Reflection 20: Nothing on My Mind

November 7, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Members of the first Pacific island cargo cults believed early explorers and missionaries had waylaid gifts that their island ancestors and deities had intended for them. The more strange and wonderful the cargo brought to their shores, the more certain the islanders became that only their gods were clever enough to create such treasures, and that surely the strangers had intercepted them before appearing on the horizon in their great wind-powered ships. When military forces replaced the earlier explorers during the Pacific campaign of World War II, the islanders hit upon the notion of imitating their dress and behavior, so to perform the powerful magic that had allowed the combatants to steal the treasures that were truly sent by island ancestors and gods to benefit none but their descendants.

 

There is a certain charm about this innocent—almost childish—tale of magic and gullibility among primitive peoples. Or would be if the story didn’t so closely reflect the origins of our deepest religious beliefs in the early days of pastoral tribes guarding their flocks by night beneath the stars in the valleys of the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers, where so many of our cultural ways and beliefs were birthed in the human mind.

 

The regular motions of heavenly bodies—the sun during the day and stars, planets, and moon at night—were so evidently connected to flowing rivers, blossoming and fruiting plants, and migrating animals, that they were freighted with awe and even divinity because of the mysterious causal influence they exerted on Earth and its peoples. The remoteness of the heavenly host put it beyond human influence, squarely in the realm of causation, which in those days was ruled by the gods.

 

Just as Pacific islanders mimicked the ways of those who relayed their cargo to them, so early planters and shepherds believed their wellbeing depended on their imitating the ways exemplified by luminous bodies overhead. On earth as it is in heaven is probably the most profound religious formulation ever devised—because it was—and is—so evidently true. A tribe of nomads regulating its affairs according to the seasons will learn to plant, cultivate, harvest, migrate, and fast on appropriate days during the heavenly cycle of dearth and plenty. As migrant tribes moved north out of Africa 100,000 years ago, the heavens became increasingly important to their survival via the plants, wildlife, and domestic herds they depended on through the seasonal rains and flooding of the great rivers that begat early civilizations.

 

After discovery of the heavenly order, the next great advance was translating it into human affairs through use of the calendar. Which was not annually distributed in those days, but was built into structures enabling close observers to tell the progression of the seasons through the relation of heavenly bodies to Earthly landmarks such as trees, hills, and mountains, then to set stones, obelisks, and monuments, and later to temples dedicated to receiving and interpreting the instructions sent by the gods to humankind.

 

Where depicted, the gods were often surrounded by halos of light similar to the natural radiance of bright stars and planets. The planets moving among fixed stars were welcomed as angels, a word which descends from Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” Originally, there were seven of them: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were revered as gods in early religions, and were worshipped in temples and sacred groves favoring aspects of their heavenly stature. Every tribe had its priestly reader of signs in the heavens to advise local leaders bent on keeping tribal affairs attuned to the wisdom and advice of the gods as relayed through the motions of, and relationships between, the angels.

 

Urbanization and removal of priesthoods from the countryside to more developed and populated ports and trading centers led religious beliefs to drift from their moorings in the skies and become attached to other deities and institutions as they evolved over time. One characteristic of this succession was the ruthlessness with which each succeeding system of belief suppressed its predecessors. Priestly classes shifted the secret lore that gave them power from the stars—which were in public view—to more arcane wisdom hidden away in sacred texts which only they had access to.

 

As long as all people shared in the survival wisdom freely told by the motions of the planets among the stars, the priesthood provided the public service of yoking human activities to a primal system of knowledge so self-evident that everyone willingly practiced its teachings. But once priestly beliefs in urban centers were distanced from folkways of the countryside (as Dionysian feasts and festivals displaced to Athens were cut off from the rural roots that had fed them for countless generations), the angels and heavenly host became detached in the urban mind from reference to observable events in night skies, so becoming abstract and conceptual, whereas before they had been at the perceptual core of pastoral and agricultural life. Formal, organized religious experience became subject not to phenomenal events but to doctrine. It was never the same after that. Some of the early forms persisted, but their substance was now assigned by the priesthood without reference to the self-evident connections between early shepherds and the visible heavens beneath which they watched.

 

In the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the nine deities were subsumed into one supreme being. Spiritual consciousness was given a single answer to all questions, whereas before it could have selected from a number of options. The supreme being became the Giver of All, Knower of All, Hearer of All, Seer of All, The All-Comprehending, The Perfectly Wise, The Greatest, The Highest. Diversity was looked upon as heresy. The One God was to be all things to all people, even when many of its attributes were in direct opposition: Giver/Taker, First/Last, Manifest/Hidden. In consciousness, the concept of deity was transformed from a plurality to an absolute. There was to be no room in the mind for more than one Being. By fiat, that One was declared Supreme.

 

Which created an outer limit to the art of concept formation, beyond which no mind could freely wander or inquire. The ultimate had been ordained for all time. For all men and women. In all places. Forever. God became a pure idea, unsullied and intangible. Henceforth it would be impossible to encounter this singular god on a mountain top, in a forest glade, or in dreams. The ultimate concept is beyond all sensible attributes. It is that which has no phenomenal dimensions of any kind. No shape, no size, no face, no body. No appearance, no voice, no heft, no motion. It cannot be portrayed in painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, or other medium.

 

The Absolute can only be thought. And not even that because it has no parts or qualities that can be thought about. What it is is absolutely nothing. The human mind cannot conceive of such a thing. The absolute god of monotheism, meant to comprise all and intend all, is beyond conscious imagination. Calling this god a mystery is no help. There is no way a mortal mind can approach it, much less apprehend it. As that which cannot be known, it is beyond conception itself.

 

The sleep of reason creates monsters. The sleep of phenomenal consciousness creates ideas without substance, which is as empty as a mind can get. Yet people kill in the name of their singular God. Burn nonbelievers at the stake. Explode the bodies of infidels with improvised explosive devices. Murder others who look different, talk different, or dress different from themselves, without remorse.

 

Books have been written detailing the words of this fictional absolute, but they have been written by men to put fear in the hearts of others for the sake of taking power over them. We live in a time when those all around us devote their lives to making money without doing any work. Another way is to create wealth by getting people to worship nothing at all, and ask them to pay for the privilege. This, too, is happening all around us. As Brooklyn Bridge can repeatedly be sold to innocents with little in their heads and too many coins in their pockets, belief in nothingness can be dressed in passion and sold to the fearful and destitute. Brooklyn Bridge, holy writ—as far as consciousness goes they amount to much the same thing.

 

Belief without substance at the core is worse than an oxymoron, it is a travesty of consciousness itself. Without something to chew on, the mind is as useless an organ as the coccyx or appendix. Which may well be the point. When the mind is fixed on emptiness, it is that much easier for those in high places to take possession of such minds and fill the void with dogma, allowing the strong and clever to think for the weak and the innocent.

¦

 

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4 Responses to “Reflection 20: Nothing on My Mind”

  1. insomniac said

    Howdy Steve,

    I’ve been following along(i’m subscribed), enjoying your take on life and consciousness. Several times i’ve thought i should leave you a kudo for a job well done, but slipped right on past without doing it. Sorry, ‘cuz now it looks like i’m being picky, when i really agree with you most of the time.

    I’ve spent a good part of the last thirty years researching the influence of hallucinogenic fungi on the formation of social beliefs and actions, in history and in contemporary mushroom cults. Just how much influence these plant drugs have had on mankind is certainly open to debate, but there is no way they can be left out.

    You said, “There is a certain charm about this innocent—almost childish—tale of magic and gullibility among primitive peoples. Or would be if the story didn’t so closely reflect the origins of our deepest religious beliefs in the early days of pastoral tribes guarding their flocks by night beneath the stars in the valleys of the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers, where so many of our cultural ways and beliefs were birthed in the human mind.”

    Hallucinogenic mushrooms were right there at the shepherd’s feet. The god’s of war, fire, immortality and human sacrifice, the ones that have caused the most grief to society, are easily traced back to their fungus origins.

    If you are interested, google John M Alllegro,(Sacred Mushrooma and the Cross). It’s a good place to start.

    I can testify to the fact that consciousness is indeed “altered” by ingestion of these plants. Therefore, it seems to me that we will never understand our own consciousness until we have a handle on just how it can be altered by these symbiotic relationships.

    Keep up the good work!

    cheers,
    jim

  2. Steve Perrin said

    Jim, I think you’re onto something important. Consciousness, after all, depends on bodily chemistry. We usually think of chemistry of conducting fibers or axons, neurotransmitters, hormones, and the like. There is no doubt that the chemicals we ingest have direct impact on the workings of the brain that supports and shapes consciousness. Most people I know are addicted to something–chocolate, nicotine, alcohol, caffein, etc., all of which alter consciousness. Certainly rural peoples experiment with mushrooms, and learn their powers through cumulative experience. Peoples around the globe chew and ingest all kinds of plant chemicals to control pain, hunger, cold, and so on. Thanks for bringing this aspect of consciousness to my attention. –Steve

  3. Hi Steve:

    I came across your site via Google search. Glad to find another person interested in the mystery of consciousness. I once spent a number of months training my dog in obedience school. I learned more about consciousness during that episode than in any of my studies.

    I think humanity doesn’t want to admit that we are inherently incapable of understanding what consciousness is, especially when we are limited into using the same vehicle in our attempt to describe it.

    Back to obedience school. The fact of the matter was that I was being trained to learn how to communicate with my dog via the choke chain. The dog wasn’t being trained, I was. The choke chain was the only “language” the dog understood. Conclusion: I needed to learn how to use the choke chain properly in order to correctly “communicate” with my dog.

    Through the choke chain (vehicle) my consciousness (human) had a method by which to communicate to another consciousness (dog). Note: I’m not implying that one consciousness was “greater” than the other, only that within the universe we were sharing, the choke chain had been proven to be a very effective way to communicate between us.

    For me the experience was filled with meaning. The most obvious being that we are “linked” if you will, by and with other levels of consciousness different from our own. The vehicle (consciousness) in essence, appears to be symbolic in character. These symbols created the “net” that links consciousness even though these symbols were all, by nature, individually interpreted. This is what I believe design is based upon.

    In my opinion the reason we’ll never understand the concept of consciousness is that we, like the dog, are constrained by the very consciousness (subjective) that we use to identify and observe it.

    So rather than trying to discover something that we are consciously incapable of doing, we should focus upon the importance of life’s symbols, i,e, the vehicles/designs, in our life that link “consciousness” together.

    I’m trying to describe this very same venture on my own blogspot. Stop by and let me know what you think.

    Best regards,
    C. Garant

  4. Steve Perrin said

    Carl, thanks for tuning in to my blog. And for taking time to comment. Glad to know others are out there trying to find meaning in their own inner workings. I like the fact you take your dog’s consciousness for granted, and you see yourself trying to link or establish contact. Since Descartes, a great many people have fallen into the trap of thinking animals are like automatons without consciousness. I don’t know about cats, but I can’t look into the eyes of a dog or wolf without sensing the consciousness looking back at me.

    You wrote in your comment:

    “I think humanity doesn’t want to admit that we are inherently incapable of understanding what consciousness is, especially when we are limited into using the same vehicle in our attempt to describe it.”

    Yes, we are limited to our particular stream of consciousness, but I think there are times when it reveals its workings to us if we adopt a kind of watchfulness upon ourselves. Jokes, metaphors, and naming practices, for instance, share certain characteristics in common that I believe are characteristics of consciousness itself. Also research with brain-injured persons also tie certain mental abilities to specific parts of the brain. And now brain imaging lets us study blood flow in the brain during certain states of consciousness, so we can see what parts of the brain are involved in our different activities and states of attention.

    Anyway, I plan to devote the years ahead to exploring what I can learn from my own consciousness, weird as it may be. Not because I am egotistical; more, because my particular consciousness is the only example I have direct access to.

    Linking that to modern findings in neuroscience, I hope slowly to develop a sense of what’s going on in my head on certain occasions.

    I’ve learned a lot through introspection in the past, and, keeping an open mind, hope to learn more in years ahead. Writing a blog is a research method that allows me to keep track of what is going on, and to log my progress–such as it is.

    I’ll look in on your blog. Thanks again for commenting.

    –Steve from Planet Earth

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