The Mystery of Human Existence and Consciousness

“Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, the haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daily motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name of and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself, and does say, though always with a modifier of some kind. I am hungry, I am comfortable, I am a singer, I am a cook. The abrupt descent into particularity in every statement of this kind, Being itself made an auxiliary to some momentary accident of being, may only startle in the dark of night, when the intuition comes that there is no proportion between the great given of existence and the narrow vessel of circumstance into which it is inevitably forced. ‘I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’”

(Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, pgs 110-111)

6 thoughts on “The Mystery of Human Existence and Consciousness

  1. This reminds me a bit of my own writing on consciousness in How to Be Free :

    We experience our lives. We think our thoughts. We have our feelings. But what or who is the “we” that experiences these things?

    We have a body. We have a mind. We have an ego structure or personality. These give structure to our experience. They are media through which we experience.

    We might think of these aspects of ourselves as a musical instrument. But what is the nature of the music itself?

    Thinking is the construction and manipulation of patterns of information. But, we can stop thinking (i.e. stop processing or manipulating information) and still be conscious. This is what the discipline of meditation is all about.

    Nor are the five senses necessary to consciousness. Even if we were to remove our ability to see, hear, taste, feel or smell, we would still be aware of the fact that we existed. We might know we existed because of our thought processes, but, once again, we could cease to think and still be aware of raw, unstructured, unmediated consciousness.

    So what is this consciousness?

    Thought takes place through the communication of information through the synapses in our brain. And physical awareness is possible because of the transmission of information through the nervous system generally. These are the conduits for our consciousness – they give it its shape – but what is it that is travelling through these conduits?

    The answer is energy – the raw stuff of the universe.

    Now we have to take a massive, seemingly insane leap and ask “What if energy itself is conscious? What if our consciousness, our awareness, the raw stuff of our experience, is nothing more than energy’s awareness of its own existence?”

    This may seem like madness, but if we take some time to consider it, we will find that :

    a. We can’t disprove it. We can’t prove that unstructured energy or inanimate objects have no awareness. We can observe that these things do not act like living organisms. But that proves nothing. Even with living beings, behaviour can give us clues about the experience or awareness of the being, but we don’t know what consciousness looks like, even if it looks like anything at all. So we have no reliable way of detecting it.

    b. If we accept the concept that consciousness is energy’s self-awareness as a provisional hypothesis we can see that some otherwise inexplicable phenomena actually begin to make some kind of sense.

    First it is important to understand what is not being suggested here, which is that energy or inanimate objects have thoughts or feelings. Thoughts and feelings are structured forms of consciousness which are most likely restricted to living things, as they are dependent on some kind of nervous system. But what flows through these structures is energy.

    We have emotions. The word contains the word “motion” because emotions are characterised by flow. When we feel an emotion it is the sensation of energy moving through the structure of our ego in some way. In anger, the energy explodes through cracks in the armour of the ego structure or threatens to do so. We feel it simmering. In sorrow we feel emotion flowing through us perhaps expressed through sobs and tears. We feel pain when the free flow of energy in our body is hampered by damage of some kind.

    The phenomenon of orgasm is a good way of looking at the nature of our consciousness. While, for the male, the ejaculation of seminal fluid is not always accompanied by the ecstatic experience we think of as characterising the orgasm, nevertheless, we know what we mean by the orgasmic experience. How does this happen? What makes this bodily experience so appealing to us. It is not simply the expelling of a bodily substance. That happens when we sneeze or take a shit. We might be relieved but we do not have a heavenly experience.

    Wilhelm Reich, who developed the concepts of body armour and character armour, found that these forms of armouring may be temporarily broken down by the bodily experience of orgasm. This allows energy to flow far more freely in the body for a brief period of time.

    So we see that the emotional or bodily experience which allows for our most intense experiences of bliss is one in which energy flows freely through our body, and that pain accompanies the hindering of that flow, by disease or injury or armouring.

    Remember when you were a young child and you felt blissfully happy running through an open field? Why? You were just running. It was just a field. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that you felt free. You weren’t hemmed in or frustrated. You were energy expressing the nature of energy.

    But this doesn’t mean that we want freedom from structure altogether. We want to feel energy flow freely through our bodies, but we don’t want to spontaneously combust. Creativity occurs when the free flow of information or energy finds a form which makes possible something which didn’t previously exist. So the healthy growth of individuals and societies is what feels best to them. The system of organisation of the individual or society is not oppressive in itself, but only becomes so if it is faulty in some way.

    When we feel motivated or creative we say that we are filled with enthusiasm. What do we mean by “enthusiasm”? The literal meaning of the term is “the god within”. Since our concept of God is a personification that we place upon the creative principle of the universe – energy and its intrinsic potential for orderly creative organisation – then we can see that the enthusiasm or spirit or soul which lives within us and is the very substance of our experience – is “God” operating through us. And this “God” is essentially self-aware energy. We are “God”.

    • I can relate to a lot of what you have said and I have been a fan of Wilhelm Reichs ideas and creative exploration of the human psyche. It seems part of the problem with structure is the quality of it. We have created a lot of structure as a result of human thinking however correct or not it has been. Maybe correct is not the word, but limited. I think that structure has the ability to distort and oppress or jut get in the way of deeper realization as Wilhelm Reich was well aware. So how do we explore and question the dogmatic structure that culture and rigid thinking supports and how do we become aware of deeper possibilities?

      • I think it is important to question and seek insight into dogmatic structures, but to avoid fighting against them. If they are defensive, then fighting against them will tend to reinforce them. I think that understanding these structures sometimes gives us strategies for subverting them. I think this has actually been happening consciously or unconsciously with some social phenomena. Take very dogmatically conservative attitudes to politics or sex in the United States. In the 1950s, when Reich died in prison, there was the phenomena of McCarthyism trying to shut down political freedom and there was heavy censorship of sexuality in the movies and homosexuality was illegal. Each of these things was fought to some degree, but mostly they were subverted, especially through the media. Even a lot of the people who were conservative about these issues publicly – that was their character armour – were curious and open to being entertained. So now the view of the majority, I think, towards social justice based politics and sexuality, has become freer since the fifties largely because popular magazines, television and movies have provided a forum in which a less uptight world view can be articulated.

  2. No I dont think fighting with them is helpful but there is a point when confrontation is neccesary. How that happens is something that is part of a larger contemplation and process. How IS is confronted these days is an example of such a structure that requires intervention of some sort even despite the fact that past western interventions have had a lot to do with its development and form today.
    I have my questions about sexuality in the context to freedom. I have often noticed that individuals can be quite fixated on their own form of sexual expression. That sense of sexuality can have pathological elements. How does a narcicist or socio path express himself sexually. When I talk about narciccist or sociopath I am talking about it conceptually and generally; that is individuals who have developed and are attached to a fragmented sense of identity to the point that sexual expression can be quite disconnected from an intimate sexual experience. Often that fixation it is at anothers expense.
    I remember reading the Gay Talese book “Thy Neighbours Wife” quite a few years ago. One thing that it revealed to me about those ideal days of sexual expression is that individuals always experienced more psychologically and emotionally than they reported or were aware of. Of course it was in the early days of coming out and it was something new and little understood by most but what they ultimately experienced was not as ideally wonderful and pure as they though it would be. One example is that at this time of free love they found themselves being attached to partners that they were involved with more than was ideologically accepted. When we talk about freedom of sexual expression there seems to always involve a social aspect and or dynamic to it. Its not just one persons experience. it gets complicated.
    I would also question Americas tolerance of sexual expression especially in the south. Homosexuality is still considered deviant as is most anything outside the traditional Christian belief. All be it many ministers and authority figures have been discovered to be engaged in not so acceptable relations outside the norms, on the side it seems. Evangelicals are the dominant Christians and the most intolerant of anything outside of their belief system. There also seems to be and element of being quite conditioned and blind to what is sexually normal or not. I dont think that there is an open dialogue as such in these social structures.

    • We have to be very careful about The War on Terrorism leading to more terrorism in the same way that The War on Drugs has increased the drug trade. As you acknowledge IS have grown out of disruption caused by the military invention in Iraq. But doing nothing is probably not a viable option either. I’m glad it is not me who has to come up with a strategy to deal with the problem.

      Sexual fixations are something I’ve written a good deal about. I think that they tend to occur when someone feels that some aspect of their psyche is not accepted. I think this occurs particularly often during childhood. The lack of acceptance, often by a parent, makes this aspect like the proverbial sore tooth which we can’t keep our tongue out of. In a lot of cases the origin of the fixation may be obscured from memory, but I think there are cases where it is more obvious and these can help us to understand how it works. My favourite example is that of a transvestite. A little boy experiments one day by putting on his sister’s dress. His father or mother reacts badly to this. Perhaps they punish him. In his mind the canker has been planted – “There is a part of me which is not acceptable – the part that I expressed when I put on my sister’s dress.” We hunger for unconditional acceptance, and the demand for that which was withheld can eat away at that which was given. So, as an adult, the man dresses as a woman and goes out in public looking always for the acceptance of this aspect of his psyche which his parent or parents rejected.

      Of course fixations can be a problem for relationships with others. The filling of the need for that very limited part of the person to be satisfied takes precedence over their response to a sexual partner as a total individual. On the other hand, the way out of the fixation is through acceptance of it. It is the lack of acceptance which has kept it in existence. I think that a couple who recognise what the fixation is and the nature of it can get past this problem by addressing that need with affection and humour. If it is responded to with resentment it may tear a relationship apart, but if it is accepted and accommodated it may become the grain of sand around which forms the pearl of a loving relationship.

      I think the problem with the free love movement is that it was seen as a sufficient response to our psychological problems. The easing up on repression was a healthy thing, but it is not sufficient to solve the problem of selfishness, so egotistical individuals (usually men) apparently became jealous and tried to get more of the action for themselves. The other problem would be the one you mention. Pair bonding is going to occur. If this is considered “politically incorrect” it will cause a problem. Genuinely free love would mean that individuals can have sex with whoever wants to have sex with them but don’t have to have sex with anyone they don’t want to have sex with. To have a problem with a couple becoming bonded and monogamous is to not be accepting of freedom. On the other hand there are couples who are pair bonded but still have sex with others. I think the problems lie with expectations. It is one thing to allow the freedom for things to happen. It is something else again to get upset if they don’t happen the way we want them to.

      You are right that the U.S. is split on tolerance of sexual expression. I think this has always been the case. There has always been a puritan stream and a socially liberal stream. There were apoplectic responses to Janet Jackson baring a nipple on television in a country with a multi-billion dollar porn industry.

      The more the general community adopts liberal attitudes to sexuality the louder and more desperate the evangelicals get in their reaction. Like dogs backed into a corner, their savagery is increased by the inevitability of their eventual defeat. They no longer have the numbers, and the contrast between their behaviour and that advocated by the man they call their saviour is so stark, that their culture is liable to prove unsustainable. Or maybe I’m an optimist.

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