Sunday, July 06, 2014


So by now I have -- in this pursuit of the elements of deep or intense or meaningful experience and how to make it happen --  a five step process describing how a human being thinks.  It’s a circle, so just imagine this list bending around to meet itself.  One? Meet five.  Five? Meet one.  (I just added the fifth a few days ago, but I stuck it on as the first.)

1.  A one-celled creature evolves inside a skin.  At first it’s all about what’s in there, what it needs in terms of adding and subtracting, and the gradual building up of complexity over millennia until finally it has a notochord, then a spine with a knob on the end, and then an elaborating knob that becomes a brain.  All INSIDE.   

The one cell absorbs what it needs from the liquid in which it floats and excretes whatever is inside that its metabolism tears apart to use some of but doesn’t want partly after all. In a few millennia it develops an intake on one end and an outflow on the other end and a tube connecting the two of them.  This is the first gut, the GI “tract.”  

By this stage the creature has created three parts: skin, movement, and a way to pass the outside through the inside so as to derive energy for moving around.  Then it begins to sense what’s outside it’s skin, going towards food, moving away from danger.  This is the beginning of the sensorium, which is more like smell than anything else: sampling the molecules of the environment.  But the real function of the primordial not-brain-yet is to manage what’s inside the cell, the homeostasis, which is the boundaries that dictate individual survival.  Not just the skin, but the solutions mixing inside, which the skin can separate from the solutions mixing outside the creature.

2.  As the creatures begin to add complexity by dividing up cells into specialized duties (muscles here, message carrying nerves there) it has a skin, a sensorium to carry information from outside the skin to inside the skin.  The five senses are only the most conscious ones, highly evolved complexes of cells.  There continue to be senses inside the creature that manage the binary balancing functions of fluid solutions, adding and subtracting molecules to manage homeostasis.  But we don’t “feel” the acid/alkali balance, the glucose level, the secretion of bile and so on, unless homeostasis is out-of-whack enough to make us feel sick as a warning.

3.  The brain is the dashboard of all this commotion inside the skin, with the double obligation of maintaining homeostasis inside and interpreting the information that arrives through the sensorium.  The brain develops in response to the environment so that it fits itself into the ecology, first of all through understanding, which is an interpretation.  The brain edits and then stores the information by ear-marking it with the sensory signature of the moment, the way a digital camera will print info right onto the image.  Then the brain keeps order by mapping, both the anatomy in-skin and the orientation to the out-skin, noting gravity, placement within space, and geometric concepts.  These two functions have been in the one-celled animal all along, but now they are elaborated, but still edited by the notes the brain keeps.  The brain senses what it expects.  Something totally unexperienced, uninterpretable, may be pushed back out.  Or it may force the total reorganization of assumptions.  Or it may be invisible.

The first sorting is done by binaries important to the survival of the infant:  hot/cold, dark/light, falling/embraced, hungry/fed, thirsty/sated, wet/dry.  One of the next distinctions is human faces: familiar/strange and the beginning of response.  If survival homeostasis is maintained, this is the beginning of bonding and love.

4.  Response is the next step.  Possibly in-skin feelings or possibly out-skin actions.  Waving limbs, gazing, crying, cooing.  The consequences feed back into the brain through the sensorium which begins to build consciousness of the interaction and to create a felt identity.

5.  A mammal cannot survive alone for long and not at all in infancy.  When its stimulus/response sequences are establishing, which is largely a matter of interacting with caregivers, the baby develops empathy for the caregiver, so it knows whether that person is happy or sad, angry or caring.  In a modern adult human this empathy becomes an extension of the brain, another way for information to get into the body and to the brain by entering through the sensorium.  You SEE how they feel, HEAR how they feel.  The brain notes how the other people are handling information and what they are doing about it.  The tendency is to do what they do and the group encourages that.  

Once the individual becomes embedded in a group, taking on its characteristics and enjoying its protection, there is a new kind of survival which is that of the group as a whole.  A person need not stay in one group but can move to smaller or alternative or larger gatherings of people.   They need not be exclusive, though some will insist on it.  The most dangerous is failing to realize that one's group is NOT the only group there is.  Whether the person handles new groups with xenophobia or with pleased discovery depends in part on experience in the past as encoded in the brain and partly on whether the new group is welcoming.  Then action is needed to create homeostasis push/pull of the individual in that group.  

The inside/outside dynamic of the one-celled animal, though greatly complexified, is still there: taking in what is needed, throwing out what is debris.  The boundary membrane of the actual skin is matched some way by a psychological boundary of either brain-imposed limits or group-imposed limits, which might actually be expansions.  I am proposing that a deeply meaningful experience will be one that expands or elaborates or re-adjusts the felt identity of a human being in a way that increases well-being, understanding and skill.  

So this comes back around to the one-cell which is now part of a cooperating complex, a creature defined by its skin in the same way that the whole creature is a cooperating complex element of the entire ecology of the planet and the cosmos out beyond it.  This can be felt and it is meaningful.  Capturing that in experience is a matter of sensorium, intake/outflow for homeostasis and ease in survival, and the skillful, artful management of interaction with the brain’s assumptions.

These ideas are echoed by the people who have fiddled with Maslow’s pyramid explaining “peak experience” -- peak coming from the metaphor of climbing a mountain and reaching the summit.  Actually, the diagram is a triangle suggesting there is a sequence beginning with the most basic and crucial elements of human happiness, those necessary for survival, then evolving from that (using the scientific idea of one thing developing out of another) into narrowing stages that finally -- most rarely (a function of plenitude or scarcity) focuses (camera) on that intense (concentrated) feeling.  

The Christian/Abrahamic assumption is that once you’re there, that’s the end.  But it isn’t.  To stick with the mountain idea, life is not climbing to the top and sitting there like a cartoon guru.  Instead it is a matter of continuing around the mountains, through them, between them, maybe even inside them by accessing a cave.  The difference between religion and spirituality is that religion assumes there is a goal and then it’s over.  Spirituality is about the process.  

One is a map, the other is an exploration.  It doesn’t really matter where so long as the world is coming into the person and the debris of the experience, the ashes, are being discarded.  That’s achieving “flow.”  The actual “travel” for a spiritual person comes from awareness of metaphor and willingness to explore it.

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