By Martin LeFevre
It’s nearing sunset on a mild autumn afternoon in northern California. My eyes are drawn to a maple between the houses draped in red that looks like it’s on fire in last rays of the sun.
A huge hawk takes off from the red maple and arcs up to the top of a slender tree a couple hundred meters away. I get the binoculars and am amazed at its size – it’s a majestic red-shouldered hawk, over two feet long. For 20 minutes the binoculars give a close-up of the magnificent raptor, its head swiveling as it scans its surroundings.
Fifteen minutes after sunset Jupiter appears in the eastern sky. Hours later, when the biggest planet of our solar system is shining brightly high to the south, I observe at least two of the four Galilean moons with the binoculars. They evoke awe at midnight as the hawk did at sunset.
During both brief meditations, the familiarity of one’s backyard dissolved in attentiveness into wordless beauty and infinite mystery. To leave the stultifying stream of the known in one’s own backyard is a tremendous thing, having nothing to do with self and ego.
Stillness of thought, newness of perception, responsiveness to mystery, and all-inclusive impersonal love are the signs of spontaneously leaving the stream of the known.
Only human beings have the capacity on this planet for such apperception, even as man is decimating the Earth and destroying humanity. Indeed, direct perception has become essential to sustaining and growing as a human being in such a fragmented and divided world.
Neuroscientists and philosophers who insist, “Our perception of the world is just a creation by our brains” are simply wrong. The brain need not automatically filter present experience through prior conditioning, or even through words, images and knowledge. Our minds can “return and become like children” for at least a few minutes every day.
Anthropologists and philosophers used to say that the human brain is “the pinnacle of creation.” You don’t hear that phrase anymore. Man’s decimation of the Earth, and the philosophical fashion of blurring the difference between humans and other animals, make such an idea seem antiquated and hubristic.
The specious past specialness of the human species has been replaced by a barely masked misanthropy, and a contorted and distorted attempt to erase human difference and ignore what used to be called “the riddle of man.”
These days one often encounters silliness such as: “It is natural, as a human, to slip into thinking of our species as somehow special. By many objective measures, though, ants are far more consequential to life on Earth than we are.”
And this: “Over tens of millions of years of evolution ants have figured out how to become astonishingly numerous without depleting the world around them.”
Ants haven’t “figured out” anything; they evolved, like all other animals and plants (including Homo sapiens) through natural selection. Ascribing human abilities to them, while not questioning why we are depleting the Earth, adds to human confusion and does nothing to resolve the human conundrum.
How can a sentient species that’s bringing about the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, also have limitless spiritual potential? What is the resolution of that riddle?
The insight I propose is that the human adaptive strategy, which essentially entails consciously separating ‘things’ and manipulating them mentally and building worlds, is the evolutionary development that gives us the capacity for awareness of the beauty and sacredness of life.
Rather than self-knowingly understand our cognitive capabilities however, and thereby put higher thought in its place, we blindly operate from conditioning, which precludes direct perception.
Despite man’s destructiveness, evolution apparently has a great deal invested in the human brain. After all, it took billions of years of favorable conditions on Earth to produce an organ of such complexity.
The question is: Is there a cosmic mind that cares that we’re destroying this jewel of a planet with our remarkable brains, and the loss of our spiritual potential to a directly proportional degree?
I’m not suggesting that there is a separate God, much less a personal God, as Christians believe. Just that potentially intelligent life is not a random and meaningless phenomenon.
Chimps, orcas and hawks, much less ants, do not have the capacity to attend to the movement of their own minds and thereby quiet thought in their brains, and in so doing feel the breath of the sacred.
Evolution crossed a threshold of neural complexity with the human brain. The same brain that has brought about the climate catastrophe and Sixth Extinction stands in silent insight under countless stars and planets.
The attentively silent brain is the universe aware of itself, and the unknowable intelligence that permeates nature and the cosmos.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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