Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Aliveness of Things

Last Friday I had the joy of conducting the wedding of two young women who have been attending worship with us for a while. It was a truly beautiful occasion, full of joy and full of love. At the end of the service many of those present thanked me for the service and told me how much they loved it. Some of the comments will live with me for a long time. One in particular I believe will keep me going for quite some time. I had a long and continuing conversation with one of the guests, but it was the first thing that he said that struck powerfully. He said something like “I gave up on religion 50 years ago, but something happened today. This service has awoken something in me. Thank you.” He thanked me, when in reality the thanks are all mine. It is for moments like this that I do this work. It’s why I’m here I believe. It’s why we are all here, to discover the truth that life is more than mere material processes.  We are called, I believe, to help awaken one another to the aliveness of being, to raise one another’s consciousness.

I love the aliveness of things. I feel that the last few years of my life has been all about awakening to this aliveness of things. This kind of universal consciousness at the core of all life, what the western religions might call God. I witness it in all life, I see it in human creativity too, particularly art. I love the aliveness in words, in art, in music or whatever is creative. We experience the works in the moment, whether individually or collectively and yet, especially the great works, are somehow timeless. They possess a consciousness of their own, as their aliveness is not only in the moment they were written or recorded or created, but continuing on and on into eternity. If life has revealed anything to me it has awoken me to the fact that things are much more than merely the sum of their parts, they have a power beyond the mere limits of the material they are formed from and that they grow in power and meaning beyond the limits of the creators imaginations. That aliveness of course was there before the creation grew in the creators imagination; it is vital to remember, of course. all that has occurred before those moments of creation; all the incredible aliveness that allowed them to be created. I love the aliveness of things; I love the aliveness of my mere thoughts and feelings, knowing that they come from something far more than the mere chemical reactions in my brain or even my singular consciousness; I love the aliveness of things they are so much more than the sum of their parts.

It’s not just in great works of human creation that I witness this same aliveness, I see it in the ordinary in the loving interaction, in the small gesture of loving kindness and I see it manifest in the natural world. I see powerfully a simple loving universal consciousness at work in life, it enlivens and empowers me. It gives my life meaning and makes my life worth living, hey even dying, for.

Now there are many who would dispute this truth, I would have done at one time or another and who knows I may do so again in the future. Many suggest that there is no such thing as consciousness, that it is merely a creation of the brain, a stage of the evolutionary process. What do you think? What do you think about consciousness? Is it merely a creation of the functions of the brain?

In philosophical circles consciousness is considered the “Hard Problem” as it seems impossible to solve adequately. The great minds don’t seem to have come up with a satisfactory answer to what exactly it is and or why it exists. In fact many of the great minds seem to fall out about it all the time. I’m sure that many would scoff at my unscientific conclusion about life and yet it doesn’t sound as crazy as some of the great theories of the so called great minds, who have equated we humans with “lumbering robots” and or asked why we are not just zombies or to quote that wonderful short story of science fiction, simply thinking meat. We are more than merely this though, surely we are. Reductionist world views seem to miss what is so clearly in front of its eyes.

The truth is of course that maybe, just maybe we won’t ever come up with a satisfactory answer, to what we call “consciousness”. Maybe one day we will not know the answer to everything. It is possible, I suppose, that one day we will, and it shouldn’t stop us striving for the answers. Our human consciousness after is the very thing that drives us, compels us to do so. Let’s just never forget to do what Mary Oliver suggested, let’s remember to pay attention to beauty of the daisy and all life for that matter. For I believe that same consciousness is at the heart of it all, connecting it all, bringing the aliveness to life.

Now please excuse me if this next bit is hard to follow but I am going to briefly attempt to summarise three schools of thought about consciousness that have emerged in the modern era. The three being “dualism”, “physicalism” and “pansychism”.

“ Cartesian Dualism” dates back to seventeenth century when Rene Descartes identified the problem that has tied the great minds in knots ever since. He realised, that on the one hand, that there was nothing more undeniably obvious than the fact that we are conscious beings, everything else could be an illusion but not this, as he said “I think therefore I am”. That said he suggested that this consciousness seemingly does not obey the usual rules of science of the physical realm, as it can only be observed from within and can’t really be described except from the one who is conscious of it. From this he concluded that the mind therefore must be made from some special kind of none material stuff that are not ruled by the laws of nature and thus bequeathed by God upon humanity, thus raising us above nature in some special way.

“Dualism” began to be questioned particularly by the secular scientific community that took “physicalism” – the idea that only physical things exist – as its primary principle. The problem was though that although it rejected dualism, for many years, it could not come up a convincing alternative to it. Such views concluded that the mind and consciousness are a result of processes of the brain, but no concrete answers beyond that could be unearthed. As a result the topic became virtually taboo and was referred to as “The Hard Question”. This led in 1989 to Stuart Sutherland writing in the “International Dictionary of Psychology” that with regard to consciousness “it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

There have been developments since, most notably by Francis Crick and others who have suggested that certain neurons firing at particular frequencies are the cause of inner awareness. And there seems little doubt that there is a physical aspect to it, as awareness of who or what we are is affected by the workings of the brain. Brain injury and degenerative disease such as forms of dementia seem to prove this and certainly impact on our perception of consciousness. That said just merely putting consciousness of ourselves and life itself down to impulses within the brain seems wholly inadequate an answer to me. I’m with Sutherland on this one. There is also the problem of free will and the potential to change. It seems that “physicalism” on the whole denies this possibility, claiming we are merely subject to our biological impulses.

In more recent times another theory has developed, which is linked to some more ancient knowledge. The theory has become known as “panpsychism”, which suggest that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. It suggest that consciousness is not merely limited to humans thus rejecting dualism and humanities privileged position.

“Pansychism” does not require a belief in some special mind substance that resides in the brain, nor does it require the suspension in the belief of the laws of physics. Meanwhile nor does it require us deny the reality of our own experiences and the strange acceptance that consciousness doesn’t exist, when it’s so obvious that it does. On the contrary, “panpsychism” suggests that consciousness is everywhere, life it is throbbing with it. It suggests in fact that consciousness is the energy of life.

“Pansychism suggest that there is a connectiveness to everything and that everything affects everything else. It also suggests that consciousness does not actually require a brain at all, that it exists beyond the brain. I would suggest from this that actually the function of the brain is not to create consciousness but to make sense of it and interpret and perhaps communicate this consciousness. Isn’t this what we are doing when we are sharing our own personal experiences of life? Isn’t this what words are for? Isn’t this what creative expression is for? And when we do so do we not somehow increase the experience for ourselves and others and bring about change?

Now you may well ask what is this guy on? And what has this got to do with his work? What’s this got to do with what happened at the wedding? What has it got to with the power of great works of art and loving action etc? Well I believe everything. As I often say I believe everything matters, every thought, every word, every deed, every interaction is interconnected and impacts on everything else. It seems to me that consciousness is everywhere and that life is throbbing with it. The purpose of religion and spirituality is to awaken us to this. If we do we may just begin to live by the “Golden Rule of Compassion” and do unto others as we would have them do to us. How could we not as we are all connected by the same consciousness, we have the same blood flowing through us and we have the same spirit animating us. We are all a part of the aliveness of life. So as we awaken to this consciousness we begin to act on it and incarnate this aliveness in our lives.

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