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Consciousness (a short study)

Before I continue with the four levels of awareness I would like to talk about the brain and consciousness itself.  The purpose here is to try to connect the ideas of the "Observer", the quieting of the mind, and the increase in "presence" in the moment to the physical processes in the brain when we attempt to stay here, now.  As Socrates says to Dan in the novel "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior" by Dan Millman, "Where are you?  Here. What time is it. Now"

Consciousness is our awareness of who and what we are as we navigate the reality we perceive from what we receive through our senses.

Our unconscious is all that goes on in our brain that we have no direct knowledge or awareness of.  Awareness is the effort to pay attention to what goes on in our minds (what we are conscious of).  In using that awareness to quiet a noisy or unruly mind we use meditation (lotsa ways to do this though some feel very strongly about their own methodology) as a tool for finding peace within and letting go of our penchant for chattering and telling ourselves stories, unending stories, unending chatter.

The usefulness of a quiet mind is to navigate successfully each moment.  The difficulty of the stories and chatter is that they originate from our past (memories), which are mostly hidden from us, invoke emotions and behavior that can detract from the moment, cause us to lose focus, and in many cases cause unanticipated harm or injury to ourselves and others. 

When our unconscious and our conscious minds connect with each other through the gate-keeper (the witness or observer) the impact of our emotional and historical baggage is greatly lessened.  Learning that the moment "is what it is" our attempts to unconsciously attach our emotional or historical past to what is going on now fails and over time we cease the attempts altogether.

The Brain (a view, a perspective)

100 Billion Neurons, plus 1,000 dendritic connections per neuron allows 100 trillion connections at the nerve level in the human brain. Clusters of nerve cells perform certain functions: hearing, seeing, feeling, language, physical movement, edges, colors, curves, pattern recognition and a host of others.  Where memory is and how it is stored and retrieved, where consciousness exists, if it indeed does, in the brain, what the glial cells that fill all the spaces between nerves (over 100 billion of them, probably way more than that) do, What time is in the brain, how brain waves (alpha, beta, delta, theta, gamma) affect all parts of the brain are all being worked on, researched and explored.  Concrete answers are yet to be had.

In addition glial cells that used to be considered filler are now being understood to have complex tasks of their own.  The functioning structures within the nerves called Microtubules are also under study and some believe their role is extremely significant.  Within each nerve there are 10 million protein molecules called tubules (the building block of the microtubule) that could give even a single nerve the calculating power of a mini computer or more if some of the theories prove to be correct.

So, what we have is a complex biological structure that functions at the macro level (where we think we live) and functions at the quantum level (which is very mysterious and where we do not live)  that has the possibility of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 transactions at any given moment (from 25 to 500 milli seconds).  That is 100 billion billion or all the stars in the Universe?  Does this huge number give us consciousness (no), but it is a staggering number and deserves respect.

 We cannot at this stage in our evolution direct traffic for such a vastly complex biological structure.  But, what the gurus have done for centuries we can do now and that is influence: brain wave patterns, the noisy tendency, and our focus on our bodies, our external environment, and our internal environment. These are the "Now" moments in our lives. Everything else is either yesterdays stuff or Tomorrows stuff. 

Brain waves

Several sources had different numbers but generally speaking these are the standard wave frequencies based on what the brain is doing at the time.  No wave takes up the entire space but each wave seems to represent a state of mind or a process.  Delta waves in the 1 to 3( 2?) hertz range is a deep sleep.  Theta waves (5 to 8 Hertz) is a lighter sleep and includes "rapid eye movement or REM' sleep.  Alpha has a greater range 8 to 13 Hertz and includes relaxed alertness and awareness, calmness, or a meditative state. Beta waves 13 to 38 (13 to 20, 20 to 38)  Hertz are our active state of walking around and problem solving with lower intensity and higher intensity wave patterns.  The Gamma wave group over 40 Hertz 40 to 100) is serious intensity. 

Almost all meditative practices try to put us into the lower range of the Alpha Brain wave pattern 

What we are trying to achieve with these practices is a calm alertness, an awareness of our current situation and the ability to respond with the best decision or choice for the moment.  The idea of the Observer or Witness adds a dimension beyond calmness to channel what comes up from the foam of the unconscious over to the awareness pool where everything is let go of until such brain looping behavior ceases altogether.

Consciousness has been labeled the observer.  "i think therefore I am", "I see and feel and know that I am feeling and seeing", "i am aware of being alive, I am aware of another's feelings,  I am aware that I know or do not know".  But is consciousness a self reference or is consciousness truly an impartial observer.   

Lets explore this for just a minute or two.

Death, Fear, Anger, Guilt, Self Preservation, Self pity(this is not fair) are all powerful emotions that come from a direct and current threat or from our memories, the past or worry over the future.  The last two are the mischief makers.  The first one is responded to and let go of.  It take practice to feel an emotion, notice it, and then let it go. It takes practice to respond to the moment as it is and not as we wanted it or did not want it to be. 

1982, the Global workspace (Baar).  Structures in the brain have a function, a specific function.  Almost all lying beneath the boundary between consciousness and our unconscious.  Sensory input gets processed specifically but with a weighting factor that is available throughout the workspace (is it a threat, pain, fun, danger, joy, a problem, a level of attentiveness required, or just interesting).  Many if not all of the brain structures have access to this workspace.  So that whatever our experience is we are capable of responding to it with every part of us that our brain deems necessary. We do get to respond to our experiences at the conscious level but breathing, heartbeat, and a hundred other functions within our bodies are normally out of range, as they should be.

One of the more interesting aspects of how our brain and mind works is this idea of attention.  For example I can focus my attention and create a visual image in my head.  Depending on the emotional impact of that image (dangerous, hatred, loving, erotic, exciting, etc) all the rest of my brain has the ability to reference that image or series of images and responds as though it was present reality.  The good news is that if the images are disturbing I can consciously stop seeing them in my minds eye.  The bad news is that at the unconscious level many other structures which have the ability to reference this visual workspace can and often do become very active.  The image triggers an emotion which may elevate blood pressure, increased the heartbeat, and within seconds prepare the body for whatever response this image means to us at a deeper level.  Often our language center is triggered, we begin with thoughts which begins a story (that is about us and our identity) that loops back to reenforce our emotion or emotions, which helps us create more images and remembered experiences.  Sometimes this process is immensely creative and sometimes it is very destructive

For much of this segment the rigor of science is extracted from others and their published works.  Although the biology and theory have not yet found the encoding mechanism for conscious and unconscious cognition (the explicit vs implicit cognition) serious scientific work is progressing in this area. However the observations and speculations that come from me are extracted from my own personal observations, introspection, and experiments in understanding my own cognitive processes.

Interestingly enough some of my observations match the outcome of many of the studies I have read.  While what I am doing is not science, it is an exploration into the boundary between the conscious and unconscious realm of the mind.  This quote from a paper by Baars and Frithe - "Conscious and unconscious cognition" is one of my favorites "the study of the differences between conscious and unconscious processing is a major endeavor for Cognitive Neuroscience", and for me also. 

Where does an idea, a solution to a problem, an essay, a poem, a painting, a plan, a "theory of everything", come from. Not from your store of conscious information but retrieved and/or generated from different parts and different references, different information.  Is memory an intact item, no, it is reconstructed from these different parts and different references (reference to be provided). Remember when we tried to learn a fact at school, say a book, an author, a date.  You could string together several funny or rhyming references just to remember 3 items.  "Leo told a story about war and peace, 9x9 = 81 because 8 plus 1 equals 9 and 1 plus 8 equals 9 so the 2 nines equal 81.  These do not have to make sense.  In fact the less sense they make the easier it is to remember them.  Memories are reconstructed by association.  "What's that lady's name? Let's see, her first name starts with "S", she is short and small, really intelligent, and worthy of my respect, she has a lot of sand in that small body, hmmm, Sandy Boxworthy".  Every kid in the world has played this game and used it for memorizing less than memorable facts.  

I used to be in the problem solving business.  Remember when businesses had to keep asking themselves "What Business am I in?" And, answer the question!  The reason is simple, it is so easy to distract yourself from your core skill set and because you have been successful with A and B  march off into new territory to play in a new sandbox with X and Y.  While expanding is often a good thing, in business, plunging into the retail donut business while your core expertise is in developing computer operating systems does not seem to work out very well.  People also would do well to continuously ask themselves "what business am I in?"  What is my skill set, What am I passionate about, What is my reality, What do I need to do to do things differently or to change direction, to start over.  I am doing that now at the age of 71.  I recommend the exercise to everyone at any age.  So where does the answer come from?

Problem solving success begins with asking the right question/s.  What is right, what is wrong, what works, what does not work, where shall I begin, what do I know, what do I not know, how long do I have, do I need help?  in the simple case of "where did I put my keys?" The easiest path to follow is to close your eyes and try to remember where you last held them in your hand.  Then you retrace your movements step by step until you no longer have the keys or any awareness of them.  "Hey honey I remember laying my keys on the desk in the hall, have you seen them?  oh, they're on my bedroom dresser, I used them to unlock the back door, sorry!"  Problem solving answers or a creative outburst occurs after the unconscious has associated the "attention getter" with all of the scattered pieces it can find, associates them, and brings the answer to the surface. 

I have found that if I saturate myself with everything I can learn or know about what I want to do, sooner or later I will generate a result that comes out spontaneously and mostly complete.  What I have done is ask my unconscious to do some work for me while my conscious efforts filter what pops into my conscious mind.  When or if too much comes to the surface I can get confused and indecisive. If you are practised at this game with yourself this is where you regroup and maybe even start over (more input, different questions, some level of conscious refinement).  

What we just discussed was explicit cognition.  It is a conscious "attention getter" to redirect our minds into new territory.  Call it Goal Setting.  "Hey, unconscious, I need you to work on this!  I'll check in as often as I can but feel free to get my attention if you come up with anything!, Thanks for your help!".  I call it getting my unconscious to work on the problem while my conscious efforts explore alternatives and still function in my world of the present.

Where does all of this creativity come from?, from someplace other than your conscious processing, from deeper in.  Where is this boundary?  Is it a real Physical/biological boundary or does our conscious and unconscious come together in some kind of mingling space where an executive function gets enough inputs to get its attention and a conscious thought emerges.  While I can't prove anything yet, we can explore together to at least get a working relationship going.  And maybe understand how beneficial such a relationship can be for our day to day living.       

Tapping into the Unconscious

To develop a working relationship with your unconscious it is wise to understand in clear terms what that relationship can be.  Remember that in other places in this website I have referred to unconscious triggers that surface sometimes strong emotions that in turn begin negative mind looping, story telling and memory reconstruction, and re-enforcement of the initial emotion.  The witness or conscious observer we ask you to get familiar with pays attention to what is going on which allows the process to diminish in intensity and allows us to let it go.  Here now, gone now. This practice changes the dynamics between our unconscious, our conscious and thus our immediate behavior.  The goal is to always believe that you are worthy, you have choices and that you can always make the best choice that the circumstance presents you with.  In other words you learn to see, perceive and deal with the present (the experience of 'now') and let go of recreations of the past or fantasy versions of your  potential future (specially when fear or anger is present).

We all know that when you learn something, such as a physical skill (driving a car), sooner or later you drive without thinking about it. You don't say to yourself "if I turn the steering counter clockwise the car will go left!".  The skill or knowing about what will happen if you do 'A' belongs to the unconscious.  If you consciously thought about each thing you had to do to get through traffic to your destination, I can only imagine what disasters would await you or others on the road with you.

"When you use the conscious mind to do the job of the unconscious" (Alan Allard M.A.), things do not go well.  But, there is a role for the conscious mind to assign work to the unconscious and get excellent results.  What is that role? To provide purpose, goals, beliefs, information and practice. 

To give directions and to choose beliefs, values, your identity, goals, and what result you really want.  To gather and saturate your unconscious with the appropriate information, facts, concepts, motor skills.  To be aware of your values and beliefs about yourself and your ability to achieve the desired outcome (Wayne Dyer's Intentionality).  To know when to let go and let your unconscious do its job (over night, over days, over weeks).

Alan Allard calls this learning to "Dance with your unconscious".  

I work from the belief that research, writing and problem solving are really simple, almost effortless and just plain fun.  Golf, not so much.  And yet a long time ago, I moved my scores into the low eighties after only a couple of years of practice and play.  What happened?, I formed the belief that Golf was difficult and I lacked the skill.  The result, my golf game got worse and worse.  My writing and research got better and better.  Which belief about myself do you think got better results?

When you practice and train with enthusiasm, sooner or later your unconscious takes over.  Whatever your endeavor, it does not matter.  In the movie, "The Last Samurai", Tom Cruise is losing a practice session (actually a fight with wooden swords) until another whispered to him " Too many minds, mind the sword, mind the people, mind the fight, too many minds, one mind, no thinking"  Although not a direct quote the essence is there.  Let your unconscious respond and do the fighting, focus instead on the moment.  Thinking slows your response, you will always lose against the experienced opponent. 

"Active memory (where we consciously try to reconstruct memories) is conscious thinking, learned memory is unconscious" and allows us to do stuff without conscious thought. 

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