On Apes, Bees, Consciousness and Prayer

Why work through a study of consciousness – reading James, Sperry, Edelman, Parfit, Chalmers et al. – when you can just say “it’s God.” Or “Theta.” Or “everything is just an appearance in infinite consciousness.”

Faced with a choice between a time and energy-consuming curriculum (it takes years to finish Consciousness 101, especially if you have to first brush up on biology, chemistry, physics, et cetera) and an easily articulated handful of sentences, most of us will take the sentences. Memorize them, spit them out when necessary, and call it a day. We are apes, not bees. We like the easier, softer way.

Faced with apparently big mysterious problems, human psychology tends to assign mysterious solutions. Why does it rain? God! Since it’s hard to prove a negative (God doesn’t exist), saying “God” is a handy way of stifling debate. “This is just how it is and has always been and if you can’t accept that, then I feel sorry for you / don’t accept you as a member of the tribe / will actively denigrate you / et cetera.”

If smart thoughtful people disagree with us, rather than double down on our position by attacking them – who needs those academic eggheads anyway – why not go slow, listen, reconsider our position, refine our argument etc. There is no law that says we have to change our minds. In fact, if we’re right, and we are patient and faithful to the dialogue, then the other mind will change.

In either case, we are standing for truth and coherence. Isn’t that where we want to be?

I was raised and educated Catholic by serious Catholics among lots of other serious Catholics. When somebody says “Jesus” or “Christ” my brain lights up in very familiar and comforting ways. When someone says to me, “all this is an appearance in Christ Mind which is what you are in truth,” I feel super loved and accepted. When I say it to someone else, I feel righteous and holy.

Those words make me feel good. And that which makes me feel good must actually be good. And what is good must be protected . . .

In the same way I don’t want anybody stealing my kale smoothie, I don’t want anybody spoiling my righteous self-affirming belief system. In both cases (and for largely the same reason, i.e., fear of suffering, pain and death), I will do what I have to do to take care of myself and my tribe. There’s a reason the Old Testament is so violent and it’s not because of “people back then.”

But you see, those two things – food and belief systems – are not equal. I do need food to survive. This is true for all human beings. But I do not need “Jesus” and “Christ.” Clearly lots of human beings do just fine without those two specific words. They’re optional (whether belief systems themselves are optional is another question for another post).

Thus, defending them as if they are actual milk and honey is . . . incoherent. Which in turn leads to further incoherence.

What if the origins of consciousness are more complex than the stories in the Upanishads? What if Nāgārjuna’s insights have been largely eclipsed by a couple centuries of science? What if Sri Ramana and Nisargadatta were just confused but didn’t know they were confused and so their confidence and serenity was just a benign illusion?

Would that be okay?

When I began to practice “giving attention,” one of the things that was almost instantly clear was the number of issues about which I knew very little but pretended to know a lot.

For example, I had spent decades in a religious mode – praying to God, reading about God, writing about God. I was confident that my understanding of Christian theology was sound and righteous. One day I was walking with a friend who is a doctor and an atheist. Our conversation went something like this:

Sean: That falling leaf is merely an appearance in consciousness.

Doctor: Why isn’t it an object moving in space being struck by photons that enter your eye and are processed by neural circuits in your brain?

Sean: Umm . . . That falling leaf is merely an appearance in consciousness.

What was interesting was that I couldn’t say why the falling leaf wasn’t a material process because I didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t a question of being right or wrong. I lacked the necessary information to participate in the dialogue. This was . . . troubling.

Imagine these two conversations:


Q: Why does it rain?

A: God makes it rain because He loves us and we obey Him.

Q: Oh. Ok.


Q: Why does it rain?

A: Well, there are these mechanisms called evaporation and condensation and gravity which, under certain environmental circumstances, together cause rain.

Q: Oh. Um, what is evaporation?

A: Evaporation is the process by which water is transformed into a gaseous state. When water molecules obtain a certain degree of heat energy and are close to the surface, they escape the water and rise.

Q: What’s a molecule again?

The first dialogue has the advantage of being simple and quick. The second is more demanding because it’s not intuitive. We have to work at it. If we don’t know what evaporation, condensation and gravity are, then we have to fill in those gaps. That “filling in” is likely to expose more gaps (what’s a molecule? what’s a gaseous state?). And since we’re apes, not bees, we only work for things when it’s really (and obviously) necessary.

It’s like that with consciousness. We assume that our experience of consciousness is accurate and true. We cannot find its edge, so it must be infinite. We cannot find where it began, so it must be eternal.

In the ancestral environment, that logic made a lot of sense. Knowledge was what you experienced and what people in your tribe told you. God makes it rain: that’s the end of the inquiry. So what if you have to sacrifice a few virgins during a dry spell?

But what if that logic no longer serves? What if consciousness is finite and limited and only feels infinite and eternal because of how human brains work?

Would that be okay? Why or why not?

When we are diagnosed with cancer, we go to the hospital. We submit to machines so complex, humans couldn’t have made them a century ago. Certainly you and I can’t make them. We receive treatments that involve understandings of biology and chemistry et cetera that are so nuanced and specialized we couldn’t possibly understand how they work without years of training and study. And yet we trust the doctors and get on with it. (As well we should).

Why is it that when consciousness is on the table, those of us with a spiritual bent are so quick to default to “Christ Mind” or “I am that I am?” To past lives and burning bushes? Ascended masters and psychics?

Giving attention is not spiritual. It’s practical. “Spiritual” is a label we might tack on later. But in the moment, it’s just practical. If you are hungry, you eat some food. You might later call the meal “divine,” but you didn’t eat because you needed something divine. You ate because you were hungry. If you are feeling confused, lost, guilty or scared, then you give attention.

Attention is about seeing what is happening as clearly as possible which also reveals what, if anything, should happen next: take an aspirin, go for a walk, make an amends, read some writer you’ve been avoiding, take up knitting. Attention is rational, inquisitive, honest and deliberative. It wants dialogue, no matter how tedious and frustrating, because dialogue is what delivers us to coherence. And coherence is what makes us happy and helpful, which is where we want to be, for our sake and everyone else’s.

When we think of our spiritual search / quest / process / practice / whatever, what do we take for granted? Who do we agree with without bothering to check their sources? Who do we not even let finish a sentence? What haven’t we discovered yet? How do we know? What does it mean to not know?

For me, giving attention begat a diverse, demanding and humbling curriculum which – in a particularly lovely afternoon – revealed itself as The Answer, while simultaneously making clear that it was going to go on Answering forever and that I didn’t personally matter to it in the least though I was more than welcome to tag along, lend my voice, et cetera. This was very liberating. My study has been mostly joyful and productive ever since. I truly wish the same for all beings.

So yeah. Maybe God makes it rain because She loves us and we’re good doobies. But maybe not. Maybe the best way to understand rain is through science, even if that means we have to let go of some cherished mythologies and semanticss and undertake some rigorous reading and study to understand it.

Is that okay? Why or why not?

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