Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Consciousness: The Journey Within

Now that we have 2015 rolling, let's start off with some basics.

It seems to me you can't get any more basic than consciousness itself; without it we would not be able to have any experience of the world let alone follow up those experiences with creative discourse to hone our execution of goodness.

The book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris most recently encouraged me to further explore the foundations of consciousness. Throughout my life, I have explored a number of avenues of inquiry: by rote learning and religious inquiry of moral absolutes has given way for me to ongoing and expansive scientific inquiry of the Universe and humanistic/naturalistic inquiry of an evolving ethical stance.

What lies beneath?
[Douglas Harding's Headless Self Portrait]
The path of investigating my own consciousness seems to me to be an entirely different direction of inquiry from any other. The meditative journey seeks to provide an immersion in the most basic levels associated with our sapience.  Within our minds numerous thoughts from the truly chaotic to the tediously ordered are born, dance and die as we go about our everyday tasks.  I use the term "thoughts" here in the most basic sense, as in anything that causes neural activity (ideas, sensations, emotions, unconscious brain to body signals, et al).

Meditation is a path to examine the conscious landscape.  I am currently a beginner meditator, so my intent here is primarily to stir your interest in pursuing consciousness exploration for yourself.  The simplest mindfulness meditation requires only that you set aside some peaceful time to pay attention to your mind, listening without judgment to its activity.  In practice, this usually entails entering a relaxing posture and focusing on your natural, recurring breath.  The subsequent observations gradually expose you to the waves and whitecaps within the ocean of minds, and perhaps a sense of the water itself.

Personally, I have meditated many times over the past year and I have found growing peacefulness in building a greater awareness of self, or rather the layer beneath self.  At first I noticed a lot of distracting ideas, sensations, and emotions; there is definitely import to observing these for what they are, but also to simply let them go and not focus on them.  (focusing on these would result in "contemplation" of the very thoughts meditation seeks to observe beneath).

Now one might label this pursuit of consciousness as a strain of mysticism.  I am convinced there is nothing supernatural involved, no union with an imagined, collective universal existence, no shared insight with a contrived deity.  Instead, I feel the meditative observation of our inner minds brings us closer to the most basic mystery of our mortal existence.  In this exploration, we may be able to temporarily peel away the  onion skin of brain function to examine the gift of consciousness that evolution has provided all sentient creatures.

Your exploration of consciousness may vary, of course, as you are your own individual. Nevertheless, the natural progression has delivered to us a common operating system.  Finding time to explore the inner most mind at a personal level seems an obvious place to not only find a joyfulness in the simplicity of being, but to also understand a commonality between all of us to further support empathy and compassion in our lives.

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(As for Sam Harris' book overall, I give it a solid "okay."   Though interesting at times, the first third lurches with academic neuroscience knottiness.  Still I found the later chapters a down-to-earth collection of mindfulness meditation guidelines and numerous personal anecdotes.  In particular, Harris relates his experiences (both grand and grotesque) with gurus, psychedelics and other landmarks in his search for his root consciousness.   Still I recommend it, if only to stir your intrigue; another meditation book I verily enjoyed is  Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

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