Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ecologies of consciousness

ESSENTIALLY, personal consciousness is:

• Finite: it has a beginning in infancy and an ending at death. We experience a particular consciousness in this particular life. If anything of “us” continues into some other reality, it’s inaccessible to us here and now and doesn’t play back in discernible ways into our present: it’s irrelevant.

• Bounded: it has horizons: in a lifetime we can see only so far, we can do only so much, we can pursue only one path, broader or narrower though it be.

• Accretive: consciousness gathers as it goes — memories (experiences, cultural/social and imposed/indoctrinated assimilations) accumulate and add shape to the whole of our personal consciousness — we are filled out by what we have been.

• Selective: by ways of attention, forgetting and “conforming”, we modulate and direct our inputs and out retentions around a growing sense of “self”, creating a narrative of our own differentiated personhood.

• Multichannel: the various things that go into shaping personal consciousness arrive as a complicated flow of information, emotion, sensation, affirmation, negation and consolidation — we tend to draw different modalities of experience together, modulating and attenuating them in personally particular ways.

Integrative: consciousness may form branches but it is reluctant to divide, preferring to suppress or discard inputs that conflict with what it has already incorporated into its overall sense of unity. The conscious impulse towards coherence and congruence is often thought of the search for personal “meaning”. It usually includes an expectation that the universe will conform to our hopes and way of thinking.

• Evaluative: in its shuffling of inputs to establish coherence, the impulse of personal consciousness is to seek affirmation rather than information, and discard paradox and contradiction. It hungers after certainties. This inclines us to become better “believers” than “seekers”.

So personal consciousness, in becoming unique, increasingly becomes its own context.

The more effectively it achieves this, the more susceptible it becomes, not only to disappointment, but also to whatever doctrines, creeds and conventions seem resonant and offer a more vivid illusion of personal identity.

As social creatures, we seem to experience most personal wellbeing when there are various bonds of affirming intimacy and coherence within groups of consciousnesses: social, economic and physical. We feel good when we have or imagine ourselves having a "role", a purpose and a "mission". From such searches for wellbeing are forged the bases and bastions of empire, revolution, organized religion, “strong” government, mass movements, amateur dramatic societies, professional organizations and biker gangs… and their collapse. It just the old problem that’s inherent to setting goals: we achieve them, then realize that they were inherently unsatisfying or that we have acquired more sophisticated goals and, unwilling to overhaul the personal consciousnesses, we become suckers for new goals and strive even harder …or we self-destruct.

TWO things seem to offer important escapes from the trap of hardening shells of personal consciousness.

The first is to look at the ecology of consciousness.

How do I put a few cracks in my need for affirmation? How do I perturb my compulsion to burrow deeper in “same old”? How do I curb my appetite for reassurance?

Under-employment helps. The attendant collapse of income is liberating, once the anxieties are seen to be silly (which they are).

Then I found the option of shifting my passion for the ocean to listening closely to the nearby river — and a discovery that it sounds different every day… I listen until I hear its song, or let its song take form in my imagination. The song has a meaning… it comes from the dynamics of its flow and that ties it into all sorts of widening contexts… the weather, the climate, the seasons, the geology and the geo-history. So I began finding out about watershed hydrology and what's happening under the river, under my feet. And then I promoted my interest in pollinators into a passion, looking for the things they might tell me. The interesting thing to me has been that these things have proven a lot more lucid and sensible than your average philosopher, author, scientist or theologian. The river and the bees, flies and wasps all make sense… moral, intellectual and emotional sense. And, all of a sudden, I find I’m writing poetry again, waking at 2 a.m. full of excitement to scribble.

And there are always new ways of giving and receiving hospitality… and new friends who are affirming in new ways. As strangers become friends, new worlds start appearing.

These are all essentially changes in the ecological setting of my consciousness. And, like any ecological change, they oblige changes and adaptation in the creatures inhabiting the niches under their sway.

A human consciousness can be versatile, provided its ecological setting is not too hostile. Hostility encourages a consciousness to cling harder to existing "certainties": that's how wars and persecutions start. The best, most conflict-free way to tend a personal consciousness is probably to push it towards healthier ecologies. In purely physical ways, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did this all the time. The impulse to journey is rooted in out being.

In a busy, urban, consumerist lifestyle, where the wounds are swathed in muffling bandages of entertainment, drugs and distraction, the surroundings are about as healthy as the Athabasca River, downstream from the tarsands exploitation. Noise, junk architecture, jarring ugliness, endless needfulness, boredom, recreational shopping, ego-jousting, commuting, long working hours, endless rivalry and pressures to “succeed”… the human being did not evolve to be trapped like this, and the human consciousness is not equipped to flourish in raucous over-stimulation.

It's easier to move to fresher fields — new ecosystems — than to adapt one’s being to torturing psychic surroundings.

The second thing?

Curiosity! Curiosity is like aspirin… it’s a fairly safe, all-round remedy for most that ails the consciousness. The World is endlessly interesting, pretty much wherever you look. More passes us by unnoticed in an instant than we can explore in a decade: rekindling jaded curiosity, re-examining things taken for granted, wondering in new ways, with new questions and widened senses can feel like an explosion of new life… in fact, that’s pretty much what it is. Curiosity lights a fuse that sparks away in all directions and as far as ever you can see, illuminating countless marvels to make an imagination leap and dance and sing.

The hard part isn’t doing it… it’s breaking free from the grip of what has been, to prise loose the grip of reassurance in the caverns of one’s own personal consciousness. The consolation of affirmation is the flesh-eating, vitality-sapping minotaur at the heart of the personal labyrinth… it can be slain. We can, like Theseus, step into the light and found a new Athens.

We can be free.

File:Theseus Slaying Minotaur by Barye.jpg
THESEUS slaying the Minotaur
— a bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye (1843)
(Baltimore Museum of Art)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas: the rhythm's the thing

TIME, even to science is still a bit of a mystery.
But Earth-time’s leading edge, as it scours its circuits of this turning planet, seems to sweep up the energies of the day, of the night — the joys and torments, creations and annihilations — and radiate them to the infinities.
Each day, it’s all just a little bit different. We are different. And — if we put aside whatever fears unsettled us yesterday — we can breakfast on new insights, opportunities and hopes.
But, here in the north, winter has come.
The nectar’s gone. The fruit have fallen.
The frosts have bitten: bees huddle in their catacombs. Squirrels, finger-lickin’ fat, snuggle in their nests.
The life-sapped stillness of bare trees and greyed grass tell us it’s over, dead, done, ended.
And isn’t the World a mess, all things considered? Walking the dog, I find the weakened grass revealing more of the roadside trash. It makes me wonder what General Petraeus is buying his wife for Christmas.
Christmas… the birthday party for… no, not for Santa, for Yeshua — for “Jesus”, whose ministry became the foundation stone of Christianity… or, ah, alternatively, it’s just the “season”.
The date was not arbitrarily chosen. It coincides with the northern winter solstice.
So Christianity celebrates not just a person, but all that person stood for …and everything he came to stand for: new hope, new life, new joy… the possibility of redemption.
The solstice is easily explained: have an obedient child hold a basketball. It’s the sun. Take a wee green pea carefully between thumb and forefinger: it’s about the Earth’s relative size. Hold the pea on a 23.5 degrees angle. Which end is nearer the basketball? The top? The bottom? Now, walk a big circle, counterclockwise, keeping about 90 feet away from the child (if he’s still there), with your attention fixed on the pea. Watch what happens to its “top” and “bottom”. If you suddenly find yourself in heavy traffic or a neighbor’s kitchen, move the child and start again.
Once around the circle represents a year. Half way around is six months. Take your time. This is important. Stop when you get to June and consider the pea: which end is closer now? The rest is self-evident.
Actually, we don’t need the seasons explained.
What matters is the rhythm.
But let’s not rush ahead to the “first century”: it’s a long story.
Since Neolithic times, the shortest day of the year has been marked as a turning point: after it, the lengthening days will lead into spring and usher in all the beauty and abundance of another summer.
Nature had not trashed life, after all. Joy and plenty with goodness would return: refreshed and revitalized. Cultures all over the planet drew hope and vitality from the solstice.
The ancient Babylonians celebrated Zagmuk; for Persians it was Deygan; old Anglo-Saxons held a “mother’s night”: Modraniht. At the same time, across the Atlantic, the Incas were into Inti Raymi.
In 1995, in Brighton, England, a group of New Age Brits launched a Burning the Clocks festival as a counter-attack on the debauch of commercialized Christmas. Oddly, at least from a Canadian perspective, it was called off in 2009 because snow and icy weather were forecast.
In the Northern Hemisphere, this year’s winter solstice falls on 21 December. In the Southern Hemisphere it fell on June 20. There, despite the milder climate, Maori people observe Matariki (the rising of the Pleiades constellation).
Which brings us, at last, back to Christmas… and, whether you or I are Christians, or not, it’s what the longer days MEAN that matter.
Think about those longer days.
Remember them?
The wildflowers?… the bees?
Remember witnessing their constant relationship. It has been going on, just as you saw it last summer, for 100 million years or more.
And, remember, in sustaining itself, the bee, fly, wasp or butterfly (whatever pollinator you have in mind) also sustains the plant. In fact, through its ancestors, it helped that plant to evolve, and made possible today’s diversities of all we see, smell and taste among flowering plants, their fruit and in byproducts like beeswax and honey. Few of the fruit or vegetables we eat would have formed without a pollinator.
Moreover, all of these good things have long served humans as sources of inspiration. Inspiration is as essential as food and water.
Sure, it can all be explained. But, when we look for “meaning”, instead of walking around in circles, we see that “the whole” is far greater than the sum of its parts. Everything has been benefitting.
Pollinators are creatures for which we seldom spare a thought, far less esteem as our evolutionary elders or teachers. Yet, in sustaining themselves, they benefit us all — even in mid-winter — honey and lemon is a great treatment for winter colds — and, apart from the odd sting, they do us no harm.
We seem to have fallen into a dangerous place where, in sustaining ourselves, we damage our planet (including the flowers and their pollinators). We impoverish, dupe and damage each other and each others’ cultures; we surround ourselves with “collateral damage” … perhaps we’d do well to heed more humbly the teachings of the beauty and abundance that embrace us?
And, doing that, we can feast on the hope and joy the “holiday season” offers: the hopes that Christmas offers. Forget the economist who tells you that deepening your consumer debt for Christmas puts a great, passing spark into “The Economy”.
There are far more important things get going with: new hope, new life, new joy. Even the possibility of redemption. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The "god" vexation

It seems to have been "forever": a deep human need to find a reassuring appreciation of the mystery of existence.

“Reassurance” is relative. Some cultures have populated the infinite with personifications of oppressive brutality, many have come to notions of more or less delicately balanced forces and a few to concepts of all-sustaining total goodness. Enter: "GOD". Or "the gods". 

In each case, appropriate human responses have been prescribed by religions or wisdom teachers: unwavering obedience, public or private sacrifice, formulaic worship and adoration, denial or annihilation of “self”,  obedience to codes of socially practiced goodness, obedience to codes of purity and “cleanliness”, the practice of ecstatic social ritual or private reflection and meditation.

Across the board, you can find all sorts of similarities… and all sorts of differences. Many of the differences can be traced to cultural insights, biases and practices (the tastes of the “gods” happily coinciding with the culture’s set of sanctions). Many of the similarities can be linked to widespread or universal human capacities (we share finite abilities), or to the daily needs of social animals: genes or survival.

But, no matter how the impulse is expressed or where you find the shapes of its expression, the existential mysteries still vex human consciousness: “god” does not go away.

This is where atheism fails, not because of its apparently watertight arguments but because "god" will not go away. And whether or not “god” or the “gods” take form in the human mind or at the furthest ends of the universe, or exist all-pervasively, is similarly irrelevant — in that case, we are just conjecturing about the gods’ location, not their existence. Either way, they are just as “present”.

There is one way to get away from the issue. That is to build a brick wall  around all we think we know and call the wall “the ends of the universe”… enter the “modern”, rational, “practical” man of action, the pragmatist who gets things done. As a cultural style, it produces the literalist, the materialist, the rule of law, the clinician, the accountant, dualism and fundamentalism thrive: you can only be “right” or “wrong”. Minds close. All becomes vanity.

The trap here is that there’s no “higher court” of appeal: there is no effective recourse for aesthetic, intuitive or “spiritual” values and “emotionalism” is a weakness. Nothing is sacred.

We have moved a long way from the Middle Ages, when magic pulled the strings, to the rising reign of the rational …and the danger is that human beings have always tended to swing between extremes.

We need “religion”, “spirituality” and “faith” in order to be fully human.

THIS is the “bedrock” of any faith… not what is “believed” but where we plant its foundations. It's the context, not the content that's decisive. And the context is the absolute mystery of existence.Where, in our being, is the seed of faith? How have we found it?

I don’t think the churches, collectively, know. I don’t think they even think very deeply about it, nor our culture and the directions in which we are pulled — at the deepest levels — by it.

But we are healthiest and happiest when we are most fully human; not necessarily when we are rich and clever.

We find “god” when we seek the wholeness of our own humanity.

Where are we going?

HOW do we go about that search?

Here are my thoughts:

CURIOSITY… as an youthful atheist I felt the purpose of life was to experience it all as fully as possible: in New Zealand in those days, that meant going up mountains, down caves, into the wilderness and, as often as possible, to the ocean: sailing, diving, surfing or just swimming. It meant partying and mixing it with different (mostly Polynesian) cultures. This led me to an awareness of an overriding unity that makes life “real” as opposed to something that passes by. 
I found that incidents began coalescing into narratives — there was some kind of unintelligible “meaning” to it all. I experienced this as the biggest “why?” of them all. So I tried doing stuff I didn’t think I wanted to do, just to push the boundaries and this led me into religion and on into Christianity (of a sort). I’ve sought meaning intellectually but, much more importantly, experientially.

OPEN-NESS… to life, people, places… accepting the unexpected, the “strange” and the “stranger”. It’s an amazingly diverse little World. Without open-ness I think my curiosity might have dried up. I feel I’ve come to faith by trying to be the least interesting person I know. At the same time, it is the stimulus — a vivid face of love — I’ve found among very different people that’s given me confidence to seek my “self”-hood.
But self-hood has no meaning to me without its connectedness to the “meaning” I began to discern as an atheist. While open-ness adds to the narrative (meaning) and self-hood — which inevitably becomes defined in the context of some sort of community — it does nothing to diminish the mystery: the mystery keeps expanding. Self-hood helps me enjoy the ride and, thereby, learn from it.

LOVE… love rises when I let myself be passionate about entering into experience. And love then energises and heightens the experience. I find it difficult not to feel love rise among most the people and in most of the places to which I’ve let myself be led. I’ve seen love expressed widely enough to conclude that “love” is a human being’s natural state. 
The distance any of us moves from that natural state is a measure of how screwed up things are. 
But I easily get immersed in and distracted by all sorts of beauty — beauty is, in my conception, god's language of love — and incessant drama, often as commonplace as a spider making a web, a fish in the river, a cloud unfurling in a high wind, the way a creature moves… and by watching people interact: you can learn more about people by watching their movements, gestures and expressions as they interact with each other than you could from a transcript of their conversation. And it all adds to the grand narrative of existence.

BUT there are obstacles.

• “Wants” and “needs”: To serve a need or a want is to narrow your frames of experience — it becomes necessary to exclude the “distractions”, to “focus”. The false premise behind pursuing “wants” is that fulfillment and happiness are “out there”. I can’t remember ever having seen  the satisfaction of that sort of “want” bring enduring pleasure or joy. On the contrary, it usually seems to spark awareness of some new “want”. I’ve known people who have been made made less happy than they expected by relief from desperate material need. The hope that sustained them through their direst times and gave them the resilience to last the distance… that was the basis of their joy — even after the need was satisfied. 
Most of us though, in the global middle class of “Western” societies generate wants and needs, it seems, for their own sake. So, blinkered by fanciful “needs”, we consume vast amounts of “entertainment” because we are blind to the torrents of stimulus that wash over us ever moment, everywhere we are. (According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s annual Communications Monitoring Report released on 4 September, the “average” Canadian watched 28.5 hours of television a week in 2011, up from 28 hours a week in 2010.) And entertainment annihilates awe.

• ANXIETY… is another enemy of faith. Anxiety is a culturally induced frame of mind that draws boundaries close and dampens interest in anything beyond one's immediate self.. Our own, very often groundless, little fears and worries about trivialities nag us away from curiosity and the risk-taking that open-ness to life requires. We are made to fret about our comfort zones and our fretting too often grows into fear. And fear is paralyzing. If anything can damn us, it's fear and anxiety.

As I said above: we are healthiest and happiest when we are most fully human; not necessarily when we are rich and clever. And, when we seek the wholeness of our own humanity, we find “god”.