Healing the World Through Consciousness Exploration

Colorful art with woman

Credit: Linnea Vedder-Shults.

There is nothing more palpable and democratic than conscious experience. All of us have it and all of us recognize that others share in the richness and wonder of being conscious. To respect and love one another is to recognize that the “other,” no matter how different from oneself, is also conscious, and thus subject to the same range of possibilities for joy and suffering.

At the same time, because of our nature—our having circumscribed individual consciousnesses—we are unable to empirically prove that anyone other than ourselves is actually conscious in the same way that we are. It behooves us as loving, sharing eco-citizens to agree to hold and cultivate the lived assumption that all other humans are created equal by virtue of their sharing consciousness. This is in fact the foundational assumption behind our notion of universal human rights: we are all conscious, and thus we all have needs and we all suffer.

An exploration of consciousness confirms that no matter how different the trappings of culture, language, costume, or beliefs, we are the same sort of beings, we want the same things, and we are subject to the same disappointments and joys.

In short, an exploration of consciousness has great power to illuminate and inform efforts at tikkun olam—the healing and transformation of the world. I am pleased to offer this essay as an introduction to a new section of Tikkun devoted to the exploration and understanding of consciousness. This new endeavor, for which I am serving as editor, will focus on these questions: Why should an exploration of consciousness be included in a broad-based nonsecular magazine devoted to spiritual, social, and political progressivism? Why does consciousness matter, and why does it matter in this context?

Fingers with birds

Credit: Linnea Vedder-Shults.

To situate our project in relation to the academic field of consciousness studies, I asked Christopher Holvenstot to write a piece for this issue of Tikkun. Holvenstot is in the vanguard of those creating a holistic understanding of the interweave of life and consciousness/cognition that commences from the inception of life itself and evolves in complexity and ever-growing sophistication over its 3.2 billion years. His piece introduces this growing force within consciousness studies and provides a critique of the field from that perspective.

Consciousness and Claims of Human Superiority

While more and more of the general public, as well as some behavioral and cognitive scientists, are increasingly recognizing that animals possess various degrees of consciousness, historically, human culture has expropriated consciousness from other animals, claiming it as the particular and exclusive human attribute that sets us above and apart from all others. This serves to legitimate the destructive view that we have rights over other living things. And that expropriation has taken the form of domineering theological, cultural, and political hegemonies that have forced individual and group consciousnesses into formats that constrain behavior and mind and make other humans and groups seem inferior. This exclusionary stance in support of special privileges is now widely known to be unsustainable. By continuing to hold these beliefs, we threaten the very continuity and resilience of earth’s ecosystems. This occurs through the power structures’ self-serving assertion of their economic “rights” to all the ecosystem’s resources, no matter the consequences for other living things. We participate too often in this discourse without clarity about how consciousness is being viewed—in truth, the idea behind the assertion is, “My consciousness is more important, smarter, and more privileged than yours.” Thus, manipulating our beliefs about consciousness can have the most dire and consequential of implications—the death of the planet as we know it. In fact, we are witnessing the largest extinction episode in 64 million years, and it is the first time such devastation has been the direct result of the behaviors and beliefs of a single species. Understanding the forces behind specific beliefs about consciousness can empower us to communally contradict those influences and to adjust our beliefs and behaviors accordingly.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

Telling us how to think is and has been unfortunately a very successful strategy for domination, especially when backed up by wealth, private property, the power of ruling elites, and the power of cultural biases and the control of information. Thankfully, our minds escape full control howsoever they are coerced. Our liberated potentiality exists because our minds’ workings are unknowable to others save through conjecture or through behaviors that demonstrate our independence. Remarkable examples abound of people whose consciousness remained free, despite the most extreme forms of coercion—take, for instance, Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, who was in jail for twenty-eight years of his life. We all find some degree of mental autonomy, despite our often rigid families and a culture that seeks to tell us how to think in the interest of its profit-driven consumerism and drive to be globally dominant. These are the two sides that make for the great drama: consciousness’s simultaneous malleability and independence. It is malleable because the contents of mind are imbibed and learned, yet it is also independent, as we all have the ability to think for ourselves, developing new, critical, and imaginative views that can transform and transcend.

Meditating by river

Credit: Linnea Vedder-Shults.

This is what makes the study of mind so fascinating and so potentially radical: we are each able to explore our own minds to varying degrees. No one can truly know my mind. I cannot truly know another’s mind. My mind can be influenced and altered by other minds. I can influence and alter another’s mind—or so it seems. My mind and others’ minds, insofar as I am able to make them out, are participants in strong views and influences that shape all of our thoughts, passions, and behaviors. And these views are often unexamined and unconscious, shared and prejudicial, and against our own and others’ seeming self-interest.

The Mind in the World

So, is mind everything? Certainly when my lights go out—with surgery and general anesthesia, stroke or head trauma, and seemingly with death—my awareness of myself and the world disappears. One historic philosophic “distortion” has been that therefore I must create the world, for it does not exist without my consciousness. All of us carry that narcissistic seed, at least a bit. In the great fear of death that most of us experience, the core anxiety is usually about this cessation of awareness of self and world. After all, what good is an end-stage Alzheimer’s brain, or a body with a comatose mind that cannot be brought back? But this is the individual vista, disconnected from all that creates, nurtures, supports, and obligates. In truth, our lived experience cuts against this narcissistic idea. We experience ourselves in community with other humans who vie for importance with us and with whom we have to negotiate constantly to stay alive and well. Our social community has great power over us. We feel we must contribute at least something to it. We know that surely a single one of us cannot be making this all up!

This concerns the great business of the self and its struggle to balance with nature and community, with sharing and receiving. Here is the rub: we are necessarily bounded beings, differentiated from other life forms, and yet we are also of one piece with the entire universe. We need our boundaries in order to differentiate ourselves and have identity at multiple levels of complex interaction—as individuals, as species, and as micro- and macro-ecological participants in this natural world of Gaia. But at the same time, we are also remarkably similar even to simple life forms like bacteria. We have become aware of having arisen in continuity with all of the life forms that constitute our lineage going back to the primordial soup. An extinction at any point along the chain in the roughly 3.2 billion years of life on earth would have eliminated our being here. Our commonality with other life forms is vast indeed. And that indispensable realization is truly radical. We can feel its profundity. Practicing this awareness changes how we choose to live.

For millennia the idea of the specialness of human consciousness—generally promoted as the singular capacity for self-awareness, and also posited as akin to God mind—has dominated Western discourse about conscious life. But this has led to a juggernaut of problems, facilitating perpetual conflicts. This idea of human superiority masks greed and self-interest with its super-structural justifications.

An Evolutionary Perspective on Consciousness

I believe it’s time to reject this discourse of human specialness and superiority, and instead explore an evolutionary perspective on being. In this new realization, we understand that consciousness arises with life itself. From the simplest forms to the most complex, any and all life to be established as being such must exert the quality of “for itself.” This is the defining moment of consciousness at its most basic level, when the separation of life from the physical world occurs and then perpetuates itself. And what is cognition? It is the simultaneously arising ability of life to interact with its environment in order to sustain itself and to expand its reach, to be counter-entropic, to trap energy and build structure. It took about 2.6 billion of the 3.2 billion years of life to develop the molecular systems and complexity that would foster multicellularity (multicelled organisms appear to be no more than 6 hundred million years old), and those systems persist in fairly unchanging ways, both inside and outside our bodies. Much of us is in fact very, very old. As evolution proceeds, the complexity of consciousness often increases along with its adaptivity, flexibility, internal complexity, and relational potential. For example, think about how the ability to move changes an organism’s responses to opportunities and potential disasters. That ability gives rise to one of our very many complexities of choice: to move toward, or away from. This is one of the great “archetypes” of consciousness in more complex organisms, as Hans Jonas noted in The Phenomenon of Life:

The great contradictions which [humans discover in themselves]—freedom and necessity, autonomy and dependence, self and world, relation and isolation, creativity and mortality—have their rudimentary traces in even the most primitive forms of life, each precariously balanced between being and not-being, and each already endowed with an internal horizon of “transcendence.”

Consciousness is often equated with “awareness,” the capacity to recognize sensations of internal experience. This conflation has given rise to myriad questions and problems: What is this awareness we have? What is it made of? Is this our connection with God and his wisdom? What other creatures might also have awareness? Does awareness come from brain alone, or from connections outside of us, or from other sources outside of our current scientific awareness? Who is the most aware? Who has the best theory of awareness? And is it restrictive of other theories? Can you build machines capable of awareness? Can you create awareness from parts of the body, especially neurons? What are the minimal conditions necessary for awareness in potential machines and potential biological arrays, and how big do they have to be? Can such simulations self-report on their internal awareness if it is ever achieved? I could go on fairly interminably. Among other things, from this partial list, you may discern that consciousness/cognition/awareness is indeed a part of everything living and everything about living that goes on. Consciousness itself is also part of the social and psychological therapeutics and educational methods that seek to enhance the complexity and rationality of consciousness, and it is essential to the evaluation of the effectiveness of their methodologies. Of course, there are many potential hazards and misuses of consciousness exploration. It is at risk of manipulation at all points—political, scientific, and relational—since virtually all of science can be used either for benefit or for control.

People together

"To be conscious is to be part of a larger whole," the author writes. "This interrelational characteristic has spiritual implications." The image above is part of a series of divination cards intended to help viewers access their inner intuition. Understanding this and other levels of awareness is a central focus of consciousness studies. To learn more about the four images in this article, see The World Is Your Oracle (mamasminstrel.net/writings.htm) by Tikkun Daily blogger Nancy Vedder-Shults.

Humans’ perception of the color red has frequently been used by philosophers to illustrate what they conceive of as “consciousness.” The potential for stimulating the perception of the color red in humans exists out there—in nature. But the ability to perceive the color red only exists in humans and some other creatures. The substance of “red” for these creatures is indescribable, yet it exists for those who experience its wholeness as the color red. It is an assemblage—a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, with its own integrity. The perception of red can be reduced to component parts, such as the firing of receptors at the retina, or the illumination of cortical areas of the brain using PET scans. Its analysis at the stimulation level can be tweaked and played with. But the color red without its linguistic signifier (red, rojo, rot, etc.) cannot be found. The concept of red relies on linguistic, subjective description: “I see the color red.” It relies on consensuality: “Do you see what I am seeing—that red color over there?” Once conceptually bound by the identifier “red,” the experience of red can be moved around by imagination internally, associated with emotions (“red makes me angry”), and identified in dreams. But what is the color red to me? How does it exist inside of me, say in my mind? What is it made of? Try answering these questions for the more complex, feeling-bound “love,” or any other emotional concept; the same questions arise with each inquiry. Some have called this “the hard problem” of consciousness research, “the explanatory gap.”

Consciousness as a Vehicle of Interconnection

The great human problem and its terrific solution is the recognition that we can only mediate between our minds—cognition—and the outside world. Once life enters its first container, it is in relationship through boundaries; however we feel our experiences to be immediate and vital. Our relationship to the outside world and to our own bodies is through mechanisms that have developed over the eons and have given rise with time to the phenomenon of self-awareness in all its complexity. Assuredly, external reality exists in all its complexity, but we can know it only through our senses and the creations we make to analyze and experience it. That is the source of both our alienation and our capaciousness. At most, we can approximate; and in our best moments, our sense of that reality will be the source of doubt and humility, a desire for education and further exploration, and an awareness of our limitations. Abiding in the awe of not knowing, we choose to reside in numinous spaciousness.

By choosing to recognize this conscious state as our common characteristic, and by choosing to take the suffering of others seriously, we arrive at the utopian yet indispensable possibility of forming complex communities of diverse individuals based on trust and mutual understanding. This is a possibility rather than an inevitability because in truth we can go either toward Eros and community, or toward a greedy social suicide. And thus, consciousness is not just a common characteristic, it is the vehicle by which we are aware of one another, the vehicle by which we form and feel empathy, the vehicle by which we share in the sufferings and joys of our loved ones, friends, community, culture, nation, and species. So an exploration of consciousness illustrates that in addition to being a common trait, it is more importantly a common bond. It is a vehicle of interconnection. By virtue of being conscious, we are actively aware of one another and actively connected. And by virtue of this awareness and connection, we come to know and feel the interrelational nature of our existence. To be conscious as a socially embedded organism is to be interconnected and inter-accommodative.

To be conscious is to be a part of a larger whole. This interrelational characteristic has spiritual implications. We quite commonly transcend our physical boundaries by virtue of our awareness and empathy with one another, and by virtue of our investment in the ideologies and imperatives of a social group (oftentimes over and above our investment in our own well-being). The interrelational characteristic of consciousness is therefore the vehicle for the ultimate experience of interconnected oneness that we all intuitively seek and that we all cherish when we find it. It is deep within our spiritual and emotional nature to want to give ourselves over to something larger, more important, and more meaningful than our own private ailments and appetites.

Tikkun’s ongoing exploration of consciousness in the coming months will be by necessity wide-ranging. The field of consciousness studies is a vast expanse of independent academic sub-endeavors rooted in physics, philosophy, religion and spirituality, cognitive neuroscience, biology, psychology, chemistry, anthropology, and artificial intelligence. Many inquiries into consciousness are also rooted in the arts and literature, where our ever-evolving conscious states are represented in their most exacting, articulated, and refined expressions. And in addition to these traditionally outward explorations of shared knowledge, empirical research, and cultural artifacts, we will also be exploring the inner dimensions of consciousness. Due to the private and perspectival nature of individual conscious experience, these inner explorations will be of a deeply personal nature. With each new discovery, and from each new perspective, a new clue emerges—a new piece of the puzzle of who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a species.

Over the course of more than three hundred years of empirical science, we have come to understand quite a lot about the physical world and about our biophysical origins; but we are now charting new territory regarding our biocognitive origins and regarding the qualities, characteristics, and potentialities of our conscious condition. This is something quite new and very exciting. And a caveat: the new field of consciousness studies is not yet sufficiently developed to present all avenues of research under the banner of a single, ideologically unified, analytical framework. At this stage of development, that would be stifling. The contributions that will appear in Tikkun’s ongoing series on consciousness will come from a wide range of fields, many of which, by necessity, hold to their own ideologies and terminologies, and many of which are in heated contention with other fields doing similar research using alternative ideologies and terminologies.

Physical, biological, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual explorations of consciousness generally come from prefixed ideological perspectives with prefixed notions of what are appropriate questions and appropriate answers. We will explore the implications of these prefixed ideological parameters and provide a series of interesting, seemingly unrelated stepping stones in our search for a new level of self-and-world understanding.

So, it is in the spirit of Tikkun’s quarter-century of activism and elucidation that we invite you to participate in this adventure. Join us as we take exploratory risks and entertain new angles of analysis, whenever these can be shown to promote better understanding and a better world. We hope you will find this new series stimulating, provocative, and informative, and that you will share your own consciousness exploration with us. May this journey together be of benefit!


(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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