Wisdom of the Body

•May 10, 2021 • 1 Comment
[Recent poem. The art above is by my friend, artist, singer and poet Rachael Wenona Guy who lives in Castlemaine, Victoria (Australia). Rachael's poetry book is The Hungry Air at Walleah Press and she blogs at: https://rimofacup.wordpress.com/ ). 


Wisdom of the Body

The body as it ages, diminishes, draws attention to itself, as if to say:
         wakey, wakey, your vehicle is now leaving
             from Platform One.   It may hurt to say goodbye.

Usually, it has served you well. So well, that for all those active, busy
           years in the absorbing world of work & worry, willing & wanting,
                    you hardly noticed it

except when it got cold, hungry, horny or sick.    Now its miraculous parts
                                                       are slowly unrenewing,
one by one, providing perplexing practice in leave-taking & letting go.

Am I all you are, it whispers.                       If so, get ready
     for a bumpy ride.  I speak the hard language of pain & loss,
           the messy idiolect of complete dependence on others,

something you think childish, beneath your deigned dignity
        as purported king or queen of your life’s castle, 
               chief CEO & investor in your brand.

Well, sorry to break the news, but your brand has been superseded
     &, as planned, your imagined ‘you’ is now obsolete.
                                                                                              
                                                                                     So, treat me well,
give me my minimal care & dues, & then step back, detach.      Leaving
         quietly, you’ll become the silence you always were,
                 as I sink slowly back into the fecund dust of stars.

The Eternal Witness

•April 30, 2021 • 3 Comments

[This is a considerably revised version of a key essay I published here a few years ago. It is an attempt at a literary exploration, using quite a few quotes from poetry and prose, of our unconditioned, true ‘witnessing’ identity beyond our everyday conditioned personas or egos with which we are usually almost completely identified. The magnificent photo of the mountain is courtesy of the generosity of Chris Czermak.]

The Eternal Witness

My third poetry collection Cut a Long Story Short contains the following poem:

 

The Witness

 

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am…

     – Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’

 

My life flew through me

like a loud white bird

 

clouds of people,

factories, continents

inter-were, producing

passing thunder, rain

 

air breathed its space in me

looking on, a mind blown

child at the circus

of its mind, my life

 

flew through me

like a silent black bird.

 

 

 

The following essay attempts to explore, or circle around, this core notion of The Witness.

When I think myself back into memories of childhood, I become aware of a strange phenomenon. If I focus on remembering not the actual external events nor any thoughts I may have had at the time but the nature, texture, quality of my internal configuration of feelings at the time, the specific way my sense of I or awareness ‘watched’ or ‘looked out’ onto these events and inner feelings from somewhere ‘behind my eyes’, the specific sensibility, ‒ then I realise, with a slight sense of shock and delight, that there is no difference whatsoever between then and now. My thought, ideas, beliefs may have changed but my basic sensibility, felt sense, my sense of I, my sense-of-being-in-the-world, has not.

It could be argued that this is merely a trick of memory, that I may be merely projecting back my current adult consciousness onto that of my childhood. However, I am absolutely certain that this is not the case.  I know, deeply, that despite all my many external and internal mental changes, exactly the same kind of interior ‘feeling-awareness’ or sensibility was present then as it is now. Both the content of my thought streams and the trappings of my social masks or personalities may have changed radically, but the subjective (or ‘objective’?) how’, the specific feeling-quality of the ‘space’ or ‘container’ of this awareness or consciousness, within which this content and these personalities happen, has not. This core ‘feeling-identity’ or sensibility or sense of I has – in contrast to my ‘thinking/speaking identity’ ‒ remained the same throughout all the developmental changes of ageing. Who- or whatever ‘looked out’ of the eyes of that little boy sitting alone in the playground in kindergarten is the same being, or rather quality of feeling/awareness, that is ‘looking out’ of my eyes right now.

In all its simplicity and matter-of-factness, this is a startling observation. If it has not changed over time, it is, logically, beyond time, it is eternal. Logically, it has thus never been born and will never die. This seems a phenomenological, empirical observation; there is no need for any metaphysical speculation, complicated theory or religious belief. The same goes for the simple internal experience of stepping back from and watching one’s breathing process and thoughts or feelings arising and moving during ‘just sitting’ meditation.

So what are we to make of this eternally watching one or I inside, this one who always remains calm and dispassionate no matter what may be happening to or within oneself? This witness deep ‘behind’ (?) the eyes, this unchanging one, this most basic stream of awareness or ‘self-feeling’, already there in the earliest childhood we can remember? Thankfully, despite the general cloak of silence around this phenomenon in our modern cultures (Alan Watts speaks of a ‘taboo’), evidence for the experience and existence of this eternal witness or sense of I is manifold throughout our common transcultural history, from the earliest written texts to contemporary poetry and science.

The Indian Upanishads (c. 800 BCE), in characterising the Spirit or Self (Atman) – identical with Brahman or ‘God’ ‘concealed in the heart of all beings […] smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the greatest spaces’‒ speak of it as being an immortal inner driver, guard and witness watching but never involved in the events, feelings and behaviour of these beings.[1] It is the inner essence and driver of your breath and thinking, but your thinking cannot know it. The same Svetasvatara Upanishad also uses the symbol of the human personality as the tree of life; in this tree sit the two birds of soul and Spirit, ‘two sweet friends’:

the one eats the fruits thereof, and the other looks on in silence. The first is the human soul who, resting on that tree, though active, feels sad in his unwisdom. But on beholding the power and the glory of the higher Spirit, he becomes free from sorrow.[2]

Contemporary spiritual author and engaged environmental lawyer James Thornton, similarly stresses the detached nature of this witnessing entity but calls it ‘soul’ and likens it to a deep untroubled stream always there underneath the turbulent surface of events:

A time comes when, if we allow it, the soul takes over all aspects of our lives. At this point, no matter what our difficulties may be, we recognize that there is a deep and untroubled stream flowing below all surface troubles and that we are one substance with that stream. The soul knows no difficulties. [3]

The implication of this metaphor is that, as daily wrestlers with surface troubles and the deeper untroubled stream, we are both observers and observed, speakers and that which remains silent, we seem to be ‘both in and out of the game’ (Walt Whitman), ‘both in this world, but not of it’.

Even such an emphatically secular philosopher and historical materialist like T.W. Adorno, the doyen of neo-Marxist Critical Theory, can speculate on the eternal spectator within:

Reflective people, and artists, have not infrequently noted a feeling of not-being-quite-here, of not-playing-the-game, as if they were not themselves at all but rather a kind of spectator. Others are often disgusted with this attitude. […] The inhumane moment in this attitude, the ability to distance oneself and rise above, is, in the end, precisely the humane moment which the ideologues of the humane resist. It is not implausible that the part of oneself that behaves like this is the eternal part.[4]

Although not always in this metaphysical and positive form, both meditators and many writers and poets seem to have known well this silent, immortal, witnessing ‘Other’. Such very different modern writers and poets as Vladimir Nabokov, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Luigi Pirandello, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Gwen Harwood, Walt Whitman, William Bronk and Jorge Luis Borges have found very similar words for the experience of the inner witness.

Near the beginning of Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister (1945/46) there is a scene where the protagonist Krug finds himself sobbing while walking towards a bridge in a fog. [5] Then there is a split, a ‘dualism’ arises as he ‘discriminates’ in wonted fashion, the ‘I’ doubles, and ‘the one that looked on’ appears:

Tried clearing his throat but it merely led to another gasping sob. He was sorry now he had yielded to that temptation for he could not stop yielding and the throbbing man in him was soaked. As usual he discriminated between the throbbing one and the one that looked on: looked on with concern, with sympathy, with a sigh, or with bland surprise. This was the last stronghold of the dualism he abhorred. The square root of I is I.

The narrative then shifts into the first person. This other, both ‘stranger’ and familiar, is always aloof and watches. He can teach hard lessons about emotions, identity, presumption, sex. He is both saviour and witness:

The stranger quietly watching the torrents of local grief from an abstract bank. A familiar figure, albeit anonymous and aloof. He saw me crying when I was ten and led me to a looking glass in an unused room (with an empty parrot cage in the corner) so that I might study my dissolving face. He has listened to me with raised eyebrows when I said things which I had no business to say. In every mask I tried on, there were slits for his eyes. Even at the very moment when I was rocked by the convulsion men value most. My saviour.  My witness.

Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez’ 1916-17 version of the witness is remarkably similar to that of Krug/Nabokov. Here he is also a wise, compassionate guide for the ego, a definite ‘saviour’ of sorts, sometimes forgotten and yet eternal:

I am not I.

I am he

who walks at my side without my seeing him;

whom, at times, I go to see

and whom, at times, I forget.

 

He, who, serene, is silent when I speak,

he who, sweetly, forgives when I hate,

he who roams where I am not

 

He who will remain

upright

when I die. [6]

 

Contemporary German poet H.-M. Enzensberger’s early poem ‘the other’ is almost identical to the features of the other that Jimenez lists, even down to the denotation as ‘not I’:

one laughs

is worried 

under the sky exposes my face and my hair

makes words roll out of my mouth

one who has money and fears and a passport

one who quarrels and loves

one moves

one struggles

but not i

i am the other

who does not laugh

who has no face to expose to the sky

and no words in his mouth

who is unacquainted with me with himself

not i: the other: always the other

who neither wins nor loses

who is not worried

who does not move

the other

indifferent to himself

of whom I know nothing

of whom nobody knows who he is

who does not move me

that’s who I am [7]

 

Australian poet Gwen Harwood’s ‘Alter Ego’ also contains echoes of such an invisible, omniscient, unnameable, indifferent, unmoved, eternal Other:

Who stands beside me still,

nameless, indifferent

to any lost or ill

motion of mind or will,

whose pulse is mine, who goes

sleepless and is not spent?

[…]

And this one, whom I greet

yet cannot name, or see

save as light’s sidelong shift,

who will not answer me,

knows what I was, will be,

and all I am: beyond

time’s desolating drift. [8]

 

Similarly, Walt Whitman’s ‘Me myself’ is both within and without self and world, totally immersed in the game and totally outside it. This Witness integrates all the necessary oppositions with all the ease of enlightened paradox:

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful

               news, the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am.

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,

Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. [9]

 

 

In a similar vein, American poet William Bronk (1918-1999) in his late poem ‘The Seeing Eye’, in which the watching eternal Witness is personified as ‘our life’:

 

The lives we live have little to do with our life

which watches those performances as those

of someone else it doesn’t need. It needs

nothing; it has us it doesn’t need.

It lets us, though, see wonders through its eye.

 

Bronk expresses a similar distance between our true witnessing Self and the dramas of our finite daily self in another late poem ‘Who’s There’:

 

We need to separate ourselves from ourselves

to be ourselves. All that pain and power:

that isn’t us. All that busyness,

the alienation and hate, those love affairs.

 

Such literary versions of the phenomenon of the inner ‘Other’ find similar expression in such personal testimonies as that of nineteenth century French writer Alphonse Daudet who writes of his own felt sense of being a dual character, a homo duplex, a duality, however, which he finds quite ‘horrible’, both in its detachment and critical nature:

Homo duplex, homo duplex! The first time that I perceived that I was two was at the death of my brother Henri, when my father cried out so dramatically, ‘He is dead, he is dead!’ While my first self wept, my second self thought, ‘How truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.’ I was then fourteen years old.

This horrible duality has often given me matter for reflection. Oh, this terrible second me, always seated whilst the other is on foot, acting, living, suffering, bestirring itself. This second me that I have never been able to intoxicate, to make shed tears, or put to sleep. And how it sees into things, and how it mocks! [10] 

 

Other literary references to there being a definite someone or ‘other’ inside, some unknown being almost parasitically living one’s life, can also seem equally less benign and have occurred in literature at least since early 19th century romanticism. As with Daudet, a sense of dissociation and alienation from this internal Other often prevails. There is German romanticism’s Doppelgänger motif. There is Rimbaud’s famous On me pense (‘I am being thought’) and Je est un autre (‘I is an other’). Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello’s 1933-34 diary entry may perhaps also be classed in this category: ‘There is someone who is living my life. And I know nothing about him.’ [11]

So can this interior witnessing entity perhaps be pathologically interpreted as a ‘schizoid’ version of the ‘ego’, an internalised ‘critical parent’ or ‘super-ego’ or is it rather one’s ‘true self’, Self or ‘no-self’, a ‘saviour’ and deep source of sanity? Is it the psychic dissociation of the modern alienated ego or our original, timeless identity as Witness, is it neurotic defence mechanism or our ‘original nature’, innermost reality and being?  Or, as with many dualisms, could this be a case of not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’? Could these be but different sides of the same coin, versions of the same phenomenon merely seen from different angles, under differing historical, social or psychological conditions?

Like Fernando Pessoa’s various invented ‘heteronyms’ who wrote his various books, Argentinean writer Juan Luis Borges’ witnessing Other is more ‘literary’, more complexly imagined. His Other would seem to be an originally imagined character or Borges’ authorial voice/persona. His parable ‘Borges and I’ begins with: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ There is similarity and difference between the two, there is tension, critique, even hostility and this other is, unlike that of the Upanishads, Jimenez or Harwood, definitely mortal:

I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. [12]

The other’s relationship to Borges is both within, inextricably confused with and yet quite separate from Borges:

Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. (…) I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him (…) Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.  I do not know which of us has written this page. [13]

For psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, we are also inherently double, we are made up of twins, Dioscuri, similar to the two birds on the tree of life in the Svetasvatara Upanishad quoted above. Although we would ‘prefer to be always ‘I’ and nothing else’, our mortal soul has an immortal ‘inner friend’ who is always present and ‘into whom Nature herself would like to change us – that other person who we also are and yet can never attain to completely.[14] He adds that one need not be insane to hear this other’s voice, to engage in dialogue with it, this being, on the contrary, ‘the simplest and most natural thing imaginable.’

Even objectifying science has attempted to research the phenomenon of the witness. Ernest Hilgard of Stanford University has scientifically studied what he calls the ‘hidden observer’ for years. [15]  This is an aspect of the self that is always alert, aware of and responsive to everything no matter what our conscious ego state – even sleeping, drugged, anaesthetized, hypnotized. Even in such states it can respond with physical movements. From a more traditional esoteric perspective, this may be a so-called ‘subtle-causal’ system linked to but beyond the physical body observing actions of ‘subtle-physical’ systems, an unemotional, detached intelligence, more cohesive than the ego-personality.

Based on work with near-death and comatose clients, post-Jungian process-psychotherapist Arnold Mindell even distinguishes three further bodies interacting with and enveloping the physical body: what he calls the ‘Dreambody’, the archetypal ‘Mythbody’ and the etheric ‘Immortal Body’ or ‘Self’.[16]  Countless documented near-death experiences often seem to include the experience of very dispassionately witnessing one’s own dead body and personal relations:

I could see my own body all tangled up in the car amongst all the people who had gathered around, but, you know, I had no feelings for it whatsoever. It was like it was a completely different human, or maybe even just an object. […]

It was like all relations were cut…Everything was just so – technical. [17]

Perhaps this witnessing Self is also closely allied to ‘that which breathes’ the Tai Chi practitioner or the archer in Zen practice or any artist or musician in the creative ‘flow’ or ‘zone’, moving the body-mind without conscious or intentional control of the muscular system. According to Ernest Hilgard’s developmental theory, we are mostly one with this hidden observer till about age seven, then the intellect splits off and we identify with the peer group and social world. Thus social dis-identification and re-union with it may be a major part of true adult maturation and spiritual quest. ‘As living creatures, we are all Maya [illusion]. As witnessing selves we are all that witness’(J.C. Pearce). [18]

However, this latter construction may seem a little ‘romantic’ in the sentimental sense, an example of what philosopher Ken Wilber has aptly called the ‘pre/trans fallacy’, i.e. the cognitive error of equating an earlier pre-developmental state with a later one that has gone through considerable development and negated, incorporated and transcended it. [19] Pace romantic poet William Wordsworth (‘trailing clouds of glory do I come…’), for most people childhood is certainly no simple and unalloyed state of union and grace till the age of six or seven. Ongoing and blind regression to a purported earlier stage is never a healthy option anyway; from a psychodynamic perspective it is, rather, a defence mechanism against further development rather than a mark of maturation, individuation or enlightenment.

It perhaps needs to be stressed that despite New Age pop ‘spirituality’, the ‘intellect’ or the ‘ego’ are not an adult ‘enemy’ to be somehow magically liquidated, ‘transcended’ or regressed behind but rather very necessary aspects of human development that are, only in the course of human spiritual development and individuation, to be transcended ‒ in the dialectical sense of ‘lifted up’, negated, preserved, transformed and integrated (Hegel’s Aufhebung) ‒ into some form of higher unity that includes them. In this view, in order to transcend the ego, you first must have a strong, well-developed one. The inner witness, however, being changeless, being beyond time, is there through all the temporal stages of psychological and egoic development, eternally present as the Now, not something we somehow tragically lose after childhood and thus have to regress back to in order to regain. As we age and ‘the world is too much with us’ (Wordsworth) we may indeed often seem to ‘lose’ that ‘familiar stranger’, the witnessing one. Or, vice versa, its presence may increase. In any case, it never loses us because, as we know in our saner moments, we are, in reality, it.

Let us finish as we began, with two more poems.

 

Pulling the Plug on Experience

 

the older I get the more

this personality of mine

is getting just a little                       out

                                   of

                                                                      hand

 

it keeps acting and speaking

in ways that                                               surprise

me

 

standing next to it

as I’m in it

like next to your kid

 

in a bathtub

watching with amusement

and boredom

 

how it’s having fun

just being

so utterly predictably

 

full of itself

as the tub

empties

 

 

 Who am I, or: Why all language is a beautiful lie

 

As the Old Sage said, the experience that can be named

            Is not the experience itself

 

Is silence experienced by saying the word ‘silence’?

 

                                                                            When we say ‘I’

do we mean this feeling, thinking thing

      we have identified with since we were named

           and told what to be, lovingly, harshly,

                by others who also didn’t know,

                      or had forgotten, who they really were?

 

Maybe we need to forget

Maybe we need to remember

 

Maybe we need to beautifully lie our way to the truth

Maybe words need to point at the moon

 

And then stop

 

[1] J. Mascaro (ed.), The Upanishads (Penguin Classics), p. 90 and H. Zimmer, Philosophie und Religion Indiens, pp. 329-330.

 

[2] Mascaro, p. 91.

 

[3] James Thornton, A Field Guide to The Soul, p. 44.

 

[4] T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (1966), p. 354 (own translation, PL-N).

 

[5] Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister, p. 17.

 

[6] Jimenez’ poem ‘Yo no soy yo’ is from his Eternidades of 1916/17, quoted in M. Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry, p. 124.

 

[7] Poems of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, p. 57 (Penguin Modern European Poets, 1968).

 

[8]‘Alter Ego’ in Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems, (revised edition 1986), p. 3.

 

[9] From ‘Song of Myself’ (end of verse 4) in Leaves of Grass (1855).

 

[10] Quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 144.

[11] Cited in Frederick May’s introduction to Six Characters In Search of An Author, p. vii.

 

[12] J.L. Borges, ‘Borges and I’, in Labyrinths, p. 282.

 

[13] Ibid., pp. 282-283.

 

[14] C.G. Jung, ‘Concerning Rebirth’, in Four Archetypes, p. 65.

 

[15] J.C. Pearce, Evolution’s End, p. 91.

 

[16] A. Mindell, Coma. Key to Awakening, pp. 87-96.

 

[17] Ibid., p. 83.

 

[18] J.C. Pearce, op.cit., p. 95.

 

[19] K. Wilber, ‘The Pre/Trans Fallacy’, in Eye To Eye, pp. 198-243.

 











Who am I?

•April 7, 2021 • 1 Comment

[Recent poem. Took the photo at my local railway station.]

Who am I, or: Why all language is a beautiful lie

As the Old Sage said, the experience that can be named
            Is not the experience itself

Is silence experienced by saying the word ‘silence’?

                                                                            When we say ‘I’
do we mean this feeling, thinking thing
      we have identified with since we were named
           and told what to be, lovingly, harshly,
                by others who also didn’t know,
                      or had forgotten, who they really were?

maybe we need to forget
maybe we need to remember

maybe we need to beautifully lie our way to the truth
maybe words need to point at the moon

and then stop

Diminuendo

•April 5, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[Recent poem, Fall/Autumn/ageing. Image by Karl-Josef Hildenbrandt.]

Diminuendo

This timeless, spacious sky,
this I,
has watched itself
as me, dispassionately
as a good-enough parent,
for seventy years

this sky I was at seven
on Palmer Street. Nature
strip, a day of play
& shout, throat hoarse
with fun & hide-and-seek.
Alone. Stretched out,
looking up. Suddenly,
the Spaciousness

Lost & found & lost 
again, the changing mind
a flickering light
on water, in-and-out,
outside & in, a long
journey over in a flash
of lightning in a dew drop,
a cloud, a contrail
within, through the vast,
watching itself
through my diminishing 
eyes, through these
diminishing words
dissolving
in their 
eternal
air


Water Frontage. 10 Haiku

•April 3, 2021 • 2 Comments

[Recent haiku after ‘unprecedented’ flooding here in New South Wales. Written on the south coast at Mystery Bay. Image courtesy of Reuters. Climate emergency, what climate emergency?]

Water Frontage
-	ten haiku in a time of unprecedented floods


sea thundering 
gnashing rocks, sky –
silent eagle floats!

bride on one bank,
groom on the other –
their house floating by

lone calf far from home,
flood-flung, beached,
braying out to sea

farmer seeking cows;
strangers have stopped to pen them
in the dry schoolyard

wading out of shop,
each helper holds high
two dry blues-guitars

‘One-hundred-year floods’
the Premier says, refusing
to connect the dots

by the sea’s wild
big-bang cauldron:
calm gull-line, watching

now dark brown river
swells past sun-bathing seals –
fish hidden today

after the storm,
the silent stillness
of distant surf

‘My house is gone’
she smiled, ‘now I’ve got
water frontage’ 


Don’t know when it started

•February 23, 2021 • Leave a Comment
 
 
 [Recent poem]
 
 Don’t know when it started
 
 or just imperceptibly arose like some slow deep tide
              there from the word go
  
 this sense of leave-taking           this sense of how much longer
                this sweet subtle sense of sadness
  
 watching the young play, urge, renew the old I am fumble coins 
        at the self-checkout, body piecemealing its controls
  
 Will this be my last book before blindness wells, voice, music, bird-call
                  become my means of love’s hanging-on?
  
 Maybe I lost my self before it formed …  that brute birth between the pliers,
            that week of screaming absence in the infant isolation ward, thrown
                   
 skywards on that wave of grief to calmly watch the boy below,
                                                                                               and be him too.
 
 
 

2020 A Pivotal Year?

•February 19, 2021 • 1 Comment

[Just some items of news information I’ve collected for 2020. No interpretation or theory to frame these items. History being made is still too close to easily step back from, but I think most of us probably have some sense of this being a ‘historical’ or perhaps even ‘pivotal’ year in some way or another… Took the shot in the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt/M, Germany two years ago.]

There is a sense of a profound historical and global shift and deepening turmoil in 2020 as climate, health and socio-political crises increasingly combine: triggers are megafires in Australia and the US, a severe global pandemic, US elections removing right-populist demagogue Trump, Trumpist mob attack on the US Congress. In January 2020 during the Australian megafires the Doomsday Clock is moved forward to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to catastrophe that global scientists have judged the world to be at any point since its creation in 1947, with the risk of civil collapse from nuclear weapons use and/or the climate crisis now exacerbated by cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns.

           In January 2020 US scientists create an entirely new life form, a living machine, the first programmable living robot from the stem cells of an African frog; they move around independently and could in the future be used to clean up oceanic microplastic pollution, locate and digest toxic materials, remove plaque from artery walls or deliver drugs in the body; they could, conceivably, also increasingly replace evolved living organisms as these diminish. 

In 2020 Google Deep Mind’s AI program AlphaFold solves the problem of how proteins fold up their amino acids into an astonishing number (10300) of 3-D shapes that determine their functions, a breakthrough that may help analyse the mechanisms driving some diseases and ageing, create designer medicines, more nutritious crops and green (plastic-eating) enzymes; seeking commercialisation and profit, Deep Mind regularly does not publish its codes, in fact only 25% of AI papers publish their codes, restricting free knowledge distribution, impairing accountability and reproducibility.           

            The Corona virus/Covid-19 pandemic, the worst pandemic since the flu pandemic of 1918/19, probably beginning in wild-food market in Wuhan/China in November/December 2019 via extensive social lockdowns brings down the world economy, global aviation, supply chains and mass tourism, exposes social inequalities of income distribution, working and living conditions and under-funded health systems and further undermines the forty-year hegemony of neo-liberalism by forcing massive state interventions and business/income support around the world; there is, for a few months, total economic disruption and another global recession; in another case of zoonosis due to the increasing encroachment of humans into wild animal habitats (as also with Ebola, Lyme disease etc.), in summer 2020 some cases of bubonic plague linked to eating wild marmots are also reported in China and Mongolia; research of 7000 animal communities on all six continents shows that the proportion of species carrying zoonotic pathogens increases by 70% in areas degraded by farming or settlements compared to undamaged ecosystems: the pandemic is a result of humanity’s transgressing the carrying capacity of global ecosystems; there is also growing evidence globally that air pollution significantly increases coronavirus infections, hospital admissions and deaths. 

In late 2020 insurance firm Swiss Re declares that with more than half of global GDP (or $42tn) depending on high-functioning biodiversity, ecosystem collapse is a real risk in one fifth of all countries including Australia, Israel, South Africa, India, Spain, Belgium, Pakistan, Nigeria.

           The pandemic causes the biggest drop in fossil fuel demand on record and thus also the biggest drop in carbon emissions from fossil fuels on record, at least 5% (or 2.5b tonnes in 2020), in a single year eclipsing the carbon slumps due to the largest recessions of the last 50 years combined; oil prices collapse and turn negative (from $18 to -$38 a barrel) for the first time on record on April 2020 as rising stockpiles threaten to overwhelm storage capacities and producers pay buyers to take barrels they cannot store; these prices also bankrupt large parts of the US fracking industry. The Trump administration gives at least $3bn in pandemic bailout cash to more than 5,600 US fossil fuel companies.

              The pandemic also initially causes a 9.3% reduction in humanity’s ecological footprint compared with the same period in 2019. The pandemic crisis reveals the west’s strategic dependence on China for critical rare and semi-rare metals and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance works to increase production of these metals in Australia, Canada and the US. At the height of the pandemic Britons spend 40% of their waking hours watching TV. The covid-19 pandemic pushes 700,000 more Britons into poverty (total number in 2020 15 m or 23% of population). In July 2020 a group of 83 of the world’s richest people call on governments to increase taxes on them and other members of the wealthy elite ‘immediately, substantially, permanently’ to help pay for the economic recovery from the covid-19 crisis.

            The European winter 2019/20 is the hottest on record, 3.40 C hotter than 1981-2010 average; the most complete analysis to date shows that polar ice caps are melting six times faster than in the 1990s and ice loss from Greenland and the Antarctic is tracking the IPCC worst-case climate heating scenario; between January and June 2020 temperatures in far northern Siberia are more than 5C above average, with Verkhoyansk recording a record 38C in June, earlier and more intense wildfires, melting of permafrost; the first active leak of methane from the Antarctic sea floor is discovered summer 2020; global methane levels from fossil fuels and animal farming are highest on record, with emissions having risen by more than 50m tonnes a year since 2000, and putting the world on track for 3-4C of heating; longer growing seasons and earlier springs and autumns in temperate zones mean significantly less carbon can be stored in trees than previously thought.   

        In 2020 in Italy around 17% of olive groves are infected and at least 1 m olive trees have already died of ‘olive quick decline syndrome’ (or ‘olive leprosy’), while Greece and Spain are also severely affected; in 2020 a stinkbug invasion in Turkey’s Black Sea region (first seen there in 2017), the site of 70% of global hazelnut production, threatens possibly a third of yield and thus a fifth of global hazelnut supply; in some parts of Germany in summer 2020 field-mouse plagues, enabled by milder winters and drier summers, decimate a quarter of arable land with c. 120,000 ha stripped bare; megafires devastate California and Oregon for the fourth consecutive year in 2020, now also burning wet forests as in Australia; more than 350 elephants die mysteriously in Botswana in May-June; a 2020 study shows the ability to germinate of more than half of all tropical plants will be impacted by global heating, with temperatures becoming too hot for the seeds of 20% of tropical plants by 2070.

           After the police murder of Afro-American George Floyd on the street in the US, massive Black Lives Matter protests erupt globally for the first time, creating a new level of awareness amongst whites; a statue of an eighteenth-century slave-owner in Bristol is thrown into the sea; a Dutch court in 2020 orders the Dutch state to pay compensation to victims of colonial massacres in Indonesia in 1946-47; Namibia rejects a German offer of 10 m euro as compensation for the genocide of the Herero and Nama in colonial massacres 1904-08; in August 2020 the British Museum removes a bust of its founding father Sir Hans Sloane (b. 1660) who partly funded his artefact collection from enslaved labour on his Jamaican sugar plantations; in September UK heritage charity the National Trust says that 93 of its listed properties and places have a link to colonialism and slavery, 29 to successful compensation claims by slave owners following abolition.

Meanwhile, postmodern slavery continues: the Chinese state uses forced labour as a key part of their violent suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps runs prison factories and its own paramilitary force and sends forced labour to pick cotton now supplying 20% of the world’s cotton market; Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola lobby against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act obliging them to guarantee they do not use imprisoned or coerced workers from Xinjiang.  

           A Tax Justice Network 2020 report says transnational companies and rich individuals are storing more than $10 trillion in offshore tax havens and countries lose $ 427 billion each year due to their tax avoidance and profit shifting.

Atlas turns off the light

•February 9, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[Recent poem about falling asleep, with three Greek gods and one goddess smuggled into it. ]

Atlas turns off the light


Despite Ayn Rand, Atlas didn’t shrug,

he sighed. Putting down the somnific book,


turning off the light, one last, long,

satisfying letting-go in the gentlest of moans.


All the weight in head, shoulders, arms –

wordy, worldly triad of will & want –


surrendered to Morpheus. A soft sinking

down into the dark of navel, legs, feet,


the renewed miracle of oblivion, dream

timelessness, where buses are missed,


vast star-waves surfed in Cassiopeia.

Atlas knows sigh rhymes with sky, die,


images of the nameless emptiness all is.

Just tends to forget as he lumbers around


in daylight, lost in thought, bent beneath

his burden, even as it moans & groans,


spits & roars like skies collapsing, One

World on fecund fire with future, Atlas


now drifting down his slow river of images,

released, like Orpheus’ severed head.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

•January 27, 2021 • 1 Comment
 
 
 [Another recent poem about hands.]
 

The Sound of One Hand Clapping
 
  
 hands that hold the disheartened
 hands that wash the corpses
  
 hands that deliver babies 
 hands that lower the coffins
  
 hands that pleasure
 hands that clean away our mess
  
 hands that cut out tumours
 hands that kill our meat
  
 hands that write cheques, punishments, pardons
 hands that haggle, argue, express, console
  
 hands that scratch heads for thoughts
 hands that swat flies and bullies
  
 hands that welcome strangers
 hands that twiddle their thumbs
  
 hands that build houses and hope
 hands that stir the pot
  
 hands that pluck subtle music from strings
 hands that thunder ecstatic drums
  
 hands that hold hoses to infernos
 hands that pump defiant fists
  
 hands that seed, weed, harvest, feed
 hands that rail against the gods
  
 hands that don’t know what the other is doing
 a hand that, clapping, grasps itself with ease
  
   

No-Mind, consciousness, mind, ego

•January 18, 2021 • 5 Comments

[Recent thoughts on distinguishing terms like consciousness, mind and ego within the context of evolution and unnameable ‘No-Mind’. When does ‘consciousness’ start in evolution and when does ‘mind’ start? And what happens when we realise we are able to step back from all this and reflect on it? What is not immersed in all this consciousness/mind/ego but is ‘stepping back’? If consciousness, mind and ego can also be ‘out there’ as empirical, observable ‘objects’ , who is the ‘subject’, who am I/are you really? And what could the next step for ‘mind’ be at our critical point in evolution? Took the shot at our farm dam.]

No-Mind and the evolution of consciousness, mind, ego. Some tentative distinctions

           The phenomena we term consciousness, mind and ego are all phenomena of interiority as seen from the ‘outside’, i.e. from a third-person-, ‘objective’ or ‘it’-perspective. This is the usual ‘common sense’ perspective of language and that of science. It externalises all experiences into separate ‘things out there’ and/or measures their surfaces. (It then unfortunately finds it cannot ‘explain’ higher-order consciousness and mind in third-person/objective relation to lower-order brain and matter, which it thus considers ‘the hard problem’).

           In contrast, Mind (upper case), as we shall here call it, is a ‘no-thing’ that is the first-person or ‘I am’-dimension. It could also be called No-Mind. (Hopefully, this will become clearer at the end).

          From an external, third-person perspective on evolution and history as taken here, consciousness, mind/ego and Mind can be visualised as an ascending series of evolved levels or dimensions in which each is both a whole in itself and a part of a next higher-deeper whole. Each succeeding level or dimension of evolution both incorporates, transforms and transcends the previous levels or dimensions and is thus ‘higher-deeper’.

              Let us take them in turn.

1. Consciousness: Sentience

I think it can be rationally argued that consciousness is given with sentience, or Life, from LUCA (Last Unknown Common Ancestor) c. four billion years ago onwards.

Consciousness or sentience is a higher-deeper ‘emergent’ from the self-organising evolution of organic molecules (proteins, RNA, DNA etc). These are themselves higher-deeper emergents of Matter as pre-sentient, possibly ‘proto-sentient’, self-organising inorganic molecules, atoms, sub-elementary particles, mass, energy.

[Note.‘Emergence’ can be defined as follows:in evolutionary theory, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. […] Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle’. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)]

As a higher-deeper emergent from Matter and Life (i.e. from atoms, organic molecules, neurons, brains etc.), consciousness is irreducible to the lower, purely material levels of evolution which it in fact contains, transforms and transcends within space-time. (Science being reductionist and materialist in its assumptions is the reason why it cannot explain consciousness and mind).

Consciousness evolves in the medium of space-time from LUCA to postmodern mind.

As it evolves from simple-celled bacteria and plants to animals and postmodern humans, sentience or consciousness becomes more complex, differentiated and relatively ‘free’ in the sense of self-directed or autonomous within space-time.

Consciousness is coterminous with the complex sentience of physiological self-regulation, sense perceptions, drives, feelings, dreaming.

Consciousness or sentience is a process of selecting, screening or filtering out and processing environmental inputs according to the needs/codes/laws of consciousness which are biological. These contain but transform and transcend the codes/laws of Matter.

Consciousness as sentience first ‘opens up’ the previous dimension of Matter and space-time to itself in a new, higher-deeper dimension

2. Mind (lower-case): Thought

I think it can be rationally argued that mind (lower case) is given with higher-deeper evolved forms of Life: some birds, mammals, primates, humans.

Mind can be seen as a higher-deeper evolutionary emergent and ‘opening up’ of sentience or consciousness. It is consciousness that thinks, i.e that has become self-reflective. This can be visualised as a recursive loop, vortex or whirlpool of consciousness-as-memory, a mirror of the mirror of consciousness.

Premodern, modern and postmodern mind still contain the simple, primeval consciousness of LUCA and bacteria: their ‘gut-feelings’, instincts, intuitions are microbial forms of consciousness or sentience acting in our ‘gut brain’ of the intestinal ‘microbiome’.

Premodern, modern and postmodern mind still contain the evolved dimensions of consciousness-sentience and ‘proto-minds’ of reptiles and mammals acting in our corresponding brain-stems and limbic systems and manifesting as strong drives and emotions such as dominance, sexual and attachment behaviour.

Mind exists both in the singular individual and the plural as ‘culture’ (an evolving and expanding network of exchanging and learning minds that develops its own sub-codes and -dynamics).

Just as consciousness/sentience exists only in a simple form of ‘proto-consciousness’ in cosmic matter, mind only exists in a very simple, undifferentiated form as ‘proto-mind’ in birds, mammals and primates.

The breakthrough to post-primate simple mind itself emerges with ‘Archaic’ mind in primeval humans, the first Homo species (H. habilis, H. erectus etc.) c. 2 or 3 million years ago. Its key external expressions are tool-making, fire control, cooking.

The slow leap to complex, symbolic mind and language emerges with premodern ‘Magic’ mind in Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis c. 300,000 years ago and first blossoms c. 30-60,000 years ago. Its key external expressions are beautiful forms of cave art and the first bone flute. Mind is starting to reflect and represent itself and consciousness-sentience. All consciousness, all experience, all reality, is now necessarily mediated by, and takes place within, mind.

3. Ego: Identification

Ego is not a higher-deeper level of mind but rather a congealed or sedimented recursive pattern or loop of mind as thought-memory and recurrent self-talk which has been identified with a human being’s sense of ‘self’ or ‘persona’, with what ‘I’ call ‘me’.

Ego arises within mind within an environmental, social and neurological context of overwhelm, trauma, intense pain, fear, and apparent arising need for control and power-over. It is both a ‘pain body’ and a useful coping mechanism that both enables and disables. At any level, it feeds off stress and anxiety, seeks to maintain itself as a recurrent pattern of thought and behaviour and can almost completely take over a mind and consciousness.

Ego can perhaps be seen to have gradually evolved in human pre-history and history together with mind in five levels of increasing complexity, differentiation and reflectivity.

‘Archaic’ or simple ‘Proto-Ego’ emerges possibly already with ‘proto-mind’ in some birds, mammals and primates (who seem to have distinct ‘personalities’) but then probably more distinctly with premodern mind itself in the first Homo species (H. habilis, H. erectus etc.). Despite primate-like ‘personalities’, it most probably had the more collective, decentred character of a Group- or Family-Ego.

Magic’ or ‘Shamanic Ego’ emerges with premodern animist mind in Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis. In shamans, often outsiders with special gifts and/or pathologies of mind, there may have been a greater individuation from a more collective and decentred Group- or Clan-Ego linked to plant and animal totems.

‘Heroic’ or ‘Honour Ego’ emerges with premodern mythic-mind in warriors, ‘big men’ and chiefs and then in patriarchal agrarian civilisations from c. 4000 BCE onwards. Male hero-figure myths depict the vanquishing of earlier mind represented as mostly female monsters and bringing cultural light out of the darkness. The ruling identity codes here are those of status, prestige, honour, fame, even to the point of egoic ‘divinity’ and ‘immortality’ in kings and emperors. Perceived slight, resentment and revenge are often driving characteristics. Honour Ego may often still derive much of its dynamic from defensive Clan- or Tribe-Ego.

Modern or Bourgeois Ego emerges with proto- or early-modern mind in the rise of urban-commercial societies, first in the Eurasian Classical-Axial Age (c. 700 BCE-200 CE) and then more intensely in the modern mind of the rising bourgeois capitalist societies of Europe from about the fourteenth-century-Renaissance onwards. Bourgeois ego is associated both with a strong sense of being a separate and self-determining individual with rights and of a certain inner tension or introspective conflictedness lacking in Heroic/Honour Ego (which it can now step back from and reflect on).

Postmodern Ego emerges with postmodern mind in the (late-capitalist/consumerist) Anthropocene after 1945 as both ‘death of the subject’, ‘other-directed, narcissistic, fluid, precarious self’ AND as potential for a new One World or World-Centric Ego and/or breakthrough to ego-transcending ‘No-Mind.’

The last three ego levels are today prevalent in our postmodern Anthropocene. As each level contains all previous levels but cannot, by definition, contain later levels (except as potential), only postmodern mind and ego can contain, reflect on and transcend all the previous ones; it can also regress into the seeming security of some previous one at times of great stress and anxiety.

Postmodern Ego/mind is hyper-self-reflective, like two opposing mirrors. It has the capacity or potential to ‘step back’ and ‘reflect on’ the reflections of Bourgeois Ego/mind. What then?

4. Mind (upper case): No-Mind

Mind-at-large or Mind, is an emergent of consciousness and mind at any level and thus both incorporates and transcends them. Mind-at-large or Mind is not reducible to consciousness and mind.

            Mind-at-large or Mind is a radical shift of the perspective of consciousness, mind and ego from the conceptual, externalised third-person ‘it’-perspective of everyday ‘common sense’ and science back inwards to the non-conceptual, first-person ‘I am’ dimension beyond consciousness, mind and ego, and, thus, beyond space-time.

Dispassionately observing ‘my’ consciousness, mind and ego, I have stepped back or disidentified from them and now see ‘my’ consciousness, mind and ego as ‘contents’ or dynamic ‘things’ occurring (paradoxically) both outside and within Myself as apparently ‘no-thing’ or ‘No-Mind’.

So, who is this Myself, this ‘I’ that has stepped back and observes ‘me’?

‘I’ don’t know. But I could also say: Mind/No-Mind is not in ‘me’ (in ‘my’ brain or mind or consciousness or space-time); rather, I am (in) Mind/No-Mind.

Such objectifying, third-person terms as ‘Mind’, ‘No-Mind’ or ‘I am’ – or ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Tao’ or ‘Original Nature’ − may be used as first signifiers although this Reality is actually un-nameable. This is not because of some esoteric dark hiddenness but because thought/language itself is an objectifying, third-person medium and expression of mind (lower case). In immediate reality, in first-person non-conceptual ‘experience’, in the spacious Now of ‘I am’ beyond mind, thought, language, evolution and space-time, it is all perfectly simple and obvious.

The Zen story of the semi-legendary monk Bodhidharma coming to China from India around the fifth or sixth century CE perhaps best sums it up: 

When Emperor Wu of China, who was a patron of Buddhism, heard of the legendary monk Bodhidharma, he invited him to his court, expecting to receive teachings and wisdom. When they finally met, the emperor asked:

“What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truths of Buddhism?”

“Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” replied Bodhidharma.

“Who stands here before me?” asked Emperor Wu, bewildered, indignant.

“I don’t know” said Bodhidharma.