There is a particularly juicy bit in the latest issue of Parabola, embedded in “Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain?” by Chris Carter. Ferdinand Schiller was in Oxford philosopher in 1891 when Riddles of the Sphinx was published, authored by a “Troglodyte” (or cave-dweller). This cave-dweller turned out to be the learned Schiller, who likened himself to the man in Plato’s Republic who glimpses the truth beyond the cave but finds that his fellow cave dwellers cannot believe him.
In his book Schiller proposes that the material brain is a receiver, not the creator of consciousness—that it is “admirably calculated machinery for regulating limiting and restraining the consciousness which it encases.” The simpler the brain, the more limited the level of consciousness that we can receive. A squirrel has a more limited, more squirrely capacity to hold consciousness than a human but the function is the same in both cases: the material brain is not what produces consciousness but what limits it, what confines its intensity.
This was a radical concept in Schiller’s day and it still is our day. It is also an idea that makes near-death experience conceivable. It is also the idea—or the taste of inkling– that makes many people spiritual seekers of some sort or another. At some point or other, in nature or sitting in meditation or in the solitude of prayer, many people have at least a fleeting experience of receiving consciousness, of being filled by an impression of beauty or stillness or God’s presence, something they do not create.
Lately I’ve been thinking of this in relationship to the way the brain works. Apparently, there is growing scientific interest in something that most of us know instinctively: we are born to receive information by way of stories. In dreams, in ancient myths and folktales, even in child’s play, we practice solving life’s thorniest challenges by way of stories. Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal stresses the point: Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly – to survive to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story – comic, tragic, romantic – is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some costs, what he or she desires.”
Beneath all the wild variety of stories that have been told, there is this common structure—this common expectation. We human have brains that are designed to like and remember stories. We like beginnings, middles, ends. The spiritual path becomes journey, a quest, a drama, a passion. And consciousness—full, deathless Consciousness—is the endlessly satisfying ending. The world’s religious traditions impart wisdom not just by means of rituals or symbols but through stories.
What’s interesting to consider however, is that our human brains makes stories out of propositions that aren’t even intended to be stories. In earliest teachings of the Buddha, there are many lists—for example The Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment. The seven factors are meant to be a progression, not a static list. And it is full of implied drama and struggle. The first factor is mindfulness– the sky or the ground of awareness, the moment we realize there is something to be known, to be sought. In the midst of pure, bare knowing, interest appears. Our attention is drawn to some aspect of being present in particular: the sensation of sitting here, or the breathing, or a particular sound or thought. Interest or investigation brings a burst of energy– blossoms into delight into joy. William Blake said “Energy is pure delight.” As contradictory as it may seem, joy or rapture can lead on to the quiet factors, to tranquility concentration, equanimity. In our culture, we think of rapture as heedless, hair-blowing-back state, but think of people paying rapt attention. Think of a monk or nun in meditation and prayer.
How strange it is to reflect on that we seek to awaken to higher consciousness in these bodies, with these brains. To know there is no escape but through our human experience.