difficult personal experience,  upon rising it was apparent to me that during the dream, I had acknowledged an important aspect of my own way of being, which has occasionally created challenges for others, due to my inclination toward emotional involvement, when interacting with them. While still in the dream, I seemed to understand and appreciate the predicament my emotional intensity could sometimes create, depending on the circumstances, even though I was still unable to avoid expressing it in real terms as I understood it.

In this instance, I had been engaged in an emotional conversation with a friend, and while it wasn’t a particularly unpleasant interaction, I left the room abruptly and proceeded down a hallway to a short set of stairs, where I promptly sat down in the stairway and began to weep for a moment or two.

 

 

The very next moment, I found myself walking outside in a large park of some kind, and pulled open a large green metal gate, just enough to allow myself to squeeze by and descend a long walkway leading to an open area, where a family activity was underway, and as I engaged the members of the family in the middle of this scene, I somehow found myself having to explain my reason for being there.

I shortly left that area and walked up to an adjacent building, and entered a hallway leading up to a large room with a group of young students, waiting to have a class.  The subject of the class was to be the nature of time, and it became apparent after a few moments that I was about to assume the role of teacher in that room.  As the classroom settled down, I started to speak.

 

 

 What follows is a surprisingly lengthy accounting of the ideas I expressed in that setting:

 

“The nature of time is not like a river,” I began, “as most people think of it.  It is more like a continuum.”

 

“The concept of time itself is still somewhat mysterious, especially when you consider that the current wisdom on the subject suggests it is not a linear phenomenon moving inexorably from the past to the future, creating a relentless flow of events taking place, but rather as a streaming sequence of moments that follow each other at all times. It appears now that we may be the ones traveling through time, which exists as a constant, and within which we always participate in our own way.”

 

 

“When we speak of ‘where we are’ at any given moment, it may be more correct to speak of ‘when we are,’ when that moment takes place.  The moment in which any event takes place has always been there before we ‘arrived,’ and remains there long after we have ‘departed’; it is we who are ‘traveling’ through the time continuum, experiencing each moment as we ‘arrive’ in it, and remembering each moment after we move on to the next.  Time doesn’t flow; moments in time remain where they have always been since time began, and where they will remain for whatever amount of time our universe continues to exist.”

 

 

“The beginning of the existence of space occurred at the ‘Big Bang,’ and with it, the existence of time as we experience it also began.  As we now know, for example, the light ‘arriving’ on Earth from space of distant stars, depending on how many ‘light years’ distant they are from us, is doing so long after that light actually left the location of those stars, and so the light from a star that is 100 thousand light years away, is only now arriving when we look up at the area of the sky where it can be seen, but what we see is light that left that location 100 thousand years ago.”

 

 

“The idea that time flows is based on the assumptions we make as physical creatures, who exist on a planet which rotates predictably about every 24 hours in its orbit around the sun, part of the time facing the sun, and part of the time facing away from the sun, which is also tilted part of the time more toward the sun in one hemisphere, which then eventually ‘wobbles’ back the other way, so that the opposite hemisphere then is tilted more toward the sun.  The entire planet travels in an orbit around the sun, predictably about every 365 days, and presents us with the experience of the ‘passage of time,’ with seasonal changes taking place as a result of the tilting of the angle of the Earth toward the sun, and the apparent ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun as we spin on an axis.”

 

 

“Time itself is unchanging, unmoving, existing at all moments as we experience them, and those ‘moments’ that seem to unfold as we ‘arrive,’ have been there waiting for us all along, and the moments which we describe as being in the ‘past,’ are still there, as we remember them, but to which we cannot physically return, since we are the ones ‘traveling,’ through the continuum of time.”

 

“It’s not obvious from our experience of the time continuum that this is the case, and as physical creatures, our perceptions of time and space and of the sequential events that we experience as our daily existence, rely on our sensory systems of sight and sound, scent and taste, and the all-important sense of touch, to determine what is happening in each moment.  Since we are limited in each of these areas regarding the range of what we can experience, as sophisticated and complex as the process of sensory experience truly can be for each of us, our perceptions of our experience can only provide us with a partial picture at best.”

 

 

Some Afterthoughts Upon Reflection

When I awoke from the dream, I immediately got up and wrote down everything I could remember.  I was astonished to see how much I was able to recall of what transpired in the dream.  It was an extraordinary dream sequence that I actually found somewhat disturbing, at least in the sense that I seemed to be quite familiar with the environment and the individuals within it, but have never actually experienced any such circumstance in my waking state.  I don’t have a clear sense of how I could have arrived at an explanation of the nature of time in this dream, even though it seemed to make sense to me while in the dream state.

 

 

Through the development of our advanced technologies, we have been able to extend our knowledge about the nature of our physical existence, and expand our understanding beyond the speculations and superstitions of the past. Even with every advancement made over the tens of thousands of years in which humans have been capable of deliberate investigation and subsequent discovery, there still remains much that we have yet to fully understand, and mysteries abound throughout the Universe, some of which we are likely not yet aware.  Exploration continues at an amazing pace in many areas of science and technology, but our understanding and appreciation of the fullness of our experience of life seems often not to be keeping pace.

 

Physical Reality

Physical reality, within which our moment-to-moment experience of life as a human being takes place, has revealed many fascinating and terrible aspects of existing in a physical universe, and we know for certain now, that there are a number of layers to our experience of space and time, which clearly do exist, but which we cannot affirm or prove using any traditional scientific methodology.

 

 

 

No one has ever actually seen an electron, traveled at the speed of light, or penetrated the farthest reaches of space, but their existence is not in question.  Other dimensions outside of the three we experience physically and the one dimension of time as we know it must exist, in order for the ones we experience to be explained.  Since they are somehow beyond the capabilities of our science to detect or demonstrate currently, we must “infer” their existence, based on what we do know.

The entire universe, in which all of everything takes place, appears to be made up mostly of undetectable “dark matter,” and is being influenced by some kind of undetectable force we call “dark energy,” which is responsible for the expansion of the universe currently. 

There are even limits to our knowledge regarding the well-understood force of gravity, which show up when we encounter what we call “black holes,” like the one at the center of our own galaxy.  No one really knows the full extent to which such extreme gravitational forces might affect our physical reality, but we do know that we don’t want to get too close to a black hole.

 

 

All of these ideas and explorations show us an undisputed aspect of our existence—there are a great many parts of our experience as a human being which are clearly understood and known, and still others which are beyond our understanding and which remain, as yet, unknown.  There are many aspects of our existence which we can demonstrate and explain through science, and others which may never yield to any scientific investigation we might devise. Even so, the existence of such aspects can be “inferred,” as a consequence of what we know to be true subjectively, and which point toward a level of experience that exists outside of our temporal existence. 

 

Experience and Existence

The words “experience” and “existence” are themselves an approximation based on our limited physical capacities for perception and observation of physical phenomena.  Any person with a nominally functional sensory apparatus, and central nervous system attached to a functional human brain, who has accumulated a sufficient amount of knowledge of the world, can determine that they exist physically and appreciate the range of experience possible through the use of those assets.

 

             Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

Every “experience” in the temporal world is made known to us and is understood through our perceptual and cognitive talents as humans, but our objective knowledge and appreciation of what takes place temporally is only part of the story.  Our objective physical “existence” is perceived and processed by our physical systems, but our moment-to-moment “experience” is profoundly and wholly subjective in nature, in spite of being reliant on our brains and senses to sustain our access to our subjective awareness. 

 

The Nature of Light

Light photons enter our eyes and strike the retina, which is connected to our visual cortex in the brain, which processes the electrical signals it receives in various other regions, which then “inform” us as to what it is we are seeing.  Our memories of having seen similar objects is retained in the neural networks, which have been established from previous encounters, and strengthened by repetition and sustained learning.

The eye is the portal through which light is perceived, but our subjective awareness of what we are seeing does not take place in the eye.  Our cognitive functioning allows us to process all the signals coming in through our sensory apparatus, to remember what we’ve learned, and to respond according to our respective talents. 

 

Subjective Awareness

Our inner subjective awareness of our temporal experience informs us about the nature of our existence, and although it relies on objective physical systems for perception and data processing, the awareness itself is subjective, and it has no physical existence in the same sense as objects do.  Thoughts are not experienced in the same way as objects, even though they are facilitated through similar objective processes. 

We can dissect a brain, determine its physical attributes, and map out the neural pathways through which the electrical signals travel, but we cannot dissect our thoughts with a scalpel, or surgically extract our awareness.  We can injure our brains and surgically remove parts of it to impair or disable our access to awareness, but the awareness itself has no objective substance.

 

              Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

What’s Next?

In the weeks to come, I will be re-examining some of my previous work on the nature of subjective experience, in light of more recent investigations and progress in the related fields of thought surrounding the nature of our existence, and hopefully shed some additional light on the continuing struggle to determine how it is that we experience our lives in the way that we do.

Hello October!

 

                                             When we finally arrive in October,

                                             Our feelings are usually mixed;

                                             We love all your glorious colors;

                                             Our eyes, on your leaves, are transfixed.

 

 

                                              We know that in spite of such splendor,

                                              The winter will soon come again;

                                              It creeps up and sneaks up upon us,

                                              We can’t know with certainty when.

 

 

                                              But nothing is taken for granted,

                                               We cherish the October skies;

                                               We enjoy the true bounty of autumn,

                                               We hope, with the years, to grow wise.

 

(c) Southampton City Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

                                                 For love doesn’t fade through the seasons,

                                                 And joy we can find all year long;

                                                 Our children continue to need us;

                                                 Our friendships throughout can stay strong.

 

 

                                                  We greet you with joy unencumbered,,

                                                  It’s truly the way we should live;

                                                  We brace for the scenes of bare branches,

                                                  And treasure each blessing you give.

 

 

                                                  November will shortly be knocking,

                                                  We’ll soon have to open that door;

                                                  But for now we rejoice in our fortune;

                                                  We welcome the chance to do more.

 

 

                                                Be still now and hear your own heart beat,

                                                Don’t fret over leaves that must fall;

                                                October can bolster contentment;

                                                Embrace it right now with your all.

 

 

 

 

The Blossoming of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Inner Experience

inner experience

“Artwork by Daniel B. Holeman ” http://www.AwakenVisions.com

“The inner self is not part of our being, like a motor in a car. It is our entire substantial reality itself, on its highest and most personal and most existential level. It is like life, and it is life: it is our spiritual life when it is most alive. It is the life by which everything else in us lives and moves. It is in and through and beyond everything that we are.” –Thomas Merton from his book, “The Inner Experience.”

merton

“We are not capable of union with one another on the deepest level until the inner self in each one of us is sufficiently awakened to confront the inmost spirit of the other.” — Thomas Merton from his book, “The Inner Experience.”

Confronting the inmost spirit of another requires a very particular set of circumstances. According to Merton, unless we are reasonably awakened to our own inner self, we cannot hope to unite with that same inner self in others, at least in any sort of deeply meaningful way. He also suggests that our inner self is not just one part of our being, but rather “our entire substantial reality,” while still existing “beyond everything that we are,” as temporal human beings. What an intriguing thought it is to suppose that our entire substantial reality might transcend all that we are as human beings.

The idea of our inner life being the source of “the life by which everything else in us lives and moves,” seems to suggest the existence of a clear connection between our inner spiritual lives and our temporal lives. If we consider this to be valid as a way of accurately describing the phenomenon within us, then surely the connections we feel to others, whose inmost spirits are equally transcendent of our human nature, must also represent a connection to that same nature.

second gitl song2

http://absolutefractals.com/?page_id=709

Connecting to our own inner life, awakening to the inmost spirit within us, is not a simple matter for many of us. Life in our century has accelerated in so many ways, and the demands of daily life, combined with the deluge of stimuli from every form of media and communication in our day, leaves precious little time for contemplation and the work of awakening to what is both essential and insubstantial within us. As anyone who has been reading along here can see, my own process of awakening has been tumultuous and burdensome, many times requiring what felt like Herculean efforts to sustain my momentum, and there have been many periods when I was desperate to climb up and out of a feeling of despair which nearly drained me of any hope for success and forward movement.

Equally evident, though, appearing often at precisely the moment when I needed it most, throughout many of the years in which this struggle took place, was the almost miraculous presence of other vital spirits. The more I searched and struggled to awaken to my entire substantial reality, the more profoundly the arrival of such spirits seem to affect me, often becoming a lifeline or a saving grace that helped me to hold on, to push forward, or to reclaim lost hope.

johnvick22a

Upon my return to Massachusetts in the spring of 1975, shortly after my experience in the forest, (Deep Forest Vision, 4-11-2014), I encountered another vital spirit, whose arrival in this period of my life sparked the beginning of a flame of awakening, propelling me forward toward an awareness that I still carry within me as I write. As can be true with many such encounters in our lives, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the connection right away, nor did I have any sense of how it might impact my process of awakening at first. It was clear, though, that this was a compelling spirit, and I became swiftly entangled in a web of emotion and desire that was impossible to ignore. We spent much of the early time together in long, penetrating conversations, exploring the worlds within us, imagining the possible futures that might lay ahead, and, as time progressed, in close personal proximity which became increasingly difficult to conclude when the time came to part.

door33

The intensity of the training assignment at the military base made for a formidable obstacle to distractions outside of the school. Engaged in the principles of cryptography and decipherment of encoded transmissions, the daily grind of regimented and focused learning took all of my energies to maintain and absorb. The numerous technical details and methodologies employed in this training were designed specifically to engage the students as analysts of complex information, and there were no computers or digital devices to assist us. The tools of the training were pencil and paper, statistical analysis, and hard-won experience from years of development and intense efforts of operators in the field before us. The image above is the door to the high security areas, that I stood in front of every morning before entering the hallways to the secret classrooms. It was a sight I would never be able to forget.

windows33

Each morning, we would pass through the security checkpoints, being smartly reminded by the officer in charge to keep our viewpoint looking forward and not to stray from the designated path to our classroom. This was not open for discussion. “Eyes front and keep moving,” was the standing order. The covers on the windows have long since been removed in this image, but the memory of standing at my station at attention until directed to “take seats,” in the cramped and musty rooms of the training areas is still vivid in my memory. This was serious business and you had better keep your focus on the task ahead.

When the class was dismissed at the end of the week, so long as you weren’t required to report for other duties, the local area had many points of interest and options for a young soldier to explore, but for me, the first order of business was to fly to nearby Clinton, Massachusetts to visit the vital spirit who lived there. These encounters seem to break through every barrier placed in the way, and even though they sometimes ran in opposition to virtually every practical and temporal circumstance outside of that “oasis in the forest,” they frequently contained some of the most powerful intuitive experiences of my life up to that point. I was occasionally overwhelmed by their intensity, and very quickly identified and was drawn toward this kindred spirit. There was almost a hypnotic effect to being in her presence. It felt as if I was only truly alive in her presence, and in some sort of suspended animation in between visits.

jhnvky65a

One afternoon driving back from a week of especially intense training, I was overcome by a keen sense of her presence spiritually. It seemed so unlikely to my rational mind that there could have been such a connection between us, and I supposed my reluctance to accept that it was even possible was part of my unconscious doubts, but there I was nearly gasping with a sense that she was in some sort of distress. I had always been fiercely empathetic and sensitive to distress in others, but generally those experiences took place in their presence. This was something altogether different. The pain in my heart on this night was unlike any other I had known. Intellectually I had to acknowledge that I was experiencing it, and emotionally it felt as though there might be some purpose to it, but spiritually where the effect was most severe, I was totally without even a shred of a hint as to how to proceed.

I attempted to call the house, but there was no answer. We had arranged to meet the following day, and I hadn’t expected her to be home that night, but didn’t know what else to do. By this time, I had begun to record my thoughts and feelings in a notebook when compelled by circumstances to do so, and on this night, I wrote the following:

“How shall I begin to describe such immense feelings as those which fill my soul this evening. How indeed, can one put into words, the images and sensations which flow across the chasm of thoughts and emotions? Truly, how could my words do anything but fall short of precise expression? So many times I have struggled to free myself from the grasp of this journey. How many hours have I passed between knowledge and ignorance, retention and loss, comprehension and failing to understand? My heart swirls in a sea of indecision. My heart seems to beg for fulfillment and yet my consciousness warns with each step forward. Never before have I felt such complete hesitance to make a move. The path that beckons is my very life force, yearning to rise and follow.”

That evening, as I reluctantly closed my eyes to sleep, I felt a lessening of this sensation, but awoke during the night from a powerful and disturbing dream. Exhausted and worried, I drifted between wakefulness and sleep for the remaining hours until dawn.

….next time….the dream and the movement forward….

Reading in a Quiet House

 

The simple pleasures are often the ones that fall to the side when life gets complicated or hectic in its pace and most often, out of necessity, we are compelled to engage in the more immediate tasks and responsibilities that such circumstances require of us.  When we all recently had to confront the consequences of a global pandemic, again out of necessity, those of us in “non-essential” roles and occupations found ourselves isolated from most of our normal daily routines and social associations. The resulting conditions suddenly presented us with a much greater amount of time alone or at least with very few options with regard to activities and opportunities beyond the boundaries of our immediate locations at home.

 

 

Depending on the personal resources each of us can bring to bear on such circumstances, and the degree of wellness we experience during this time, the “social distancing” mandated by “an invisible enemy” created an environment where the constant stimulation of our modern existence dropped off precipitously, leaving many of us to our own devices as far as how to fill the time normally consumed by the routines of work and social interactions of every sort. Those who depended heavily on such interactions and work obligations for deciding which activity would take priority, suddenly find themselves in a kind of middle ground between the two worlds of routine activity and the strangeness of unexpected isolation.

 

We can certainly appreciate the challenges for parents with small and school-age children at home, as well as caretakers of those who require daily assistance under these conditions, and must acknowledge the difficulty for those whose dependents may be geographically distant. My own familial circumstances, as the parent of six grown children widely dispersed across the Northeast corridor and several southern states, at least has a familiar amount of social distancing experience taking place as a matter of course, but the social limitations and travel restrictions imposed by the current crisis affects even these routines, as visitations which were planned and might have taken place must now be postponed in the interest of reducing the spread of a highly contagious virus wreaking havoc now throughout all fifty states.

 

 

No one would wish to characterize these circumstances as advantageous in any broad sense of the word, and the toll it is taking is nothing short of tragic for thousands of families across the globe.  The pain of loss and the terrible suffering of tens of thousands of individuals across our world now could only be described as completely awful by any measure we might apply to such circumstances. Our own hearts must surely empathize with those inflicted during this time, and the stories of loved ones lost or suffering inflict us all with their potent emotional and psychological effects. We must continue to take every precaution to avoid exposure and maintain vigilance until the threat subsides sufficiently to allow a gradual return to resuming any semblance of our previous daily lives.

 

In the meantime, assuming that our mandatory isolation is taking place in a safe and illness-free environment with our immediate family or normally present occupants, or perhaps even with only ourselves, the task then becomes how to occupy our time and to maintain some degree of equanimity while we endure the crisis.

 

Even a brief review of the online offerings, which show a variety of choices for dealing with the challenge of isolation, and the innovative methods people are employing to encourage and inspire others, have demonstrated a preponderance of creativity and an unexpected level of empathy for our fellow humans that only this kind of seriously difficult circumstance might bring about. We have to decide how we are going to deal with the challenge, and looking for any positive choice possible regarding how to fill this time seems to me to be the only sensible approach, since the alternative would only make our situation worse.

 

 

Whatever method we decide to use, and whatever avenue each of us is inclined to pursue, isolation is now providing us with an opportunity to consider what matters to us personally, and giving serious attention to pursuits that may have been put on hold, as well as returning to simple pleasures that may have fallen to the wayside previously, now assume even greater urgency, given that we are compelled to occupy ourselves in ways that may not have been available before this.

 

For me, this represents a more robust return to quiet contemplation, to long and productive hours of writing, and to actually holding a physical book in my hands, turning pages, and mulling over the worlds represented in those pages, as well as having to step up my game a bit more in order to cover a greater variety of selections.  One such selection came as a suggestion from a fellow writer to review a poem by Wallace Stevens.