Sunday, June 8, 2014

Knowing More Than Understanding Can Manage

June 8, 2014

Dear friends,

First, a brief report of general affairs.

The Lazarus Plant continues to flourish in a vigorous, untidy burst of life.  The Elder Begonia has, as anticipated, passed on into another form of life. The small verbena plant that suffered severe dehydration when it fell out of the pot is now celebrating recovery by branching in three different directions. Annie totally destroyed the small beginning patch of a new ground cover. She thought that she was behaving with exemplary good manners and used the flower bed as an outside litter box. And an additional note of information from Annie’s world: Annie has made an unsettling observation.  A cat—a WHITE cat!!—appears to have established permanent living quarters at the far end of the block.  Further developments are expected.

This week I have been thinking about the incredible gift—and mystery—of human consciousness.

To think and to feel are in themselves extraordinary processes about which neurobiology has provided more information than we presently can understand. Lay people and scientists alike presently share this odd state of affairs of knowing more than understanding knows what to do with.

But when we place thinking and feeling in the context of consciousness, these processes assume an identity something like huge stars whose names we learn to spell but whose functional reality exists in the vastness of an outer space we observe but cannot understand.  As individuals, we can sense the enormous inner galaxy of consciousness, and place our thinking and feeling in that context, but that does not simplify matters. We find ourselves with self-awareness that provides information we can describe but do not fully understand. 

As a child  I often lay on the porch and watched  the Milky Way in the summer night sky. One night I had been quiet for a relatively long period of time.  

"What are you doing out there?" my father asked from the kitchen. 

"Nothing," I said. Then, impulsively honest, I added, "Well, I am watching out there." (Out there was my secret language for space.) "I am watching where the Milky Way is."

When we place our thinking and feeling in the context of  self-awareness, we find ourselves watching a reality whose dimensions we cannot measure, and whose boundaries we cannot imagine or trace. Watching the world of the  self  'in there', like watching  the universe 'out there',  brings us in connection with a reality that we know is there, but which we also sense we do not fully understand.

A yellow butterfly found the purple petunias on the back patio one sunny afternoon last week. I sat and watched its delighted flight from bloom to bloom and thought about the mystery and complexity of my small world.  In some parallel form of life, both the butterfly and I were experiencing sun and sense of summer and the intoxicating purple of the petunias and the green smell of the newly-mowed grass.  I wondered—no, actually, I thought that the butterfly in its existential moment was also experiencing a response corresponding to what in myself I name joy.
But that joy correspondence is just that—correspondence only. The essence of life experience in the yellow butterfly and in me is so vastly different that to call its similarity correspondence is, admittedly, to stretch the boundaries of language.  So far as I could observe, the butterfly was being fully butterfly, and fully alive, and, arguably, fully enjoying summer and the purple of petunias.   Quite possibly—indeed, quite likely—the butterfly was experiencing as well a world I can neither sense nor share.

But nothing in present knowledge of butterflies permitted me to imagine that butterfly saying to itself, “I am a beautifully yellow butterfly doing this incredibly graceful dance of flight. I sense the purpleness of the petunias, the sun, the warmth and safety of this patio.  I am alive and life is good.”

In what is admittedly an arguable premise, the butterfly and I could share summer, its scents, sounds and colors, and hold in common a spark of something my language designates as life.  But so far as we know, the butterfly and I do not—indeed, cannot—share a powerful existential mystery that sets us apart. Only human consciousness can think and feel summer and, simultaneously, watch and report the experience as it happens. Both butterfly and I can be alive and sensing sun and color, but I alone, as Homo sapiens, can sense and know while at the same time I observe myself—my unique self—being and living. 

I am thinking today not so much about how that mystery occurs. I am thinking about what it means to be fully human. 

If I can be consciously present with myself as I think and feel, then does not that consciousness of being hold equally consequence of choice?

If knowing who I am results inevitably in responsibility to shape the person I become, then self-awareness is a sobering gift. 

See you next week.


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