Tag Archives: nervous system

Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview from The Constellation of Man: Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I. —CPB


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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

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Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

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Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

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Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

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Excerpt: hemispheres part I: patterns into place

I continue to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections were written by me since 2010. Some are unrepresentative. All remain in development, subject to change. —CPB


Intention to change the world usually means changing it outside oneself. But the world does not begin outside ourselves—especially how we experience the world.

We experience inner-sourced, neurogenic senses of things. Senses of things reference the world. Importantly, this reference and the referent differ in type. Senses of things can never be identical to the world. Senses of things usually err even in lacking resemblance to the world—despite subjectively-convincing appearances.

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Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror, M. C. Escher, 1935

If we ever become aware that synonymity between senses and the world is not a fundamental truth but a convention and pretense, this is easily forgotten in the course of acting daily according to senses of things. Operationally, people behave as though senses of things are those things they reference. We imagine a visual image equals an object in the distance. Holding an object in our hand instead, the object becomes pressure, texture, and temperature to us. More abstractly, we think that a labeling idea we hold in mind (like “bathing” or “winning”) equals each instance or any given instance, out of a set of actually different and unique experiences. We also attribute our mood at the time, having “a miserable meal” at a fine restaurant, or seeing a “beautiful dress” on a lovely woman.

We habitually and instinctively trust neurogenic impressions, as a dog follows his nose.

Seamlessly sewn-together senses give particular confidence. Who would independently detect blind spots in their binocular vision, “right in front of their eyes,” if they had never learned that each eyeball has an anatomical blind spot where the optic nerve and blood vessels pass through the retina? Even vision fools the seer.

An insightful thinker cannot accept in this ingenuous way. As the rigorous thinker must learn to question what seems objective in his axioms, the skeptical thinker must also learn to doubt the compromised visceral witness under his skin and behind the eyes in the mirror, so to speak, who volunteers so much evidence.

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Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Parmigianino, 1524

Each mind encompasses ongoing relationships with inner-sourced, neurogenic senses of things, which reference parallels in the world outside, as well as relations of more obscure neurogenic psychological dynamics, which lack parallels on the outside.

It is said that we see the same thing, or we feel the same; this is never the case. We feel the emotions, sensations, compulsions, perceptions, and concepts born in our nervous system, of which others can only see expressions and effects. Even to ourselves, the inner influences upon perception, profoundly-layered context, remain casually indistinguishable from senses of things in the world outside the mind.

The world “outside” the mind means the matter and energy of our body and the immediate environment around it. That suggests there is an opposite place “inside” where our mind dwells. But the language is just conventional, so that we can say inner, internal, or inside about neurogenic experience. The mind has no location. The brain rests firmly inside our head.

We live amidst places. Our minds know patterns. The mind has no place, but perceives patterns, including place as one kind of pattern. The corner of the street, the left bank of the nearby river, the inside of your knee, the corpus callosum, these stand out as “places”; they are rather maps, models, impressions, or images—that is, patterns that reference the material world of place. Patterns turn generic, though they reference unique configurations of time and space, energy and matter.

Stranger still, a place we find “outside” (or “inside the body”) contains none of these patterns by itself—not even the patterns we perceive as:

  • edges
  • shapes
  • objects
  • colors
  • motion
  • timing
  • and other empirical measurements.

That requires a mind, with its senses of things. The characteristic mental separation of things, distinction of qualities, and things given qualities, necessary to making simple patterns of the world (“pattern recognition”), are not inherent in the world. For to recognize or discern a pattern is to draw it up and impose it, and momentarily ignore the continuous, contrary, complicated remainder. The inherent reductiveness and selection reflects our nervous system actively coping with information both limited and excessive, more than it reflects any comprehensive reality.

Nor does a place contain other patterns we impose:

  • symbols
  • moods
  • stories
  • histories
  • meanings
  • correspondences
  • significance

These we might grasp as mental patterns more readily, if we can remember they were ostensibly psychological or cultural in origin, and not inherent.

Even with the greatest explicit care, we have difficulty telling the difference between perceiving the world and imposing perceptions.

To contrast sense perceptions like edges with patterns like moods or stories draws a useful distinction; highly-subjective mental patterns certainly obstruct uncomplicated observation. But looking for bias only from obvious culprits would exaggerate an artificial distinction between patterns of perception and patterns that impose upon perception. Naïve perception is not free from distortion or interpretation. Sensing also interprets; sensing always interprets.

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Untitled, aka Distorted House, Man Ray, 1920

Imagine picking out a structure in the distance, and thinking “house.”

One can perhaps manage to tell the difference between the edges, colors, and objects that comprise a particular house, and the cultural icon of house one imposes to collect them all. One can also notice any attendant suggestions perhaps brought up by that icon, such as feelings of home, even though they arise subconsciously.

It would appear that senses are straightforward and definitive, whereas a conscious idea comes second, and perhaps an unconscious reaction third. The conscious idea would appear culturally acquired by everyone who has the idea of houses, while an unconscious reaction would be limited to personal disposition. So, with an effort, we can recognize that ideas and feelings make interpretations of the edges, colors, and objects seen in the distance.

But the sense perceptions that appeared self-evident and automatic would not be identical and consistent for other people. Careful examination and comparison reveals that they vary between one individual and another—as the body varies, and its instrumental neural physiology varies.

Qualities of what we each sense differ as drastically as one person’s color appearing like another color to someone else, or color not appearing at all. The idea “color” is itself an imposed pattern to categorize this nonverbal pattern, which is in turn interpreted from the electromagnetic spectrum by cone photoreceptors, retinal ganglion cells, and visual pathways in brains.

Color one sees is not out there, in the house. Of course, upon arguing over the color of the house, we could take empirical measurements of the wavelengths of the light reflected from the surface of the house. But this would take the problem of interpretation and translate it into a new realm, rather than resolving it. We could collect data on the wavelengths of light involved, but what that meant about “color” we would not establish mutually. Unable to share the very same neural instruments, we are always removed from each others’ perceptions.

Exercises in comparative neurology could be performed for the visual constructs of brightness, edges, facial recognition, etc. too. The phenomena of the senses—virtually always taken for granted as a known vocabulary—are in fact pieced together (albeit nearly-immediately), and variable. Sounds, smells, tastes, and touch are likewise dependent on each particular nervous system, as with all sensation. The distinctions made in senses of things (qualities, objects, etc.) are not exactly arbitrary—because they follow the tendentiousness of a particular nervous system in its current state—but what seems noticeable could always differ, from a different perspective.

We also find that our sense perceptions vary between one moment and another, with the flux of immediate conditions of one nervous system. Intensities of perceptions induced by the nervous system change. Different perceptions stand out now that did not before. Some convey strangeness. Some fulfill expectations. Some remain peripheral.

Attention names a little of this, but most of the subtle and transient shifts in pattern recognition lack adequate names. We cannot track the different permutations of neural activity in the brain able to induce distinct perceptions, and we lack categories for the great many kinds of perceptions or contexts that assemble, vivid and convincing, conditionally maintained, only to melt away when the state of activity changes.

Possessing a mostly unreflective mammalian nervous system, Man is an invested participant who typically behaves as though perception names some neutral process of discerning objective facts.

On the contrary, we do not discover what we have not, in some way, already brought with us. Underlying, fateful neural organization limns the contours of future sensations, before we mark them as what we feel. Reckoning with new things happens in correspondence with familiar patterns of the mind, from the reflexive, to those more changeable. Remember Christopher Columbus, the explorer who found the Orient he expected to find on his maps of the world, even though it was not there. (It did not even matter that the places on the other side of the world were not as he imagined, or fantasized about under extreme sleep deprivation.)

The principle that what appears readily to oneself at the present moment must appear that way to another—or, to oneself upon a different occasion, very much like a different person—has heaped a most dangerous fallacy upon the partiality of animal senses, given the many variants among mankind.

Each one person has great need to learn the counterintuitive practice of avoiding that error. As a matter for holistic education, one could be taught by broad exposure to alternate perspectives, in tandem with guided orientation in the psychological-philosophical facts of life. Yet the error is so instinctive, neural in its roots, that surpassing it can never become permanent knowledge. We always return to stumbling upon it. We always have need to remind ourselves that we impose all patterns we perceive.

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Satire on False Perspective, William Hogarth, 1754

We have great difficulty in learning to mistrust perceptions. We feel sure our perceptions could not be otherwise, though they always could be.

We never arrive at ultimate descriptions, though repeatedly convinced of it. Men who have harbored a desire for final, revealed, unclouded truth have rather coveted an emotional fulfillment, and mistaken such a pinnacle of experience for facts they could know. Humility before the powerful lures and deceits of the senses we possess better becomes the scientist—in the broad sense, the man who would learn anything reliable about the world and himself.

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Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s 1490 illustration of proportions and symmetry of the human body according to the Roman architect Vitruvius

Place remains wholly unappreciable to us without pattern. Yet places and our patterns both seem real. Sewn-together senses convince us they are the same.

We then mistake our implicit maps for the lay of the land. We forget what on Earth we are talking about. We forget that we are map-readers, who cannot look up from our maps to see the world directly. We see “the world” through images and imagery, and never without them. We cannot see the world outside of context—as though contexts serve as lenses for discerning things in an otherwise amorphous and vast blur.

Therefore, it is unusual to realize we have an abiding need of better maps. It is usual to neglect our need of fine cartographers to make them. Few realize that we ourselves can become better map-makers.

We already are drafting implicit maps, as well as picking up old ones. If we fail to make our own revisions, we fall back on old maps, and mere sketches of old maps. We need contexts, so we piece contexts together from some source. Putting pattern into place is a condition for perception, and orientation.