Sentience: A new blog by David B

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Mindfulness,sentience, feeling, and transcendence

– how then are souls to be made?  How are these sparks, which are god, to have identity given to them so as to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this…[…] Do you not see how necessary a world of pain and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!
 – John Keats

Experience is not a veil that shuts off man from nature; it is a means of penetrating continually further into the heart of the matter

 John Dewey

Last week Mysan had been talking about svadhyaya. The term literally means ‘one’s own reading’ or ‘self-study’, the fourth of the Niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Svadhyaya (self-study) is the ability to see our true divine nature through the contemplation of our life’s lessons and through the meditation on the truths revealed by seers and sages.

Self study doesn’t necessarily mean to add more to our already cluttered brains but to remove all of the habits of mind those defining characteristics that we usually identify with such as our name, our nationality, our occupation, our gender, our past, our status in the world, and especially all of the judgements and stories about ourselves that we become attached to. When the self is stripped down to its essential core, what is left?  This returning to the true essence or source is known as Pratiprasava as we purify our afflicted mind. Pratiprasava is a method of re-absorption of effect into cause or reversing the process of manifestation.

Through the practice of Yoga we can untangle the complexity of our mind backwards to the origin and source of our mind. Swami Ji has a nice quote:

“The process of Self-realization is one of attention reversing the process of manifestation, of retracing consciousness back through the levels of manifestation to its source.”

Life presents an endless opportunity to learn about ourselves; our flaws and weaknesses give us the opportunity to grow and our mistakes allow us to learn. Examining our actions becomes a mirror to see our conscious and unconscious motives, thoughts, and desires more clearly. The yogic practice of Svadhyaya involves the study of sacred and spiritual texts as a guide to our interior world where our true self resides. Instead of seeing the effects of mind, we see through to the cause.  Self-study requires both seeing who we are in the moment and seeing beyond our current state to realize our connection with the divine. It requires mindfulness.

It’s funny word, mind – full- ness. My mind is always full.  Mind really, really full- ness. The question of course is what is my mind full of? My obsessive searching; the thinking generally revolves around a fundamental question of course, who am i?  Consequently my mind is full of conditional answers to that question, but ultimately what it is full of is thought. They arise as the sun rises, as the world turns, and as this experience changes so do I.  There is no permanent I but there is always thought which was famously to lead Descartes to the cogito.

Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary asks;

Is consciousness a product of the brain? The only certainty here is that anyone who thinks they can answer this question with certainty has to be wrong. We have only our conceptions of consciousness and of the brain to go on; and the one thing we do know for certain is that everything we know of the brain is a product of consciousness. But the fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with: it is itself the ground of all experience. There is nothing else which has the ‘inwardness’ that consciousness has.

This ever present watcher of the thinking in my mind has found another altogether more subtle layer of thought, the sense I get lately in my practice gives me glimpses behind the tenacious veil of illusion produced by thinking, that world of duality, of mind and matter. Here at the Sanctuary, on the mat at least, sometimes mind and matter are experienced as aspects of one implicit order.

Sentience, that which we are mindful of, is what we feel, and this feeling is the ultimate process of the universe experiencing itself. Sentience is the ability to perceive and feel, that is the experience of getting to the heart of the matter. My yoga practice reminds me to become mindful of that experience; to come into my ‘self’ as a sentient being, to pray for the liberation of all sentient beings. So at the beginning of each class we mediate;  using breathe to drop deeper into self. So in a recent class after Mysan talked about svadhyaya  she encourages us to explore our feelings.

Feelings form the basis for what humans have described for millennia as the human soul or spirit. Feelings are generated not only in the traditionally acknowledged collection of brain structures known as the limbic system, but also involves the brain’s prefrontal cortices, and, most importantly, the brain sectors that map and integrate signals from the internal body together with significant concentrations of nerve cells in the gut, around the heart in addition to the flow of external information from our sense organs; eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin.

In this landscape of our body, the objects of our proprioceptive awareness ( i.e. self awareness) are the viscera (heart, lungs, gut, bones muscles ), while the light and shadow,  the movement and sound, the smell and taste of our environment represent a point in the range of operation of those sense organs at a certain moment.

By and large, a feeling is the momentary “view” of a part of that body landscape. It has a specific content-the state of the body; and specific neural systems that support it, the peripheral nervous system and the brain regions that integrate signals related to body structure and regulation. Because the sense of that body landscape is juxtaposed in time to the perception or recollection of something else that is not part of the body- the face of my grandchild, a melody from a long loved song, the wind on by face pedalling my bike down a hill across the park to get home on a spring day,  a mouth watering aroma as I walk past the bakery.  Feelings end up being “qualified” to that something else, by memory momentary fleeting feelings deepen and acquire meaning.

emotional-pinwheel

Figure 1: Plutnicks Wheel of emotion

 

But there is more to a feeling than this essence. The qualifying body state which we label as emotion, positive or negative, is accompanied and rounded up by a corresponding thinking mode: fast moving and idea rich, when the body-state is in the positive and pleasant band of the spectrum, slow moving and fixed, when the body-state veers toward the painful or intense inner band of the wheel.

Feelings let us catch a glimpse of the organism in full biological process, a reflection of the mechanisms of our biology as life flows through us. Were it not for the possibility of our internal sensing body states that are inherently ordained to be painful or pleasurable, there would be no suffering or bliss, no longing or mercy, no tragedy or glory in the human condition.

The brain and the body are indissociably integrated by mutually targeted biochemical and neural circuits. There are two principal routes of interconnection. The route usually thought of first is made of sensory and motor peripheral nerves which carry signals from every part of the body to the brain, and from the brain to every part of the body. The other route, which comes less easily to mind although it is far older in evolution, is the bloodstream; it carries chemical signals such as hormones, neurotransmitters, and modulators. Even a simplified summary reveals the complexity of the relationships:

  1. Nearly every part of the body, every muscle, joint, sensory organ and internal organ, sends signals to the brain via the peripheral nerves. Those signals enter the brain at the level of the spinal cord or the brain stem, and eventually are carried inside the brain, from neural station to neural station, to the somatosensory cortices in the parietal lobe and insular regions.
  2. Chemical substances arising from body activity also reach the brain via the bloodstream and influence the brain’s operation either directly or by activating special brain sites such as the subfornical organ.
  3. In the opposite direction, the brain acts, through nerves, on all parts of the body. The agents for those actions are the autonomic (or visceral) nervous system and the musculoskeletal (or voluntary) nervous system. The signals for the autonomic nervous system arise in the evolutionarily older regions (the amygdala, the cingulate, the hypothalamus, and the brain stem), while the signals for the musculoskeletal system arise in several motor cortices and subcortical motor nuclei, of different evolutionary ages.
  4. The brain also acts on the body by manufacturing or ordering the manufacture of chemical substances released in the bloodstream, among them hormones, transmitters, and modulators.

As we look deeper into these mechanisms we find neurons and their axons are embedded —suspended might be a better term—in scaffolding made up of another type of brain cell, the glial cell. Besides providing neurons with physical support, glial cells also provide part of their nourishment. Neurons cannot survive without glial cells, but the glia are fascial cells in your brain. They outnumber your neurons in your brain 9 to 1 (on average). Hence the often quoted misleading statement that we only use 10% of our brain cells. In fact we are only just discovering the function of these, coming to a deeper understanding that mind is in fact bodymind, that neuropeptides produced throughout the entire body and receptors for activating the communication between the conscious and unconscious translating emotion which is a non material realm into physical reality literally transforming mind into matter.

The most recent research seems to suggests that the particular type of glia known as an astrocyte is essential to we humans developing higher cognitive functions.

Says URMC neurologist Steven Goldman: ” …glia are not only essential to neural transmission, but also suggest that the development of human cognition may reflect the evolution of human-specific glial form and function… we believe that this is the first demonstration that human glia have unique functional advantages. This finding also provides us with a fundamentally new model to investigate a range of diseases in which these cells may play a role.

“Our advanced cognitive processing capabilities exist not only because of the size and complexity of our neural networks, but also because of the increase in functional capabilities and coordination afforded by human glia.”

Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds and interpenetrates your every muscle, bone, nerve and organ. Collectively it comprises a three dimensional, full body “suit” that provides a tensional network of support and structure for your body.

It is composed of durable yet elastic collagen fibres and extracellular matrix (ECM) a viscous liquid that is the immediate environment of every cell in your body, rather like air is the immediate environment to all our bodies.

Your fascia responds to supply and demand, slowly adapting itself to the way you use your body. As such it could be thought of as the organ of shape. But more than that, it is also full of sensory nerves whose job it is to relay all kinds of sensory motor, movement and sensation information to your brain – which really makes fascia your largest sensory organ.

Making mind or consciousness arise out of an organism rather than out of a disembodied brain is compatible with a number of assumptions. The brain’s somatosensory complex, especially that of the right hemisphere in humans, represents our body structure by reference to a body schema where there are midline parts (trunk,head), appendicular parts (limbs), and a body boundary. A representation of the skin might be the natural means to signify the body boundary because it is an interface turned both to the organism’s interior and to the environment with which the organism interacts.

This dynamic map of the overall organism anchored in body schema and body boundary would not be achieved in one brain area alone but rather in several areas by means of temporally coordinated patterns of neural activity. The indistinctly mapped representation of body operations at the level of brain stem and hypothalamus (where the topographic organization of neural activity is minimal) would be connected to brain regions where more and more topographic organization of signaling is available-the insular cortices, and the somatosensory cortices.

When you see, you do not just see: you feel you are seeing something with your eyes. Your brain processes signals about your organism’s being engaged at a specific place on the body reference map (such as the eyes and their controlling muscles), and about the visual specifics of whatever it is that excites your retinas.

I suspect that the knowledge that organisms acquired from touching an object, from seeing a landscape, from hearing a voice, or from moving in space along a given trajectory was represented by reference to the body in action. In the beginning, there was no touching, or seeing, or hearing, or moving along by itself. There was, rather, a feeling of the body as it touched, or saw, or heard, or moved. To a considerable extent, this arrangement would have been maintained. It is appropriate to describe our visual perception as a “feeling of the body as we see,” and we certainly “feel” we are seeing with our eyes It is true that the attention allocated to the visual processing itself does tend to make us partly unaware of the body. However, if pain, discomfort, or emotion set in, attention can be focused instantly on body representations, and the body feeling moves out of the background and into center stage.

We are actually far more aware of the overall state of the body than we usually admit, but it is apparent that as vision, hearing, and touch evolved, the attention usually allocated to their component of overall perception increased accordingly; thus the perception of the body proper more often than not was left precisely where it did, and does, the best job: in the background

The representation of what we now construct as a space with three dimensions would be engendered in the brain, on the basis of the body’s anatomy and patterns of movement in the environment.

While there is an external reality, what we know of it would come through the agency of the body proper in action, via representations of its perturbations. We would never know how faithful our knowledge is to “absolute” reality. What we need to have, and I believe we do have, is a remarkable consistency in the constructions of reality that our brains make and share and at end of the search there will be an end to the seeker.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

  1. S. Eliot 

Know thyself

The Oracle of Delphi

 

One evening at sunset recently, I was practising yoga on a deck in a forest in Yengo national park Wollombi and i looked down the hill to see the light of a full moon being reflected in a swimming hole. that reflected Light (of a reflection of a reflection of the sun, triggers photoelectric neurological  processes in my brain which cause me to feel connected to the earth , the sun and moon in a moment in time, which I associate in my individual bodymind with emotional overtones and memories to create  an enthusiasm for living, for connection to a numinous reality that stretches beyond my immediate physical environment.

However we must remember that our conception of reality is actually cognitive inferences based on sensory data passed through the filter of a particular human consciousness existing in a historical context which involves systems of thought that have themselves evolved over human history.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn introduced us to the notion of the paradigm shift.

If the scientific revolution overthrew Ptolemaic cosmology to install a heliocentric material science which was itself overturned last century first by Relativity and then by Quantum Physics yet another paradigm shift followed with postmodern relativism but now hot on its heels we have the Integrative paradigm heralded by Ken Wlber.

Post modernism pushed relativism into cultural forms leading to undermining of the current dominant (privileged) rationalist materialist paradigm and its cold disengaged view of the infinite extent of the external cosmos. The emerging Integrative paradigm leverages psychoanalytic depth psychology, systems theory and spiritual philosophy to reinspire and enrich the depleted human spirit.

This Holographic paradigm re-boots the mediaeval  great chain of being by rediscovering and invoking “holons”  every entity and concept is both an entity on its own, and a hierarchical part of a larger whole. Our cultural traditions of alchemy spirituality and esoteric religion come alive a richly symbolic sophisticated maps of our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Just as the Hindu understand the Hindu pantheon enliven yogis and the gods of Mt Olympus stirred in the breast of ancient Athenians and Alchemists understood the and Gnostics the profound symbolic reality of the imaginal, the realm of inner space.

The self can be understood as a microcosm,

“as above so below” 

Hermes Trismegistus

What if the brain were in fact part of a much more complex system for the storage of knowledge and information ?  What if the network of  fascial tissue in the human body is the integrative psychosomatic network by which an individual sentience connects to the greater ecological system  the source of all consciousness, in the same way that our individual consciousness emerges out of the molecular biology of our somatosensory system. That is that all life is interrelated in such a way as to generate the field of consciousness.

This brings to mind Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality which takes a different starting point from most classic approaches to God. Unlike those approaches which require that you spurn the world in order to love God, Teilhard wrote that in addition to the two classical ways of picturing God—either far away in heaven (transcendent) or living within your heart (immanent)—our experience presents a third, much more comprehensive option,  to view our relationship with God. God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. This is a way that was recognized in ancient times but never emphasized by formal religions. Teilhard’s spirituality embraces and accepts the findings of modern science, especially the laws of evolution, which are at the roots of his thought. His approach does not distance itself from science, progress, complexity, modern life, information technology, or the media, as traditional spiritualities tend to do.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

We are the microcosm and integral to human experience is every step in the evolution of the universe to create a consciousness capable of knowing itself, this is the divine alive in us.

Poet Robert Browning, wrote;

Such mean are even now upon the earth

Serene amid the half formed creature round

who should be saved by them and joined with them

Form is but the result of consciousness and consciousness is but the result of thought and thought simply a contact and a borrowing from Universal intelligence that pervades all things

Thought makes form! Thought makes things!  

In the allegory of the cave, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.

So when the prisoners talk, what are they talking about? If an object (a book, let us say) is carried past behind them, and it casts a shadow on the wall, and a prisoner says “I see a book,” what is he talking about?

He thinks he is talking about a book, but he is really talking about a shadow. But he uses the word “book.” What does that refer to?

Plato gives his answer  “And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

Plato’s point is that the prisoners would be mistaken. For they would be taking the terms in their language to refer to the shadows that pass before their eyes, rather than (as is correct, in Plato’s view) to the real things that cast the shadows.

If a prisoner says “That’s a book” he thinks that the word “book” refers to the very thing he is looking at. But he would be wrong. He’s only looking at a shadow. The real referent of the word “book” he cannot see. To see it, he would have to turn his head around.

Plato’s point: the general terms of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see. They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind.

When the prisoners are released, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds.  As has been explored above this mode of seeing is Feeling.

In Ensouling Language: approaching writing as a sacred art, Stephen Buhner explores the core of the craft: the communication of deep meaning that feeds not just the mind but also the soul of the reader.

In it he empowers careful thought to make divine consciousness the creative source of our world.

This of course has been a persistent meme in new age philosophy, the notion of mind over matter:

We do not create or even learn by conscious concentration alone. The mind is not an instrument distinct from the body’s surrounding environment

It communicates feely with the non verbal (and sometimes unconscious) anatomy via the nervous cardiovascular and respiratory systems and the fascia through out the body. It can receive powerful stimuli from outside events both great and small .Its various structures of language make it an organic part of culture and of history.

Recently cultural practices including yoga (and various ceremonies) have reconnected many people in our communities to the ecosystem that the recent dominant materialist paradigm works so hard to disengage us from.

Through practices like sacred ceremonies, breath work, nature immersion (involving meditation and fasting ), sound therapies, etc., a massively complex sentience other than just the merely human finds expression through the human to advise us on our unique and individual path to transcendence.  ( We are all beautiful and unique snowflakes of light – Thank you Mysan)

When filtered through the cognitive prism of conspiracy theory or new age mysticism this may be described in terms of either aliens or angels, but it is in fact our own deeper nature finding expressing in us. This deep knowing of an entire planet is seeking expression through its creation.

The crystalline structure of DNA based life is a transceiver for information, knowledge and wisdom; it is in fact the evolving transcendence of matter to embody mind.

An ascension process is underway as ever greater numbers of people tune their instruments into a wider bandwidth of the ultimate internet of things – the planet that gives us life.

Mind feeds on all the senses (including those that have been active only in the past in shaman and poets and artists and spiritual genius) yet it also transcends them to focus, modulate and synthesise their inputs.

Original creative thought is not the product of a brain but of the Self, and the more self you can contain or encompass through integrative practices the greater the originality or creativity evolving.

We think that how we feel is determined by who we are, but in truth how you feel is shaped by who, what and where and when you are in relationship to. The entire planet that gave rise to you is a 4.7 billion year saga of creation and has taken every second of that time to evolve into you and the information you express, the air you breathe, the blood and the vast stores of information coursing through you, that gives you this life.

Yoga or contemplation of perennial wisdom or engagement in new age light worker mysticism or Ken Wilber’s integral theory, the archaic revival of tribal Shamanism, the use of psychedelics, breathework, Sound Healing  all just prisms for understanding and constructing the reality within which we operate.

As Han Solo says in the most recent Star wars Saga

han-solo

“Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic…

Arthur C Clarke’s Third law

Namaste

 

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