Wednesday, February 13, 2019

What lies beneath the scurrying of the superficial mind?

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In the summer of 1989, I was beginning my third year at West Point. My summer assignments that year included what was called "Beast 1," followed by a "voluntary summer training" commitment as part of the West Point parachute team, followed by Airborne School in Fort Benning Georgia (even though I was already an experienced skydiver with hundreds of skydives, freefall skydiving is completely different from military-style static-line airborne operations, so I had to report to Fort Benning to go through Airborne School after spending almost two weeks skydiving about six times a day).

"Beast 1" meant acting as part of the "cadre" during the first half of "cadet basic training" at West Point, which since the early 1800s has been unaffectionately known as "beast barracks" and which consists of full-time indoctrination of the "new cadets" arriving for their first summer at the Military Academy. By indoctrination I mean very intensive inculcation (in the new cadets, by the "beast cadre") of a complex set of rules, norms, behaviors, attitudes, drills, and responses which are completely different in many ways from the rules, norms, behaviors and attitudes which are drilled into us as we grow up in "normal" society.

Here's a photograph of me and one of my good friends from that summer (I'm on the left as you face the picture, and Scott is on the right) to give you an idea of the level of hostility that is generally involved in the process of foisting this new super-structure of rules, norms, behaviors, attitudes and responses upon the new cadets during their initial summer at West Point:

Not very friendly-looking young people, I think it is safe to say, especially if you happened to be a new cadet in the summer of 1989. By the way, at the time this photograph was taken, Scott aka "the Cyborg" could probably bang out over 100 pushups in a row without stopping to rest, and could easily run two miles in around 11:00 minutes and change (and, I believe, he probably can still do that today, almost three decades later).

Anyway, on this particular summer morning at West Point in 1989, we went through our usual routine as part of being the "Beast 1" cadre for the new cadets during the first half of their summer training, waking the new cadets up at a very early hour to conduct physical training (that day I believe it consisted of what were called "guerrilla drills" -- a variety of calisthenics and other exercises in a grassy field, involving a lot of crawling around in the grass until your face and body are covered in grass-stains), followed by personal hygiene, a couple of formations, breakfast at the mess hall, and then marching the new cadets down to Eisenhower Hall where they were receiving some kind of lecture in a large-group setting.

While the new cadets were sitting in Eisenhower Hall receiving their lecture or other training, only a small contingent of cadre members had to stay with the new cadets, and the rest of us had a break and could leave the new cadets in Eisenhower Hall for their lecture and come back to get them again in an hour or so. On this particular morning, I distinctly remember walking back from Eishenhower Hall after dropping off the new cadets for whatever lecture they were getting, and finally having a free moment to myself.

As I was walking back, I suddenly realized for the first time that day that it was my birthday. I was twenty years old.

Here's where I was at the moment, walking back alone and finally having a bit of breathing room to collect my thoughts:

image: Google maps.

If you are familiar with West Point, you can just barely make out the enormous red-brick wall of Eisenhower Hall rising up behind the little white "Gingerbread House" near the center of the photograph (this "Gingerbread House" can be seen in the 1955 movie Long Gray Line, the real-life protagonist of which is Master Sergeant Marty Maher, who was an instructor at West Point from 1899 to 1928). 

The "X" on the sidewalk shows how far I had walked, alone with my thoughts, after leaving my charges at Eisenhower Hall and getting a little bit of a break, before I finally remembered for the first time that it was my birthday. I had managed to get up that morning (prior to waking up the new cadets), lead physical training (involving plenty of yelling at new cadets in order to continue their full-court-press indoctrination), get through a couple of formations and breakfast (involving more yelling at new cadets), and then march my squad of new cadets down to Eisenhower Hall to drop them off without my brain ever registering the fact that it was my twentieth birthday. 

The point is that even though my mind "knew" that it was my birthday, the pre-occupation with rules, infractions, yelling at infractions, norms, behaviors, and the rest of the knotted maze of entangling social constructs that are part of life at West Point (and in particular, the even more extreme environment of "beast barracks," in which as a cadre member I was responsible for trying to imprint this same set of entangling constructs onto the brains of other young men and women going through their first weeks at the Military Academy) had kept me from realizing that fact for several hours.

It was only when I was finally alone for a few minutes with my own thoughts, walking back by myself along the somewhat empty stretch of sidewalk pictured above, that the significant (to me, at least) fact that "today is my twentieth birthday" could finally surface. Until that moment, I was not consciously aware of it.

What is the point of this story? 

It's not just a story about a real-life incident that happened to someone else (me) in a very unique environment (beast-1 cadre at West Point during the late 1980s), a situation to which very few people can probably relate unless they happened to go through military training themselves. As such, it might be "interesting" but not particularly "applicable" to the very different life experiences that each of us encounters from day-to-day, most of which don't involve the kinds of things that were part of my life in the summer of 1989. Indeed, that was such a different time and place that it seems foreign even to me today, almost thirty years later.

But in a sense, this little vignette is illustrative of experiences that we all go through as part of the process of interacting with the entanglements of society, no matter what country or culture (or decade) we live in -- and thus, even though those societal entanglements and indoctrinations are probably very different (on a superficial level) from the various norms, rules, behaviors and attitudes encouraged (and enforced) at West Point during cadet basic training, the fact is that none of us are free from the demands of the norms and rules and behaviors and attitudes that are laid upon us over the years as we grow up in a society and learn to interact with other people, and which can be envisioned as being like a complex "superstructure" of intersecting lines of yarn laid down over our brains as part of the decades-long inculcation we went through during our first couple decades of human life, and which continue to be adjusted, reinforced, or added upon as we go through life even after reaching adulthood.

These norms and behaviors and rules and expectations are rather demanding, absorbing a lot of our mental energy as we go through the day. They include questions like who gets to go first at an intersection when we are driving, or what kinds of clothes we can wear to work, or which tasks out of the many demands on our time we decide to address first, and a host of other relationships with other people that we negotiate on a daily basis. Often, we no doubt find ourselves becoming angry at another driver who is not "following the rules" or "going out of turn," or we have to spend energy at work addressing issues that result from others making choices that we don't agree with, and these kinds of issues absorb our thoughts and our attention in very much the same way that the various demands of cadet basic training absorbed my thoughts and attention that morning in 1989, to the point that I did not even consciously realize that it was my birthday until several hours (and several dozen or more interactions with other people) had been navigated.

It was not until I was actually alone with my thoughts for a few moments that a piece of information, and a piece of information of great importance (to me), was able to surface to the point that my conscious mind became aware of it.

Obviously, I had known all along, somewhere beneath the surface of my conscious awareness, that it was my birthday that day. If I had not known it, then the realization would not have popped into my conscious mind once I got away from the entangling demands of acting out my role as a beast cadre-member. I knew it, but I did not become aware of it until I had a moment of time alone. At that point, the realization surfaced and I became conscious of the fact (to my surprise) that it was my birthday.

I only share this (rather personal) story because I believe it illustrates a point which can be helpful to our lives every single day. Our conscious mind operates inside of its own self-imposed (or society-imposed) constructs, navigating an incredibly complex set of rules and decision-trees and hierarchies and relationships as part of the process of functioning within a society that includes other people. 

All of these tasks and judgments and decisions are necessary and important. 

However, they can (and do) so distract our conscious mind that it regularly overlooks and misses an enormous amount of important information that is available to our subconscious, or to the part of our being that operates beneath the "tangle of yarn" imposed like an artificial meshwork maze over the  very tip-top of the iceberg that is our deeper consciousness.

This neglected part of ourselves is aware of an enormous amount of information that we would find to be of tremendous importance, if we were to become conscious of it. However, unless (as in the story above) we somehow get a "moment to ourselves" to relax our focus on the tangle of yarn, so to speak, we can remain in complete ignorance of even the most obvious knowledge.

That's why regularly spending time alone with your subconscious (or whatever term we want to use) is incredibly valuable and necessary, and appears to have been practiced in ancient cultures around the globe. Ancient disciplines such as meditation, or the practice of Yoga, or the practice of drumming or shaking a rattle at a specific rapid beat for a sustained period of time, or the chanting of mantras (including mantras containing the sacred syllable "OM" or "AUM"), were passed down from one generation to the next as vital tools for stilling the chattering of the superficial mind on a daily basis, in order to spend time listening to our deeper subconscious and our wider being. 

Practices such as those mentioned above (and many others) can enable "messages" or insights or realizations to bubble up to our conscious attention, in much the same way that the realization that it was my birthday suddenly bubbled up into my conscious mind as I was walking back along the sidewalk pictured above on that summer day long ago.

Indeed, there is abundant evidence which suggests that our subconscious mind is actually aware of more than we can possibly explain -- that our subconscious is in fact somehow tapped into sources of awareness which could not be available to us through our five physical senses alone. Examples include the experiences, too many to simply dismiss as "coincidence" or "superstition," of those who receive premonitions about loved ones far away, only to have those premonitions confirmed later (these premonitions are not always negative in nature, either -- for example, in the harrowing story of young Norman Ollestad's descent from the side of a steep ice- and snow-covered mountain after a deadly plane crash in 1979, the premonition of more than one person brought them out to a road where they were able to see Norman after he had made his way down off the mountain -- even though nothing in their five physical senses could have detected Norman's presence on that day). 

In a very real sense, our subconscious appears to transcend the boundaries of the physical self and connect to a wider realm which is not bounded by laws we can explain through physics. Indeed, it may be that this part of our wider being is the connection to what the ancient myths of some traditions refer to as our "Higher Self," and which is dramatized in the countless world myths involving twins (one of whom is often divine, while the other is mortal), including Krishna and Arjuna, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Polydeuces and Castor, Eros and Psyche, Jesus and Doubting Thomas, and many others.

When we realize that quieting our chattering "superficial mind" is a way of spending time with and listening to our subconscious (and perhaps even to our Higher Self), then suddenly meditation (or the other similar disciplines which we can incorporate into our daily lives) no longer seems like a "chore." Instead, it is a way of spending time with someone very close to us, someone who indeed cares about us very deeply, someone we should not neglect -- and someone whose help we can use on a daily basis. Why would we not want to do that? Why would we not want to do that every single day?

Spending time quieting our superficial mind, and setting aside its entangling "maze of yarn," does not mean that those various norms and social structures and rules and customs that we have learned and incorporated into our lives are worthless or unhealthy -- indeed, they are necessary for interacting in a society that contains other people, and for navigating our way through the range of complex situations in which we find ourselves on a daily basis. To say that these learned structures are unimportant would be as foolish as to say that stop signs and lane dividers and all the rules of safe driving are unimportant: as long as we have to negotiate roads on which there are other drivers, the very complex set of laws and customs of the road are necessary.

But if we do not regularly give ourselves a chance to take a break from living within those artificial structures and entanglements, then we are very much in the situation that I was in, in the story related above, in which my focus on all the minute-by-minute minutia of cadet life (and in this case the very artificial, albeit very demanding, constructs of West Point's "beast barracks" indoctrination program) caused me to remain blissfully unaware of something I should have known, for quite some time, until I had a chance to "pause" and my mind became aware (as if out of the blue) of something it hadn't been focusing on at all.

I have had many experiences in more recent years in which my conscious mind would "receive" an answer or a "message" or an insight about something that I had been pondering, often upon waking up in the morning (when my conscious mind was shut down, but my subconscious was obviously still active, and used that "little break" in the scurrying and clattering of the conscious mind to deliver the "answer" to me that I had been looking for).

I am convinced that it is through the pathway down below the conscious mind that we make contact with the inner connection to the Infinite which the ancient myths portray again and again in various episodes and adventures, in sacred traditions from virtually every culture around the globe.

Basing his arguments on the evidence that he found in myths from around the world, Alvin Boyd Kuhn in his 1940 masterpiece Lost Light declares:

The kingdom of heaven and the hope of glory are within. They lurk within the unfathomed depths of consciousness. Divinity lies buried under the heavier motions of the sensual nature and the incessant scurrying of the superficial mind. 46

In the image at top we see a famous statue from ancient Egypt, depicting the 4th dynasty king Khafre, thought to have lived somewhere around the time we call 2500 BC (or BCE, if you prefer). Behind the king's head, and in fact invisible from the front, we see the falcon-god Horus -- perfectly depicting the concept of the Higher Self or connection to the Infinite, to which we all in fact have access, at any time.

This image, in fact, can be helpful to consider while beginning to meditate, or to spend time with your own subconscious or deeper and wider consciousness.

Looking at this ancient statue, we might ask ourselves, "Why would we not want to spend time each day getting in touch with our own subconscious -- or, indeed, our own Higher Self?"

I am thoroughly convinced that doing so has tremendous benefits. We may not hear "mystical voices" (when I realized that it was my birthday, that realization did not come to me in the form of a voice -- and when some insight about some issue or question that I am working on makes itself available to my conscious mind upon waking up in the morning, for example, or while sitting in meditation, it just arrives as a "thought," and not as a "voice" -- at least in my own personal experience, although for others it might be different). But we will undoubtedly be made aware of things which we might otherwise have overlooked.

I also have a suspicion that regularly spending time setting aside the superficial tangle of yarn made up of the norms and value-judgments and societal expectations that we have absorbed can help us to be less "fanatical" about "enforcing them" on others (less likely to fly into a rage, for instance, when someone else doesn't observe the expected strictures, and "cuts" ahead of us in traffic, for example).

And I am convinced that this very important teaching can be found to be at the heart of many ancient myths, given to humanity in most remote antiquity, for our benefit and blessing -- and pertinent to our lives even in this modern day and age, even in our "ordinary" lives, even if we are not in the middle of cadet basic training, and on all three hundred sixty-five (and a quarter) days of the year, and not just on our birthdays!