Sunday, February 4, 2018

Part 3 - My sojourn OR: Holding Hands with Marla.

Thus, what thou desirest and what thou fearest, alike destroys all hope of refuge and concludes thee miserable beyond all past example and future…O Conscience! Into what abyss of fears and horrors thou has driven me; out of which I find no way, from deep to deeper plunged.

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

Sometimes if you find yourself unable to escape a particular hell, the journey out can begin with simply asking yourself,

 “Am I the one keeping me here?”

Everyone builds a model of reality in their mind, and often times these personal interpretations can function as self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. I’ve found in my life that the act of reframing a problem can serve as the means to remedy it. Take this blog entry for example. For months I’ve made attempts to conclude a proposed trilogy. But every attempt was met with a blank screen or contrived content. The trilogy began with a personal history, then followed up with a patchwork of theoretical speculation.  I wanted to conclude with a total summation, but couldn’t produce anything that implied an ending. I thought I’d lost my muse, or even my interest. Then I considered that my problem may not be related to production, but the expectation of what needed to be produced. I can’t write an ending to something that hasn’t ended. I’m documenting my experience, and that experience implies perpetuity.

My interests as of late have me circling the idea of Celestial Orientation. Throughout my life, I’ve found it difficult to stay committed to a long-term task. This hasn’t been due to a lack of discipline, but more a lack of faith. I’ve let depressive realism erode attempts at overarching ambition and an inability to discern self-imposed limitations from real world capability undermine confidence. I look at myself and I look at those who remain committed and I can’t help but wonder where the discrepancy lies. Why do I always feel lost in those proverbial woods? Take a person of deep faith and you’ll typically find someone that is committed. Their faith (regardless about how you feel about it) often functions as a tool of discipline. It’s a beacon that leads the way and keeps the path illuminated. However, faith doesn’t necessarily mean obeisance to dogma or an intangible deity. I think that the direction provided by adherence to something greater than oneself can be extracted from ideology. Thus I start circling celestial orientation. Celestial here meaning something meta-physical (but not necessarily theological) and orientation being a means with which to guide oneself.

If you have faith in what you’re doing and you trust that your endeavors are in-line with a higher purpose, then you can relieve some of the burden life sets upon your shoulders. I’m not certain there is anything in this world that can point out the exact direction you need to journey towards, but I’m noticing more and more that there are a lot of materials one can utilize to shape how they journey. If you look at the skeletal framework for religions, the lessons embedded in folklore and myth, and the works of women and men who dedicated their lives towards unpacking and analyzing these things, you can  shape a course that will undoubtedly head you in a correct direction. Correct doesn’t imply happiness, utopia, dream life, or any Joel Osteen-esque bullshit. It means worthy. Worthy for you and worthy for yours.

Something that has also sparked my interest is the idea of an archetype. The heroes of stories, the champions of religious tales, the enviable man or woman we are drawn towards on account of how they operate in their environment. It seems instinctual that we admire and root for these people. But why? Do we have a natural inclination towards a code instilled in us as a by-product of collective evolution? Have we designed ethics, shaped them across time, and enacted them to a degree that they permeate culture and impact us implicitly? Is it that there is simply an avenue of behavior and operation that is in coordinance with a divine law?

I don’t know.
And probably, you don’t know.
Unless you do….
Wait, do you know?
Tell me!

In a way, it doesn’t matter if any or none of these are true. What I feel is true, what I’m beginning to shape my “faith” around, is the idea that there is consequence to deviating from your own archetypal heroic path. Choose an avatar. Be it Jesus, Buddha, Marduk, Aurora, Odysseus, or Luke goddamn Skywalker, it doesn’t matter. Their stories have set before us an approach to life that can be extrapolated out of the abstraction and implemented in the worlds we inhabit.

Joseph Campbell popularized a delineated path of the champions of lore and it became recognized as the Hero’s Journey. There have been different interpretations and recapitulations of this, but for the sake of brevity I’ll break it down as such:

-You start weak.
-You are called out by a Challenge.
-You get beaten down by the Challenge.
-You work through hardship to obtain the requisite skills required to face the Challenge           
  (opportunity for an awesome montage)
-You conquer the Challenge.
-You finish strong(er).

*Repeat as necessary.

Of course this is drastic oversimplification, but the basic idea surrounds the necessity of change and the process through which you do that. You could call it the method of maturation.  You could call it evolution. Either way, it’s you becoming the person you need to be. The choice you have is whether you are willing to endure the trials.

Do you think it’s all worth a damn?
Do you think you are worth a damn?

This is not about convincing other people you’re deserving of the moniker “hero”.  This is simply about you. Place yourself as the protagonist in the story of your life. Head out on your journey, and repeat the path (albeit to different ends) as often as it is demanded of you. If you look with a discerning eye, you’ll notice the stories we have popularized in our culture, be it religious or secular, are largely projecting the implicit idea of integrity in action. Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ve probably experienced the haranguing of your conscience. Your conscience, like the ambiguous idea of consciousness, has foundations in awareness. Both words have roots in the latin “conscire”. “Con” meaning ‘with’ and ‘scire’ meaning ‘know’.  Essentially meaning, “with knowledge”.  So with this awareness, or this “knowledge’ that manifests itself in your being, you not only have the ability to experience and navigate the outer world, but you have an internal mechanism with which to guide yourself through it. The heroes in the great stories often had a wiseman to guide them through the adventure. You can reframe your conscience so it’s like that green little fucker in the swamps of Dagobah.

When you do something that feels wrong, you usually get an internal ping that alerts you to the misalignment of the deed. You can learn to ignore it, or disguise it as something else, or cope with it through destructive habits, or even argue with it, but it’s there. The more you become aware of what it is telling you and willing to listen to it, the farther you can go down correct paths. We can learn to operate in synchronicity with the little voice in our souls that whispers (or screams) when we deviate from  certain moral conduct. You can call it the voice of God or a manifestation of the collective unconscious or the byproduct of an evolved human brain…whatever it is, it undeniably exists and may very well be a conduit for something metaphysical

Something celestial. 
Something with which to orient oneself.

Learning to listen to it is a challenge within itself. One I still struggle with. Distractions are manifold, and that’s occurring on an exponential level. With all the devices we have in our homes, cars, ears, and pockets, with the bombardment of advertisements professionally and specifically designed to steal our attention and influence our desires, with the emergence of machines and applications we haven’t evolved to physiologically process or yet have the collective social maturity to properly utilize, it’s easier every day to lose touch with our inner-guide. But the upside is that we can always find it again. We just have to learn how to listen. You have to forego the comfort of distracted oblivion. You have to face the unknown and swallow whole the anxiety that rides shotgun to uncertainty.  The gratification of listening and following your spirit guide may never arrive in concentrated doses, and you might not recognize the benefits that resulted from your efforts until you gain the perspective of hindsight. But avoiding the consequences of failing to listen are well worth the effort.

 I often imagine (almost as a meditation) the near-end of my life. I picture myself old and frail, moments away from giving up the ghost. I consider what may be my final thoughts in those moments. Will they be wrought with regret over a half-lived life? Will I be drowned with fear over the consequence of my action or inaction as I move into the unknown? Will I be comforted as I slide into darkness by the light of positivity I was able to generate into my own life and into the lives of others? I use this exercise to catalyze myself into effort. 

At this point, if I’m sounding preachy or “holier than thou” I need to note that I OFTEN fail at this. It’s a trial for me to not cut corners. Discipline does not manifest itself in my life effortlessly and I have to find constant reminders that I want more in my memories than screens and comfortable surfaces. What I think will make me happy is often not the panacea I had hoped for and if I pay attention, I hear myself sigh with discontent as I remain in idle states or isolation. Socializing doesn’t come easy to me, but I’ve found I feel empty without friends and family.  Philosophy and literature can be arduous and slow when I consume it, but I feel the echoes of its positive impacts in my life. My instinct is to keep, horde, and collect, but accumulation brings me nothing more than the swell of selfishness and the resulting shame of letting hyper self-preservation take precedence over sharing what I have.

Life can be challenging. It certainly has been for me, and I don’t face a fraction of the challenges a lot of people in this world meet. But any way you want to break it down, everyone has struggle. I believe I compounded struggle in my earlier years by adopting the method of avoiding challenge and neglecting the need to change and evolve. The hells I found myself wading through and spreading into the world were the result of my lifestyle. Not only was I avoiding the problems that needed addressing (which led those problems to compound), but I also failed to build out problem solving skills and systems in my mind and soul that are foundational for maturity and personal growth. Not to mention the anxiety the results from unresolved issues and the depression that festers when you fail to live up to the expectations of your conscience. The thundering of that inner-turmoil could be viewed as the expression of untapped potential. The longer it goes untapped, the deeper one plunges.

When faced with something you truly do not want to do, or think you’re not capable of doing, consider the option of reframing it. The dreaded task might cease to provoke fear and present itself to you in its true form. An opportunity to manifest you as a higher version of yourself. It’s the experience points you need to level up. It’s honoring God (or the “god” that lives in you).

Acting on these impulses requires you to learn how to listen, and everyone can find their own way to do that. For some, it’s prayer. For others, like myself, it’s meditation. Others find it in nature or hallucinogens or study, fasts, philanthropy, or therapy. But it’s not a trick or a quick fix. And it’s certainly not a guarantee for material wealth or even achieving specific goals. I believe it’s just a prerequisite to avoid the misery we are capable of creating for ourselves and for others. It’s the path implicitly delineated through the stories humankind couldn’t help but create. It’s the cycle repeated through lifetimes and generations.The enclosed feedback loop of infinity. 

I sunk myself into the deep. I tried the exit of oblivion and found myself in levels so dark I couldn’t remember what light looked like. When I decided to make a change, it wasn’t out of fortitude or courage, it was out of base survival instinct. The process of emergence was and remains a slow and difficult one. But I now know what the other option is, and I’ll tell you…

 It ain’t no goddamn option at all.

I’ll continue to try. I’ll continue to fail. I’ll continue to lose my way. And I’ll continue to find the path and continue on my journey as heroically as I can. I have something in me now that didn’t used to exist (or at least that went ignored), and I don’t give a shit how cheesy it sounds. I found hope. And the more I honor what exists in me and what is demanded of me, the more that hope grows. Maybe it’s an overly simplistic view, but I think what exists in me is of celestial origins. I think it exists in all of us. And it’s our responsibility to honor it.

“Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to the light.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Part 2 - My Studies OR: It's More Than I Thought!

So now that I’ve sufficiently documented my trials of existential doom and gloom in the first entry to this over-sharing trilogy, you may be wondering where I landed on everything.

Well, you’ll have to wait for our next issue to reach that exciting conclusion, true believer.

For now?

 More questions!

The original inquiry that spawned my trip down the proverbial rabbit hole was,

“Why do I feel like this?”

And I tilted at that particular windmill for years as it led me down a path of accusations, biological speculation, historical circumstance, and personal perspective. After years of frustration and eventual stagnancy, I realized I was asking the wrong question.

You see, during that time of interrogative obsession, I kept coming across a word.
This word eventually refocused my pursuits, and demanded that I acknowledge it.
This word changed my cardinal question.
This word was:


A word, a concept, I became obsessed with, yet still don’t understand.
It’s a fundamental focus of philosophy and religion, of learning and of life.
It managed to simultaneously truncate and deepen my inquiry.

Now I was asking,

“Why do I feel?”

So just what the hell is consciousness?
Honestly, I’m not going to be able to answer that for you.
However, I’m going to get my feet wet offering some thoughts and hope that the tentacles of the leviathan don’t wrap around my ankles as I do.


If you seek a definition to the word consciousness itself, you’ll typically receive multiple answers.
My MacBook’s dictionary offers up the following:

  •       The state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings.

  •       The awareness or perception of something by a person.

  •       The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.

So although we having differing definitions that can be used based upon intent of meaning and situational context, we still have a through-line:


So is consciousness simply awareness of the raw data in the world around us?

Well that’s certainly a factor in and facet of consciousness. The internal systems of the brain that receive and categorize sensory input, allow us to control motor output, and selectively focus attention are all important to a central and cohesive definition.  But this all leaves out one important aspect:


Do our emotional, intellectual, and preferential reactions to input define who we are?

Maybe I’m putting the yoke before the ox.
Maybe we should first ask:

Who are you?

I’m not just talking about a list of work experience,  hobbies, features, or even personal history.
I’m talking about your essence.


Your very BEING.

What the hell is that?

A quintessential component of being human stems from our individual (subjective) experience of the external (objective) world.  No two people have ever experienced the same life, no matter how similar their circumstances.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel said,

…The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means… that there is something it is like to be that organism…Fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.”

We all know that there is something it is like to be a human, and dilated even further, something that it’s like to be each individual human.
Our BEING is what defines us, and our experience of the world implicates that BEING.    

Although we all possess, or are seemingly derived from our shared experience of consciousness, we still vary wildly within our interpretations and reactions for which consciousness allows.

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris said,

 “Consciousness is what it’s like to be you. If there’s an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system, then that is consciousness."

So is that subjective experience (or soul, spirit, etc.) simply a result of our brain’s physical systems?

Well some people would argue that it’s not based in our biological make-up at all, but is metaphysical and even divine in its origin.  Actually, that’s been a foundational idea to most of the world’s major religions.

Throughout antiquity, before the advent of the scientific revolution, the mystery of life still captivated human inquiry. People still questioned existence.  And over geographical/temporal locations we can review how our ancestors answered those fundamentally human questions.

The bible gives us the lines:

“And the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” [1]

While the Quran states:

"And they ask you about the soul. Say, "The soul is of the affair of my Lord." [2]

These texts (provided you’re taking a literal interpretation) seem to adhere to the idea that the essence of a human is the instilled quality of a deity.

“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”  [3]

The idea is that our bodies are simply temporary hosts for the divine, and our ability to experience comes from the supernatural. However, the idea that our bodies and “souls” are two separate entities is not unique to the Abrahamic canon.

Hindu scripture reads:

“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” [4]

Here we see the idea of the soul transcending the body within the context of reincarnation. So although we have differing religious ideologies surrounding the concept of spirit or the soul, we see a correlation with the idea of a distinct separation of the mind and body.

We also see this idea arise in philosophy. 17th century French philosopher René Descartes held this belief in no uncertain terms.

He wrote:

“Thus this self, that is to say the soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and is even more easily known; and even if the body were not there at all the soul would be just what it is.”

Descartes’ presumptions have been categorized under the umbrella philosophy known as Dualism. This philosophical branch, succinctly summed up, promotes the idea that “the mental and the physical—or mind and body or mind and brain—are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing.”  [5]

The beginnings of this philosophy span back into ancient Greece, where Plato made similar assertions to Descartes’ that the soul and body where two completely separate entities. He thought that the soul was pure intelligence and belonged in the metaphysical world of ideas, but the spirit became confused when set inside the temporal form of the human body. His protégé, Aristotle, believed that the two entities (physicality and soul) were separate, but were inextricably linked to form the essence of a human.

These are a few examples of antiquity’s attempt at explaining something that exists in the vacuum of abstraction. It’s a thing trying to define itself from within, and failing to see other possible conclusions, lands in the realm of the supernatural.
Our ancestors conclusions are understandable considering that modern science still hasn’t landed anywhere closer to a consensus as to the origin of consciousness.

So what has modern science given us in terms of possibilities?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Each theory with its faults and detractors, and each with its own unique ideas. The process of science is that of competing input meant to point out flaws in its predecessors and challengers and with all participants working to break down the erroneous and collectively build up the credible.

Is…um…is this boring? I mean, should I be making it funny or something?
Wait…are my other ones even funny?

Gold Five: Stay on target.

What?  Gold Five?  What are you doing in my blog?

Gold Five: Stay on target.

Listen, I’m just wondering if my narcissistic machinations are…

Gold Five: Stay on target. 

…Thanks, Gold Five. I needed that.

Ahem…So before we dive into a theory or two, we should address exactly why the problem is so hard in the first place.

Actually, there is a theory postulated towards exactly that. It’s titled (accurately enough) The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Philosopher/scientist David Chalmers asks,  

“Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience…? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.
Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?”  [6]

It’s the fundamental question that science can’t seem to answer.
We have more or less identified the parts of the brain in conjunction to how they receive information, and even how they work together for complex information processing, but that still doesn’t explain the experiential element. It would seem that we are more than the sum of our parts.

“The hard problem is hard…” Chalmers continues, “because it’s not a problem about the performance of functions.”

What is our soul, in scientific terms?  Or where is it, in anatomical terms?
That’s the crux. That’s the hard part.

What makes the hard problem hard…is that it goes beyond problems about the performance of functions…why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?

There are a few theories floating around that attend to this question in physiological terms.  An interesting one is Graziano and Kastner’s Attention Schema Theory, or AST. They attempted to tackle the problem from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Their general thesis is that consciousness is a direct result from evolved processes of attention. 

Graziano said, 

The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence.”  [7]

So how exactly does an evolved process of attention give rise to subjectivity?

At any given moment, we are bombarded with sensory input and that input flow is constantly changing. You can’t possibility account for every single piece of information coming in, so your brain has to prioritize content based on an internal hierarchical system of importance.

This process is called selective signal enhancement” Says Garziano,  “without it, a nervous system can do almost nothing.

In our midbrains we have a piece of hardware called the tectum. It functions as a unifying coordinator for all the various parts of the brain that take in different sensory input. When you need to focus all of your faculties of attention on something, this is the guy that lines the troops up. And when they are all inline, they are able to build an internal model of what you're experiencing in the "external" world.

“An internal model is a simulation that…allows for predictions and planning. The tectum’s internal model is a set of information encoded in the complex pattern of activity of the neurons.”

All animals have a tectum; but what separates us from most of the wild kingdom is that we have developed a sizeable cerebral cortex as well.

What’s the difference?

While the tectum allows us to focus all our attention on something, it limits in that it has to keep direct attention on it. The cortex allows for attention on anything irrespective of proximity. You can think about something without experiencing it directly, and make predictions about it based on the memories of previous experiences. You can use your advanced faculties to process the events happening and plan ahead by imagining different events occurring and how you’ll respond to each imaginary scenario.

The tectum deals with the actual, while the cortex can process the abstract.
This abstraction that exists in our minds is what we identify as our “self”.
 We have no physical sense of this complex processes occurring, because it’s happening on the neural level.

To put a pin on it:

It has a physical basis, but that physical basis lies in the microscopic details of neurons, synapses, and signals…It depicts…attention in a physically incoherent way, as a non-physical essence. And this, according to the theory, is the origin of consciousness.”

So here we have a biological explanation (theoretically) for what’s traditionally been attributed to the metaphysical.

Another theory, one that doesn’t so much offer a biological explanation for the advent of consciousness, as much as it promulgates an inextricable connection between it and the existence of the universe itself, is called Biocentrism.

The theory’s creator, Dr. Robert Lanza, says:

“The universe rises from life, not the other way around.”

Biocentrism draws heavily from quantum mechanics. In the quantum field, there is a very famous (and often replicated) demonstration on the behavior of particles.
 It’s called the Double-Slit Experiment.

Basically, you have a wall like barrier with two gaps (or slits) in in. You shoot particles randomly at the barrier, and measure those that happen to go through the slits by placing a wall beyond them. This backing wall has sensors that measure where the particles hit if they happen to make it through a slit. Some particles go through the right slit, some the left, and some hit the initial barrier and make no mark on the measuring wall behind it at all.

The odd thing is that when scientists would cease to observe the experiment, and come back to check where the particle impacted the measuring wall, they would see that there was a mark through both the left and the right side.

Lanza explains the findings:

It’s conclusively proven that if one “watches” a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through slits on a barrier, it behaves like a particle and creates solid-looking hits behind the individual slits on the final barrier that measures the impacts. Like a tiny bullet, it logically passes through one or the other hole. But if the scientists do not observe the trajectory of the particle, then it exhibits the behavior of waves that allow it to pass through both holes at the same time.” (8)

The gist of the experiment (which is much more in-depth and complicated than I’ve covered here) is that the very act of our observation, or even our presence, impacts the field of externality that we call “the world.” It supposes that everything exists in kind of a limbo state of “wave probability” until an observer comes along and forces the wave into a particle by simply being there.

Think of a video game. When you turn your character around to look east, does everything to the character’s west still exist?

No. That virtual world is rendered around you as you move within it.

Well, this theory presupposes a similar effect to the world we experience in real life. It only exists insofar as we force it into existence. There isn’t the separation of subjective observer and objective reality. It’s two sides of the same coin.
Everything hangs in the limbo of wave probability until our minds force those waves into particles. We experience the world as we create it with the systems of our minds. Nothing is really “out there”, as much as it’s being calculated and computed “in here”.

The first of the seven principles of Biocentrism is:

“What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.”

This theory is diametrically opposed to the religious and philosophical ideas that supposed a dualistic nature to the universe and the inhabitants of it, and although it does not directly offer us an explanation as to why or how consciousness arises, it quietly pushes those questions aside as it asserts that consciousness is not the bi-product of our existence, but the very means through which everything exists.

The theory that could render all these points moot is called Mysterianism, and it has the main thesis of WE CAN’T FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT. 

Mysterianist philosopher Colin McGinn pushes the idea that we haven’t come to understand consciousness and we never will, because the systemic operations of our minds are simply incapable of comprehending themselves. 

McGinn said, “The human mind conforms to certain principles in forming concepts and beliefs and theories…and these constrain the range of knowledge to which we have access. We cannot get beyond the specific kinds of data and modes of inference that characterize our knowledge-acquiring systems…”  [9]

Our understanding of minds and brains are different by their very nature.
Brains have objective qualities we can see, measure, and verify, while our minds are subjective and thereby limited by that subjectivity. We can see the measured changes in the blood flow of a person’s brain using FMRI technology, but we can’t record any empirical data on how a person feels when they hear their favorite music.

McGinn’s hypothesis is “the search for philosophical knowledge would be an attempt to do with our epistemic capacities what cannot be done with them. Our minds would be to philosophical truth what our bodies are to flying: wrongly designed and structured for the task in question.”

So where does all of this leave us?

Well, by the end of this, I feel just as confused as I did before I started. But I feel better about my inability to understand my own existential experience once I set it against the backdrop of human history. Women and men smarter and more educated than I could ever hope to be still struggle with and argue about what it all means. The field is so vast and encompassing; that what I’ve written here is just a raindrop in the infinite ocean of it all.

I’ve juxtaposed a few ideas set in the framework of the humanities, but these ideas transcend any attempt of a non-contextual framework. Seemingly, any point argued in one religion has a rebuttal in another. Every branch of philosophy has another branch built to why the first branch is wrong. Things overlap, exceed each other, and lose themselves.

No wonder I’m confused.

That confusion seems to be the human condition.
I realized that I’m far from alone in my confusion, and that realization is in itself a form of the freedom I was looking for.
And while I still have questions, I won’t continue down my path of inquiry with the assumption that I’ll some day figure it all out.

I’ll just stay curious.

 And keep learning as I live.


1: Ecclesiastes 12:7
2: Al-Isra 17: 85
3: 1 Corinthians 3:16
4: Bhagavad Gita 2:22