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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Isolation Intuition

During this time of social isolation, as we join in the efforts to support each other and to slow the progress of the recent proliferation of the virus spreading across the globe, it is important to keep in mind that even as we must sacrifice our routines and leave our normal social activities unattended for now, there are also a number of opportunities that this situation presents to us, which may have been set aside or pushed off to “another time.”

Wherever you happen to be in the world, the time has come to take stock of what is truly important in our lives, and there could hardly be a more advantageous circumstance than this one for accomplishing that, as we are compelled to spend much more time with ourselves and our loved ones. There are many hopeful stories and reports of heroic efforts in this fight to battle “the invisible enemy,” many of which involve our front line health care professionals, and all of those designated as “essential people,” who are tasked with keeping us safe, and providing basic services under extraordinary circumstances.

As there are many different people and cultures and worldviews to consider, the specific activity that may provide each of us with a degree of solace and offer us opportunities for gaining an appreciation of what is truly important can take a variety of forms, and there is no right or wrong way to deal with the social isolation we now must endure. For me, as someone who is already fairly isolated generally as a writer, and now as a semi-retired person, solitude is available much more often than in previous years as the parent of six children, now all grown up.

In a previous post about the libraries of the world, I placed myself in several scenes using digital photography magic, and a recent review of those images inspired me to place myself digitally in a few additional photos, only this time, as a way of expanding a little on the benefits of both isolation and intuition.

The background photos in these altered images are from the website of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., and while it should be fairly obvious to those who visit here on a regular basis, my interest in Thomas Jefferson’s life and times has been ongoing since I was a small boy in grammar school.

Way back in 2001, in the Spring of that year, I had the privilege of participating in what was the Annual Spring Garden Tour sponsored by the White House, which permitted participants to roam the grounds of the White House freely, including the various gardens established by prior occupants of that fabled structure, like Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the famous “Rose Garden.” Walking past the beautiful flowers and plants was a real treat, but standing on the sidewalk leading up to the “Oval Office,” was especially impressive.

On the website for the Jefferson Hotel was an invitation to stay there and take advantage of the Cherry Blossom display which normally takes place around this time of year. Sadly, this will not be available due to the current situation in the world, but I couldn’t help but reflect on how fabulous it was to be in that place that year. The events which took place in September of that year put an end to people walking freely through the lawns and gardens of the White House.

The quote at the top of the page by Thomas Jefferson struck me as being a very important reminder about what is truly important for everyone to consider, and while many of us are unable to go to our everyday work locations, it seems like a good time to give some serious thought to what would increase our tranquility, and perhaps also to what we might do occupationally going forward. Not everyone is working in the occupation best suited to their talents, out of necessity or other urgent causes, but time away can be advantageous to seeking alternatives and to pondering other important matters.

Tranquility is achievable in many different ways, but being socially isolated at length gives us a rare opportunity to explore the many options available without the usual interruptions, as well as precious time that normally isn’t available.

Our intuitive sensibilities can be enhanced in circumstances such as these, by allowing us an extended opportunity to seek out information regarding methods of developing and exploring our natural endowment as cognitive creatures, and also to practice techniques for tuning in to our own inner strengths and capacities. There are a number of resources available that do not require physical social interaction, which can be a starting point for the uninitiated, and a launching point for a deeper understanding for those already engaged in seeking to improve or enhance their intuitive senses.

One of the most interesting and commonly available areas to explore in this effort is the intuitive response many of us take for granted, when we encounter others in our travels, who immediately strike a familiar chord within us, one way or another, and we somehow know deep down that our response is warranted. This awareness of familiarity or a keen sense of a positive or negative response is often the result of a deeper level of awareness within us, of which we may or may not be fully or consciously aware. A certain degree of intuition seems to be inherent in our basic cognitive capacities, and depending on our upbringing and educational environment, there may be some additional enhancement, especially if we are encouraged by our caretakers to heed this instinctive inclination.

 

As we navigate through these difficult days of social isolation, it will be very important for all of us to keep in mind, that adversity and struggles, while challenging to endure, are vital to the well-being of all of us now, and since we are already required to stay home and to be socially responsible to our fellow humans, we might as well use the opportunity to attend to those important matters we normally try to defer to “another time.”

This is the time. The present moment now is where all possibilities exist, and we can think ahead, ponder the important questions, and imagine a world where sitting in the Jefferson Hotel library and staying there during the future Spring Cherry Blossom displays might just be what the doctor ordered.

Your Web of Joy

     
The moment our eyes aligned
I instinctively held my breath;
Ordinary time collapsed and condensed
While I read your face.
Our smiles blossomed simultaneously
Like silly twins looking in a funhouse mirror;
The sweetness of your spontaneous response was met
With an avalanche of reciprocal harmony.

 


Days passed with no encounter;
Hours dragged and pulled as usual.
Wistful recollection had begun to fade
When you suddenly reappeared;
Like an earthbound angel with hidden wings,
You were unable to prevent the natural beauty
Of your robust lifeforce from pouring out,
Filling the crucible of my heart and soul.

 

Portrait of a Woman by Abbey Altson


Effortlessly, with the radiant, glowing gift of your glance,
You disabled all resistance, lifting my spirit
Beyond my own tentative grasp;
Momentarily undone, I fumble with my words–
Stunned at the recognition of a kindred soul.
Calm descends swiftly on the realization,
That I have somehow been captured completely,
Blissfully, in your web of joy.

 

© January 2020 by JJHIII24

The Realm of Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spiritual Hunger

“At the turn of the last century, people’s hope was in science, technology, and modern progress. As we approached this millennium, we realized the extent of that progress, and that it hasn’t taken us far enough. There is a part of us that still has a spiritual hunger. We have spent the past century looking at outer space and exploring that, and we’ve realized the importance of reflecting on inner space, the soul within.”

–D. Michael Lindsay, Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University, excerpt from “Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs

From the earliest inklings of creativity in our ancient ancestors, who painted images from their world in the caves of Chauvet some 35,000 years ago, through the development of symbolic writing on cuneiform tablets, which recorded the hymns and prayers of the kingdoms of Mesopotamia in the ancient Near East, to the pictographic hieroglyphs of early Egyptian love poetry, and the ancient verse of India and China, human beings have searched for ways to express the spirit of love and of life, which permeates our existence still today. We have become more sophisticated and technologically advanced, gaining in knowledge and experience exponentially as the centuries have accumulated, but with all the advances and profound alterations of the millennia since the first written accounts appeared, we have never outgrown our need to express the spirit within us.

We are part of a fantastic heritage of poetic expression throughout the history of humanity, and it is as definitive a proof of the existence of the human spirit as we are likely to ever know in any age.

Anonymous (c. 1567-1085 B.C.)

Without your love, my heart would beat no more;
Without your love, sweet cake seems only salt;
Without your love, sweet “shedeh” turns to bile. (*shedeh* = ancient Egyptian drink made from red grapes)
O listen, darling, my heart’s life needs your love;
For when you breathe, mine is the heart that beats.

–excerpt from a Bronze Age Egyptian courtship poem, translated by Ezra Pound and Noel Stock, 1998 volume of World Poetry

Centuries later, as an emerging adult in the 20th century, I penned a courtship poem of my own, which shows, perhaps, how little has changed in human nature, in spite of advancement in numerous other ways:

Spirit of Love

“A long time ago, in centuries past,
We existed on a plane that can no longer be reached.
It is clearly in the past, but it also here and now
In my wandering mind. We breathed the same air.
Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison.
I gazed deeply into your eyes; inhaled the scent
Which rose from your body as I embraced the spirit inside you.

At such moments, though bodies only touch, spirits merge;
We were lovers, with lips pressed together–
We were one–my heart rose with each embrace;
My spirit expanded until it encompassed yours;
It has happened a hundred times a hundred times over centuries
And now, I know your spirit.
I can see myself in you;
Our paths are illuminated by each other.

As a young man, unaware that he was on the threshold of a profound awakening, the tumultuous events which would follow my arrival at the doorstep of my truly independent life were only heightened by a growing acknowledgement of being without a Polestar, for the first time in my young life, and by my inability to turn off the extraordinary natural inclination to open myself to whatever might come. While it may have been the traumatic and unprepared transition to independence that left me vulnerable to the events which followed, the power of my connection to something beyond the immediate moment in which I was living made the impact even greater.

Growing up in a large extended family, an emphasis was often stated not only about my responsibility to care about those within the family circle, but also to those outside of that world and into the world-at-large. As a result, I developed a more conscientious approach to social interactions as I grew into adulthood, and frequently found myself engaged in a greater degree of involvement emotionally and psychologically in a variety of relationships. Consequently, an even greater sense of empathy began to take hold than was already established as an almost inherited trait. Whatever part of the brain that handles our inherent tendency for empathy must surely have been more expanded in my case, to the point of bordering on possessing a pathological condition, given that my experiences many times seemed to exceed those of most others I encountered.

In retrospect, it seems that my own keen sense of extending myself toward others, may have amplified the same natural sense within them, in some cases, sparking a kind of alarm or surprise, which they occasionally found unsettling and unexpected. When this sense within ME was fully engaged, it always felt like a consequence of my inner self RECEIVING stimulus from a source outside of myself, and the resulting heightened perceptions, far from being something I would naturally choose or impose on a given situation, felt completely natural and shared–a resonance of sorts–with empathic waves being directed AT ME.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist described the process of our unfolding development as Individuation, “an expression of that biological process–simple or complicated as the case may be–by which every living thing becomes what it is destined to become from the beginning. This process naturally expresses itself in man as much psychically as somatically.”

There are two competing schools of thought that still persist in pursuing a greater understanding of our true nature, and while I continue to contemplate how they must both be approaching that understanding, these quotes show the ongoing dilemma of the contrast:

“What it means to be me cannot be reduced to or uploaded to a software program running on a robot, no matter how sophisticated. We are flesh and blood biological animals, whose conscious experiences are shaped at all levels by the biological mechanisms that keep us alive.”

–Anil Seth, British professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex

“At the heart of consciousness is the transcendence of thought; a newfound ability of rising above thought, and realizing a dimension within ourselves that is infinitely more vast than thought…Each of us is a vehicle through which consciousness operates.”

–Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now,” and “A New Earth.”

Tumultuous Transitions

After a tumultuous series of experiences in late 1973 and early 1974, and after a sufficient amount of time had passed to regain my bearings, I was able to complete my advanced training in Massachusetts, and was reassigned to a duty station in Monterey, California for training as a linguist. I didn’t know it at that time, but my adventure into spiritual awakening was about to expand exponentially.

Unbeknownst to me, I was being sent to one of the most beautiful coastal communities in the country, and be in close proximity to a number of the most startling natural locations anywhere in the world. Up to that time I had always enjoyed being outdoors and often visited local parks and recreational areas as the opportunity came up, but nothing could have prepared me for the exquisite natural beauty which would surround me, as I immersed myself in one of the most intense language regimens ever devised.

At the same time, whenever free time was made available, I took full advantage of every opportunity to expand my knowledge of the world around me, and traveled extensively to places like San Francisco, Big Sur, Coastal Highway number one, Pinnacles National Park, and Yosemite. It was precisely the right place to be, at the exact right time, for me to engage my inner world, explore what had occurred in Massachusetts, and expand my awareness of the nature of the human spirit.

Almost six months into my assignment, traveling home from a late night double-feature at the local movie theater, on the dark coastal highway that had become so familiar to me from my frequent visits to share in the many activities which took place along that stretch of highway, I was nearly killed by two cars racing around one of the treacherous winding curves, and the car I was driving landed upside down on the side of the road. It had been raining and as I slammed on my brakes and turned hard to the right into what looked like the side of a mountain, my little Volkswagen actually drove up onto what looked like a wall on my right, and I watched in my peripheral vision as the two pairs of headlights passed me on the left. For a brief second or two, I thought I might have been able to return to the road safely, except right in the middle of that wall stood a sturdy wooden telephone pole, which seemed to come right up into my face as I blacked out. The drivers of the cars racing by did not stop.

According to the police report, they estimated that I laid upside down in my car on the side of the road for almost forty minutes, until a Good Samaritan pulled over and figured out a way to get me to safety, and called for an ambulance. This Good Samaritan never left his name or any way to get in touch with him. The hospital staff only knew that he was a nurse who just happened by that night and stopped to help.

Thankfully, I had been wearing my seat belt, which saved my life, but did not prevent my head from bashing against the frame of the windshield. I suffered a severe concussion and loss of memory of the event. I woke up several days later after being admitted to the hospital, and only learned what happened almost a week later, after my schoolmates came to visit me and told me what they knew.

It would take several weeks to begin to piece together some of what happened, when my memory started to slowly come back. After being released from the hospital, I was weeks behind in my linguist classes, and had to be tutored for about a month after the normal school hours to catch up.

The car had been towed to a local garage and when my friends took me over to look at it, my one friend remarked, “I thought you said you hit a telephone pole, but the damage is all along the front lengthwise.” I explained that when I hit the pole, the car was traveling sideways along the side of a wall. We looked at each other for a moment in silence, and then we all laughed as we stared at the horizontal indentation along the front of the car.

It seemed impossible to me that I would be able to drive it again, but the mechanic said that since the engine was in the back of the car, all they had to do was to pull the front fenders out a bit and the car started right up when I turned the key.

As I drove back to the base, it occurred to me that I had narrowly escaped death that night, and everything felt different after that.

The Fading of the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***more to come***

Our View of the Universe

Map of Christian Constellations from Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.

A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.

“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”

“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”

Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.

We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.

What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.

This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.

What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.

It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.

As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.