Closing Summary to Presence
Chapters on line: Description and Table of Contents / Chapter 1: Introduction: Emerging Clear Awareness / Chapter 2: Roots of Consciousness: Primordial Affective Emotions / Chapter 4: Spectrum of Awareness / Chapter 6: Magic of Awareness: Enlightened Futility / Chapter 15: Summary: Emerging Consciousness and Twilight Awareness
In the beginning was not the word. The Gospel of John got it wrong. Long before we had words, we had felt senses: hunger, thirst, loneliness, delight, ennui, pain, fear, joy, and more. From the perspective of evolution, words and language were a late development. Long before those arose in our ancient ancestors, there were feelings.
And in young humans today, feelings also arise long before words and language. Out of those feelings, consciousness surfaces. Consciousness and sense of self are like a wellspring that emerges from the depths that we can speculate about but not see.
Ideally, they evolve toward “twilight consciousness” — a quality of awareness I associate with being out in nature at twilight. It’s more about feeling tone than words or language, more about mood than content, more about being present with what is than in trying to dictate what is present. I’m gently drawn to the natural presence around me: stars, deep blue sky, sun floating on the horizon, fields, trees, birds...
Twilight consciousness has neither self nor non-self. It’s somewhere in between: a light self that I don’t notice as it drifts into the distance. Similarly, a few thoughts float through, but I’m not paying attention to them either. They fade over the hillside.
This is no humdinger enlightenment, but simple contentment. The stars and sky and woods around me don’t care whether I’m clear or deluded, feeling good or bad. And I don’t care either. This is not the kind of not caring that turns away. Quite the opposite. It turns toward this moment with no urge to push or pull or direct anything. Things are just what they are, and that is enough. I notice a Buddha half smile at the corners of my mouth.
In preceding pages I’ve traced the complexities of how consciousness and a sense of self emerge from the unseen depths and, with a little presence, evolve toward twilight consciousness.
This concluding chapter is a short summary of this trajectory — a bird’s eye view, if you will — of how consciousness and selfdom surface and evolve and some of their implications.
Consciousness and selfhood emerge from the necessity that living organisms must maintain homeostatic balances. Simple creatures do this reflexively — they rely on unconscious instincts. Complex creatures have more homeostatic balances to maintain, many of which will conflict with other homeostatic balances.
Rather than having built-in actions, we complex creatures have built-in feelings. They motivate us to move in various ways while giving us the freedom to choose which to act upon and in what order.
Consciousness is the internal space within which the various needs negotiate with one other in the context of the present environment. Sometimes we’ll take advantage of opportunities that may not be at the top of the emotional needs list but are easy to meet right now.
This gives us free will: we can make choices. But our choices may be surrounded by feelings that push or pull us.
We can’t choose whether or not these pushes and pulls are there. They are wired in. Emotions push us in various directions, so our choices are not purely intellectual. Competing drives play out in our feeling states. It’s just that we have some choice as to whether to heed them or not — to succumb to their entreaties or to keep them at bay for the moment.
From the perspective of DNA reproducing itself in the coming generations, it doesn’t matter if we’re happy or depressed, wise or stupid, creative or destructive, generous or selfish, rich or poor. If those qualities help start the next generation, then they are more likely to live on. If not, they disappear from the evolutionary flow of life. Consciousness’s prime purpose is to keep us alive long enough to create offspring with facsimiles of our DNA.
There are seven primordial affective emotions wired into mammals and birds.[Footnote 1] They are the building blocks of all emotions and drives as well as of consciousness itself. When scientists surgically or chemically remove all seven affective emotions, consciousness and selfhood disappear: we go unconscious. This is not theoretical speculation; it’s an empirical fact that has been demonstrated over and over. Consciousness grows out of primordial emotions which, in turn grow out of drives to maintain the homeostatic balances that we need to stay alive.
This connection between homeostasis, drives, primordial emotions, and consciousness is a crucial piece of the consciousness puzzle. The way they are linked together — from homeostasis to consciousness — may seem a little mind-boggling. But it is scientifically verifiable. Whether we understand it or not, whether it makes sense to us or not, it holds up to scientific scrutiny.
These emotions and drives focus on objects “out there” that can help restore homeostatic balances “in here.” They focus on food, water, warmth, companionship, or whatever is needed from our surroundings.
But an unconscious or quasi-conscious by-product of this is a sense of self. If there is motivation to get something, this gives rise to a sense of self that carries those motivations. If there is wanting something that’s missing or not wanting something that’s present, the sense of self emerges that either wants it or wants to get rid of it. Attention doesn’t focus on the self that’s looking for food, entertainment, friendship, shelter, or whatever. Yet self quietly arises inside. It flexes its muscles, so to speak, even as it stays in the background.
Notice that the self does not create these drives and emotions. The drives and emotions create the sense of self.
In Buddhist circles, greed, hatred and delusions are said to be the source of suffering. And there is some obvious truth to this. But there is a subtlety that is sometimes missed. Getting rid of greed and hatred, wanting and not wanting, desire and aversion is not an option so long as we live in an organic body that must maintain homeostatic balances. These drives keep us alive. If we stop taking care of them, we will die sooner rather than later. Remember Ava, Bea, and Cindy (pp. 87-90)? Our genes will be removed from the gene pool.
So the solution is not to get rid of the emotions and their attendant drives. The solution is much subtler: relax the identification with those emotions and drives. The feelings will still be there. There will still be flow of consciousness with feelings, images, and thoughts. But there will be no self that owns them. That self is a fiction created by the sanna khandha, the perception aggregate (see pp. 169-170). It’s a metaphorically convenient way to talk about drives and needs.
So rather than focus on the needs and drives or their objects, we can focus on the sense of self itself — the supposed carrier of all those drives. And we do this until it becomes very clear that that self is just a metaphor — a poetic tool for conceptualizing experience. But it distorts perception when we hang on to it.
Self is an illusion created by strong (or mild) drives and feeling tones. When we look at it more clearly, it starts to evaporate like soap bubbles. The Buddha put it this way:
The body’s like a ball of foam,
And feeling is like a bubble,
Perception is like a mirage,
Constructs are like a pith-less tree,
And consciousness is just a trick.
– Samyutta Nikaya 22.95
Again: getting rid of the emotions and drives is not an option as long as we are in living bodies and want to stay alive. Rather, it is the breaking identification with the emotions and drives and their proxy — the sense of self — that is helpful. That is where the deeper spiritual work bears fruit. If we don’t identify with those feelings or sense of self, then there is no self to suffer.
Consciousness creates the space within which it is possible to see those feelings without identifying with them, a space in which the negotiations can take place. But it’s the loss of identification with them that brings freedom.
Our identification can be strong. Relaxing it is not a simple or easy task. We can’t will it away. Will just creates more density and identification with the self that seems to be doing the willing.
Rather, it is through the relaxation, opening, and seeing what is most deeply true that we realize there is no one holding those feelings. It’s a flow of consciousness, not a flow of self. If there is no identification, there is no self.
It’s like the weather — when the causes and conditions of a storm are not present, the storm does not exist. It doesn’t hide away in some altered dimension. It just doesn’t arise. Without identification, the causes and conditions of suffering get no foothold. They cease to exist. Without them there is no sense of self. And without a sense of self, there is just a flow of experience without anyone or anything to suffer.
The simple contentment of twilight consciousness is freedom for each of us.
But that freedom comes with costs, some of which are hard to see.
In order to negotiate between the organism (us) and the outer world, it helps to be attuned to what’s going on inside. It helps to be present and mindful. At the same time, to successfully negotiate, it helps to remember lessons from past experience about what has worked before. At the very least it helps to have a CliffsNotes summary of the most salient points.
So consciousness must negotiate between the present-moment reality and past realities. It must realistically assess “here and now” guided by “there and then.” There can be tension between that which has been learned from past events as contrasted with current events.
Complex organisms such as humans and other mammals create inner models of the world around them and the world within themselves and allow these to interact in our thoughts and imaginations (as we saw in chapters 9 and 10). That allows us to be creative and to try new things mentally, with less risk of immediate demise if we miscalculate. We have a chance to work it out in our minds before committing to a course of action in the physical world. It helps us survive long enough to reproduce.
But it also uses up a lot of energy. As noted in chapter 9 (p. 119), the human brain uses about 20 percent of the body’s energy while comprising only about 2 percent of its weight. The brain is expensive. We must also spend years maturing such a complex nervous system. It takes longer for humans to reach adulthood than it does most other animals. That means we need even more energy to support our survival until we can grow up and reproduce.
Other organisms use less energy creating these complex neural pathways. They survive using more unconscious instincts and less processing of present and past memories. We trade all this in for flexibility — the capacity to adapt more quickly to rapidly changing situations. It gives us more freedom.
For the most part, we like our big brains. While we think we are the best the world has produced, it’s humbling to realize that homo sapiens have only been around for a few hundred thousand years. Our ancestor hominids got started a few million years earlier. Cockroaches, on the other hand, have been around for 280 million years. They predate the dinosaurs. They were crawling around as dinosaurs arose and passed away. From the perspective of evolutionary survival, it will take us hundreds of millions of years to catch up with cockroaches.
I came of age during the 1960s. I’m a white, slightly overeducated, middle-class American. Among my peers there was a belief that liberal democratic values and ever-more-sophisticated science could move us onward and upward forever.
More recently, doubt has begun to seep in: the threat of ecological collapse, political gridlock, blatant wars of aggression, degradation of the value of speaking the truth, and more. Some now worry that we humans might destroy the world.
Rest assured, we can’t. We can make it incapable of supporting human life. But nature and the world can get along without us. The cockroaches are likely to still be here even if we kill ourselves off. Life in some form can go on without us.
Be that as it may, most of us humans would like to use our complex, self-reflective consciousnesses to do more than survive and breed. We’d like to feel better, happier, wiser, and more content. We have a deepening understanding that our wellbeing is intimately tied to the survival of other humans and other species. We’d like to use our brains and hearts and imagination to evolve a world where health, happiness, contentment, and wellbeing are part of the mix. To do this we need a consciousness that is more inclusive.
This is where meditation and other spiritual practices can lend a hand. They help us to see beyond baseline survival by realizing how deeply the fates of all of us are tied together. In the collective contentment of emerging twilight consciousness is freedom for all of us.
1. Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012)________
Copyright 2023 by Doug Kraft
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