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Plodding Down the Path, Seeking . . .
What?

. . . enlightenment, perhaps. Not (exactly) the Enlightenment promised by the Buddha in return for years of meditation, nor the “rebirth” promised by the Christians or the paradise promised by the Islamics in return for unquestioning faith, but the feeling (when I get right down to it, it is a feeling) that my life has meaning.

My mind is a great tool for figuring out things. The bottom line, however, is how I feel—even though I know (if I know anything) that feelings are just body states created by the flow of hormones—physical responses to chemical reactions. Yes, I feel okay with that bit of knowledge. It doesn’t “bother” me (another chemical response) to realize that I am the result of eons of adaptation by genes that I have inherited, ultimately from one-celled beings that had no goals, no intentions, no consciousness at all. What seems to me to be an ability to choose things in my life is something less than that; what seems to me to be consciousness—to think about the world around me—is just patterns of neural activity.

Pretending that I’m in charge, that I have some say about how my plodding down the path goes for me, makes it simpler, and simpler feels better. Being aware that I’m seeking something doesn’t feel as good. Maybe that’s why most people pretend that they aren’t seeking. Shoving complicated questions out of one’s mind is a conditioned response, like pulling one’s hand from a hot stove. But if you want to find out just how hot the stove is, you need to test it somehow.

I’ve been reading (as you may have guessed) a book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel C. Dennett. In it he explains in detail—and brilliantly—how Darwin’s theory can be extended all the way back to when there was nothing alive on Earth, and all the way forward to what we call consciousness and “free will.”

Ten years ago, my agnosticism was shattered by Ken Wilber, who answered for me questions about levels of consciousness and experiences like “insight.” Consciousness, he explained, is a continuum, not a discrete state. Perception, for example, is in his terms a form of consciousness. Even the response to touch exhibited by some plants fit into his definition. He suggests that even purely physical forces such as magnetism and gravity might be included as vastly more primitive manifestations of consciousness. Consciousness is a manifestation of what he calls Pure Spirit, the ground and the source of everything. The whole Kosmos is but the realization by Spirit of itself.

Now, I can’t say that he convinced me of all this, but he presented it in such a way that my skeptical buttons didn’t get pushed. He didn’t urge me to believe, but simply to consider. One of the ways we ordinary people can verify all this, he says, is through the discipline of meditation, and I was sufficiently convinced to try it for myself. In the process, I was introduced to the teachings of the Buddha, who said precisely the same thing—“don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself.” I wasn’t required to accept any religious doctrine. I just had to sit on a cushion and follow the recipe.

After a decade of modest but nevertheless satisfying effort, I found nothing in the process that alerted my skeptical side. While I still meditate, it’s not with the tenacity that I had for a long time. Other things have occupied my attention. Like physical exercise, meditation is something I know is good for me but that I find difficult to apply myself to.

I’ve continued to read, however, and different questions have arisen for me. While Wilber’s explanation of the levels of consciousness still work for me, it does not answer a nagging question: What is the connection between physical, biological structures in the brain and self-awareness? What is the bottom-line, physiological activity that can explain thought? And, even more mysterious, how is it that I have free will—the ability to choose my actions, if I am simply an evolved collection of cells—none of which possess individually the awareness that I seem to? Many writers have posed explanations for these phenomena, and some very good minds have declared that they are unexplainable. Science has come a long way from Descarte’s notion that mind is a different thing from matter. This “dualism” has persisted for a long time, but gradually it is losing its power. (Ken Wilber rejects dualism, even though he writes about spirit and brain as separate concepts—the left and right sides of reality. Instead, he says, matter is spirit made manifest, a difficult thing for me to grasp comfortably. Maybe it reminds me too much of the assertions in biblical scripture, about the relationship between God and Man. I need to work with that some more.)

Then, along came Erik Hofstader and Daniel Dennett, writing about evolution in purely physical terms. In painstaking detail, they describe the connection between mind and matter. They write about how, with only the forces of physics and the tendency of matter to move in certain ways, patterns are created that have properties beyond those of isolated elements. It has taken Nature millions of years to come up with something as complex as a mind that can think, even think about thinking. Many scientists who accept the notion of evolution still cannot get their minds around the idea that evolution alone can (and has) created consciousness. It is beginning to make sense to me.

The special form of consciousness possessed by Homo Sapiens allows us to communicate with each other through syntactical language, accelerating the process enormously. Mental tasks that are extremely difficult for individual minds can now be performed with remarkable ease by minds in concert. The entire scientific tradition depends upon this sharing of mental capacities, and the pace of progress thereby increases. We have taken charge of our own evolution, for better or worse.

All of this fits together, for me. Suddenly, it seems, what used to be nagging little discontinuities in my understanding of Reality are dissolving. I can’t say that it’s all clear to me. Nor am I certain that some discovery next month or next year won’t upset my equilibrium. Right now this worldview that I’ve collected makes sense to me.

And what I feel in my body, all those hormones coursing through my organs, feels what I’ve come to identify somehow as satisfying. Don’t misunderstand me; there is still plenty of mystery in my life. It’s just that the story I’m developing, the story I call “reality,” seems to be taking shape. For the first time in my life I think I understand how I fit into the universe.

One might think that if I believe I’ve got some answers, that my seeking would now ease up, that I wouldn’t have to read so many books or think up new questions.

It just doesn’t seem to work that way. (“It” being this mind that I’ve inherited from my parents and grandparents and probably even a young woman in prehistoric Africa, but which has just about run out of time. But then, as Dennett put it, “. . . immortality is more a matter of replication than of longevity of vehicles . . .”)

Continuing to plod . . .

July 16, 2007

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