Sunday, May 27, 2018

Religion and States of Consciousness

Egyptian Khnum throwing man
on the potter's wheel
After many years of comparative analysis of the predominant religious traditions, I'm starting to conclude that they just might distinguish themselves most fundamentally as anthropomorphic projections of various states of human consciousness. Not that the transcendent that religions point towards is just a projection, or that it is even a projection. Rather religious projections might very well indicate there is this infinite, underlying reality, perceived as somewhat like a shadowy reflection of what we're yet to fully comprehend.

What we've produced in religion among other cultural traditions could be referred to as thumbnails, memes, snapshots, or frames in modern parlance, low resolution images of an underlying reality at the edge of our conscious awareness. That makes religious perspectives incredibly interesting to me. I'm absolutely fascinated with how man has in image and ritual manifested these states of awareness by means of religion. This seems to permeate to some extent, particularly aesthetically, into the respective cultural traditions of music, drama, art, craft and architecture.

The Waking State

Personally, I was raised squarely in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Islam is situated here as well for the purposes of this comparison). All three share the view of the transcendent as the Master Potter. The divine is a being of focused attention, completely omniscient and of total awareness. We are made or crafted in the Potter's image. That image is a rational one, self-conscious reason being our mark of divinity, the separating principle from mere animals e.g.

The Dream State

The Hindu tradition places everyone and everything within the Dream of Brahma. All that is are manifestations of the divine operating in a subconscious state. With great effort and discipline a moment of ecstasy can be achieved akin to a lucid dream where the state of subconsciousness thins toward divine awakening.

Brahma taking a nap
The Organic State

Jainism, Buddhism and Taoism purport that the Universe itself is the Living embodiment of the transcendent. Just as we grow ourselves, the universe grows itself in a manner it knows not, yet knows perfectly. The deep unconscious running all of our bodily systems and manifesting itself in desires and motivations often to our complete surprise.

However, there has been an abandonment of these religious traditions globally over the past few hundred years in favour of the following:

The Abstract State

Sign, symbol, notation, quanta and other systems of notation are instrumentally useful, another quite unique reduced resolution image that allows us to grasp something otherwise overwhelming. However, categorisation and quantification, labeling and measuring has become the privileged subset of focused attention exponentially gaining ground and more to the point exclusive dominance.

Every effort may be made to systematise a given phenomenon; however, if the phenomenon defies measurement, reduction to a norm, it does not rise to a level worthy of further consideration. It must be discarded to maintain the integrity of the abstraction. I would argue that any system of notation (lingual, mathematical, etc.) taken for reality is necessarily a reduction and generalisation of what there is so that the lack of correspondence between abstraction and the fullness and incommensurability of reality lead to irresolvable absurdity. The commitment to the abstraction is powerful, stronger it would appear than any other religious sentiment as it is the most instrumentally useful, that is to say it gets work done.

But what is the transcendent but that which cannot be reduced within a system of abstraction?

The Steady State

These are just some preliminary thoughts; however, I think there is a way of reconciling what at first appear to be disparate or even opposing perspectives within a nested hierarchy. What I've described as the Abstract State matured in the West at the time of the Enlightenment. It sprung from a long period of mental discipline most notably in the monasteries of Europe where earlier individualistic concepts of the logos, hero and redeemer began to consolidate into the image of the awakened, enlightened individual, a reflected image of the highest conceivable idea, God. The Waking State has made possible logic, arithmetic and collectively what we would call Western philosophy; whereas further abstraction opened up modern science, engineering and medicine.

Despite the fact that the aspects of ourselves that we can predict or the things that attract us are often difficult to articulate we continue to act in the world. We take decisions, we love, we build, we're social or less so, we reproduce. We feel ourselves actors, not so much acted upon and yet none of it seems to require explanation. Our own motivations are somewhat mysterious to us; nevertheless, they feel of our own, not of anyone else. Most of our actions are semi-conscious at best and stem from murky deeper motivations operating at a subconscious level...akin to a dream. The rationalisation always come after, it's derivative. From the Dream State pour forth music, craft, language, drama, myth, and religion; each convention successively moving to greater states of articulation and self-awareness.

All of our rationalisations, determined action, hidden motivations in turn spring from something entirely obscured from view. We grow ourselves. No one else does it for us. How or why do we do it? Obviously we know how, we're here after all. The unconscious represents that which we know but don't know that we know. Nature is representative of this, utterly unconscious yet undeniably active, described in the Taoist tradition as Ziran, "of itself so", what we might translate as "spontaneity". To act in accord with nature is not to act at all, at least consciously which is a bit of a trick if you try, since to try is to act consciously. Nevertheless, as many artists, musicians and craftsmen come to realise, such a state of Mushin or "no mind" is achievable and in fact necessary to master one's art. I have some further thoughts about that here: Craftsmen of the Tao

Thinking of our capacity for abstraction as a distillation of a more fundamental capacity for conscious attention, itself nested in a motivational structure akin to a dream, all of which is grounded is something like a biological imperative seeking higher levels of complexity through repeated iterations. What generates such a hierarchy? What is the first cause, the prime mover behind our capacity for an abstracted point of view springing from an awakened, enlightened mind rooted in obscure motivations made possible by a generative unconscious?

This is where my ink runs dry...

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

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