Monday, January 28, 2013

Memory Creation and Psychopathy

In The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain by James Blair, Derek Mitchell and Karina Blair, when describing possible environmental contributions to the development of psychopathy, the authors noted that while damage to the hippocampus due to the release of too much cortisol from stressful events will result in a degraded ability to regulate the release of stress hormones, they did not think this would contribute to psychopathy as the hippocampus has been indicated to being involved with memory and spatial reasoning “It is unclear why impairment in either memory or spatial processing would cause psychopathy” (p. 35-36).

This statement sparked some thoughts derived from other literature I’ve read, with the result being a curiosity as to whether I am now embarking on a wild-goose chase of disparate connections or my pondering is actually leading to something legitimate. Time will tell and undoubtedly I’ll have to do some more research as to whether people with far more experience than I have covered this. Until then, here are some thoughts and perhaps it’ll spark some return reflections from others.

My initial inquiry centers on memory and I recall the book by Gerald Edelman entitled A Universe of Consciousness. While the point of the book is to establish within an embodied neurology a theory of consciousness, both what it is and how it developed, Edelman spends significant time on the nature of memory and its relation to human interaction with the environment. Edelman first articulates the notion of reentry as being central to his view of human neurology, describing it as “the ongoing, recursive interchange of parallel signals between reciprocally connected areas of the brain, an interchange in space and time.” Essentially this boils down to being like a teeter-totter of neurochemistry, with the action of one side having a result upon the other and vice versa, though when it comes to the brain there is no such thing as a single connection but thousands. A result of reentry is synchrony between functionally specialized areas of the brain. “This synchronous firing of widely dispersed neurons that are connected by reentry is the basis for the integration of perceptual and motor processes” (pg. 48). This integration is the fundamental building block of human behavior. Through the emergence of the thalamocortico complex, the reciprocal connectivity between the thalamus and the cerebral cortex, perceptual categorization in the posterior brain was able to be linked with value-based memory of the anterior areas of the brain, providing the mechanism for the creation of a “remembered present” whereby previous experiences could be linked with current or imagined contingencies.        

Rather than viewing memory as a snapshot of an event, Edelman posits that “a memory is not a representation; it is a reflection of how the brain has changed its dynamics in a way that allows the repetition of a performance” (pg. 95). “These changes are reflected in the ability to repeat a mental or physical act after some time despite a changing context, for example, in ‘recalling’ an image.” There is some linkage here that could be made to Dawkins’s and Blackburn’s notion concerning the meme. The sometimes parasitical nature of memes and memeplexes, when looked at from a neural point of view indicates a connection with certain behavioral patterns that are not beneficial for the host’s reproductive well-being but seem incapable of being stopped. Memory, according to Edelman, is not a separate function of the brain, but a result of numerous interconnected pathways. This interconnectivity results in “a key property of memory in the brain: that it is, in some sense, a form of constructive re-categorization during ongoing experience, rather than a precise replication of a previous sequence of events” (p. 95). Memory is like the continual creation of an expanding symphony rather than a discrete set of experiences being added one to the other. The “extrinsic signals convey information not so much in themselves, but by virtue of how they modulate the intrinsic signals exchanged within a previously experienced neural system.” In other words, an external stimulus acts not by adding large amounts of new information, but “by amplifying the intrinsic information resulting from neural connections selected and stabilized by memory through previous encounters with the environment” (pg. 137). Memory is like a painting then, with established colors being done over and over again, adding layer upon layer, when various colors are inspired by present events, leading some to be heavier or darker than others despite having all been originally created at the same time or out of the same experience.

        

Related to memory is the creation of an internal biological-reference or self. Owen Flanagan, in The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them, describes the self, most often referred to as “I” in personal narrative, as primarily indexical. “’I’ is how we denote the biological and psychological continuity of our unique first-person stream of consciousness” (p. 224). The “I” seems to be a result of the primary consciousness associated with Edelman’s construction of memory and the individual’s ability to create a remembered present, a connection between past experience and current or imagined context via the reconstructive properties of memory. “The fact that ‘I’ uttered today seems just like uttering the word yesterday is, first, because the conscious stream is sensibly and subjectively continuous and, second, because in the normal course of things we change very little from day to day” (p. 226).

If the role of the hippocampus is to consolidate short-term memory into long-term memory in the cerebral cortex, and an impairment in its function results in a loss of control for regulating stress hormones, then there exists a possibility that this breakdown could also lead to a difficulty in normal responses to stressors and a consequent difficulty in integrating stressful events into the continuing creation of a self-narrative. An inability to integrate events will result in undifferentiated anxieties that need to be treated by behavior, leading to a potential increase in instrumental or goal-directed behavior, the particular manifestation of which will be determined by social context. For example, stealing $50 is pointless for someone with millions but significant for someone with five cents.

Blair et al. note that “individuals with psychopathy show reduced responding to threatening stimuli.” These individuals also show “reduced emotional responses when imagining threatening events and reduced augmentation of the startle reflex” (The Psychopath, p. 50). This reduction in integrating stressors and events could be indicative of hippocampus degeneration leading to a difficulty in learning from these events and any changes to the self-narrative that usually result. In fact, it is later noted by Blair et al., individuals with psychopathy “present with particular difficulty for instrumental learning tasks that require the formation of stimulus-punishment associations.” Negative responses to behavior, which normally result in a changing of behavior for people, the psychopath seems incapable of processing. This lack of response seems due to a lack of empathy, which at core is simply the ability to associate the external stimuli of others with similar internal stimuli and thus experience a mirrored response. As Oatley, Keltner and Jenkins in the textbook Understanding Emotions note, “emotions guide action in a world that is always imperfectly known, and can never be fully controlled. It is not so much that emotions are irrational, rather that when we have no fully rational solution because we do not know enough, they offer bridges toward rationality” (p.261). Without these bridges, the psychopath is limited in his/her integrative ability and thus with connecting with others and assimilating new experiences.

The conclusion of all this is not that Blair et al. are necessarily wrong with their supposition of the hippocampus lacking a role in psychopathy development, rather I’m just noting that there should be more research into self-narrative development and the role the hippocampus may have in the reciprocal processing pathways that are at its core. The result may be a better understanding of not only the underlying mechanisms that guide emotional development but also why certain memes are so readily accepted by the brain of the psychopath. Perhaps, with these new insights, a workable therapy could be developed that focuses not on fixing emotional integration itself but on restructuring the self-narratives that provide the means for doing so leading to an increased focus on attachment.

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“Journeys Of A Spiritual Atheist” is a collection of entries from 2012 categorized and organized to help with the integrating the flow of information. It is available on Kindle and Nook and will soon be available as a paperback.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Expression Is Not Always About Freedom

In a psychology textbook from college there is a picture of teenagers all dressed in various states of goth or other styles of dark clothing, the caption under it declaring this to be a form of social mimicry and conformism. I certainly had a good laugh then and I’d be lying if I said it still didn’t bring a smile to my face. I can guarantee that were you or I to ask any of those teens they’d swear up and down that they were solid individuals completely against the “system” of social conformity and just expressing the way they were free to do so. Or at least something of that sort, as I’m likely giving many of them more philosophical credit than due. From our fashion to even much of the thoughts we have, these are simply regurgitated social memes taken in by other influences, media and relational connections, funneled through one of our own particular narratives but largely flowing into manifestation with little input from the all-powerful ego we so amusingly think we possess.

“I just want to be me,” could be the siren call of modern America, the underlying selfish declaration beneath so much of conservative and liberal religious ideology alike, and the rallying cry for every fad and Oprah-inspired unscientific diet craze. We’re so busy wanting to just be us, wanting to be original or an individual that we lose sight of the anxiety of being unnoticed that undergirds all of this and in the process become even less individualistic than we started as.

I wrote in “Freedom From, Not Freedom To Do,” about how the mere ability to do something does not equate to real freedom when it does not come from a place of a life-giving and community-acknowledging frame of reference. Without this soul-deep understanding of an interrelated and interactive reality where no one person exists as an island no matter their magnificence, we become but disassociated flotsam floating in a sea of possibility and without any purpose. So it is here, expanded, that in the expression of what we call our “self” we often are so charged with doing something that we do no more than continue in bondage to old ideas given a shiny new polish.

I’m thinking now of the man or woman embarking on a string of marriages, despite having declared that marriage wasn’t important. I’m thinking of the woman or man who puts on the face of joy so they never see the bodies of relationships left behind. I’m thinking of the man or woman latching onto every new diet fad, every new fantastical spiritual craze, mentally screaming themselves hoarse in an attempt to leave behind old ideas of worthlessness and angst even as they cling desperately to those very stories in the chill of the night. In expressing ourselves there is no inherent or necessary joy to be found if such occurs while we are running away with chains dragging behind us.

As I’ve written before, I identify as both an atheist and as polyamorous, a social combination that has me looking at times like a blood-spattered biker entering a nunnery. And no not like the nunnery from Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail,” that would just be awesome (if you’re not sure the reference please watch the movie and laugh). Within these two groups there is found a great deal of people who are loudly “just expressing” themselves. Now, before I go further let me unequivocally note that the mere existence of what society considers outrageous behavior does not in any way necessitate that said person is doing so from a place of pain and escapism, ignoring their real issues. The 9-5 monotony of corporate work, the swallowing of one’s pride, being poorly compensated for work while management basks in ridiculously huge dividends, all of this and more that characterizes “society” is an insanity on par with thinking of oneself as being an egg and has little to no basis for calling out anyone else for being escapist and ignoring their problems.

That said, the similarity we all share by virtue of belonging to the hilarity that is humanity, is a profound ability to seek healing through expression while ignoring the why of our behavior. Not every curious behavior can stem from this, but the reality of it is far too widespread not to make some general remarks. I have met far too many people shilling atheism, as I originally did, from a place of child-like wailing or engage in polyamory because they’re simply playing the field in search of a new monogamy but want to make it sound as if it’s more special than that. It is not, however the tone of this writing so far may indicate, from a place of frustration (or not entirely) that I am speaking but from a place of empathic pain, of shared discomfort and a fierce desire to have others reeling from real healing from within a space real peace.

In a recent conversation with a truly wonderful friend of mine it was brought up that there’s a difficulty in being truthful and wanting to engage in open/honest communication, but also wanting to spare someone the pain of hurt feelings or simply coming across like an uncaring person. We all know the person who declares themselves “too honest,” when the reality is they just like spouting off their opinion no matter the emotional repercussions. The result of this conversation was an emergent principle, or at least one now better articulated, stating that sharing one’s thoughts must first come from a place of acknowledging the space created between the two (or more) people and from within that space know what the boundaries are for expression. At no point does this allow for lying (I agree with Harris that lying is never a good idea, a point I’ll address soon in another entry) and if a question is asked that one may feel uncomfortable addressing fully, the responsibility rests upon the person asking to say how much of or whether they are ready for a full answer.

Turning this principle around we come to an answer concerning the current difficulty with expression as escapism rather than expression as freedom. In the manifestation of new behavior let us first ask ourselves what space we are operating out of, both in relation to our internalized stories and with those of whom we are about to share. If the space still holds spots of darkness then let us first begin by addressing them, embracing them, and politely asking them to be gone as they are no longer needed. When the space exists in which those stories no longer have as much power then begin questioning how much the particular behavior is important to do. Often it may not be all that significant anymore and interest may be drawn towards something that is far more life-giving. If it’s still significant, well then by all means, get your groove on and be proud, knowing your expression is from a place of grace and a desire to spread joy.

This process is not an easy one and certainly is not one that I find myself always following through on. I get depressed and will eat an entire pizza rather than addressing the nature of the depression, an expression of myself that brings definite momentary delight but no long-term solution. We all I am quite certain can come up with such small though poignant examples. Life is not always about doing something exactly all the time, but about an upward spiraling of awakening, building upon practice and knowing our dance is beautiful.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Answers To A Question: No, Yes, Maybe

My last entry, "The God That Is There and Nowhere," concerned the difficulty associated with defining god and how atheists in particular, though everyone else does as well, fall victim to accepting the assumption that god is or should be defined by fundamentalism and so-called traditional religions. I pointed out that “God” has no distinct reference point in itself, however much Platinga would have us believe otherwise (for a critique of his type of thinking, albeit completely irreverent, see here). In other words, while “God” has many and sundry potential definitions there is nothing to which it applies as distinctly itself, existing as it does as a mere self-referential data point connecting only to an individual’s cognitive state. This is much like the case for love, existing as it does in many many forms for various people within a multitude of cultures, though happily and with some fascination we can isolate the neuro-chemicals associated with those associated mental states.

Given this state of affairs, there is simply no reason to placidly accept for yourself what another claims, instead offering to engage in a dialogue and parsing out for the purpose of creating your own meaning what such a powerfully emotive term will mean for you. Notice I didn’t say anything about truth here since as “God” has no reference we’re merely talking about meaning and meaning is almost completely context-bound. Once someone’s personal meaning is expressed as relating to various claims about experience (beyond the phenomenological) and the universe, then it becomes about truth and is therefore open to criticism. Here then is where a more thorough understanding of atheism comes into play.

Growing up as I did in fundamentalist conservative Christianity, I began studying apologetics at the rather amusing age of 15, amusing because my brain was undoubtedly going haywire with hormones and my energy was spent on determining the efficacy of my religious faith rather than pursuing women though considering my often abject failure at the latter during that time perhaps it’s not so amusing. Within the bounds of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Gordon Clark and others I was often presented with the notion that atheism was an affirmation stating effectively “the belief that there is no god.” I won’t go into the history of this brand of atheism as frankly the point of describing atheism this way had little to do with history and everything to do with keeping the onus for truth claims on the back of the un-believer, leaving the believer safely ensconced on the defensive, a place as any general would say is often the easiest way to fight. I find that most people tend to view atheism this way as well, which means the apologist has succeeded in defining within society what an entire group of people declare without actually consulting them.

Later on in my studies I came around a book by George H. Smith called The Case Against God. In it, Smith articulated what is known as the negative or disconfirming definition of atheism, effectively stated as “the absence of a belief in a deity.” In other words, if one were to string out a person’s beliefs in a long line there’d be a hole or absence when coming to the subject of god or deity. Suffice to say this was the straw that broke the back of my by-then-difficult adherence to supernatural theism as now the question of affirming claims about reality rested where it should have rested all along, on the backs of the apologist, who by claiming the existence of a supernatural being and consequent means of epistemic acquisition found in revelation and faith, was making profound statements concerning the nature of reality and experience, all of which could be tested. As a side-note I reflect often on the humorous state of religious apologetics when finding arguments against evidentialist (McDowell and Geisler and Lewis) apologetics I  had only to go to the presuppositionalists (Schaeffer and Clark) and vice versa. Christianity certainly does a fine job of destroying its own claims all by its lonesome.

Why does any of this matter however? The affirmation or non-affirming stance of someone are powerful answers to various questions, not least of which to that of the existence of a deity. It is ridiculously easy when presented with an opinion, however heavily laden it is by information and research, to pontificate from a space of ego-strength how one views said opinion, when the more authentic and honest response would be to declare “I don’t have an opinion” or if this is too burdensome, declare “I have some thoughts but I need to study more to give a truly worthwhile response.”

This is, incidentally and keeping in line with the theme of atheism for this entry, why I no longer adhere to either position of atheism strictly, as both address various aspects of the theistic question and serve up a more nuanced view of human experience. On one hand it is perfectly acceptable to declare affirmatively that “there is no god” as long as one has in mind a particular deity. Frankly all mono-theists are atheists in this sense when it relates to the Greek and Roman pantheon and to Hindu gods. What this position holds is the acknowledgment that what one is being presented with is a particular claim and, through an understanding hopefully garnered by dialogue, can then declare a yes or no to its claim and back up said position with reason and evidence. The negative stance, or “lack of belief,” offers up a foundation of skeptical inquiry where statements concerning reality are to be reflectively considered rather than mindlessly accepted or dismissed. Given the ubiquity of people’s notions concerning deity, an absence of belief here is not without some serious weight and helps clarify that when one declares the existence of an entity of extraordinary aspect, it is often best to withhold judgment until the claim is better articulated beyond the mere statement of said belief.

All this is considered when I declare my continued identification with atheism. Those claims within traditional theism, even those that are more carefully articulated have almost universally fallen short even within their own system, but also the concept of god has so many facets that to blankly deny all as if they're all of one form by virtue of using the same term is to not acknowledge the varied interrelated aspects of reality. Until a more carefully articulated form comes about, there’s an absence. So it is then with many other ideas we come across, from the mundane to the conspiratorial.

When faced with extraordinary or even contentious claims it is fully within anyone’s ability to bountifully declare their reaction, though as Mark Twain said “it is better to keep our mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What we can do instead is ask for clarification, see where the claim has reference to aspects of reality and find research and the linguistic understanding to analyze those connections, then determine whether the particular claim is entirely invalid or perhaps where aspects of it may hold weight or wait for further clarification and hence hold an empty space. There are so many ideas we come into contact with and so much to fill one’s time with that this often consuming nuanced approach is entirely inappropriate but when it comes to notions that have so many repercussions for how we view ourselves, others and the universe at large, perhaps it’d be a good idea to spend more time figuring things out than reflexively responding.
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“Journeys Of A Spiritual Atheist” is available on Kindle and Nook. It is a collection of entries from 2012 organized into categories and put in an order to help facilitate an understanding of the flow of information.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The God That Is There And Nowhere

I want to explain what many may wonder at as I continue promoting the publication of my collected entries from last year using the term “atheist.” Getting involved in online discussions has brought yet again to my attention how poorly the concept of god is often utilized and how unfortunate it is that those of us of a different spiritual persuasion assume as legitimate what fundamentalists often end up screaming about in their hand-made signs and thunder about from their pulpits that too often serve as political platforms.

I made the mistake in my extended history with fundamentalism and search through apologetics and religious philosophy to assume I knew everything the other side had to offer, to paint them with all the casual brush strokes I'd be taught. When I de-converted it was in no small part due to realizing just how badly the other points of view were being characterized and asked myself: if this were truth, why is there a seeming pathological inability to understand competing points? In my years post-faith I delved into a more militant style of atheism and frankly found much the same ideological shortcomings, people so incensed at the frankly well-established errors in religious ideology that everything was thrown out and concepts weren't carefully parsed.

While there are those who are accurate, mostly, in pointing to the god of western philosophers as being a speculative form based upon monotheistic thinking, it is not accurate to say that it is precisely the same god being addressed, as even a rudimentary reading of Kant, Descartes and Spinoza will indicate. Merely basing one's speculation upon old or largely bad ideas in no way demands subsequent articulations to be dismissed, no more than much of the science we have today should be ignored simply because it came from false ideas that were tweaked and revamped. The brilliance of Thomas Kuhn was not in pointing out that science is completely subjective and relative (a misunderstanding far too many people have of his thinking) but that science, like any means of understanding the world, operates from the perspectival basis of human cognition and hence is open to recalibration through the careful enunciation of new paradigms. When we were children we thought there lived monsters under the bed, as adults we know this to not be true, and yet do any of us mock a child in his fears or do we hold them and attempt explaining later, all the while knowing that development is more than physical but mental as well?

I think it best to point out that the concept of god is not a singular thing, there are various truth claims or references in play. What is often conflated for atheists/humanists is the references or claims towards metaphysics, forgetting that there are also claims towards ethics and ways of relating to life as well, among others. While certainly most religious apologists wish us to combine them all making their job, at least in their own minds, easier, it is certainly not a requirement of us to fall for it or accept their premises. Besides which, are we really going to claim that religion has done absolutely nothing good in any way for any individual or humanity at large? Shall we ignore the cohesiveness it often brings or the sense of peace or feeling of transcendence that those calling themselves atheists or humanists or pagans or some other often achieve by connecting with nature? Noting the positives of an experience does not mean we must accept the entire framing of the situation or accept what one ideology claims about everything else.

When I refer to god I am not making any particular metaphysical claims, nor am I making any specific, as of yet, ethical claims. God here is not a person, however much our language tends to point that way, nor is god an active force with intent guiding reality, at least in any way that is contrary to the active causal forces that already guide and shape us. That god in this way could be identified as the totality of those physical forces simply indicates that we live in a causal universe, one that acts from the premise of cause/effect relationships or karma as the buddhist would call it.

Ken Wilber in his integral philosophy notes that there are varying nests of being, of contemplation, of analysis which require varying modes of truth testing and so on. For instance, no amount of neurology is going to make me understand fully the first-person phenomenology that another goes through, to do so completely would be to be that person and thus defeat the attempt. We instead use dialogue, questions, narrative framing and so on to build a means of ascertaining the truth of any declaration of felt feels. It's what talk therapy is mainly about and the efficacy of its findings is found in the millions of people who have found real peace through its proper utilization.

The god here is of a nest far afield, one that holds all others not in a necessarily causal fashion but as a cognitive device much like the field of geology holds together, like an umbrella, various sub-fields of research. There is no such thing as just studying geology, it can always be broken down to a specialization and with it will often use its own language or terms that are not helpful in a different specialization though assuredly they can be integrated.

There is no association or equivocation between god and physics or any other physical science, this is the god of contemplation and meditation, a heuristic device only. It offers a way of framing felt feels and a sense of the transcendence that, however much neurology we may discover is likely to never equate to the experience itself, no more than a full analysis of a hurricane will provide for us the experience of what it feels to be in one. Though clearly a growing understanding of neurology, physics, psychology, and so on can help us better articulate and frame our phenomenological experience such that we do not fall victim to the great many errors we as homo sapiens are prone to.

It is well and good to analyze and take apart the error-ridden claims of religious ideology, like any other other thinking, but we all must and should answer to reason and the careful articulation of the scientific enterprise. However, we portray ourselves as lacking in nuance and thus shortchange our ability to understand the fullness of the human situation when we think and accept as wholly accurate a simple common understanding of spiritual concepts rather than, as good creators of intention that we are, filling in ideas with what we'd like and using them accordingly.

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“Journeys Of A Spiritual Atheist” is now available on Kindle, Nook and paperback through Amazon. It is a collection of the entries from 2012 which have been categorized and organized to help with the flow of information and how it is presented. If you are so moved to purchase, please do me the extra favor of leaving a review. Thank you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Freedom From, Not Freedom To Do

I would be remiss in my writing if, on the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day I did not write something, though more than the social pressure of doing so is a bone-deep appreciation for the trials and tribulations such a man went through without recourse to violence. For all my talk of serenity and humility, my work on the reduction of anger and judgment, all it often takes is a few minutes behind the wheel of my car and that journey is takes a sharp turn in a distinctly un-serene direction. Here is a man who was hit, spit on and suffered enormous indignities that most of us today would consider fictional were they not so well documented, such is our abject disgust for the actions. I could not and do not hope to achieve the eloquence and sheer magnetic quality of King’s speech but one message that stands out to me today is this:


Technological innovation has ushered in an age which provided for us the Enlightenment and Renaissance, the Romantic Period and what I may very take to calling the Age of the Internet. Until recently however the technical and scientific enterprise, without denying the profound help that it has brought to the physical welfare of very nearly the entire human race, did more than help us differentiate our ways of knowing and parse out nature into ever-more manipulatable finer points but it dissociated us from each other and denied the underlying spiritual truths that religions often merely brush by, picking up particles but never the whole thing. Freedom has long been characterized as the ability to do something, leading a character in the movie “Jurassic Park” to remark that we only focused on the fact that we could do something, not on whether we should. We soar with wings of titanium and forget the glory of the birds, we land on the moon and forget that our place in the universe is but one far-flung speck in the universe, and we cure disease and map the genome and yet forget that we are all truly and incredibly interconnected in an integral reality.

The current age, that of the Internet or Information or Knowledge, holds the promise of bridging the divide brought about dissociation and remind us of our integrated differentiation, of parts that create by nature of their being ever greater wholes. As Wiliam Ury notes in The Third Side, “Humanity is returning to a dependence on a basic resource that is, as in hunter-gatherer times, an expandable pie. We are returning to the horizontal relationships that existed among human beings for most of human evolution. The network is once again becoming the defining social organization for the human community.” This is not to make the mistake of so many liberal mystics and decry technology for a return to nature as of old. The hunter-gatherer is not a way of life without problems; very little freedom from tyranny, very little freedom from superstition and fear, very little freedom of self-expression for women and minorities and very little freedom from ignorance. What is simply being acknowledged is an appreciation of a world in which the principle resource object was expandable and the networks that characterized such a reality.

Information is now our expandable resource, breaking barriers and old ways of thinking, undoubtedly why the few despotic regimes that still exist attempt so hard to control it. But like roving bands following the movements of their food/clothing source, so the human race can and does find ways to access the sum-total of human knowledge, whether through smart phone or wind-up-powered computer.

I have spoken here in terms of freedom from and want to explain further. We can travel faster and farther than ever before and hence possess and freedom to do something, but it is small in the face of being free from oppression and ideological despotism, where one’s sense of importance and grandeur is forever dampened by the darkening influence of a philosophy of separation and brokenness. Whether this takes the form of conservative religious ideologies or political/social form like fascism, the result is a limiting of space to hold real freedom. We may have the freedom, some of us, to play video games for hours on end or watch endless television shows, having the technological know-how and acumen to do so, it is for naught if we are doing so to escape the terrifying reality that we do not possess the freedom from moral and existential castration, of being cut-off from our human potential.

This freedom from is precisely what Obama in his inaugural address today spoke to when he said: "The commitments we make to each other -- through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security -- these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Such programs and the underlying social cohesiveness that underlies them addresses both the reality of a social experiment in which none of us progress without the usage of resources that we all provide and had a hand in creating and a recognition that the greatness of the human condition is made possible by the freedom from caring about basic needs and thus to use our ever-widening conscious power to create.

What a focus on the freedom to do does is limit our imagination.  We expend our awareness only on the myopic vision of a single action, forgetting that everything we do not yet know is an infinite expanse awaiting its realization and instantiation. This is why dialogue or communal action is the foundation of a truly free society, taking from the infinite resource of information and expanding into the frontiers of the until-now unknown. As William Ury states, again from The Third Side, “…dialogues aim not to convert others or to reach agreement on the issues, but rather to promote mutual understanding and build relationships that can prevent escalation into violence." The freedom to do something, while often fully valid, is not the greater freedom, it merely points to the view we hold of the world, whether it be one of limit and dissociation or one of expansiveness and integration. We can, as King noted, learn to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.

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“Journeys Of A Spiritual Atheist” is available on Kindle, Nook and paperback at Amazon. It is an edited collection the entries from 2012 organized into themes and put in order to help with the flow of information.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Yes These Are The Emotions You're Looking For

Recently the sheer power of the human emotional life has been made apparent in stark personal ways, both in people I am close to and in recent headlines parading around from the weird/ridiculous/horrible events out of Notre Dame and fake/real dating to the flare up in the gun control pontifications (I hesitate to call it a true debate as it almost always boils down to lobbing verbal bombs at the other party rather than real engagement). We humans, even those who think they’ve transcended that status, are emotional creatures. Hmm…I’ll file that last sentence into the folder of absolutely stupendously profoundly obvious points and move on.

The emotional lives of our fellow life-inmates are as powerful as they are ubiquitous. We revel in the tearful confessions and get angry when there aren’t enough tears (seriously Lance Armstrong?); we read romance novel fluff and escape into the distorted lives of people we’d find disgusting were we to meet them in person and we turn on daily to the constant stream of “real life” portrayals of drama and chaos found on everything from docudramas to the truly fake reality shows. Throughout it all we are so constantly bombarded by emotional data that were it slime we’d be incapable of movement so encased in the sludge we’d be.

Rather disturbing and gross image above I realize. Here’s another one, referencing the movie “What The Bleep Do We Know?” While I cannot say enough how intellectually dishonest this movie is, there is a scene when the central character is dancing and having a crazy good time at a wedding with cartoons overlaying the shot indicating how she’s holding onto the IV line of her emotions which are flooding into her with every movement and touch, the emotions scampering about like squirrels on crack. I have yet to find a more potent portrayal of our emotional lives and how they overwhelm our systems with the sheer high of feeling, no matter what that feeling may be. Showcasing emotions as if they were drugs is precisely what is going on and should give us pause when getting down on ourselves when we’re not feeling what we’re “supposed” to be or what “we want to be.”

We’ve all been there and seen others go through it as well, those moments of depression or anger or bliss that overwhelm the senses and paint the world with all the skill of exploding balloons. We do things when under the spell which in other circumstances we likely would not have and the almost inevitable castigation that follows is yet another emotional reaction though for some bizarre reason we often assume this is more real than the previous effusiveness. Whatever is going on here?

Imagine for a moment a ball bobbing upon water held in a box with plenty of room between it and the top. Peaceful, serene, the ball just sits there, slowly moving as it floats upon the water. Then hook up a hose to the box and start shooting in more water from below. The ball starts roiling around, bouncing off the walls, all sense of equilibrium gone and any sense of calm destroyed. Were someone to be located inside that ball, there’d be little in the way of knowing what was up from down and certainly no way to form coherent thoughts.

Welcome to your emotional life. This is our reality. The ball could not move without the water being there and neither could we, emotions serve as the impetus for all action and are the guiding force behind all thought (thus destroying the supposed clear distinction between emotions and thinking). When overwhelmed with sheer force the ball has little input as to where it’s going to go or what it’s going to do, it’s just along for the ride and thus so are we when strong reactions occur. Once the turbulence calms down or begins to the ball may find itself under water still for a moment even if there’s nothing more being done and will take a moment to rise to the surface; so it is when we find ourselves in those moments of self-doubt or feeling “underwater” or “over-exposed” after an especially difficult or otherwise emotionally-laden response.

I am not advocating for the abdication of responsibility, I’m simply pointing out that just like that little ball in the box we’re not all as stable as we like to think. As the title to this entry pokes at in referencing the scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan tricks the mentally-deficient troopers into not noticing the very real presence of the droids staring right at them, so with emotions their constant presence and the effect they have on our lives is often difficult to keep aware of. Like with vision we often are only aware of emotions when something changes, giving rise to the idea that they are separate from our thoughts and thus providing an image of will and the self that is hopeless in making sense out of our lives or pointing to a truly legitimate basis for responsibility.

Daniel Siegel imagines human beings to be a triune entity with the brain/body providing the physical manifestation of action and the ground for the transference of the energy and information flow that is instantiated in emotions/thoughts within and through relationships. None of these three (brain/body, energy/information, relationships) are greater than any other, none of them are broken down to any other and none exist without the others presence, joined as they are within the existential reality of our experiential lives in the universe we find ourselves.

There is, thankfully, a reciprocity to this existence that is profoundly powerful and utterly beautiful. Not only are we not the disparate clumps of mass we sometimes feel we are, isolated and alone, separated from humanity, but we are neither wholly without tools to use to shape, albeit in small ways, the relational interaction we have as we think of our narratives. Responsibility does not mean ignoring the power of our emotional lives any more than it means self-flagellation every time we bob to the surface and realize what we’ve done isn’t in our so-called best interests. There was an interest reached in every feeling, there was and is a point to every reaction. We are not isolated creatures and reality is a constant relational interaction with everything, fueled and pushed along by the energy/information flow that is often bubbling up from beneath and outside of our awareness until we find ourselves shaken about.

Nothing we do, however much we deny it, is without purpose or intent. Responsibility and ethics start in the recognition of and determination to begin expanding our conscious lives and through concentration/focus begin funneling that energy/information down more healthy tracks.
We do reality and ourselves a disservice for drawing our meaning only from the after-effects of our emotional responses. The reactions themselves are an indelible part of our lives as well and they are the reason, from the small to the huge, for why we do what we do.

Embracing the whole of our existence will give us the freedom to cut ourselves some slack and perhaps put some sails on that bobbing ball.



© David Teachout

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Love Song To Humanity

I am a self-proclaimed news-junkie, spending likely 2-3 hours a day perusing various news outlets and often skimming through many of the comments left behind like so much detritus. The ubiquity of comments and their often contentious air is why I refuse to allow a comment section on my blog, figuring that anybody who wants to can take the time to send a personal email instead. However, news outlets do not have my lack of care concerning providing a simplistic forum to air one’s opinions as if they’ll make any difference in that format. Frankly leaving comments on articles seems to me close to yelling at a TV during a sports event, as if the mere expulsion of emotional content however vehement will translate through the electrical lines and out through the cameras to magically inform the referee “hey, you’re an idiot!” I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain (?) who said “better to remain silent and be thought a fool then open your mouth and remove all doubt.” The incessant need to, often at length, propound in profundity one’s knee-jerk responses provides ample grounds for noticing the sheer unadulterated gall of the human organism that in the midst of what is almost always vast numbers of unknown variables and the nature of knowledge being at best tentative and when absolute, only in a particular small context, we would declare so strongly our limited and limiting perspectives. Lest anyone think I’m pronouncing judgment upon high, let me be very clear that I have and no doubt will continue to do the same, indeed these little essays being sent off into the blogosphere are likely a case in point though I do find myself offering an internal rationalization that I’m at least attempting to provide a nuanced and largely objective point of view (though of course I would think that of myself).

I’ve hardly started off painting a rosy picture and perhaps should consider changing the title of this entry. Not yet though. While certainly the often vapid and ignorant pontifications being broadcast all over the Internet can be an indication of humanity’s failings, I can with my capacity as a meaning-creating creature choose to look at it another way. People are engaging! Though I am not a parent, it is inconceivable of me to look upon a child struggling to tie their shoelaces for the first time and lament how they’ll never achieve interstellar flight. Or to see the swirls and splotches of the latest painting as it is placed on the fridge and look forlornly upon a child who isn’t’ a Picasso. Or condemn as foolish the attempt by anyone to master an instrument, a mode of thinking or academic study and find it utterly deplorable that they haven’t reached the level of complete lack of error. Seriously, we are children. If the evolution of our species were laid out over the space of day, modern civilization would take up all of about one minute. Just how much are we hoping to have accomplished in that minute? A baby pops out of the mother’s womb and we expect what, the creation of sonnets and explorations of physics?

This is not a cop-out, this is an acknowledgment of our fragile and puerile state. The fact that we’ve done so much in that minute should give us pause, not that we still often succumb to our baser impulses and instantiate in our behavior ways of thinking that could be far more healthy. It’s a matter of perspective. Yes we are an opinionated bunch but on the flip-side we haven’t given up screaming to the heavens our existence! In our constant flurry of short lives we do not go willing into that cold dark night, we shout and scream and scamper about with all the glee and fervor of a creature that does not know how to quit.

Before I go further, let me ask you to allow me for a moment to wallow deep into the marrow of my liberal and humanistic roots. There is a Facebook meme going around that notes people have at their disposal in the form of a smartphone the totality of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips and we use it to send pictures of cats in funny poses to people. This is meant to be a sad reflection upon humanity and certainly it is ruefully amusing. But sad? Really? We have at our disposal the ability to destroy so much and yet we send pictures of cute animals. Glorious! The issue here is not the smallness of our passions but that we find passion in the small things. We are beset by constant siren calls from the media and many pulpits that civilization is doomed, that society as we know it is crumbling, that the economy is in various states of near-destruction, wars and rumors of wars, vast conspiracy theories that shrivel up the gonads in paroxysms of fear and yet through it all we laugh and find joy in sending silly photoshopped pictures of frowning cats with ridiculous quotations.

10,000 years ago life was indeed nasty, brutish and short for the vast majority of humanity. Now even the most disenfranchised of us have access to untold riches in comparison. This is not to ignore or downplay the very real social inequalities that exist nor the moral difficulties of perpetuating such disparity, but we should take a moment to take stock of where we have come from. Living a life of plenty is not so much concerned with the quantity of goods at one’s disposal but the intentional quality we impose upon what is in front of us. We may lament and seek to address the deprivations of the starving person but never should we attempt to take away the sheer joy of that same person having a simple meal or a roof over their head for a night.

I am hardly a devotee of Ayn Rand, but she did make a point, among several, that still sticks with me: reason is not an inevitable quality of our existence, it must be trained and learned. The evolution of our frontal lobes is a new thing and they are constantly beset by the rationality offered by the amygdala and hypothalamus, formed as they were amongst tooth and claw. We are but babes held in the arms of a snarling fearful animal. There is so much to learn, so much to grow and we are doing it every day. We may inundate ourselves with fiction but this also means we are reading and expanding. We may get our history far too much from movies but we are still moved by the struggles of yesteryear. There is room here for growth and the mere fact that most of us no longer sell a bride-to-be for cattle means we have come a long way.

Jason Mraz’s song “I Won’t Give Up” is one of my favorites and while it still holds a great deal of emotional resonance at an individual level, there came a point where I started singing along to it as if I was singing to humanity at large. “Just like them old stars I see that you’ve come so far” is indeed a testament to the progress from cave-dwelling superstition to soar as we do amongst the birds of the sky. “I don’t wanna be someone who walks away so easily, I’m here to stay and make the difference that I can make” should be a call that stirs the blood and lights up a desire for a revolution of the soul and the impartation of freedom to all, a freedom of broadening our awareness to ever greater vistas of our potential, looking back to see the blazing trails of stars who have come before us.

“I won’t give up on us, Even if the skies get rough, I’m giving you all my love, I’m still looking up, still looking up.” We need not give up even in the midst of struggle, we need not lose sight of our potential even in the midst of our foolishness and yes indeed we can still with hearts/minds filled with love, look up at what we can still do together.

Monday, January 14, 2013

To Fight Another Day Or Not At All

Argumentation, relationship dialogue, international relations, these and other group behaviors have been and are often described in metaphors of war or fighting. To “stand your ground” and “not give up the high ground” is easily associated with maintaining a stance in the face of “fierce opposition” or against someone who comes in with “guns blazing.” Unloading with “both barrels” is a common euphemism from the midwest in which I grew up and the very foundation of “lining up your facts” has corollaries in trench warfare. War and fighting have long been a fascination of mine, succumbing as I was incapable of not doing so, to the social stereotypes I was surrounded by with males being unequivocally associated with violence and the expenditure of force. Medieval weapons and later eastern warfare, most notably the samurai warrior, became and still are, fascinating subjects to me, however much I may have moved beyond the simplistic identification with the initial gender roles. More than images was the emotional connections and subsequent framing of life as conflict which had a more lasting effect and guided much of my philosophical development. To say that I enjoyed a good argument growing up in my teens and early twenties would be quite the understatement, I lived and breathed for it. The notion of stomping upon my enemies (for what else were they when viewed from a militant frame?) and obliterating their arguments like so much flimsy fortifications was a profound emotional high. Fundamentalist conservative Christianity, with its incessant and ridiculous identification as martyrs facing the overwhelming hordes of secular society, gave fuel to this tendency and righteous indignation towards any who didn’t see the battles which were constantly besetting the man of god. This tendency translated quite easily upon deconverting and finding myself in the land of ideological disenfranchisement (I was quite frustrated at not being able to find the raging secular hordes no matter how much I looked).

To rend and tear, destroy and smash, is to be a child ranting against the existentialist seeming futility of life. I imagine rather well just how much the urgency with which life often seems to be pushing upon us can be transferred and metamorphosed into energy patterns of anger and frustration, when movement is felt to be thwarted by the claims or views of the person “standing in your way” as if “blocking the road of life.” As you can see, the metaphors continue and with them a funneling of the energy of life into a dark and almost entirely pointless flailing of angst-ridden pathos. We each become under these circumstances our own Atlas carrying the weight of the world, straining under the pressure of constantly seeking a new “beachhead” or “conquering another piece of ground.” As an aside, that latter metaphor is amazing in its directing of the gaze upon the human ego, as if the very ground we walk upon is open to being owned or grasped in any way other than as a projection of our own imagination. The ground existed long before we came to be and will be there long after we have gone back from whence we came. But I digress.

Time and maturity, or at least what passes for a close facsimile, has tempered the passions, guiding the energy down narrower paths and learning to pick battles which are truly meaningful rather than just there to be fought. Notice of course that the framing is still going on, warfare is still a part of my worldview. It is not such a bad thing though at times the emotional connections conjoined with this view make life more difficult than it should be, a fact I often smile at ruefully and then continue anyway. Enlightenment, it seems, is less a cognitive acknowledgment than a behavioral shifting or soul-filled identification with. What is known is not always what is acted upon. Another digression but that seems to be the rule for this entry. In any case, as a self-identifying news junkie there is ample examples in today’s world of fiscal policy debates, geo-political movements, social uprisings and rebellions to spend all day pondering the ways and means of positional debate and contemplate the nature of humanity that it creates a world of such constant turmoil. The question put forth is rarely whether to fight or not, but what fight among so many one wishes to join.

Organizing my bookmarks on my browser brought me to the American Atheists website, an organization that supports the social-political needs of atheists and secular americans. In describing their legal philosophy, it was noted that “It should be considered an act of legal negligence for one to take a case to a higher court where it is completely predestined that the court will rule against a meritorious cause, and thereby make bad law not only in that case, in that region of the country, but, depending on which appellate court is chosen, make bad law for a much wider area, where the bad ruling will be the law until the case in question is ultimately, if ever, overruled.” This quote occurs amidst an excellent analysis of jurisprudence and as an answer to the tendency among some to want to fight every single battle, no matter how small or spurious the facts in question, via the courts. This struck me as a rather amazing philosophy to bring to life and so here we are.

Holding a space for principle and values is different than positional living, just as it is in negotiating as William Ury and Roger Fisher note in Getting to Yes. The first is capable of nuance and movement though this does not mean change, the latter is a black and white way of living where one’s idea is isolated only to a singular form and never the two shall be divided. For instance, the difference can be noted between the phrasings “I want to work on how we communicate together” and “It’s my way or the highway.” They both point to a value of communication but the latter is positional and incapable of movement. The other party may dismiss it, go around it or try to smash through it, but there is no sense in which the community aspect of communication is at all acknowledged and thus what could be a wonderful principle for living is reduced to a rock to be bludgeoned upon. There are many moments in life where one must stand in a place of principle and proudly declare their ideas, the civil rights movement and gender rights come to mind. Not every circumstance is answered by fighting, however, instead better handled by simply living. In everything from broad social difficulties to individual relationship frustrations, the question before us is not how we are going to fight but whether to do so at all or leave it until it the consequences of not addressing it are worse than the adverse consequences of doing so. From here we then have an opportunity to relate to life and others in different, often more progressive ways, than looking upon a battlefield never would have afforded us the chance to explore.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Principle of Communication As Communal-Creation and "Gap-Filling"

At some point in life there comes a time when interests wade into the realm of the romantic and, all aflutter with the maelstrom of neurotransmitters, find a realm of uncertainty as to what someone meant by a comment or what the intent was behind someone’s action. There is no way to communicate in such a way as to remove all doubt, all potential for error. I’ve written before about how we exist in others’ minds as internalized projections of our own narratives, reshaped and molded through the lens of the worldview and assumptions of the other person. The same applies to all communications, both bodily and verbal/written. Troll through any bar or social gathering and the sometimes painful reality of this situation is glaringly obvious even through the haze of alcohol and wafting scent of hormones run amok. We simply do not exist the way we think we do for other people. However, before frantic protests of “but he/she knows me!” become shrill, the situation is not nearly so dire as my melodrama is making it sound. Obviously in light of numerous examples from healthy relationships of both friendship and romantic to peace treaties and negotiations of all types there is plenty of room for good and accurate communication, where understanding of one party is at least close enough to what is being by the other to make life manageable. So what is going on?

I’ve previously mentioned a philosophical notion of which practical example I’ve taken to calling “gap-filling.” (Mentioned in entries “Absence of Knowledge Is Not Presence of Truth” and “Filling in the Gaps: Communication Failure in Relationships”) This behavior is shown when an absence of knowledge is identified and current methods of interpreting that absence are not providing the needed substance, leading to the supposition that by necessity another form of knowing must be used. I used this notion to indicate how some, often based on a misunderstanding of science combined with ignorance of the current facts at hand, declare the absence of certainty grounds for declaring their mystical or intuitive truth.

I also noted that the practice can be applied to personal relationships as well. In relationships “gap-filling” most often occurs when something has been said but it doesn’t quite match what is assumed to be true and so other knowledge, only tangentially related to the current situation, is identified to fill in the gap between what is said and the assumption. This is done rather than asking questions to clarify, undoubtedly because of concern that in fact the assumption is not true. Examples abound if one takes but a moment to ponder the numerous situations in which a friend comes crying to you hurt over the now known fact of someone’s lack of interest and you ruefully shake your head having known all along. Not to place myself above the fray here because I too have done the same thing, it’s certainly not exclusive to a specific gender. In any case, there is much room still despite the ubiquity of examples showing it can be done to work on making better communication.

I identify with polyamory as a relationship style or way of living. For those who don’t know, polyamory essentially boils down to loving multiple people at the same time. Since this quite basic definition could be used to describe nearly anyone who uses the term “love” to mean more than the romantic type, I will note that where poly differs is the intent of the follow-through. Where most will stick to pre-established societal distinctions, poly will explore love to the fullest extent that a connection can go, regardless of the number of people involved. Number means less than the quality of the connection being pursued and that quality is established based on the connection between the two or more parties involved. To say that this requires epic levels of communication would be an understatement equivalent to whatever immediate example just floated through your consciousness. Now, just as the pursuit of connections within poly takes on a more deliberate conscious intent than in the rest of society, so the same applies to communication. This is where I want to distinguish communication as an act and as a principle, hence the title of this entry.

“Gap-filling” applies to the communicative act, the substantive interchange between two or more people supplying information to one another. As Daniel Siegel notes, relationships are a combination of energy and information flow, a definition that in no small part can apply to consciousness as well with the addition of the individual felt experience. Communication is at core about, as even the root word notes, communion or the interchange of thoughts/emotions. Another way to look at communion is the union of community, where community means any group beyond an individual. Here is where the incredible nature and power of communication is known, where the interchange of information is combined with the flow of energy between two or more people in an existential union.

In other words, when you engage in communication with another you are joined in a created world, the making of which is a product of the individual means of interacting with information and the energy patterns associated with the history of experiences and their recall for everyone involved. Thus, communication is not just an act but a principle of living and we engage in it haphazardly at our peril. Yes, yes, I’m being melodramatic again, but I really can’t overstate this point. Communication is not two separate and context-free individual entities lobbing words at each other, it is an interplay of energy and information within the context of a context-full reality. Have you ever looked at a couple and marveled at the way they finish their sentences or simply seem to “get” one another and yet others don’t grasp the exchange? This is why.

Lest people feel vindicated here in declaring to others “you can’t understand,” I want to add that this knowledge is not incapable of being subject to criticism. We are all of us human and so all knowledge open to one is, albeit in a different level of nuance, knowable to another, but the difference in shading is not enough to make a completely different picture. This is where “gap-filling” comes in again, as it is one among many errors in communication that may indeed feel and is quite real to the person employing the behavior and in fact the knowledge may even be opaque to others for a time, but it is not outside of knowability. Often when someone declares “you just don’t know” it’s out of fear and a deep need to dwell in some delusion concerning themselves or the connection in question (but that’s another topic). Point being, if it is acknowledged as a living practice that communication creates whole new worlds of experience then one should be concerned with just how those worlds are being created and the nature of how they may feel exclusive or separating to others or engender such feelings within the people involved. Here is where the peril is and one of the foundations of the “Us vs. Them” mentality in political and social discourse.

I don’t want to leave on a negative though. Communication or communal-creation is a beautiful and powerful facet of human existence. There is no greater feeling than that engendered by the creation of our worlds when bonding with another, whether the practice be that of simply talking, doing an activity together or engaging in other forms of interaction from nestling on a couch reading to sex. What poly does is attempt to bring this communication principle and place it into constant conscious practice, but whether you identify as poly or not is beside the point. Recognizing the inevitable creation involved in communication will help in any connection of whatever form.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Our Relation to the Spiritual: The Person of God

Yesterday I had the rather fun, at times amusing, and at other times diabolically mischievous opportunity to talk with Mormons who came to my front door. There was a time I was much like them, though not as strident in my door-to-door activities. i reached out to nearly everybody around me loudly and often obnoxiously proclaiming the truth of God as I saw it, utilizing almost verbatim many of the same arguments these fervent adherents used and resting afterwards in a space of reflective responsibility-negating self-righteous condescension concerning the person’s inability to know the truth that I knew. The look on the trainee’s face, so passionate, so filled with the righteous light of his belief, the mask of care at times breaking to have his anger shine through was a tapestry of human emotion and I smiled throughout it all, utterly fascinated by the comments he never intended to make but did anyway because of my refusal to stick to a script. In the end I told them I loved them and challenged them to the same task they put to me, to continue studying and searching to understand more fully the love of god. It felt good to laugh, to share in their fervent emotional stances, to join with them in that bone-deep desire to identify with a transcendent principle and, yes I have to admit, needle them with some potentially consciousness-raising questions and observations, though the humility my ego constantly tells to go away earnestly reminds me that the likelihood of having helped either of them to expand requires greater than I to create. Still, I can safely and reverently declare that in that profoundly human interaction, with souls bared, I saw the person of God.

Hold up. Come again? Yes, I said it. The person of God. I won’t belabor the point by reminding everyone that my usage of the term god in no way implies a supernatural entity. The term has no inherent meaning anymore than there is a single manifestation of any religion, as even a cursory research into denominations and sects will indicate. So what, pray tell, am I talking about? I mentioned in the last entry in discussing the “Meaning of God,” a quote from Ernest Holmes in his book “The Science of Mind,” where he discusses what constitutes a spiritually enlightened person: “He should feel a unity of Spirit in all people, and running through all events. He should declare that the Spirit within him is God, quickening into right action everything he touches, bringing the best out of all his experiences, and forever guiding and sustaining” (p 167). God or Spirit as a universal holding concept, a metaphor demarcating the totality of existence and indicating the interactive and inter-operative nature of all reality, is here shown to be also synonymous with a recognition of belonging within this one substance or ground of being. It is not a thing in itself but a structural apparatus for seeing the world/existence, though of course it has many material components despite being greater than the sum of those parts, in many ways much like love is a structural term to describe or hold together disparate feelings and instances though of course it has gross material components, e.g. the brain/body interactional organism. Those passionate adherents (we’re back to the Mormons) to an ideological form I certainly don’t agree with and of which some components I find reprehensibly heinous, still exist in a universe which inevitably strings together entities into what our minds supply as transcendental experiences. With more research and education I could describe the firing of particular neuronal patterns, the release of neurotransmitters and the utilization of mirror-neurons that helped me feel empathy with the two men standing in front of me and while this certainly would in no way be inaccurate, it would not sufficiently hold the totality of the experience as I felt it, the visceral emotional pull seeing the consternation at being thwarted and the blissful passion of a true believer. This does not require a supernatural explanation, simply an expansion of what is meant by natural/material and a willingness to look at consciousness as an evolving facet of experience.

I may have gotten ahead of myself here, so I’ll slow down and come at this a different way. We’re all or most of us raised on images of deity in western christianity of a kindly old man or, in what is likely one of the silliest examples of euro-centrism, a white-skinned blue-eyed Jesus. That Jesus on appearance alone would likely appear to us as a Muslim or Arab and result in apoplexies for many Americans in the amusingly named “bible belt,” makes me giggle with barely-suppressed rueful glee. Anyway, point being that many of us have a ready-made image provided by mass marketing and available even as an action figure, of what deity is. The narcissistic quality that pervades so much of western religious ideology simply does not hold room for viewing god as anything other than a grander version of the human person and our brains are of little help here, providing interpretations of human faces on anything from toast to potatoes to over-exposures in film. Just as the sweetest sound is our name so the most delectable sight to see and emotionally connect with is a human face. When monkeys were brought back to England, the queen at the time is reported to have declared the whole experience unsettling with how similar they were to humanity. Watching the documentaries of Jane Goodall, one cannot help if they possess even the remotest of imaginative impulses, to see humanity amongst the folds of skin and fur. Certainly there is an evolutionary reason for this, them being distant relatives of us, but the point here is simply to show how much we identify with the human face and have an immediate connection to it. That god retains a human countenance and is often most-easily associated with and discussed as a particular being in similar framings as we would discuss a human person has far more to say about us than about deity. All I’m here attempting to do is get us to step back and rather than see a single face, see all actual and potential faces, rather than seeing a particular, see instead the transcendent principle.

The person of god is inextricably tied to the meaning of god, it is consciousness given form though never merely to one kind. Just as the meaning begins with community and interconnectivity with a hopeful gaze upon continual integration, so the person of god in which identification with that good, whole and complete becomes manifest in every action and creative instantiation which brings about the raising of that reality as remembered present. We are no more limited to one form of god in our minds than we are limited to the number of people we can love and both expand as we put energy into practice. The person of god is not only your brother and sister, mother and father, neighbor and co-worker, but every instantiation of consciousness struggling in the midst of being asleep to the reality of their synonymity with Purpose. We see each one as we walk to work, ride the train or bus, see on the television, each and every connection we make providing another voice to the song of natural ever-expanding exuberant life. We begin with “there but for the grace of god go I,” and finish with “there I AM.”

Friday, January 4, 2013

Our Relation to the Spiritual: The Meaning of God

Divine love seems inexplicably tied to divine judgment at times. With even a cursory search online the subsequent finding of so many articles and images depicting people of otherwise benign feelings supporting hatred and irrational judgment, there is much to be questioned. From Westboro Church to suicide bombers, the only seeming constant in a species devoted to exhibiting the divine in their lives is divisiveness and cruelty. As a former adherent to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity, I can with rueful head-shaking recall many a moment of righteous judgment and resultant hurt feelings, even among those I would have called my spiritual brothers and sisters. As I began to fervently question the ideological grounds for my thinking I rarely had to step beyond Christian circles to find criticisms being thrown from one group against another, from one form of apologetic against another. When I then branched out to find that many of the criticisms apologists had against other ideologies were outright inaccurate, almost deliberately so on occasion, I could not help but begin wondering what was the meaning behind this “God” everyone was talking about. When 9/11 hit I am not ashamed to admit that the effect this had on me was the proverbial last straw, though it certainly felt like a large tree. I left it all behind or at least started the journey of doing so, but looking back now I can see I never stopped searching for the meaning of it all.

Those focused on delivering immediate emotion-laden diatribes against religion can declare more people have died in the name of god than through any other means in history. Frankly I’m not sure how this can be quantified and I’m not sure how this makes a point beyond directing attention to the human predilection of rationalizing behavior. Without providing a particular definition of the term “god” the observation is meaningless beyond a recognition that people will fill a term with all manner of subjective intent.

A better statement would be that more people die from those justifying their actions through identification with a transcendent idea than any other, but there just doesn’t seem to be that strong a ring to this and since ideologies typically associated with liberalism can then be lumped into this observation, I don’t imagine there are many who would be quick to use it. However, as a statement concerning human behavior it provides a far greater point of contact for analysis and the potential of behavioral change.

A feeling of the transcendent is quite likely an inevitable by-product of how our brains organize experience and for that matter create the delusion of a self. Putting together the vast disparate information provided by the existence of which we are a part of and apart from, the brain creates a seamless reality often even if it needs to make things up. Our sight for instance is not nearly as comprehensive as we like to think, focused primarily on identifying movement (no doubt from our evolutionary predator-prey history) and funneled through only a small section of the overall eye. The image that we “see” is largely a creation of the mind, built from the constant movements of the eye taking in data and then left there until something is noticed to have changed and even that is controlled in no small part through conscious awareness. Anyone who has been startled by finally noticing someone who’s been standing right beside them for a length of time is well aware that consciousness is not all-encompassing.

That our brains can include things that aren’t or weren’t in experience is the stuff of memory research, most notably Elizabeth Loftus, where people have been known to utterly ignore a person in a monkey-suit or add false details to someone observed during a particularly charged emotional experience. All of this and more lends itself to the observation that the provision of a transcendent narrative is foundational to human experience, indeed could almost be synonymous with it. From here it is not a stretch to note that just as in memory recall where a person can deliberately place themselves as a participant or as outside observer, the feeling of a transcendent ideology can be thrust out beyond a single person and encompass more, or at least contain the feeling of having more.

This ability to create transcendent intent is not in itself an evil thing. Everything from skyscrapers to iPads, social organizations to NGOs helping out the poor and hungry, is a creation out of transcendent intent, the form that was once only considered in consciousness. I am reminded of people who lament how cell-phones have created distance within families but then note how during hurricane Katrina the Red Cross raised millions from small donations through texts on phones. Every form once manifest, while still retaining the qualities of which it was made, now creates a space for the impartation of anyone’s intent, however different it may have been from the original. This is as Ken Wilber points out, part of the nesting reality of interlocking systems, where everything in consciousness or in spirit has a corollary that while not reducible to the other is neither bound solely within it.

In other words, while particular manifestations of the god idea can be used to justify any manner of behaviors, it should not be ignored that the ideas stem from a universal ability within humanity, that of determining transcendental purpose. By focusing on this underlying aspect of experience we can then move forward with the creation of a god concept that is both humanizing and uplifting, exhibiting the best of what we are and wish to be, community-building rather than further separating us (the particulars of this will be dealt with within the next two entries).

There is from Ernest Holmes a recognition of this reality in his contemplation of conscious spirit when he declares: “He should feel a unity of Spirit in all people, and running through all events. He should declare that the Spirit within him is God, quickening into right action everything he touches, bringing the best out of all his experiences, and forever guiding and sustaining” (The Science of Mind, p 167). Meaning is debatable, the creation of it is not. Once we begin from a place of connection, there is no space for separation, but if we begin in separation that is all we will find.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wheels Within Wheels

There are only so many variables that any single person can keep track of. Research continually indicates that multi-tasking is not nearly as efficient as we like to fool ourselves into believing, though there are better and worse ways of doing it. I marvel at chess-masters who can hold dozens of future moves in their heads but while I in no way wish to lessen this achievement, the moves are prescribed and cover only one type of game. Were they to hold that many moves for multiple types of games, well, that’d be closer to real life. And that’s precisely what we’re all faced with every day, keeping in awareness vast systems of information to be utilized every waking moment of our lives.

To make it even more complicated, there are systems and systems and then further systems within those. There was a time when “Renaissance Man” meant someone who truly understand several disciplines, now it’s more along the lines of someone who has a thimble-sized grasp of even a couple and certainly not a comprehensive understanding. The world is just so freaking big, to be a specialist is to understand an increasingly smaller facet of a discipline even as it continues to expand. The Library of Congress contains 34.5 million books and written materials held in bookshelves spanning 838 miles, adding 10,000 pieces of material every day and these are not even every book to have been written. The world is an expanding sphere of ever-increasing awareness in our understanding, no matter the subject that is embarked upon and the scope of our awareness is made infinitesimal by the breadth that is held in the unconscious or pre-conscious. This is no more made apparent than in relationships.

A recent blog article on how relationships are often thought of as an escalator, with a standard path of an upward trend moving towards ever-increasing levels of intimacy on a single track with a particular end in mind. It’s an incredibly powerful memeplex with a strong metaphorical structure that undergirds so many of our societal behaviors within relationships. Ever been asked or asked yourself how your relationship “got off track?” or “went off the rails?” Ever wondered why there aren’t coupons and vacation packages for single people or endured the scorn of being single into old-age (designated as anything over 25 depending on place in country)? If you’re in an alternative relationship, why is it even called “alternative” as if there are legitimate and illegitimate types of connections? If you’re in a relationship have you ever become obsessed over where it’s going, looked at vacations or presents or meeting the family as indications of a new level of intimacy rather than just a part of the life being built? Ever looked at your partner and wondered if they’re on the same journey with you, without wondering at why parallel wouldn’t work just as well? I could go on and on and perhaps have already gone too far, but the end result here is an indication of just how much mental context runs our lives. Social variables and the genetic predispositions and temperaments that make us individuals are all wheels within wheels, cosmic machinations at a certain level playing out often without our full understanding or even our awareness.

I’ve spoken before about the egoistic hubris with which we tell our stories, ignoring the hundreds if not thousands of variables that occurred without any connection to us and which also touched hundreds if not thousands of other people to create that particular circumstance of which we are so enamored because it “happened to me!” “The point is that my thoughts themselves arise in a cultural background that gives texture and meaning and context to my individual thoughts, and indeed, I would not even be able to “talk to myself” if I did not exist in a community of individuals who also talk to me” (Wilber, Ken (2011-08-18). The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad (Kindle Locations 533-535). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition). The desire to tell these stories and find acknowledgment in them becomes so intense that we’ll become incensed and emotionally distraught if people aren’t paying enough attention, especially if that someone is our partner. I don’t wish to deny here the need to pay attention to people’s stories, I for one absolutely love hearing not only what stories people decide to share but the how of the telling. What I wish to focus on here is for us to step back a moment and get a picture of just how grand the context of our lives truly is, then for a moment place that understanding on the people in our lives.

Relationships do not exist in a vacuum, there are as noted here already, bound within wheels within wheels, countless variables and contexts both aware of and not aware of that effect the flow of our lives and create both the space for and the impetus behind our actions. Whether we subscribe to the escalator metaphor or not, simply because of the society in which we live we will be effected by it. Having already quoted from Wilber, he goes on to say “my individual thoughts only exist against a vast background of cultural practices and languages and meanings and contexts, without which I could form virtually no individual thoughts at all” and later “culture itself is not simply disembodied, hanging in idealistic midair. It has material components, much as my own individual thoughts have material brain components. All cultural events have social correlates.”

The person in front of you, whether it be a romantic partner, a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker or just some random person on a bus or train, exists within interlocking nests (I’ve used the term “baskets” before but since I’m quoting Wilber I’ll use his term) of being and simply because you’re relating to them means you too are bound up, however differently due to your own context(s), in their systems as well. When we interact we are doing so within this giant swirling chaos to varying degrees of understanding. The person and/or you yourself may not grasp just why some of the behavior occurs or even if you get it, the other person may not and vice versa. While anger and frustration, hurt feelings and distress may be inevitable the time period of which they disrupt can be mitigated.

“Take nothing personally” is one of the 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and while it can be used as a means of abdicating responsibility for one’s actions effecting another (trust me I’ve run into plenty of people who do this) I want to note that it is far more about identification. Connected with my thoughts on forgiveness, identification here is what happens when a single notion, supplied by society or another person, becomes the primary controlling narrative of our lives. It’s what happens when we get upset and hurt by another, we take on what exists only in their context and because we are joined with them we take it on as our own. This is inevitable but not necessary to do, especially not long-term. By taking stock of and becoming ever-more aware of the ideas, metaphors, memes, mores, that make up the context(s) of our lives, we can step back quicker from the hurt feelings we have and in addition hold a space for the people in front of us of a greater understanding and compassion.

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