Awareness of Mystery

“The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves…the sacred attitude is one which does not recoil from our own inner emptiness, but rather penetrates into it with awe and reverence, and with the awareness of mystery. There is a subtle but inescapable connection between the ‘sacred’ attitude and the acceptance of one’s inmost self. The movement of recognition which accepts our own obscure and unknown self produces the sensation of a ‘numinous’ presence within us…” – Thomas Merton from “The Inner Experience.”

Much of what we experience in our everyday lives consists of elements or components which are relatively easy to explain, and describable in terms that can be broadly understood generally. The physical laws which govern our universe offer us a window into many of the previously mysterious aspects of our existence. The march of scientific discovery which has brought us into the 21st century has revealed astonishing explanations for what we observe and experience, from the nature of galaxies and the cornucopia of cosmic phenomena, to the most basic building blocks of matter in the quantum world of the very small. Looking ahead into the centuries to come, we have cause for optimism that many phenomena which remain mysterious presently may be revealed by the science of the future. We are frequently humbled by such discoveries, revealing as they do what was once a great mystery to humanity, but as Robert Sapolsky suggests in the quote below, sometimes, all that science can really do is give us a new perspective:

Some time ago, as my mind began slowly stirring in the early morning hours, I briefly resisted the inclination for rising fully to consciousness immediately, and lingered in the twilight world in between waking and sleep. A host of pleasant thoughts were meandering through my half-conscious mind, when I suddenly felt an important idea percolating to the surface. I had been fully engaged in the process of gathering my work into a semblance of order for several months and had made only miniscule progress. On this particular morning, in this hypnopompic state, I heard myself outlining the chapter headings by the subject of my work in a specific order.

Each of the topics had been receiving individual treatment as they came up in my reading and writing work, but no specific organizational idea had been conceived or written by me previously. As I enumerated the central ideas, I began to arrange them in a sequence which felt absolutely clear as the correct way to arrange them, even in my semi-conscious condition. After several repetitions in the dream-like haze of early morning, I repeated the sequence one final time, certain that I had it right. As I began to rise to full consciousness, I knew that I had precious little time to reconstruct my idea before it would vanish, so a grabbed a pen on the nightstand, and as the precious seconds of memory were ticking away, I was scrambling for something to write on, realizing that the notebook I normally placed at my bedside had been removed the day before to refer to it at my desk.

I knew I couldn’t leave the room, and searched frantically for something to write on. I started tossing items on the floor that were unsuitable, digging through the drawer in the nightstand, starting to worry that I might lose the thought, and finally picked up my address book. I opened it clumsily, leafing quickly to the back pages which I thought might offer a blank spot, but ended up writing on the inside of the back cover. I leaned back on the bed and wrote haltingly at first, with some uncertainty creeping in, but I was ultimately able to reconstruct the topics in sequence, just before the fullness of waking released the remaining haze of sleep. The certainty I felt in my nearly unconscious dream state had vanished, but the list was there in front of me:

In the weeks to come, I will begin to expand and describe at greater length my work on these specific ideas, and with luck, weave it all together into a more comprehensive presentation. In the meantime, consider a few introductory thoughts:

1. Thirty-five thousand years ago, our Cro-Magnon ancestors drew images of animals on cave walls. These were not mental giants. They were not very sophisticated at all. But they were so much more sophisticated than the Neanderthals, that they outlived them by thousands of years. They also left behind indications that they had a consciousness – an awareness of certain cognitive abilities – and they acted on them in demonstrative ways.

2. Even five thousand years ago, with all the sophistication of ancient civilizations (which did not spring up overnight by the way) they were still limited in their conceptual capacities and technologies. We can infer this from the written and evidential history of those ancient beginnings.

3. The acquisition of access to the human variety of consciousness is a complex process that developed in our species, with its sufficiently complex nervous system, which is able to support our unique array of cognitive functions. There are many different philosophic and scientific ideas regarding the nature and scope of human cognitive ability and what constitutes consciousness. No matter what we say about it, it did not appear suddenly, and it did not always function as well or as much as it does today.

4. There is much that is not well understood about the human subjective experience of consciousness, and even cognitive scientists, with all they know specifically about the cognitive process and brain function, cannot penetrate its mysteries as yet. There is also much speculation in the current literature of the cognitive sciences about how long it will be before we are able to emulate brain function artificially in such a way as to re-create consciousness as well. What is missing from all these speculations is that if we are able to somehow manage it, what we will discover will not be human consciousness. It may be similar in many ways and function as a device, but it will not be alive!! It may be powered by a battery or plugged in to a wall socket, but it won’t have LIFE!! It would be a very narrow definition of what it means to be human to reduce us to the biological and cognitive processes that support consciousness. Our lives and our subjective experience of the world is dependent on a functional body coordinated by a functional brain, but what animates the organic material in our bodies and brains, what is essential and what accounts for the totality of our existence as sentient beings with subjective experience, may not lend itself completely to demonstration by science.

No matter how advanced our skills at reproducing consciousness may become, we will never devise a formula to reproduce a living, breathing, cognitive human person. Our cognitive functions have progressed to the point where we can acknowledge a connection to the ineffable. We are not simply a conglomeration of organic systems. We are part of a dynamic synergy of life in the phenomenal universe. Our conscious experience of life allows us to interact with life in its many manifestations. Our connection to the source of that dynamic synergy is only attainable through our awareness, but not generated BY our awareness. This awareness includes, for now, the mystery of human consciousness.

Moments of Being

“Driftwood,” by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

“I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favorable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now, if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into a wall; and listen in to the past…I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

—excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being,” published as a collection of essays in 1976.

Homer’s painting appeared in 1909, a short time before his death, but is reflective of a lifetime of creativity and artistic acumen. Combined with the quote from Woolf, it inspires contemplation of a much more profound idea concerning the nature of being and the significance of the foundational experiences which lead us to become who we are in our lives.

Currently, I am engaged in exploring a number of the complete works of Virginia Woolf, and recently came across a selection of her essays published in 1976 entitled, “Moments of Being.” This collection of her writings has become an important part of my reading regimen, and has sparked a number of recollections, and inspired some self-examination about my own life experience. Her suggestion in the quote above about a device that one might “plug into a wall,” and “listen in to the past,” struck me as precisely what I have been doing these days, recording my recollections of “strong emotion,” and then listening to them with my audio device as a way of once again “getting attached” to them.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

As an additional aid in recalling my own memories, I have been rereading what Woolf described as “A Sketch of the Past,” and sifting again through some of the photographic evidence of my early life, and the practice has stirred my creative juices in some surprising ways. What follows are a few samples of the results that have appeared lately.

In Woolf’s accounts of her memories of her mother, who passed away when she was only thirteen in 1895, she describes moments which struck a chord within me in recollections of my own mother. To me, when I was similarly youthful, my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and even though she was quite attractive in a number of ways, my child-like view of her exceeded any of the other mother’s in my admittedly limited circle.

My mother holding me on the occasion of my christening in 1953

I feel fortunate to have many happy memories of sitting either with her or beside her as she read books to us, or told us stories about her own life growing up. Woolf’s accounts are particularly vivid and have sparked a host of “moments of being” within me.

There are moments in a lifetime, some fleeting and some lasting, which alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward becoming who we WILL be. We fill in the spaces between those moments, if we are fortunate enough, with a search for who that person might be. If we can recognize that person as who we are, at that time, we might then get to choose our path forward with greater confidence. We don’t always get the chance to make that choice for ourselves, but we do dream of the day when our life’s choices are more frequently founded in this person we have become. It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees, but I believe we must first acknowledge that something is possible, before it ever will be.

In a stroller in 1954

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another.

These images of my earlier self along with my parents and siblings are now even more startling, as I begin to contemplate how those early connections set the stage for those which would follow and form as I grew into adulthood.

My father, myself, and my son pictured at age six in first grade

We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say….spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been very few individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection as those of my parents and siblings, and even though our individual temporal lives may go in completely different directions, continuing a unique relationship is very important, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

We must expect that when we forge new paths, listen to the beat of our own hearts, and follow what is, for us, the only true choice we can make and remain who we are, there will be those who cannot see what you see, who cannot feel what you feel, and who genuinely could not know life in precisely the same light that you do. Be as gracious as you can be with those who do not share your vision, but do not be persuaded beyond reason and what’s in your own heart and mind.

What I am embarked upon is nothing less than the assignment of a lifetime. These many years I have struggled to maintain the continuity of my family, and to eek out a semblance of a beginning to understanding what it is that makes us uniquely human. The search has taken me to the limits of credulity, tested me more than any temporal challenge whether of my own choosing, or thrust upon me, as has been so often the case lately. There can be no doubt that I have struck upon something of great importance to my stated goal, which is to come to terms with the person I have become.

Awareness and Consciousness

“Solitude seems to me to wear the best favor in such as have already employed their most active and flourishing age in the world’s service…We have lived enough for others; let us at least live out the small remnant of life for ourselves; let us now call in our thoughts and intentions to ourselves, and to our own ease and repose…”

—excerpt from Michel de Montaigne’s “On Solitude.”

Greetings to all my subscribers, casual readers, and visitors here. Hopefully, 2019 is shaping up to be a better year for us all, and I encourage everyone stopping by or returning here for a visit to remain open to new ideas, and to look inward to seek an expansion of our understanding of ourselves and the world-at-large in the New Year.

Over the past eight years on John’s Consciousness, the primary subject I have chosen to pursue, concerning the complex machinations of our subjective experience and the nature of consciousness itself, can be quite challenging to write about in a way that is accessible to the general reader, and I am constantly searching for ways to relate my own and other people’s personal experiences as a means of illuminating the many facets and mysteries surrounding the human subjective experience. The subject also requires of the readers here having some familiarity with the subject from a modern perspective, and now that I am enjoying a greater degree of “ease and repose,” I feel compelled to “at least live out the small remnant of life,” that remains, by attempting to summarize my general understanding of the subject as well. This is the first installment of that summary, which hopefully will be followed by a more elaborate treatment of specific areas of concern in the blog posts to come.

Possessing a comprehensive cognitive awareness of being aware, knowing that we exist, and knowing that we know, so far as we know, can only be attributed to humans currently, which uniquely empowers us to know we exist as a self-aware, individual person, to devise complex plans, to imagine unseen worlds, and to choose even reprehensible or unnatural behaviors, as well as to directly change and influence our environment. It is my contention that all of this is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort, and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.

Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with an adequate degree of species-specific cognitive talent, which remains undetected in any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and to do so quite often with a predetermined purpose, not necessarily instinctive in nature, nor in our best interests always. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional and more useful process during the Aurignacian epoch, where a fuller development of our higher cognitive functioning was facilitated by a gradual but significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex.

While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self-awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleoanthropologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.

The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process, which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for meaningful self-awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitudes, which were a direct result of a gradual development of a more richly textured and nuanced human variety of self-awareness.

Ask any parent or caretaker of a human baby—especially when they occupy that role the majority of the time and are observant of the child’s progress—and they will likely report a gradual degree of increasing awareness in that child as time passes. As a child learns to accomplish a greater number of complex tasks through play and begins to make associations with objects and sounds, they will begin to demonstrate increasing sophistication with the use of specific sounds to get what they need or want.

As a direct result of trial and error in many behavioral choices, as well as accumulating experience and memory in all basic human functions, once they are able to combine their experience and knowledge of specific sounds with the memory of the results achieved by doing so, they begin to acquire an expanded functional ability with language, and undergo a transformation to a wider awareness that naturally unfolds.

What is most intriguing about observing the blossoming of modern consciousness in a 21st century child, aside from the insights we can gain about the process of cognition generally, is the intimation that there might be a correlation between the development of consciousness in children today and the evolutionary path which resulted in the achievement of cognitive self-awareness in the first place.

We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, they were very likely not fully or cognitively self-aware in a way that would permit a more developed sense of how to utilize that awareness for much of that time.

The survival advantage conferred by a sufficiently complex cerebral cortex which could facilitate such awareness only became demonstrably clear with what is now viewed as the likely species-ending interbreeding of the Neanderthals with their more cognitively talented and successful Cro-Magnon competitors. Whatever degree of consciousness was adequate to impart that advantage to modern humans, once it took hold, sophisticated and functional self-awareness appeared to be one of the defining hallmarks of a successful hominid species.

While it is clear from an evolutionary perspective that any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” subsequent advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us, by coincidence, with a creative capacity for art and music and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery and development of a complex grammatical language to express that imagery, as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions to our questions about the mysterious workings of the world around us.

According to the empirically minded amongst us, now that we have finally progressed to the point where we can resolve many of the questions about how the universe came about and to comprehend the underlying principles of the physical laws which govern the universe we observe, whatever value creativity may have in other realms is interesting to be sure, but unlikely to yield much in the way of explanation of our fundamental character as cognitive creatures.

Those whose emphasis is concentrated more toward the ineffable or spiritual realms often tend to downplay the benefits of the empirical scientific view, except when it pertains to physical facts about our complex human biology, and feel strongly that it cannot adequately explain our subjective experience of consciousness; the “what it’s like” experience of being human. It leaves unanswered all of our most pressing questions related to the transcendent. It seems more likely to me that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will contain elements from both ends of the spectrum of ideas in this matter.

The concept of transcendence, going beyond the ordinary limits of our physical existence, and theories dealing with the incorporeal and elusive aspects of human existence, do not lend themselves well to empirical scrutiny, but the astonishingly complex workings of our evolving cognitive capacities require us to acknowledge that there may be a profoundly important fundamental connection between these concepts with the equally astonishing cognitive functioning which facilitates our subjective “what it’s like” experience of consciousness.

The idea that transcendence is expressed through our richly textured subjective experience of existence as temporal beings, and that we rely on the many complex interactions of cognitive functioning for access to our temporal awareness of the transcendent, offers a path to a possible middle ground, which may just assist us in achieving greater progress in this study.

There are several schools of thought which currently dominate the arena of consciousness study, and each one actually offers a degree of insight into what David Chalmers has called, “the hard problem,” presented by the apparent lack of adequate evidence to explain what we perceive as the naturalistic dualism of cognition and consciousness.

As Chalmers points out, even with all the progress in our current understanding of the workings of the brain, as fascinating and comprehensive as it has become recently with the great strides made in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive studies, none of it seems to account very well for the highly subjective component of experiential, sentient, self-awareness. Progress in understanding and explaining our brain physiology, which facilitates our perceptions and neurological functioning, is slowly unraveling the tangled web surrounding our observations of activity within the brain and between brain regions.

What we seem to be missing along the way, is why these astonishing discoveries of how the brain works, and the role of genetic and chemical components in the equations which describe brain physiology, as well as the advances in fMRI technology, fall short of explaining our experiential awareness. In my view, it is precisely because they do not adequately address the fullness of human consciousness, and do not take into account the many possibilities represented in a variety of alternate modern ideas, which express a burgeoning and keen awareness of an essential interaction of non-physical aspects supporting and integrating with our experience of temporal subjective awareness.

This year on John’s Consciousness, I will be working to explain and integrate some of these attempts to bring together the disparate competing theories, and to offer insights gathered over the last eight years on this site.

2019 started for me with the arrival of my newest grandchild! This newborn beauty will, no doubt, provide much in the way of educational and familial insights, as well as illuminate in a clear way, the process of gaining an increasing degree of awareness as she grows. Solitude will have to wait whenever she requires my attention and love.

Looking forward to our ongoing dialog and sharing with all my readers.

Solitude and Connection

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

–excerpt from “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

A recent conversation with a friend sent me digging through the archives to locate a brief essay I wrote years ago entitled, “Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Live Alone,” which was part of an ongoing debate about the merits of solitude, which exist independently of the benefits of healthy regular relationships with others. Since I have been writing about solitude in recent postings, I thought my readers might enjoy this brief look back at, what was then, an earnest attempt to make a case for cohabitation:

“Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Live Alone”

Everything that lives, lives not alone, nor for itself.” –William Blake

Virtually all common human activities have some social aspect in that people generally engage in them together, rather than alone, and mutually influence one another. Throughout human history, in nearly every civilization, the overwhelmingly dominant characteristic arrangement of our species has been found in the many varieties of living together.

The family unit, however loosely arranged or tenuously held together, is the foundation of life among most living creatures on our planet, and the building block of civilized society. Early humans, not restricted by social convention or modern ethical and sociological considerations still instinctively lived together in social groups for protection and survival. Due to the dangers inherent in the world of predatory dominance, a person living alone was virtually non-existent in those ancient epochs. As the human species evolved, with the advent of agriculture and the subsequent development of communities, humans became more diverse in their social arrangements and the nuclear family eventually emerged as the dominant social unit.

Around the third century A.D., the first indications of the eremitic life were discovered in Egypt. From the Greek word, “eremites,” meaning “living in the desert,” the word “hermit” is derived. Known in many cultures, the hermit generally adopts a solitary life out of an impulse to pray or to do penance.

In the fourth century, the eremitic life became known in Western Europe. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common experience of religious duties, gradually these hermits formed groups of disciples under a particular spiritual leader. Thus, even the extreme eremitic life eventually gave way to the less rigorous community life that was the basis for monasticism. The early hermits who formed these communities had a group of separate cells called “laura,” to which they could retire after discharging the common life duties, combining the communal with personal solitude.

In modern society, there is a much heralded emphasis on the individual, and a much more flexible attitude toward unorthodox lifestyle choices, resulting in a variety of societal living arrangements. Despite this increased freedom of choice and available options, human evolution has not yet progressed to the point where we do not require close personal relationships that are developed during cohabitation.

The late Leo Buscaglia, Ph. D., former associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, and well-known author of “Loving Each Other,” asserts the vitally important role of relationships:

“Human survival is dependent upon healthy relating. The complex ongoing process of people interacting with others in harmony through each stage of life is the highest and most demanding form of human behavior. As we mature, we become more deeply aware of the devastating effects arising from aloneness.”
Instinctively, we seek out others, even though modern society tells us that strength lies in independence.

Dr. Buscaglia says, “We see ‘need’ as immature, and ‘dependence’ as weakness. We fear commitment in that it may destroy our individuality and our much coveted freedom. In so feeling, we build self-imposed barriers to genuine encounter and the deep unions we so desperately seek.”

It can also be said that while living alone can be challenging, enlightening, and even joyful, humans are by nature social beings. With each close relationship to another person, we are brought closer to ourselves. Without these close ties to other human beings, our development is seriously hindered. Recent studies by a variety of behavioral experts indicate, “…a positive correlation between human concern and togetherness, and human growth and development.”

There is no question that solitude and time to one’s self is vitally important to a balanced individual life, but the prospect of living alone for extended periods and avoiding intimate, long term association with other humans can only be a limiting and potentially harmful lifestyle.

Clearly, it is possible to live alone and to flourish, assuming some form of regular attention to maintaining and developing friendships, and at least some form of interaction with others outside of the home. It is quite another matter, to achieve a balanced life, without some exposure to both close relationships and to opportunities for solitude.

I once wrote about my appreciation for the opportunity to experience solitude, since it forced me to contemplate the importance of a particular memory, which might otherwise have escaped notice:

“I remember hearing the seagulls. Perhaps the natural spring was in a mountain near a beach. There was no other sound aside from the water, the birds, and the music in my soul. With eyes closed, the memory of the experience was fully engaged. It was a moment of repose, of silence, of solitude, forcing me to contemplate a memory of a feeling. I cannot completely or precisely replicate them. They only rise up within me in my solitude. In spite of the difference in time and possibilities, the unknown, the uncertain, the vague, all of it comes together in a moment of solitude. “

Gazing upon someone we love, and sharing the special closeness that can only come from such connections, creates a lovely memory of the experience when it happens. The memory of that experience holds particular pleasure because those aspects which we hold on to, those which mean the most to us, are the parts that we remember. And there are lots of parts–tender embraces and loving glances, but also heartaches and tears, and even profound sadness sometimes. We tend not to want to remember the difficult parts in these special relationships, because they take away from the feelings of joy and fulfillment that we associate with them. Integrating all the different aspects of our lifetime of memories takes time, and requires dedicating deliberate effort in quiet contemplation.

Even as a younger person, who was essentially on his own, I still never felt alone, at least, not in the way that I do now. I think because I am older now, I feel this aloneness more profoundly, while still recognizing and acknowledging the unity of everything that lives. The feeling combined with this recognition suggests the dual nature of all aspects of life, especially to be alone, but also to be one with all life simultaneously. It is a gift. It is a consequence of our humanity–a temporal manifestation of the infinite, the spiritual, and the ineffable. It is a paradox to know for certain that there is unity among all people, all creatures, all parts of the universe, and to feel so desperately, profoundly alone simultaneously.

Walking alone down the street, I am, all at once, completely unified with everything I see and feel and sense, in every way, and yet, distinctly alone, individual, apart. The differences between myself and other living entities is a signal that there is a variety and a number of differences in the way that consciousness manifests in the world. If you go down deep, and when we say “go in deep” or “go inward” we mean not temporally, but spiritually within us–when we do that–it emphasizes both our unification with all life and our inner separateness from it, and the simultaneous recognition of both becomes clearer when we withdraw within.

Here’s to the hope for all those who wish to find a connection to the path that leads away from being alone, that they will find that path, and truly flourish and grow into a fullness of life underway.

Autumn of My Years

For many of the early days of the New Year this year, I knew that change was coming. Gradually, as the days passed relentlessly along, I could sense it ever more strongly. Whenever I withdrew within myself, I could feel it approaching.

These days, when I am alone within myself, communing with my spirit, my inner world, there is a palpable lightness of spirit that had been absent for so long, I had almost forgotten what it felt like. When the opportunity presents itself to look closely into the eyes of another fellow traveler in this life, it becomes possible again to rediscover the reflection of the light of my own spirit in the other, since we are all of one spirit ultimately. We sometimes fail to see this light when our path is so overly preoccupied with temporal matters, and it requires us to find a way to step back in order to re-establish the link.

I was listening recently to the words of someone I consider to be a spiritual mentor, who said, “We think we are seeking the path, when, in fact, we are already on the path; whatever we are experiencing or enduring at this moment is the path.”

The path is me.

I didn’t always realize this. Especially after experiencing very stressful periods of time, I often thought that I was looking for a place to begin my journey toward the next part of my life; trying to find it and stay with it, to walk it enthusiastically, to exist within it. In much of my searching, there were times when I didn’t truly realize how much the act of searching was the path, and now as I approach what is sometimes described as “the autumn of my years,” the metaphor seems appropriate.
Within the time frame of the autumn season in this part of the world, everything seems so brilliant, so colorful, so clearly and extraordinarily spiritual, and when we pay close attention and keep our hearts and minds and eyes open, we don’t just sense the beauty, the vibrant colors, and all the sensual pleasures of the incoming season, we also appreciate the relief from the steamy heat of summer, which takes more of a toll on me physically as each year passes.

The gradual transition from the greenness of summer always seemed to linger endlessly as autumn approached in the distant years of my youth, and now I find myself hoping once again that my life’s path into the upcoming season will endure even longer than it did during the days of those tender childhood memories. I do not wish for a brief autumn, or a late autumn, or even an artificially extended autumn. I want a nice, slow, and gradual embrace of the natural gifts it holds.

The education in life we can receive when we study the transition between seasons, inevitable lifts my spirits during this time, and I always want it last and last and last. The only way for me to make full use of it, I’m afraid, is to dive headlong into it, casting aside what scares me about what may follow, and as glorious and beautiful and colorful and sensual as this “autumn within” may be, it suggests by its very existence, the coming of winter, after which the cycle repeats once again.

At different points throughout all the seasons of my life, I have had to endure and survive a variety of different kinds of suffering, causing me to withdraw from the temporal, while also creating an opening to the spiritual. I know there will likely be more suffering to come; the fact that I have survived this long is nothing short of a miracle. I have come close to death a number of times in my travels, and I have felt at times as though I had clearly landed at the very lowest point of my humanity.

I have been deprived of basic needs. I have gone hungry at length. I have been lonely and alone many times. I have felt the sting of bitterness and the weight of relentless obligation. During those times, it often seemed as though nothing would go right, nothing will solve it or reverse it, and then just waiting—just waiting long enough—remaining open to what is possible, to forgiveness, and to letting go, made all the difference. If you can do enough of that, you can get through to another day, and that other day quite often ends up being beyond anything you could have imagined.

I have spent a great deal of time in this blog describing my search for my place, for my entryway to the path of the spirit. I feel strongly that I am headed in the right direction, but remain uncertain about just which direction that might be. I have worked on improving my intuitive senses, hoping to piece together a glimpse of what might lie ahead on my path, and connect whenever I can to others who are searching in their own way for the path ahead. As I embrace the possibilities that appear in life, I enthusiastically engage other like spirits in a way that I hope will bring some insight and clarity to my own search, but also, by extending myself, my spirit, to others, I am hopeful that it may lead to some mutually beneficial outcome.

In the film, “The Tree of Life,” Jessica Chastain’s character describes the way of grace as one that “…doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries,” in opposition to the way of nature which “…only wants to please itself…to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world around it is shining and love is smiling through all things.”

She concludes her description by saying that these ways “…taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” and she vows to be true to the way of grace “…whatever comes.” I believe that the way of the spirit is the way of grace; it is the way I must go to carry forward, and to remain open to whatever comes.

I am not completely a creature of this world. I am in this world, but not entirely a product of this world. I arrived in this world some sixty-five years ago, having spent most of it searching, struggling, and trying to understand. I have written hundreds of thousands of words, attempting to articulate what it has been like on the journey of a lifetime. I have done all that I can to build a foundation of the spirit in my life, and I have had some marvelous periods of construction and made important progress in spite of a number of long gaps in understanding, and I strive continually not only to reach the spirit, to embrace the human spirit within me, but also to see it in others.

At times, I have been criticized for spending so much time on such an elusive understanding, and there have been those who haven’t viewed my efforts as being particularly useful, as well as some who have questioned my judgement. Some of my choices may have been more destructive than constructive at times, but when I have been down—all the way down—scraping the bottom—I’ve had to fight my way back; claw and stretch and reach—paddling furiously in the waters of uncertainty and mystery.

At the end of it all, I seemed to understand better; occasionally having a small, incremental moment of progress, and it helps me to continue. I did not ever suppose that I could, at critical moments, have the courage to make the choice to initiate change in my life, but somehow I have.

Perception and Introspection

Ever find yourself staring out into a natural landscape, almost intoxicated by the immediate sensory experience, and suddenly find yourself ruminating thoroughly within your inner world? This happens to me a lot, and when I came upon views like this one along the cascade trail in the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia, I couldn’t seem to avoid drifting off introspectively all along the winding path leading to the Cascade Falls. Whenever these experiences occur, I often find myself trying to figure out just what it is about our human nature that provides me with such a richness and depth of compelling experience WITHIN…simply by being able to perceive the natural world.

Reading an article on the state of artificial intelligence this morning in the Wall Street Journal, I started thinking about the differences between the nature of that intelligence and the human variety, and decided to probe for myself the extent to which the artificial variety has become a part of my daily experience. Since there are a number of devices and services involved in most of our daily lives these days, which contain components and sources that rely on basic artificial intelligence principles in order to serve our needs and to function in real time, I wondered to what degree that presence was truly evident and useful.

The article in the CIO Journal blog by Tom Loftus talked about the difference between AI smart and human smart:

“To me, I think the fundamental issue is what I call deep understanding versus shallow understanding,” said Charles Elkan, managing director and global head of machine learning at Goldman Sachs. Shallow understanding is the ability to answer a limited range of questions that are similar to each other, he said. Deep understanding, he said, implies broad context and broad knowledge. “The entire spectrum of current algorithms that we know for AI are not going to scale to human intelligence, let alone super-intelligence.”

Since I am typing these words on my laptop computer, it is immediately apparent that my thoughts are being immediately recorded, constantly edited, and eventually refined to my satisfaction (usually) through a reasonably and artificially intelligent machine, which is connected wirelessly to a network device that is connected to a router permitting access to a world-wide web of other computers and routing devices, all seamlessly communicating and providing feedback and information from an array of global resources, all while sitting on my sofa having my morning coffee, which was prepared automatically by my electronic coffee maker, in a room which has a voice activated Alexa, Bluetooth speakers, and a “smart” television, all capable of being connected to my “smartphone,” through which I can control, in significant ways, all of the other devices.

It hardly requires more than a passing familiarity with our 21st century technology to be able to conclude that, in a big way, some aspect of artificial intelligence has made virtually all of this activity possible. With a few keystrokes on my laptop, or the tapping of a few icons on my smartphone, I can connect and engage each of these devices to perform an astonishing array of functions, including a particularly interesting version of conversation with a lovely female sounding, voice-activated device with an apparent capability to understand, to an impressive degree, words and inquiries initiated by me.

In the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I decided to attempt to press the Alexa to push the boundaries of the device’s “intelligence,” to see if I might be able to get it to “make a connection,” between ideas that I bring up in a logical sequence. My first question asked about the definition of artificial intelligence:

Alexa, what is artificial intelligence?

“Artificial intelligence is usually defined as the branch of computer science that deal with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively.”

(I noticed right away that Alexa made a grammatical error in saying “deal” instead of “deals.”)

Alexa, what is deep learning?

“Deep learning is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms.”

Alexa, what is an algorithm?

“Algorithm is usually defined as a precise rule or set of rules, specifying how to solve some problem.”

Alexa, give me an example of an algorithm.

“Constraint is a random algorithm.”

Alexa, what is a constraint algorithm?

“In computational chemistry, a constraint algorithm is a method for satisfying the Newtonian motion of a rigid body which consists of mass points.”

While this exchange was interesting in view of interacting with a device using only my voice, and considering that Alexa’s responses to my questions generally were appropriate, the moment I went beyond the simple formulation of asking, “what is,” Alexa quickly resorted to the default response of “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” The impressive range of information at Alexa’s disposal, and the ability to respond to specific questions are both useful if you are doing a search, or want to know how to spell a word, but if you want to converse or ask further questions about the material provided, you will be disappointed. I told Alexa that I wanted to have a conversation, and was surprised to hear the device suggest that I engage “a social bot.”

Once I engaged this option, I was momentarily encouraged by the more conversational tone of the words that issued from the speaker. For a moment, the words seemed almost spontaneous, until, instead of saying, “yes,” to a suggestion, I responded with “sure.” Alexa’s chatty response was, “Oh, this is embarrassing, I’m not sure how to respond to what you said…would you like to talk about something else?” It quickly became apparent that there were a limited number of responses that I could give, and that my responses had to conform to a particular pattern or the device would revert to the default suggestion that we talk about something else. The responses became a little longer and there would occasionally be a humorous interjection when the exchange reached its limit, but I tired fairly quickly of having to conform to a formula in order to continue the exchange.

As interesting as even these limited options are in the context of “talking” to a machine, it is painfully obvious that there is really “no one home;” no “ghost in the machine.” There is a clear distinction between my interest in a conversation, and the machines ability to participate in any meaningful way. It is still a practical and interesting way to interact with an information source, and the advantages these devices provide are often surprising.

In the kitchen, there is another device called the “Echo Show,” which utilizes the same algorithms and methods as Alexa, but has the added advantage of being able to provide video results when the opportunity presents itself. When installing the device initially, the default “wake up” word was also Alexa, which immediately caused both devices to respond simultaneously, so I had to change the “wake up” word to “Echo,” in order not to engage the Alexa device at the same time. The advantages of having the option to display a variety of video responses is a clear enhancement of the original concept, but the option to conduct face-to-face video messaging and calls with others who have an Echo device requires giving access to contacts and phone numbers, and currently that seems a bit beyond my comfort zone regarding digital privacy and sharing.

The stark differences between the artificial intelligence supporting the machine and the natural intelligence I was using to interact with it, points to one of the key elements in discussing the potentials inherent in the future of AI development. No matter how sophisticated the sensors and algorithms or models of deep learning become, perception and processing alone are insufficient to produce the ability for introspection or the “inner sense” we experience as living biological and sentient beings. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expresses it this way:

“Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no (literal) organ of introspection. “The ‘organ’ of introspection is attention, the orientation of which puts a subject in an appropriate relation to a targeted state” (Goldman 2006: 244). Perception ordinarily involves sensory experiences, whereas “No one thinks that one is aware of beliefs and thoughts by having sensations or quasi-sense-experiences of them” (Shoemaker 1994: 255). – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

All conscious humans with a nominally functional cognitive apparatus (brain, central nervous system, with basic life supporting and sensory systems intact) combined with sufficient life experience, and at least a minimal ability with language, eventually will acquire a degree of “inner sense experience,” which permits and accounts for our ability for introspection, which differs from simple perception in significant ways.

Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!