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Archive for June, 2010

Desire

Photo by Courtney Hartzell

So we create our own reality.

The world responds to what we want. It becomes whatever we see it as. In fact, it doesn’t exist at all until we see it.

That’s the mind-blowing revelation of Quantum Mechanics.

It’s hard to put this knowledge into practical use. We are conditioned to believe the material world is what it is, regardless of what we might wish it to be. We are merely outside observers of nature, struggling as best we can to understand and come to grips with it. This outlook was the basis of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century, the triumphal discoveries of Descartes and Newton and Galileo that lie at the heart of classical physics. And it served us well for 300 years, resulting ultimately in the incredible technological civilization of the modern Western World. It seemed to explain everything. But there was just one little problem with it.

We have minds. And minds don’t obey the laws of classical physics.

See, the thing is, minds seem to have freewill. And freewill is contrary to the deterministic laws of science.

I like to play a philosophical game that highlights the dilemma here. The game goes like this: I think of something I want. I then ask myself why I want it. I ignore the mundane rationalizations and justifications I can usually conjure up to support my desires. Instead, I ask myself why I want this particular thing instead of another thing. Where does this wanting come from? Do I choose to want it? And if so, why don’t I choose to want something else? Or choose to choose to want something else? Or choose to choose to choose? At what point does my choice become concrete, become final? How far down do the turtles really go?

What I’ve found in playing this game is that I quickly reach a level at which my wanting is not a choice at all. It’s more like a case of it is what it is. Understanding this puts me back in the position of being an outside observer—this time, of my own inner compulsions.

So am I standing inside or outside?

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Progress

I tend to view every step on my spiritual journey as a new beginning. It doesn’t matter what I’ve experienced, or what I think I’ve experienced, or what I think I’ve learned or failed at, or where I think I might be on the path. That one step, the next step, is my only experience. It is the beginning. It is where I am. And it determines where I am going.

Nothing else matters.

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Community

I’m a message board junkie.

I’ve been a contributing member of one or another chat site, message board or listserver since 1994, when I first found myself talking online with a group of Mormons I was introduced to by a work colleague. I met a lot of intelligent people there, who provided me with respectful, thoughtful discussion—even if some of the ideas being presented were a little “out there” for the avowed atheist I was then. More than that, I enjoyed the sense of community, and relished the idea that I actually had friends all over the world. The Internet was intoxicating. 

Today I’m mostly found commenting on news media sites or the personal blogs of friends. I tried the new social media, such as Facebook and MySpace, for a couple of years, but they aren’t quite the same. Too much going on there, perhaps, for me to really keep up with it all. People tweet their 140 characters to their “What I’m Thinking” entries at a rate I often find dizzying. As much as I like the underlying concept, at times I have found it exhausting. And most of the 108 “Friends” on my list have never said a word to me, even when I post on their Walls. I still maintain a FB account, and visit it on occasion, but I’m not fully involved there anymore. 

Maybe that relates to my dislike of big cities, and preference for smaller towns. 

Because now I focus on the smaller online communities to be found on blogs. I’m a big fan of community, by the way. Strange thing for an admitted agoraphobic to say, I know, but life is full of paradoxes. I make a concerted effort to engage in real-world community activities on a regular if limited basis; and yes, sometimes it takes all of my inner strength to be able to step out into the city streets and interact with people. But I do it, because I believe in it. Likewise, although I’m often beset by raging mental demands to flee the blogs, I continue to contribute to them because I believe in them, too. There is much of value to be found there. 

Of most value, I think, are those individuals with whom I vehemently disagree. 

My left-of-center stance is a conscious choice. At times it conflicts with my natural tendencies and feelings and reactions, requiring me to make a concerted effort to overcome them, much like my penchant for introversion. But that’s what spiritual work is: The deliberate overriding of instincts and animal needs in favor of behavior that does not necessarily benefit me in a direct way. Concession to the greater good. Putting myself in the other guy’s place. Acknowledging that I might be wrong. 

Watching others argue their positions against me causes me to investigate my own, both my position and my argument, to see if they actually are based on reality, or if they are instead simply wishful thinking that I refuse to relinquish. To honestly make sure they are not based on arrogance or ignorance or self-involvement, and to reconsider my positions if they are found to be. 

And, in turn, not to press those positions upon my opponents. 

Everything in this existence is interconnected, which means that a black-and-white stance is untenable and indefensible. Not everyone understands this yet. Although I understand it enough to discuss it on my blog, I admit I don’t encompass it fully. People who hold a diametrically opposite view still tick me off, especially if they know how to press my buttons. But I think I can honestly say I’m learning. Sometimes we have to accept consequences we would rather not, make concessions with people we’d prefer to dominate, release beliefs we’d rather hold onto. But it’s a sign of mature evolved humanity to be able to embrace those consequences, to resist the urge for domination, to let false ideas go. I don’t always have to be right. I just have to be sure my views are based on actual evidence, rather than on what I want to be true. 

So I’m very grateful to those sparring partners I find on the ‘Net. They are teaching me how to become grounded in reality. For that, I thank them, all of them.

And I think my blog addiction is warranted.

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Clarification

But in both cases, we’re just making the whole thing up.

I feel this statement, made in the last post, needs some clarification.

If you’ve been following this thread from the beginning, you know I embrace a view of human consciousness—proposed by such eminent scientists as Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff—that posits consciousness as the result of the collapsing of Erwin Schrödinger’s wave equations at the subatomic level, thus revealing the platonic Ideals that lie at the foundational structure of the Universe. In other words, it suggests that Ideas, Thoughts, and Awareness are what the Universe consists of, as opposed to absolute “solid” material objects floating in empty space and interacting with one another in accordance with strict deterministic laws. This concept was first suggested by the physicist Sir James Jeans in 1930, when he wrote that the Universe was less like a great machine and more like a great thought.  (The Mysterious Universe, Cambridge University Press.)

To this modern scientific viewpoint I added the Jungian theory of archetypes, which posits the existence of a set of psychological “entities” or “forces” or “symbols” that represent deep meanings and significance within the human mind. These entities appear to us in our dreams in such a consistent manner that they are able to be categorized and applied across cultures and sexes. They are the energies of which our consciousness is made. And thus they reflect our being, our personalities, our individuality, our awareness of who we are. 

I merged these two concepts—quantum collapse and archetypes—to come up with a view of consciousness in which this psychological energy encompasses all of space and time, while at the same time flowing sequentially along lines of traceable and unique algorithms. Material (physical) brains “tune in” to particular frequencies of quantum waves the way a radio tunes in to stations, to produce an “individual” or a “personality” or an “ego”. But that individual is not real in the same sense that a rock is real; it is not, as Jean-Paul Sartre might say, an en-soi, but is rather a por-soi. It doesn’t exist as an absolute entity. It is instead the temporary product of interfering frequencies of subatomic events occurring within a limited but highly complex electro-chemical neural network inside a human skull. 

These events are subsequently interpreted by the imaging components of that network as the “reality” in which the individual exists. But the very fact that these images are interpretations necessarily negates their absoluteness. Every neural network is subtly different, being hard-wired in patterns determined by its experience; thus it interprets its inputs in subtly different ways. The end result being: Reality is different for every individual. 

This is pretty much the same as saying we are making it all up.

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Goad

I experience the world as a dream. I don’t mean I consider it a dream, as if I’ve taken up some philosophical viewpoint; I mean I experience it in the same way as I do a dream—or a hallucination, or an illusion, or a memory. In dreams, archetypal figures take on roles and play out events according to certain rules, teaching us the meaning of our existence and nudging us towards Enlightenment. I think the events I experience in my waking life are the same–that they are interchangeable with those in dreams. Someone in a dream telling me to change a behavior is the exact same thing, to me, as you telling me to change a behavior. All of my life, everything in my existence—waking, sleeping, meditating, going to work, talking to street people, building relationships, giving money to charity, shopping, getting sick, relishing friends, having sex—moves me towards Enlightenment, which is to say, Awakening, which is to say, Waking Up From This Dream. 

The archetypes are ancient psychological structures that exist between everyday reality and what a Christian would call Heaven, what a Buddhist would call Nirvana—in a hypnopompic state that provides us glimpses into higher levels of consciousness, into which we are thrust in involuntary and often terrifying clarity. They are guides along the way, signposts and omens and examples. They goad us. 

We interpret these goads in accordance with our outlook on life. Some see them as gods, others as angels, others as faeries, others as aliens. These are all the same thing, in different guises, appearing to each individual in accordance with the psychology of the person with whom they are interacting. In other words, they are what we expect to find. But they all have the same qualities, make the same demands, play the same roles. And they have done so for all of human existence.

They are the psychological equivalent of Quantum Mechanics. When we investigate the nature of reality by splitting a particle, we expect to find other particles—so we do. When we investigate the meaning of our lives, we expect to find higher beings there to help us, to guide us, to create us, to succor us. So we do. 

But in both cases, we’re just making the whole thing up.

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Expanse

A clear warm day like today transports my being to the outer reaches of the Cosmos. With the blue above my head expanding into infinity, I cannot help but feel my mind and soul expand with it. It’s as if I have no skull, no skin, no limitation, no barriers. I am the sky and the blue and the space and the galaxy.

The mundane activities of my life usually seem pretty much meaningless in the broader scope of things. Yet I know this is not true. What I do here, now, in all my insignificance, is part of the greater unfolding of Existence. And it’s a necessary part; I have a role to play that enables this unfolding.

The Universe could not exist without me.

In the sixth Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, Spock displays a painting of the expulsion from Eden in his quarters. He explains its presence by saying it reminds him that the Universe continues to unfold as it should. An open day like today reminds me of that. The warm wind blows, the trees dance in response; what more could be desired?

And the bird I killed on the freeway this morning, shocked and broken and gasping as it rolled across my windshield, not wanting to die, is part of that unfolding, too.

I have to remember this.

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Perception

The problem with perception is it doesn’t really perceive anything.

We assume that what we experience of the world is what is really there. We think of our senses as open channels, freely allowing outside stimuli to impinge—somehow—directly on our brains, thereby creating—again, somehow—perfect representations of what is “out there,” and transmitting these representations to something we call “self”—something that is just as indefinable as any other part of the process.

When you think about it, this makes little sense.

Perception is a much, much more complicated process than this. It involves quantum events, multiple signal conversions, digital imaging sequences, reinterpretation, emotional input, memory, comparison, and probably dozens of other physical and mental subroutines we don’t even know about yet.

A good example of the inference inherent to perception is vision. The optic nerve connects to the retina of the human eye on the inside, rather than on the outside. As a result, we have a blind spot precisely in the middle of our vision in each eye. But instead of seeing a black dot in the center of our field of view, we see a continuous field of environmental inputs. This is deceptive; what is actually happening is the brain is interpolating the blank region from the surrounding field. In other words, it’s making it up.

This is why it is easier to see a single faint star in the night sky by using peripheral vision. When we look at it directly, the blind spot blocks it out. The brain tries to compensate, but all it has to work with is empty black space, so the star remains invisible. But when we look a bit to the side, the light from the star actually enters our retina, and we can see it.

But even then, what we see is not really the star. It’s our brain’s interpretation of the stream of photons impinging on our retinas, which is translated into electrochemical impulses traveling along the optic nerves, which are assigned meaning depending upon where in the brain they arrive. Send photon-generated impulses into the region of the brain designated for aural input, and one hears sounds instead of seeing images. This is what happens, for instance, on an LSD trip.

So our experiences are dependent upon the nature of the incoming impulses, the path they follow, the destination they reach, the chemical environment of that destination, the connectivity to other regions of the brain, and the emotions associated with those regions.

And this is what we call “reality”….

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