Monday, July 21, 2014


As I research and ruminate on ways to approach the evocation of deep and meaningful experience, I find that I’ve accumulated a lot of terminology from different frameworks and approaches.  This is good, since they challenge each other and push back horizons, but also confusing because they can mix metaphors and make us think in ways no one ever has before.  For instance, it turns out that the microbiota in one’s gut are rather active participants in what you think, not that they have opinions, but that they shift the moods that influence your own thoughts more than you realize.

One whole set of words is from philosophers at their desks, starting from their own minds.  Since they usually make their livings as academics, that means they must always be building on the debris left in the past, accepting the assumptions of people writing millennia ago simply because they are there.  More than half a career can be used up just clearing rubble.  Not least important is the search for the soul, which was thought to be in the heart, then the brain, now nowhere.

Medical people have formal words for observed changes of consciousness.  For instance,  Syncope: fainting due to a number of causes, like shock or hunger (low blood sugar) or a drop in blood pressure.   Presyncope or perisyncope:  the sensation of being about to faint: weakness, confusion, blurred vision, incoherence.

Or they speak of a Seizure:  A brain “storm” usually related to electrical activity and of a number of different types, depending on the location and kind of storm.  Most people associate a seizure with convulsions, but they can also simply cause a sort of trance or even visions or sensations of various kinds.  In different times, these episodes could be interpreted in a religious way, either good or bad.   There are “petit” seizures that result in Staring:  “Lost in space,” “out of it,” not moving.

When one departs from the Western world of fancy multisyllabic and rather obscure technical terms, the world of ancient mystic systems in India or China offers chakras and meditations and strange practices which are totally absorbing for those who like the strange and wonderful.  New Age experimenters love to combine and invent more. 

Of course, psychology, a “discipline” modeled on medical method, has a small subdivision that focuses on the characteristics of good health, but has a far bigger interest in endless diagnosis.  In fact, the handbook they produce every few years -- with great fanfare and instant quarrels -- is so full of dysfunctions that they’ve been a target of satire.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes obvious problems deriving from damage to the body itself, but also lists “syndromes” which are patterns of behavior and might or might not be troublesome.  Much of this is socially determined and therefore “trendy” so that the concept of “homosexuality” has been moved from sinful to sickness to legitimate variation.  

And now the social thinkers who are free from precedent and pressure are suggesting that even the category of heterosexuality should be challenged.  We also begin to understand that the body is not just a lot of pumps and tubes, hinges and pulleys, but also a kind of battery balancing chemical aspects like acid/alkali, glucose metabolism, and a host of interacting drugs like adrenalin, dopamine, cortisol, serotonin -- all of which affect thinking as effectively as any street substance, even though they can be internally manufactured, reacting to situations, ideas, emotional interactions, pain, and music.

Lately we begin to understand brain phenomena like the connectome, the constantly changing shifts of connection patterns among nexuses of sorting and controlling neurons, constantly responding to the messages from the environment coming from outside the skin.  This means that disturbances from the sensorium, missing or misinterpreted, like being deaf or blind, will require a reorganization of meaning and emphasis in thinking.  

"Go the F**k to Sleep" By Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes
A beloved bedtime book.

I don’t think there is any such thing as “ordinary consciousness.”  Most people seem to experience themselves as just going along, taking care of business, quite unaware that some of their thinking is totally off-base, or suddenly changing modes.  But when we tell a child,  “Go to sleep now!” what are we asking them to do in terms of managing their consciousness?  Sometimes we can’t even tell ourselves, “Go to sleep” with any success at all.

Consciousness:  Awake.
Unconscious:  not awake.
Sleep:  Not awake but innocently busy with the sorting and repair of the body.  Possibly dreaming, which is a kind of sleeping consciousness based on earlier sensorium input.
Coma:  Not capable of achieving consciousness.  Sometimes the sensorium is working (the person can hear or even see and feel) but no response is possible.
Subconscious:  deep brain function based on assumptions not normally accessible to ordinary reflection.  In psychoanalytic terms, these assumptions (which are patterns, metaphors and memories) can be surprised into consciousness by art, free-association supported by someone protective, or hypnotism.  Once conscious, they can be addressed.

Visceral consciousness:  I’d never seen this term, but I’m proposing it as describing the operating of the viscera as managed by the normally unconscious autonomic nervous system: digestion, heartbeat, breathing, kidney.  These can intrude into consciousness by generating pain or failing to proceed or by disrupting their ordinary rhythm.  Or they can produce ecstasy.  All this is meshed with secretions that constantly recalibrate to set levels of function, which can rise to consciousness as emotions, inebriation, moods, attitudes, or as inabilities like the inability to fall asleep or wake up, to respond to danger or praise or stimulation, and to block creativity as for writers or artists.

When I put a phrase like “visceral consciousness” into Google, I’m very likely to get a video of music.  Here’s the example, which is a fair version of what must be going on in some bodies.   

Brendan: Journey to Lucidity

When I am writing well, I get into a particular frame of mind in which I feel that I’m “biting” words, achieving precision and definition as though I were “articulating” clearly in the sense of speaking.  Other times the sensation of writing is more like a melody or like walking, in which rhythm becomes important.  Creative people speak of being “hot,” of having intense ideas that come so quickly that they hardly have time to record them, almost as though one is seized by the ideas (“it just wrote itself”), or they are connecting almost like a chemical reaction in a beaker, achieving form and meaning without conscious participation by the person “feeling” them.

Getting to that point is often enabled by habit, going to work at the same time and place.    “Conditioning.”  Bodies are deeply connected to rhythm and respond to repetition, trying to prepare for whatever it was that usually happened, the food usually eaten, the walk usually taken, the company usually kept in a familiar environment.  This is opposed to the feeling of needing a change, wanting a disruption.  Sometimes it works to change one’s consciousness by deliberately contradicting the usual.  Leaving the keyboard to write with a pencil.  

Anthropology, the study of humans entirely different from us, can offer some brilliant strategies. Van Gennep’s insight was that when the usual life is no longer possible, perhaps due to growth and development, a “rite of passage” is socially invented. (Baptism, graduation, marriage, retirement.)  It is in three parts: breaking off the old life, experiencing confusion, and entering a new life.  He thought of these as going over a threshold, being in a special space, and then coming back out over a threshold.  This is a socially intermediated way of handling consciousness.  It is proven with experiment that people tend to converge with the consciousness of the people around them, both in terms of mood and in action.  The feeling of “rightness,” safety, and support is helpful.  If the group is homogenous, this works better.  Friends and families come together to reassure the bride, the groom, the newly employed or retired.

Some people have an opposite reaction but this is not much studied.  It might feel to them like entrapment, a denial of their individuality, producing panic.  One reaction to panic is rage, a striking out with words or actions to reach boundaries that will restrain, maybe to break through them.  Ceremonies of DefianceHorizon of Consciousness.  I googled.  There’s no music vid -- yet.  Settle for a book, a movie, a series, and a computer game?

"Defiance"  SyFy

No comments: