Monday, April 29, 2013
Dancing With Angels On The Heads Of Pins: My Necessarily Incomplete Understanding of Consciousness
I do realize that in many practical ways, what I am arguing is perhaps irrelevant for the many who prefer to focus on practical, day to day living. And perhaps that is just as it should be. I can imagine that my argument might sound like the old "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" argument, but it seems of vital importance to me, not only in the study of myth, but also in the larger considerations of consciousness itself. I suppose the theologians who argued about angels and pins claimed a similar dispensation, too. And though I may seem to be excessively dense or ploddingly pedantic, I may still be of some service to those who can, with a generous heart and mind, bear with me until the end, for as Rilke noted, "by bearing the heavy we make it light."
In talking with my long time friend, George, over breakfast Saturday morning, he presented some ideas that seemed to incite some insight into what I have long believed is the human inability to be aware of an objective reality. While there may indeed be an objective reality which exists, I do not believe human beings have the ability to experience it as such. We have instead the ability to experience altered consciousnesses, epiphanies, or hierophanies, but these are only representations or models of the objective phenomena. As soon as we ask ourselves, "What was that....???" we begin a rapid and inexorable move away from the phenomenon itself.
At the same time, I do believe that experiences of altered or elevated consciousnesses are "real" and that there is an ungraspable, "beyond names and forms and apparitions" aspect of the immaterial world constantly influencing, impacting, and acting upon us, of which we are vaguely aware. However, I am currently inclined to think that we cannot be objectively aware of the phenomena qua phenomena that influences us in a given moment. Human consciousness seems to stand in the way and in between objective phenomena and the perception of them. The faculty of human consciousness itself seems constructed in such a way as to prevent one from knowing very much at all about the mysterium, and moreover it seems likely to me that that human consciousness is not very interested in knowing objective facts, but is instead almost entirely devoted to the act of creating stories and narratives in the forms of beliefs, opinions, probabilities, rules, and actuarial tables. And in the performance of these tasks, consciousness irreconcilably separates itself from the phenomenon it is trying to understand.
To me, subjectivity is nearly synonymous with illusion, and subjectivity seems to be all we have. The subjective experience takes place solely within one's own mind and not in the objective world, even though the subjective representation may easily be imagined to be about the objective world. But individual consciousness appears to separate one from what is perhaps the objective, external world. I say perhaps because what is typically described as external may not be nearly as external as we think, and we may fundamentally misunderstand transrational experience: the experience of an expanded, altered, enhanced consciousness. Instead, what if transrational consciousness is common to, or a natural process fostered by, the objective world (like water vapor cycles, entropy or photosynthesis) and one's existence in it--that is to say the very phenomenon we are attempting to describe and achieve (enlightened or non-ordinary consciousness) is a regular, ordinary part of the world and our faculty of conscious perception is the very thing which obscures it and separates us from it. The very attempt to experience heightened awareness prevents one from experiencing it regularly and constantly, in the same way as we experience color, say, because the focus of human consciousness seems only or mostly oriented to an idea of "inner" and the concomitant expanse of individual subjectivity.
But what if we don't possess only one consciousness which may be, from time to time different, altered, enhanced, or diminished? What if instead, we are different consciousnesses. Somehow, I think this might be the more plausible answer. Human consciousness appears only to know something through story or metaphor, but what if we have, in addition, access to an entirely different kind of consciousness, a consciousness as unlike familiar human consciousness as a blastocyst is unlike a fully developed human? Perhaps the real problem that we can't figure out is how to reliably toggle between the two or more consciousnesses that constitute our being. Perhaps this is why, at times, we have the notion that we are not only human, but that we are at once human and divine (for example, Jesus quoted Psalms and said, "Ye are gods"). Perhaps this dual nature, this sense that there is more to us than what we are consistently told or experiencing, is why one might say such a thing; we are not just human, we are human and...something not human or more than human all at once. The idea that there may be another system of consciousness available to us that is entirely differentiated in form and function and yet is so subtly integrated that it is barely perceptible and it, from time to time, assumes a place of primacy and exerts an overwhelming influence, greatly intrigues me. I imagine these consciousnesses to have formed in an evolutionary process in which this more primitive (Primitive only in terms of evolution. I am really suggesting that this type of consciousness came first), more fundamental, consciousness functions to connect us to immaterial realms, and perhaps even connects us to immaterial realms at all times, while the more novel (in terms of evolutionary time) human consciousness tends to override our awareness of the fundamental consciousness and connects us to the material world.
Maybe a good analogy would be the ancient limbic system of the human brain--the reptilian brain, the seat of emotion--and its relationship to the much more modern neocortex, the location of "higher" intellectual and rational functioning. The limbic system and the neocortex seem to operate in such a way that they seem mostly unaware of each other, yet from time to time the limbic system overrides the neocortex and we behave completely "out of character," becoming irrationally emotional, inconsolably terrified, or seething with rage. These systems in one brain are most certainly connected but the connection is a subtle one, and from a broad functional perspective they seem not to be aware of one another. Maybe an even better analogy would be with the cerebellum, which controls all autonomic functions in the body. We usually don't even pay attention to those life sustaining, essential activities until something goes wrong. In a similar manner, these functionally distinct, yet subtly connected types of consciousnesses exist in us at the same time, but each understands and perceives the world in a way that is totally alien to the other. Perhaps it is also true that individuals possess different degrees of "loading" or dominance, or differently influenced by these functions so that some are more "naturally" spiritual and others more "naturally" oriented to the material. Spiritual practices, educational curricula, even physical conditioning exercises, are targeting one consciousness or the other in order to make that particular targeted realm more available, more "real," or perhaps, more lived into.
At the risk of sounding pedantic (but truly, that ship has sailed by now, hasn't it?) I want to be clear that I have never been asserting, nor meant to imply that there is nothing beyond the material, nor have I been claiming that there is no such thing as materiality. I have simply been suggesting that human consciousness cannot be directly aware of the immaterial or the material, and that human consciousness makes metaphor as a way to establish contact with the real. What's more, human consciousness seems to be (to me) inherently oriented to the mythological, which is to say that consciousness is metaphorical and narrative in nature. This idea seems to me to be of singular importance in response to the question, "why do we need myth?" Story, explanation, the creation of narrative in every way imaginable is an attempt at understanding the ineffable experience, it is an attempt at employing language to say what is in some fundamental way, unthinkable while at the same time being a way to employ imagery to think the unsayable. But no narrative offers objective truth; narrative can only and always be metaphor. Metaphor, metaphoring, metaphorizing. The meta in metaphor means over or across, while the phor in metaphor means to carry or bear (the Gk. word for a large, two handled vase-like jar, for instance, is amphora), and what is being carried over or across, what is being relocated, displaced, or shifted, are the perceptions of our human status or state which can now, by the virtue of changing one's vantage point, be seen differently and with a greater understanding because one's context has been enlarged. A particular human state may be seen through by framing it in symbolic terms which may also be a wordless knowing, a physical sensation, or some combination of the two; in other words, a metaphor. We cannot grasp what's behind us, what lay before us, or what transcends us--we cannot even grasp that there is more in us, or that there is more to us--without metaphor of some kind. The translation of ungraspable, unspeakable, unknowable phenomenon is, I believe, the main function (but certainly not the only function) of myth specifically, and of narrative generally. We certainly feel moved by something which is indisputably real, if only to ourselves, and not knowing why or how it functions or even exists, compels us to create a story about what has so moved us.
I am quite conscious of the wildly speculative tale--the narrative, the myth--that I've spun here. Irony is a delicious and satisfying thing, no? But I want to explore these kinds of questions first-hand, without merely taking the word of one teacher or another, one enlightened master or another, the way a toddler takes pureed peas from a parent--the peas are unrecognizable as peas in that form, are they not? Also, this myth which I am spinning accounts for why gurus and experts of every variety so often disagree on issues that seem to me to be of the greatest consequence, and on which there should, theoretically, be no such disagreement. There is and always will be disagreement because there is and always will be a lack of objectivity.
I think the looking deeply into the phenomenon of consciousness for oneself is necessary if one is to establish a more reliable channel to experiences like those referred to as mystical, or even the experience of living a more fulfilling life. The deep looking transforms the mundane into the magical. In a letter, Rilke wrote to his wife that "Art is always the outcome of one's having been in danger, of having gone right to the end of an experience to where no human being can go further. And the further one goes, the more peculiarly personal and unique does an experience become, and the art-object is but the necessary, irrepressible and most conclusive utterance of this uniqueness." This sums up what I'm really after; this wrestling is not mere sport or an intellectual diversion, nor is it an attempt to dismiss phenomena by some intellectual or materialistic reduction. It is an attempt to turn even the most mundane constituents of my life into art.
When I can take an experience to the point where I can go no further with it, and in so doing , activate the psychic alchemy which turns the mere act of living my life into art, into beauty apprehended, I experience a kind of transcendent ecstasy. It is not simply a matter of me working on a particular thing or idea, but more that the particular thing or idea is also working on me at the very same time, and I cannot even know that it is working on me or how it is working on me, until I take the thing to the very limits of which I am capable. Epiphanies always seem to be apprehended at times of crisis, or perhaps a better way of phrasing it is that epiphanies are discovered when one finds oneself in a threshold experience. For me, this is what it means to live mythically: to consciously place myself in that threshold, to become as fully conscious as I am capable of being, as much a part of what I observe as I can possibly be, and to open to a mysterious kinship with the world, a world that so often feels too massive and too impenetrable. Instead one often settles for mistaking the model for the objective reality; we store up and savor all of our experiences of the ineffable in our memories and in the end, like photos in an old album, neglect them because we can't or won't understand them as living, evolving, shaping forces. We become over-awed by our powerlessness to understand them. But if one is willing to wrestle with them, the ineffable experiences will most assuredly make themselves known and seek us out. Though ineffable, the ineffable still desires to be known.
Anyway, I think I'll stop now; I've exceeded by far both the word count and the patience allotted to me by readers if I am to have a readable blog. I have tried, with debatable success perhaps, to illustrate why myth and why living mythically is so important. I don't insist that it must be as I say it is for everyone else, but it is difficult to refrain from suggesting that the discovery of meaning in one's life lay just beyond the cherished beliefs, unarguable facts, and the traditional paradigms for living that we have operated with (consciously or not) for so long. With each passing second, we expand the narrative that constitutes the myth of our own lives, and at the same time our opportunities for finding meaning in the living of our own, individual lives are similarly expanded.