Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why Does the Bicameral Mind Theory Still Appeal?

In the spring I read Iain McGilchrist’s exceptional book, The Master and His Emissary, about the right brain/left brain divide and its implications throughout the span of Western history. It has helped me reframe some of my theories about human consciousness and gain a somewhat tweaked perspective. I’ll be writing more about that later.

After finishing the book, I then felt I ought to read Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, just to get a contrary perspective. It sounded pretty hokey to me, his theory that in essentially Old Testament times the right brain and left brain were unable to communicate directly with one another, and so any time the right brain communicated it could only be perceived by the left brain as hallucinated voices, coming from outside of oneself and issuing  forth from the gods. According to Jaynes, in that late Bronze Age period we were unconscious beings, possessing no self-awareness, and were only able to act in the world by mindlessly, zombie-like, following the commands of the gods.

Now I’m an avid reader, at times wolfing down two, three, or four books in a single week, but oh my this book was different. It was sheer torture, in the end taking me five or six months to get through it. Any time any other book came along I set this one aside, so ten or twelve other books were thoroughly digested between reading the first and last sentences of this one. Truly a miserable experience. I thought many times about giving up but I felt it was important for me to be able to say I’ve read it. Why? Because I’ve encountered quite a few otherwise intelligent people who absolutely revere this book (which to me has been quite baffling) and I wanted to be able to debate the merits (or demerits) of the book should the topic ever come up again.

Having finished it I think I have it partly figured out. I can see how in its time it must have been earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, and quite revolutionary for people. It seems ridiculous to be saying we need to put something that was written less than forty years ago into its proper historical perspective, but we do. Times were different then. We’ve changed and learned. I suspect that many people read this book once, when it first came out, and were changed by it. They no longer remember the specific details of it (and therefore don’t know how absurd it is in light of what we now know) but instead just carry the positive memory of how they were changed by it, how it helped them escape an old paradigm that had become too small to fit them.

My take on Jaynes is that he wrote this book not so much to develop a new theory of consciousness as to debunk Judeao-Christian mythology. His theory of consciousness was just a convenient way to say, Your gods aren’t real; they’re essentially figments of your imagination. And that needed to be said at that particular historical moment. Those of us who were born into and grew up in the 20th century were confronted with a rather schizoid culture. As children, most of us of European and North American heritage were dutifully dragged off to religious services every week.  We were steeped in fabulous stories presented as Truth—six day creations and virgin births and a god who could speak from a burning bush and part an entire sea. At the same time we went to schools and then colleges that taught the scientific method, that were objective and thoroughly rational. We learned about evolution and DNA and the Big Bang theory. Talk about cognitive dissonance! Two truths, each totally at odds with the other. And no one had ever so effectively tried to reconcile those opposing truths (at least not in the popular culture) before Jaynes. Before Jaynes, many people had never questioned the incongruency of the two worlds they inhabited. Those worlds should have been mutually exclusive—you believe one truth or you believe the other. Instead, people compartmentalized their lives in a very schizoid way. They believed the science at work or school, and they believed the religious mythology at church and in their private lives. Jaynes helped many people realize, Hey, this just doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter much that his theory was pure nonsense, only that it helped a lot of people bring to awareness and acknowledge the cognitive dissonance they had (mostly unconsciously) been struggling with.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Inner Conflict

I’m struggling with several things in my daily life. One is how much information I allow in. I’ve written about this before, several years ago, when I gave up the newspaper and decided I didn’t need to be informed about every little thing going on in the larger world, but there’s been some serious backsliding since then. I go through periods of addiction to information on the internet.The serious research does me no harm, when I’m on the trail of a new idea and I’m trying to pull the pieces together. It’s the time wasted on newsfeeds (of dubious quality) and yahoo groups and even high quality blogs and forums that causes problems for me. When I look critically at the vast amount of information I regularly hoover up, none of it has added anything of value to my life. It hasn’t changed who I am or how I act in the world. Changes for me come from following leads that come to me based on where I’m at in the world at any moment—my own leads, the intuitive ones that come from being present, from being fully here on this spot on this planet. That’s the only thing that gets me anywhere.

I know this, yet I go through these periods of information addiction, one I cure myself of only to slide back into before I know it. Yesterday I got angry enough to delete all of my bookmarks for news sites and all of my subscriptions to yahoo groups. In the past I’ve deleted feeds to my favorite blogs and quit visiting forums. I haven’t participated in social networks for several years. The addiction always seems to return however. I don’t know why that is—why don’t I want to stay fully in the moment? There’s so much to explore by staying open to this moment and it’s the only way I know of to get to novel insights and solutions. Is it just laziness?

Somewhat related is my need to be a hermit. Perhaps it’s an over-reaction to the superficial connections the internet encourages, but for the past few years I’ve had an intense need to limit my contact with other people. I do fine with real live people in my real live world, but unless someone is right here face-to-face with me they fall off my radar. Much as I care about and love a lot of people who live at a distance to me and much as I’m stimulated by emails with folks I don’t personally know but who share similar ideas and ideals with me, I just can’t carry on conversations at a distance anymore. It seems like I’m way overcompensating for living in a much too connected world. Yet I do believe I should limit how many relationships I have so I can deepen the ones I do have, just like I should limit the information I allow in so I can focus on what’s truly relevant.

I think the reason this causes me conflict is because at heart what I’ve really been drawn to do for the past several years is an experiment with being a total hermit. I mean going off somewhere and having absolutely no contact with the human race for several years, apprenticing with the land. Intuitively I feel there are powerful things for me to learn by doing so. Yet it’s something realistically I’m never going to do. Instead I’ve pulled back as much as possible from human interactions so I can at least get a small taste of what my soul is craving. This has to be the solution for me anyway—living on the fringes of human society, so I’m able to dip into the world of human interaction and relationship while mostly immersing myself in those other powers and relationships residing in the more-than-human world.

My writer’s block fits in somewhere here too, I think. I want to communicate, but taking the time to put my thoughts on paper (or online) takes me out of being right here, which is where I really need to be. When I tried to tell the story of my time in PA on this blog I failed because to me that story was already old news. It was stale. I had already incorporated the lessons learned through that experience and had built on it and was on to a new level of understanding. I bog down trying to tell an old story. I have to speak from my present where the story is still vibrating with energy. I think I still may be able to get the tale of my time in PA told, (and it’s important to me to do so because I learned some really valuable things) but the tale may be told in bits and pieces over many new posts, as each tidbit becomes relevant to a current discussion.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Filled the Emptiness

I found the first few weeks at my childhood home in Pennsylvania to be a period of adaptation. Initially I felt quite disoriented and out of sorts. All of my usual routines and habits were either gone or rearranged. I was in a lush, three-dimensional landscape after years on the flat, dry plains of eastern Colorado. I was in a densely populated and built-out state after years surrounded by empty and wide-open spaces. And I was surrounded by people after living a semi-eremitic lifestyle for six years. On top of that, I was again immersed in the sleepy, hypnotic energy of the land that birthed me, after a twenty-four year absence. And I no longer had any grounded, physical work to do, not even a garden or critters to tend to.

It was too much change too fast and it agitated me at first, but I did at least recognize my agitation was only a symptom of the true malaise—being forced to confront that frightening thing called emptiness. And I knew from past experience that into emptiness something will always flow. So I waited to see what would present itself.

The first thing seemed innocent enough. It was just the thought that, hey, here in this lush abundant place I might want to really get to know all of the wild herbs growing here. I’ve been interested in herbalism since my college days (when I grew a few potted herbs and loved to take walks in fields full of yarrow and tansy and goldenrod, and to pick wild strawberries that grew in some of Penn State’s gorgeous pastures). Later, in Colorado I discovered that in order to feel I belonged to my particular spot on earth, I had to get to know the plants that grew there. When most of the plants were foreign to me I felt like I was a stranger in a strange land. To address that, in the last few years in Colorado I had begun to get to know some of the plants that had previously been strangers to me. My part of Colorado was high desert, however, and its biodiversity was paltry compared to that of Pennsylvania, so Pennsylvania presented the perfect opportunity for me to take my plant knowledge to a new level.

The abandoned pasture next to my parent’s property was the perfect place to start. It was about halfway through the process of succeeding from well-cropped pasture back to forest again. There had always been a fair amount of trees in there, but now the open places were sprinkled with young spruces and some other trees. The bulk of the pasture was a tangled mass of raspberry and blackberry thickets and huge stands of wild roses. I began to take forays in there and to learn to identify the plants. Some I already knew from childhood: poison ivy, black locust, sassafras, queen anne’s lace, daisies, self-heal, goldenrod, clover, buttercups, wood sorrel, black-eyed susans, and so on. But many I had never learned to identify: ironweed, Joe-Pye weed, boneset, St. John’s wort, lobelia, dogbane, crown vetch, pinkweed, virgin’s bower, pokeweed, etc. As summer progressed the list of plants I could identify grew longer and longer. And of course I didn’t confine myself to that one small pasture. I was roaming all over the place and discovering new plants in need of identification everywhere I went.

By acting on this one little inkling to get to know the plants, I immediately began to ground myself. My sense of agitation faded away because I had something important to do, something physical that connected me with my environment.

But not only did I study plants, I also nibbled on plants, rubbed myself with plants (poison ivy—inadvertently--and jewelweed--intentionally), sniffed plants, got stung by plants (nettles), dug roots (burdock), made twine out of plants (dogbane), hung plants in the attic to dry, made tea out of plants, cooked with plants, fermented plants, snoozed on top of plants, climbed trees, swung from vines, and more or less interacted with plants in every way imaginable.

Plants also began visiting me in my dreams and communicating with me. Poison ivy was one such visitor—a very gentle, feminine being who apparently plays some sort of caretaking role in the forest. Poison ivy was everywhere I went, covering the ground at the forest edges and vining up trees.  I noticed that although she twined up many trees, the thickest and most ancient vines seemed to be on the black locust trees. Perhaps it was because locust trees are legumes and fix atmospheric nitrogen—maybe she chose to parasitize the locusts in order to get that “fix” of nitrogen. But staring one day at the gorgeous vines, with their thousands upon thousands of aerial root hairs digging into the warm brown bark of a black locust tree, a flash of insight came to me. She wasn’t a parasite. These two species were linked up intentionally and symbiotically. The thing they were sharing, however, will never be measured by science—they were linking consciousness.

I got the sense of the consciousness of the forest and plants in other ways too. On my walks up the back road I would often pause to look at a huge dying maple tree, its trunk emerging from the forest floor twenty feet below me and its canopy towering high above me. I remember this tree from childhood and loved it then too, but in childhood I had never noticed a peculiar thing that happened when I was in its presence. Here is what I wrote in my journal the first time I noticed it:

The other experience was two nights ago on a walk up the road. It was a gorgeous evening and there was an amazing quality to the sunlight. A doe passed twenty feet from me without noticing me. As I continued up the road I stopped here and there to admire specific trees, particularly the very old specimens (fortunately no one has logged this part of the woods). I stood for awhile admiring one huge tree growing from the forest floor below me and towering high above me.
I stood there just in awe, taking its presence in, then finally started walking up the road again. But I only got a few steps before I realized—my hands were just buzzing with energy! I felt such power coursing through me, but especially through my hands.  What’s this? All of a sudden it hit me—it was the tree. I went back and felt the power moving through me, and something immense, and an emotion like the deepest grief or beauty or love. And the sense of dignity and wisdom and deep, aching memory.
And some inkling I can’t yet put into words—about the earth under the tree, and the sky, and the tree being a tower of water, pulling earth energies up to meet the sky. And where I stood I was in this powerful force-field created by that linking of elements. And the tree was not a mere conduit but a conscious being, and the linking of earth below and sky above was an exchange of information. And the tree was an individual, but not only—it was much more this something bigger, this greater field.

I continued to have this experience every time I passed the tree. At first I tried to find a rational explanation. The road began to steepen significantly shortly before I passed the tree. I thought perhaps the buzzing in my hands was just due to increased circulation because my heart had to pump harder to power up the hill. But I easily disproved that, because my hands would buzz even on the downhill journey and they would buzz when I was just hanging out in that general area and happened too close to the tree, and they would buzz when I moseyed and ambled my way slowly up the hill without getting my heart rate up. In the end I gave up trying to be rational about it and moved into that other, nonlinear way of being and perceiving, letting it become part of the myth and story of the land that was beginning to unfold for me.

I spent considerable time with that tree, sometimes clambering down the road bank to hug and sit with it (and get eaten alive by mosquitoes down there). Besides the feeling I had of being in a powerful force-field when I was near it, my other strong feeling was that this maple tree (and I believe all maple trees) really love human beings and feel protective and parental towards us. This was totally counterintuitive for me. We’re an awful species, we have utterly no respect for any part of the natural world, so how could any tree (or any living thing for that matter), feel love or regard for our species? In my mind, the plant and animal kingdoms should prefer us gone from this planet, and good riddance!

I also thought I sensed a lot of sadness and that we’ve been missed, because we no longer choose to have relationships with the maple trees. It seems they want to link consciousness with us, and like the poison ivy and the black locust tree, the sum of that connection would be greater than the parts.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nature and Human Potential

Each of us is on a different journey through life, taking widely disparate paths and learning wildly different lessons along the way. Some people seem born to live their lives bathed in the spotlight and to be the movers and shakers of the world. Others of us take quieter, more contemplative paths. But every life seems to have its own internal coherence, a just-rightness about the path taken, even though it may have many convoluted turns and unimagined obstacles along the way.

When I look over my own life I can identify a few overarching themes--coherences that have been with me since childhood. One of those has to do with the importance of the natural world, the necessity for me to be rooted to a particular place, the need to be a participant in my local ecosystem. Looking back over my life I can see how, along the way, I have always been seeking this--always trying to mold my life so I can have a deep relationship with the more-than-human world. It has been such a visceral, vital need for me, as if my very life depended on it (and, actually, I believe it does).

The other major theme revolves around human potential, what I’ve called my quest to be “fully human”. At fifteen I knelt at my bedroom window one night, looking out through the dark and the fog at the graceful old maple tree at the end of the driveway, and I prayed that my life be given over to the quest for wisdom. It was the most earnest thing I had ever prayed or wished for, so earnest that I told that maple tree I would willingly surrender everything else in my life, if only I could follow the path of wisdom. By a “quest for wisdom” I meant that I wanted my life to be an ever-deepening exploration of my own human potential. I didn’t want to stagnate or go mindlessly through life, I wanted to stay awake for the entire trip and go deeper and deeper (or expand farther and farther) into this hologram that is our own potential.

Human potential is something that seems to be horribly squandered in our times. It doesn’t even seem to be talked about much anymore. In the consumerist and technology-addled culture we live in, where we fixate on material wants, needs, and comforts, we’ve become so pacified that we no longer seek for anything greater.

The intent of this blog when I started it was to explore this question about human potential: Who might we become when we drop the materialistic trappings of our culture? And as my explorations have continued, I’ve come to an important realization. We can’t become “fully human” unless we become fully embedded in the natural world around us. My two overarching themes in this life are actually the same theme! It’s only through intimate, full participation with our environment--with not merely the human environment, but the complex, ever-so richly nuanced, more-than-human environment--that we can reach our deepest potential. Cut ourselves off from the natural world and we cut ourselves off from the source of all intelligence and wisdom.

My trip back to the terrain of my childhood in 2011 really drove this insight home for me. Spending five months in deep immersion within the natural world turned what had previously been more or less only intuition into a lived reality of a different, deeper way of perceiving and being in this world.

Finally I’ve got a series of posts lined up to tell the story of my trip back home.