Consciousness is an Attribute of Being

Remember the sky you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories…
Remember you are all people and that all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you…
Remember.
                                   Joy Harjo

I think it was Laguna Pueblo author, Paula Gunn Allen, who said it, but now I can’t find the original quote. She said something like this: “Many people think of consciousness as an attribute of being human, but we know that consciousness is an attribute of being.”

I have been intrigued and transformed by her observation. What might it mean that human beings are not alone in perceiving, in awareness, in communication? Sometimes the scientists ask those questions about beings most like humans—the apes, the dolphins, the dogs. But beyond that—and not even merely for beings with eyes as we know them? I think about it. Trees are sensitive to light and plants turn toward the sun. Isn’t it less lonely to imagine that trees, birds, water, and stones are conscious, too.

Our culture has wanted to feel that human beings are unique. That we are above the rest of the created world, special. Even in our growing ecological understanding there is a sense that we are the privileged children of the universe. I think it was Carl Sagan who said it, though many ecologists have echoed the sentiment: “We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.” And it is a tremendous gift that we are able to perceive and explore and study the universe of which we are a part. But how do we know that we are the only ones? How do we dare to assume that we are the only ones? Why would we want to be the only ones?

I want to stay with this thought for a few days, and see what changes if we change that one assumption.  If we open to the idea that being itself includes consciousness.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

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Dancing Out of Time

Fireworks

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Individual consciousness is simultaneously familiar and mysterious. Rene DesCartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain scientist who had a debilitating stroke at the age of thirty-seven. A blood vessel burst in the left side of her brain. Because of her training, she was able to observe her own mind deteriorate as she lost the capacity to think, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.

But there was a surprise in this—as her left brain shut down, her right brain took over, and she experienced a different form of consciousness—an all-encompassing sense of bliss, a sense of timeless unity with the universe. Years later, after she recovered the skills of the left brain, she wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight, to describe her journey and what she learned. She said:

To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant.

During her stroke, Taylor lost the sense of herself as a separate being, she lost the memories that identified her self to her self, yet she gained an experience of herself as the whole universe—there were no boundaries that separated her from everything else. What she describes resonates with the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment, or Nirvana, a shift of consciousness from experiencing time, to experiencing “all is now,” from experiencing space, to experiencing “all is one.”

When I was growing up, eternity was described as what happened to us after we died. But Taylor speaks of eternity as something that can be experienced right now within our own minds. The experience of total peace and total connection is available at any moment. She writes:

The first thing I do to experience my inner peace is to remember that I am part of a greater structure, an eternal flow of energy and molecules from which I cannot be separated. Knowing that I am a part of the cosmic flow makes me feel innately safe and experience my life as heaven on earth. How can I feel vulnerable when I cannot be separated from the greater whole? My left mind thinks of me as a fragile individual capable of losing my life. My right mind realizes that the essence of my being has eternal life.

Since Taylor is a scientist, she brings a different perspective to what is usually perceived as the mystical. She can help our left brain understand and make sense out of the right brain. She can help us to rationally comprehend what the mystics speak of when they talk of being one with the universe, or finding eternity in the present moment. And so perhaps we must reshape our understanding of the spiritual journey. It may be not so much a journey through time, as a journey out of time, from one form of consciousness to another.

Quotes from Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, p. 30 &160.

Reality is a Dance

Kayaker Reality is a dance between making plans, and responding to small and large disruptions. So to embark on a spiritual journey is to grow our capacity to practice, to plan, to wait outside, and then to embrace all that reality offers.

A spiritual practice is meant to help us develop the skill of embracing what comes to us as an opportunity to wake up. A spiritual practice helps us to be fully present and to pay attention. If we have not been practicing, we can get thrown off by life’s disruptions, become grumpy and anxious, shut down or reactive. In fact, that can happen even when we have been practicing. Kayak Tipped OverBut I know from long experience that the more I practice this embrace of reality, the easier it becomes to shift from resistance to curiosity, from crankiness to compassion.

The spiritual journey is our search for an immediate, personal experience of the larger reality, our connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery that connects and upholds life. Let us go back for a moment to an experiment.

Notice the energy in your heart right now.
If you wish, create an invitation in your heart, open your heart to experience the larger Mystery that connects and upholds all life.

As feelings come up, imagine your breath filling and embracing those feelings. Be present to what emerges in your heart. If you feel emptiness, breathe into the emptiness. If you feel joy, breathe into the joy. If you feel confused, breathe into the confusion.

The beginning and the ending of spiritual practice are in paying attention to the energy of the present moment.

After the wondrous, after the experience of Mystery, we must always come back to the everyday. In pagan rituals, they say we must “ground the energy.” We remember to eat food or have a drink of water. In Buddhism, there is a saying, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” Sanity is being able to switch our consciousness from the mysterious to the ordinary. Life is not static, it keeps moving. We are not meant to remain in emptiness or in ecstatic feelings. We are meant to be fully involved in all that life is about. Says one Western lama, “What became clear is that spiritual practice is only what you’re doing now. Anything else is a fantasy.”

The most important grounding is how our spiritual experience affects the rest of our living. In the end, we may ask, What is spirituality for? I would answer that our experience of the Mystery that connects and upholds life is meant to bring greater power and resources into growing in community with all that lives. Authentic spiritual practice will energize us for greater kindness, compassion, peace, and humility. May it be so.

In the waterQuote from Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy the Laundry, (New York: Bantam, 2000). p. 126