as a Higher Level
Mystics in most of the major religious traditions refer to different
"levels" of consciousness. They donít all describe them the same
way, or provide the same kind of instructions for accessing them. A generation
ago, some drugs were touted as non-religious means for achieving extraordinary
states of consciousness. For most people, "common sense" might be
thought of as the standard state, and other states, however described in glowing
terms, are better left alone. Many scientists, even neurologists who concentrate
on matters of the brain and nervous system, are reluctant to make sweeping
statements about the nature of consciousness.
Writers such as Aldous Huxley, who wrote The Perennial Philosophy
back in the 1940s, and Ken Wilber, who is still prolific in his attempts to
organize our concepts of reality, describe consciousness as a continuum,
beginning perhaps at the bottom of the hierarchy of life forms. (Wilber suggests
that there may not even be a "bottom," for even the movement of
heavenly bodies could be thought of as reflecting some form of consciousness.)
The upper reaches of the continuum are referred to variously as religious
ecstasy, nirvana, or enlightenment. What we refer to as "lower forms of
life" could be seen as evidencing less complex awareness of their
environment than most humans, with less effective means for organizing their
experiences. Some people insist that "consciousness" begins with human
beings, who seem uniquely gifted with a sense of "I."
Iíll take as my starting point for the sake of this discussion an
assumption that we humans do, indeed, possess consciousness, defined rather
vaguely as an awareness of self and not-self. Iíve noticed that many people
appear to have "something" in their mental makeup that is beyond my
capacity to understand, let alone hope to achieve. They might be called
"geniuses," or "saints," or "prophets," or
something similar; and to many people they seem to operate at a level beyond us
ordinary folk. Their specialness seems not just a matter of degree. They not
only understand things we do not, they know things that we cannot even
dream of. They may not be in a different world than we, but they
obviously see it differently. When I watch my dog Tasha trying desperately to
understand me when Iím explaining something to her, something that affects her
directly but of which she is totally unaware, I remember listening in awe to the
Dalai Lama a few years ago, and feeling just as I imagine Tasha does. And Iím
likely to be gentler with the "poor, dumb animal."
Wilber did much to illuminate my thinking about levels of consciousness.
We do move up, he said, as we learn to integrate our experiences at different
ages. A six-year-old cannot be expected to respond appropriately to, say, sexual
situations. Usually, but not always, there comes a time when he or she
understands more of the complex emotional and physical and social aspects of
sexuality. This advance in perspective is often taken for granted, but if
one thinks about it, itís pretty remarkable. When a person grows up enough in
different areas of experience, they understand more, and their range of
responses is greater. At some point, we call it wisdom.
"Ah, yes," Iíve said more than once, "Iíve been here
before. Iíve felt this tightness in my gut and my sudden desire to escape. And
I know also that Iím really not in danger, and I can control my urge and make
the most out of whatís happening right here, right now." Sometimes, I
might even make a joke about it all.
The ability to laugh at oneself at times is usually considered a desirable
trait. If Iím frightened by something that turns out to be benign, and I can
laugh about it, Iím not so apt to be at its mercy in the future. If I feel
insulted by someone unexpectedly, and then realize that their intentions were
not hostile, a little humor can disperse the difficulties in the transaction.
When I suddenly realize that itís the little kid in me who is responding to a
situation, I can choose to act more adult, and at the same time have compassion
for that part of me who is still four years old and fearful of abandonment.
Iím talking about gentle humor. Thereís also another kind, a hurtful
kind, expressed in sarcasm and even sadistic glee. Enjoying another personís
suffering is not a higher level of consciousness. But humoróany humorórequires
a degree of sophistication to understand. Humor, as a response, is often a
matter of seeing some familiar situation and twisting it, creating a paradox or
an unexpected result. The enjoyment of "getting the joke" is in
perceiving both ends of the paradox. Relating two things that are usually not
thought of as related. My wife thinks "Humor as a higher level of
consciousness" is itself funny. Why? I believe itís because we ordinarily
think of humor as a leveler, a folksy thing.
I could relate some incidents in which my dog Tasha has fun with meónot
playing the way animals often do with each other, exercising abilities that are
to be used in very serious ways, such as fighting off intruders or competing to
get food, but in a gentle teasing behavior, pretending to give me her ball to
toss, then slyly pulling it just out of reach. If I stop reaching for it, she
brings it back, and repeats the tease until I manage to grab it, then instantly
she lets go and bounds off, looking back at me waiting for the toss. This little
game is fun for her and fun for me, and we both know it and appreciate the
humor. Itís a delicate dance, what James Carse calls an "infinite
game," played for the fun of playing and not to have a winner and a loser.
Thatís humor, too, the "good" kind. Laughing at oneself is not
destructive. On the contrary, it helps to bond people (and animals). What Iím
enjoying when Tasha plays her little game with me, is my own limitationómy dog
outwitting me! If I were truly embarrassed or humiliated, my responses would not
encourage her to repeat the game. It wouldnít be fun for either of us.
Since Iíve become aware of all this, Iíve begun to pay more attention
to my own humor, checking now and then to see whether itís destructive or
constructive to the relationship. Laughing at another person can be
either. Itís a fine line to walk, requiring sensitivity and skillóand a lot
of knowledge about the other person. Psychologists tell us that humor at someone
elseís expense is always a hostile act. The important word there is
"expense." If Iím aware of my own forgetfulness, for example, and
make jokes about it, someone I trust can also kid me about itóa little. To
gauge the word "little," I guess it would be less than I do. If I can
laugh at myself, it indicates an acceptance of my own shortcoming, a level of
comfort. A perspective. In perhaps only a small way, I have "risen
above" myself and my ego.
About other personal topics, such as my deteriorating physical condition,
Iím not so sanguine. I canít readily joke about it, and I can be easily hurt
if someone else jokes about it. My level of consciousness related to that is
rather stuck. My ego reigns.
So, perhaps itís clearer to say that humor can be an indicator of higher
consciousness, rather than the state itself. When it reflects that
ever-important perspective, or that bit of insight, humor might be
thought of as one characteristic of wisdom. Logically, the next question is:
does God have a sense of humor?
Personally, I have no doubt.
Donald Skiff, May 30, 2002
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