May 1, 2017 § 6 Comments
”The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness.” – Lao Tzu
“As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.” – Ram Dass
Consciousness is awareness of our own existence; the mind contemplating itself & its place in the world.
It gets a little trickier when we try to elaborate.
”The human brain contains about one hundred billion interacting neurons,” relates science writer Michael S. Graziano. ”Neuroscientists know, at least in general, how that network of neurons can compute information. But how does a brain become aware of information? What is sentience itself?”
”What is the essence of awareness, the spark that makes us us? Something lovely apparently buried inside us is aware of ourselves and of our world. Without that awareness, zombie-like, we would presumably have no basis for curiosity, no realization that there is a world about which to be curious, no impetus to seek insight, whether emotional, artistic, religious, or scientific. Consciousness is the window through which we understand.” (‘‘What Is Consciousness? Neuroscience May Have Answer To The Big Questions.”)
“Consider an analogy from physics,” adds psychologist Kristian Marlow, “knowing every equation predicting how mass and gravity interact does not tell us why they interact in the way they do. To understand why mass and gravity interact, we must appeal to highly esoteric explanations involving relativity, quantum mechanics or string theory. ”
Graziano offers a simpler metaphor: a child and his father watch as a magician saws a woman in half. “How do you think he does that?” asks the father. “Dad,” says the kid. “It’s obvious!” “Really?” asks the father, intrigued. “How?” The child replies: “The magician does it.”
Neuroscience, at this stage, Graziano asserts, is merely pointing at the magician; not explaining the trick.
In philosophy, the study of consciousness is called phenomenology.
The mind–body problem examines the relationship between mind and matter, specifically the relationship between consciousness and the brain. The issue was addressed by René Descartes in the 17th century, resulting in Cartesian dualism. Descartes asserted that the the seat of intelligence & sentience was distinct from the brain, “a ghost in the machine.”
In the world of philosophy, physicalists maintain that consciousness is entirely physical, while dualists think we are dealing with a two part system in which mental phenomena are, in some respect, non physical.
The philosopher Spinoza apposed Descartes’ theory of dualism, asserting that all matter was in fact made up of a single substance: an impersonal God with infinite attributes.
Spinoza’s theory represents a monist worldview, in which the distinctions we perceive are not ultimately indications of separation—a view which quantum physics appears to confirm & the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta established thousands of years ago.
Pioneering writer & philosopher Starhawk comments that the dualist way of thinking has created a culture of estrangement in modern life in which people feel “as strangers in the world,” disconnected from nature, each other & themselves.
Within this stock narrative of dualism in Western culture, Starhawk observes that “all qualities can be broken down into pairs of opposites—one is good, idealized, and the other is bad, devalued. Psychologists call this thought process “splitting”—the inability to see people or things as wholes containing both desired and undesired elements. In the split world, spirit wars with flesh, culture with nature, the sacred with the profane, the light with the dark.” (“Dreaming The Dark: Magic, Sex, Politics.”)
Starhawk observes that the split narrative becomes a metaphor for hierarchy. The fact that the “good guy versus bad guy” theme is the most dominant story line in Western culture is no accident, she asserts: it implants the message that in order for some to be good, others must be bad. A mental program that keeps us eternally divided, from each other & within ourselves.
Although we are technically all conscious as long as we are living, sometimes, although we are operating in the world, we may feel dull, uninspired, disconnected, apathetic. We encounter people who seem checked out as well.
This state has been dubbed in the parlance of modern spirituality “unconsciousness”: that trance-like state when you’re technically alive but don’t feel particularly vital or connected with your environment, yourself, a sense of purpose, etc—when, as Starhawk would say, we feel “as strangers in the world.”
Contrast this with the experience we have all had at certain times of feeling intensely present, conscious & vital—in which we feel awakened to a sense of possibility & connection.
But words fail, because this “awakeness” is an extra, internal layer of awareness & alertness beyond the physical mechanism of simply not being asleep. This experience is universally typified by a sense of peace & uplift. Insights, which seem to recede into the background in “the trance, ” re-emerge as self-evident truths.
Spiritual practice could be defined as the conscious cultivation of accessing this experience of “awakeness”—as one often seems to stumble into it and out of it. But tools like meditation, mindfulness & gratitude practices can help us access this feeling at will. This sense of deepened awakeness is often referred to as higher consciousness, and connecting with this state is the goal of spiritual practice.
We might define higher consciousness & its pursuit as: consciousness being conscious of itself as consciousness, and seeking to refine that awareness.
What are your thoughts on consciousness? Which camp do you fall in (dualist or monist) & why? What is your experience of the awake/unconscious scenario?
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January 15, 2016 § 13 Comments
“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” ~ Matthew 6:22
“This life’s dim windows of the soul / distorts the heavens from pole to pole / and leads you to believe a lie / when you see with, not through, the eye.” ~ William Blake
Something interesting is happening. Currently, and for the past several months, the number one most searched out post on Parallax is “The Art of Seeing: Third Eye Perception & The Mystical Gaze.”
Everyday someone finds Parallax through typing “Why do I see a spinning tunnel when I shut my eyes” (or some similar variant) into their search engine. According to WordPress’ statistical analysis, these are trending key words.
Given the fact that third eye “awakenings”—as these activations are known—are traditionally associated with deepened or expanded consciousness, I’d say this bodes well for the trajectory of humanity. And let’s face it: we could all use a little good news in that department.
The ever-expanding comments section of this popular post has become a veritable reference guide for everyday descriptions of a subject often obscured by abstract esoteric language. I’m thrilled to report it has become an active forum of discussion.
Four years ago, when I wrote “The Art of Seeing,” the subject seemed hazardously “woo”—it felt like going out on a limb. Now it seems more relevant than abstract. Because apparently a lot of people are having these experiences….and looking to the internet for answers.
So I thought it might be an apt time for a follow-up. I’ve had my eye on this subject—haha—for a while now, and definitely harbor a few more insights to offer in terms of practical application.
But first, what do I mean by a “third eye experience?” For me, it meant that during meditations (and I’m no yogi; I’m more of a ‘5 minutes in the bath’ type,) I began to see a subtle but definite spinning sphere in the darkness of my closed eyes. Sometimes it seemed to approach, yet in a teasing way, never “arriving.” Then one day I realized it looked more like a tunnel, or wormhole, than a sphere. This was a common thread in reader comments.
The idea of a chakra, or energy center, in the midpoint of the skull that acts as a channel for higher consciousness dates back to ancient Eastern literature, from Hinduism to Buddhism. It also figures prominently into ancient Egyptian iconography.
Though there are slight cultural variations in description (and of course mythology), the essential idea remains the same: the third eye is a conduit for extrasensory perception, a receptor for subtle visioning that each human possess. It is a recurring spiritual motif of the ancient world, which has continued in various occult societies, and through the direct experiences of meditation practitioners & clairvoyants, into the modern age.
In modern times the third eye has been linked with the pineal gland, as a physical counterpart to this energetic center (though many speculate the link has been made as far back as ancient Egypt.)
The pineal gland is responsible for producing melatonin, for light detection, and for regulating sleep patterns, as well as circadian rhythms. It is located exactly between the two brain hemispheres. Interestingly, the pineal gland of modern humans is often calcified, mostly from flouride & cell phone exposure. (Click here to see how to help decalcify it.)
Being that the pineal gland is associated with connecting to higher consciousness, the fact that the number one dulling agent is added, by government decree, to our drinking water begins to take on a sinister, dystopian quality, not missed by the conspiracy theorists of the world.
What is happening on a scientific level? Well, we don’t know for sure. But “scientists believe [that] the same way that fireflies and deep-sea creatures can glow, cells within our eyes emit biophotons, or biologically produced light particles.” [“Why Do We See Colors With Our Eyes Closed.”]
In other words, the lights we see when we shut our eyes (called phosphenes) are coming from our brain. Which does not seem at all incompatible with metaphysical interpretations of third eye activity, particularly when you bring the physical pineal gland into the whole operation.
“Is it possible to really ‘see’ energy? Not directly,” explains Taoist Casey Kochmer. “While our eyes can see the end results of energy in action [they] only ‘see’ what they are designed to see, light. What our third eye does is process information and then overlay that information over our other senses in such a way we can then interpret and interact with energy…
“Auras are such an information overlay. Your brain has the ability to process visual information, but the image it creates for you is not limited to what comes from your eyes. Consider what you see on this page as you read it. You aren’t seeing black lines. You are seeing words and then concepts and ideas overlaid on top of them.” (“What Is The Third Eye?”, Personal Tao.)
Part Two … coming soon!
January 30, 2013 § 29 Comments
“We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun. We are not afraid of the darkness. We trust that the moon shall guide us. We are determining the future at this very moment. We know that the heart is the philosopher’s stone. Our music is our alchemy.” ~ Saul Williams
Shrouded in mystery and steeped in mysticism, Alchemy is the art and science of transformation. The multi-leveled, symbol-rich philosophy of the ages functions both on an exoteric (practical) and esoteric (spiritual) level.
At its most literal, alchemy was the chemical quest to create the Philosopher’s stone—a legendary substance derived from a series of laboratory processes, known as the The Magnum Opus, The Great Work, or simply The Art. The Philosopher’s Stone was said to be the agent of gold transmutation, and the key ingredient in the creation of the fabled elixir of life, said to heal all diseases, induce longevity and even immortality.
Yet it’s clear from the ancient sacred texts, known as the Corpus Hermeticum—upon which alchemy’s Hermetic principals are based—that gold transmutation is but the tip of the iceberg, as well as a symbolic teaching, of what is essentially a philosophical and mystical tradition. The Philosopher’s Stone can be, and often is, viewed metaphorically.
“[T]he Stone is a symbol of incorruptible wisdom achieved by uniting both rational, intellectual thinking (masculine, right brain activity) with our intuitive knowing of the heart (feminine, left brain activity).” (Alchemy & The Philosopher’s Stone.)
“The idea of the ‘primal material’ was developed by Aristotle and refers to the idea that there is a primordial matter that lies behind all forms, but that is itself invisible. It is the womb of creation, the field of pure potentiality, but it only gains existence, in the strictest sense, when given form.”
Mistlberger continues: “In the alchemical process, the primal material is that which remains when something has been reduced to its essence and can be reduced no further.”
From a mystical perspective, “essence” is also commonly associated with the soul.
“Psychologically,” Mistleberger adds, “this is a potent symbol for the inner process of transformation in which we regularly arrive at ‘core realizations’ that cannot be deconstructed further, but that themselves become the ground for successfully moving forward in life—‘integrating’ as we evolve.”
Certainly such high-level claims as gold transmutation and immortality elixirs made alchemy ripe for abuse from charlatans. Its cryptic language and oblique symbolism only aided sham-peddling swindlers with the perfect smoke screen behind which to operate mysteriously.
Fraudulent claims drove The Art into disrepute—Dante reserves a special place in his Inferno for alchemists—and the modern materialist mind is often quick to dismiss alchemy as an arcane jumble of smoke and mirrors hogwash. Though it is considered a protoscience for modern chemistry due to its establishment of basic chemical procedures (the most notable being distillation), its discovery of phosphorus, antimony and bismuth, and preparation of nitric, hydrochloric and sulphuric acid.
The real “gold,” however, seems to lie in the deeper, spiritual heritage of Alchemy. The mystical truths preserved in its archetypal imagery and symbolism still serve as an allegorical map for seekers today.
“Only through discovering alchemy,” notes pioneering Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, “have I clearly understood that the unconscious is a process and that ego’s rapport with the unconscious and his contents initiates an evolution, more precisely, a real metamorphosis of the psyche.”
While the imagery associated with alchemy can be bafflingly surreal and even disturbing, every detail holds symbolic meaning that becomes coherent when viewed through an allegorical lens.
The 7 Stages (or Operations) of Alchemy give insight into many of these symbols. The system is thought to be based largely on the ancient text, The Emerald Tablet of Hermes—the jewel in the crown of the Corpus Hermeticum. The first translation dates back to the 13th century, though its origin is suspected to go as far back as the 2nd century or older.
The 7 Stages, undertaken with the goal of the Philosopher’s Stone (both literal and metaphorical), are as follows:
1.Calcination. (“Its father is the sun.” ~ The Emerald Tablet of Hermes)
Chemically, this initial stage involves heating the substance over an open flame and burning away the first layer of impurities.
“Psychologically,” remarks Dennis William Hauk, an Internationally recognized expert on alchemy research, “this is the destruction of the ego and our attachment to material possessions. Calcination is usually a natural humbling process as we are gradually assaulted and overcome by the trials and tribulations of life, though it can be a deliberate surrender of our inherent hubris [igniting] the fire of introspection and self-evaluation.”
“In spiritual symbolism, this stage is sometimes humorously referred to as ‘cooking’ or ‘baking’ (and in fact the prime symbol of this stage is fire),” observes P.T. Mistlberger in “Psycho-Spiritual Alchemy.“
Spiritually, Adam McClean points out in his essay Birds in Alchemy, “the nigredo indicates the initial stages of the alchemist’s encounter with his inner space, through withdrawing from the outer world of the senses in meditation, and entering what is initially the dark inner world of the soul,”
Symbolized by crows, ravens, toads, sculls and skeletons—as well as the alchemist in his own burning flask or cauldron—philosophically, this stage represents the breaking down of old structures. Called the nigredo, or “blackening,” Calcination involved putrefaction and decomposition of the alchemical substances—a “trial by fire” that psychologists often equate with the Dark Night of the Soul, the death of old aspects of the self and confrontation with the shadow within.
2. Dissolution (“Its mother is the moon.”)
Also called the albedo, or “whitening,” the second stage, was said to result from the washing (ablutio, baptisma) of the products of the nigredo. Chemically, this phase denotes the dissolving of the ashes from Calcination in water. Often symbolized by a white swan or a white eagle, Dissolution marks a time of emotional cleansing, a purification through catharsis and letting go.
“It is, for the most part, an unconscious process,” details Dennis William Hauck, “in which our conscious minds let go of control to allow the surfacing of buried material. It is opening the floodgates and generating new energy from the waters held back. Dissolution can be experienced as “flow,” the bliss of being well-used and actively engaged in creative acts.”
“This stage is often characterized by experiencing the emotion of grief,” adds P.T. Mistlberger, “and allowing ourselves to truly grieve painful incidents from our past that we may have long buried.
“A key to the stage of Dissolution is the awakening of passion, and the harnessing of the energy of emotional pain toward an object of creativity. We do not just passively witness the reality of our inner pain; we redirect its energy, wedding it to our authentic personal desires and constructive aims.”
“It is that stage of catharsis after some intense experience of being consumed in the crucible,” details Adam McLean, “when we glimpse the appearance, however fragmentary, of a new possibility —a flickering light in our souls which draws us towards its promise of change.”
3. Separation (“The wind carries it in its belly.”)
Chemically, according to Hauk, this stage marks “the isolation of the components of Dissolution by filtration and then discarding any ungenuine or unworthy material.
“Psychologically, this process is the rediscovery of our essence and the reclaiming of dream and visionary ‘gold’ previously rejected by the masculine, rational part of our minds. It is, for the most part, a conscious process in which we review formerly hidden material and decide what to discard and what to reintegrate into our refined personality.”
The Separation stage, much as its name suggests, denotes a time of discernment and taking stock. ”In this stage,” notes Mistlberger, “we begin to see what is of value in our life, and what is not.”
“Chemically,” Hauk tells us, “it is the recombination of the saved elements from Separation into a new substance…”
“Psychologically, it is empowerment of our true selves, the union of both the masculine and feminine sides of our personalities into a new belief system or an intuitive state of consciousness. The alchemists referred to it as the Lesser Stone, and after it is achieved, the adept is able to clearly discern what needs to be done to achieve lasting enlightenment, which is union with the Overself. Often, synchronicities begin to occur that confirm the alchemist is on the right track.”
The divided self, often represented by a king and queen, now purified and healed—is reunited, producing filius philosophorum, or “the philosopher’s child,” a magical, hermaphroditic babe, representing the reborn, integrated self.
“Esoteric alchemy proposes,” Mistlberger elaborates, “that what is left if the first three stages of calcination, dissolution, and separation have been properly undergone is a state wherein we can more clearly mediate between our ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’.
“In this sense ‘soul’ refers to our embodied spirit, the part of our essential nature that is fully on Earth, and ‘spirit’ refers to our most rarefied connection with the divine, transcendental Source. These two are sometimes categorized as the divine feminine (soul) and the divine masculine (spirit). The combining of the two is the essence of inner tantra, a sacred marriage of spiritual opposites.”
The integration of the active, “impregnating” principal of divine spirit is often depicted as the masculine sun, or Sol, while the receptive principal of the body receiving that spirit infusion is represented by the feminine moon, or Luna. Below these aspects integrate via the symbolic sexual union of Sol and Luna.
“In conjunction, fears melt,” adds Nephtalia Leba in her essay “Alchemical Transformation.” “The old scripts that played in our head that said we ‘must’ or we ‘should’ are quieter, if not gone. There is more joy now. We begin to see the world more clearly. The acts we do choose to engage in – even the mundane acts – take on a greater delight.”
5. Fermentation (“Separate the Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with great Ingenuity.”)
Chemically, Fermentation is the growth of a ferment (bacteria) in organic solutions, such as occurs in the fermenting of grapes to make wine. And this idea is mirrored in the psycho-spiritual stage it represents in the seeker’s journey. Fermentation is a two step process, which begins with Putrefaction.
In this stage, Hauk details, “matter is allowed to breakdown and decompose. The alchemists often added manure to help get the process going…The dead material seems to come to life again with an influx of digesting bacteria, as Fermentation begins.
“This new life force changes the fundamental nature of the material in what the alchemists saw as a process of spiritization [the second phase in Fermentation].
“Psychological Fermentation is the introduction of new life into the purified presence that developed during Conjunction. This child of the Conjunction, however, is really just a melding of opposites of the personality that may still be contaminated with traces of ego, so it is necessary to “sacrifice” it to bring about its resurrection on a new level of being.
“During psychological death or Putrefaction, the ‘child’ of the Conjunction, which is the strongest presence you can create within your earthbound personality, is exposed to the decadent humidity of your deepest and most clinging psychic components, the psychological manure in which most of us wallow.”
Hauk continues: “Fermentation then begins with the inspiration of spiritual power from Above that reanimates, energizes, and enlightens the blackened soul. It can be achieved through various activities that include intense prayer, desire for mystical union, breakdown of the personality, transpersonal therapy, psychedelic drugs, and deep meditation. In simplest terms, Fermentation is a living, loving inspiration from something totally beyond us, something existing wholly Above in the realm of pure mind.”
Like the first “nigredo” stage of Calcination, the Fermentation phase has been associated with the Dark Night of the Soul psychologically.
“Here, we undergo a type of rebirth,” observes Mistlberger, “resulting from the deep willingness to let go of all elements of [ourselves] that no longer serve our spiritual evolution. This marks the true beginning of inner initiation, of entry into a ‘higher’ life in which our best destiny has a chance to unfold.”
This stage is often associated with the peacock due its reported accompaniment of multi-colored visions upon entering the spiritization phase, known as “the peacock’s tail.”
6. Distillation (“It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”)
Chemically this stage involves the boiling and condensation of the fermented solution to increase its purity, such as takes place in the distilling of wine to make brandy.
“Psychologically,” Mistlberger details, “distillation represents a further purification process, being about an ongoing process of integrating our spiritual realizations with our daily lives—dealing with seeming mundane things with integrity, being as impeccable in our lives as we can be, and not using the inner work as a means by which to escape the world…
“…At this stage remaining impurities, hidden as ‘shadow’ elements in the mind, are flushed out and released, crucial if they are not to surface later on (a phenomena that can be seen to occur when a reputed saint, sage, or wise person, operating from a relatively advanced level of self-realization, appears to have a fall from grace).”
Mistlberger tells us that a common alchemical symbol for this stage is the Green Lion devouring the sun, suggesting “a robust triumph and an embracing of a limitless source of energy.”
7. Coagulation (“Thus will you obtain the Glory of the Whole Universe. All Obscurity will be clear to you. This is the greatest Force of all powers, because it overcomes every Subtle thing and penetrates every Solid thing.” )
“This is closely connected to the idea of the Resurrection Body of mystical Christianity, or the Rainbow Body of Tibetan Buddhism, which includes the esoteric idea of the ability to navigate all possible levels (dimensions) of reality, without loss of consciousness.
“It is the form of the illumined and fully transformed human, in which matter has been spiritualized, or the spiritual has fully entered the material. Heaven and Earth seen as one, or as the Buddhists say, nirvana (the absolute, or formless) is samsara (the world of form). At this end stage, whatever we set eyes on we see the divine, as we have come to realize our own full divinity.”
Below, an alchemical woodcut depicts the Stone as eternally youthful and fully integrated. He controls the forces of duality and fends off any materialistic advances on his unified Soul and Spirit
“In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.
“The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia.” ~ Carl Jung
*To see where you might be on the path of alchemical process, take a test at www.alchemylab.com.
July 11, 2012 § 157 Comments
““The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” ~ Matthew 6:22-44
“No wonder once the art of seeing is lost, Meaning is lost, and all life seems ever more meaningless.” ~ Frederick Franck
“Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.” ~ Saint Augustine
Every one of us has had a moment where ordinary life becomes shot through with clarity, intense presence and visual potency. A person, animal or perhaps a plant — a scene of startling beauty or realness — seems to take on a luminous dimension, lit from within with living essence. For a moment, all of life feels that much closer, more charged and meaningful.
As artist Ernest W. Watson, said, “There is a vast difference between looking and seeing.” It can be said that in these radiant moments we are truly seeing, through the lens or the eye of the soul.
The concept of the third eye appears in a wide gamut of mystical traditions, including Hinduism, Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism, Jewish and Christian mysticism. The third eye — also known as the blue pearl, the inner eye, and the sixth, or ajna, chakra — is traditionally associated with psychic experiences, divine seeing and the higher visionary realm.
It has been called a gateway that leads to inner realms, and other worlds; a personal vortex.
The pineal gland — a small endocrine gland nestled between the two hemispheres of the brain — is considered by many to be the physical counterpart to the spiritual third eye. Up until 1958, when Aaron Lerner discovered that the rice-grain-sized gland transformed serotonin into melatonin and regulated wake/sleep patterns, it had been regarded by the scientific community as very likely vestigial.
French philosopher Renee Descartes called the pineal “the seat of the soul,” postulating that the gland interacted in some way between the eyes and the brain, acting as the chief interpreter of vision…an idea developed hundreds of years before by the father of the Scientific Method, the ancient Greek physician Herophilos. Through his pioneering anatomical dissections, Herophilos theorized that the pineal glad was an interfacing organ that gained man access to the spiritual worlds.
This theory is compatible with the ancient Eastern belief, from Hindus to Taoists, that the luminous sphere witnessed in the inner eye region is in fact the same tunnel through which the human soul exits the body.
If you want to develop your third eye vision, you can do so by taking a few moments out when you are calm and relaxed, closing your eyes and focusing your attention within, specifically towards the spot between your brows.
The undulating sparks which can sometimes be seen behind closed lids, or in total darkness, are called phosphenes — characterized by seeing light when no light is actually hitting the retina. Keep focusing on the third eye region whenever you have a few minutes to dedicate to the exercise.
Don’t strain, just casually return to this practice when you feel like it. Over time, you may begin to have some interesting experiences.
Happy travels in inner space!
*Please share your experiences with the third eye in our comments section! (Under title.) There, you will find notes on practical application and learn about other reader’s experiences—as well as the author’s—with third eye visioning.
Also, see related posts:
August 23, 2011 § 34 Comments
“All this hurrying soon will be over. Only when we tarry do we touch the holy.”
It is perhaps one of the most absurd and paradoxical struggles we face as modern humans: the quest to be “in the moment” — a place we already are.
In the fast-paced age of technology, with the increasingly divided attention created by smartphones, we’re so pressed for time, apparently, we can’t even pause for breath between the word smart and phone. It’s harder than ever to wholly and simply be here now.
The etiquette of cell phone use has not evolved at the same speed as it’s popularity. It’s common for eye contact and conversation to be routinely interrupted as we check our phones compulsively the second we hear the buzz of some incoming text or email. Pavlov’s dog has nothing on us. We are constantly being called out of the tangible moment.
It often reminds me of the Star Trek episode, “The Game,” where an addictive pleasure technology finds its way on board the starship and suddenly everyone is walking around with the little screens fixed just before their eyes, smiling and absent from the world around them.
Mindlessness is a modern epidemic. With the presence of increasingly more portable technology, we are even less likely to be in the moment — dividing our attention between what’s happening in real life and what’s happening in text or email land. It’s easy to find ourselves not giving loved ones our full attention, meaningful eye contact, or authentic empathy. Not for a lack of caring, but for a lack of presence.
As we hurry from this to that, anxiously planning our next move, trying to keep up with the game, we are in fact one step behind; in danger of not truly living, but letting our automatic pilot guide us through a tasteless, scentless, textureless existence.
The good news is, we can snap out of it right now. In fact, right now is the only time we can snap out of it.
Humans already have a propensity to get lost in remembered past or projected future. As Mark Twain said, “I have known many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Add this tendency to our increasingly distracting modern technology and the resulting noise can overwhelm our ability to live in the moment.
Before we know it, we’ve driven ten miles, or walked five blocks, without truly seeing anything we’ve passed.
Mindfulness, the focused awareness of the present moment and all it contains, can bring the attention back; so that we are not zombies going through life on automatic, but in that apex of unfolding existence, the living moment.
Ancient Eastern mysticism attributes the mind’s mania for avoiding the present moment to the Ego’s struggle for survival.
Metaphysically speaking, the Ego is a false construct of the mind that is not rooted in ultimate being. It is self-centric and lacking a natural sense of connectivity. In the living moment of the present, the Ego holds no power. Because the Ego itself is imaginary and unreal, it can only hold dominion in the imagined and unreal moments of the past and future.
When we become fully present in the moment, we experience a sense of increased color, clarity, and vitality. But the Ego loses its hold over our attention, and instantly conspires to get it back.
In it’s most basic sense, being denotes a sense of self-awareness that extends beyond the self into the moment at hand and the world at large. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger uses the word Dasein, (which in German, literally means being-there/there-being) as a co-term for being-in-the-world.
According to Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, the Ego-run mind “creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgements and definitions.” These mental constructs are the currency with which the mind operates, and the ego relates to these constructs rather than to reality directly.
Interestingly, this description echoes our relationship to digital life, relating to things which represent reality, rather than reality itself. We may be looking at a picture of a flower, but in it’s true form the image is nothing but a block of code.
According to Tolle, this opaque screen created by the Ego blocks all true relationships and creates the illusion of separateness. We no longer feel at one with all that is, even if we believe in theory that we are all inter-connected, in reality we feel cut-off.
Eastern mystical teachings identify this sense of isolation as an illusion, an idea supported by scientific fact. On a molecular level, there is no distinction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of your hand as they touch, not such hard lines between us as we may perceive.
In the Eastern concept of Maya, we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by our perception. Modern science has confirmed this; neurologically, we are literally reconstructing the world inside our brains in order to perceive it.
Tuning into the present moment can help us relate directly with our environment, rather than relating to our own inner constructions and projections as a substitute for the living world.
“Mindfulness blurs the line between self and other,” explains Michael Kernis, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. “When people are mindful, they’re more likely to experience themselves as part of humanity [and] as part of a greater universe. That’s why highly mindful people such as Buddhist monks talk about being one with everything.”
Mindfulness can be practiced at all times, in all places. It is simply the art of awareness, the savoring of details, cultivating alertness to one’s thoughts and feelings, without getting wrapped up in them.
“In the practice of right mindfulness,” explains Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, “the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped […] the mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment.”
To become the master of our own mind is to become a peaceful witness to the thoughts and feelings which pass through us. This is the essence of mindfulness, and can be developed by practicing extended periods of calm, alert awareness.
If you watch for your next thought like a cat watches a hole for a mouse, the mere act of alert waiting can slow the inner chatter.
After some time practicing meditation, the student will begin to experience times of prolonged inner calm, free of internal dialogue. The discovery is made: I am not my thoughts.
Who or what we are when we have ceased to identify with our thoughts and hence our Ego, is the beginning of enlightenment, according to Eastern tradition. Even if you consider the idea of enlightenment unrealistic, quieting the mind has been proven to enhance well-being.
According to Psychology Today, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that schoolteachers briefly trained in Buddhist techniques who meditated less than 30 minutes a day improved their moods as much as if they had taken antidepressants.
Though traditional meditation is one option, it’s not the only way to achieve increased presence.
Mindfulness can be practiced wherever you are, simply by bringing awareness out of the abstract and into the tangible.
This could mean anything from admiring the swirl of woodgrain on a table, to running your hand against the rough bark of a tree, to relishing the flavor of the food you’re putting in your mouth. As renown modern architect Ludwig mies van der Rhoe said, “God is in the details.”
Another helpful practice is to remember the temporary nature of all things. Though we know everything changes in theory, in actuality, we often act (and secretly feel) like things will stay the same indefinitely — acting as though this friend or that place will always be around. But people change, people pass away, parks get paved over, nations go to war. This moment will never come again.
The living moment is all that’s real, and all that will ever be real — the past a memory, the future a dream.
“When I heard the sound of the bell ringing, there was no bell, and there was no I — there was only the ringing.” ~ Anonymous
In such a transcendence we do not lose ourselves, as we might fear, but rather gain the richness of feeling part of our world. Each cell within us is distinct and separate, yet part of the greater body.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
May 23, 2011 § 25 Comments
“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” Ferdinand Foch
From the Greek noetikos, meaning “mental,” (noein, “to perceive with the mind,” and nous, “mind, understanding, intellect,”) the noetic sciences apply a scientific lens to the study of human consciousness.
Through the noetic lens, human consciousness is a mystery to be studied. Rather than dismissing moments of profound personal insight as ineffable and subjective, the noetic sciences seek to probe deeper into the implications of such instances.
For centuries, philosophers from Plato onward have been using the term noetic to describe experiences beyond human reason.
The Institute of Noetic Sciences was co-founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell. The studies focus on typically metaphysical concepts, such as the survival of human consciousness after bodily death, the measurable benefits of meditation, influence of the observer on the observed, alternate healing, extrasensory perception, wisdom capabilities, and so forth.
“The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes . . . the knowledge came to me directly.”
Mitchell’s exploration of outer space lead him to a profound awareness of the mysteries and potential of inner space. Reality, he felt, was infinitely more complex, nuanced and mysterious than conventional science had lead him to believe.
Such an experience is of prime interest to noetics. The qualities of a personal revelation have an interesting universality, notes philosopher-psychologist William James. They are all “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.”
Interestingly, the pineal gland has long been associated with the spiritual “third eye,” considered a key to accessing higher consciousness. A quick glance at the list of benefits produced by Melatonin is enough to warrant attention: studies have shown melatonin to have both cancer and Alzheimer’s fighting properties, as well as anti-aging and stress-relieving effects. It has been shown to help with weight loss, autism, fertility and mood disorders. A veritable miracle hormone, studies suggest melatonin has radioprotective properties, acting as a defense against nuclear fall-out. Though the common administration of melatonin is through synthesized supplements, connections between meditation and enhanced melatonin production suggest more effective and efficient means: why not simply foster activities which increase the production of melatonin in our own bodies?
These are the kinds of fascinating questions currently being pursued by the noetic sciences.
“As Becker stated man cuts out for himself a manageable world because the real world is too overwhelming […] Freud implied that a healthy mind often suppresses reality to some degree. How often do we sacrifice fluid reality in order to balance ourselves with a manageable world? Dualism is a false dichotomy. Beauty is the beast. Labels and language are tools humans use to simplify a complex reality. There are no borders or boundaries it is a singularity not a compartmentalization.
“Knowledge and imagination … must work together to break the frozen sea within us. It is beyond the labeled box of scientific materialism it is embracing life with open eyes. Greater awareness. Raising consciousness. The human imagination and consciousness is not out of nature it is nature! “As Carl Sagan stated we are made of stardust. Stardust contemplating stardust… Life contemplating death. Imagination and knowledge of Cosmic evolution flows from mortal limited decaying flesh! This is the nobility and the burden of human evolution.” (Pangea Progress.)
“There is no doubt that [Freud’s idea and the accepted model of] healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine,” agrees William James, “because the […] facts which it positively refuses to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”
April 17, 2011 § 6 Comments
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
The idea of the eternal return is not limited to Biblical platitude. The concept can also be found in ancient Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec beliefs, in East Indian and ancient Greek philosophy, as well as the 19th century thought experiment of Friedrich Nietzsche.
The concept of the eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form, an infinite number of times across infinite time and/or infinite space.
The image of the Ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail, symbolizes the eternal recurrence, or “the end is the beginning.” It has been seen in various expressions through out ancient Egypt, Japan, India, and Greece — in European woodcuts and Aztec art.
Respected religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, expands on the concept in his book, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, first by splitting man’s experience into two categories: the sacred and the profane, or everyday.
In his studies of tribal belief systems around the world, Mircea concludes that traditional or “archaic” man associates “the sacred” with some original mythology of creation. He sites the Aborigines concept of “dreamtime” as one example. In the Aborigine legend of “the time before time” creators, who exist in a world outside of time, created the world within time, and then become rocks, trees, stars, etc. in the world. In this way, Mircea observes, the profane only gains meaning through the sacred.
Nietzsche uses the idea of the eternal return as a thought experiment to explore his concept of Amor fati, or “love of fate.” Imagining such an existence horrifying, he rallies with the cry of embracing what is:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”
February 10, 2011 § 8 Comments
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” ~ Bhagavad Gita (2.20)
From the dawn of time people have speculated about the existence of the soul. In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the soul was demonstrated by a bird with a human head, the Ba; the essence of the individual, post-corporeal form.
The word soul is derived from the Old English sáwol, the etymology of which is suspected to relate with the sea… Scholars speculate that the crossover from sea to soul comes from the early Germanic people’s belief that the souls of the dead existed at the bottom of the sea…a kind of mermaid afterlife.
Drawing on the works of his teacher Socrates, Plato considered the human soul to be the eternal essence of our temporary form. Plato believed that after each body died, the soul returned to subsequent bodies.
The 11th century Persian philosopher Avicenna devised The Floating Man thought experiment to demonstrate human self-awareness and the substantiality of the soul: he directed readers to imagine themselves suspended in mid air, isolated from all sensation. One would still have self-awareness in this scenario, he argues, and thus concludes that the idea of the soul is not logically dependent on any physical thing.
In 1907, the ambitious Dr. Duncan Macdougall undertook an experiment designed to prove the existence of the soul, weighing patients before and after death. His results (though never replicated, and held in debate due to their anecdotal nature,) indicated that moments after death the patient lost a relatively consistent amount of weight. From his research Dr. Macdougall concluded that generally the human soul weighs around 21 grams.
We are all in a way floating, suspended between belief and non-belief. Some of us may be further towards one end of the spectrum, but in the end, both uncertainty and hope are universal. Certainly there is more to us than meets the eye, each person, like a geode rock with a unique and unexpected inner world.
Existence is a thrilling mystery.
If the cosmos is any indicator, we should remain open minded: worlds beyond our imagination surely exist. And we are only able to see so much with the naked eye.
January 19, 2011 § 9 Comments
“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” — Chuang Tzu
There is a basic unease to the human condition, the vague and gnawing sense that there must be something we are missing, something we have not been told; a feeling rooted, no doubt, in the fact that we are born into a world where the most burning questions have only theoretical, subjective answers.
Religion has attempted to fill this void with meaning, but even in its answers, more questions arise.
How solid is our reality? Science, so often pitted against the mystical, has the most mystically fraught of answers: not solid at all. On an atomic and subatomic level — as we all learned in school, though most likely didn’t grasp the full implication of at the time — there is space and movement between atoms. The so-called solid wall is teeming, pulsing, dancing — molecules full of wide open space.
If I put my hand on the wall, the sensation I experience as touch is the interaction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of the wall; on an atomic level, there is a point where the difference between my hand and the wall become indistinguishable.
In other words, it has been scientifically proven in our lifetime that the reality we behold is — to some degree, anyway — illusory.
The idea that the nature of form is misleading and ultimately unreal, of course, has been in existence for centuries — perhaps most famously put forth in the Eastern concept of Maya, (found in Buddhism and Hinduism,) a word derived form the ancient Sanskrit, ma, meaning “not,” and ya, meaning “that.” Though the details differ, Judeo-Christian philosophy reiterates the same basic idea: that things are not as they appear, and this world is but a pale echo of a brighter, truer place.
There are more sinister shades, more paranoid potential, to this question of reality. The possibility that, as in The Matrix — where humans are grown by sentient machines, imprisoned in a virtual computer-generated world —we are living in an unperceived prison of sorts. As the character Morpheus says:
“What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”
Of course, we can clearly see that there are many things wrong with the world — war, hunger, violence, hatred. Easily, that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-feeling of unease can find its root in quite tangible phenomena. Perhaps it is a form of escapism to look elsewhere than the obvious issues — wishful thinking that there is some explanation which would make the world’s horrors somehow more comprehensible. And yet, true though this may be, it doesn’t hurt to probe, to dig, to question consensus reality.
The Matrix premise borrows heavily from the Gnostic tradition, wherein the world was created by imperfect gods (though within the spectrum a perfect one exists.)
These flawed creators are described as a race of inorganic beings local to our solar system, called Archons. Agents of error, they feed off human misery and hence work to deceive the mind towards darkness. Pretty trippy stuff, considering the ancient texts date back to the 3rd and 4th century.
The fact that our experience of stimuli in the world is actually an experience of our brain’s interpretation of that stimuli (rather than the thing itself) does make a Matrix-like gap between reality and perceived reality plausible.
After all, the smell of a rose is simply information recognized through sensory organs and registered as “rose.”
The light waves we see when we perceive the rose are in our eyes, not the thing seen; the molecules we smell are in our nose, not the thing smelled. They are not the thing itself, but a relayed message or impression of the thing.
In the language of philosophy, this is known as the “brain in a vat” thought experiment. Theoretically, if it were scientifically possible to place a brain in a life-sustaining liquid environment (or “vat”) & hook its neurons up to a supercomputer—generating electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives—the brain would perceive the simulated reality as experiential reality.
This concept is used as a basic argument for philosophical skepticism; as theoretically it is impossible to know, from the brain’s perspective, whether it exists in a scull or a vat.
For, indeed, it is not a pipe, but a representation of one. Yet our first thought upon reading the painting’s caption is to object—certainly this is a pipe.
Yet upon reflection we must admit that the clever artist’s pronouncement is absolutely accurate and, indeed, our tendency to associate the-thing-itself with its representation has been illustrated.
How can we assume this world is as it seems, when nightly dreams themselves can seem so real? What deeper, truer, more expansive identity and truth might be revealed to us about the cosmos and our place in it upon leaving or waking from this reality?
I’m not in any hurry to get there, and as Tom Hanks says in Joe vs. The Volcano, “Some things take care of themselves,” but I do — after many a dark night of the soul wrestling with doubt — have a good feeling about it. After all, the world minus man’s debacles, is a place brimming with potential and inspirational phenomena.
I’ve heard the life-as-dream/world-as-illusion theory described as angst-producing, proof of pointlessness. I don’t see it that way. Does an inspiring nocturnal dream enrich our spirit any less because it gives way to a deeper, fuller reality upon waking? Is a great novel any less meaningful because it didn’t really happen? When you start subdividing it, the word “real” itself begins to lose meaning.
We can knock on a table and feel reassured by its bright, solid sound. But even the table is like Magritte’s pipe — both what it seems to be and also not at all. Reality ripe with paradox and potential, lots of wide open space for us to take a tip from the molecules and dance, even in the smallest spaces.