Why?

All my talk of applying to writing programs might lead you to wonder if I’ve been writing more poetry than usual. I have, but rather than post every half-baked piece, my policy has been to exercise uncharacteristic restraint. But hey, temptation’s a tough taskmaster, and tonight I succumb to it. Below’s a piece from the first session of a poetry class that started today. A little meditation on life…

PiA_DiStefano,_Birth_(2001)

Why

“Why?”
Is not the interesting question.
Better to ask: “Why not?”

Why not begin as one bit of mucus joining another?
Why not climb screaming out of some mother’s body?
Why not stumble for decades in darkness
Lurching from good choice to bad?
Why not die in a careless accident, or from a complex illness,
Or simple exhaustion?

Why not suffer for no reason?
Or, as amounts to the same thing,
For every reason?
Why not?

Why not paint our lives on the canvas of each moment
Stretched on frame after frame,
While the dream of youth
Falls further and further back.
Why not?

Why not fret and stammer
As our sorrows, worries, lovers,
Friends, and families
Wend their aching way past life’s horizon?
Why ever not?

After all,
The quieter part of us,
The part that does not mind,
Merely smiles.


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Sweet Favors

TorsoOf late, poetry has been occupying me more than blogging, a shift which started with some intense work around an application for a writing fellowship. In my entire life there’ve only been a few times I have applied myself with such sustained diligence and focus. It makes me proud to know I gave the project my all despite long odds against success. For me, that’s a real milestone. My ordinary approach would be to hold back, so if yet another rejection came my way I could tell myself it was because of poor effort, not insufficient talent. Could this paradoxical strategy explain some of my many failures? Perhaps. It definitely explains feelings of disengagement.

Why am I back to blogging today? Well, I received a very nice email from an occasional reader who has never contacted me before. She read one of my recent pieces, and it resonated for her. Which reminds me of the whole point of my writing: to connect and communicate with others. This is as true for poetry as prose. My hope is to explore common ground and share something of this vast, complex, human odyssey.

This morning I was holding and petting my little poodle mix, Ralphy. Oddly, or sadly, I’m pretty sure my love for him is as pure and deep as any I’ve ever felt. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that if I’d had children, an eleven pound dog wouldn’t feel so crucial to my sense of belonging in the world. It seems my connection with the cosmos depends on such small favors. Sweet animals. An obscure blog with its occasional surprises. The extravagant dream of getting into a major poetry program.

If I had tighter connections, I might feel more secure. But the basic quality of existence would not change. We bind ourselves to life with our relationships and our interests. They are all we have. Even if ‘interest’ is defined so broadly as to include shattering mystical experience, our tethers reveal themselves as thin reeds if you look closely. All of them are woven around a combination of happenstance and mental quirks. What if Ralphy had gone to another family before my wife spotted him at the shelter? What if I’d given up on blogging during one of my many crises of confidence? What if I had let my insecurity prevent me from even taking a stab at the fellowship?

Nothing much would have changed. Another dog or relationship would have come along. I’d have focused on a different hobby, like sculpture (a photo of a piece of mine from my sculpting days heads this post). I’d have rationalized a decision to forgo the application as a way of saving time, money, and embarrassment. In short, everything would be different in detail but identical in form. I’d still be muddling through.

The only choice we have that matters, it seems to me, is whether or not to appreciate this world for its lush and intricate loveliness. We can either enjoy life despite its terrible cost in uncertainty and pain, or we can judge it harshly, believing somehow that our rational mind is equipped to assess a reality so eternal and inscrutable.

I choose love. Love for the small and temporary as much as the large and timeless. Love for my struggling human form. Love for you, dear reader, here beside me.

Beliefs no longer concern me. I enjoy understanding the mechanisms by which life progresses, but I don’t care as much as before about how deeply the currents of consciousness run. Perhaps they extend all the way down to the vanishingly small. Or maybe not. Either way, it cannot be denied that this is an amazing experience, this felt sense of being alive. This gift is available to all, regardless of concepts about origin or depth.

For today, I truly am thankful for small favors. An affectionate little dog of uncertain lineage. An email out of the blue. Another winter’s day. So much. So much.

 

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Life is but a Dream

445px-Veszprem_Margittemplom-2It only happens every year or two. A dream passes through me that I remember for a long time to come.

In a narrow alley in some ancient, forgotten city, I am escaping. What chases me, I cannot say, but I am on the run. There is only one direction to go: forward. Behind is no longer an option. I race down the alley and see before me the ornate facade of a church built of beige, stained stone. It is my salvation, I am sure of it. When I finally reach it, the door is far above my head, and there are no steps. I feel trapped, but something lifts me until I face the portal. It is locked. But when I push on the heavy wooden slab, it swings open. Before me expands a sanctuary of beauty, at once intricate and clear. Stained glass sparkles above the opposite wall in a wide circle. Below and to the left is a comfy daybed, on which a man and a woman lie together in each other’s arms, both dressed in vestments. They are asleep, peacefully, and I realize there is no need for me in this enclosure. I am a disturbance, a superfluous presence. Then I notice a door below and to the right of the colored glass round. I pass through it to a courtyard bordered by a low wall. The trees stretch above me and yet I feel warm sun on my face. Birdsong of inexpressible sweetness wraps itself around me. Or is it instrumental music? I cannot say, and it doesn’t matter. It is both. The joy of freedom, of loveliness, demands but one response. I begin to weep. Or am I laughing? I cannot say, and it doesn’t matter.I wake up.

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My Poetic Imperative

Self-love-is-not-selfish-narcissism2Are there any grand ideas that haven’t already been expressed? It’s doubtful. Restating important notions can be valuable, but it’s seldom essential. At least, that’s the sentiment that led to my abandoning the great Universe as Mind project. It wasn’t that I felt mistaken, or even that I had nothing original to say about the cosmos. Rather, I had nothing to say that felt like it must be said.

Is there anything that needs to be expressed? We might be tempted to look outward, at society’s needs, to answer that question. But the poet in me knows better. We do better to look within. What does the heart yearn to say? What leaves life feeling incomplete if not given voice?

In case anyone’s wondering, the hiatus in WillSpirit postings wasn’t only the result of disillusionment. It was also a consequence of new developments in my thinking and, relevant to the above, a renewed commitment to poetry.

Since my last essay, I read The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollard. This book deals with many interesting topics related to humanity’s relationship with plants, but it’s not a spiritual text. Even so, it transformed my quest for peace. In the many WillSpirit posts about Universe as Mind, my intent was to show that believing the cosmos cares about us is not far-fetched. In service of that conviction, I discussed quantum mechanics, biological facts, plus many other highfalutin subjects, and I was just getting started. The treatment seemed likely to span hundreds of pages. Pollard’s book got me thinking about the same notion in a simpler, more radical way.

Pollard points out an unarguable truth: People are part of nature. Our habit of separating ourselves from the natural world reflects exactly that–habit, not reality. In earlier eras nature was seen as an enemy or, at best, a resource. Nowadays we usually think of nature as something noble, something better and purer than ugly, greedy humanity. But all such perspectives are deluded. We grew out of nature, so nothing we do can be said to be un-natural. Destructive? Yes. Misguided? Doubtless. But outside nature? Not possible.

If this is true, as it must be, then the human mind should be viewed as yet another evolved phenomenon. Neither less natural than a butterfly, nor more separate from the ecosystem that gave it birth. The mind is, in fact, part of that ecosystem, part of the entire cosmos. That means my own consciousness reflects the universe or, rather, embodies it.

So if my mind feels affection for this human who types here, the cosmos does, too. (Or at least part of it does.)

Could it really be that simple? Could self-regard be identical to Cosmic Love? Could it be that all we need do, if we yearn to feel loved by Creation, is love ourselves?

Then what’s the point of writing thousands of words about subatomic physics, cellular structure, and visionary experience? Why not just give that familiar, basic advice: embrace who you are?

The whole point of spiritual work, it seems, is to finally give up the fight and admit we never needed anything other than what we already have: a body and mind capable of caring. Something like this, of course, is what sages have been saying all along.

Boy, did I feel wise after this became obvious to me! A couple days later, during a weekend meditation retreat, a young woman mentioned her struggles with bipolar disorder. Naturally, I offered to describe what I’ve learned about using meditation as a tool for settling the unruly mind. Such a conversation made sense, given everything I’ve written here, but it wasn’t urgent. Sadly, I felt so convinced that I had something useful to offer, some true insight, I actually talked with her during a silent retreat!

Yet again, I learned that believing oneself wise is a sure sign that wisdom is lacking. Fact is, I had nothing to say that in any way improved on silence.

Isn’t this a bit like the earlier realization about the Universe as Mind project? Words are interesting, even insistent, but rarely vital.

There is, however, an exception: poetry. Poems deliver the Truth that lies behind words, or between them. They are vital in the sense of being alive, if not in the sense of being essential.

On my blog I’ve posted a number of poems over the years. These are always early drafts, and I’ve resisted working much to refine them. Sometimes they get complimented, though more often they’re ignored. Which has been fine with me, because I posted them without expectations.

Back when I was only nineteen, I submitted a few poems to a magazine. They earned me nothing but a form rejection, and that stung. Ever since I’ve treated my poems like toys: fun, even educational, but not to be taken seriously. This attitude explains why I only post unpolished work, and only on a site that few read. But let’s admit it’s a protective posture, one that shields me from rejection.

Not long ago I found myself defending this behavior in a conversation with someone who devotes her life to writing, teaching, and publishing poetry. Naturally, my “write it and leave it” policy offended her sense that poetry is important, not trivial. She accused me of not maturing as a writer and artist. At first I brushed off her remarks, but over time they sunk in.

I wrote my debut poem not long after I learned to read and write. My first grade teacher instructed us in elementary verse, and we all tried our hand at poetry. She selected my piece to mimeograph and distribute to the entire class. I’ve been writing ever since.

With that history, you’d be excused for wondering why I don’t take poetry more seriously. I’m beginning to wonder that myself. As much as biology, poetry has been a part of me since the beginning. But whereas I’ve devoted much time and energy to life science, I’ve neglected poetics. Sure, I’ve attended a few classes and groups and have read a bit, but I’ve lacked commitment.

Which brings me to the main reason that WillSpirit’s been quiet the past few weeks: I’ve been working on an application for a prestigious writing program in my area. I’m doing the previously unthinkable: revising and editing. Even with all this effort, I’m unlikely to get accepted; I’ll be one among nearly a thousand aspirants, after all. But that’s the key point: I’m making the effort despite the long odds. I’m not avoiding the risk of rejection.

I’m suddenly aware that what I want to say in this life, what feels essential to say, can only be said in verse. And to speak the poetic language properly, I need to immerse myself in it.

This conviction has grown so strong, I’m also planning to apply to some creative writing MFA programs. These would cost money I probably can’t spare, but it seems prudent to put some backup options in place.

It’s true there are few ideas that are truly new, but every poem is unique. Like snowflakes, poems are small, insubstantial, and often overlooked, though still worthy of awe. No idea I can generate will add much to the world. Neither can any poem. But unlike ideas, poems feel vital. They wait within, hoping for the chance to emerge, to land lightly on this sweet earth and enjoy their brief moment. I plan to do my best to set them free.


The image heading this post comes from the site, Miracle of Love, which looks valuable and uplifting. In keeping with one of the above themes: it treats the value of self-love exhaustively. I don’t see a way to contact the author to ask permission to use the image, but I’m providing a link to the site. Possibly that will lead to a ‘ping-back’ alerting the blog author to my mention. If you happen to be said author, and if you’d rather I not use your picture, please let me know. Blessings.

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Two Poems About Life

What follows are two poems that show me trying to make sense out of life. As you’ll see, they are written in very different tones. One emphasizes the harrowing and emotional; the other is more cerebral. We need to meet life and find meaning on all its levels. These pieces hint at some of my recent efforts to do so.


800px-Floris_-_The_Feast_of_the_Seagods
THE JAWS OF LIFE

You lie in moonlight on a bed of knives.
Spikes carving into your ribs,
Thighs oozing and scabbing.
Pain is eating you.

You want to believe you’re dreaming.
Life must not gnaw at you like this. Normally,
You keep the blades sheathed.
Normally, you wrap Nature in cellophane.

But tonight her edges are bare,
Her needles honed.
Iron probes your meridians.
It shocks you. Awakens you.

Life is hungry, and it wants us to remember.
It consumes us, digests us,
Ruins us,
Until we feast on the banquet.

Until we savor the rivulets of blood
And crack our own dormant kernels.
Until we are broken to the wild, wild openness,
And our remnants rise, mist in the morning wind.


Peacock,_St_James'_churchyard,_Arlington_-_geograph.org.uk_-_879921
WONDER

It still puzzles me
This person I am become
This animal cowering and scratching
This soul climbing through its folds of skin
This unseen flame, this silent voice, this waiting.

It still attracts me
This planet I’ve landed upon
This thicket of thorns, orchids, and bees
This moving crust, this mantle of warm stone
This sphere of gardens, this vibrant home, this embrace.

They still stir me
These paradoxes we inhabit
These cells of craving, climax, and regret
These openings amidst obstacles, these sighs of surrender
These jewels set in losses, these fertile tears, these quiet graves.


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Feeling Small, Again

598px-Animal_cell_structure_numbered_version.svgHas it really been ten days since my last entry? As has happened before, my enthusiasm for a writing project waned suddenly. It’s part of a larger pattern of repetitive mood swings, each of which begins as inflated confidence only to end with feelings of defeat.

After my vision quest two months ago, I returned home with what seemed like profound insight into the cosmos and humanity’s predicament. I wrote many essays looking at the roots and branches of a single idea: The Universe is Mind. This project felt exhilarating, not least because (let’s be honest) I was proud of myself. It seemed I’d solved the question that has challenged me my entire life: Why is reality so beautiful and yet so bruising? Having been raised with very little love and a great deal of neglect, loss, and trauma, I nevertheless feel deeply passionate about nature. How can a world that treats people so poorly continue to attract?

From such questions are religions born. Perhaps God is testing us, or teaching us. Perhaps we’re suffering to balance the scales after sins of past lives. Perhaps the universe is meaningless, random and harsh, and our search for deeper purpose is weakness born from fear of truth. Or perhaps, as the Buddha thought, such questions are pointless; better to solve the problem of suffering without asking why it exists.

I’ve felt doomed from the get-go. The little bit of memoir material on my site is sufficient for anyone interested to understand why. And yet, despite a suspicion that I was fated to grieve and fail, I do dearly love this earth, the universe that generated it, and all the life forms it’s produced. Including, to be sure, humanity.

After the vision quest, aflame with the felt experience of Universe as Mind, everything seemed easy for a time. Nothing clouded my clarity; nothing troubled me. The paradox of beauty intermingled with horror no longer stumped me. By no means was this my first taste of such insight, but now every question that mattered seemed resolved. No longer was there conflict between faith and reason; the notion of a materially implemented cosmic mind solved the problem on both fronts.

Then I went on a trip to the East Coast, visiting relatives, and uncertainty about my grand vision began to intrude. How much of an accomplishment could I claim, in truth? Was a new way of seeing my childhood injuries and adult setbacks worth anything? Did saying I’d solved a monumental problem make it true? Or was I merely grasping for consolation prizes, knowing I’d lost in every way more meaningful? Filled with self-doubt, by the time I made it home an illness had taken hold. I endured days of intestinal distress and became severely dehydrated. I could barely move and ended up requiring three liters of IV fluid in the emergency room. As happens when I’m physically sick, my mental health deteriorated too. That’s when I wrote about wanting to die, a couple entries back.

My loss of confidence was compounded by new readings.

For instance, I read Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature, by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. This compilation of essays includes one by Margulis entitled: “Prejudice and Bacterial Consciousness.” The author suggests that awareness is present in bacterial cells. She makes an interesting case; one I’m (naturally) inclined to believe. What struck me was how she writes with more authority than I ever could. Yet even with her prestige as the scientist most responsible for establishing that bacterial symbionts live within the cells of animals, plants, and fungi (as mitochondria, chloroplasts and–possibly–as cilia and related structures), her ideas about consciousness have not gained a foothold in mainstream thinking. How can I delude myself that my little contribution would ever make headway against such entrenched resistance?

Around the same time, at the suggestion of WillSpirit visitor Cathleen, I read an article by Giulio Tonino, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who believes consciousness may arise in any information processing system with multiple communicating modules. His work traces rudiments of awareness all the way down to interactions among subatomic particles. Although my ideas differ in detail, I’ve been saying more or less the same thing. But Tonino doesn’t just propose awareness in the depths of matter, he offers a plausible mechanism for its genesis. Who have I been kidding in writing as if my outlook offers anything useful?

Obviously, no one. A few readers have been interested, for which I’m grateful. But no one, not even me, believes there is anything grand or original here. All I can offer is my own felt experience of Universe as Mind. It’s something, but is it worth all this effort?

Well, you can see the mood cycle has reached its natural closure. From the grandiose notion that I’d solved the signature puzzle of my life, I’m now reduced to feeling humiliated by impotence. Again.

So much goes on in a human mind. The problem with blogging is that it hangs the turmoil out for public view.

Or is that really a problem? Honesty about mental life has always been the value on offer here. Over the years I’ve learned that writing about real, human foibles most engages the tiny WillSpirit audience.

Does this mean I’m resolving to write closer to the heart? To speculate less and reveal more? Don’t count on it. Sooner or later another grandiose flight of ideas will no doubt infect me, and I will roar off on another tangent.

How many tangents have there been already? I’m slowly re-reading my old entries for the first time since posting them. Even though I’m only made it through about fifty (i.e., about ten percent of the total), I’ve already encountered a few confident statements of purpose and have likewise identified subsequent changes of direction. So easy to dream up projects, so hard to complete them.

Blogging is probably the best and only medium for me. It allows one to write and publish without the bother of polishing prose, organizing chapters, and so on. After all, you’re reading the words of a former pothead. Before becoming inspired by biology and focusing on academic achievement, I grew up daydreaming. First, it was a way of avoiding the brutal reality of life with my stepmother. Later, it was a natural pastime for someone who smoked marijuana four or five times a day. And even after I kicked that awful habit upon starting medical school, I continued to fantasize heights of glory while achieving only minor success (and eventually no success at all).

Yes, I’m deep in the defeated phase of my mental life. But there is a difference. I no longer take it quite so seriously. I no longer think my worth as a human being is tied to external production. It’s obvious to me that this little human animal, writing here, possesses value regardless of what’s been accomplished or what anyone thinks. Why? Because I know that place within where Mind resides in peace. Because I sense a pervading Presence larger than my personality, larger than the entire human race. And this feeling, this faith, comes supported by an intellectual framework that’s consonant with ideas currently proposed by those more prominent and knowledgeable than me. Even when I felt ill and crushed, a bit of this informed conviction remained.

So some small advance has been made; I’ve managed some particle of success. Not in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of this wounded man who only wants to feel he belongs on this earth. That’s something. And possibly, for a child born of doom, it’s what matters most.

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Did Mind Evolve from Sand?

800px-Singing_Sand_Dunes(Note: Thanks to Cathleen for a conversation in the comments section of this post: Living the Divine Life. Since important ideas were brought to light, I’ve organized my remarks into a standalone essay. I recommend reading the original discussion thread for a fuller understanding, since I’m not reproducing Cathleen’s contributions here.)

Anyone who has followed this site knows I honor science. Biology, physics, and all the rest have fascinated me for decades. What’s more, curiosity about nature rescued me from teenaged delinquency. Late in high school, I gave up many destructive behaviors and dove wholeheartedly into the natural sciences.

But science as currently taught feels incomplete. In particular, I object to dessicating approaches that drain the life out of life science. When the very beauty and complexity that drew me to the field are portrayed as meaningless random accidents, I recoil. Not because I couldn’t accept the materialist framework if it were proven, but because it is very far from established. Until we are forced to materialism’s bleak outlook, we should consider richer possibilities.

I buy into mechanistic explanations. I only question their core assumption that the base material of the cosmos is unaware and empty of experience. An assertion with such far reaching consequences demands proof, but no one ever offers any.

The entire framework of science would be preserved with the counter position: that matter experiences interior states. Nothing substantive would change in quantum mechanics (puzzles might even be solved) or genomics, or anything else. Given that, why not play with the possibility and see where it leads?

We might wonder why it’s so hard to imagine that an electron (for instance) has experience. Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay in 1974: What is it like to be a bat?, which deals with materialism’s discomfort with interiority. He points out that standard physical explanations are based on objective observations and to date have failed to deal adequately with subjectivity.

As a result, materialism’s default position is to deny, whenever possible, the existence of interior states. Subjectivity is granted to human brains and the brains of other complex animals, but little else.

Why assume that only brains (and possibly only human brains) experience anything? If you try to tackle that question, you’ll find it has no answer other than common prejudice or circular arguments (e.g., atoms can’t experience anything because they don’t have brains).

Creative scientists might be able to work out ways of testing matter for inner experience. One tenet of quantum mechanics, as I understand it, is that fundamental particles are interchangeable. One electron can, in theory, be replaced by another with no change in observable qualities, provided spin and other measurable factors are precisely duplicated. But if particles have interior lives, there might be ways in which they carry the stamp of prior experience. Two electrons, investigated carefully enough, might be found to behave slightly differently if their histories were sufficiently distinct. I’m not sure this experimental formulation makes any sense, because I really don’t understand quantum effects beyond a basic level, but someone more knowledgable might be able to make interiority a testable hypothesis. If scientists felt motivated to look for evidence that matter experiences inner states (and if they could get funding for the effort), who knows what they might find?

Sooner or later, some maverick scientist will pursue these possibilities, if investigations aren’t already underway.

A major consequence of interiority would be resolution of the mind-body problem, which materialism has so far failed to address in any meaningful way. If we granted matter the rudiments of inner experience, we’d no longer be asking how mind is generated by mindless particles. Instead, we’d look at consciousness as another physical quality, like mass. The question then becomes: how does the accumulating organization of matter through biological evolution lead to increasing sophistication of mental life? This is a much more tractable problem than envisioning mind as arising from the equivalent of lifeless sand (that is, from insensate particles).

The notion that electrons might possess some kind of subjective experience, and that such might be revealed by looking for variation in behavior as a consequence of unique histories, fits into a larger set of ideas. What if the stochastic properties of subatomic particles are not purely random, but the result of varying predilection? The vast majority of particles behave similarly (go straight through a slit with minimal divergence), but there are variations which show up as seemingly unpredictable behaviors (the outlier that goes through the same slit but ends up far away from the rest). It would be similar to measuring humans for vocabulary: you’d find some kind of Bell curve which, if you knew nothing about humanity, might appear the result of stochastic variation. And you’d find outliers, whom you’d assume were random flukes. But if you investigated individual lives, you’d find vocabulary correlated with education, intelligence, parental occupation, neighborhood, and so on. You’d probably be able to explain the outliers on the basis of unique backgrounds.

Could what appears random and unpredictable in populations of particles actually be a reflection of similar ‘personal’ differences arising from unique histories? The idea would strike most physicists as ludicrous, but that’s been true of many paradigm shifts of thinking within science.

My reasoning along these lines was influenced by my take on David Bohm’s and other’s ideas regarding hidden variables explaining quantum fluctuations. Bohm believed that (apparently) random variation is actually the result of deeper, not yet observable, influences. I’m not sure if he ever spoke in terms of particles possibly possessing subjectivity, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had, since he was a freewheeling thinker.

If we were to someday discover awareness to be a fundamental property of matter and thus, by extension, the entire cosmos, we’d be rescued from materialism’s stark conclusions. Science would be brought back to life.

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Reality for the Rest of Us

800px-AstroMSseqF_063aL_(18135101)Lest anyone forget this writing project began as a ‘mental health blog,’ I must admit that for all my high-minded philosophy, I’ve lately been struggling. Last night I was literally shaking with agitation. I felt argumentative and was unkind to my wife. The world seemed to be closing in on me, crushing me with disappointment and offering nothing but sorrow and pain. I yearned for death, I truly did.

This morning I feel a bit better, though still shaky. As always, I turn to writing to help me make sense of this mind of mine, equally capable of expanding with love and shrinking with terror. I turn to my philosophy to find peace on this planet, with all its natural perfection and human mediocrity.

Our outlooks determine much about our attitudes and behavior. We would be well-advised to choose them with care. Ideally, we would look beyond the two dominant world views at play in modern society. Let’s consider these first, so we can understand what might be gained by going further.

Many feel persuaded by scientific materialism’s claim that the universe is a random product of insensate matter particles. Perhaps without questioning the underlying assumptions, they respect the chains of reasoning that build models of mechanical processes from repeatable observations. The unsolved problems that lurk in the theoretical fine points seem easy to forgive, with the expectation that such puzzles will be solved in due time without undermining the vision of a non-sentient cosmos operating mechanically.

The materialist perspective is sophisticated and accepted by many of the most educated segments of society. Its adherents believe it offers a coherent and sufficient explanation of the universe. They reject all yearnings for deeper meaning, for a formative principle more uplifting than random interaction, as quirks of the human brain that once helped our ancestors survive but have outlived their usefulness.

In terms of popularity, the major alternative vision is that of the religious believer. This comes in many flavors (a.k.a. sects), with substantial differences in opinion about the number of gods, the afterlife, and human responsibility.

The fanatical believer doesn’t worry about contradictions between faiths, or between traditional creation stories and science. Belief is embraced as a matter of principle. Indeed, fundamentalist dogma often grows stronger when under logical attack. Defending doctrine becomes equated with defending God.

Of course, many believers are humble and open-hearted, not self-righteous and rigid. They recognize that all religious persuasions share, at their core, faith in something larger and more reliable than humanity. They find comfort in this faith and in their communities of like-minded worshipers. Belief rescues many from despair and makes lives feel meaningful. That religious adherence has value is suggested by studies demonstrating better health outcomes among the faithful.

But what about those for whom neither materialism nor religion appeals? For many of us, the vision of a universe built randomly from lifeless particles, of a cosmos without purpose or meaning, doesn’t feel sufficient to explain the beauty of nature or the states of resonance that arise during contemplative and meditative practice. At the same time, the concepts of organized religion are too obviously in conflict with known scientific facts, not to mention everyday experience. Where is the evidence of a God who favors the good and innocent? How can we, as moderns, believe stories about the dead and putrefied resurrected to life?

There are many in this middle ground, neither convinced by materialism nor willing to suspend disbelief and internalize religious doctrine.

Some simply accept the Mystery. They sense deep qualities in the cosmos but don’t question or attempt to explain them. But others vacillate: sometimes aware of a loving presence in nature and other times convinced the universe has no heart. This series of essays is aimed at the latter group. It’s directed at those who, like me, find materialism insufficient and religion unacceptable, but who yearn to make peace with life.

My goal isn’t to prove that the universe is definitely sentient. Rather, I want only to convince you that it might be. In order to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish, what follows is an edited exchange between myself and a reader. Javier has been commenting on this site for a long time. I admire his willingness to follow an obscure blog in what, for him, is a foreign language. His remarks never fail to enlarge my own thinking. Javier’s observations are paraphrased below in indented and italicized text; my responses follow in the usual format.

People can believe in materialism, and depend only on solid and verifiable facts, and still be humanists. Materialists can and do engage in social and environmental action.

I am absolutely in agreement that a person can believe the standard materialist framework and still behave ethically.

However, I wonder if it’s possible for anyone to rely solely on the material, solid, and verifiable aspects of reality. It seems to me that human relationships require many leaps of faith, since we must assume our loved ones sincere and not sociopathic. We cannot verify regard, because it is easy (for sociopaths) to fake. Even the most dedicated rationalist needs to rely on instinct from time to time. Further, ethical choices are not entirely rational, even when they can be rationalized. To care about virgin landscapes can be justified in terms of preserving resources, but our concern arises before the explanation. It stems from deeper, non-verifiable feelings that Nature matters.

The Aztecs, my ancestors, practiced human sacrifice. Their unverifiable beliefs led to terrible deaths for many.

Without doubt, the conceptual aspects of religious belief can be (and very often are) dangerously toxic. In this series, I’ve so far spent more time deconstructing the materialist perspective because it is more subtle and challenging. To point out how fundamentalism suffers from fatal contradictions is so easy I’ve not  bothered much with it. But that side of things needs to be addressed, if only for me to establish that my perspective doesn’t lead to the same kinds of problems.

I’m proposing only one crucial non-verifiable idea: that all matter possesses interior experience (note that in the case of elementary particles this is expected to be rudimentary in the extreme). This is not provable by any means I can think of at the present time. A lot follows from assuming this quality of sentience, much of which is valuable to a more integrated and easeful existence. But what does not follow is any belief that the universe makes demands. We aren’t called to human sacrifice, to persecution of non-believers, or self-righteous proclamation of faith.

To be fair to my own line of reasoning, I must emphasize that the proposal that matter is insensate at its core is also non-verifiable. In the sciences, it’s often a useful assumption but never a provable one. And as I’ve pointed out in earlier essays, there are some hints that it may, at the least, be an oversimplification.

By the way, although dying in a ritual sacrifice would be horrible if one went unwillingly, it might feel ecstatic to the believer. Even genuine horrors can be transcended if they feel meaningful. I’m not an apologist for brutal, primitive rites, of course. But it’s worth seeing how faith that one’s experience is connected to a bigger picture can rescue one from despair. What if such faith were justifiable? What if we all truly are small particles of a vast, conscious whole? Wouldn’t that make our ordinary privations just a bit more bearable?

Even though it’s difficult for me to understand that this mysterious, beautiful, and amazing universe is a random product, I still need proof before I can believe in some kind of superior power.

Please let me emphasize that this series isn’t meant to undermine anyone else’s beliefs or opinions. It’s only meant to bolster the vast mass of us who honor science but find that materialism’s explanations ring hollow. I agree that a fully random universe of the sort proposed by materialism would still, if proven, be worthy of awe. I see no reason to talk anyone out of this viewpoint (whereas, if it were possible, I might want to dissuade a suicide bomber of his fundamentalist ideas). But I don’t think it’s either inevitable or based on verifiable fact.

And what I’m proposing is not a “superior power” that runs the universe in the manner of a God. I am only positing the existence of a mind-like, interior quality that is probably incapable of pre-planning. The cosmic mind, if it exists, unfolds moment by moment. Its mind-like presence is merely an extension of what we feel in deep, silent meditation: resonant, vast, and unifying.

By the way, that sense of presence doesn’t require any particular belief system for its experience. It’s available to materialists and fundamentalists alike. But it can be undermined by rational critique. If I start to feel deeply resonant with all that surrounds me, I can short circuit that healing connection by interpreting it as a mental illusion, beyond factual possibility. I would accept that conclusion if it were forced on my be incontrovertible observations, but right now it is only an article of faith proffered by materialists as if it were settled science.

The whole point of this series is to persuade those who enjoy moments of resonance and unity that their experience may reflect deeper reality. No evidence forces us to conclude unitive consciousness is merely a product of the human brain, without referent in the exterior world. The goal is to free the seeker from the confines of bleak materialism on the one hand, and illogical fundamentalism on the other.

Release from materialism’s assumption of a heartless cosmos opened me to moments of ecstatic love for the universe and all its products, including my own body and mind. Of course, there are also times like last night, when this perspective offers but limited comfort. Even then, however, my agitated mind gentles a bit when I picture myself held by a cosmic awareness extending beyond imagining through time and space.


NOTE: This essay is one in a series that began after a Vision Quest in the high desert. The first entry in the sequence was: When Questions Find Answers. If you’re finding the above line of thought intriguing, you might want to begin with that opening piece and read forward through the blog.


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The Inner Life of a Cosmos

UntitledWhat makes human life so hard? Is it merely the inevitability of pain, loss, and death?

If we suffer only because of physical hardship, we are no worse off than other life forms. Everything that lives faces damage and demise, sooner or later.

But life does not appear equally harrowing for all that lives. Although other creatures share much in common with us, they seem to suffer less. They thrive by virtue of the same biochemistry, but they don’t cringe with the same angst.

It seems obvious we suffer more because we see more. We anticipate illness and death. We feel them stalking our own bodies and the bodies of those we love. We see too much to feel at ease.

But could it be we don’t see accurately? Could yogic and Buddhist philosophies be correct when they tell us we suffer from delusion, and that ignorance of our true situation roots us in  torment? Could our interpretations drive us to misery?

What are the implications, for instance, when we imagine the universe comprised of inanimate particles? How are ethics, behavior, and peace of mind affected when all we see are lifeless lumps of matter scattered across billions of empty lightyears, deep into a cold black sky? When we imagine our own bodies and everything that surrounds us built from similar unfeeling, unaware stuff?

With that picture, whatever heart or mind exists in the cosmos arises only in brains. By some mechanism, as yet unexplained, highly complex nervous systems feel alive. Everything else feels nothing, has no inner experience at all; the cosmos is a mechanical and indifferent mass of sand.

No wonder we despair. Trapped in our lonely islands of awareness, encapsulated in fragile eggs of skull, we find solace only in others like ourselves. Our family, our friends, and perhaps our beloved pets care about us, but nothing else does. We feel adrift in a dead sea.

The origin of this sad vision dates to the rise of agriculture and technology. When humans began viewing the world as a resource, as something to be mined for food and tools, they began feeling separate. Only they possessed the Great Mind, and everything else was mere substance, open for exploitation. A lot followed, including the slaughter of innocents, but we won’t go into that today.

This dreary outlook would be forced upon us if it were supported by factual observation. But it’s not. It’s at best a biased interpretation, and at worst an outright delusion.

Let’s see what modern science tells us about the supposedly lifeless stuff that forms us and all we see.

At very small scales, matter’s behavior changes under observation. We find, for instance, that a particle appears to travel multiple paths simultaneously until we collect information about its location, at which point it chooses a single road. Extremely clever and subtle experiments have failed to contradict this basic responsiveness of matter to observation.

Why should our awareness of a particle’s motion alter its actions? It’s just not what you’d expect of lifeless sand.

But what if the very awareness we use to understand the particle extends into the particle itself? Imagine, for the moment, that the quality of presence  we feel in ourselves is pervasive. Some tiny quantity of it is active within every fragment of the cosmos.  Since our own awareness is continuous with the awareness of all, it shouldn’t surprise us to discover our observations affecting what we observe.

In our own minds, we know that if we scrutinize our behavior, if we are mindful, our actions change. It’s one thing to scream at a loved one in a fit of mindless rage, it’s another to watch yourself doing it. The minute we pay attention, we begin to adjust our performance. Our minds are continuous, the witness and actor only apparently separate, not actually so. Thus, observation affects outcome.

Perhaps the cosmos works the same way. We don’t need to understand the details of how learning about a particle’s motion changes its behavior in order to see that pervasive awareness might explain the effect.

I’m not insisting that this alternate viewpoint is correct. I’m not a quantum physicist, after all. But I do believe it’s an idea worth considering. Not just because it holds some explanatory promise, but because it can rescue us from the angst of human life.

If we no longer view ourselves as complex brains in a dead cosmos, but instead see our minds as concentrations of awareness in a vast sea of presence, we no longer feel so vulnerable. We aren’t as alone as we think. Even if our loved ones leave or die, we remain surrounded by a universe of awareness, one that resonates in harmony with us. Rather than feeling trapped in isolation, we awaken to vast and comforting connection.

There’s absolutely nothing in this interpretation that contradicts the empirical facts of science. Yes, it flies in the face of cherished Western assumptions. But those are mere prejudices, albeit utilitarian ones. Sometimes assuming that the universe has no mind is useful. It permits experiments that often work, at least until we begin probing the atomic depths of matter. It works the way Newtonian physics works, as a shortcut that’s highly accurate at ordinary scales but breaks down at the extremes.

The truth is, not  a single experiment has ever been done that contradicts pervasive awareness. 

Admittedly, no experiment has demonstrated it either.

The point is, inner experience is unverifiable from the outside. Scientific investigation cannot answer the question scientifically. On the basis of empirical observation, skeptics can no more assert universal consciousness a fantasy than mystics can assert it a reality.

Western thinking assumes it preposterous to imagine a mere electron possessing awareness. But Eastern philosophies find the notion plausible. Are we so arrogant as to assume our own view correct in absence of any experimental evidence one way or the other?

When we look within during meditation, we seem to catch glimpses of awareness that spreads far beyond our little bodies and minds. Furthermore, when we see the universe in action it appears quite, well, alive. Who isn’t moved by the flight of a raptor? By dew shining on a rose petal? By stars innumerable in a moonless sky?

So perhaps there is some evidence for pervasive awareness after all. It’s not scientific evidence, but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. We just need to interpret it cautiously.

Lately, as I’ve prepared lectures for students in a yoga teacher training, I’ve collected animations of biomolecules. These portray cellular life as looking remarkably vivified, even in its supposedly mechanical interior. Some of the clips are narrated by scientists who view what they’re depicting as machinery. They play soundtracks of clicking gears and whirring motors in the background.

But other films are played with music that highlights the sweet, living quality of these tiny processes. The molecules look a bit like ants hard at work. Not intelligent, but not dumb machinery, either. (Check out The Inner Life of a Cell, for instance.)

Whether biomolecules possess inner experience is not something that can be decided based on empirical findings. We must choose which psychological influences we prefer to credit.

If we believe our emotional responses to the imagery, we see presence even at these sub-microscopic scales. We recognize creatures, not cogs. On the other hand, if we listen to skeptical logic, we dismiss such sentiments as mere anthropomorphizing. Either way, we can only be guided by choice, not fact.

Why not choose what makes life more livable? Why not choose to see humanity as embedded in a living, feeling universe, one that’s aware in its deepest layers, rather than a dead mass of sand? Why not choose healing rather than desolation?

If you insist that you must make the “logical” choice and remain true to facts regardless of emotional cost, ask yourself these questions: Can you be sure your logic is correct? Are the facts open to alternate interpretation? Besides, what makes you believe logic the most reliable tool? Is the mind always wiser than the heart?

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Exploring the Roots of Awareness

800px-Ventriloquist_Ramdas_Padhye_with_his_Puppet_ArdhavatraoBlogging gets exciting when visitors engage in conversation. An exchange between Cathleen and myself has felt so interesting, I’m publishing it as a post of its own. As you’ll see, many concepts have come up that advance the discussion at hand. In the text that follows, Cathleen’s comments are indented and in italics. Mine are in the usual font, without indentation. I’ve edited my own words to shorten and clarify the post, but Cathleen’s are quoted verbatim.

I read the article “How the Light Gets Out” by Michael Graziano today. His definition of consciousness, the one he uses for his research, is somewhat different than any I’ve seen before. He says that “consciousness is a schematic model of one’s state of attention.” It is quite easy for me to imagine a non-biological being (Cosmic Mind) with consciousness defined in this way, and, though it is certainly not equivalent to your explanation of sentience, it might be compatible with it.

I agree there’s something about Graziano’s article that resonates with the ideas developed here, yet I find myself disagreeing. Not because of his assertions, but because of his assumptions. He is trying to solve the problem of how awareness evolved, how it “became part of the animal kingdom’s social toolkit.” Therefore, as is customary in scientific work, he starts by assuming that only animals, and probably only higher animals, have anything we would recognize as awareness, as subjective inner experience.

But this is an axiom and not a statement of fact. People assume it for various reasons, some of which are compelling. Rocks, for instance, don’t cry out when they’re broken. But there remains the problem of knowing where to draw the line. Is awareness only in living cells, only in animals, only in vertebrates? Or only in me writing (or you reading) these words? We can argue from appearances, but we can neither prove nor disprove awareness in any entity other than ourselves.

My point in this series is that we could take the stance that the entire cosmos is aware, and that this isn’t as outlandish as it sounds for a variety of reasons, some of them compelling. For instance, on the quantum scale particles appear to ‘know’ whether or not they’re being observed. (It’s easy to say this appearance is deceiving, but harder to prove it.)

If we entertain the idea that the entire cosmos possesses inner experience then, as you suggest, we might ask the same question Graziano asks of brains, only of the cosmos itself: When did the universe evolve awareness? Perhaps awareness arose exactly when the cosmos began to access its own information. Awareness as attentional schema.

Well, perhaps. Digital computers access subsets of their data (bring it into RAM) and yet appear to lack awareness. Which seems to me the key problem with Graziano’s approach. To say that awareness arose as a scheme for focusing  computational resources only offers an explanation of when subjectivity arose–when the system needed to access its own data in a selective way. It doesn’t explain how this translates into subjectivity, at least not that I can see.

I certainly, in my own ponderings, took Graziano’s definition out of the context of his assumptions and research. The word ‘schematic’ could be considered coldly computer-derived, but, reading it, I imagined a richly conceived internal map. I can see it applied with a set of axioms more like your own, in which the universe itself, and subsets of it, have such maps. It is not a complete answer to my own quest to envision what consciousness unlike human consciousness might be, but it is a beginning that speaks to me.

I think that Graziano is correct when he says that we can be deceived in our attributions of sentience to other beings/collections of matter. We seem to look for ourselves everywhere: not only minds, but even faces! Hofstadter, whom you have cited several times, made a point similar to that in his “I am a Strange Loop” book, describing how even quite simple feedback loops make objects appear to be alive. However, it does not follow that we are always wrong in attributing sentience to other ‘things.’ It is just more difficult to recognize evidence, because that evidence may be quite unlike the characteristics that we believe indicate that humans are conscious.

I agree Graziano’s ideas are helpful, and your take on how they might help us understand the larger Cosmic Mind makes sense to me. Self-referencing (as in Graziano’s attentional schema and Hofstadter’s ‘Strange Loop’) is a powerful function that would take us a long ways toward viewing the universe as possessing inbuilt intelligence. It may have a lot to do with self-awareness, for instance. But I doubt it’s the source of pure baseline awareness, which I believe is more fundamental.

I suppose it’s obvious that Graziano’s (and neuroscience’s) assumption of insensate matter is more than just a context for ideas; it’s the center point around which much of import revolves. If awareness is dependent on structural complexity, which is what the axiom demands, then it could only arise in complex structures. Only nervous systems (and perhaps advanced computing systems yet to be invented) would possess it. Since most of the universe lacks the kind of structure seen in human brains, the idea of the cosmos as a whole functioning as a mind would be negated.

In states of deep meditation (deeper than I often reach myself) the experience of awareness being aware of anything in particular falls away. Awareness becomes stripped of content and resonates in isolation, aware only of itself. I believe this points to a deep quality in Creation, an elemental presence we could view in the same way we view  mass/energy or any other physical attribute. Just as an electron possesses a quantity of mass, velocity and spin, plus charge, it may possess some quantity of awareness. As structural complexity builds the capacity of this awareness to act creatively, form preferences, and (eventually) think likewise builds.

As for our tendency to attribute sentience where none exists, more than one interpretation is possible. It could be that this is a bug in the system. Humans might make this mistake because we evolved to interpret other humans. The system that attributes sentience to our companions then mistakenly activates when we look at inanimate objects.

But it’s also possible that our minds evolved to be promiscuous in finding awareness because awareness is abundant in nature. This is a radical notion for moderns, but would seem pretty obvious to hunter-gatherers.

Neither we nor they can base our conclusions on fact, for the simple reason that interiority can’t be proven beyond one’s own experience of it. Everything else is prejudice. The modern assumes insensate matter; the tribal native assumes a deeply animated world.

Either way, one could be mistaken when attributing sentience to an object or process. But is the mistake one of seeing sentience where none exists, or is it one of misattributing the source of sentience? If I see a computer graphic displaying apparent sentience, when all it’s doing is running an internally looping program, is there no sentience? Or is the sentience resident in the mind of the programmer shining through the software, which acts as proxy? Is the sentience we might see in a violent storm truly absent, or do primitive minds attribute sentience to the thunderhead when it lies deeper, in matter itself? Perhaps as matter organizes into a storm, its vitality becomes increasingly obvious.

Of course, I can imagine you reminding me that this line of argument breaks down when someone sees the face of Jesus in a stain on a wall. :)

As you also point out, however, we could fail to recognize true, existing sentience if it’s behavior was unlike anything we expected.

Well, we’re both still working on this material. No matter how far this project goes, I doubt we’ll ever have an accurate sense of what’s going on inside the mind of the cosmos. After all, if we can’t know what another person goes through internally, we’re unlikely to be able to envision the interior life of the entire universe.

For my part, I’m only trying to convince myself that it is indeed possible (at this point I would say likely) that the Cosmos in fact possesses an internal perspective. It’s aware.

Is it also self-aware? This is obviously true in some subsets (to use your phrasing) of the cosmos, like humans. But perhaps only those parts of the cosmos that have grown complex enough to self-reference are capable of self-awareness.  The rest might be deeply and quietly aware without sense of self, like a practiced meditator, resonant and accepting. On the other hand, it’s possible that the cosmos (as a whole) knows itself, which would mean it’s more or less like what would be tempting to call God.

But this is mere speculation; the question is not one for which I anticipate (or even desire) an answer.

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