Posts Tagged ‘human consciousness’

SERMON: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Real Story of Creation” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

There is one, huge, honking reason why we humans have trouble with the idea of evolution, and it is a reason that I think we give scant attention to: it is the fact that we exist.  Because we exist and — more importantly — are conscious of our existence, we can’t help but examine ourselves, find ourselves wonderful, and think that somehow our wonderful existence must — on some level at least — have been the point of everything that has come before us.  We are the reason for, well, life.  “Clearly” we think, “the universe had us in mind from the very start?”

"Why" the reverend asks, "should it make us feel less 'special' to have evolved from earlier life forms?"

This sounds silly and overblown, but is it really?  Don’t we start any consideration of our origins with the premise that we must find a system of “creation” that would clearly lead up to us?  In other words, the process of evolution must be as complicated as we see ourselves to be, which, under the influence of our natural solipsism, means there has to be an intelligence behind it all that is at least as clever as we are (but only more so).  And suddenly, we have replaced the idea of “life” having had us in mind from the start with the idea of The God of the Universe (who, apparently, had nothing better to do with 13.75 billions years of his eternal existence, and decided to run a grand chemical experiment to see if he could turn mass and energy into living hominins who would, occasionally, tell him how great he was).

This is not, I’m afraid, an understatement of the self-centeredness of our species, nor of the absurdity of the proposition of our own divine creation.  The truth is that we can only hold such irrational ideas because we are a natural storytelling (and believing) bunch of hairless apes, and there remains much mutual support for such beliefs among us profoundly-social primates.

But the problem is this: we have built back from the end of the story, assuming that the story began as a tale with us as the ending.  Even more fundamentally, we assume there was a story in the first place.  There wasn’t.  There was (and is, if you want to be absolutely clear about it) only nature.

By nature I mean purely natural forces, and the biological, geologic and meteorological products of those forces.  For there wasn’t even “nature” (at least in the sense that we understand it today) 5 billion years ago.  Only the cosmic beginnings of what would coalesce into our planet.

Seriously.  We now know this.

Our planet formed from dust and debris and matter and gravity and atoms and elements born in other exploding stars (that “made” the stuff our planet is made from).  This is how all of the planets and stars were formed — each of them “local” events (when compared to the vastness of the expanding universe).  And, after untold millions of years of “forming”, the mix of solid crust, liquid water (and the chemical composition of that water), the fact that we had a solid core to produce a magnetic field to hold our atmosphere in place against the forces of solar winds, and time (lots and lots of time — about a billion years after the earth “formed”), something began to stir.  Or maybe not even stir.  In the beginning it was simple photosynthetic bacteria that began to occupy the earth.

And for the next 2 billion years that was it.  That was the only life on the planet.  For 2…billion…years.  What kind of creation story is that?  What kind of intelligence is behind that?  There is the popular (perhaps apocryphal) quote that says “If there is a God, he must be inordinately fond of beetles” (having created hundreds of thousands of species of them).  But perhaps we should change that to God being “Really, really fond of simple photosynthetic bacteria”.

Here’s the rundown of the history of the evolution of life on earth as laid out by Jerry A. Coyne in “Why Evolution is True”:

“If the entire course of evolution were compressed into a single year, the earliest bacteria would appear at the end of March, but we wouldn’t see the first human ancestors until 6 a.m. on December 31.  The golden age of Greece, about 500 BC, would occur just thirty seconds before midnight.”

Most creationists either do not know the evidence for all of this, or are actively resisting it.  I expect more of the latter than the former, for even the ignorance is fed, at some level, by an innate resistance to the notion that we aren’t special in the way we prefer to imagine.

But of course we are special, and by any measurement pretty damn amazing results of a non-random process of selecting random mutations in living, reproducing species.  But we have to be clear that this is what happened.  All it takes, it turns out, for evolution to occur is the presence of DNA that is exchanged and re-combined through (often sexual) reproduction.

Mutations in DNA happen all the time, all over the genome.  But no-one is deciding what mutations will occur.  This is truly a random process — there is no predicting when and where it will happen, nor what the result will be.  Mutations are often the result of biological “copying errors” (take that, perfection of design).  But whatever the cause, those mutations are then expressed in the developing individual, and, once expressed, have entered into the race for survival, living, reproducing, competing and dying on the stage of life where natural selection exerts its unforgiving force on every living thing.

Yet despite what every creationist seems to believe, natural selection is not an intelligence (though it creates an outcome that mimics an intelligence).  It is simply describes the process whereby the reality of climate, food supply, competition for resources, competition for mates, and an animal’s innate suitability for a specific niche in the world place that animal under selective pressure.  Those that are better at surviving tend to survive and pass on their particular set of mutations.  Those that aren’t, don’t.  But conditions are always changing, so today’s winner will not always be the winner.  Dinosaurs were winners for 160 million years, but then they lost.  Big time.  Right now, we’re the winners.  Right now.

Once you take the time to understand what evolution is, and what it is not, the arguments against it are shown to be what they actually are: nothing.  I mean it — there are no valid arguments against evolution.  There are only dodges based in fear, ignorance and credulity (because of the things we want to believe about ourselves).

The reality is that there was never any plan or system in place.  Everything that we see around us is the eventual balance of forces that tends to come about over time.  Earth settled into its shape because of the materials it is made of, which set the levels of gravity where they are.  The dominant cosmic lement of carbon became the building block of all biological life.  Our bodies took the shape they did because of the mix of air we evolved in, and the gravity that gives us weight.  Our eyes evolved to work well in the kind of light we experience, our guts to the kind of food we can eat.

We are constantly taking in nutrients, feeding the bacteria that still makes up half of our cellular weight.  We carry in our DNA huge collections of genes that have been switched-off by random mutations (left in the “off” position by the selective pressures of natural selection).  In many ways, our complex and inspiring bodies are nothing more than the result of a survival “arms race” (as Dawkins put it) that began with the first bacteria competing for a place in the sun.

And DNA, it turns out, builds up entire bodies by completely local actions.  There is no blueprint, but each gene and protein does it’s own little thing and, before long, voila, there is a new living being.

How can this be?  It can be because we evolved from the simplest of life forms that gradually grew more complex (even incorporating other organisms, and turning them to our own use).  Every step of our evolution was built upon the life form we were before every mutation.  Nothing about us ever simply came into being out of “nothing” (that is, ironically, the creationist view of what God is supposed to have done).  We did not go to sleep one night as a bacteria and awake the next morning a fish, or dream our fishy dreams to awake as a primitive ape.  Evolution posits no such thing.  However, the inescapable evidence of our DNA shows the “indelible stamp of our origin” (Darwin’s famous words) — it is a record of the many different animals we were.  There is no other plausible explanation for this than that which evolution supplies.

This drives creationists crazy: it simply cannot be — it sounds too improbable and impossible.  There has to be a plan.

Why?  Who says so?  Who can say to reality “You cannot be thus” or “You must be this”?  No one has that kind of power.  Not you, not me, not the scientist (for this is the implication — that scientists are simply making this stuff up to disprove the God they hate so much).  The scientist reports what is true, what is actual, what is declared by the evidence.  And the evidence tells us that we evolved from bacteria — every one of us representing that unbroken chain of life back to the very beginning.

As Jerry Coyne puts it in “Why Evolution is True” (reviewed this week): “The process is remarkably simple.  It requires only that individuals of a species vary genetically in their ability to survive and reproduce in their environment.  Given this, natural selection — and evolution — are inevitable.”

We humans are a rather, um, late arrival on the scene of life.

Inevitable, yes.  Designed?  No.

But how could an entire human body evolve from a single cell?  As has been pointed out by another: you did it yourself in nine months.

No wonder Darwin said “There is grandeur in this view of life”.  For there is.  But in order to find it, we have to first let go of the diminished, narrow, ignorant view of life as having been created by a divine intelligence.  Then, and only then, will we see, face to face, the true story of our creation.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

When I was a nineteen year-old evangelical Christian in the Coast Guard, a youth minister at the Baptist Church I attended in Alameda, California recommended a book to me.   “The Pursuit of God” (by A.W. Tozer) was one of the few books I ever read that I can clearly point to as being life-altering.  Each chapter was an exercise in giving one’s self up to God, and each in it’s way was frightening, challenging and — ultimately — satisfying.  For I was serious about my belief: if this was, indeed, the way to God, I wanted to know it.

A younger Bob in Coast Guard boot camp: the year I gave up my sword.

The chapter I recall the most was called “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”.  In that chapter I was challenged to think of my most cherished personal possession, and to then surrender its fate to God’s will.  I thought of the antique Civil War saber I had purchased at a junk shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while visiting there with my uncle Ben.  My heart was seized with anguish at this act (if it sounds silly to anguish over a sword, try putting yourself in my position by imagining the one thing in your life you would most fear to lose or — to put a finer point on it — the thing you would most resist giving freely to an enemy or a complete stranger).

The theological basis of this exercise was the notion that everything we have is God’s to begin with, which carried within it the understanding that anything we might be desperate to covet is the very thing God himself might take away from us so that we should have “no other god” in our hearts.  (So: better to surrender it now when its surrender could benefit our soul and stave off a potential “book of Job” moment).

I took the challenge seriously, and surrendered my saber to God (a fairly potent symbolic act, now that I think about it).  And from that day my relationship to material things was altered: my sense of ownership of anything physical held to be transitory at best.

This was a moment of grace, of spiritual transformation, of deepening my understanding of my God.

What, then, do I make of such a moment when I now believe that there never was a God to make such a demand of me?

There is a paradox in the whole question of whether God exists or not, because the reality of our experience of the divine, the numinous and the spiritual does not (it turns out) really hinge on whether there is an actual god/spirit/intelligence behind those experiences.  These are our own subjective emotional and cognitive events.  The fact that they are mostly generated within our own consciousnesses has little bearing on the quality of the experience.  So to say that there is no God is most often met with a response along the lines of “But I know what I’ve experienced!  I have felt God’s presence, witnessed His grace, known His forgiveness, etc!”.  And, indeed, I would argue that we have felt/seen/known those experiences.  But I would next argue that they are all events that have explanations in purely natural or mechanical terms (even if those explanations might often have more to do with human perception that tricks of nature).

I’ve rattled on about this notion of a god-less universe for the last few years.  We clearly know enough now about biology, cosmology and every other “logy” to know that our religious belief systems are ancient, archaic (?), but highly-evolved satisfactions of our wish-fulfillment fantasies of a paternal, caring presence in a sometimes cold and threatening universe.  Religion has the advantage of having always benefited from (and, in truth, traded in) those ubiquitous experiences that have always seemed most transcendent and mysterious to our species.

What we have then, basically, is the mountain of evidence that the world, the universe and everything operate on very natural laws that have never required the actions of an intelligent creator, cast into competition with the breadth of human emotional experience which is very loathe to give ground to cold rationalism when the airy-fairy feels so much more comforting to us.

So is there a God or not?

I’ve reached the point where it seems more and more pointless to argue about the existence of God, because even when God is removed from the equation, we will all continue to have “god” experiences, because they are (I would argue) a natural (and, therefore, inevitable) by-product of our evolved mammalian consciousnesses.  In that sense, God will never go away, even though he (or she) never really existed in the first place.

Or did he/she?

What am I really arguing against?  For if I argue against a god that has only ever existed in our experiences of conscious living, then am I really making a rational argument at all?  Am I not really just saying that the problem is that I don’t like what you call your particular collection of transcendent experiences?  Pretty much.

I’m splitting hairs, then: validating the natural human experience of consciousness, but criticizing the false externalized (read “heavenly) conclusions we draw from those experiences.

(There are practical reasons for doing this, of course:  anything that can undercut the legitimacy of violent, oppressive fundamentalism as it heaps unneeded misery upon millions of living humans every day can’t be all bad).

I set out on a course to find God when I was 13 by becoming a Christian.  When I turned 28, God was gone, and I had to learn to be alone in the universe and to make sense of what I had (until then) experienced as “spirituality”.

What has been most striking to me since then is just how little my experience of life changed with God out of the picture.   This led me to the eventual understanding that my (and by extension: “our”) experiences of the “supernatural” weren’t  supernatural at all (see Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” — reviewed on this blog).  This is how I can now believe the stories people tell me of God, even if cannot concur in their attribution of the source of those experiences.

But life is what it is, and if God is the sum of our experiences of “God” (spirit, mystery), then I have to say that God does, indeed, exist.  As soon as I say that, however, I feel the need to correct and say: but not really.

So the answer is a qualified yes, or no.  Or, yes and no.  Or maybe god is something that we can only possess in the way that we possess our own experiences of living, experiences which we interpret and then hold on to as memories.  Does a memory actually exist?  Yes, in its way, and for as long as the brain that contains it continues to function.  After that, it is gone.  And so “god” will continue to exist, as long as there are humans to keep him, her or it alive.

Maybe it would be a good exercise to give up our most cherished idea of God, just like I gave up my beloved saber on that tearful, prayerful Summer night in California, and discover the “blessedness” of possessing nothing.

t.n.s.r. bob

POSTSCRIPT: A few years after my dark night of the Civil War saber, a robber broke into my rickety art-student apartment in downtown Denver, and stole (among other things) that damn sword.  Were I to tell that story to a fellow Christian, they would most likely say “See — you hadn’t really let it go, so God had to take it away!”.  But it was that experience (and others like it since) that have shown me just how seriously I took that earlier exercise in my own “Pursuit of God”.  With an actual God behind it or no, it was clearly a lesson useful for life in an uncertain world, a lesson that freed me of being overly burdened by the things I own.  And that sort of thing has value in and of itself, without getting a god who likes to take his kid’s toys involved.

SERMON: “Our Animal Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

What's the human mind really good at doing?

So, here’s the deal:  Having followed my many years of religious experience with a further exploration of the terrain of no god, no higher power, and no higher self to call upon, I’m still left with the reality that the part of my consciousness that always answered when I called upon God, my Higher Power or my Higher Self is, well, still there.

In a very real sense, this is the “god” that really never does go away.  And if it’s always been simply a part of my own consciousness trained (or naturally tended) toward answering the part of my brain that talks out loud to it, why not use it?

Of course, I think the reason I veered so strongly away from relying upon the “answering god” part of my consciousness was: a) to see if there was any noticeable change in the quality of my life (there wasn’t, or if there was, it wasn’t much), and; b) to check my own tendency to ascribe to my own subconscious any magical powers.  Oh, and c) I was trying to outsmart my own confirmation bias as well.

So now the question remains to be answered: just what is this consciousness within a consciousness actually capable of?  Or, perhaps more to the point: is it really “capable” of anything at all?

The mind certainly is good at holding and retrieving information (such as when I tell it out loud that I need to remember to get eggs when I’m out, and then, hours later, it pops that thought into my head as I leave the coffee shop and am about to drive home without walking to the grocery store a hundred feet away and getting the damn eggs).  But beyond the storage and recall of data, what’s the brain good at?  Can it effect other people or create phenomenon in the physical world?

The book I read on the history of electricity (Electric Universe — reviewed on this blog) offers a tantalizing rationale for believing that our thoughts can travel some distance, because the radio waves our minds generate actually travel millions of miles (and pass through other minds on their way).  “Aha!”  We want to say: “That is the scientific evidence to support prayer and psychics and mind-reading and getting those vibes when something is happening somewhere far away to someone we know”.  The problem is that we are ever bombarded with these radio waves from every damn neuron-firing brain within radio range.  So realistically, how could we ever sort them out?  Oh well.

Still, there are the seemingly mysterious phenomenon that we all experience.  But who knows what radio waves or burst of body electricity (or pheromones, for goodness sake) or pollen, or biochemical reactions trigger the handful of conscious responses that our brains have become habituated to pay attention to?

I’m beginning to suspect that, in reality, we have a generally sympathetic — but often clumsy — helper in our own mind.

After all, look at our anxieties.  For a long time I took the traditional view that things came into our lives “for a reason”, so if some terrible memory (or just a disturbing one) came up, it must “mean” that it was time for me to “deal with it”.

Instead, I have a new idea:  I think there is something about the way our brains are wired that they respond to stimuli almost like a librarian — aged and be-speckled — that knows where every old memory is stored, and when the “librarian” recognizes a similar constellation of stimuli on the horizon, he or she just starts pulling every bit of related shit it can find off the shelves.

The psychic and emotional result can be overwhelming, just annoying, or actually distressing as old memories come up and instantly trigger familiar anxieties, fears or what have you in a new (seemingly) related experience.

Although this sort of memory storage makes absolute sense as a survival strategy for an animal on the savannah, it seems terribly outdated for modern humans navigating their way through a fairly non- (physically) threatening social milieu that is a jungle only in a metaphorical sense.

That’s what I think.  I wonder what the evolutionary psychologists think about that.  Guess I’ll need to read up on it.

To sum up the insight that my primate brain concocted about itself: our brains are wonderful biological machines that have some real and significant handicaps in processing the reality of a fairly calm modern life.

Oh well.  That’s what happens when you evolve: the old bits come along for the ride (provided they’re not carrying with them traits that will get us flat out killed before we can reproduce)!

Of course I haven’t really answered the question I raised about what other powers the human brain might have.  Hmm.

Well, for all the harping I’ve done these many Sundays on the non-spiritual realities of human consciousness, and my insistence on a mechanical basis for all of our conscious experiences, there is no ignoring or denying the one quite remarkable trait that our minds posses: the ability to step outside itself and use the function of its own consciousness to examine that very consciousness.  We are the animals that can think about what it means to be an animal, and catalog and study our own behavior.  That is something.

But, beyond that, I think we’ve misplaced some of the wonder we attach to the human mind.  Perhaps as modern neuroscience continues to reveal the true biochemical and electrical complexity of the mind our admiration for this most amazing aspect of the brain will increase, allowing us to release even more of our lingering assignment of intention and deep intelligence to the data-retrieval-machine encased in our skulls.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my brain.  I just don’t think it’s as smart as I thought it was.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “OUR INNER LIZARD” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

When I wake up each morning, I’m in the habit of quietly thinking about the day ahead of me.  I flip through the catalog of projects I have in the works, and note any resonance in me for making any progress on one or two (or three) of them.  In this I imagine that I’m a bit like a farmer rising in the morning and looking at the sky, then the ground, and deciding which necessary tasks the weather and soil conditions favor.  Often the dry, critical voice in my mind will demand that I work on this or that, but I instead defer to my gut — the “wet”, fertile part of my consciousness — and to what it feels like doing.  For I’ve learned through experience that I’m a) more productive, and b) a hell of a lot happier when I “go with the flow” and channel what energy I have into the projects that are most ripe for the picking.  It’s an interesting dance between mind, intention and circumstance which has taken me many, many years to develop.  What is surprising is the apparent effect this approach seems to have on the reality of my work day, for it actually appears to make a difference that my intentions are clear and lined up with what my consciousness somehow can ascertain about external opportunities and conditions that would seem beyond my immediate sensory knowledge.  Some days I can get no clear sense of what I’m going to work toward, and I take those as “surprise” days, meaning something’s gonna come up that is going to require my attention, so it’s best not to get started on a project that will only be interrupted later.  It’s not a perfect system, to be sure, but it often seems to work to a level of precision and ease that can, frankly, amaze me.

So what is really going on?  Do I really — like the Norse god Odin — have twin ravens at my shoulder that fly out every morning to search the countryside and bring me back news?  I like to imagine that I do.  Of course this is just a colorful image (or narrative) to lay upon a natural phenomenon of my multileveled human consciousness.  For many of us the default response to descriptions of such phenomenon may be to either dismiss them as imagination or delusion or (more commonly) to attribute them to the presence of God or helpful spiritual forces.  The truth is, the phenomenon requires neither of those explanations.

When I woke up yesterday, I thought I might get some time in later in the morning on a commissioned pencil portrait.  I’ve been getting over a upper respiratory virus and coming down with a cold, and figured that would be some quiet work I could do in my studio.  I had a lunch scheduled with a psychologist friend to pick his brain about the levels of human consciousness and how we externalize parts of ourselves and view them as “God”, and there was a chance of a later coffee with another friend (who is an anthropologist).  But after I hit the gym and settled in at my usual morning coffee shop, I ended up having a long instant messaging chat with a friend (a former realtor/journalist who is now homesteading in Sierra County, raising chickens, pigs, goats, onions and garlic).  Our conversation was intense and invigorating (as always) as she was musing about the lessons that animals teach her about life.  I had no sooner left that conversation when Dave (a statistics professor friend) sat down and we got to talking about poor education and the irrational (if heartfelt) sentiments of the T.E.A. Party movement.  Shortly after he left, my retired Canadian airline pilot friend (and current engineering professor) stopped by, and we talked about reason and the challenges and labor-intensity of setting up solid scientific experimentation.  By then it was time for lunch with the psychologist.

It became clear this wasn’t going to be a “drawing” day, so I made the decision to give myself to whatever the day would bring me.  The only concern I had was that my mind would experience some sort of overload from so many energizing and engaging conversations on subjects that excited me!  I quickly spoke some conversation-inspired thoughts into my little digital recorder, and headed to lunch.

The theme of lunch was the current research into the many levels of our human consciousness (there are much more than the two levels I had imagined!).  The basic fact is that our consciousness has several layers of function, each of them likely adapted to specific uses that have proved helpful in our evolution and survival.  I was after a scientific explanation of how the common phenomenon of us humans talking to ourselves (and getting answers back) is externalized to a point where we believe we are talking with God, and that God in turn is talking to us.  Turns out the explanations are there.  I was excited to hear that.  What surprised me was the insight my psychologist friend gave me that we humans are so deeply driven by our fear response.

In terms of survival as animals, it makes complete sense that our fear response would have the capacity to dominate all the rest of our conscious functions: get to safety first, think about it later.  Those of our kind who tried it the other were likely eaten more often than not.  And so the psychologist spends a great deal of his or her time working with patients to moderate the overheated application of this primal flight response (in the absence of the true carnivorous attackers of our primitive past).

As I heard this, I reflected on a big chunk of my own life in which I was tyrannized by fear and anxiety.  I could instantly recall the many times where panic would grip me, and I would find myself completely cut off from my feelings and the input of my physical senses.  Beginning in my late twenties (what I call my “therapy” years), I began the long process of engaging with my emotional, sensual self as I gradually developed tools and techniques to manage the primal lizard in my brain stem.  It took me a long, long time.

Along the way I learned two important things: 1) Panic is irrational, and immune to reason and logic (once the adrenal glands have taken over, well, you’re taken over), and 2) We have control over this powerful response in many situations.

I remember the night I was having dinner at Golden Corral (back when I could still stand their food), and my mind drifted to an idea or situation that suddenly triggered my panic response.  In less than a heartbeat I went from content to blanked by fear.  But there was a critical difference: this time I caught just a glimpse of the chain reaction that led to the panic.  Months before I’d been crying to my therapist in the midst of deep anguish about my life and she made a comment that stopped me in my tracks.  “You mean, I’m creating all of this anguish myself?” I asked.  “Yes”, she replied.  Until then my panic attacks had been mysterious and overwhelming — forces of nature against which I had no hope.  But I decided to allow that my therapist might be right, and began to watch myself more closely.  And so, on that night at the Corral I noticed, for the first time, that there was just the smallest gap — or delay — between the triggering thought that popped into my mind and the global panic response that arose.  I sensed that in that gap lay my salvation.

Over time, as I paid attention, the gap became clearer to me until there came the time when I stepped into that gap and said “no”.  To my utter amazement, it worked.  The heretofore unstoppable panic was stopped.  It turned out that I had the power to select the focus of my consciousness — I did not have to remain a victim to my own mind.  My therapist was right.  Over time, I got better at it as I also got better at feeling my emotions, my body and building a way of living that was responsive to my true desires and interests.  In popular terms, I learned to “live in the moment” where, it turns out, all of my evolved primate senses are attuned and most effective.

It is common knowledge that we humans have an amazing level of influence over our own consciousness.  That’s why meditation works for some, therapy for others.  It’s a pretty amazing thing to contemplate (and even better to act on for the increased enjoyment of living that it offers).  But you may notice that nothing about this process invokes the idea of forces external to us — namely no “God”.  The wonder of our multi-layered consciousness is not, frankly, enhanced by attributing any of its attributes to God or the Devil.  In fact, I would argue that such attributions diminish the wonder.  And why wouldn’t they?  For by using such explanations we are taking a vastly (and exponentially) expanding modern knowledge and trying to squeeze it back into a bronze-age superstition.

Back to my very-satisfying “Tuesday of Conversations”: As I wrapped up coffee with my anthropologist friend that evening, I felt very fortunate indeed to have both the interesting and thoughtful friends that I have and that I had developed enough as a person to fully engage and enjoy all that they had to teach me.  The next morning (as I reflected on my many and varied conversations) my mind came to rest on one theme of the day, which seemed to be a discussion of the irrationality exhibited by many of our fellow humans.  The T.E.A. Party folks seem to react from a deep yet unfocused nostalgia for a mythical past epoch in America, voicing a distrust of big government even as they enjoy the benefits of living in a moderately-well governed society; Islamic terrorists are often upper middle class and college educated, and yet hold screamingly irrational views of God and culture; and all of us humans live with this deeply irrational fear response that can — at any time — take over our entire mind and body for petty reasons that do not truly represent threats to our physical survival.  My “chicken-farmer” friend admires the lack of “sentimentality” among her chickens, and the lack of pretense or artifice in the animals in her care, noting that much of what constitutes our human social life is “made up”.

And so I wonder where to focus my efforts to encourage the rational side of our natures, the parts of our consciousness that are kind, thoughtful and humane.  Should we focus on education?  Critical thinking skills?  Eliminating poverty or debunking religion?  Yes, yes, yes and yes.  But I don’t know the best answer.  To me the gravest problem we humans face is our capacity for irrationality, for acting out of the lizard part of our brain that just doesn’t give a shit what the evidence says.  This is the power of the angry mob or the political (or religious or — god forbid — both) ideologue that can ignore the scientist and the expert because, well “I know what I know!”.  How do we combat this?

I once wrote a song about a rattlesnake on a hot highway, and my imagined interaction with him as I tried to shoo him off the road before he was squashed flat by a passing semi.  How would I communicate to that snake (already hot and mad) that I was only trying to help?  That’s how I feel about many of my fellow humans — they’re already hot and mad and unlikely to understand my entreaties and venomously bite me for my efforts.  Still, I try.

That’s what this blog is about, really.  It’s about hope for us humans — of the real transformations we can experience and the satisfying lives we can lead based on the evidence and reality of our evolved selves.  There is, frankly, no greater wonder available to us than the wonder of nature.  There is no greater complexity, no greater mystery and certainly no story more interesting to us as our own as we continue to live on this planet.  The question remains, however: how do we bring as many of our fellow Homo sapiens as possible along with us?

t.n.s.r. bob