A sudden cognitive advance occurred in ancient humans, some 100,000 years ago. It was an evolutionary leap that enabled us to have complex languages and cultures, as well as art, science and technology. Since then we humans have been creatures of symbols. Is the next evolutionary leap liberation from symbols?
The brain has the capacity, paradoxically exapted from the evolution of symbolic thought, for awareness without symbols, knowledge and memory. Awakening that capacity is crucial to experiencing something beyond the darkness and meaninglessness of this world. It is also, I believe, required for our survival as a species.
With the exceptions of the coldest parts of the Antarctic, and the deepest abysses of the oceans, humans have conquered every environment on earth. But conquering and domination are not mastery and harmony. And mastery begins with oneself.
The same evolutionary leap that gave us the ability for culture and science also makes us creatures of increasing division, alienation, conflict and fragmentation. Perhaps, as FDR said, “the trend of civilization is always upward,” but it sometimes suffers great setbacks and dark ages. The triumph of humanity’s potential over man’s barbarity is not assured.
This has never been truer than the present age, juxtaposing fantastic astronomical discoveries, hinting at humanity’s place in the universe, with images of decapitations by barbarians that make Visigoths look civilized.
Besides the YouTube beheadings, nothing epitomizes and symbolizes the fact that the human race is now in a race to the bottom more than hypocrisy of President Obama’s nuclear weapons development program.
Obama’s vision of “a nuclear-free world” obviously went only skin deep, since his administration has begun a trillion-dollar program that “modernizes the aging weapons that the United States can fire from missiles, bombers and submarines.” Without a radical change in course, humanity’s future is many more nations with many more nuclear weapons. So much for Obama’s legacy.
The notion that globalization means adaptation to insurmountable differences as much as it means homogenization is not just wishful thinking, it is willfully blind. It stems both from a failure to see people as they are in the present, and humans as we essentially have been since the cognitive revolution.
No matter how well traveled some commentators are, it seems they are incapable of reaching below the superficial differences between people and ages to see the commonalities of the human psyche, and the common challenge the present climacteric poses to all people.
A reader asks, “Aren’t symbols the subconscious mind’s way of communicating?” Since the mind as we know it is based on symbols, of course the hidden mind communicates with the conscious mind through symbols, most notably in dreams. The question is, is there mind without symbols?
In other words, is there awareness without mental activity, without words, images, memories and knowledge? I submit that is the true meaning of mind, whereas the way we normally use our brains confines us to perpetually looking through the glass darkly.
So the work of human transmutation, which is the highest work, has nothing to do with symbols and symbology. There is only one thing that’s more important, and it is both the wellspring of the work and stands alone: Negating thought and its mechanisms in attention so that the light of insight and the numinous can shine into and through one.
The spontaneous cessation of thought in undirected, intense attention to its movement ends the domination of symbols in the brain, at least temporarily. It also ends psychological memory and psychological time. Though that’s fearsome to most people, it is actually the true meaning of freedom.
A huge fire in the mountains east of here has cast a pall over the land in recent days. Sunday was positively surreal, with an orange hue that seemed to permeate everything. The atmosphere felt charged with ominousness, and one had to push oneself a bit to go to the park for a meditation and run.
But I’m glad I did. The mind quieted listening and watching the stream of thought/emotion as one listened and watched the shallow stream at one’s feet. The late afternoon sun poked through the hazy sky, and the orange ball was bright enough to throw long swaths of light through the shadows, lifting the pall.
Despite the continuing haze, this morning brought a newness, quietness and peacefulness. The sorrow of man does not hang over the land today.
To see and feel things as they are one has to be mindful, letting go of the screen of symbols. It’s easier, and preferable to most people, to be insensitive, shallow and dull. But that is not the way of a human being.