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Whether you go to China, Greece or India, Persia or Peru, you will discover that the cornerstones of civilization and the clean foundation of rational thought were laid in very much the same patterns. Despite cultural and linquistic chasms that could swallow every political or religious divide between modern Americans and then ask for the main course, the intellectual world of Homo sapiens has a remarkably singular, or at least similar set of “underlying truths”. Im not merely referring to the sort of moral code that any healthy human understands – don’t kill or “do bad things” to another human, creating is better than destroying, practice what you preach, it isn’t wise to defacate on your doorstep . . . . These moral foundation stones proceed naturally out of the assumption that humans are, indeed, “intelligent”. And though our world is full of people who break – or even thumb their noses at –moral principles, we should take this as a reminder of just how “intelligent” we really are.
But more importantly, there is a remarkable similarity in the thought structures that various cultures have developed to answer those Big Questions – Who am I? Why am I here? -- the ones that are just as big today as they ever have been. Nowadays, a lot of people suffer from the illusion that these questions no longer really matter. Either they are “unanswerable”, or they are totally subjective, or that they have been dealt with in detail by the blessed So-and-So, in his holy book SuchandSuch, so there isn’t any point in me worrying my brain about it.
And yet throughout the history of human thought, no matter the structure of the civilization, the language or religion, or the level of technical prowess, all the truly “wise” people -from Archimedes to Einstein- have agreed that the first prerequisite to real knowledge is to “Know Thyself.” If you do not take the time to have a good close look inside your own head, and consider how it works, how can you rely on it to tell you “The Truth” about anything.
I do not mean that facetiously. Inside your head – and that of every other human – is a set of filters and lenses built up over some two-digit number of years, which not only shapes your attitudes, but actually alters the way that you perceive reality. Im not simply talking about the filters that determine how you perceive people or social situations, based on appearances. Im talking about filters that affect whether you can tell up from down, or see what is right in front of your nose!
Research on animals has given scientists some remarkable insights into the way that we perceive the world, and the way that perceptual models dictate "reality". For example, in one study kittens were raised from the age of a few days old in environments where everything was vertical. The walls of their enclosure were covered with vertical lines, all obstacles they were presented with were vertical, and when they were fed, handled or rewarded, the observers took care to move their hands, feeding bottles and so on in a vertical direction.
At the age of four months, a horizontal wire was placed in the cage, running from one side to the other, between the cats and their food. Though it was placed at a height that would allow the cat to easily jump over, or crawl under it, the cats seemed completely baffled by the obstacle. Not only did they exhaust themselves trying to go around the obstacle, but they behaved as if they were entirely unable to see it. For the kittens, "horizontal" was a concept that they were not able to understand . . . . . lacking experience with horizontal reality, they did not have the tools to even perceive a horizontal obstacle!
That insight is remarkable in itself, but when the scientists investigating perception began to conduct similar tests on humans, things REALLY began to get weird. In one study, subjects were fitted with goggles that reversed the visual image that they saw. The entire world appeared "upside down". Naturally, this made it very hard for them to get around, to pick things up, and to perform manual tasks that required sight. But after a while they started to adjust to the new images they were seeing, and got better and better with physical tasks.
Somewhere around the third or fourth day, the subjects reported a remarkable change in perspective. Though they were still wearing their goggles, they suddenly discovered that they were "seeing" the world properly again! The image on their retinas continued to be reversed, but the perception in their minds had reverted to normal. In their mind’s eye, the world was once again "rightside-up". Not only could they make their way through a room without bumping into things, but they even could catch a thrown ball, ride a bicycle, and perform many other athletic feats. Their world was back to "normal", and they were able to perceive the spatial dimensions of their world properly, once more.
This was naturally a mind-blowing experience, for the researchers as much as for the participants. But what really blew their minds was what happened after the experiment concluded, and they took the goggles off. Although they could now see the world "normally" again, the perceptual models they had created inside their heads were now reversed, and as a result, everything APPEARED TO BE UPSIDE DOWN! This perceptual inversion persisted for as long as a day, but invariably the subjects reported a gestalt shift in perception, as if “the world suddenly popped back into focus.”
In short, this experiment helps to demonstrate that what we see, hear and feel with our senses is by no means "Reality". It is nothing more than a perceptual map of sensory stimuli which we have created inside our heads, to help us DEAL with reality. Everything that we think we see "out there", in "the real world" is actually inside our heads, Not only it is quite possible that it differs from what another person thinks they see, but it may even be linguistically impossible to explain the differences to you.
This is not an appeal to pure subjectivism. The mental map of the world that each of us has developed is there for a reason – without it, “the world” is far too complex to analyze or understand. Imagine if our eyes not only displayed information from visible light, but also the echoes and reflections from every radio, TV, cellphone or other electronic device, not to mention the heat shimmer from every object that is above background temperature and the perpetual stream of cosmic radiation coming from every direction. We would be lost! Too much information running through my brain. Too much information driving me insane.
The point is not to abandon, or lose faith in our perceptual maps, but rather, to constantly remind ourselves that they exist and therefore are a potential source of confusion or disagreement. There is a very real difference between the “Reality” that your eyes physically perceive (or the image that the sense organs present to your consciousness), and the “Reality” that your mind thinks about, analyzes and responds to.
One of the first and most powerful filters inside your head is language. Language is so powerful that it can even determine what you are capable of “seeing” or “hearing”. Take something as simple as colour. The human eye is capable of distinguishing differences in color and brightness based on three types of chromatic receptor. These receptors are activated by light of differing wavelengths, and they appear to be the basis for our perception of three "primary" colours - red, blue and yellow. The gradations of light in between these wavelengths can also be distinguished with a high degree of precision, such that a person with relatively good eyesight is able to identify a difference in tone between some 2-3 million colors (some estimates range as high as 10 million).
However, our actual "perception" is based not on wavelengths, but on the words we apply to what we perceive. Some cultures have as few as one or two "color" words apart from black and white (light and dark), which appear to be universal among sighted individuals. The most common word for a color is red, followed by blue and yellow, then violet or green (followed by the other) and orange is usually the last of the traditional “rainbow” colors to be added to language (of course I’m omitting “indigo”. How many English speakers actually use the word “indigo”?) Centuries of research in philology demonstrates that this is a very reliable progression. Languages do not develop a word for "yellow" unless they already have "red" and "blue". And though the order becomes less predictable after the primary colours, words for "green" “violet” or "orange" never occur unless all three of the primary colours already exist in the language.
The English language is rich in words for color, and as a result, we often take the "existence" of these words for granted. But this would be a serious mistake. While everyone has the same acuity of colour vision, regardless of their language, they do not really "perceive" the differences, except when presented as a direct comparison. For example, the Thai language generally describes colours based on nouns (eg: "daffodil coloured" or "clear sky coloured"). But there are only two specific colours that can be applied to a person's hair. Either you have black hair or red hair. There are no other options. Of course if presented with examples of people whose hair is ten shades of colour, they can distinguish them as easily as you or I. But when asked "what colour is that person's hair", the only two responses they can offer are "black" or "red"
Similarly, the Japanese language uses nouns for many of its colours. Most shades of brown are described as either "cha-iro" (tea coloured) sabi-iro (rust coloured) or "nezumi iro (mouse coloured). Japanese has very old and established words for red, blue, yellow and violet, but "midori" (green) is a recent acquisition, as is the rather obvious "orenji" (orange). Consequently, many things that English speakers describe as "green" are referred to in Japanese as "blue" (ao), such as an "ao-shingo" (blue "signal", on a traffic light), or "ao yasai" (blue vegetables).
Those of you who cannot speak a second language may think this is irrelevant -- simply a semantic difference, but in fact, the language does indeed shape your perceptions. After 30 years in Japan, I find that I now describe many aquamarine-coloured things to others as "blue", even though speaking in English, whereas I would have described them as "green" when I was younger. Conversely, after 25 years of near-constant exposure to my corruptive influence, my wife has begun to use the word "green" in contexts that she would formerly have used the word "blue". This happens even when she is speaking Japanese, and has more than once been a source of confusion.
Following one such instance of miscommunication I pondered this matter, and realised what was happening. She and I spend so much time together, and engage in so much communication, that we have somehow reached an involuntary, subconscious consensus on the dividing line between green and blue. This allows the two of us to communicate accurately, when there is an urgent need to figure out exactly WHICH little plastic bowl I cant find and where on earth did you put it! But while our new definition allows us to avoid misunderstandings with one another -- and this is the really important point -- in doing so, both of us have adopted concepts that could potentially confuse our fellow native speakers.
In other words, we have created concepts and "colour memes" that facilitate agreement between the two of us. Since we both live and work together, it is important to have shared memes (concepts), lest there be miscommunication and disharmony. But in creating these memes, we have actually abandoned the "reality" of our respective cultures. Some friends might even wonder if I have a visual impairment, when I say "do you see that blue car over there . . . . no, THERE!" - and the only car to be seen is quite obviously dark green, not blue.
. . . . .
The point of this long diversion into human perception is that communication can only take place when everyone is speaking the same language, and operating on the same assumptions. Considering all the barriers that we face, it is a wonder that human social structures and interpersonal cooperation exist at all. It certainly is not going to be easy to address existential problems such as racism, intolerance and international military conflict, to say nothing of long-term human survival in the era of climate change. But we do the best with the tools we have. And though we may all see the world through different filters, we come closest to real understanding when we rely on direct perception and a sharing of personal experience.
If you are reading these words, it means that you have – at least provisionally -- bought into the concept of reverse engineering the human soul. Naturally, the process of reverse engineering has to start from some basics – definitions of what we are dealing with, and an examination of past information on the topic. Fortunately, there are many accounts of past investigations into the Soul, and even a fair number of old “User Manuals” that might get us started. LESS fortunately, nearly all of these User Manuals are written in languages, symbols and terms that we no longer fully understand. We can use them to give us clues and signposts, but most of what we find in archaic scripture and philosophical prose is so remote from our modern experience that we might as well be reading in the dark. If we want to understand how the Soul works, we have to turn to direct experience. We have to open our internal eyes and look… carefully note what we see… compare it with the things that are written in all those old books… and try to reach agreement on what we find.
For now, lets leave “God” out of the picture, since past experience shows that even defining what the term means can lead to centuries of bloodshed and confusion. Instead, lets just focus on something that we all can access, on our own terms. The Soul. In other essays I have already tried to address any doubts that the reader might have about the existence of such a “thing.” When we go back to the fundamental definition – soul is that part of a human being which is non-physical or non-material – its existence is hard to question. The problem we encounter when trying to discuss the Soul in our modern, materialistic age, stems from the mountain of religious doctrine and semi-psychological speculation that religion has piled on top of the term, over the centuries. The content and structure of that massive compost heap of human thought is worthy of detailed study and consideration . . . . but not today. For our current purposes, the only thing we need to understand about “religion” is why it exists, and what its relationship is to the Soul.
If you go to the core of any great religion or philosophy, you will find essentially the same thing. Someone – a person or persons – looked deeply into the light of consciousness and saw something there which they recognized. They saw their own Self, recognized the Truth that resides within, and brought back the good news that anyone who so desires can have equal access to that Truth.
It sounds almost childish when expressed in those terms. Particularly in a world that respects concrete details and voluminous lists of features or characteristics, it can be hard to take someone seriously when they start talking about Truth and Light and Consciousness and all that. Are those real things? Or are they just “airy-fairy bullshit”, as an old atheistic friend of mine used to call it. Here is the important part, though . . . .
If you look at the messages that all these mystics and seers and prophets and saints brought back, one detail stands out: those who experienced the Truth insist that anyone can confirm that Truth for themselves. If you really aren’t sure whether the Soul is something authentic, and “important”, or whether it is all just airy-fairy bullshit, then just go have a look for yourself. “If you want to know whether Im telling you the truth, then just do X, then Y, then Z, repeat the process diligently, and I assure you that you will see exactly what I saw.”
OK . . . it is bound to involve some time and effort on your part. If you want to play piano, you need to practice and study until music “makes sense” to you. If you want to understand the motivations and intentions of a Pashtun goatherder, at a very minimum you need to learn how to speak Pashtun. This learning process is bound to take some time and effort. But all along the way there will be breakthroughs – realizations – Eureka moments – which will help confirm that youre on the right track, and that the Truth you are looking for will really be there, when you reach the end of the journey.
When somebody shows up in your local town market with a message like THAT, the response is predictable. Most people will want some sort of demonstration, or at least a convincing explanation that this Truth – whatever the heck it is – has some practical value that applies to normal, daily existence. So they ply the messenger with questions and counterarguments that will give them some general understanding, and can at least serve as a jumping-off point when they eventually get around to Investigating the Soul, themselves.
Picture the scene in ancient China, when Lao-Tse wanders into town – a brilliant guy who seems to visibly sparkle with insight and intelligence. Naturally people want to know his “secret”, and when he explains that the only way to understand it is to GO LOOK FOR IT YOURSELF, naturally the townsfolk want to know why.
“The Way that can be expressed in words is not The Way. The names are not the same as the thing itself.”
That’s it. That is the entire, complete, unedited and unabridged final word on what “Tao” means. If you want to know more, there’s only one solution: Go look for it yourself. When you witness it with your own perception, all your questions will be answered.
But naturally that wasn’t enough to satisfy his audience. “Come on Lao . . . stop being so evasive! If this Tao thing really exists, it must have qualities or characteristics. There must be something you can compare it to. At least give us a few general hints and suggestions so we know what we are supposed to be looking for…”
. . . And so this brilliant, sagacious, enlightened idiot sits down and writes six-and-a-half dozen verses trying to express The Way that cannot be expressed! Madness!
But at the end of the day, that is what “religion” is. It starts out as a rough map of the territory you have to traverse if you want to see Truth for yourself. Over time it accumulates some basic principles or rules, as well as personal stories about the people who took the time to go look at Truth for themselves. These principles, rules and stories get written down somewhere, and over time the number of people who actually go looking for the Truth themselves dwindles, while the majority is happy to just sit around reading the stories and telling themselves that they don’t NEED to go through all the difficult searching and studying. The stories and rules and rituals are surely good enough.
In time, people even manage to convince themselves that these vain words and incomplete maps are the Truth itself . . . . perhaps the only Truth there is. Imagine if someone you knew travelled to Paris, came back, and tried to tell you about Paris by drawing a few rough roadmaps, adding a few charcoal sketches, and writing an account of where he went and what he ate. The first-hand account might be useful in some degree, if it inspired you to make your own trip to Paris. But if you really want to know what Paris is like, the only solution is to GO THERE YOURSELF.
Spirituality. . . . the investigation and examination of the Soul . . . . means taking the trip yourself. Religion is just the illustrated travel blog. If we hope to find genuine solutions to the problems our world faces, a travel blog simply wont suffice. We need to buy the ticket, pack up the necessary supplies, and make the journey ourselves.
Well I left my happy home to see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends with the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road, and many kinds I met there
And many stories told me on the way to get there
Well I found my head one day when I wasn't even trying
And here I have to say… cause there is no use in lying…
That the answer lies within
So why not take a look now . . .
So on and on I go.
The seconds tick the time out
Theres so much left to know
and I'm on the road to find out
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