For weeks I’ve been wrestling in my head, with the nature of consciousness, and I want you to understand where I’ve come to. If I started talking out loud I wouldn’t be able to explain it, so I am hoping writing it down can flesh out some of it, and give you a peek into what I believe now about who we are and how we came to be.
I think we humans invent things that are metaphors for a reality we are trying to uncover. The wheel a metaphor for the earth before we knew its shape. The book a metaphor for the mind before we understood its storage. Intuited inventions that point the path towards science we have not yet learned. The greatest invention of the 20th century being the automobile, a metaphor for the human body. Stronger and faster than anything available at the start of the century, better than any horse or burro of biology. But, in constant need of fuel from the earth, temporary, unhealing, always rusting and failing. In constant need of repair, always being reclaimed back to the earth.
At the end of the century though, the great invention, and what I believe to be our next great metaphor became the computer. We talk about this computer metaphor with students. Hardware like the human body. Software like the human brain. Steve Jobs described the computer as, “The most remarkable tool we have ever come up with.” But at the end of the century, we created a third part to this platform, the cloud. We know that the computer has the same problems the car had. It is temporary, things break and fail and are lost. So we have these networked backup systems, where, ideally, those things we want to be permanent can be stored. And we struggle now not with their temporariness, but with their permanence. So what part of us is that permanence?
What if what is permanent, what is aware, what is creative, what is conscious, what is more permanant is not the animal, not the body, but the cloud, the air? I first heard this from KRS-One and thought it was a cool idea, but I didn’t consider the science behind it. This is not the eternal soul (or is it?), but perhaps a feat of physics and electricity. What if, way back in the days of pre-life primordial soup, the binding action that pulled together some inanimate objects and built the first proteins was a bolt of lightning? Mary Shelley intuited this with how one would bring life to Frankenstein. Star Trek intuited this on many episodes, this idea of conscious creatures in the clouds who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t need to inhabit a body. What if that which is permanent (as permanent as the air) is in the air? Air which has no plural (oneness), and which is one cloud above us all (heaven).
This gives us a third part of life. There is the physical body, the mental brain, and then consciousness, that which is creative, imaginative, and aware. In this idea, the brain is a prism. Light (awareness) goes in one side as one cohent, invisible thing and comes out the other side separated out into something that looks very different. The human body is there to keep the human brain alive. The human brain is there to focus electricity and to give body, breath and language to awareness, to consciousness. The brain is a lens, a series of optics.
What about other animals? They are obviously alive, but are they aware? To some extent yes. But, what the human mind has on them is that it is a better lens, a better set of optics, more megapixels (again, the metaphor of inventions). If you are an awareness, born from the physics of electricity, pure light/air in a cloud and choose to pass through the prism of life to develop (like an old photo) into something, you are going to choose the best optics you can afford. And maybe that has always been, that consciousness chooses the best optics. Maybe, at some point, the amoeba held that consciousness, the hawk held consciousness, the dinosaur, and for now, the human. Thus King Arthur’s legends about Merlin making him a bird. Thus Q’s comment on Star Trek that “I traveled the road many times, sat on the porch, played the games, been the dog, everything! I was even the scarecrow for a while.”
I was running the other day, looking up into the air, into the clouds, thinking about this. Am I electrified air breathed into flesh, wailing the first time my lungs were inflated? Are you? And if so, why? What are our impulses in this flesh? One is invention. One is flight. One is space travel. Would aware entities want to travel away from their place of birth? Yes. If I could invent a way for my consciousness “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Yes. And maybe for a long time simply jumping from evolving brain (lens) to evolving brain was progress, until we got to these tool builders. These who are somehow different than other creatures. Now we may not need to wait another million years for the next jump in evolution. If we can keep building better tools, and do so without destroying the car (species) we are in, perhaps we can find a shortcut. Space travel being one driving force. But maybe another.
If consciousness moves from most evolved to most evolved, to the best optics, perhaps inside this species of tool builders, we could build a better container than this temporary body with it’s current mexapixeled lens. Perhaps our next great invention will be Frankenstein, Commander Data, or Q. Some focuser of consciousness that is exceptionally better than what natural selection can naturally select. And maybe we can build it over a thousand years, rather than it growing organically over millions. And these bodies can go back to being primates. And we consciousness can continue on.
Heaven is up, and when we die, our last breath out, that which is permanent goes back into the oneness, into the air, which really is a life in the clouds. Hell is down, a fiery pit in the ground where the meat of all of our beings is headed, an eternity of damnation. And here we are in between, meat animated. A prism. The cover of dark side of the moon album. The ephemeral focused through flesh. A body, an evolved brain, consciousness. Hardware, software, cloud. Inventors, tool builders, imaginations. Limited by biology, which Buddhism says could never, on its own, produce awareness. Limited by our senses and our perceptions to seeing only certain bands of light and radiation, a poor, but best ever camera. Frail, temporary, failing. But with imagination, intuition, creativity. Those things that have allowed us to make our thoughts into words, our words sticky and semi-permanent, to increase that level of stickiness, and to imagine, in the stories we tell each other (write down, type, zip around the world, make permanent on the web), greater and further horizons. We drive toward invention, so we can go beyond the atmosphere that holds us, the bodies that limit us, one and separate. Breathing. In all meditation, focus on your breathing. Why? What if it is to know who we are?