The Emergence of Consciousness

I love reading philosophy. For years, I’ve yearned for people with whom I can discuss all the things I’ve read and the thoughts I’m constantly mulling over about this universe. I’m constantly on the way to wisdom — hence this blog and the ideas in it.

In the last year or so, this has even led to listening to philosophy podcasts. One I listened to a couple months back about consciousness left me miffed. I’ve been reading a lot about psychology, Buddhism, philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory, and nonlinear dynamics/complexity theory in the last few years, so I’ve got a lot of interest in these questions, not to mention my educational background in phenomenology. Consciousness is an interesting thing to ponder. It’s both the heart of and engine of all of our experience as well as one of the most profound mysteries of our mind.

Unfortunately, these philosophers didn’t see it with quite this open-minded wonder. They dismissed the idea of consciousness being an emergent process out of hand, preferring rather more staid ideas about the soul or panpsychism (the idea that consciousness exists in everything and can somehow aggregate). They even pish-poshed scientists who study these issues in depth. In some regard, this is precisely my experience with and what I would expect of types schooled in a more theological background in philosophy, like these men were.

The problem with emergent properties is that the term is vague, and it’s difficult to explain. I recently was reading about all the non-linear dynamics at play in a hurricane: the hot air, the moisture, the cycles of cooling air falling, and the churn of it rising again as it warms. This set of conditions (and I’m sure several more that I’ve overlooked in my brief and only marginally informed description) are a system with emergent properties.

Perhaps a better example is one that occurred to me as I walked home tonight. Have you ever heard that no two snowflakes are the same? I can’t speak to this assertion, and I would have to presume that such a theory is unverifiable — there’s no way to measure and compare every snowflake that falls, even in a minuscule flurry. However, it wouldn’t take many observations to note the wide variation in forms and that it’s extremely unlikely for any two snowflakes to be the same. However, the complexity of such a simple, small thing shows the power of nonlinear dynamics. A few variables can combine with strong sensitivity to small changes that can lead to an elaborate array of different results. These complex formations are emergent properties dependent on those variables.

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Now, if we can consider snowflakes as possessing emergent properties due to nonlinear processes at work, how could one even dismiss considering emergent properties as an explanation of the elaborate array of nonlinear processes at work in the human brain — various modules, neurotransmitters, and bioelectric currents, all coming together to create experiences that are more or less holistic experience (ignoring the aspects that are completely cut off from conscious awareness)? In fact, as a nonlinear system, these wholes that arise as some sort of sum of all these elaborate interactions must be emergent properties. The metaphysical discussion has to be tacked on top of that; it cannot simply replace the evidence based on ideological assertions or conceptual arguments. I’m reminded here of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. If consciousness is explored only in terms of concepts and arguments, it will be woefully misrepresented as pure reason in ways that have disconnected themselves from the observable data on the matter. This is simply no manner for philosophy to behave especially in this scientifically more advanced day and age than that of even 30 or 40 years ago.

This post is a bit of a step away from the standard discussions of this blog, but I hope it gives many new things to think about. If you have questions or want resources to look into these questions yourself, please contact me, and I’ll do my best to speak to these further or point you to better experts than myself.

A View on Life and Death

A while back, I saw that it was a friend’s birthday on Facebook. I had not talked with this friend in years, having lost touch after moving to a different city. I warmly jumped at the occasion to say “Hello,” and reconnect. Flipping to the birthday notification, I typed out a heartfelt message, wishing him well.

A few hours later, I got a message notification from a person I didn’t know. He kindly and regretfully informed me that my friend had been dead for almost a year now. I was shocked. I had no idea. All I could do was thank this informative stranger and think back on my time with my friend, hoping that my message hadn’t caused any undue stress for anyone.

Honestly, I’ve encountered little death in my time. I’ve had pets die and a couple great grandparents, but I’ve had few instances of losing another person. This sudden awareness of the death of a friend I’d fallen out of contact with gave me pause.

Part of me wishes I could picture him in some serene afterlife, but honestly, this thought confuses me. I struggle greatly with the concept of a soul because it seems to be an attempt to assert an unchanging thing behind the ebb and flow of this impermanent universe. Every experience I’ve had, every thing I’ve studied, every fact and figure — all of it, everything points to transience. Suggesting a metaphysical permanence behind it all seems like an existential coping mechanism. Perhaps, there really is some great metaphysical Origin — Mind, Tao, Source, Idea (Eidos). If there is though, I maintain that it is a vastly different thing than is standardly posited with the term “soul” and its rather pastoral associations.

I’m left, instead, with some succor in knowing that whatever happens to us when we die, at least my friend is no longer the body he was here. He had longstanding chronic illness which made his life difficult and painful, leading (I presume) to a young death.

Ironically, isn’t this precisely our fear with death — not knowing who or what we will be when this body dies? As Heidegger puts it, it’s the possibility of one’s impossibility (or rather, of Dasein’s impossibility). Why must we posit an eternal ego to give this life and its experiences worth? As in the case of my friend — meeting with him for a few months in an intense period of my life makes his presence in my life all the more valuable for its rarity. Perhaps, I appreciate him all the more because relationships and the people who participate in them are impermanent — flashes of brilliance, fireworks on a summer’s evening.

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Rather than reach for life affirmation in the hereafter or for a Nietzschean, definingly transcendent moment for Eternal Return (a sublime life experience that grants you the fervor to say yes to this life, even if it were to be repeated infinitely), I think instead of life as something passing and therefore undefinably beautiful, rare, and unique. Much like seeing falling stars in the Perseid meteor shower – they all are similar in a way, but each burns differently, and each is beautiful and is to be savored in its passing, not a tragedy when it ends, rather one flashing, beautiful emergence, which is followed by others. I see no tragedy in living your life as something that will end and in so doing, making it shine while you flicker in the history of the Universe.


I plan to expand further on ideas about how to make one’s lifetime shine in my next post.

May this bring you peace and inspiration in being a timely being.

Gassho!

Thoughts and Letting Go–The Mind’s Kite

This is my first deep writing in a while. Yet again, it appears unexpectedly in the open space of Morning Pages. Enjoy!


Here we are… Another day. It’s great to be writing in this moment. As I slow down and attend to the process, I feel utterly awash with sensation. There is so much detail–sound, smell, light, touch, vibration–in every moment. Usually, though, we’ve shut much of it out as we narrow our vision/smell/hearing/etc. to some small set of attention. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, its’ somewhat necessary. There’s so much to experience that we can’t hold it all at once. It’s the same with our thoughts. A quiet moment of mindfulness reveals that they are a legion; however, in most moments, we’re running along with one in particular as though it were a huge kite yanking along a child on a windy day. The funny thing in each instance is our lack of awareness of the process and possibility in each. With sensation, we forget that there is so much that we are closing out in this moment, or maybe, we don’t forget as much as not even realize that’s happening. With the thoughts, the same: we don’t realize that we are holding onto that kite string and running along with them (the thoughts). Meditation can show us both that there is so much to be aware of in every moment, bodily, and so many thoughts flitting by, mentally. It can open us to our full unfolding, right here, right now. It also shows that those thoughts are not “me”. I don’t have to run along with them. I can just as readily let them go–that kite can just fly away. It is only in grasping to it that I give it the power to pull me here and there. I can just as readily watch it fly on the wind without feeling its pull. Whether that kite is in the shape of the most beautiful butterfly or the most terrifying dragon does not make it any more enduring, any more absolute. It’s just another passing moment, another gust of wind. In grabbing onto the string, I keep it flitting about in the broad, open expanse of my mind; otherwise, it will pass out of sight soon enough, and I have the opportunity to watch it soar by without mistaking that string and kite as an extension of myself–as an immutable truth that defines me.

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In this moment and in every “now”, “I” am a flux of all these sensations and thoughts, a huge amount of possibilities manifesting in reality. It’s one small fold of the universe universing itself; it’s an unfolding emergence; it’s a human becoming.

May All be happy.
May All be healthy.
May All be at peace.
May All live with ease.


May this help you let go of that kite, seeing the unfolding potential that is in every moment. May you find the liberation of not grasping onto thoughts and definitions, thereby taking the first steps out of the orbit of samsara.

Gassho!

Closing a Book

The following is my last entry from my first journal for morning pages. I felt like it spoke to many of the challenges and growing pains I have gone through in walking the Way in recent months and thereby thought it may be useful to others to share here.

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Well, this is it: the final entry. The last few months have been quite a journey. I’ve continued on the path of practice with all the challenges that arise in such an endeavor, the endeavor to wake up. Furthermore, I’ve endured heartbreak. Perhaps these two go hand in hand…

I just looked back at the first few entries of the journal to get a sense of who I was at the time. I was finishing the Heartbreak Wisdom bootcamp. I was finding my way to digest my pain of the last few months before and transform it into strength as a spiritual warrior.

In some ways, I’m still at these steps, but at the same time, my focus on the open-hearted way is intensifying. I less readily get emotionally reactive, and when I do, I can better stay present with it or subvert it instead of fully running with it.

I more readily see our ways of spinning stories and creating our own drama. I see this all the time in others, and the pell-mell run towards happiness and away from an underlying anxiety leaves a smile on my face. I smile compassionately, and when I’m very awake, I can see when I do these dramatic shifts myself and can center myself with compassion.

Something that has been very interesting for me in recent spiritual adventures is the call to the mystery of being. Getting past the ego’s focus on “me“, on certainty, on the undying (or rather, a yearning for it) opens a door to the profound enigma that is emergence. Each moment is truly a miracle. We fail to see it, so we experience it boxed and filtered through our own interpretation. We throw labels like good and bad, like and dislike, interesting and boring, on everything before we’re even experiencing it. The rawness of it generally eludes us, and it takes a “doing nothing”, a “just sitting”, to open to the miraculous that unfolds every moment in the universe universing itself. This doesn’t mean that our flitting thoughts are to be discarded. They are part of this unfolding miracle as well. However, we generally give them weight–grabbing onto them and holding them as more important than the puffs of breeze we feel softly moving across our skin–but are they really that different? Do they not pass by just as quickly if we don’t flow along with them? Do we try to hold onto the wind or to run alongside it? Wonder is right here to behold, just waiting for an open heart.

Just Be

This moment
Arises & Disappears
Like a soap bubble
Blown by a playful child,
Shimmering with rainbows,
Floating gracefully
Or awkwardly,
Popping suddenly,
With only the trace
Of memory

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Each moment,
No matter the agony
Or ecstasy,
Is just like this.
With each,
Let it just be.
Trying to hold onto the bubble
Pops it sooner
Trying to pop it,
Leaves soapy hands.

Just be in every moment
Those bubbles come and go
Shining luminously
Then disappearing
Just as in a dream


See also:

Water’s Flux
Tao a Day: Verse 16 – Emptiness
The Practice
The Waking Dream
Suffering and Sweetness

Tao a Day — Verse 38: The Sage’s Relation to “Self”

To give without seeking reward
To help without thinking it is virtuous–
     therein lies great virtue
To keep account of your actions
To help with the hope of gaining merit–
     therein lies no virtue

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without condition
The highest justice is to see without preference
– Trans. Jonathan Star (excerpt – opening lines)


We live in a time of little virtue. We are told to look out for number one. Famous writers have propounded philosophies in which greed is a great virtue which helps everyone. It seems that all around us, most of the time, people are concerned most about what they will get out of a situation; we are told that this is natural and good to be self-involved like this.

From a certain perspective, spirituality is in utter opposition to such a view. The stance of what can I take, what can I get, is yet another way of maintaining the certain safety of ego. It upholds I, me, and mine, and it furthers the goal of solidifying them as of the utmost importance. According to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, spirituality moves against this but stands in constant danger of falling into the traps of ego-fulfillment. We all too readily fall into spiritual practice as something to hoard, something to show that I’m wiser than others, or something that makes me remarkable and worthy of being looked up to by others as a guru, realized one, or some other egoic hero. The Buddhist emphasis on the practice of compassion is both a means to reach enlightenment, and at the same time, compassion–focusing on others as more important than “me”–keeps us from falling prey to these traps. I’m not implying that Buddhism is superior to other spiritual disciplines. Hardly. I’ve known Christians and pagans who displayed compassion first and foremost, and their spiritual practices and personal virtues were all the more noteworthy and admirable because of this outward oriented engagement with the world.

The Sage also exemplifies the Te (virtue) which does not focus on self above all else. She gives without seeking reward. She does not tally up her great deeds. Instead, she, like water, acts in a way that supports all, rather than herself. This was discussed in a previous post about being in accordance with the flow of nature–the unfolding of Tao. Having virtue, Te, is completely about actualizing the Tao as the microcosm of the macrocosm. That was discussed in my post on inner virtues to some extent. In this case, let’s remember that the Tao continuously gives the 10,000 things. It is both the origin and totality of all. This totality continues to ebb and flow into being. It continually gives. Nothing statically remains as some sort of beloved object that Tao holds onto for itself. Rather, Tao loves bringing forth the ever-arising new of change. So why do we grasp at possessions and holding back that which is mine, when Tao shows us to move and flow: to give and support life without interest in self-bolstering?

Tao supports all. Those seeking to cultivate Te should as well. I heard an interesting Dharma talk last night in which the priest ended in saying that compassion is being able to hear whatever another person has to say without limiting those words to what we want to or are able to hear from “my” perspective. Letting go of oneself enough to be completely present to what appears (in this example, the words of another) is Te–it is being in harmony with nature and being able to act within that harmony, wu wei. Thus, the Sage responds to what arises: recognizing that “The highest justice is to see without preference.” The Sage opens his eyes, sees the world as it is–Tao, and acts skillfully from this proper seeing. Such a proper seeing shows that the “self” is an ever-unfolding process of emergence, one that mirrors Tao: the appearance and disappearance of the 10,000 things of Tao–the mysterious flux of universal becoming in all its myriad forms.

Having “Te” requires seeing and actualizing “Tao”


Here is the rest of the verse for further reading. Have a look at the closing lines if nothing else:

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
And when the high-blown rules of conduct are not followed
people are seized by the arm and it is forced on them
The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty–
quite confusing to the heart
And when men rely on these rules for guidance–
Oh, what ignorance abounds!

The great master follows his own nature
and not the trappings of life
It is said,
“He stays with the fruit and not the fluff”
“He stays with the firm and not the flimsy”
“He stays with the true and not the false”
-Trans. Jonathan Star

A Human Becoming

Heart beats–*ka-thump… ka-thump”
Breath inward/outward–*hnnnn…ahhhh…*
Thoughts zoom by–*”I should go do…”*

Feelings come & go–agony & ecstasy
Days pass–work, sleep, routine, adventure
Years flourish & wither–seasons, periods, phases

Connections are made & lost
Wrinkles appear & hair recedes
Scars & memories accumulate

Birth, birth, birth
           &
Death, death, death
—  In every moment
    With each heartbeat & breath

Tell me:
Where is the static “I” underneath the process of life?
Where is this being that endures
When all else arises and ceases?
—  A story, a fiction, a masterpiece of self-creation & self-deception

You are not a human being.
You are a human becoming
—  A realization of unfolding potential, moment by moment
An emanation of openness, that is: basic goodness

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