Life, death, consciousness, psychic phenomena, science, acceptance. Last night the conversation at our monthly Salon discussion group covered a lot of ground. There were just five of us, fewer than usual. Two believers in “something more,” two scientifically-minded skeptics, and me—the balanced Libra who bridged the two camps.
Generally our group focuses more on politics and Bush-bashing than anything else. Yesterday the conversation was predominantly personal and philosophical. For me it was a delightful grab bag of what I like to talk about most: the Big Questions of Life.
Consciousness. Lynda, our hostess, had recently attended several workshops about brain research. I said that it was interesting how science is learning more and more about how the brain works, but that the much bigger question is “what is consciousness itself?” Nobody has a clue.
Jenny, a computer science professor, talked about how consciousness is theorized to be an “emergent property” of increasingly complex life. Fine, I told her, but that doesn’t say anything about what consciousness is. It’s still a huge unfathomable mystery. Along with life. But life is easier to grasp than consciousness.
Somehow unalive matter turns into something living. That’s amazing enough. However, adding consciousness to life is a whole other thing. A bunch of cells are alive. They evolve into more complex life. And then…poof! The bunch of cells is aware. It seems to be a jump into a whole different level of being. Especially when we talk about self-awareness.
Self-awareness. I always find it interesting to listen to myself talk during serious discussions like we had last night. Often I surprise myself. Like, I heard myself saying that I’d trade my vaunted human capacity for self-awareness and introspective analysis for something much simpler: peace of mind. I wonder if I really meant it?
We talked about how we think. Then we think about our thinking. And then we think about what we thought about our thinking. Dogs don’t do that. They live in the moment. Eat. Sleep. Poop. Go for walk.
They don’t lie in bed like I do sometimes cogitating: “I’m getting old. I’m going to die one day. That sucks. It sucks big time. Why can’t I live forever? Maybe I can, or will. But I want to know whether I will or not. At least, I think I do. Maybe I don’t. Do I really want to know if when I die, I’ll be dead and gone forever?”
Lynda said that happiness is great. It comes and goes, though. She thought that peace is what each of us really is after. I agreed. However, that damn self-awareness makes it tough to hold onto peace of mind. As soon as you get a glimpse of it, you start analyzing it. “I’m content. For now. But…”
Our ability to anticipate the future and remember the past makes us human, but it also makes us neurotic. I feel like I’d be pleased to trade some of my higher mental abilities for some simple living in the moment peace.
Accepting what comes. Lynda has some serious health problems. I told her that I freak out when I get a cold. I asked her how she manages to stay so positive. She said that she just takes things as they come. You deal with what you have to deal with. I agreed that most of my worries are about what might happen, not what is happening. When something real is before me that I have to cope with, it seems easier to handle than my anticipated potential problems.
Makes sense. How do I handle what doesn’t exist? I can’t, well, get a handle on it, because it doesn’t have any reality outside of my own neurotic mind. Lynda recently was told that she has another disease in addition to the serious disease she’s been dealing with. I asked her how she coped with getting the news? She replied, “I said Fuck!”
Excellent reaction. Right up my alley. Lynda and I like to use Fuck! for emphasis, I noted. The other people don’t. That’s fine, but sometimes it’s the only expression that fits the situation.
I told the group that when I ponder the fact that the universe is 14 billion years old, and is going to exist for many tens of billions of years more, and I’m 57 years old, and I’m not going to live for more than a few decades, I want to scream Fuck it! to the cosmos. Which, in fact, I do, if I’m out of earshot of anyone else.
I may not be accepting the certainty of my death gracefully. However, I’m accepting my lack of acceptance of dying through my clearly expressed Fuck it! It’s a step in the accepting what comes direction, I feel.
Keeping things simple. I enjoyed an interchange between Laurel and Jenny. Laurel was speaking about the possibility that the soul survives after death, and that in the life we’re living now the soul that is us is acting out intentions made either in a previous life or in a pre-rebirth state of “Hmmmm. What sort of human existence do I want to experience next time?”
Jenny listened and said, “But this whole idea of a soul doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t add anything to what we know about how the brain works. If your brain is injured, your personality can change completely. What does ‘soul’ have to do with all this, when physical changes in the brain can alter the entity we call ‘my self’ so drastically?”
Good points. Myself, increasingly I’ve been trying to discard a lot of metaphysical conceptual garbage that I’ve been carrying around for a long time. (I’m just saying that this is garbage for me; it may be valuable stuff for someone else). I don’t speculate or theorize nearly as much as I used to. I’m much more willing to say, “I’m clueless about that” in response to a question about what I think happens after death or what God is like.
I told the group that I experienced a new feeling while on a dog walk with Serena recently. I was moseying along, pondering the finitude of my existence, when a really simple sensation flooded in on me. Gratitude.
Right now, I was alive. Man! Thank you, whoever or whatever is responsible for that. It could have been otherwise. I could have never existed. This consciousness I call “me” could have never come to be. Yet, it has.
At that moment, staring down at a moss-covered log, I was able to experience being alive. Aware. Conscious. Part of the universe. Even if I died in the next moment, I thought, I’ve experienced something amazing. Experience.
The moment passed. Moments always do. Soon I was back to fretting about this or that. But I had a glimpse of something that maybe, just maybe, would be enough to erase my fear of death if I could hold onto it more firmly and let it grow within me.
Gratitude. Now, if I can just feel that sensation while watching President Bush blather his bullshit at a press conference as strongly as I did while staring at a moss-covered log, I’ll be on to something.
(Yes, I’ll say it before someone else does: at heart, Bush and a moss-covered log are pretty much the same).