COLUMN: I Think, And My MInd Sprouts New Stems
“Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle for where we’re going…”
— Neil Young, Candle in the Dark
“We are stupid, fickle beings with feeble memories… But who knows? Maybe this time we will not forget what has happened, we will learn from it…”
— character in The Hunger Games:Mockingjay, part 2
“So many lost highways, used to lead home, but now they’re all used up and gone…” — Neil Young, The Way
By Charles Jeanes
Humanity must change, or we will go down a very dark path this century.
I intuit a Dark Age of materially-regressed human lives, of massive reductions in populations of humans and other species, and a degraded planetary habitat inimical to human flourishing. This future may well await us if we do not change. I know many readers agree with the need for humans to transform. Perhaps only a minority agree with my pessimistic intuition regarding the medium future.
I am not a complete pessimist, nor thoroughly misanthropic. I can see brighter futures than the dim one I call an intuition. I can perceive qualities in humans that call forth hope.
The quality that might turn our species aside from its dauntingly downward spiral is the capacity I rely upon for our transformation. Scientists call this quality “neuroplasticity” – the capacity of human brain matter to be altered by the immaterial force of the thoughts entertained, generated, and/or contemplated by the mind of the individual human.
It is literally the case that my mind has power over matter. The matter I can shape and reconstruct with my mind is my brain, the grey matter, the neurons that make up my brain.
What does that mean? When I speak of an individual I know possessing unique personality, character, temperament, attitude-to-life, habits, and behaviour patterns, I am referring to set patterns of their consciousness. The material basis for such observed character consistency is our brain’s grey matter. The brain has pathways. A path is physical. It is akin to an electrical circuit; brain activity is biochemical and electrical. The repetition of a thought, for example the command to some body part to perform a repeated action, is what we mean by a habit.
Habits are notoriously hard to change. Why? Because the brain has built a neural pathway so smooth, wide, attractive, and well-worn, that the ease and familiarity of the passage promotes constant traffic along it. Or, to be candid, this is the metaphor I use to understand habituated activity within the brain. Neural pathways are created in response to repetitious thinking.
To change a habit means physically to change the structure of some neural pathway, to make one old path obsolete by disuse and make a new one take its place. We have to be conscious of doing things differently, or else habit will reassert itself when we are not conscious of reverting to a pattern. With effort and awareness, with the intention to create our new thought pattern at the forefront of our conscious mind, we can change ourselves.
What was once a truth about you, about your character and behaviour, becomes false, as you demonstrate to others, and to yourself, that that was “the old you.” You have accomplished change by your own efforts.
Take that small example of one person, changing one simple habitual behaviour by being conscious of breaking a pattern, up to the level of the entire human species. Is this even realistic to believe might happen?
The human species has species-specific limitations, things so universal at the core of human being that we would be deluding ourselves to think that all human behaviour is subject to the regulation of good intentions. The entire human species does not possess a single mind, and an analogy comparing how one person can change to the whole of humanity will not be valid.
We do not know the limitations of humanity’s capacity to change itself by changing one being at a time. By one-to-one conversion of humans, whole cultural movements go from minority to mass majority phenomena. Religious conversions spring to mind as an example.
Civilization changes when a new religion converts populations; pagan Roman civilization transitioned over centuries into medieval Christian civilization due to both physical and mental transformations. As the empire collapsed and Germanic invaders brought their mental and cultural habits into the West, the West transformed. Christian Roman medieval civilization in the Eastern empire never collapsed under the power of outside invaders.
After about 400 CE, in neither part of the old empire was civilization anything like classical pagan Roman culture. Why? Change came because of Christianity but also because of changed material and physical circumstances once Rome ceased to rule and its material infrastructure, administrative machinery, and the Pax Romana all ceased to function.
Islam converted hundreds of thousands of humans in a single century, from the passing of Mohammed to the mid-700’s. All of North Africa, the middle east to the frontiers of India and the Caucasus mountains, along the east shores of Africa, and into Spain – Arab Muslim conquests deeply transformed the minds and consciousness of the populations with a new religious teaching. Consciousness among the converted was a new consciousness.
Two books – the Bible and the Q’uran – accomplished these mass-consciousness shifts.
Today humanity on a global scale urgently requires a change in its consciousness in order for humans to eliminate behaviours which have brought us to dire peril in the environments, economies, politics, and societies of this century. Will a new religious conversion achieve the necessary change? It is physically possible. Our technologies of communication are vastly more advanced than in the past.
Religion, organized societally in institutions, or unorganized and personal to single individuals, generally accomplishes three things for the human being and consciousness:
1) provides meaning for existence; evidently, humans desire significance in their lives.
2) prescribes ethical rules for our relationships with other humans both intimate and foreign.
3) describes the intangible world of deities, spirits, invisible forces, and experiences after death.
This is not an exhaustive list of all that religions might do or have done historically. But the fundamental functions of religion for humanity are summed up in these three.
And one further observation must be added: certain individuals find in religion their life-role as clergy, priest, seer, prophet, shaman, Brahmin, or some function they feel peculiarly gifted to fulfil among their fellow humans. It is an observable fact that humans are willing to be guided by these types. It is to these personnel of organized religion that the deformation and ill effects of many religious traditions might be ascribed, for they are fallible, egoistic humans.
I hazard to say there is today very low probability of an immensely significant new revelation that would establish a new religion capable of sweeping the planetary population of humans. But it is not necessary to delve into the reasons for saying why this is so.
I wish only to say that in the West, despite the fact that here atheism, agnosticism, humanism, materialism and secularism, are so common among us, we still have systematic ideas that amount to a religious ideology; to wit, science, and its methodology for finding “truth in reality,” is our religion. The West is the paradigmatic consumer society; Westerners are unique in their affluence. But we are just like all other humans on the planet in our need for the functions of religion. Science does what religion does; its ideals and its convictions, its rituals and practices, perform all the important functions for Western minds and societies that a religion performs.
Neuroscientists and political leaders
Granted that science functions in the West as a religious ideology and practice, it follows that “establishment scientists” are an analogue of a priesthood. I believe it is a fair analogy. I would argue that the personnel of those academic studies called “economic science” and “political science” are also acting in the function of clergy, explaining our lives as employees, consumers, citizens, taxpayers and voters, with paradigms we all unconsciously subscribe to.
A significant challenge now arises from the fact that neuroplasticity is understood thoroughly only by the specialists in that scientific field. It seems entirely justified to call these specialists a priesthood of neuroscientists. Their understanding, their advice, are of first importance in the future use of new technologies capable of transforming human beings.
Furthermore, our political leaders — the people entrusted with the power to legislate what is legal and to enforce public policy for the application of science to human life – control the technologies the scientists invent. Politicians are making the decisions for policy that will determine the shaping of humanity. I am not confident that politicians are wise enough for the task, nor do I know how we, the masses, can direct politicians to do what is best.
We have had debates of great passion over rights to life, rights to euthanasia, human cloning, genetic modification, and “eugenic breeding.” The application of the findings of neuroscience to the project of improving humanity is another such debate and a challenge for our civilization.
We must change. Science can change us. Who shall be in charge of the blueprints for the New Human? Who will be in charge of transforming the human being using the tremendous potential inhering to neuroscience?
Human Consciousness constructs its habitat
Two commonplace observations should be dealt with here. Here is one: “We create our own reality with our minds, thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. Ego is responsible for our reality.” This one is very popular around Nelson, for example. (The best esoteric teachers, still living, with insight about this way of understanding reality, are Eckhart Tolle and David Hawkins.)
The other observation is more academic than the first: “Collective human reality is a constructed reality, a consensus of the minds in the society about the nature of reality.” An economy or a political order among people living in society demands agreement about how the systems, such as money or government, operate. (Read William I. Thompson or Fernand Braudel on this topic.)
Today, the entire human global village demands that we create a new reality with our minds, because the reality we now inhabit is – in my opinion – tending toward collapse. Again in my opinion, there is not a single human community over the planet. The West represents one consciousness of reality, derived from our fortunate history as the dominant civilization on Earth, our material science and technology, and our cultural traditions.
The rest of the world is not fully assimilated to our Western consensus reality, since the rest of the world has not yet reached our levels of technological affluence, human rights, democratic freedoms, and mass education. Westerners have an opportunity to apply cutting-edge science and technology not available in less developed economies and societies.
How would one ever expect there to be a global human-constructed reality in this present situation of division of the world by politics and economics, ethnicity and culture? No one observing our world would posit that Islam, or China, or Africa, create the same reality for people living in those cultures and societies as the reality for people living in the West.
The Past provides examples but does it prescribe lessons?
There have been several posts on social media I have seen (and I am not a great consumer in the cyberspace information universe) which express this sentiment: “That was then, this is now. Who I was last week is not who I am today. If someone tells you they know me, you must know I am growing and evolving constantly. You do not know me. I never stop changing.”
I am passionate about the value of history, so the sentiment expressed above irritates me by its pretense that history does not matter, that no one can be known from their history. I think we know a lot about a person by their history. It is by my history that I know myself.
But the entire thrust of what I said in the first section about how individuals break a habit is actually not respectful of history’s power over our present being. I know an individual can break patterns from his or her past. I know people change by intent.
I have written at length in other columns about taking Lessons from History, and how I reject the notion that lessons are plain and obvious from the past. I believe wisdom can be derived by a study of past human experience, but the experience that really matters to your learning is your own personal experience interpreted and understood as only you can do it.
I learn about me from my past, but I do not want you to think you know me as I know myself, just because you know my history and my patterns. Knowing who I am is only profoundly experienced from within, the focus for personal self-understanding which Socrates insisted makes a human life a happy, fulfilled life. This is true for the individual person. It cannot be meaningfully extrapolated into a statement about humanity possessing a collective self-understanding. Humanity cannot understand itself as one. We lack a collective Mind.
Humanity’s entire experience as a species is what History aspires to study. But each human in the vast experience of our species is but a single experiment. The challenge of understanding how humanity makes its history, is the challenge of bringing individual lives into one vast collective “Life of the Human Species.” It is impossible ever to write that history of humanity.
I think, therefore humanity is transformed?
If I change my being, how does that make any difference to the collective being of humanity? How does a change in me, by conscious intention, redirect the momentum of human history away from taking a path toward perilous Dark Ages? How is one person significant in the scale of the whole human species? These are the questions that demand answers when I assert that neuroplasticity is the best hope we have for a transformed humanity.
We cannot change what the species homo sapiens is, at the fundamental genetic, biological, and psychological level. But this species has the capacity to alter its consciousness by the application of its science, the science of understanding mind. The alteration I have been speaking of is an alteration of one person inside the mind. One by one by one we can change the patterns of each individual mind, and thus escape the tragic patterns of human history.
I do know this: Changing the entire species through the instrumentality of neuroplasticity, in one single process involving all minds now alive on the planet, is not possible. That event would be magic, not science. Or perhaps science fiction, as in Star Wars and The Force.
Forcing forgetfulness for the sake of original thoughts
It is not natural for me as an historian to say what I am about to write here. But I believe we might all do well to know less about the miserable, repetitious, depressing history of our species in its violence, destructiveness and selfishness. Yes, those things are rife in our history, and perhaps we ought to be educated in that past, but too much knowledge of history might well inhibit the emergence of a humanity capable of changing its behaviours and its collective consciousness.
In other words, I am recanting. I am abandoning an opinion of long standing about the value of historical knowledge to the project of changing humanity. I do not trust historians to do it.
I do not now wish people to know detailed history. A general idea of the direction of history over the 5,000 years of recorded past will suffice us. It has been peculiarly linear since about the time the West achieved global dominance. The rest is detail.
My conclusion is commonplace. Each of us can contribute to the transformation of human consciousness by effecting changes in our own mind. Neuroplasticity will work for you if you desire to change. Becoming a neuroscientist yourself, or a political leader empowered to apply science to the citizenry, are also paths to effect change.
If you think a book might become a mass phenomenon for a transformed consciousness, or a song or film or other artwork, by all means follow that motivation and create that cultural artefact. It is not impossible that culture, and nurture, will be the salvation we require.
Believe in the internet as the miraculous tool to transform humanity with a mass of information, if you choose to believe that. I do not.
The planet will survive humanity. Humanity may or may not be here in a millennium. In the realm of possibilities for all creation, it may not be of significance whether we continue. But I admit I am a species loyalist. I would prefer homo sapiens not to go extinct but rather that it be transformed. I prefer that transformation occur without a Dark Age. To that end I offer what I can in my writings, in my radio programs, and in my personal example to the circle of people who know me. If I believed in the omnipotent, person God who has a design for us, I would offer traditional prayers.
If you feel prayer will help, go for it. Just do something inside your mind, then in your actions, to add your thimbleful of change to the tide we need to pass the tipping point.
In regard to what one can change and what cannot:
A day after I completed this column, I spent two hours of misery while my grandson cried and cried inconsolably for his mother. Usually his temperament is sweet and cheerful, except as he nears the time he simply must sleep. He needed a nap. None of the usual tactics to put him to sleep worked. I could not bring him back from his misery.
That experience provoked me to a simple observation about what one can and cannot do for another. Grandson knew only one desire, his mother. No other thing would satisfy. I knew what he desired. I could do nothing to give it to him. I knew that once he feel asleep, he would be restored to his normal equanimity. He did not know that.
Sure enough, he finally fell asleep as we drove in the car. When he awoke he was his delightful self. This is illustrative of a human condition. Desire is a potent drive. An adult can learn how to transcend desire – but how many of us actually do?
I had the wisdom on this occasion to know I was unable to change the feeling my grandson was experiencing. I worked to feel serene about this thing I could not change. I did not need courage to change this situation, for it was not within my power to change it. I believe the most helpful prayer is this one:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In regards to changing the world, solving problems, making history…
by Charles H. Jeanes, 2011
I dreamed. I witnessed. I record
A vision within, a learning stored.
A mountain mass, dark, broad, and high —
Rock and stone, ice, wind, and sky.
A voice despairing spoke to me
The meaning of the fearsome scene.
“The mountain is human, a mystery.
All human problems, all human history.
Towering here over stony plains —
Injustice, war, destruction, pain.”
I felt a weight upon me fall.
What is one person, so weak, so small?
To think a life might own some mission,
A legacy for good in the human condition.
How could tiny “I” make change,
Leave any mark on the mountain range?
To believe I possessed any useful tool
Seemed merely the wish of a hopeful fool.
Revolutionary destiny was my conceit.
My weapon a stick, found there at my feet.
“This is your instrument, now be important.”
Said the voice, “Go move the mountain.”
Those were the last words I heard spoken,
Standing alone, beaten, broken.
The voice departed, then there was light,
Silver thread across the night.
From the mountain root through darkness black
I followed a lucid upward track.
I knew my purpose and intent,
To the good of humanity this way was bent.
And as I walked the path I chanted:
“Reveal, where ought my tool be planted?
“Reveal to me, on this mountain strange,
That perfect point to start massive change.”
Alas, the knowledge was denied.
No earthquake swelled, although I tried.
My wooden pick to splinters worn,
Fingers bleeding, muscles torn.
No change did I see from all my labours,
Exhausted, bewildered, I tasted failure.
I looked for others among the stones —
With help there was hope but not alone.
Here at wit’s end I heard my heart,
With bright certainty I knew where to start.
Into the mountain slid my tool of wood —
In a tiny fracture, and I knew I’d done good.
A pebble moved, a stone, a boulder —
Then an avalanche broke the mountain’s shoulder.
A joke: I had altered humanity’s fate.
Future scriptures would call me “Great.”
Who is a “giant”?
Who dies unremarked?
Until future is past
All is hidden in dark.