Thursday, May 29, 2014

Wisdom of Children - That Which We Already Know

One difficult aspect of writing a book as a series of blog posts is that each blog post needs to stand on its own to at least some degree, while still fitting into a larger whole. Thus, I have titled this post Wisdom of Children even though it is merely a passage from Chapter 2. I hope that makes sense. At any rate, I hope it makes enough sense for you to find it enjoyable reading. Here goes:

Part I, Chapter 2 – After The Fall (first continuation)

Each of us recapitulates the evolutionary achievement of self-awareness over the course of our normal human development. The undifferentiated oneness of early infancy gives way to our first inkling of a world that is other than our very own body, and from there we begin the inexorable march toward the fully individuated ego strength of adulthood. Neurological development becomes the ground for psychological development, and psychological development, in turn, becomes the ground for further neurological development. In this way, our body/mind continues to grow and adapt from day to day and year to year; and in this way our fall from grace mirrors that of all of humankind. The child who knows becomes the child who knows that she knows, and it is then that she begins to fall. For just as the evolved self-awareness of early humankind rose like a third dimension out of the “flat” consciousness of the rest of the animal kingdom, so self-awareness arises within the developing individual – changing them forever.

Once self-awareness has become manifest within our individual existence it is difficult to think of life as being about anything other than its experience. Whatever joys, sorrows and reflections follow on the heels of this milestone of development then become incorporated into our conception of what life is “all about”. Rare is the adult who, upon contemplating the entirety of his or her existence, concludes that life is “all about” remaining in that oceanic state, nestled in our crib watching light and shadow, form and color kaleidoscope overhead! Instead, we tend to think of these bodies that we inhabit as we do a flowering plant. Just as the roots and stems and leaves of a rose bush, for instance, seem to exist for the sole purpose of producing an exquisite blossom, so we think of self-aware consciousness as the raison d’etre of the human organism.

The development of self-awareness, then, tends to have us identifying more and more with our thought processes and less and less with the organism that makes them possible. We begin to speak of our bodies and their constituent parts as we might speak of the house and the possessions of the homeowner living inside. But while we might cut the rose blossom from the rest of the plant and place it in a vase of water for a time, the human mind is impossible to separate from its roots and stems and leaves.

‘Mind is what the brain does’ is a phrase often used by neuroscientists in describing the relationship between the mind and the brain. But the brain doesn’t merely do what’s inside of the cranium in which it is housed. The brain is connected by nerves and blood vessels to all other parts of the body, checking their orientation in space and sampling whatever biochemical information they might have to convey. It would seem then that the mind is not just what the brain does; the mind is what the body does. But why stop there? The brain, via the various sense organs that it innervates, monitors everything that the body comes into contact with. Despite the 93 million miles between the sun and the eye, for instance, they still combine to create vision; and with that vision the mind begins to reflect upon the light, and wonder about its nature. Thus, it is not so outrageous to say that ‘mind is the entire world’, although such a statement might take some getting used to given the way that we normally think about such things.

Considered from the perspective of infancy, however, ‘mind is the entire world’ makes perfect sense. In that oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness the infant does not yet perceive any separation between self and other. In fact it has no conception of self yet for there to be anything other. It is only with subsequent neurological development and the opportunity to explore his or her surroundings that the infant begins to conceptualize self and other. Fuzzy at first, the boundaries become crisper with time, and once-tentative conceptualizations related to our body, our mind, our life, our world, and our possessions begin to take on a sense of absolute solidity.

I’ve long been intrigued by the ability of very young children to withstand all manner of hardship that the more mature individual would find thoroughly devastating. How is it that young children are able to respond with such inordinate resiliency to life-threatening disease and natural disaster, poverty and war, disfiguring accident and disabling trauma, the loss of a parent, etc.? The answer, at least in large part, is that young children don’t yet possess the strong sense of self-awareness that leads to such suffering in those of us who have already fallen. Yes, the pain and difficulty of whatever harsh circumstances the child might face are present, but absent is the anguish born of perceived inequity, or the foreshortening of an imagined life, or a loss of faith or existential meaning. Absent is the suffering rooted in a strong sense of self.

The wisdom of our childhood lies somewhere in between the oneness of early infancy and the hardened sense of self that we create after the fall. We don’t think of ourselves as wise at the time, though. Instead, we think of wisdom as something that older people possess – after having lived a long, long time and after having gone to school a long, long time. But it is precisely the absence of belief that she possesses anything at all that makes the wisdom of the child all the more exquisite and profound.


Photograph of girl in the woods via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

After The Fall - That Which We Already Know

I hope you all appreciated the introduction and first chapter of this work in progress: That Which We Already Know. This installment stands on its own for the most part, but I do hope you’ll check out the previous posts as parts of a more complete whole. Enjoy!

Part I, Chapter 2 – After The Fall

Where did that Eden go? Where did that child go? My fall from grace was so quick and complete that within just a few short years hardly a trace of either remained. Thankfully, I never was called up to fight in that far off war. It ended years before my number might have been drawn. By then, however, my Eden was gone, and the child was nowhere to be found. I could blame it on the war. I could consider myself just one more of its many uncounted casualties. The fact is, though, that I would have fallen anyway. We all end up falling sooner or later. It’s simply part of what it means to be fully human. But what exactly does that mean? In order to answer that question we’ll need to reflect more deeply on what really happened back there in that proverbial Garden of Eden.

According to the legend in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were put on earth and given dominion over all living things (see NIV 1:28, for instance). Despite having the intellectual capacity necessary for such a position of mastery, however, these first humans were as yet naked and without shame (2:25).  Now, we might simply read this as Adam and Eve still being like all other animals, or like little children perhaps, with no conception of the rightness or wrongness of being unclothed. But we might also consider their nakedness in metaphorical terms. They had not yet become clothed with any ideas of separate selfhood. They had enough knowledge to dwell in mastery over all of the other creatures of the natural world, but they did not yet set themselves apart from it.

It is worth pointing out that the only thing that the God of Adam and Eve said to them about eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is that if they ate from it they would die (2:17).  It was the serpent, presumably without actually possessing any God-like knowledge himself, who suggested that the fruit could open their eyes and give them knowledge of good and evil (3:5). Unfortunately, what they got instead was self-awareness, and knowledge of their inadequacy – their nakedness – immediately followed. The death that followed was not a physical one. Rather, what Adam and Eve died to was the natural belongingness that they had previously enjoyed. They became separated from the natural order, and instead of being able to rely on the intellectual capacity that had made them master of all creatures – their natural instincts, if you will – they had to rely on their own ideas of right and wrong.

The authors of the Book of Genesis were clearly striving to understand our place in the world and how we got here. We modern humans likewise strive to understand such things, although we're just a bit more likely to invoke the theory of evolution than the Biblical story of creation. Nonetheless, there are some parallels. As stated in Chapter One, we can think of the attainment of the knowledge of good and evil which precipitated humanity’s fall from grace as essentially the evolution of self-awareness. We take it for granted now that we have it, but self-awareness didn’t always exist. It takes a brain of certain complexity, and we didn’t always have it. Somewhere deep in the shadows of prehistory, however, the one who knows became the one who knows that he knows, and it was then that the most resourceful of animals became something altogether different. Suddenly – at least relative to the vast expanse of time since the inception of life on earth – one being stood out from all others. Rising like a third dimension out of the flatness of the more ordinary consciousness that humans share with other animals, self-awareness gave our forebears unprecedented consciousness relative to that of all other beings.

Neanderthal Burial

Evidence exists that humans have been burying their dead and caring for their sick and elderly for over fifty thousand years. It makes sense, then, that the emergence of self-awareness must have given rise to at least some rudimentary sense of right and wrong with respect to caring for each other in sickness, old age, and death. But what exactly made something right or wrong in that prehistoric world as yet untouched by law or religion? Was the right thing to do based on that newly emergent self-awareness leading to the recognition of the intrinsic worth of others as well, or was the right thing to do merely a learned behavior that was reinforced by the fact that it enhanced the likelihood of survival?

Certainly patterns of behavior that evolved prior to “the fall” and which persisted over the millennia due to the fact that they enhanced the likelihood of survival must have come to be seen as “right” once the intellectual capacity to reflect upon them finally evolved. The sick, for instance, can get well and return to helping the group once again with its hunting and gathering. Investing in their care might result in a substantial payoff in terms of enhanced future survival. Likewise the old, notwithstanding their waning physical abilities, still carry with them a wealth of knowledge pertinent to the group’s survival – knowledge of animal behavior and the location and use of medicinal plants, for example. Even funerary rites might be thought of in utilitarian terms. They help foster the social cohesion necessary for survival in an exceedingly dangerous world. By showing respect for the dead each individual affirms to others in the group that he or she is a committed member – a display that in turn helps foster the reciprocal commitment of the group to that individual. Thus, what we modern humans might consider civilized social behavior could have come into existence via a process of natural selection prior to the emergence of self-awareness.

But natural selection only goes so far toward explaining the development of ideas regarding right and wrong that occurred between those days when early Neanderthals first began burying their dead and the unprecedented blossoming of religious activity that characterized the Axial Age. Whereas the former might be explained as a reinforced behavior evident amongst groups of individuals who depended upon each other for their very survival, the latter encompasses the recognition of the intrinsic worth of even one’s mortal enemies. We are hard pressed to explain such a new way of thinking about right and wrong within the paradigm of natural selection alone – unless, of course, we consider the emergence of self-awareness.

A perfect example of an Axial Age religious text that grapples with these ideas of self-awareness and right and wrong is the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita – central to both Hinduism and Indian culture in general – tells the story of one despairing warrior, Arjuna, surveying the battlefield upon which his clan and another, each with warriors that he both loves and respects, are preparing to battle each other on the following day. Arjuna’s charioteer, who is actually his Lord Krishna disguised to mortal eyes, then speaks to him consolingly and encouragingly of the various paths to liberation as seen from the perspective of Vedanta.

The existence of such a text is difficult to explain in strictly utilitarian terms. Altruistic ideas related to our shared humanity are clearly present in Arjuna’s despair – ideas that can’t be discounted even if one were to interpret the Gita as a callous exhortation for Arjuna to dispense with his existential dithering and fight for the sake of his genetic progeny. No, the human race had fallen too far from grace. Knowledge of good and evil had become too intrusive. Self-awareness had become too acute for the quandary of Arjuna and others like him to be dismissed so easily. A pack of hyenas does not ponder the ramifications, the rightness or wrongness of its survival instincts. Such torments are the plight of humankind alone.

But we also know that humanity’s recognition of the rightness and wrongness of action does not pertain solely to the interactions amongst human beings alone. Early Native Americans, for instance, considered themselves to be part of a natural order in which they could behave rightly or wrongly. The natural order, as they understood it, was one in which the elk or the bear allowed itself to be taken. However, this compassion shown to humans was not unconditional. The hunt and the people would not be successful unless they acted with respect toward and a sense of shared bond with their prey. Thus, in Native American spirituality there is the acknowledgement of a natural order that one can work with or against, as the case may be. Where would such thinking come from if not from the emergence of self-awareness and the commensurate recognition of the intrinsic worth of other beings as well?

At this point the reader may be wondering about the downside of the emergence of self-awareness. A newfound awareness that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat our fellow tribe members and those with whom we might be in conflict would seem to be a good thing, wouldn’t it? A newfound awareness that we are in relationship with the plants and animals of the earth and that we should treat that relationship with sacred awareness would seem to be a positive development, wouldn’t it? Where is the fall? What is the downside of our banishment from the Garden of Eden? Indeed, it might seem at this point that self-awareness is without a dark side.

The problem is that self-awareness has led over the ages to the ascendancy of the self as the most important of human concerns even as that same self-awareness has helped foster the spiritual recognition of the interrelatedness – even the oneness – of all things. These two conflicting potentialities – that of the ability to act in the most self-serving of ways and that of the ability to act on our recognition of the unity of all things – are now central to the human condition. Self-survival concerns pull us in one direction, and our evolved understanding of right and wrong pulls us in another. From the wandering bands of Neanderthals burying their few dead to the terrible destructive power of modern nation states at war, from the hunter/gatherers striving to feed themselves in harmony with their understanding of the natural order to the factory farming practices of today that treat animals as non-sentient resources to be mined, from the first transcendent recognition of the oneness of all things from which “we” arise to the so-called “rightness” of the barbed-wire fences (both literal and figurative) that we erect between self and other, so the nature of self-awareness, and the knowledge of good and evil, and the fall of humankind have progressed.

To be continued...


National Geographic image of Neanderthal burial via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Only Being - That Which We Already Know

With this post I bring to a close the first chapter of That Which We Already Know. I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts in sequence. If you are just now discovering them, you might want to first check out Introduction, A Child In Eden, and The Fall.

Part I, Chapter 1 – A Child in Eden (second continuation)

The Nursery was our beloved realm, regardless of what blemishes and imperfections my discriminating adult mind might impose upon its memory. Likewise, that city waterway, complete with the trash washed there from the humans living just beyond, is the beloved realm of turtles and fish and waterfowl – regardless of what might make me cringe. For just as animal discernment is oriented towards that which promotes life, so a child’s discernment is oriented towards that which induces wonder. The discriminations and assessments and judgments of the fully developed adult mind will come later, after having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Those turtles sunning themselves atop the urban flotsam of that city park were no less content than if they’d been sitting on their favorite old-growth cypress log in the middle of a sleepy backwater. Nature is like that. In nature life does not proceed in full or half measure depending upon circumstance; it always proceeds in full measure. The turtle actualizes its nature with the entirety of its being without regard for circumstance. The windblown seed has no knowledge of whether it will put down roots, or where, but once it does it proceeds to sprout and reach toward the sun with every fiber of its being. The lowly dandelion and the mighty oak, whether growing in a garbage-strewn alleyway or in a beautiful country meadow, greet each and every moment with the entirety of their being. Children are like that, too, living fully and completely without regard for circumstance.

Do you recall such days of trust and acceptance? Do you recall engaging life without any sense of separation – with mind and body seamlessly integrated one with the other, and with the environment as well? Do you recall not being constrained by worry or judgment, conceptualization or doubt? Such is the absolute freedom of the children and the wisest among us, and all that resides in the natural world – the absolute freedom to be precisely what we are and nothing that we are not, the absolute freedom to engage life completely, fearlessly, and spontaneously.

As children, lacking the self-awareness of our later years, we don’t so much know this freedom as do we naturally embody it. Ironically, it is our developing self-awareness that brings our innate childhood freedom into view only as it begins to disappear - just as sunlight creates a rainbow in the mist prior to boiling it away. Such was the newfound awareness of my waning freedom as I embarked upon that somber walk past the birch grove and across the dirt road heading down from the Gerhardt mansion. Such was my newfound awareness of some vague need to spend the afternoon sitting in the ravine in the middle of the meadow rolling down from the baseball diamond. Yes, the sound of the frogs emanating from the many ponds that I knew so well still sang within my heart. Yes, I still felt deeply my connection to that place and all that lived and grew upon it. A specter, though, was lurking on the horizon. A war was being fought somewhere out there in the grownup world; and I would one day be a grownup, too.

The mere passage of the years of my then-short life had put the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil upon my tongue; and without my even realizing what was happening I’d begun to chew and swallow. Call it the natural development of human intellect and self-awareness or call it original sin. Either way, my fall from grace was underway and gathering speed. What is a first grader to do, after all, but contemplate the second, and then the third one after that? And because I could I counted them off until the twelfth and final one. But what came after that, beyond where the school years reached? What came after that, in a future that I could scarcely comprehend?

Indeed, a specter lurked out there on the horizon in my childhood mind, growing darker with each glimpse, cleaving mind from body and leaving me a stranger where I was. Image upon image, the future that I could scarcely comprehend grew darker – grainy television footage showing young soldiers landing in a jungle clearing, a playground conversation in which a classmate tells of how his older brother’s number was just drawn, a photograph in a magazine of a gun held to the temple of a little man…

But, oh, those days of grace were yet so close to me! And closer still within the embrace of my beloved realm. In the Nursery there was no future, bright or dark. In the Nursery the seamless nature of body and mind returned. There, I was freedom once again. There, I was oneness once again. Like in the summer before that autumn, with the full functioning of childhood blossoming in all its glory, we’d explore from breakfast onward, returning only when our hunger called, or to stoop for gulps of water from a shaded backyard spigot. I can still taste that metallic water, and smell my mother’s mint that flourished there in the moist earth beneath the dripping faucet. I can still feel the warm sun on my face and the cool water dripping down my neck and wetting the front of my t-shirt. I can still feel what it was like to ride my bike along the winding dirt roads and trails – feeling every dip and rise and root.

There was only that which was; and in the acceptance of that which was there was sufficiency, contentment, and peace. Nothing required improvement. Nothing needed to change. There was neither enlightenment nor gain nor journey nor spirituality. There was only being; and being has no need for words or concepts. Being actualizes itself regardless of how we might describe it or try to explain it. As adults we read these words and call them knowledge. A child has no need for them at all! They already embody every bit of knowledge that they need. And so it is with that which we already know.

End Chapter 1


Child and frog courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via:

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:


Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank