Moments of Being

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

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

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

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

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

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

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

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

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

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

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

In a stroller in 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting to the World Within

Giving deliberate and purposeful attention to developing some form of contemplative practice is essential for promoting a greater degree of self-awareness, and for encouraging us to conduct the deep inner searching necessary to reach and explore the world within us. In order to begin this process, we must be able to still the mind and quiet the relentless inner voice of conscious thoughts. Allowing the mind to settle down and become quiet, releases us from thoughts about daily activities and concerns, and prepares our mind to turn its attention to a more directed period of contemplation.

My own daily practice usually includes early morning meditation, typically lasting twenty to thirty minutes after breakfast and before consuming my morning coffee. I generally spend my coffee time catching up on correspondence, reading the paper if I have time, and then looking at whatever tasks I hope to achieve in the day ahead, with the purpose of deciding on whatever amount of time I can set aside throughout the day for deliberate thoughtful reflection, which often includes some deliberate choice of gentle musical accompaniment that assists me in achieving a relaxed state of mind. There is no set formula, and there are times when it isn’t possible at all to do so. The important part of any program isn’t a precise adherence to a rigid routine, but rather, a deliberate choice to incorporate time for contemplation on whatever schedule the day allows.

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With regular attention and consistent effort, it is possible to find a number of opportunities for even short periods of time each day to disengage from daily routines, long enough to give consideration to contemplative endeavors. I also find it useful at the end of the day to review whatever conclusions may have occurred during my time in contemplation, if any, and record those thoughts in either my writing journal or in my recent alternative “audio journaling” recording sessions. Seeing progress in a written journal, and reviewing audio recordings I’ve made over time, helps me to reinforce the ideas that have resulted from those efforts, recorded when they were freshly arrived in a deliberately chosen and purposeful state of consciousness.

Many illuminating moments can be encountered during directed contemplation, particularly when it is preceded by a clearly delineated mental and spiritual preparation to withdraw from the temporal world, as well as a reasonable degree of either silence or a calming environment, with at least no more than a background murmur to contend with that doesn’t distract me.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I spend as much time as I can in some variety of a natural setting in the wilderness or a recreational area in the temperate times of the year, which always seems to have an effortless transformational effect on me. Even during the winter, a walk in the early morning snow or a late night stroll around the block can elicit a profound inner connection to the world within. For me, though, communing with the natural world and escaping the daily routines in any significant way is my link to the phenomenon of consciousness, that richly-textured subjective experience of existence, which, for me, points so clearly to the non-material aspects of that existence.

Currently, we can only verify consciousness subjectively, but this does not mean that the door is closed exactly on searching for other ways to do so. I may not be able to verify YOUR consciousness with the same subjective certainty that I can verify my own, but we limit ourselves when we look at the physical plane and temporal existence as the “real world,” and everything else as unreal. Non-material aspects, while not having any demonstrable material existence, can still exist just as certainly as those which can be seen with a telescope or under a microscope, only in a manner inaccessible to our science.

Modern physicists have recently proposed string theory as a way of resolving the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics, and it posits the idea that our universe has many more dimensions than are discernible to us as physical beings, suggesting that the material world itself may also be composed of some variety of non-material aspects.

If we examine the currently available evidence of human evolution over millions of years, allowing for informed inferences based on as much of both science and metaphysics as can be tolerated; there is a path that leads toward a greater understanding of the evolution of consciousness, its role in the temporal, and its foundation in the non-material.

I sometimes like to frame the argument for differentiating consciousness from cognition by comparing them in terms of a radio broadcast. The radio transmitter, the radio antenna, the propagation of radio waves through the atmosphere, and the radio receiver are the mechanisms of radio transmission and reception. The radio equipment doesn’t CREATE the content of the radio broadcast. All the radio equipment in the world is useless without the person who INITIATES the transmission and composes a comprehensible message. A conscious entity of sufficient intelligence can design, build, and operate the equipment, but without the capacity for creating some message or transmission to communicate, the mere existence of the equipment is insufficient to make productive use of its abilities. That requires something more—a creator of the message!

In the same way, I do not believe that human consciousness is generated solely by our EQUIPMENT. Our neurons, synapses, coordinated brain regions and sufficiently developed frontal lobes—all of it evolved finally in hominids to the point where we became aware of a wider existence beyond simply experiencing life. As I experience it, the life within me is my real life. Neurons and synapses provide the means to access consciousness. That is a distinction which is, in my view, unavoidable.

It will become even clearer when the technology eventually catches up to the brain with a manufactured device that somehow utilizes trillions of switches, emulating our interconnected networks of neurons that mirror in some fashion the architecture of the brain. It is my view, that when they are finally able to construct even the most sophisticated version of a precisely constructed BRAIN INSTRUMENT, which is comparable to the architecture of a human brain, it may produce a very sophisticated device that mimics brain activity, but is unlikely to possess anything truly comparable to human consciousness. Simply recreating the structure of the brain will be insufficient to bring to life a fully developed living being, with all the capacities and richness of our experiential subjective aliveness, since it hasn’t been established at all that brain activity alone can account for our own subjective experience.

There is so much more to human subjective experience than brain activity alone, and even our own ancient human ancestors had a structurally similar physical brain for thousands of years before demonstrating significant self-awareness and the ability to begin to comprehend the world. The stark difference between what took nature millions of years of biological evolution to produce, and what a future technology might produce with whatever synthetic materials are developed along the way, will very likely show this contrast definitively.

Whatever capabilities such technologies will enable in a manufactured device, it will not be ALIVE, nor will it be able to comprehensively assume the identity or house the consciousness of a preexistent biological human. Science fiction stories of such developments gloss over the finer points of our humanity, and often neglect to acknowledge that our bodies and brains are receptacles—mechanisms which are animated by energies and aspects which have no corresponding physical existence in the same way that our bodies do.

Our current medical technologies can ensure that virtually every single human bodily function operates at a nominal level. With the exception of brain cells, we can reconstruct or repair virtually any damage to human tissue, and, in some cases, even stimulate artificially the process of regenerating cells, but no matter how sophisticated we get, we won’t be able to precisely produce a human egg or sperm synthetically. We cannot even produce a human zygote by synthetic means, without starting off with genuine human biological tissues.

We may end up manipulating the biological components produced by our human biological inheritance, and even though we risk a great deal by doing so, it may alter future generations in ways we could not now anticipate, but any process or procedure that utilizes materials that are not wholly biological cannot hope to produce some variation of a truly biological human.

The reason for this is because what underlies, supports, and is ESSENTIAL to those living components and materials—the very kernel of their nature—is NON-MATERIAL. When you begin to consider the nature of human existence by supposing that a non-material dimension or aspect to existence is a given, then it seems conceivable to me that we may one day achieve a comprehensive understanding of the nature of human consciousness, which will not be forthcoming unless we integrate these essential aspects.

In order for us to continue to evolve as a species and to survive in the eons which lay before us, we must seek a greater understanding of our true nature. It is not religion, but it is not purely science either, and it is DEFINITELY NOT dogma from either area of study that will ultimately illuminate our comprehension of human consciousness.

Ancient Beginnings

–Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.

“We must fight…against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper.”

“How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.”

—excerpts from Cicero’s essay, “On Old Age,” —44 B.C.

An orator, philosopher, poet, and activist politician in his day, Cicero became consul of Rome in 63 BC—Rome’s highest political office. He wrote much that is worth reviewing and the quote above seemed to resonate for me currently, as I am paying “even more attention to (my) mind and spirit, so that they won’t “…grow dim with time.” My life is not what I would describe as “leisurely” exactly, and although I do have more time to devote to “knowledge and learning,” it’s still a struggle to balance what is possible to do and what is required of me.

This month I wanted to set the stage for a review of some of the main foundational subjects about which I have been writing, particularly for those who may be only recently encountering the nearly three hundred postings here. Over the past several weeks, I have spent a fair amount of time in support of my newest granddaughter, who just arrived home from the hospital this past weekend, and I’m happy to report that she is not only well and healthy, but simply perfect in every way.

Holding my beautiful granddaughter and sharing intimate family moments is not only a privilege of great value to me, but perhaps even more importantly, it is an unambiguous affirmation of the existence of the human spirit, which may not be possible to achieve in another way. The awareness of the presence of spirit in this situation is primarily intuitive and subjective, but unmistakable.

Her arrival on Earth has been a momentous one for the family and watching my son and his wife caring for their first child, feeling all of the emotions and concerns that come along with it, I can’t help but reflect on these very same moments in my own life, when I brought my son home for the first time.

 

 

The experiences I have known as a grandfather or any number of individual phenomena clearly cannot, by themselves, fully explain or illuminate comprehensively the broader subject of the nature of our subjective experience of human consciousness, nor do they necessarily compare in intensity or magnitude to other reported mystical or spiritual awakenings over the centuries, but considered together in the broadest sense of human experience, they do provide a window into the character and quality of our humanity, and since I bring decades of serious contemplation of the subject with me to such experiences, for me, they lead to at least a solid opening for a discussion.

In order to begin to understand our subjective inner experience, we have to imagine what life must have been like for our earliest ancestors, who possessed all the requisite physical structures for a comprehensive cognitive system in their brain architecture, but were only slowly becoming self-aware in a meaningful way, and who were beginning to devise ways of demonstrating it to themselves and to their fellow Homo sapiens. These capacities did not develop suddenly, nor were our early ancestors equipped initially to make use of them once they did appear. Our ancient beginnings were humble indeed.

Although several locations in Europe boast of ancient cave paintings with remarkably detailed renderings of a variety of animals known to exist in prehistory, there have been very few discoveries of images or objects depicting human figures recovered in excavations of prehistoric archeological sites in Europe, and the earliest occurrence of such images in any significant number now appear to have been located in South Africa, in the Drakensberg Mountains.

According to the popular PBS documentary series, “Civilizations,” the San Bushmen hunter/gatherer culture produced a number of displays of prehistoric artwork, placed there tens of thousands of years ago, which feature multiple instances of human figures included in the paintings on the cave walls of those ancient sites, indicating some of the earliest links to what the narrator describes as “…clues to the birth of the creative impulse, and modern human self-consciousness.” I highly recommend you locate this series on your local PBS station or other outlet, and several of these images are from the series.

Discoveries in several locations throughout the African continent provide remnants from the ancient world, which suggest evidence of the earliest attempts to build large communities, based on practical considerations of sustenance and survival, like the early development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago.

About seven thousand years ago, in what we refer to as the “fertile crescent,” and “the cradle of civilization,” in the area between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, the first evidence of the establishment of “true cities,” can be found in areas where the remains of ancient cities like Eridu and Uruk were once located.

Perhaps as early as five thousand years ago, artwork became more deliberate and more potent as these early civilizations became more complex as unified cultures, and centers of power. Some of the earliest recorded writings in ancient scripts, according to the narration in the series, recorded ordinary events like “…the payment of taxes,” but sometimes “…told the stories of gods and heroes.”

Around four thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians began to establish trade with the Minoans, on the island of Crete, part of modern day Greece. The gradual rise and eventual disappearance of many of the ancient civilizations led to a blending of traditions, and the dissemination of a variety of languages and cultural influences, which are still evident today in our modern societies.

Even more intriguing, was the discovery of the ancient city of Petra in modern day Jordan, established by the Nabataean Empire around 400 B.C., where the thriving culture carved out some of the most spectacular stone edifices of ancient times. Although the living, breathing trade center and creative culture in what was then the capital city of the time, only lasted approximately three hundred years, they left behind an extraordinary legacy of engineering acumen, evidenced in the “…cisterns and reservoirs,” to trap the winter rains, and a flourishing artistic heritage in the stone sculptures, elaborate mosaics, and legendary gardens, enjoyed by a population at its peak of about 30,000 people.

Looking back over the millennia through recorded human history, it appears that while our cognitive and creative capacities during these early epochs, began to gradually produce ever-more elaborate demonstrations of “modern human self-consciousness,” it would take tens of thousands of years to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated capacity for our modern day form of human consciousness.

…more to come…

Awareness and Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating the Path Inward

In the stillness of the morning, as I attempt to venture inward, I am uncharacteristically ill-at-ease. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over my journey; an inexplicable degree of reluctance to disengage fully from my worldly concerns prevents me from easily letting go as usual. Normally, I can easily quiet my mind, gradually descend through the layers of consciousness, and with minimal effort, center myself. In doing so, I typically am able to arrive once again where I left off, able to resume the journey, and to recognize and evaluate both how far I’ve come, and how far I have yet to go.

Oddly enough, in spite of this unsettling struggle, the effort required to resume my journey and the difficulty I seem to be experiencing, have not dissuaded me from being optimistic about the outcome. At times like this, I often wish I could more readily summon some greater personal strength or draw upon some untapped reserve or force of will to supplement my inner energies. In the past, I simply had to persist long enough to get back on track, or to withdraw and regroup at a later time in order to feel more confident in reaching the next step, and to resume the path of exploration.

I’ve conducted a great many such explorations of my inner world over the years, and, most often, once begun, it has been nearly impossible to contain myself, only occasionally requiring an additional effort to sustain momentum. This current bout of uncertainty is less familiar, but no less daunting. Over time, I have released much from within me, but I still typically sense that more is to come. How it will eventually turn out is still a matter of some speculation, and yet, I feel as though I am at least still headed in the right direction. If the problem persists, I may need to engage some sort of personal muse to awaken the inner strength to push me forward, and to drive me to go deeper—to reveal more.

I am feeling a bit lost, yet, not totally so. I have a sense of the landscape, but at times, it seems my eyes are either closed or unable to see clearly; the only way to progress requires me to redouble my efforts to relinquish my concerns about what I may or may not currently be able to see or feel, and to descend through the layers of my inner life to arrive at the core of my being, where all is one. After a short break, I once again resume my efforts to withdraw within, after conjuring and then utilizing the following words to help me focus:

“I am slowly descending now through the layers of consciousness. I am letting go of the temporal world. I am releasing my temporal self and my conscious thoughts. That which is me, that which my mind engages—thoughts, feelings—all of it—I release them all.”

As the weight of all these considerations becomes less, I am finally able to dissolve the partitions of objective existence, and to slowly descend into my inner world. As I navigate the path inward, I must allow my spirit to incrementally consume me, so that it can seek out and attain a degree of solace and inner solitude, and thoroughly relinquish all that concerns me as a conscious being; it is in this “place” where the temporal world crosses over into the intangible world.

I don’t have a clear view of it. Even my most earnest attempts to describe this process cannot accurately express what is taking place. I believe what I seem to “see” is not visual in nature, and there is no recognizable sensation—it doesn’t feel like anything I usually feel when I am awake and conscious. It actually doesn’t feel like anything at all, and as I reflect upon these moments later, I know there is nothing at all that it is like. It is not sensory. It is intangible, and the impressions I am left with afterwards, seem to have “floated up” from this “place.”

The resulting impressions sometimes inform my subsequent attempts to achieve a meditative state. I cannot say definitively what the true nature and source of these impressions might be, but upon reflection, I seem to possess a kind of “knowing,”—and I use this word as a concession because no single word can truly express it—but I know that it is real, and if there exists something akin to a “spiritual feeling,” I think that may be as close as we can come to describing the effect afterwards, and it clearly affects me deep down.

I do not pretend to know, in any more accurate manner, how to express what transpires during these episodes, expect perhaps to add that it is objectively real to me in my remembrance of it. It is always in retrospect, when I rise back up to subjective consciousness—when I reflect upon it and contemplate how I feel as a temporal being afterwards—that it seems to me, these “experiences,” in the depths of my inner world, are manifesting in very subtle ways in my temporal life after I return to the surface once again.

I have periodically noted in my personal journals, after I transcribed the words and thoughts and feelings I could recall about these interactions, when reviewing them later on as a conscious person, I occasionally only had a vague sense of having written those accounts myself. When I read the words on the page, conjured in an attempt to describe those moments again from memory, I sometimes wrote that it almost didn’t seem like the words were mine. And yet, I know they issued forth from me as my hand held the pen, or as my fingers glided across the keyboard, or as my voice echoed in the stillness as I spoke them.

It is not possible to definitively express such profound concepts, nor is it feasible to explain what takes place during such ineffable moments in terms that you might use to describe an ordinary experience, because they aren’t strictly experiential in the same sense as swimming in an ice-cold lake, or floating in the salty summer ocean.

There is no unambiguous corresponding way to describe such events. We can only search for metaphors and point in certain directions which inevitably must fall short of exactitude, since these events unfold where there is no physical space. Even so, from my point-of-view, the direction I follow within is fairly consistent in its breadth and depth, and it always brings me reliably to a realm where words and thoughts and feelings and sensations are not necessary. When I find myself there, I am consistently inspired by the strength and intensity of my inner life; my connection to it is predictably temporary in duration—so truly fleeting in the broadest sense—but it is, upon reflection, always subjectively real, and I cannot now imagine enduring my temporal existence without periodically spending even the most fleeting of moments interacting with the world within.

What Will Come

We all know that the living of an individual life, at its core, often consists of a fair amount of uncertainty. There are no guaranteed outcomes. As much as we rely upon and announce the accomplishments of our science, as we explore the physical world, and proclaim with certainty, the results of our explorations, about what is and what has been, what will come is nearly always unknown.

Granted, there are particular natural world outcomes, which we can routinely predict with a degree of confidence, for example, the characteristics of seasonal changes in the areas of the world where they routinely occur. In the spring, in the northern hemisphere, as the earth tilts gradually more toward sun, the blossoms will unfold. By the time the summer arrives, all of nature will become full and green. Temperatures will rise and the sun will burn us, unless we take precautions against it. At the same time, the opposite conditions will persist in the southern hemisphere. There it will be more like our winter; the earth tilts away from the sun, and alters the temperatures in such a way, that will require those who inhabit that area to dress appropriately for significantly cooler conditions. For them, the celebration of Christmas is a summer festival, in much the same way as those of us on the opposite side of the globe celebrate our traditional summer events.

The inclination of the earth, tilting on its axis, in our hemisphere, creates the increasing heat and humidity typical of our summer months, while simultaneously lowering the temperatures on the opposite side of the world. Neither one of the hemispheres, regardless of the season, can lay claim to having the “right” conditions for summer or winter. Neither one can be described as “unnatural.” Our perceptions are simply two different views of the very same experience of life in different locations on our planet.

Yet, as we view a life lived in our accustomed and predictable seasonal conditions, all that we know, all that we experience in our lives, often reflects our expectations of these changes as an essential component, and when circumstances vary from what we typically expect, either through travel or unexpected variations in the weather, the altered states we encounter can be disorienting.

So it is with our lives as viewed over the span of years. We are born helpless and remain young for an extended period of time, and if we are fortunate, we live to see advanced age, gain a degree of perspective in the process, and only relinquish our lives after a lifetime of experience, when we can truly claim to have survived until we are “old.” As many of us who have endured through the passing of many years can attest, our view of life as a young person was likely, in many ways, far different once we arrived in this timeframe; perhaps, we might even wish to describe our viewpoint as the “opposite” of what we thought back then.

None of it—not the beginning, nor the end; not the heat, nor the cold; not the summer, nor the winter; alters the life within us. Regardless of where we live, what language we speak, what conditions exist around us—in every case—every living being is alive and existent in the physical universe, for as long as that life can be sustained; we each experience our individual lives subjectively and over time, accumulate the knowledge and experience that makes us who we become.

Whether there are many advantageous opportunities or only a few; whether we enjoy robust health or suffer through disease; whether we live with a degree of abundance, or suffer a life of scarcity or lack of resources; whether we enjoy the pleasures of a tropical paradise, or suffer the challenges of life in the arctic regions; all life, all peoples in every corner of our planet, while they live, experience the uncertainties of life. No matter what they look like, what they believe, or where they grew up, each one is a human being who deserves the opportunity to live as best they can, according to their talents and by their determined efforts to carve out a life as a person in the world.

No matter where you look, no matter to what region of the world you travel, you will find a robust variety of conditions—examples of great progress and great tragedy; evidence of tremendous accomplishments and devastating failures; examples of extraordinary love and compassion, along with the unfortunate reality of bitterness and hatred—all taking place in the same world, among the same people, only varying as the result of different choices. Some of us succeed gloriously in our efforts; some fail unerringly; some rise and fall, some will rise and stay risen; some will fall and stay fallen.

Every variety of experience and character you can imagine exists now or has existed somewhere in the world, at some period of time in the history of humanity. Throughout all of it, humans have made astonishing discoveries, and committed epic failures. Depending on how you view the world, you could easily dismiss the chances of achieving any significant degree of equilibrium in the future. We’ve already seen how the tides of fortune can change. A poor person can become wealthy; a wealthy person can lose everything; a bitter and resentful person can become compassionate and loving; severe misfortune and suffering can turn even the most resourceful person into a pessimist.

At the core of our humanity is the one unchanging and constant presence that cannot be irreversibly defeated or permanently swayed by the events of the temporal world. It is our individual human spirit or soul. Although we often experience it and view it as belonging only to us, it is more appropriate to view it as a manifestation of a much larger oneness of being—an individual experience of a universal and ubiquitous reality that unites every living entity, and which provides the foundation for the observable and the unobservable universe.

And no, this is not science. The premise is not empirically driven or provable by experiment, but it can be known by us and confirmed subjectively to exist as a component of our experience of human consciousness. All that is necessary is to simply allow ourselves the permission to probe the full realm of possibility—to look more deeply within ourselves—and to see past all the limitations and characteristic prejudices that often appear, when we view the world through the prism of materialism or the superficial criteria of our human frailties. When we view our lives as merely being surface dwellers on a random planet in an obscure corner of an unremarkable galaxy, it is no wonder at all that we experience the divisions and conflicts that we see occurring all the time. In order to overcome these limitations, it is essential that we expand our understanding of life to include the more profound aspects of our inner lives, and to seek in others, what is truly at their core—the very same spirit of which we are only one part.

Interconnected and Interdependent

“Both intuitive and interactive, the gnostic approach to faith is a sacred quest for greater knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—a deeper penetration of the Mystery. This path leads to a higher degree of the enlightenment experience or gnosis. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas reveals how the reader can use each verse in this scripture as a source of daily contemplation and spiritual growth, while exploring…other mystical and magical teachings.”

–from the description of the text on Amazon.com

In a previous posting, I spoke of a “World Outside of Our World,” and wrote about the difficulties we face, as temporal beings, when we attempt to describe, in any comprehensive manner, those aspects of our existence which do not lend themselves easily to such descriptions. Since by the very nature of our subjective experience of the world, we have a unique view that is only possible for us as individuals to know intimately, we must acknowledge a built-in impediment to empirical verification of what it might be like to experience the world for anyone other than us.

At the same time, based on our own reactions to the experience of temporal life, it seems reasonable to allow ourselves, at least to a small degree, some leeway in considering, from the real-world responses of other sentient beings, that there are commonalities and some shared levels of experience that might be described as universal among human participants with regard to “what it’s like” to be human. It is also possible that we share much more in common with our fellow travelers in this life than we realize or can confirm with any certainty, but as a purely philosophical question, I thought it might be more useful to frame the conversation in terms of what MIGHT be possible, since scientific certainty continues to elude us currently in the 21st century.

“To love, to gain knowledge, to uplift humanity…is the purpose and meaning of this life. This name and form have meaning to the extent that (universal) consciousness is embodied. That is why the soul enters into this life, so that the being of the becoming that is within you might incarnate and the world to come might manifest. If you accomplish something of this great work, then all that you do in this life will be filled with meaning.”

–excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

Great progress is being made in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive studies, and in modern psychiatric research, regarding the roles of specific brain regions in higher cognitive functioning, associative chemical and genetic components in pathology and functionality, and a host of other related research projects that are producing new insights and expanding our understanding generally.

What concerns me greatly, as someone whose major life events have often been characterized by a variety of extraordinary moments and inscrutable experiences, is that not enough attention is being given to experiences that fall outside of our ability to explain empirically, and in the service of giving more attention to those experiences, I’ve consulted a variety of sacred texts and spiritual resources over the years, including, as quoted here, the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas.

While it’s completely reasonable to point out the importance of comprehending the science of the brain, reviewing the full spectrum of thought throughout the thousands of years of human history, as I have done for nearly thirty years now, suggests to me that the more speculative and intangible aspects of human experience may hold even greater significance in coming to terms with human consciousness than any number of studies of the physical brain.

Credit: [ The Art Archive / Kharbine-Tapabor ] ¥ Ref: AA529033

“If you think you are something, if you think you are a substantial and independent self-existence, a solid or fixed entity, it is greatly troubling to discover that your secret center is no-thing, that you are empty of any substantial or independent self-existence. Discovering this, however, you then realize that this is the very nature of everything in existence. You discover that everything is impermanent, that everything changes. Reality is empty of any substantial and independent self-existence.”

–excerpt from Verse 3, Gnostic Gospels

Attempting to describe a “world outside of our world,”—to even call it “a world,”—requires us to acknowledge our current inability to address it in terms that are appropriate as a contrast to the physical world itself. Since we cannot participate fully in or interact directly with any non-physical realm, at least while we participate in our daily waking experience of temporal life, it can appear to the more materialistic among us that such realms fall under the category of either imagination or hallucination.

Many accounts of encounters with mysterious or otherwise temporally inexplicable phenomena often take place under an extreme circumstance like a near-death-experience, during times of great stress, or as the result of trauma. They can also occur while we suspend, in some manner, our usual routines and seek, through the practice of meditation or by an act of deliberate intention, to elicit some temporary deferment of our familiar temporal sensory experience.

“You must seek in order to discover the Spirit and Truth and must continue seeking until you realize the Spirit indwelling you and know the Truth in your own experience. It is not enough that another person has discovered the Truth. Each individual must seek and strive to discover it…”

—excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

If we are reasonably “self-aware,” we can recognize moments where our everyday experience of the senses becomes mitigated enough to approach the threshold of our inner experience of our deeper self. With regular deliberate attention, we open ourselves to acquiring glimpses of this non-corporeal aspect—experiencing moments where the two cross over—and there is an entry point between the two where we encroach upon that threshold, where the spirit which inhabits the body can shine through. As the veneer of physicality recedes, we disassociate ourselves from our physical bodies briefly. It is very difficult to sustain at first, and even with practice, we only seem to be able to persist in such a state for brief periods.

Occasionally, encounters with such mysteries and unexplained phenomena occur spontaneously, or are precipitated by unexpected circumstances over which we have no volitional input. Conversely, just because we actively seek a greater understanding as a matter of course, placing ourselves deliberately on the path toward transcendence and the spirit, we are not necessarily guaranteed an instant or satisfying result in every instance.

“Such is the nature of reality, this magical display of consciousness. The inside and the outside are not separate but are intimately connected. The reality of your experience is the magical display of your own consciousness. A change in consciousness brings about a corresponding change in the reality you encounter. A change in the reality you encounter is an expression of a change in consciousness.”

“The individual, the collective, and the universal consciousness are completely interconnected and interdependent. You alone are not the creator of the reality you experience. Every living being is a unique individual expression of (consciousness)…and a co-creator (with Life) of the reality you experience.”

–edited excerpts from the Gnostic Gospels, Verse 3

This interconnection and interdependence is, in my view, an essential component of our existence as both temporal and spiritual creatures. We are a multifarious conglomeration of systems and circumstances, and in view of this complexity, it seems reasonable to suggest that the whole of our complex human nature cannot be described simply in terms of our physical systems. It may be that we are still too young as a cognitive species, and haven’t had sufficient time to evolve into beings who can broadly perceive this connection—this door opening—this threshold to the world outside of our world.

It might also be true that the spirit which inhabits our bodies, which animates us, which is the vehicle for our awareness of these experiences in this life, also provides access to the world outside of ours, and since it is so difficult to articulate a comprehensive understanding of it, we view it as mysterious and can easily dismiss any potential stimulus from a non-physical source. Experiences which point to the possible existence of a spiritual or non-physical aspect to our nature are also often disregarded because we can provide no rational or empirical cause in temporal terms.

What frequently flies in the face of all such rational objections are the subjective affirmations which occur inside those of us who, without any wish to do so, endure encounters with extraordinary events. Many times, we often seem only to be able to infer possible explanations. How could such an encounter with a purely subjective embrace of a non-material world be explained other than by inference, by an informed awareness, or by some intuitive rationale? Our entire human history is replete with examples of individuals and groups making earnest attempts to do so, and eventually the subject became the purview of scholarly attentions, many of which persist to this day as potential sources of exploration for all varieties of seekers.

The quotes from the Gnostic Gospels are only one example of many which have appeared throughout human history, and there are many others which have appeared here on my blog over the last eight years or so, and even though I would not endorse any one particular viewpoint, so far, as a definitive source providing a holistic explanation for our subjective experience of human consciousness, when viewed in total, and considering the many overlapping points within each source, it seems to me that we must acknowledge, at least in the broadest sense, that all of them point to the value of exploring and being open to what may be possible.

“Everything is interconnected and interdependent; it is the nature of things ever-becoming. You must learn to accept and embrace the whole of life and the whole of yourself if you would discover the Spirit and Truth. The Light and the Darkness must be joined and you must realize the Sacred Unity.”

“When people speak about the gnostic gospels, they are almost always referring to a collection of ancient writings (in Coptic) that were discovered near the upper Nile village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, in 1945. These manuscripts, which scholars have dated to the fourth century, were most likely hidden in an effort to preserve them from destruction following a decree of St. Athanasius banning the use of heretical writings. An English translation of these documents has been published and can be easily referenced online.”

—quote from http://www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality