Just imagine the moment when the first human being, hominid, or whomever first became conscious. Not just when a human felt for the first time their feet on the earth; but the first time any hominid was aware they were aware of where they placed their feet and where they were going. First became aware of the beauty in the scent from a flower, or in a sunrise, or first became aware of a memory of a bad morning.
One of my closest friends was talking about this with me on a recent Zoom call. What a powerful moment to consider. Was there ever such a moment? Or has consciousness always, somehow, been part of nature?
And this image can tease us on so many levels. Think of a baby. When is it first aware of itself? In the womb? At birth? When someone takes away its toy, a parent calls its name, or leaves them alone? Or it cries when another infant or its mother cries?
Anthropologists and others speculate humans had an increase in consciousness somewhere between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago, when the first art caves were created, or maybe when the first languages were developed. Or maybe before that? Art and written language are likely indicators of conscious awareness.
Human consciousness is doubly aware. Our species name is, after all, homo sapiens sapiens, humans twice wise. We know (somewhere inside us) by knowing we know. Conscious means con, or with, scio, to know, or know with. I thought about this in a recent blog. This allows us to reflect on our actions, thoughts, and feelings and learn from the subtlest levels of all of them.
It allows us, when we hold hands with someone we care about, to not only feel their hand and ours but know we feel it.
This double awareness can give us the ability to abstract and imagine, to plan or time travel, or substitute an idea for a perception. We can use words to symbolize most anything, including a self, or evoke something in us, to dream, to craft, and to understand reality.
Words enable us to leap into a story, one of our own making, or one we adopt from someone else. We prepare ourselves for a future event by telling a story of it. We can name a type of feeling as worrying, dreadful, or lovely. Or talk about something instead of experiencing it. We can distance ourselves from something or stick ourselves to it.
Thus, our double awareness can confuse us. It can provide our greatest gifts as well as the source for our greatest suffering. Language and the ability to distance ourselves mentally and emotionally from aspects of the world can create a false sense of separation between the one who knows and what is known. By telling ourselves stories we can create anxiety as well as excitement over what might never be. Since words are abstractions masquerading as objects and other beings, they can deceive us. They create illusions as well as revelations. Because they can help us, they can hurt us.
And just as we can become conscious of awareness, we can become conscious or fearful of the possible end of awareness, of death and its meaning. Even before there were humans, there were elephants who mourned and Neanderthals who buried their dead.
And it’s not just every morning we awaken; but in each moment the birth of awareness happens. We are not just humans twice wise; in our lives, we are born and die countless times.
At different times of day, on different days, or in different circumstances we can be more conscious than at others. We can also grow in awareness. There are moments in life when everything just stops, or we just stop. It can be meditating, conversing, reading, or watching the rain fall.
At any time, suddenly everything around us ⎼ or one thing we’ve focused on ⎼ becomes extraordinarily alive, full of unspeakable meaning. It’s like waking up in the morning. The mind clears, like a fog lifting. Maybe this is what Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki called beginner’s mind. In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, he says: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s there are few.” “Beginner’s mind is compassionate, boundless…true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings…” There’s no wall, no distance. Even amid the noise of human society, we can find the rhythm of quiet.
The taste of consciousness, our sense of it, our response to it, changes. But when our personal past and future lifts off us like mist rising from the ground, are we left with the same light, the same silence the first humans lived? Is the base level of awareness of all humans today the same as that for all humans throughout time?
I don’t know the answer. But by taking a few slow, full breaths⎼ and if it feels right, we spread our awareness out to whomever is close by⎼ we allow ourselves to feel that they, like us, are conscious. They, like us, feel. They, like us have been hurt, want love, want care. And we can go even further, out another block or two, to people in another city or nation or two. And maybe we can encompass all the world today, all the world throughout time? Would that be wonderful? The family of awareness is infinite. Can we take that in?
What and how each of us thinks is so personal and unique. But that base level of awareness in all thinking and sensing ⎼ I think we all share that. And is this the mirror mind or emptiness that Buddhism and other traditions speak about?
In his book Hunger Mountain, A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, poet and translator of Chinese poetry and philosophy, David Hinton, speaks about perennially living at the primal moment when consciousness first came into being. When we can let ourselves into that awareness, and humbly feel what we all share, we realize how little we know for sure. Yet, our need to be kind and caring with ourselves and others is so clear. I wish that I, that we would all find this awareness.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock