Winter Campfire 7

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

What Are the Senses, Really? (Conclusion)

I have found that practicing advanced awareness techniques leads to certain emergent patterns with profound consequences on my view of things. Nearly all of these techniques have certain common features. They open me up, open me out, cause me to become interdigitated with my surroundings. I extend into the elements of the landscape, and they into me. A central paradox of advanced awareness is that the techniques succeed to the extent that the ego disappears. What fills the gap, communicating beautifully with the little of me that is left, is something I call “The Enraptured Witness.” This experience can happen spontaneously. Once I stood and watched as hundreds of sandhill cranes flew into a field after a foraging trip, at the Jasper-Pulaski state wildlife area in northern Indiana. The sky was filled with cranes, and the sound of their massed calls was so loud and amazing that, with no conscious effort, my ego diminished to the point where only a wonderfully witnessing part of my self remained. I don’t accept this consequence at face value simply because it is a far out idea. In the real, physical, nuts and bolts world, the more I lose ego, the more I perceive, the more animals I see, the more significant details I notice, and the more bliss I feel. The ego, through its sensory filters and concepts, blocks me from complete awareness. (I should add, though, that when I am in the field gathering data in a focused scientific inquiry, I cannot simultaneously get into full awareness. Science is too concept dependent. I have to decide whether a given outing is for science, or for awareness, which I regard as spiritual inquiry. I don’t know if this inability is a necessary result of the way we are put together, or a personal limitation).

Take this for what you find it to be worth: I get better results from awareness techniques, see more animals, etc., when I love the landscape and all its parts, and regard them as being alive. Awareness then becomes a form of communication. I’m not sure it’s possible to see purely without love being involved, for instance. And the ultimate, the farthest point I’ve been able to reach so far with physical awareness, has come through a spiritual notion. People who cultivate awareness as a method of spiritual inquiry commonly find intuitive support for notions of a Creator, or at least some form of creative force or plan. The Earth belongs to and is the physical manifestation of that force, i.e., the Creator is a spiritual entity, mainly, but has a body as well. That body is all the Earth, all the physical Universe. In that view, every individual animal, plant, rock, tree and person is not simply one of the 10,000 Things. It is one of the 10,000 fingers of God. All things are extensions or expressions of a single entity, a Whole. The Hindu prayer‑greeting of Namaste, bowing toward another person with the hands held in a prayerful position, is an acknowledgment of this universal divinity. The notion gives an added perspective on how traditional Native Americans and other peoples who live close to the Earth come by their great respect.

With practice, awareness techniques teach that landscapes are holographic: each part reflects, represents, in a sense contains, the whole. Barry Lopez made reference to this capacity in his 1978 book, Of Wolves and Men: “The thoroughness of the Nunamiut’s observation is the result of the keen attention given to small details, and, as is the case with all oral cultures, the constant exercise of a rich memory. On a riverbank, for example, faced with a few wolf tracks headed in a certain direction, perhaps a scent mark, the Nunamiut will call on his own knowledge of this area (as well as his knowledge of wolves, what time of year it is, and so on) and on things he has heard from others and make an educated guess at what this particular set of clues might mean—which wolves these might have been, where they were headed, why, how long ago, and so on. His guess will be largely correct. The Eskimo’s ability to do this, of course, astounds Western man.” Taken to the extreme, this notion (a form of intuition) allows me to approach some object, see it purely, and say, “You are God.” In my experience the feeling that accompanies this pronouncement is a joyous sense of profound, non‑verbal communication.

Now I want to transition back to physiology. A holographic model of brain physiology, developed by Karl Pribram and discussed at length in Michael Talbot’s 1991 book, The Holographic Universe, suggests that the brain functions by setting up interference patterns in the neurons’ electrical activity. Visual images and other sensory constructs within the brain therefore are hologram-like, in this model. Memory, too, is composed of these holographic patterns. It makes sense, especially when considering the connection that can be made to all our inner children, to our shadow selves, and to pathologies such as multiple personalities. All could be understood as alternative holographic patterns. (This also may provide insight into the phenomenon of the air guitar).

There are many traditions which point to the body as having holographic qualities, as well. I have seen diagrams of the brain, of the feet, of the ears, and of the irises, diagrams intended for acupuncture and other physiological, diagnostic and healing purposes, which project all the rest of the body into those smaller parts, a very hologram-like imagery. Tom Brown and his advanced students demonstrate impressive success in tracking, finding within the disturbances of soil that make up a footprint a systematic relationship between what is happening in different parts of the body and the corresponding parts of the footprint.

All of this is strange. It gets even weirder, though, when we dip into the universe as quantum and relativistic physicists are discovering it to be.


  1. therese davis said,

    January 12, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Carl, Understood and agreed. I can effortlessly lose my self (ego) each morning as I make my way around our back yard and fill the many bird feeders and water dishes. I can only describe the constant song of the American Tree Sparrow as that of tiny wind-chimes. Now imagine dozens and dozens of tiny wind-chimes floating up and down, swirling around you and through you while you stand enraptured in a world of remarkably cold, white beauty.

  2. October 21, 2011 at 6:28 am

    […] Costas A Anastassiou, Rodrigo Perin, Henry Markram, Christof Koch. Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; 14 (2): 217 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2727   They have found evidence supporting the idea that, in addition to synaptic transmission, brain cell activity forms many overlapping electrical fields whose patterns can provide for communication. Furthermore, such fields may be subject to influence from external electrical field stimuli. The term “ephaptic coupling” in the title refers to communication among neurons through the field rather than through synapses. These fields are especially strong in the memory-forming hippocampus and in the neocortex, where long-term memory is stored. The relevance to the Winter Campfire essay is the connection to the holographic model of brain function. […]

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