Life Revealing Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When The Path of Destiny Calls

We do not always choose to arrive on the path of destiny. We may avoid it at times it if we are determined to do so, but at some point, no matter how desperate we become or how clever we are, one way or another, the path will find us.

Occasionally, if we are truly on the path, the universe will rise up to meet us, and join us on the path. It may walk awhile with us, or it may visit unexpectedly for a short time and then go away.  It may linger without saying a word, but when we walk our true path, the universe walks with us, even though it is a manifestation of something much greater and grander still.

Some may wish to suggest that the universe is already pretty darn grand just as it is—just as we see it. When we look up at night through our telescopes in the backyard or through a powerful earth-bound telescope or even while reviewing the feed from the Hubble Space Telescope, we will see a universe that is beyond grand—beyond a comprehensive description—defying all of our attempts to describe it. Because it is so vast, it contains vast quantities of the mysterious, and the wondrous, and the beautiful.

What we sometimes refer to as “the soul,” or “the spirit within us,” may actually be a reflection of the mysterious and profound transcendent aspect of the universe.  We are a part of the universe, and the universe is a manifestation of something truly bigger than the grandest view through any telescope.

Along with everything we recognize and understand in that view, considering the universe even as a temporal physical structure, fully understanding the way it works seems, at least currently, to be beyond our grasp.  Of course, even our vague understanding of what we can actually observe, even considering the parameters of our current cosmological knowledge; we do understand that what we DO know is only a fraction of what there IS to know.

A materialist view takes the position that what cannot be demonstrated to exist physically, or as the result of a physical process, is either irrelevant or based on speculation or supposition, and while we must acknowledge the limited ability of the scientific method to confirm the existence of phenomena or principles that are immaterial, this inability is not, in and of itself, a definitive indication that such aspects do not exist.

BECAUSE such aspects are not demonstrable empirically, in my view, increases the likelihood that they DO exist. Let me explain.

Let’s suppose for the moment that immaterial and ineffable aspects of reality are ESSENTIAL to our physical existence, and although they cannot be unambiguously demonstrated to be a part of our substantial physical reality, over the centuries, it became widely accepted that they do actually exist.

Our subjective experience of consciousness would be far less mysterious, and it would be taken for granted that these immaterial concepts and components are simply part of the foundation for the broad spectrum of human experience which includes them. 

Under these conditions, the whole history of human experience, the enormous volume of literature, philosophy, religious ideas and inspirational scientific discoveries, all of it, would be considered a part of the unfolding of our experience of the world, and justify all of our efforts to enhance our survival, in order to gain a greater understanding of our place in the universe.

Now suppose that none of these ineffable elements and ideas have ever existed; since the dawn of modern humans, no other explanations were ever entertained for any reason.  Only physical laws and demonstrable scientific ideas would be considered as being possible to explain the world and the universe.

Suddenly, our actual human history would no longer make any sense at all.  Tens of thousands of years of that history would not contain an overwhelming volume of expressions of those aspects that have been recorded in every epoch, every culture, and every geographic region of the Earth since the dawn of modern humans.  Reports and descriptions of such ideas would never have been made, and through the millennia, there would be only life and death and taxes. No reason to dream or hope for anything other than survival while we live, and no cause to ponder or wonder about anything until we die.

In such a world, our actual human history would be completely incomprehensible.

Unless we humans eventually discover some future method of explaining through the scientific method what is now considered “ineffable,” it only makes sense to approach these ideas with an open mind, and consider what might actually be possible. The main obstacle, as I see it, is the reluctance of many individuals to even entertain the concept of any sort of immaterial principle existing in the first place.

I get it.

Anyone with no experiential encounters with something bigger than themselves, with no sense of an existence beyond the temporal world of the palpable and the graspable could be blamed for being reluctant to embrace such ideas.  Many materialists will cite “Occam’s Razor,” as the most reasonable approach to the most vexing issues in philosophy and science, which posits that the simplest and most basic approach to explain any phenomenon is usually the right one. While it is reasonable for those with no commensurate experience or encounter with anything beyond the five senses, to be skeptical of an existence or a feature of reality that is not accessible to science, simply because there may not be an empirical solution for the mysterious is, in my view, insufficient as a rationale to disregard other possible explanations out of hand.

Every experience and part of the path of my life up to now has been a preparation for and a prelude to what will now follow.  Had my life taken a totally different path; had there been no spiritual awakening or serious temporal disruption to my otherwise ordinary life; had any of the pivotal events in my life turned out differently or had the resulting chaos resolved itself in some other more agreeable fashion, it is likely that none of the words I’ve written over the decades would have been recorded in any of the thousands of pages, represented by the numerous journals and digital files that I currently possess.

My life contains a piece of the answer.  The events of my life have been part of a constant struggle to pursue the answers.  The arrival of the Jonas materials back in the mid-seventies was pivotal to bringing me to a place where the answers would eventually begin to be revealed.  All of the years since then have contained elements and components and pieces of the understanding that I continue to seek to this day.

The path of destiny is something I have eagerly sought to follow, and in equal measure, feared to tread upon.  There have been times, when the path led to events and moments, that were as brilliant as they were desired by me, and at other times, which brought me to my knees in despair at my inability to follow in a way that it seemed I needed to go.  The conflict within me would often swing wildly in opposite directions, and just as some degree of progress was being made, I would find myself paralyzed with either fear or uncertainty as to my course.

I struggled greatly with the pull of opposites. Going in the direction it seemed I needed to go, often presented such a challenge to my temporal life, that I was unable to commit to a particular course of action, and events in my temporal life often led me to pursue actions, which inevitably brought me to an awareness of essential elements, and precipitated startling revelations that were impossible to ignore.

The story of Jonas, as it has been revealed to me through the years, is an attempt to express not only the extraordinary nature of my connection to the ineffable and to the spirit of life, but as a metaphor for the struggle that we all face when the path of destiny calls.  None of us can simply ignore the urgencies of temporal life, even when the draw toward our destiny is as compelling as mine was in the early days of my awareness.

As often as I pressed myself to surge forward into the abyss; as difficult as my temporal life became at times; in spite of the profound and formidable compulsion that descended upon me during those times—I was often thwarted in my attempts to override my personal interests sufficiently to abandon my responsibilities.

Within my own personal subjective experience of my own consciousness, it was often crystal clear to me what it was that I needed to do in order to satisfy the demands of my destiny, and it was rare that my own personal inclinations were at odds with the path as it was revealed to me.  Had I been unrestrained by the circumstances of my personal responsibilities, many times the choices I would have made, would have been of a wholly different character. 

Countless eons passed without awareness being possessed sufficiently in our species in order to develop an adequate mechanism for expressing that awareness. Even when the early hominids had acquired sufficiently complex brain architectures to support awareness, there was no established process for expressing it.  It took many thousands of years of development to acquire that capacity, and tens of thousands more to devise methods of coherently expressing what was taking place within us, utilizing the acquisition of our newfound self-awareness, supported by the evolutionary architecture inside the brains of our fellow human ancestors.

A Capacity for Intelligence

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

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

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

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

http://blog.brainfacts.org/

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

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

artificial-intelligence-8-638

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

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

artificial Human-Evolution1

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

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

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

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

artificial33

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

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

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

2 brains

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

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

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

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

A Writer’s Dilemma

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

 

Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say

What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,

Which in the very thought renews the fear.

 

So bitter is it, death is little more;

But of the good to treat, which there I found,

Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

 

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,

So full was I of slumber at the moment

In which I had abandoned the true way.

 

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,

At that point where the valley terminated,

Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

 

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders

Vested already with (the sun’s) rays

Which leadeth others right by every road.

 

Then was the fear a little quieted

That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout

The night, which I had passed so piteously.

 

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,

Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,

Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

 

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,

Turn itself back to re-behold the pass

Which never yet a living person left.

 

Dante Alighieri – excerpt from Canto I – Inferno

Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Illustration by Paul Gustave Doré

 

 

It is often true for me, and I suppose for most other writers as well, that it is sometimes difficult to settle down enough at my writing desk or at the keyboard to give sufficient consideration to my thoughts, and so several years ago, I began to record myself dictating them into an audio device, which produced results in a way that writing with a pen or typing on the keyboard had been occasionally less effective at capturing.  The problem soon became that I had recorded so many episodes and created so many sound recordings, without taking into consideration that I would eventually want to sort them according to the subject.  Certain ones were used quickly for one reason or another and that works out when it happens, but now there are so many, I felt the need to begin to review them and figure out a way to categorize them.

 

Some of them are just rambling thoughts, some are about subjects that are not precisely within the framework of my current writing and are less useful in that way, but every once in a while something appears that astonishes me, or by some coincidence, fits perfectly within that framework and in that sense alone it has made it worthwhile to use this method.  I think it’s interesting that many of the recordings are personal and are either reminiscing or pondering “what-ifs,” or just ideas for what might become content that I could use for some future fiction project. 

 

 

I’ve written chapters with my voice that are completely a fabrication of my wandering mind or maybe a reflection on an actual memory in the bare essence of the experience, which I then embellish or expand upon, sometimes as a means of indulging my creative urgings, sometimes as a way of expressing what MIGHT have happened had I gone down a different path.  Once the juices start flowing, it’s hard to turn them off. I have a fairly active imagination and I have plenty of vivid memories of past events; I can remember the way it felt to be in those moments very well and sometimes I am surprised when I read what I wrote later.  The level of detail is occasionally stunning to me.

 

In the process of a recent review effort, I came across a particularly surprising account, recorded while I was engaged in a long distance conversation which included the opening lines to Dante’s poem, “Inferno.” The poem itself is a huge endeavor that encompasses a wide range of ideas, and which offers the reader the opportunity to explore many different aspects of the human condition, but for me, the opening was a suggestion of how purposeful reflection can illuminate potential solutions for even the most daunting of challenges.

 

 

Over the years I have accumulated a number of extraordinary experiences which took place within remote areas of forests, while exploring pathways across mountains, and in various nature preserves, many of which became openings to the ineffable world within. Dante’s references to the “forest dark,” the “things I saw there,” the “mountains foot,” and the “heart’s lake,” all leading up to “my soul, that still was fleeing onward,” resulted in the following record of reverie, recorded one night by the fire, while inhabiting the “forest, savage, rough, and stern.”

 

 

“I completely opened myself and listened. I could feel the very essence of your emotion. There wasn’t much time left to linger, and I wanted to embrace you—to reassure you.  It seemed you had sensed this and stepped toward me deliberately.  Without saying a word, I gestured with my arms my openness to such a suggestion, which you accepted without hesitation. 

 

As I held you close, I whispered words of comfort and had already determined that the embrace would continue for as long as you wanted.  Without warning, a sense of astonishment overtook me as your inner world collided with mine.  I unambiguously sensed the presence of your spirit clearly as mine opened immediately to welcome you there. It almost felt like a blending of the two—our souls were touching.  For those few brief moments, I experienced what I could only describe as the feeling of bliss.  Our embrace was warm and firm—offered and accepted equally without condition. 

 

 

After what felt like a sufficient duration to impart a sense of comfort, we both loosened our grasp just enough to pull slightly away. I still had my arms around your waist and your hands were resting gently on my arms, as our eyes met.  I felt a truly visceral connection between us.  Our faces were briefly only inches apart. I stared directly at you for maybe thirty seconds and I did not want to turn away.  Even though words probably weren’t necessary, I still somehow felt the urge to express a willingness to be available whenever the need might arise for such an exchange in the future.  You grinned widely in gratitude, and I sensed a lessening of the sadness which brought us into that moment in time.  

 

I could barely bring myself to leave you.  I stood nearby for several minutes, almost unable to move. I had trouble focusing.  At the last possible minute, as I pushed open the door and waved, I hoped that you could feel intuitively what was in my heart at that moment—I don’t want to go!  We only came together briefly in each other’s arms. The moment was fleeting, to be sure, but all the more precious because of that. 

 

 

There is more between us than what meets the eye. We have both traveled through the ages—through the eons of time—in order to meet here in this time.  We agreed before we abandoned our previous lives that we would be together in this life.  The connection is undeniable.  The years it has taken to come to fruition, the profound sense of connection which occurred immediately upon our appearance, and the subsequent recognition of love as a grace or gift, are impossible to deny.  When my heart rises, I know that it is you.  I gaze intently into your eyes. The mere sight of you raises me up and I find myself once again.

 

You used to sing to me.  You knew I would recognize that voice when I heard it.  That would be the sign that you were here.  I never could have known how challenging the future would be, nor how complicated my temporal life would be.  Somehow you knew that I would find a way to you, no matter how long it took—no matter what sacrifice was required.”

 

 

These words strike at the very heart of the river of consciousness, and it is almost painful to acknowledge the power of these sentiments as I recorded them, but they ring so true that I cannot help but do so.

 

Recognizing that love is a “grace or gift,” and not a natural entitlement of our humanity is urgently needed in our modern society. Understanding that we must somehow find a way to yield to our most urgent longings, even recognizing that they may be neither ultimately fruitful nor fully possessed, is a truth rarely emphasized in the general population these days. We routinely see individuals desperately trying to possess them, and refusing to submit to them, often with tragic results. We are flawed beings, we humans, and often refuse to acknowledge what is patently obvious, but this brief expression of longing forced me to confront this truth.

 

 

While the sense world alerts us to the visceral embodiment of love through our intense desires, the sense world only points to something far grander and more vital in our experience of life. Even just the emotional power of the grace which inhabits these experiences, points to the spirit which is foundational to that grace, and the ebb and flow of life and love, is fundamentally a result of the same rhythms which point to the foundations of formulating the meaning and purpose they serve.

 

We must have some reinforcement or confirmation in our lives in order to appreciate that even the deficits and struggles of life must be included in order to arrive at the affirmation that it is “an incomprehensible gift just to be alive.” Such a conclusion may be much more challenging to someone deprived of basic needs or afflicted by some of life’s more daunting challenges, but it is the same struggle we all have based on the myriad possibilities for each life.

Finding Our Way Forward

                                                         

 

 

Even though the world seems to be under a cloud of serial struggles and daunting difficulties presently, there is still good cause to be hopeful that we will find our way through whatever comes.  It’s not because we can just wish it all away, or because we can delude ourselves with confabulated stories about what is actually taking place in the world.  It’s because we humans have, over the millennia, consistently demonstrated the capability to repair what we’ve done or begun in the wrong way, and to turn the challenges we face into opportunities, by deliberately and purposefully working toward those aims with hope and determination to make them a reality.

 

We sometimes lose sight of our history as human beings.  Our focus is too often narrowly confined to recent history, and only to the events of our collective recent memory.  Thirty or forty years ago, none of us who are old enough to remember well the state of the world back then had any idea what the state of the world would become in 2020.  Young people who weren’t even born yet in the 1980’s and 1990’s have only a very short span of history to draw upon for viewing the events taking place now, and unless those of us who can remember those times have some sense of the history of humanity, it may not be possible to have sufficient perspective to conclude that we have endured through times that contained much greater peril and challenges for the world.

 

 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned or that the difficulties we face currently are any less urgent to address.  It’s not simply a matter of the degree of peril that informs the times we live in; it is the need for us to bring a degree of perspective to these times informed by our mutual history. 

 

We are capable of fixing what’s wrong and we can educate ourselves to better understand what it is that is needed to put us back on the road to progress, but the way to start back in that direction requires us to step back a bit first, and at least look at what led us to be in these circumstances, aside from the most recent news reports on television and the internet.  We don’t really have to go back that far to see the difference between the way things are now and the way they used to be before the technological explosion brought the invention of digital devices and instant communication of events from all over the world. 

 

A good illustration of how life has changed over the years can be found in my experience of responding to a recent column by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, which expressed sadness about the loss of the neighborhood bookstores to the much more economical and less complicated practice of ordering books online at places like Barnes and Noble.com or Amazon.com. In much the same frame of mind as many of us who cherish the experience of walking amongst the rows of freshly printed pages and browsing our favorite sections, inhaling the scent of new books and cappuccinos, and thumbing through our cherished, secret, and silent worlds, Mr. Fisher’s lament struck such a chord with me that I emailed him expressing my empathy and agreement.

 

 

Not even thirty years before that, I wrote a letter to a well-known columnist, Darryl Sifford of the Philadelphia Inquirer, about a column he wrote. I typed my message on a manual typewriter, neatly folded the single sheet of paper upon which I typed, stuck it in an envelope with a stamp on it, and mailed it. A week later, he responded with a nice note, which he also typed on a manual typewriter, and mailed to me. I sent my email to Marc Fisher by clicking “send” on my Hotmail account with my “mouse” at 5:58 PM and received his response at 6:04 PM, just six minutes later!

 

 

Going back a bit further in time, the presence of televisions in homes across the USA only became commonplace in the 1950’s, and was, at that time, the primary medium for influencing public opinion, with newspapers a close second.  Prior to WWII, the invention and usage of the telegraph took place in the 1830’s and 1840’s, and radio communications came later in the 1890’s.  These inventions revolutionized long-distance communications of the day, which previously took place over much longer periods of time.

 

 

Within the time frame of the establishment of the independence of what would become the “United States of America,” writing letters or conducting any sort of regular correspondence between individuals took weeks or months to send, be received, and for the recipient to respond.  Communicating with individuals overseas in England or France was only possible by placing your correspondence on a boat heading that way, and news of any kind was painfully slow in arriving and being dispersed out into the world-at-large.

 

 

There was no formal highway or railway system. You rode a horse or hired a carriage to travel whatever distance you needed to go.  At Monticello, the famous home of Thomas Jefferson, when anyone was invited or expected to visit, they had to plan weeks in advance, and no guest could be expected to stay less than a week or so. Travel was an onerous endeavor for anyone needing to arrive anywhere with any urgency.

 

 

Imagine the logistical challenge faced by both the British and the American militaries to marshal their forces for battle, slogging their way through largely unchartered terrain, with no well-established roadways or knowledge of which route might best be chosen. It’s a wonder at all that our country was able to get itself off the ground under such daunting conditions, and other urgent matters like healthcare, education, commerce, social interactions, and the necessity of conducting the foundational financial operations of such a large organization must have been exponentially more difficult given the state of the world at that time.

 

 

We take so much for granted these days as we travel with relative ease, flying large distances to nearly any destination in a matter of hours; driving our cars and assorted other vehicles to places even hundreds of miles away in a day or two.  I can communicate with anyone interested in receiving such communication instantly just about anywhere in the world. 

 

 

I can speak to and see each of my family members simultaneously, regardless of their location, as long as they have internet access, and before long, depending on the affordability and widespread availability of recent technological innovations, it’s likely we may eventually be able to enjoy a virtual reality experience of sitting next to them in real time.

 

 

There are a number of options in this regard which exist already that are not widely available, but which can mostly be accessed by those with sufficient resources and relevant knowledge of how to access them.  Eventually, it will likely be as common to possess such technology in the future as owning a cell phone is today, and people may one day look back at our options for communication in our “modern” society in the 21st century and muse about how quaint it was to push buttons and swipe screens on one of those “old-fashioned communicators.”

 

 

As always, the future holds enormous promise and potential for both progress and difficulty, and it is really up to us which option holds sway in the main.  I suspect that the choices we make in the near future will have lasting effects that may be even more difficult to mitigate unless we begin to take the time to consider the broad scope of ideas and efforts made by our ancestors to resolve and build upon, what were for them, serial struggles and daunting difficulties.

 

With best wishes for a prosperous and healthy new year to all my subscribers and readers…John H.

A Teacher’s Dream

 

A Teacher’s Dream On the Nature of Time

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Some Afterthoughts Upon Reflection

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

 

 

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

 

Physical Reality

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Experience and Existence

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

 

             Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

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

 

The Nature of Light

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

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

 

Subjective Awareness

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

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

 

              Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

What’s Next?

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

Our True Nature

 

“The Buddha taught that our true nature is emptiness- a lack of a permanent Self- and when this true nature is realized, the divine states of the Brahma-viharas – loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity- emerge.”

“In the teachings of the great yoga masters, our true nature is Brahman, the universal soul, of which the individual soul is simply a part. When this is realized there is ‘satchidananda,’ the awareness of bliss, from the knowing that pure awareness is our ultimate nature.”

“There are moments small and large when we are filled with the transcendent, as though we have been lifted out of our bodies or the Divine has entered us as grace.”

“Both the path of transcendence and the path of immanence are beautiful, whole, and worthy. It is your heart that must find its true path.”

–excerpts from “Realizing Your True Nature,” by Phillip Moffitt

 

 

Inspired this week by a personal challenge to the true nature of our world and our humanity, it occurred to me that any unnecessarily extreme version of a worldview, whether it is based on science or religion or philosophy, can mitigate our ability to navigate  in the world of our everyday living, and if we could only see that much of the discord in the world could be lessened significantly by striving for a balanced approach to addressing any of the most vexing questions we are engaged in answering, we might find that greater progress is possible.

No matter how much effort we pour into finding an explanation of how everything works in the physical universe, and no matter how much progress we achieve in all of the related sciences surrounding our subjective experience of human consciousness, any effort to compose a comprehensive accounting for every aspect of our existence, if it does not include the contributions made possible through transcendence and immanence, will likely fall short of an actual understanding of our true nature.

One need not be an advocate of Buddhism in order to arrive at a better understanding of our true nature as living beings, and although ideas like the ones expressed by Phillip Moffitt provide an excellent starting place for approaching the subject in conversation and study, even those with no inclination generally to support specific religious viewpoints can join the conversation by examining the basic principles they address.  Whether or not we embrace such ideas as a matter of course or bring other opposing views to such interactions,  giving consideration to the full realm of possibility, at least as a starting point to explore the ideas presented in the quotes above, is a helpful tool in our progressive discernment process.

 

 

We are beginning to see a few hopeful signs in the willingness of scientists, philosophers, and poets, to at least listen to a greater range of ideas from their unique viewpoints, which include sincere scientific approaches, as well as genuine philosophical and spiritual inclinations found often in music, art, and poetry.  Just because some ideas come from a creative approach to human expression, they shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as “wishful thinking,” and well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and innovative scientific ideas should be given commensurate consideration when they are presented in the interest of moving our understanding forward.

In asking ourselves questions such as, “What could account for our intuitive sense of the unity of all life, when such clear divisions exist between species and among all levels within major branches of the tree of life?,” or “Why does anyone suppose because we are not able currently to fully account for experiences of transcendence and immanence as measurable phenomena, that giving consideration to the potential existence of such an idea isn’t worthwhile?,” we begin a dialog that can lead to an expansion of the realm of what’s possible.

 

 

I was recently able to review a National Geographic documentary, distributed by PBS, and appearing on Disney Plus streaming service, called, “The Greeks,” and prior to the Greek Civilization, much of what occurred in the world was cloaked in superstition and thought to be the result of the influence of benign Gods and malicious demons, but according to this presentation, that all changed once the Greeks set out to understand the world through reasoning and focused attention on philosophical thinking.  The mini-series is informative and interesting with a number of modern-day thinkers contributing to an overall view of how the Greeks contributed to important changes in the course of human history.

Did our inclination to abandon the notion of Gods and Demons influencing and directing the fate of humanity in the world originate in Ancient Greece?  According to historian, J.M. Roberts, who wrote a volume of “Ancient History,” published by Duncan Baird Publishing, 2004:

 

 

“The Greek challenge to the weight of irrationality in social and intellectual activity tempered its force as it had never been tempered before…They invented the philosophical question as part and parcel of one of the greatest intuitions of all time, which was that a coherent and logical explanation of things could be found…the liberating effect of this emphasis was felt again and again for thousands of years…It was the greatest single Greek achievement.”

Whether or not a “coherent and logical” accounting of consciousness might eventually include aspects of transcendence and immanence as essential components is still an open question, but a comprehensive account of the true nature of things begs the question, and requires a serious look at the kind of philosophical thinking inspired by the Greeks!

Inner Experience

inner experience

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

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

merton

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

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

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

second gitl song2

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

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

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

johnvick22a

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

door33

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

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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.

jhnvky65a

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for the Unknown

In a recent review of my writings from my time in Europe as a young soldier, I was prompted to reflect upon how the events prior to my departure from America set the stage for my experiences in that time frame, which sparked additional reflection on what has been a lifelong concern–taking the initial steps on a journey toward the unknown.

 

 

As a young boy, without fully understanding the cause or having any clear explanation for certain personal experiences, or being able to associate those events with any sort of sophisticated theory or philosophy, I still somehow seemed to know that what I had experienced at certain times contained elements or aspects outside of normal temporal boundaries. I could not yet describe them as such when they occurred, and was profoundly naïve about the world in a number of ways, but I accepted that the nature of these happenings were true and real, even though they did not fit well into the narratives I was being taught during a strict religious upbringing.

I can vividly recall moments in my youth when I felt, what seemed to me at the time to be, the presence of another life-force or energy that was somehow influencing my responses to the unexplained events, and thought of them as either some kind of guidance or warning. As a five year old child, coming home from school, I once narrowly missed being struck by a car as I was about to run out from between two other cars. For some reason, I suddenly stopped myself and hesitated just long enough to witness the fenders and side panels of a passing car go whooshing by me. There were other moments too, just as vivid in their own way, when I recall expecting to see particular individuals who suddenly appeared, and when anticipated events inexplicably unfolded right in front of me.

 

 

In several other especially troubling moments, I felt as though I was outside of myself, witnessing events from a short distance away from my body, alternately experiencing moments of dread, as well as moments of incredible lightness of being or delight, for no apparent reason. Even though I did not yet have the vocabulary to express these events in those terms, in retrospect, I now understand that many of them were simply moments of synchronicity with the environment I occupied at that time, without truly understanding how it was possible.

All of these indications slowly began to make more sense as I struggled to come to terms with my experiences during my military training in Massachusetts. Whatever the explanation actually might have been, it was clear that I needed to attend to exploring these matters with some urgency, since they seemed to be accelerating in frequency, and increasing in intensity.

 

 

For a time, they would occur almost daily, and it took me by surprise on a number of occasions to find myself “zoning out,” during Morse code training, typing the dots and dashes on a manual typewriter, when I noticed that the coded groups of random characters suddenly dropped off the page to become words and sentences. Had I not been most often in voluntary sessions of practice, it might have become more noticeable to my instructors. There were times when I had to take off my headset and walk away briefly in order to clear my mind so that I could return to copying the required code.

Sadly, I was not always able to retrieve these sheets in a timely manner, and was only occasionally able to hide them in my pocket and take them with me. Classroom protocol prohibited such actions, and papers from practice sessions were routinely burned afterwards. Often I would simply have to memorize as much as I could of key phrases or of particular passages in order to write them down afterwards.

 

 

Once I had completed that phase of my training, I knew that I was on a path leading me somewhere important to my well-being, and I discovered that once I began to be more accepting of these “eruptions,” I seemed to have more control over them. Resisting them had only led to an increased difficulty in managing them, so I decided instead to embrace the process and not to resist the flow of this energy through me. That decision, in turn, facilitated a more balanced response when I encountered these events and increased my ability to retain the spirit of those episodes until a more advantageous opportunity came to record them.

By the time I had completed my training in Massachusetts, I was in the running to graduate at the top of my class. There was an intense competition for that top slot and on the day of the final exam, I was in a head-to-head battle with my associate, Marilyn, who had matched me grade-for-grade through most of the course. As the test progressed, the senior instructors were all standing around our positions at the mock equipment stations, meticulously recording our every response to the preplanned scenarios that had been fed into the machines, mimicking a live mission in the field. Others who had already been disqualified eventually joined in the intense monitoring of the two remaining operators—myself and Marilyn.

 

 

When the exercise was completed, we had both obtained the correct result, and the report which printed out matched the requirements precisely. The instructors began conferring like referees trying to decide on a controversial call on a close play. Much to my dismay, one of the instructors had noticed that I had not set one of the standard controls for ensuring a clear signal, which required the operator to set a knob on the control panel to boost the RF gain to maximum. In this case, that boost wasn’t necessary to get the correct result, but it was the only difference between the two competitors, and since it was a standard part of the procedure, the win went to Marilyn.

I protested briefly that the goal of the test exercise was to capture the signal precisely, which I had accomplished, but the senior instructor insisted that under different conditions it might not have been sufficient, and that the standard was set for that reason. Our fellow students applauded as I shook Marilyn’s hand and congratulated her on her victory. She smiled widely at me and thanked me for being so gracious in defeat.

 

 

It was an exceptional moment at the apex of my military training in Massachusetts, and even as I watched her receive her reward, a promotion and a bonus weekend of leave added to her record, circumstances were already swirling around a sudden change in the trajectory of my journey, which would have a profound effect beyond anything I could have anticipated.

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.