A recent email to me was from someone who says his church 'says we are to be in the world not of the world.' 'We are in the world among other sinners but we shouldn't partake of the temptations offered, [so we should be] not of the world.' This doctrine inspired the following reflection on consciousness.
The human brain has two main states, awake and asleep. While asleep studies have revealed the brain (in humans and other animals) does memory management, where sleep deprivation affects memory. You cannot consciously force yourself to fall asleep because it is a different state of the brain, so the brain must make the physical transition, not your thinking about it. Thinking about sleep can cause a problem falling asleep since that mental concentration essentially prevents the change in state.
Consciousness is the physical state when the brain (and person) is awake and alert (and usually thinking). When awake the brain is continuously receiving sensory stimulation from the senses of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. The brain will perform memory pattern matching in response to this stimuli, sometimes automatically invoking cross sensory memories, like a particular memory of a taste in response to a certain smell, or a visual memory in response to a particular sound or touch. Thinking or actively contemplating certain sensory images is not required to get these spontaneous responses; it is what the brain will do naturally.
Human beings are social creatures by our nature, much like our closely related primates, the bonobo and the chimpanzee. Human beings innately have empathy, a capacity to identify with another being, to share the feelings being experienced by another. Most people possess a capacity for compassion and sympathy. Each person is intuitively aware of other people even without having to specifically learn such a skill (though the natural skill can be developed further). A person can sense by observing another's facial expression something about that person's emotional state, such as happy, sad, anger, etc. Listening to the voice inflections also contribute to this sense of another, where a catch in the voice can convey some emotional discomfort and the melody of the message conveys a question, doubt, or excitement. Observing hand and arm motions can also sometimes add to the understanding or intensity of a particular message.
Our interest in the other person can intensify our awareness of these nonverbal signals, where one might note a tear in the eye or a muscle twitch that would be missed if engaged in a conversation with a stranger. This process of being involved in an intimate conversation with a close friend does not require 'thinking' where a person consciously comes to a decision that 'I will concentrate deeper on what she is saying' just as a person will not consciously decide 'I will choose to pay less attention to whatever he is saying' when forced into an unwanted conversation. The tenor of the personal relationship can set the framework without any thinking about it, a mix of consciousness set on an unconscious basis.
Thinking can actually interfere in this natural rapport with another person. Being distracted by a detail such as eye movements or excessive hand waving derails the attention by thinking about what was noticed, thereby making the rest of the conversation less productive as nuances will be missed. Thinking can even make this much worse when some memory surfaces that was triggered by something in the conversation or by an action by the other speaker, and as the conscious brain considers this memory the spontaneous connection with the other has been broken.
Our consciousness basically develops within the reach of our senses. As one walks along a path in the park, our sight will enable consideration of which direction to walk, in light of what is of interest near and far in different directions. Our hearing will note what is in the area, where we might hear voices or animal sounds, perhaps suggesting a change in the route. The brain does not have to actually consciously identify any of these sounds to react to them, like relating different voices to particular acquaintances but can instead be just a recognition of roughly how many people can be heard in different directions. Similarly, chirping birds can be recognized and appreciated without actually having to know which species of bird makes each sound. We can register certain smells without actually having to know their source or there could be a fragrant lilac bush in bloom nearby (at an unknown distance in an unknown direction) but still noticed as being in the area.
Thinking can also interfere with this rapport with the environment. Trying to recognize a sound could result in a stumble. If the foot path is uneven, extra attention might be required to consider each step taken. This concentration on such details could mean different sounds and smells are blocked out.
In this age of the cell phone, driving a car can be an interesting mix of conscious and unconscious attention. A person can carry on a conversation while unconsciously keeping the car in the lane and maintaining the correct speed. Of course, there is a undefined balance to this mix so if too much attention is given to the conversation then the unconscious driving ability will be impaired.
Even for a very ticklish person, it is difficult to tickle yourself. The tickle sensation arises from an unanticipated touch so you cannot willfully cause yourself to be tickled. The brain as it deals with the sensory inputs can be fooled, as a few simple exercises have revealed such as the sensation your nose is as long as your arm.
Since humans are social beings, group behavior is very important and inherent (i.e., participation does not require conscious thought). Rather than each person remaining an isolated consciousness (represented as a soul, an internal entity isolated from the souls of others), in a group a person's behavior can shift to where the group will act in a coordinated way. A team of coworkers can meld different skills and levels of experience to achieve success that would not be possible with uncoordinated individual efforts. There is a variety of large or small groups, with different reasons for membership in these groups. Imitation is also in an interesting aspect of a group behavior.
From personal experience I can relate to the worth of team sports as a group behavior. After playing hardball as a preteen Little Leaguer, as an adult I played recreational softball for more than 20 years in a variety of teams, from a couples league (our team was a collection of couples in our family neighborhood), a recreational league (a team drawn mostly from the men in the neighborhood), to a company league (a team drawn from coworkers). Softball offers the satisfying experience of success both as a team when playing defense (when the other team is up to bat) where success comes from each position player properly executing their role and as a individual when batting, though there is also team success when batting as players work together to score runs. The exhilaration felt when your team wins a close game is very rewarding. I also enjoyed a couple of years of bowling both in a couples league and in a company league (including one season with my brother, when we briefly worked for the same company) and of soccer in a company league (with both men and women coworkers).
Prejudice is another aspect of group behavior, where a preference is given to one's own group over any other group. Studies have found this prejudice to occur even in randomly created groups, like with a coin toss. While this prejudice might be an unconscious response, consciously we can choose to be tolerant of those that are in some way different than ourselves. The acceptance of others will broaden our own horizons while it can strengthen that group through diversity in its members.
The Salem witch trials involved a situation where the phenomenon of group behavior can lead to a disaster, where people are actually murdered (!) by the community. Salem had community discord (including a family feud) leading to the community attacking those not in conformance, though it also appears several young women having epileptic fits caused a need for blame for that unusual behavior to be placed on someone.
In our current time, class conflict is becoming pronounced with the rich and privileged class attempting to keep the lower class enmeshed in internal conflict (like emphasizing lower class problems are due to immigration, unions, welfare, minorities, schools, etc.) rather than everyone working together for solutions that benefit everyone. Divide and conquer is a technique often used when one group (social, religious, ethnic, political, etc.) seeks dominance over another group.
I believe that anyone that has had a very close relationship with another can appreciate a soul is not a solitary entity within a body. The loss of a close friend can be expressed as ‘the loss of my right arm’ as if that second person was a part and an extension of the first. A successful marriage can lead to one partner considering the other partner as ‘my other half’, as if the two partners in union are in some way bound together into one.
There can be a very dark side of a person's dealing with others. When told by an authority figure to do something against their conscience, most people will apparently obey. The most famous study of this behavior is the Milgram experiment, where the subject was told to administer an electric shock, increasing in intensity. These types of studies reveal the moral decisions we consciously make (or in the context of this essay, our consciousness) can be influenced by external factors.
On the bright side, I suggest making love is a special extension of consciousness. My first sexual experience (with my eventual wife) was after my first moment of enlightenment so perhaps my perspective is not typical in our time.
Having a caring, sharing partner can result in a shared consciousness of sorts. Making love is a complete sensory experience, involving mutual, simultaneous stimulation of all five senses: touch, sound, smell, taste and sight (if not in the dark). The intimacy becomes special when the two partners are so aware of each other that thinking is not necessary, where each is intuitively gratifying the other without having to vocalize any requests, without having to 'think' about a plan to execute - but rather the transitions are spontaneous and effective. After a mutually satisfying conclusion, I cannot imagine any other, more intimate way of bonding with another human being, where the consciousness of two people becomes like one.
Too much thinking during the romance is actually a problem, where concentrating too much on oneself or the other can disturb the balance and will typically result in one or both not being truly satisfied by the experience.
Personalities will interact with the ability to maintain a stable marriage. A person that is capable of being satisfied with what one has can appreciate both the partner and the marriage, and so the relationship can weather the normal ups and downs between two people. A person typically incapable of being satisfied is more unlikely to find marital bliss (where there might always be someone else who is better than the current partner) and so might be one that has frequent short relationships, or fairly brief terms of marriage. The marital bliss in bed is not sufficient to sustain a long term relationship, since unlike bonobos not every conflict in complex human relationships can be solved in such a manner.
Having this natural bonding experience available to people presents a possible problem to society since the act can result in pregnancy and/or a disease (STD). The other problem for society is the bonding is most effective between caring and sharing partners, which is typically not the case between adolescents when simple self gratification is typically the goal of the act, to the detriment (physically and possibly emotionally) for the other. This situation results in various restrictions for what is acceptable behavior, in an attempt to prevent predatory assaults that are not an act of love between what should be consenting adult partners.
Religions deal with the birth control situation differently. Of the 3 Western religions, Islam apparently has the fewest restrictions on birth control. Jewish law (Halacha) permits some methods of birth control in certain circumstances. Historically the Catholic Church has been against all forms of birth control (except the so called rhythm method) but in late 2010 Pope Benedict has approved condoms to prevent infection, but not for birth control. Some Christian groups push abstinence only education, that denies the youth information about contraception as the teachers attempt to convince the youth to wait until marriage for any/all sexual activity. This approach (of denying a complete education) is found to be ineffective over the long term by most impartial studies.
The emotional power of this interpersonal attraction certainly alarms some people. In some parts of the world the grotesque practice of female circumcision is still practiced, which is clearly an attempt to prevent the woman from ever enjoying the bonding experience to its fullest.
The Catholic Church historically has preached a couple should join only for the purpose of conceiving a baby. Is that because such an experience of human intimacy is too much competition for teaching we should somehow 'bond' instead with a supernatural being? If we find enjoyment in our human experience, will we forget that we are supposed to live our life on earth by avoiding all temptation with the expectation we will find eventual happiness when we leave this life (when we are just a soul, no longer having a body)? If our consciousness can be felt to extend outside of our physical body then does that conflict with teaching our soul is a supernatural entity that exists within our body and becomes detached (isolated from its host) only through death? Some preach the soul existed before our birth and exists after our death, implying a total detachment from the human experience. That is not a suitable description of the human consciousness.
Thinking is mentioned several times above in relation to consciousness. Enlightenment, or the momentary grasping of one's complete integration with the universe, is hindered by too much thinking. Thinking is the mental process of analyzing the sensory inputs and forming conclusions based on past experience and related memories. This thinking inherently creates a buffer between the consciousness and the senses, for their analysis. Thinking can also involve checking the time relationship of events, which can lead to the illusion of cause and effect in natural processes. As an electrical engineer, rational thinking is critical to my job but that depth of thinking is a hindrance to attaining satori. Believing 100% in everyday life is not a problem for either. Believing events are guided by a supernatural hand according to God's plan or in a ghostlike life after death can be a problem with appreciating the challenges of this life.
The Korean Zen master Seung Sahn (as referenced in the book Only Don't Know, with selected teaching letters written to/from him) frequently ended his letters with something similar to: “So I hope you only go straight, don't know, believe 100% in your everyday life, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.” I find that to be simple, direct advice.
A person's consciousness is an integrated part of the environment. They are inseparable, except by total sensory deprivation which has a number of different psychological consequences. Who we are is much more than a soul that is somehow wrapped up inside our body, isolated from everyone else. When a religion teaches a person's consciousness is 'in the world' but 'not of the world' that indoctrination directly conflicts with the above understanding of the dynamic nature of the human consciousness.
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created - April 2011
last change - 05/09/2011