Tag Archives: Meaning

Julian Jaynes, Consciousness, and Meaning

Julian Jaynes published a very controversial book in 1976 entitled, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind.” I bought the book back then, delved into a mite, and then let it catch dust until I eventually discarded it.  But for some time the book title has been coming around in discussions with friends and I finally found me a cheap cast-off version of the book in a locale resale shop.

Forty-one years later, I find the book very arresting.  He argued that “consciousness” as we know it began to evolve  during the time of The Iliad and involved a newfound capacity of “self” awareness, a subtle grasp of the phenomenon modern psychology describes as the “I” vs the “not I.” Jaynes noted that this “internal difference” made possible an internal dialogue which, I think he would agree was probably related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”  For with an internal dialogue as part of consciousness, mankind could begin to develop a moral and ethical compass in his heart and not be driven merely by unmediated impulses.  It was the event in the evolution of our consciousness that “meaning” also appeared on the scene which is relevant to the “internal difference” mentioned above.

And the subject of meaning and difference brings to my mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –


We’re Just a Bunch of Drunken Cells!!!

A Drunkard – by Ko Un”

I’ve never been an individual entity.
Sixty trillion cells!
I’m a living collectivity.
I’m staggering zigzag along,
sixty trillion cells, all drunk.

This simple little poem so beautifully illustrates the principle of coherence that permeates life and might even be described as life itself.  Disparate phenomena somehow miraculously “cohere” and an identity is formed, or born.  Without taking pause and contemplating we will spend our lives thinking we are an “individual entity” when actually we are a small part of a broad fabric, so “broad” that actually it is infinite.  At this very moment you are witnessing the result of the drunken “sixty trillion cells” that I call myself, an entity or identity whose “drunkenness” is somehow contained enough that I am writing coherently.  I hope!!!!  Grasping and understanding the wisdom offered in this poem makes us aware of our profound finitude which is given meaning only when we contemplate that we are part of a larger whole.  But the ego does not want us to understand this, demanding that we remain submitted to its tyranny and bask in the comfort of assuming and therefore thinking that “my view of the world is the only valid one.” W. H. Auden captured this wisdom in his poem, “In Sickness and in Health,” an excerpt of which I offer here:

Rejoice. What talent for the makeshift thought
A living corpus out of odds and ends?
What pedagogic patience taught
Preoccupied and savage elements
To dance into a segregated charm?
Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,
And gardened from the wilderness of space
The sensual properties of one dear face? 

Rejoice, dear love, in Love's peremptory word;
All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
Exist by grace of the Absurd,
And without conscious artifice we die:
O, lest we manufacture in our flesh
The lie of our divinity afresh,
Describe round our chaotic malice now,
The arbitrary circle of a vow.  

That reason may not force us to commit
That sin of the high-minded, sublimation,
Which damns the soul by praising it,
Force our desire, O Essence of creation,
To seek Thee always in Thy substances,
Till the performance of those offices
Our bodies, Thine opaque enigmas, do,
Configure Thy transparent justice too. 


For complete poem, see this link:  https://thepoetrycollection.wordpress.com/w-h-auden-1907-1973-in-sickness-and-in-health/


I have two other blogs.  Hope you check ’em out sometime!




Meaning and Meaninglessness

The subject of meaning teased me in my youth though it never was allowed to flourish until I started college and began to escape biblical literalism.  This escape was into a gradual appreciation of the metaphor which didn’t fully materialize until a prescient friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and W.H. Auden’s collected poetry in my mid thirties.  My life has not been the same.

Meaning involves intricate and intimate experience with difference.  Until one encounters meaning, he lives in a sterile universe of sameness usually marching lockstep with those of a similar orientation to life.  A quest for meaning inevitably leads one to a face-to-face encounter with meaninglessness for the one cannot exist without the other.  For example, there is no blue without non-blue.  Now I have been blessed as my venture into meaninglessness has been gentle for it can drive one stark raving mad.  I think I am fortunate to have what the poet John Keats described as “negative capability,” the ability to live with pronounced self-doubt, insecurity, and emotional fragility.  It is no accident that since the gift of poetry in my mid-thirties I have been immersed in poetry and literature for there I find metaphor which allows me to find an anchor in what would otherwise be an overwhelming mystery, a mystery that the linear thinking in which I was stuck for 35 years cannot abide.

One of my most beloved poets is Emily Dickinson and she wrote a poem which so beautifully captures the internal descent where this meaning is found.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Paul Tillich’s Critique of Religion

Two of the most important gifts that living in Taos, NM the past year and a half has offered me  is discovering two reading groups, one focused on the work of Carl Jung and the other now focused on Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.”

“The Courage to Be” is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, delving into the heart and soul of “being” itself and showing the relationship of “being” to spirituality and religion.  The body of Tillich’s work approaches spirituality as a mysterious enterprise that cannot be captured by the rational mind.  In fact, in one volume of his” Systematic Theology” he declares, “A religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion.”  Tillich knew that faith was a matter of the heart and that the “heart” was a dimension of human experience that involves more than simple rational enterprise.  This emphasis grabbed by attention 30 years ago when I first encountered Tillich and now is even more meaningful to me and helps me understand why modern religion often appears to be so intrinsically perfunctory and even banal.

On Face Book’s Tillich page this morning I ran across quote from another Tillich book which brilliantly  assesses the state of American religion in the middle 20th century, an assessment which is still valid today.  In the selection provided below, note that he did not see religion as a detached, casual, objective enterprise but one that involves the whole heart and even the whole of life.  He saw religion as an expression of the mystery of life, an effort to find meaning in the unfolding of life into which all of us were born and into which all of those who follow us will be born.  He addressed the ephemeral nature of the subject-object distinction:

“An age that is open to the unconditional and is able to accept a kairos is not necessarily an age in which a majority of people are actively religious. The number of actively religious people can be greater in a so-called ‘irreligious’ than in a religious period. But an age that is turned toward, and open to, the unconditional is one in which the consciousness of the presence of the unconditional permeates and guides all cultural functions and forms. The divine, for such a state of mind, is not a problem but a presupposition. Its ‘givenness’ is more certain than that of anything else. This situation finds expression, first of all, in the dominating power of the religious sphere, but not in such a way as to make religion a special form of life ruling over the other forms. Rather, religion is the life-blood, the inner power, the ultimate meaning of all life. The ‘sacred’ or the ‘holy’ inflames, imbues, inspires, all reality and all aspects of existence. There is no profane nature or history, no profane ego, and no profane world. All history is sacred history, everything that happens bears a mythical character; nature and history are not separated. Equally, the separation of subject and object is missing; things are considered more as powers than as things. Therefore, the relation of them is not that of technical manipulation but that of immediate spiritual communion and of ‘magical’ (in the larger sense of the word) influence. And the knowledge of things has not the purpose of analyzing them in order to control them; it has the purpose of finding their inner meaning, their mystery, and their divine significance. Obviously, in such a situation, the arts play a much greater role than in a scientific or technical age. They reveal the meaning of the myth on the basis of which everybody lives.” (Paul Tillich, “Kairos,” 1922, in The Protestant Era, pp 81-82)


Why I “Bother” to Blog

I’m sharing a blog that I greatly admire today.  This gentleman blogs, like myself, basically for self-expression.  He notes that he really does not care if anyone reads it; he writes merely to get it out.  I really can’t say I’m unconcerned with my “stats” report but I’ve not been deterred by poor response to something I toss “out there.”  In fact, the “poor response” that comes too often is really good for me as it provides me an opportunity to deal with disappointment that was once so great that I would not have attempted anything as “foolishly” blathering on like this.  T.S. Eliot encouraged us to “offer our deeds to oblivion” and cyber space is as much “oblivion” as I can deal with currently.  The “mother lode” of that stuff will come soon enough and I take comfort in the teachings of Jesus who told us…to paraphrase…”Chill out.  I gotcha covered.”

One of the primary motivations with this enterprise…and with Face Book…is simple human connection.  Yes, I am “connected” with community and friends and family but there is a richness that can be found when kindred spirits are met through this means also.  I have told several of my social media friends, “Winds of thought blow magniloquent meanings betwixt me and thee,” quoting Archibald MacLeish.

This gentleman I’m sharing with you today is definitely one of these kindred spirits.  He has wisdom at very early age when I was only beginning to discover the depth of language…and resisting it fiercely.  Here he so eloquently conveys the mystery of life, part of which is its incomprehensible ephemerality.



Fundamentalist Christians and Sexuality

Fundamentalist Christians offer us a frequent display of their hypocrisy regarding sexuality.  Now to be fair, this “hypocrisy” on this matter is not exclusive to this group as all of us have sexual whims and fancies which we don’t want to have exposed to public scrutiny.  But the issue for these fundamentalist Christians is that they have this need to hold forth regarding their purity and nobility only to have their dishonesty exposed too frequently often by leadership and its elite.

I grew up in that culture and remember the repressive atmosphere about sexuality and recall so well how dishonest it was.  I now realize that the root issue is the fear of the body and its impulses most of this fear being focused on the greatest temptation—SEX!!!  But this disavowal of the body overlooks a central teaching of the Christian tradition, the Incarnation, which was the idea of “the Word” being made flesh.  Yes, lip service is given to this teaching but there is not recognition of the layers of meaning in the teaching that would have us apply the teaching to the warp-and-woof of our life as we understand and experience the teachings of Jesus as not merely doctrine…cognitive precepts that we have accepted…but “cognitive precepts” that have become meaningful down in the guts of our life, in that “foul rag-and-bone shop of our heart.”

But deigning to see “layers of meaning” in spiritual teachings is a scary enterprise.  For, it will entail a simultaneous acknowledgement of experience of the “layers of meaning” in one’s own life and heart.  This brings into question the very nature of reality and the fear of coming ungrounded.  This brings one to realize that he is more than who he “thinks” he is, that he is not something he can cognitively grasp, but he is a mystery very much like the mystery that God is.  This brings one to the adventure of faith and when this adventure even tempts us it is so easy to immediately turn back to what has given us comfort to this point, cling to it more desperately, and even shout it out more loudly.  As W. H. Auden noted, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Our Spiritual Search for Meaning

During the impeachment preliminaries of President Clinton, his response to one difficult question was the famous, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” A lot of fun was had with that verbal finesse, but he was very right. The use of “is” is contextual and the nuances are important.

Words are ephemeral like the rest of reality and from time to time we have to “wrestle with words and meanings” as T. S. Eliot put it. For words become stale over time and lose their value, face value being taken at some point for what was once a powerful emotional and/or spiritual experience. It is simpler to not worry about “meaning” and take everything superficially and that can get you far in life but it doesn’t answer the gut-level issues that led Henry David Thoreau to declare in the mid 19th century, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”

The quest for meaning is a spiritual enterprise and churches and spiritual traditions have offered guidance to men and women who have been on this quest. Recently Pope Francis described this as a “risky journey,” one that is not only a quest for God but also a search for one’s own personal identity. Francis understands that spirituality is not idle abstraction but something that involves our innermost being, something which will often challenge our most basic assumptions about ourselves and about life itself. Otherwise we often are pursuing what he called only a “caricature of God.” Here is a link to a report of his message:


Relevant to this spiritual quest for meaning, here is one of my favorite excerpts of W. H. Auden’s poetry, taken from “A Christmas Oratorio.” Here the Star of the Nativity is speaking:

Beware. All those who follow me are led 
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no 
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread 
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
 Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
 To find themselves immediately alone
 With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
 Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.