Monthly Archives: September 2010

Why the world is art and why it matters, part 1

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Even though we know the world in terms of mental models, which are composed of representations, symbols, and systems of interpretation, we also experience it directly; however, we are almost never aware of this.
Direct experience is less complex than other forms of experience, but it is not supported by millennia of human social and cultural evolution and most specifically, by the systems of symbolic meaning that humans have built up over time. Even though direct experience is always occurring to us, we are prevented from actually attending to it because of a virtually impenetrable series of filtering mechanisms. These mechanisms are first of all, neurological – they involve the biological bases of our brain/mind. Functioning as filters for experience which is considered to be non-essential to immediate biological survival, our brains focus only on what seems to work, in terms of necessary interactions with our environment and acceptable internal states of sensation/emotion. And as large aspects of our immediate environment are socio-cultural, our brains become entrained by the myriad systems of cultural symbols that exist to bind us to each other in tribal and supra-tribal ways.
This discussion of “direct experience” is based on previous entries here and the sense that astute readers will find a continued interest in such a notion without the burden of a shared definition. That being the case, at least as regards the present reader, the discussion will move next to describing direct experience as a form of aesthetic experience. It is, in fact, the essential aesthetic experience.
As discussed in earlier entries, we are in a position to choose the models by which we comprehend and experience so-called “reality”. And it would seem clear that, in an overarching sense, we choose models which please us in some essential ways. We choose our reality paradigms in the same way we make other choices. That is, it pleases or satisfies us in crucial ways to make them, even when we feel compelled by unknown forces to do so. In other words, these choices may be unconscious or they may be conscious. The present discourse is directed toward promoting the most preferable conscious choices.
Conscious choices involve certain criteria. The very act of choosing implies some sort of ethical system – a system of understanding which choices to make. So far the discussion has moved from direct experience to aesthetic experience and from aesthetic choices to ethics.
Here are some initial criteria. It is best to choose reality paradigms which decrease suffering. And it is best to choose reality paradigms which include significant feelings and expressions of compassion. If you have been following the discussion of direct experience this far, then it is not such a leap to consider these two criteria as self-evident.
For now, let’s take some time to consider the choices we make in terms of those which decrease suffering and those which increase compassion. It is best for us to make as many of these as possible.
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Image: “The World is Art” by Tullio DeSantis, digital image, 2010.

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Word World I

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If you could look at the world with no preconceptions, how would it look?
Let’s say we don’t accept some of the basic “common sense” notions we take for granted: ideas such as “the external world is the most real world there is”: “the definition of reality is based on the external world”; “the material world is the one to which we should be paying most attention”; “everyone dies – and death is the ultimate extinction of our existence”; “things happen as a result of causes (in other words, the present is a result of the causes which occurred in the past)” – ideas like those.
What would things look like if we just suspend our most basic assumptions and beliefs about what the universe is and how the world works and what we are doing here? How would things appear to us without our habitual and incessant attempts at interpretation according to preexisting belief structures? In other words, what would our experience consist of without using a rationalized system of definitions and explanations to interpret it?

We might describe our lives as spinning ripple-like in outward waves of experience, beginning always in the present moment and spiraling outward toward ever more remote moments of a dimly-remembered past and a partially imagined future. If there is something we would most likely describe as being “real” – each of us might say something such as, “My direct experience in the present moment – this is what seems most real to me”.

Let’s work with this for a while. It doesn’t appear to be such a radical thing to say, once it is said, does it? I mean, if we just start with something we’ll call, “direct experience,” we might agree quite well on the perceptual and existential bases for such a position.

If this is the case, then what can we say of our direct perception of “reality”? Whenever we actually observe it, we see it remains intact – unmodified and pristine – even when we are not attending to it and attending instead to a constant stream of thoughts, explanations, interpretations, and reactions.

Even while we are processing our experience through generalization and abstraction, we are still experiencing the world directly – because there is no other way to experience it.

The act of observing this process seems to create a split in our awareness. On the one hand, we observe certain aspects of our experience, such as our sense perceptions and bodily sensations directly and on the other hand, we can observe our minds engaged in continual processes of action and reaction, abstraction and generalization, rationalized thought and interpreted emotion.

As symbol generators, our minds are continually translating experience into symbolic terms. And because systems of symbols have a powerful hypnotic effect on our consciousness, as soon as we have created a set of symbols, we employ those symbols as frames of reference for future experience. Our minds both create symbols from experience by processes of generalization and abstraction and they use symbols and symbol systems as frames of reference for experience itself. In other words, our minds are constantly creating and recreating mental maps and at the same time they use those maps as ways to control and navigate future experience. The problem, of course, is that a procedure like this makes it less and less likely that new experience can occur. And the problem with that is the less open a living system is to new experience, the less it is likely to survive.

In the interest of continued survival and to promote the most positive outcomes, focusing more on direct experience and less on abstraction can lead us toward a state of optimal openness. This is, after all, the definition of healthy living systems.

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Image: “Word World I” by Tullio DeSantis, digital image, 2010.

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What is Consciousness?

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After more than a quarter of a million years as homo sapiens, a hundred thousand as anatomically modern humans, forty thousand years since we created and experienced the ritualized consciousness-raising performance of art in caves, the passing of millennia during which the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks mythologized and philosophized, the Vedic masters, Buddha, Confucius, and Christ meditated and taught, the hundreds of years that scientists have probed, experimented, and hypothesized, billions of us have experienced it directly, and we still…to this very day…have no clear idea about the nature of this experience we refer to as “consciousness”.
Of course, it is also quite correct to state that we are not even clear about the actual nature of light, for example. Light is demonstrably both a particle and a wave phenomenon. But this is impossible. These are mutually exclusive realities. And since light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which comprises everything in the universe including matter, it is very true that we do not have a coherent grasp of the actual nature of anything at all.
And yet, there is only one experience, or thing, or event, or process – whatever you choose to call it – that constitutes the sum totality of our awareness. And this is called “consciousness”. Is it, like everything else that can be shown to exist in the universe, a form of matter/energy? Or is it something else – perhaps something that can be best described by a word such as “spirit”? We just don’t know. Because we don’t really know what this so-called “spirit” might consist of. Or let’s say there is nothing even barely resembling agreement on this among humans who contemplate it.
The odd thing about all this is that we are talking about the simple experience of what it is to actually be what we are – alive, sensate, aware, existing in the present moment. And no one really knows what this means; or what it is; or what it is made of.
It might be less jarring to our sense of self-knowledge if we didn’t seem to take it for granted as much as we do. I mean it is such an unusual thing to talk about that we don’t even have many shared words, phrases, concepts, or even memes that allow us to comfortably consider what this strange force of nature – which we seem to be in the midst of – actually is.
Even the most advanced and thoughtful biologists, brain researchers, psychologists, contemporary scientists and philosophers admit they have only the most rudimentary knowledge of some of the most very basic electro-chemical processes that seem to be associated with the neurological aspects of consciousness.
Is our consciousness a field of radiation or energy, like light? If that is the case then our heads seem to be at the exact center of a kind of mental light bulb. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense because it doesn’t actually feel like something is radiating out of our eyeballs. Instead, it seems as if the world outside – whatever that means – is somehow coming in through our senses. So it’s more like our consciousness is a kind of receiver of…oh…reality waves or something – what is called “the real world”. We seem to be a part of this. In fact, we seem to be at the center of it, don’t we? And that’s all we can be sure of…that we are a focus of experience, awareness, consciousness, which lies at the exact center of what is called “reality”. And no one actually knows what any of this is made of, how or where it exists, and what it may mean…
What’s the point of all this…speculation? What value is there for each of us to expend some energy contemplating such an abstruse philosophical subject? Isn’t it yet clear that we’re talking about – not just what we are but – who we are? What is our actual purpose as human beings? Not some imagined external purpose that would derive from some belief system; but what should we be doing based on the situation we find ourselves in here on Earth, in the universe…in the real world? What are the facts of the matter? Are there facts? What is matter? Is this so-called “reality” something we are free to create as we choose? Can we just make it up as we go along? And if so, then what is the best way we can create it? And what would it be like if we could just create any kind of real world that we want?
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Hold that thought…in your mind, I mean.
Hold it in your mind. You know…your mind (whatever that is) – this miraculous sensation of awareness that seems to encompass your entire identity and existence and the whole of reality – all at once. Hold it there…
We’ll continue and see where this leads in the next entry…

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Image: “What is Consciousness?” by Tullio DeSantis, digitally altered ink on paper drawing, 2010.

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