I am delighted that Conrad Johnson has agreed to post a message to my blog readers. I have known Conrad in several capacities, but none quiet as interesting as the Conrad that I know as a writer. Through the years he has been formulating a profoundly interesting and timely composition having to do with the very essential connections that we make with one another as human beings.
What I have found fascinating is his dedication to a very nuisanced concept regarding the nature of connections made through consciousness. His philosophy and his physics and his studies of consciousness make his material extremely interesting to my own pursuit of egoic and non-egoic connections that we make with ourselves and with other people and indeed, other creatures….
Below is a “response” to the previous post that I wrote on consciousness….As always, Thank you for reading.
Dear Al –
Nice cup, on your blog today. It must be wonderful to discover you have such talented eyes. Looking at this image up close is something like listening carefully to a piece of music.
Anyway, I appreciate your blog very much, including the political entries… I’m sorry I nearly always have too much to say to leave any comment. You’re getting at such basic and important issues, and you have a knack for approaching just the ones I’m struggling with at the moment. But I have a kind of awe in the face of these things that keeps me quiet. This morning though I’m writing to you about this two-sidedness you’re describing.
The left is the uniquely human, uniquely logical, calculating, mastering egoic self. The right is the seat of consciousness, the primitive, simple, awareness of life. It is the location of quietude, simplicity and gratitude and awe.
This makes perfect sense to me. More than that, this difference you’re getting at is really the only thing I want to write about, because I believe that if we can open up that specific difference in words and conceptualize it, we can rescue this world. The thing is, using words and creating concepts is what the ego does, so we need to get it to participate in a helpful way, for a change. As for example, when it says, “Al, tell these voices of yours to shut up and just pay attention to the sunset.”
You’re so right about this –
There is no need for linguistic competence in the moment, because the moment is experienced. The minute we want to analyze it, or reveal it to someone else, or the minute we want to store it for some future use–then the egoic part of the mind is activated and the experience of the moment is NO LONGER THERE.
One way to think about this is as two parts of the mind, two halves of the brain, one in the moment, one out of the moment. That’s more or less accurate. That’s conceptualizing the situation “from outside”… which is how our intellectual tradition has taught us to operate. Our egos stand outside the moment and describe things objectively, as they really are. And then it gets into issues like whether the ego is really in the left brain or whether both sides are actually involved, etc. We can try to be more scientifically accurate in our description, and get further and further away from what we need to understand.
So another way to think about this is “from inside” – from the standpoint of being here in the moment. We need to teach our egos how to do this… and in the cultural background of the modern world, we are almost starting from scratch. From the standpoint of the moment, the world is not made of things but of what happens, in the moment. It’s a world articulated by verbs and adverbs and prepositions, not nouns and adjectives. It’s a world that only exists in real time, where the past is gone and the future isn’t here yet.
From this point of view, the two-sidedness of consciousness consists in two movements, two directions of being in the moment. There is the direction out of the moment, into the world in our heads – this world we evolve for ourselves and talk about with each other, where past, present and future all coexist, in objective reality. And there’s the opposite direction back into this ongoing present time, which is really where we always are, together. You say, “the moment is experienced” – yes, exactly, and experience is only in and of the moment. It’s where we always are, and yet being humanly thoughtful is always pulling back from the world, stepping out of our experience and putting it into words, so we can deal with it more carefully and intelligently.
But words also point us back into our experience. The word “sunset” is a reminder to do something other animals don’t do – go outside and be quiet for a few minutes and just look at it. The word “appreciate”… or “being in the moment” – these are invaluable to us, just for getting us to turn around and pay attention.
Now these two movements are not merely different, they are radically opposite. Even though they are both at work in everything “consciousness” does. This word can be very misleading, because to condense the two movements into a single noun implies a oneness which is exactly what consciousness does not have. The closest our tradition comes to an adequate description of this particular kind of two-ness is in the Christian language of sin and redemption. To “repent” means to turn around, and there is a sense of rescuing life from death involved in finding that moment of stillness you talk about. The two movements may seems to blend into a constant “flow of consciousness” where we are both aware of our experience and also constantly commenting on it. This effortless cooperation between the two sides of our mind works so well because it’s primarily what has evolved, in the course of human evolution; it’s what we do. But the nature of “consciousness” will never be remotely understood so long as it’s imagined as a oneness of “intelligent awareness”. To be “aware” in a human sense is constantly to be engaged in two opposite, almost incompatible ways of using our minds.
Before the beginnings of civilization, a balance had been reached, in many different ways, in many different hunting-and-gathering cultures and planting cultures. Then the organization of culture around cities opened up many new evolutionary opportunities, including written language. In a culture without writing – and until quite recently, this is the kind of culture most humans lived in – words exist only in the moment, only in real-time, one-on-one connections between people. These spoken words keep alive a shared world outside the moment, that encompasses past and future, things near and things far away, obligations and necessities. But writing does something more – it not only keeps the shared world alive in the moment, but represents it as entirely independent of the moment. Something written down can exist over many centuries, and written words imply the same kind of absolute lastingness at the basis of the world itself. You and I can talk with each other about reality, but we’re still just talking, face-to-face in the moment. When something gets written down, it belongs to a different realm, where the face-to-face aspect of existence can be entirely forgotten, where we can focus only on what’s really real.
The point of that last paragraph is to say, for about 2,500 years our tradition has focused only on reality – at least, in writing. That is to say, it’s evolved elaborate conceptual systems to support the movement of consciousness out of the moment, to describe the world we live in as if we weren’t in it, as if we could “see” it objectively, from a standpoint outside space and time. Meanwhile, the two-sidedness of our humanity continued to evolve through face-to-face connection, day to day, as children grew up to become men and women who became attached to each other and raised families together. But this side of life went on entirely unnoticed by the intellectual culture that evolved through writing. Not until it began to show up in novels, during the 19th century, mainly those written by women.
So our situation now is that our minds are very highly skilled in perceiving the world “from outside” – virtually all of our conceptual skills pertain to this point of view. And we’re aware of the other side, but have almost no way to think about it. It can easily seem as though trying to put it into words makes no sense. To keep our awareness of the moment pristine we need to learn to be without words, as in Buddhist meditation. Yes, I certainly see the sense of that – but it’s not what I’m after. That point of stillness is the furthest point of detachment, the movement of consciousness out of the world into its own space. It’s the ego escaping all its own entanglements in the world of experience, it’s the ego stopping itself, quieting all the voices. And it’s also the point where “repentance” in the deepest sense becomes a possibility. This is not about alleviating guilt, but about turning around and reaching for the world with our hearts, and letting in the uniqueness of what’s there for us in this particular moment.
Where I’m going with all this – I really thought it would be my third paragraph, I hadn’t realized I would take such a roundabout way of getting here. It’s not just the human mind that has this “two-ness” at its core. The world also has this same two-ness. It has both the reality we know so well how to describe, from that objective standpoint “outside” space and time, and also the other side that we see only by coming back to the moment from the world of words in our head. That side of the world – the world we actually experience – is not made of things but of happening – of momentary connections between things. These connections don’t last, but they communicate. They make up a web of events that are instantly gone, but make possible other events… like the ephemeral nets of firing neurons in our brains that shift every instant, but somehow sustain our “illusion” of a constant conscious awareness in a stable reality through time.
Whether we’re thinking about the physical world or the human world, there are these two sides. There’s the objective facts of the situation, what things are and where and when, and then there’s also what goes on between them in the moment, each moment summarizing the past in order to pose a question for the future. We are incredibly good at describing objective reality, while we have almost no clue about how this system of present-moment communications works, as the medium of connection between us. But the “between” side has its own kinds of structure, just as rich and complex as the structure of the object-world. Whether we’re thinking of human beings or of atoms, the relationships between them are inseparable from who and what they are “in themselves”. In a way this is completely obvious. What’s not at all obvious is how drastically our mental perspective emphasizes subtleties of fact while discerning feelings only in the most rudimentary way.
So it turns out I do have a point, which I summarize: quieting the ego so we can find a moment of peace, opens the door to another side of the world. We need not only to free our egos from entanglement, but we need to learn to reach back, which means enlisting the ego and its capacities in support of something beyond itself. Artists and musicians and poets know about this – how to focus and discipline and structure something that’s essentially spontaneous and uncontrolled – coming back into present time with a sense of purpose. But if what’s needed is to reconceptualize the world in a very different way, then somehow we have to bring the ego’s intellectual capacities, its most powerful instruments of detachment, into the service of reconnection and appreciation.
Reader’s please feel free to respond and we can look forward to Conrad’s post’s on his own blog in the near–sometimes soon….