Stages and Phases of the Mental Journey.
Exploring human consciousness, linguistics and language.
By Sudha Hamilton
"O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theatre of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all- what is it?
And where did it come from?
Exert from Julian Jayne's book, The Origins of Consciousness In the Break Down of the Bicameral Mind.
This journey of mind we set out upon hopefully fearlessly, but invariably not, is unique to each of us. It has been indelibly influenced by our childhood and the love we did, or did not quite receive in the particular manner that we would have preferred. From the very beginning we start with a sense of our self, a nascent spark that will emerge in time like a sculpture quite unlike any that has ever been before. So defined by our life experiences and in turn our reactions and responses to them, that the twisting formless space that seems to be located behind your eyes might be beautiful art or something else again.
Does the aging process effect our thinking and feeling sense of self and if so how does it?
I once read, that according to a study conducted amongst a cross section of age groups, most people feel in their mind's eye that they are twenty five years old, irrespective of their actual body age. That whether they be fifty, sixty or seventy years old, inside they see themselves as that bright, shiny twenty five year old. Perception and self image are powerful things, and perhaps we function best when we feel young at heart. It beggars all sorts of questions, like what is wisdom and how does one get it? Is it the stoic acceptance of the vicissitudes of life and the bearing of tragedy with uncommon grace? Is a flexible quality of mind something that we should foster in the hope of a life well lived?
The mental journey through life could be said to be the only real journey we take, as we modern folk don't live much below the chin. We think ourselves through life, from a moment somewhere between conception and birth up until physical death takes us we are marching to the constant thinking, taking place in our brains. Rene Descartes' old dictum, "I think therefore I am," sums it up pretty well. A few qualifications I think are needed before we can continue. Is our mental journey the journey of consciousness and what is the definition of consciousness? Is our beginning located in developmental psychology or in the actual origin of consciousness itself? Who am I? What is consciousness? Pretty heady stuff as you can see.
The word consciousness is used in a multitude of circumstances to mean:
a. awake in the literal sense (as in not asleep or in a coma).
b. general awareness of things happening around you.
c. the totality of a person's thoughts & feelings.
d. a spiritual merging of your awareness with Gods.
I think we will take c. here - the totality of a person's thoughts and feelings - to be our definition in this instance. Looking briefly at the development of consciousness in the individual we need to understand its beginnings in our infancy.
Developmental psychology begins its inquiry with the conceptual sense of self. When the child is born, and first breathes its breath separate from the mother, and perhaps even earlier as a foetus inside the womb, it is that sense of self that we know that defines us as truly us. When a baby first begins to smile in response to its parents' gaze at the age of two to three months it is due to an altered subjective experience within the baby. It is the beginning of a pre-designed sense of social awareness that all babies are born with and which Daniel N Stern, infant psychologist and author of The Interpersonal World of the Infant, views as the beginning of the development of the core, separate self. He states, "the subjective experience of union with another can occur only after a sense of core self and a core other exists. Union experiences are thus viewed as the successful result of actively organising the experience of self-being with another, rather than as the product of a passive failure of the ability to differentiate self from other." So we begin with a sense of the self. As that sense of the self, within our own mind, grows with age we continue to differentiate what is us, and what is not. The child later begins to understand that its inner thoughts are not automatically known by those around him or her but that he or she can still convey that information by facial expressions and the like.
Our minds and in particular their use of language is what really sets us apart from other animals on this planet. It has indeed been posited that our experience of consciousness is in fact a result of metaphorical language and the constructs this has caused. Put simply we do not just see, hear, touch, smell or taste something, we immediately place that experience in the context of our own unique reality or story. We name it according to our rules and define its reality in line with our wishes. There is no true objective reality but only our mental interpretation of it. Everything is interconnected in a web of language that explains something by referring to it in comparison to something else. For example words like 'heart of the matter' or 'bring to a head' are all words that have been taken from our bodies to describe situations. Metaphors have created our languages and perhaps language has created our consciousness.
In this quoted passage from Julian Jayne's book, The Origins of Consciousness In the Break Down of the Bicameral Mind, we can grasp the essence of the mystifying question that has plagued us down through the ages - what is consciousness?
"We are trying to understand consciousness, but what are we really trying to do when we try to understand anything? Like children trying to describe nonsense objects, so in trying to understand a thing, we are trying to find a metaphor for that thing. Not just any metaphor, but one with something more familiar and easy to our attention. Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by substituting something more familiar to us. And the feeling of familiarity is the feeling of understanding.
Generations ago we would understand thunderstorms perhaps as the roaring and rumbling about in battle of superhuman gods. We would have reduced the racket that follows the streak of lightning to familiar battle sounds, for example. Similarly today, we reduce the storm to various supposed experiences with friction, sparks, vacuums, and the imagination of bulgeous banks of burly air smashing together to make the noise. None of these really exist as we picture them. Our images of these events of physics are as far from the actuality as fighting gods. Yet they act as the metaphor and they feel familiar and so we say we understand the thunderstorm."
What I am conveying here, is that much of what we trust in our shared realities is in fact complete delusion - we do not really know what happens inside a thunderstorm but we have a story that we all agree upon. Our mental worlds are all uniquely different, and we share tenuous imaginary links that hold our communities together - that perhaps stop the sky from falling in. Our minds are magical things that have been directed to think in certain ways by the adherence to traditions. We have an innate ability to believe in things and thus make them appear real. Religions are a great example of this, when you do a little investigating into many of the religions of the world, you find an incredible willingness to believe things based simply on tradition & the handing down of beliefs from generation to generation. In the Christian tradition, Mormonism, a relative late comer to the field, has an extraordinary tale to tell of solid gold giant tablets inscribed with the words of the angel Moroni - that nobody except the profit Joseph Smith Junior ever saw. Far fetched fantastical stories that apparently only occurred a couple of hundred years ago in the United States of America, and yet now several generations down the line, these things are solemnly accepted as true by bicycle riding missionaries around the world. Now I don't wish to merely pick on Mormonism, as the stories in Catholicism and the other bands of Christian faith are equally unrealistic with virgin births and the raising of the dead. We have an inordinate faith in anything that has been written down or passed down to us as true by our forefathers. Even when faced with incontrovertible evidence of the impossibility of these things, we hold them near and dear to us - in fact we place them as the very bedrock of all our civilising institutions - myths that we swear by in justice, in love and in government.
Our minds are malleable and impressionable, and our consciousness is very likely a construct of excerpts of our sensory reality, which are glued together by the lie of language. No wonder there is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. Socrates was apparently a very ugly looking chap, and every day he would go into the city square and challenge the truth of various statements made by his fellow citizens. He would not back down and would not accept the little white lies that we all share in, and as if peeling back layers of the onion he sort out the truth. Of course it all ended badly for Socrates. We are all so conditioned to accept lies, untruths and tall stories that it is a very hard road if one chooses to seek the truth.
Develop a healthy aptitude for doubt in your life and mentally this will take a great deal of the bullshit out of everything. As we age be vigilant for the desire to take 'short cuts' and to limit the size of your world - remain open to the mysteriousness of life in all its strange and varied nature.
Following ideals in your life can be a two edged sword - it can inspire and motivate you to reach for things and states that are seemingly beyond you, but it can also make you immune to the spontanaeity and passions that mark our existence as well. As we get older the attachment to certain ideals can cause us to become rigid and inflexible. Compassion and the ability to truly say you are sorry are the hallmarks of a great soul.
In returning to the question of what is wisdom. Is it knowing that you are right? Or is it knowing that you don't know the answer to any of the really important questions in life? Or perhaps it is having experienced the very real pain of losing someone that you loved forever? When I meet much younger people than myself, I notice that they have an almost bullet proof idea of optimism in the future and I sense an absence of depth that only tragedy can truly provide.
Releasing control over your life or rather letting go of the illusion that you have any control anyway will free up a great deal of your mental faculties. You are going to die and people close to you and loved ones are also going to die - accept these facts with good grace. The compulsion today to always have a fantastic time and to avoid any pain or discomfort, has created in many of us a vacuum where the other side of life's experience once resided. Without the fullness of sadness in our lives we cannot scale the heights of ecstasy and we will be forever in the shallows of 'searching for happiness.'
Age can give us perspective on things, allowing one not to get all 'het up' over the details. Having experienced the ups and downs of a life well lived; we can refrain from being so quick to judge things at any particular juncture in time. I am reminded of a hundred clichés and truisms that point this very fact out.
Of course our minds are not able to live in isolation; they are a part of our monkey bodies and they will not function at their highest level without being exercised. A healthy body - a healthy mind, the interconnectedness of our brains with the other major organs and our autonomic nervous system really places our mind throughout our body. For peak mental performance, lots of stimulation - physical, emotional and intellectual - is desirable.
New research into depression and Alzheimer's disease is now seeing inflammation within the body as a cause for these very serious conditions and imbalance in our diet and lifestyle is a strong contributing factor. Feeding our brains a diet rich in Omega3 essential fatty acids will improve their functioning ability and re-dressing the imbalance in our diets by reducing the intake of foods rich in Omega6 fatty acids will further this.
In my own experience I have found the strategy of making decisions about things highly effective - don't dither or procrastinate over choices in your life, trust in your instincts and make a decision. If it turns out in hindsight to be the wrong choice then review and be flexible enough to change tack. There is no value in over identifying with your life choices. We are in my view travelers through life and there are no prizes for getting everything right first time. I used to be very fearful of making mistakes as a young man and found parallels for this in my father's attitudes to life. That whole thing of only attempting things that you know that you are good at and avoiding everything that may embarrass you. At a certain point, as a young adult, I needed to confront and make conscious this aspect of myself and let go of this life strategy, as it was not aiding my journey. I remember someone sharing with me the story of how an aeroplane reaches its destination by continually correcting its course.
Life is a mental journey and it is far more interesting than many of us acknowledge. Thinking techniques based on fear avoidance and pain avoidance severely limit your life experiences. Drop the mental barriers and go fearlessly where you have not gone before. Start conversations with people - from whom you cannot predict replies - and relax into a sense of unknowingness because you will never know everything anyway. Smile at the sky sometimes and encourage gratitude for the showering flowers in your life. And if you cannot see those flowers look a little deeper.
©Sudha HamiltonAppeared in WellBeing's Guide to Good Health Special Issue