It is so easy to overlook the astonishing capabilities of the human mind. Like fish who do not notice the water they swim in, our immediate experience of mind is so familiar we simply take it for granted. To successfully navigate the practical concerns of day to day life is a major accomplishment, one for which we as a species have yet to learn to give ourselves enough credit for. What the mind is able to accomplish is downright humbling when examined fully and should lead us to respect its abilities and, perhaps even more importantly, its vulnerabilities.
Consciousness seems to consist of a collection of factors which must be kept in dynamic balance. Mind seems to do this by a series of cybernetic-like adjustments which allows it to stay on track. Psychological development is never a straight line from point A to point B but more like the way a sailboat proceeds, tacking first to the right and then to the left. A moment of excess marks the trespass into extremes and the need to change course if sanity is to maintain its even keel.
Take a moment to consider the contents of your mind. We balance an awareness of our mundane and earthly position with a simultaneous awareness of our cosmic position in our galactic neighborhood and the unspeakable immensities of space. Alongside a thought about the ancient vastness of the night’s starry sky and pondering the meaning of human existence in the grand scheme of things, will come another thought trying to decide if the sandwich you are currently making would benefit more from Djon or yellow mustard. We maintain an awareness of grand themes playing themselves out in the theaters of international relations and the history of ideas spanning centuries and millennia, side by side with an intimate knowledge that our own allotted span on the stage of human affairs will run but a small handful of decades, if we are fortunate. Whatever might be the purpose of the stars and the grand scheme of things, each morning when we awake we are able to dedicate our energies (some people and some days with more enthusiasm than others) towards the indispensable needs of the individual life we are living – consuming our sandwich we are off to work or school or to find a mate, change a diaper, hoe a garden, pay our taxes or blow our noses.
There are also the balancing acts of the heart no less necessary if conscious awareness, just good old everyday conscious awareness, is going to function properly. Heart’s emotions intermingle with rational cognitions just exactly as language based thinking intermingles with images born from memory or imagination. We recognize our own bodies have needs of nourishment which must be balanced each day with the equally legitimate claims of others. We are aware of the suffering and needs of those sentient beings all around us and our hearts go out to them in their distress. One part of us remains aware, always, that right now an innocent is suffering reprehensible cruelties, be it from war, miscarriages of justice, or abuse. One part of us remains aware, always, that at this time there are lover’s vows being exchanged, babies being born and made, artists completing great works of beauty, and moments of sacred grace descending into the mystic’s breast. In the heart we balance our fierce love for our mates, if we are coupled, with a determined hatred to oppose anyone or anything that refuses to grant them the respect they deserve. This is another difficult balancing act our minds are accomplishing ceaselessly on behalf of maintaining our sense and sanity. These opposites are representative. The tension they create constitute the basis by which consciousness is conscious.
This stressful weight of knowledge is ever present to our minds, pressuring them in every moment to avoid what we fear and obtain what we desire. And what opposes all that? We find ways to balance this survival imperative with a more carefree attitude. If our lives are not to be wall to wall nightmares, we need to have times and places in which we allow ourselves to bask in the warm, peace-filled glow of contentment. The emotions and intuitions around gratitude, safety and well-being cannot be strangers to our everyday awareness as well. Yet the will ever beckons, there is the next valley to be crossed and the next mountain to climb on our endless hunt for our rainbows by which we might reconcile our individual existence with the whole of existence. In the interplay of opposites, which is the play of consciousness, even the proper gratitude can be taken too far and leave us kneeling and groveling (or simply drunk) when we should remain standing upright, shoulders back, capable and self-reliant.
Moment by moment our mind must balance the energetic alertness our nervous systems maintain as they are primed to be on the lookout for unexpected dangers, at all times ready to zero in on threats, with the relaxed, kaleidoscopic perception of the general reality of our environment which we understand does not contain these active threats most of the time. Every moment we combine a dismal fear of the future, quite rational for mortals subject to pain, with hope that this same future will bring us satisfaction. We all know some dreams come true and some tragedies strike wholly unexpectedly. We balance knowing these things are simultaneously true as we carry on performing the tasks of the present moment.
In what is perhaps the most profound balance of all, consciousness arises ceaselessly from the exact point at which the past disappears into emptiness and the future springs forth from the same. We balance the fact that the past is gone – that it was once real and now can be found nowhere while implied everywhere – with the fact that the future, as such, does not exist. There is a continuity in this kiss between the contained and the container that forms the essence of our time-riding consciousness. It is so mundane and yet so profound. One way we experience this psychologically is as our hope and fears for the future balanced against our pride and regrets from the past. It is from this crucible that wisdom is said to be born.
We altogether too easily take for granted this complex balancing of mind that allows us to navigate consciously in the cosmos. Taking all this and more for granted, we are often discontent, searching for more; we need a fix, an answer, a final understanding. I think we would be better served if we understood consciousness to be a very hard thing to create well in this universe as it really is, and that the mind as we experience it and the universe as we experience it participate equally in an ongoing act of creation’s manifestation in each unique, fleeting moment. We needn’t fear that each moment includes an irreducible element of novelty and the unknowable; it is ok that every detail doesn’t exist pre-planned in some cosmic mind. It seems instead that mind works in time, hard, calling on all the powers and forces of animate and inanimate existence to aid in its ongoing emergence. It seems that the uncertainty principal we find down among the sub-atomic particles extends right through the exercise of the free will we experience most intimately. Free or determined, particle or wave, mass or momentum, timelessness or time: these are the grand opposites mind plays with as if the paradox of their extremes were of no concern.
Our minds are born curious. To guide them through the difficult process of learning they have developed the ability to contrast that which is experienced as real with that which is experienced as a dream. From this most basic contrast among phenomenon the ego is able to establish what psychology has termed the reality principal. Hemmingway colorfully referred to this as the mind’s “bull shit detector.” It is a direct manifestation of the archetypal Self in so far as incorporates not just the ego but the personal and collective unconscious aspects of consciousness as well. The ego alone is not allowed to decide what is real and what is not, though it often wishes it could. The ego must learn to bow before that which makes the real seem real to it. It must embrace the Kantian categories of time, space and causality trustingly. Which leads us back to the subject of magic and miracles we looked at in last week’s post.
Is there evidence for a miracle-causing supernatural realm wholly outside the perception of humanity, as the priests claim? Is there evidence that magic works and that holy men have powers far beyond that of us normal mortals? Can the ego find in these tales of magic and miracles some real foundation for its hope to become immortal and forever blessed? This is how the BS detector takes on the subject of religion. Eastern or Western makes no difference since both abound in tales of magic and miracles.
I am going to suggest that this search for evidence for magical power has two results. In the realm of physical manifestations the evidence supports the null hypothesis. No miracles in the walking-on-water and severed-heads-being-restored variety are ever found to exist. It is always trickery, altered states of consciousness, or hearsay one is left with at the end of careful investigations of claims that these types of magical things have come to pass. On the other hand, there are the types of magical power involved with human psychology. There are love potions and death spells, holy incantations and powerful rites and ceremonies galore. The evidence for this kind of magic having a real world affect is rather abundant. Psychology is just beginning to grapple with some of what is involved when one human mind exerts “undue influence” over another. The proliferation of destructive cults in our midst has made this subject of “brainwashing” a very practical one for psychologists to deal with. Though today we call the visible, physical results of curses psychosomatic illnesses, that new label doesn’t cure people suffering from them nor is it able to keep people from occasionally being terrified to death by these same means. The evil eye and pointy sticks of the black magicians of today present themselves in more modern garb but they play on the same mind-body linkages around fear and panic, desire and pain, that they always have.
The arts of persuading the human mind have become common place in the emotional manipulations we see displayed in advertising. Ads are messages designed to change the behavior of those watching, namely to get them to purchase the product being hawked. To do this effectively across a wide percentage of the population the advertisers found that using emotional appeals instead of intellectual arguments delivered the goods. The familiar voiceover extolling the facts about some car, drug or whatnot is often included as no more than a veneer atop the visual short story the ad conveys. Not everyone will respond to these efforts on the part of advertisers to directly influence behavior. The cheerful mind, confident in its position, is less susceptible to the allure of their appeals. This is because those appeals almost always begin from an injection of a negative self-image into the mind of the viewer who is then given relief through the purchase of the product. The target of these mini soap operas are unhappy, lonely, confused, stressed, unpopular, stinky, failures but luckily for them, the old snake-oil pitch runs, we have just the thing to turn your life around!
We say that the successful tunes and jingles the mass media saturates our minds with are “catchy.” Our minds catch them, like a cold or a virus. For example, in 1982 the song Jack & Diane by John Mellencamp was receiving repeated radio play. I still, 35 years later, occasionally get the catchy chorus popping up in my head, “Oh ya, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Those of my readers close to my age may have just heard the same notes accompanying the jingle I do when this virus takes hold. There is big money to be made in programming the human mind with pessimistic mantras like this.
I think we need to discuss this like a viral epidemic. These act as mind parasites as they so easily loop endlessly in our minds in some vague, semi-conscious fashion. These internal tunes provide a bounce to our step throughout the day but they also are programming the mind with a point of view. The music, the Dionysian element Nietzsche recovered for European philosophy in The Birth of Tragedy, helps us move our bodies with more rhythm, more like dancers. This is why devices allowing us to have earphones on throughout the day have become so popular; they answered a deeply felt need in this time of ours which has so consistently insisted our bodies are little more than DNA built machines. Machines don’t dance. It is the music of these jingles that gets to the heart. The words on the other hand, the words are carrying what are more or less intelligible messages from the daylight realm of Apollo. The mind feeds on thought, finding some nourish and some do not. Those which do not nourish are like the empty calories of a fast food meal; they crowd out the place nourishing thoughts might have been. The jingle mentioned earlier is a good example of a type that I find all too pervasive. It’s Apollonian message is basically adolescent romantic angst, playing on the fear that after 30 years old life is nothing but one unremitting downhill slide. This is a useful message if you want to sell things to younger people. It paints a picture that their youth is the only time of their lives that really counts – so rack up that credit card!
“Oh ya, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Think a moment what it is you are telling your mind about life and what types of experiences one can expect as one gets older every time that little ditty loops around inside one’s skull. So many lives of quite desperation haunt the cities and towns of our modern world. One is left to wonder how much of it is the result of mind programming tricks like this. What is the jingle but a claim of corporate property rights in your inner landscape? This is what the thinkers of the past used to call the battle over the human soul. There is a reality to the psyche, as Jung was at such pains to point out, call it what you will.
It is only when we think that what our minds are capable of is trivial, so easy as to become unworthy of our continuous respect, that we can fail to properly protect them. It is then that we can become haunted by wanting more out of self-conscious mammalian life than it is prepared to deliver. In doing so we become susceptible to the wiles of the uncouth manipulators of mind. When we want more like this, we open ourselves up to the tragedy pattern which always starts when a person or a group pursues a fantasy that is not aligned with reality. Such projects do not end well, how could they? Better to work hard ourselves to acquaint consciousness with the art of paying attention to that which actually concerns us as self-conscious, caring individuals alive on a threatened earth.