I just came across this interesting article on the brain’s structure and the nature of consciousness that was published by Wired last year:
For the last 15 years, I’ve been exploring consciousness from a deeply shamanistic perspective with my main purpose to attempt to determine the borders of ontology. This is a quest to determine what is actual and real as opposed to creative fiction. Humans are very good at creative fiction and many idea structures, especially religious ones, are fully and totally believed by many, as if they are real even though they cannot be shown to be ontologically “real.” I – my own consciousness – was subsumed into a fully Christian belief system for the first 46 years of my life. Others have been and still are fully subsumed into that and other, incompatible belief systems. In order to try to get a more reliable view or a better understanding of that border between what exists outside of human interpretation and what is caused by human invention, I have been led to work with some of the great “visionary plant medicines” of the world that seem to transport us into other realms and give us a perspective on our normal, mundane perceptions.
Working extensively with ayahuasca has opened me up to a frontier of exploration into a state that is beyond our everyday perceptions and it may represent a valid window or portal into another dimension of reality. Just as physical tools like microscopes and telescopes have, for the purposes of knowledge acquisition as well as of beauty and wonder, given us a view into worlds vastly smaller and larger than we can personally otherwise “visit,” these substances might be giving us an extremely useful view that we cannot normally access.
The question of ontology is not easily resolved, however, and that is due to our lack of understanding about the nature of consciousness itself, and how the brain functions in that regard. Much has been written and speculated about this, of course, and no one has the answer, but new ideas are emerging. This article is from a neuroscientist, Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and is from a basically reductionist viewpoint (although he delightfully calls himself a “romantic reductionist”): that any and all systems that are complex enough in the right ways, can be considered to be conscious. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Koch: “It’s not that any physical system has consciousness. A black hole, a heap of sand, a bunch of isolated neurons in a dish, they’re not integrated. They have no consciousness. But complex systems do. And how much consciousness they have depends on how many connections they have and how they’re wired up.”
WIRED: “I still can’t shake the feeling that consciousness arising through integrated information is — arbitrary, somehow. Like an assertion of faith.”
Koch: “If you think about any explanation of anything, how far back does it go? We’re confronted with this in physics. Take quantum mechanics, which is the theory that provides the best description we have of the universe at microscopic scales. Quantum mechanics allows us to design MRI and other useful machines and instruments. But why should quantum mechanics hold in our universe? It seems arbitrary! Can we imagine a universe without it, a universe where Planck’s constant has a different value? Ultimately, there’s a point beyond which there’s no further regress.”
WIRED: “I’ve read that you don’t kill insects if you can avoid it.”
Koch: “That’s true. They’re fellow travelers on the road, bookended by eternity on both sides.”
It’s interesting to follow this article’s discussion as it traverses that narrow, fuzzy zone between empirical science and “faith.”
I am, however, attracted to this view of the physicality of consciousness. It seems more “right” because it is more holistic and scaleable. It neither arbitrarily excludes non-human systems from being capable of consciousness, nor tries to place human consciousness on some magical platform of superiority. Where such structural views or mappings of the machinery of consciousness can be limiting or “go wrong” is in stopping with the understandings we gain about the tool itself and deny or disregard the information that comes through that tool (the brain in our case). This hurdle manifests every time someone claims that consciousness altering plants or medicines are “just drugs” or cause “only hallucinations”.
As humans, some of us will certainly continue to push the frontier of knowledge in this direction, however obscure our pioneering pathways or how strongly we may be rejected or vilified in our pursuits. Perhaps soon, however, we may also witness other “self sentient” beings, such as a truly self-aware internet, come into their own consciousness – beings who will be able to assess their own experiences and develop their own data. Hopefully, we’ll be able to compare notes.
Stepping Outside the Shadow
In an earlier post, I spoke of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s metaphor of the stairs. It is a disturbing observation, precisely because it is the simple, honest assessment of the fundamental experience of all men and women. In his essay “Experience,” he states:
“Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.”
We, each of us and collectively, wake upon these stairs from a shadow of unknowing. Furthermore, we live our lives inside a kind of cosmic prison whose bars are made of unreachable stellar distances, vast time, and the necessarily precise material nature of our fragile yet essential protective physical environment. When our encased and brief life ends, we enter a shadow of greater unknowing – greater not by essence, but by virtue of our ability to perceive and anticipate it. It leads us, we know not where.
Is this our lot, not to know, not to ever understand? Are we mere chemical accidents–embodied processes running meaninglessly on for a brief moment? If not, and if we are more than that, can that part of our nature that is beyond the reductionist machine, give us the insight we seek? Can it give us energy and something of value to accomplish? How can mankind escape his prison of shadows?
William Blake once wrote, “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.” Some say that all the apparent universe we see–all of reality–is literally created by our thoughts. That may be so, but the old stairs seem solid and unchangeable. It is unquestionable however, that we are unique beings that have the ability to create new things and new cultures from the images we conjure in our minds, images that arise out of veriest nothing. Images that have no source in the cold stairs of our cosmic prison. We have the ability and power to live another life concurrent with the merely physical, a life that constitutes a different universe and a new set of stairs created and described by our own minds and hearts.
With this ability, we can step beyond our restricting shadow-shell and use our new energies for either positive or negative ends, but we must choose our inner path with care. There are shadows here of a different kind. Carl Jung said, “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”
There is a balance to be obtained between the finite world of physical bodies within gross material life and the inherently infinite universe within our minds – that well of infinite possibilities that has propelled us so far as a species in so short a span of time. The Christian mystic, Thomas Traherne, put perhaps the finest focus on the matter when he wrote, “Infinite Love cannot be expressed in finite room: but must have infinite places wherein to utter and shew itself. . . . And yet, it must be expressed in a finite room. . .”
All of this is to paraphrase and restate a view expressed with eloquence by one of the last century’s finest essayists, Loren Eiseley. In The Invisible Pyramid, he writes:
“In man, moreover, consciousness looks out isolated from its own body. The body is the true cosmic prison, yet it contains, in the creative individual, a magnificent if sometimes helpless giant. John Donne, speaking for that giant in each of us said: ‘Our creatures are our thoughts, creatures that are born Gyants. . . . My thoughts reach all, comprehend all. Inexplicable mystery; I their Creator am in a close prison, in a sick bed, anywhere, and any one of my Creatures, my thoughts, is with the Sunne and beyond the Sunne, overtakes the Sunne, and overgoes the Sunne in one pace, one steppe, everywhere.’
“This thought, expressed so movingly by Donne, represents the final triumph of (the) interior microcosm in its war with the macrocosm. Inside has conquered outside. The giant confined in the body’s prison roams at will among the stars. More rarely and more beautifully, perhaps, the profound mind in the close prison projects infinite love in a finite room. This is a crossing beside which light-years are meaningless. It is the solitary key to the prison that is man.”
[Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1970, pp. 48–49.]
In this way and along this path, we can choose to express our inner creations for love rather than power, even as we are trapped, contained within the narrow prison of our bodies and lost somewhere along an unexplainable stairway. This is the difference between those shamans who choose healing over sorcery. It is the open heart that brings health and joy to our shadowed life. The words of Traherne again ring true:
“This moment exhibits infinite space, but there is a space also wherein all moments are infinitely exhibited, and the everlasting duration of infinite space is another region and room of joys.”
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.”
“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”
- Helen Keller
[click for larger image]
Perhaps, as we gaze into the bright blackness of space, we may come to consider a compelling idea: that the portals and pathways to other worlds are not necessarily paths of simple distance or simply-ticking time. Perhaps, the portals we seek are of a different fabric and shape. It may be that they are not far away, not far away at all, though we think them unreachable except in our fantasies and myths. These endless other realities could be only a strange but simple turn away, just one small turn into a passage that we did not see, even though it was there next to our chair all along.
Let’s go look.
A new poem and artwork today.
It speaks of unfathomed dimension and scale in the human mind and soul.
[click image for larger]
The Stars Within
Are we so small?
And yet are we many,
Oh so many, glowing here and there?
Bodies of intricate illusion,
Tiny swirls of light and bone?
Each contains a galaxy.
Breath and beat, independent
Engines that move us,
Just like all the others.
Fear and happiness
Shaping the face
Our mind looks out of.
Step within to see the trick.
Vastness. Volume –
Filled with stars.
Each the color of a memory.
Ideas cluster and flare: suns
Lighting the dark lanes.
Hard and cold planets, some
Massive and others minor;
Worlds of water and storms;
Orbs of unspeakable beauty,
Filled with people and stories;
Turn themselves ’round
And whirl within.
Some we craft with careful
Intention, spinning each one
Lovingly. Returning there,
Spending time, comforted –
Renewed by loved lands and faces.
Others, uncalled for,
Rush up to surprise us –
Alien visions within our domain,
We wonder who made these
Worlds we did not plan.
Our galaxy is so vast.
The stars within swirl right around
And sing the strands of Life.
They swirl right ’round:
An unexpected gleaming nebula
Clothed in humble membrane.
An unchartable symphony,
An unexpected dimension within.
A million million stars and worlds
Dance and turn about
An invisible Center,
An obscured Mystery.
We are many and oh so small,
And when each one is no more,
A wide galaxy, a very Universe
Transforming, winks away
Into unknown night.
– – – – –
[© David P. Crews, 2013]
This coming Monday (October 14) is a Federal holiday in the USA called Columbus Day. As a person with some Native American blood and as an American who has worked with and honored native peoples, spiritual traditions, and cultures in the USA and in South and Central America, I refuse to honor it as such.
Christopher Columbus, was an amazing human man – amazingly murderous, greedy, sadistic, and foolish, that is. He caused devastation to the indigenous inhabitants of the western hemisphere that prefigured the terrors and ruin of the Spanish conquerors to come. He was truly something on the order of a Hitler or Stalin, concerned only with his own enrichment by any means while treating the people of his “new world” in ways that would make any thinking, feeling person blanch, recoiling in horror.
Over the centuries, he and his story were mythologized and spun to make him into the European noble explorer, finding a pristine new world and bringing goods to Europe while bringing civilization and the Christian religion to the “innocent natives.” If you are not familiar with his true story, this graphic cartoon version from The Oatmeal is a concise and effective primer. This author also offers a wonderful alternative to Columbus Day in the story of Bartolomé de las Casas, titled “Defender of the Indians”: the man we SHOULD be honoring on this day or any other. Please read and share this information with those who still hold the extraordinarily false myth in their minds of a benevolent and honorable Columbus.
Screengrab from The Oatmeal. Click to read the entire thing. It’s good.
Be sure to click here or on the image and read the entire cartoon.
Columbus Day is simply shameful, and it’s far past time it was changed.
My friend, Graham Hancock, is exploring the ancient megalithic site in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe. It dates back an amazing 12,000 years to a time when conventional historians have humans in hunter-gatherer societies. Here in this very large site, we have many huge carved stones weighing 20 tons and more, arranged in numerous great circles similar to Stonehenge but much older, taking history back to the edge of the last ice age and the cometary destruction that likely caused it to end. Graham is writing a sequel to his most popular book, Fingerprints of the Gods, showing new evidence like this site that will shine new light onto our forgotten human heritage from a time before currently accepted history.
I want to pass along a couple of links, first to a fine essay speculating on the true nature of Ayahuasca and other psychedelic visions. It’s from Teafaerie, titled “Virtuality,” posted on Erowid’s site HERE. Teafaerie talks about visions and even our own everyday reality as composed of sets of information and data, but no matter what form or format one postulates for the emergence of sophisticated and unexpected, complex imagery in visions and dreams, the data must reside somewhere! Very interesting rabbit chase along some intriguing paths.
Found a link to this essay from another interesting article titled “Can Psychedelic Drugs Help us Speak to Aliens?” by David Jay Brown on the SantaClaraPatch site, HERE.
My main zone of interest regarding Ayahuasca visions centers around ontology: the consideration of what is real vs. what is imagined (and all the possible crossovers of that). You can read about my own experiences with Ayahuasca in the Amazon in my five part series, Ancient Songs and Green Magic, starting HERE. In it, I explore my own psyche-newbie intellectual’s approach to the ontological question after experiencing a set of strong and truly amazing visionary encounters.
As I suspected, this discovery helps to show that the Mayan “End of the World” is not literal, but rather a change of time or a transition to a new era. This is similar to the same end-of-the-world phrases in the New Testament that actually spoke of a fundamental change of the social, political, and religious “world” of that time.
What might our new “world” look like? Will the transition seem slow or fast? The modern Mayans I’ve spoken with know no more than we do.
Endless was my journey over broken
Lands and through forests green;
Between great white mountains,
Across cobalt deeps – desolate seas:
Ahead, my goal. My path a road – now a trail.
Steps pursuing lands of promise. I was not
Where I should be. I must campaign to the end.
At last I carved a path from unknown soil
To reach that storied land. I could not stop. I was
I stood at last upon a jutting rock,
A stony islet black as a forgotten dream.
Vast waters lay ahead. Somber waves roiled against
My feet, then became singularly quiet.
Receding spume erased my former trail. The
Setting sun reflected in darkling waters, now still as
I gazed up at two golden towers. Needles –
Silent gnomons attesting a single message:
There is no East or West. There is no
South or North. There is no Down.
We speak for the Zenith. Look
I looked into the fading air above,
My wandering paths all lost from view,
Nor any new paths seen. Only the sharp tips of
Gold and the sweet air beyond.
There is but this one place – this one
Here, all the pieces of Time collect and
Converge around a mass that compels
All to become one moment, ever moving,
Ever lasting, ever evolving, ever
The Mystery opened my soul,
And I knew I was where I should be,
At the Center. where all things are – beneath
The Gates of Forever.
The word “zenith” is derived from the Arabic: “samt ar-ras”, meaning “the road above one’s head.”
Illusions can be entertaining, but what if, suddenly, you realize you are living right inside one? Driving through the thick, green hills that ruffle up just west of my home, I got a glimpse – hiding in plain view – of just such an illusion, one that has haunted me ever since.
I love to drive and to travel, and deserts and wastelands have long enchanted my soul. Why, I wonder, do they so attract me, these lands of limited life and dangerous conditions? Certainly, there is a unique beauty to the sublime emptiness and harsh terrain, but there seems to be a deeper reason. After my recent startling discovery, I’ve concluded that this has to do with a grand illusion – the illusion of the ubiquity of life.
The illusion that now haunts me was revealed by a simple highway road-cut, sliced cleanly through one of the larger rolling hills near my decidedly non-desert home that made me pause. It was a wide slot, carved by man and his explosives to let the hard road through. I had driven through this rock-cut many times, but this day I noticed something about it and it felt like my view of the world had slipped sideways.
Living upon the dry land of this planet, we take as a given the world of life that surrounds us. Green grasses, great forests, flowers of every description, fields of crops, fresh water coursing over moss – all the very stuff of the world as far as we can see. Surely, all of this combined is what we consider our Earth to be truly made of – what defines it as Earth. On the continents, only the rarified deserts and mountaintops are thinned of this great green and living mass. Those are places with enough scarcity that we tend to think of them as exceptions to the mundane majority – accent pieces to the Green World. All this is true enough from our everyday perspective, but it is still a terrible illusion. The highway cut showed it to me plainly.
I saw the green hill as I approached in my car, then I was inside the cut. The Green World was not here. For a moment, it seemed some alien place had peeked out from behind its mask, giving slip perhaps to a false front that nature has arranged for our naïve comfort. This hill, this tiny lump of land, had risen up long ages past and now we humans had cut a slice right through it revealing it brazenly like some giant stony x-ray. Inside the fully green hill was nothing but stone. Of course, of course, but look how thinly the green grass and trees cling to the outer surface! Life on the skin of this simple hill is a vanishingly thin veneer. Underneath is nothing – nothing but stone.
It looked like a baked potato. The white rock here was skinned with a narrow dark green line that followed its every curve. Inside the hill? Nothing but potato meal. What was left of my green life was the extraordinarily thin “peel.” What if that peel was all that kept me alive, all that any of us can ever depend on for our very lives, forever? It made me shudder.
Then, it began to truly sink in. This is just a hill. It is a molecular protrusion – a mere grain on the side of an immense sphere, and that sphere is made up solely of more hill-stuff. Compared to the size of the hill, that green peel of life is gaspingly thin, but what of the ratio of that same green veil’s same thickness when gauged against the size of the entire planet?
I stopped my car and walked up to the spot where the grass shell’s edge met the face of the cut. This blade of grass at my feet and its roots extend some inches down into the soil. That tree descends perhaps several tens of feet. It all gives way in a breath to crusty dense stone that stretches thousands of non-air miles from here to the far foothills of another land’s evening, and there at the last blink, one more faint and incredibly thin curtain of green life clings to the stone face before the void beyond. In between these green ghosts? Only unbroken and ungodly fathoms of dense, unfeeling minerals twirling through the radiant night of space, viscous and fierce at the deepest heart where its own heady mass sits down. Is there red and glowing light at the very core, where no eye can perceive?
Perhaps this is the underlying reason I am attracted to deserts. The wonderful deserts! Where the green skin is worn away like a threadbare dress, revealing the true physical nature of rocky planets like ours, lurking beneath the living skin. Not that I disdain life – not at all! Rather, that it is here that the illusion thins enough to sense the reality of our situation. It is seeing through the illusion that gives me perspective. Life is thin and precious. We live by the benefits of an environment that is truly a soap-bubble skin – one atom thick and easily punctured, even by road workers with dynamite. Does our life-filled world of greenness seem so thick and full to us because we never really look below its broad, but incredibly thin face? Or is it because we ourselves are so amazingly tiny, lost within it? In the desert lands, one can feel the sizes.
The illusion revealed by the highway cut was as if someone had taken life’s movie camera and tilted it down, clean off the green set, revealing the stage hardware and support beams below. This camera, I found, can be tilted up, also.
We’ve all watched a blue sky full of unreachable white clouds and imagined shapes in their fractal forms. To me, as a young child, this cloudsky was a vision into a deep, vast land full of unknown ethereal beings and golden cities that no earthbound human could ever reach. The sky was endless – deeper than any ocean. Surely none of our activities, even flying, could truly penetrate its awesome mysteries. When the first rockets rose to space, I watched in rapt pleasure, sensing even as a small boy that a completely new perspective on things was to be had. I was always intrigued to see pictures of the earth from the high vantage of orbit. One of the most curious views to me was that of the limb of the planet with the sun rising. Curving above the dark planet below was a narrow bright band of light. It was our atmosphere illuminated from behind.
But wait! This couldn’t be the sky I know! This skin of air was so very thin – so thin it looked like a mere hand swipe would splash it all off and make it float away into hard black space. It could not be the true nature of that deep and unknowable sky world that had always fascinated me! Yet, this was our atmosphere – our sky, our clouds, our sunsets, our fresh air after a storm, the very pulsing breaths we consume and that sustain us. So thin?
So, the vast sky above my head was another illusion. The camera had been craned up this time, out of the set, and was looking back down with a cold, real eye.
I once had a pet fish. It swam around in its round bowl, eating its fish food and thinking its fish thoughts. Did it know that the water in which it swam extended only a very short way out from the center? Did it presume, as perhaps I did of the sky, that it must extend great and grand distances because it appears to do so? If I removed it from its bowl, say in a small water-filled plastic bag spaceship, would it have looked back upon its bowl world home and exclaimed, “So small?”
Now, we have extended ourselves out of our bowl and into the hard, waterless universe beyond. We can look back and see that the illusion of the ubiquity of our life-giving environment is comforting but also dangerous. Now, we begin to see how our actions are affecting this incredibly crucial and fragile resource.
We truly live within a thin margin. To see it as limitless and beyond our ability to alter or even to destroy, is to succumb to the illusion – something we can no longer afford.
The stars in space do not twinkle from our high orbital platforms. They shine crisp and cold for we see them there from outside our potato skin of air. As we walk across our gossamer greenswards, we might pause and think of the illusions revealed by a road-cut. As those cold stars call to us, we might also look up and gaze into the forever night, wondering what new worlds might exist in, or perhaps even outside of, our visible universe.
It seems so big.