It was a beautiful afternoon, the first sunny day in over a week. California has been hit with another series of storms, this one bringing snow to much of the state. It’s strange that the almond trees are blossoming at the same time there’s been snow in the Central Valley.
Despite the chill and wind (Californians think 50F/10C is cold, and most of the people in the parkland were dressed in winter coats and hats), the first blossoms were bursting forth on the flowering trees.
People were out in numbers, and friendly, though it’s hard to tell whether they were responding to one’s openness and affection on my walk after a meditation, or glad to be outdoors, or both.
It takes the better part of an hour of passive observation to gather sufficient attention for thought to fall silent. One doesn’t make a goal or ‘practice’ of it, but simply delights in the sights and sounds of the long stretch of cascading creek below the bank, and the redheaded woodpeckers alighting and pounding away on dead branches overhead. Then one watches the inner movement with the same intense passive awareness.
The first blossoms have appeared since I was last here. On a spindly bush nearby, small pink flowers hold the promise of spring.
The fire of attention incinerates every thought and emotion as they arise, leaving no ashes, only the stillness and silence of Mind. The mind of thought spontaneously ceases, and the Mind of attention, awareness and creation is once again experienced anew. Mantras, breath watching, and any form of self-hypnosis cannot yield the natural stillness of the chattering, remembering mind.
The discontinuity of memory allows the experiencing of the numinous. There cannot be the experiencing of essence as long as there is continuity of psychological memory. Meditation is the effortless gathering of non-directed attention, which ends the continuity of thought.
Questions emerge on the walk after the meditation. What is the relationship between the Mind of awareness and attention, and the mind of thought based on memory and self? Is there any relationship, or is there only the negation of psychological thought?
It’s not a question of utilitarian thought – the knowledge and skill necessary to survive in the world – but psychological thought. Clearly, there is no relationship between the silent Mind and the busy mind, but is there a relationship between the numinous and the temporal?
Many people now feel, as an American commentator recently wrote, “the desire to encounter or invent some sort of nonhuman consciousness that might help us toward leaps that we can’t make on our own.”
However we can only make the leap on our own. There is no external higher intelligence, not as aliens, masters, or Jesus. Nor are there shortcuts to awakening the sacred within, whether through AI, mind-altering substances, or masters. One simply has to take the time and devote the energy to doing the inner work, though few people are willing to do so.
It’s true that “we are telling ourselves, in hope and also fear, that machines whose workings we don’t fully understand might make the leap to self-awareness if only we keep making their processes more sophisticated.”
Is that because self-awareness is so rare in humans? Self-awareness not as awareness of self, or in a recursive sense of feedback loops of prior experience and knowledge, but moment-to-moment self-knowing in the human being, flowing from the inherently uncomfortable baseline feeling of “I don’t know.”
Some computer scientists have jumped the shark and are saying things like: “An alien has awoken — admittedly, an alien of our own fashioning, a golem, more the embodied spirit of all the words on the internet than a coherent self with independent goals. How could our eyes not pop with eagerness to learn everything this alien has to teach?”
First of all, it’s not an alien; it’s us, reflecting our knowledge and ignorance, rationality and irrationality back to us. There is no “embodied spirit” in AI, except as we project it.
Second, AI has nothing to teach us in the spiritual and philosophical sense. It is, at best, a knowledge machine, compelling questions into long-neglected or never sufficiently asked epistemological issues.
For example, is there an intrinsic limitation to knowledge? And is insight a function of knowledge, or does knowledge flow from insight?
Given that insight and knowledge are two different (and to a limited degree overlapping things), is it knowledge we seek, or insight?
Understanding, wisdom, or intelligence – whatever one wants to call the quality of mind that has the clarity to use knowledge fittingly and harmoniously – is what we truly seek. Despite all the drivel about sentience, AI will always be a thought machine, confined to knowledge. It cannot teach us anything at a deeper level.
It’s often said, “we don’t really understand our own consciousness, since we haven’t even begun to solve the so-called hard problem of the mind and its relationship to matter.”
However the hard problem is not the relationship between the material of thought and matter, but between silent, empty consciousness and the temporal world.
All I’m sure of is that for the Mind of attention, awareness and creation to be, the mind of thought has to effortlessly fall silent. The hardest question of all may be: Why is the brain falsely anchored in symbol and memory rather than rightly anchored in attention and stillness?
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.