The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?”
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland, 1870
What is consciousness? How does one go about finding an answer? These are two questions that have been the focus of my research and teachings for over forty years. My first foray into the field began in college with a course I took on abnormal psychology, which included Freud’s discussion of the defense mechanisms. Everything clicked, it all made sense to me, particularly the idea that the unconscious could influence supposed conscious decisions.
When I went to graduate school, I chose my schools based on one criterion, whether or not they taught courses on dreams. This led me to the University of Chicago where I was able to study with several world leaders in the field of consciousness research, most notably Daniel G. Freedman, an ethologist who was studying one-day-old babies to uncover the biological underpinnings of behavior, Herbert Meltzer, MD, who had expertise in the study of schizophrenia and Bruno Bettelheim, at the time, the world’s leading psychoanalyst.
My dorm was located outside of campus. Thus, I had a good walk to get to class which took me by a number of secondhand bookstores. An early key purchase was a compact 1,000-page compendium which was a collected works of Sigmund Freud who had been Bettelheim’s teacher. What better way would there be to learn Bettelheim’s course than to study the master himself. To my surprise, I found that of all of Freud’s works, Wit and the Unconscious was the most beneficial in terms of explaining precisely how the mind really worked. Freud’s most important contribution was his realization that the unconscious has its own separate consciousness. In other words, the unconscious thinks, yet through this complex subliminal process, the conscious is influenced. The profundity of this realization never ceases to amaze me. Like it or not, we are of two minds, one of which, we hardly know.
For another class on ego psychology, I studied David Rapaport’s little known weighty essay “Activity and Passivity of the Ego with Regards to Reality,” and also the works of Anna Freud and Heinz Hartmann on the topics the dynamics of mind and the problems of adaptation. Where Rapaport led me to a Freudian model to explain the link between neurosis, creative expression and longevity, Anna Freud further explained the defense mechanisms and Hartmann introduced to me the concept of the automatism which included symbolic behavior and the preconscious habit. People, Hartmann explained, can perform the most complex behaviors, including even driving a car, and not be “conscious.” Hartmann also came up with the idea of the “conflict free ego sphere,” a part of the psyche that was simply curious, not born from the endless battle between the conscience of the superego and the animal id.
For my Masters thesis, I decided to explore theories of the unconscious beyond Freud, a lot of which was in Ellenberger’s book on this topic, and also the works of Carl Jung on the collective psyche and J.B. Rhine’s studies in parapsychology, including telepathy. This paper, which ran about 100 pages, was written under the direction of my mentor, Daniel G. Freedman, who gave me the freedom to explore essentially whatever I wanted as long as I cited my sources.
At about this same time, I discovered the writings by and about Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic who had traveled to such places as Egypt, Mongolia and the Himalayas to piece together a comprehensive theory on the very highest states of consciousness. Where Freud and his followers took the journeyman into complexities of one’s childhood and the depths of the unconscious, Gurdjieff was more pragmatic. Higher states are equated with self-observation, the idea of continual self-improvement, or self-evolution and acts of one’s own will power. Where one theoretician took me way inside, such as into the world of dreams, defense mechanisms and neurotic complexes, the other forced me outside. Intentional doing, in Gurdjieff’s scheme, is the real key to the higher states. Thus, it seems, a truly comprehensive model of mind must take both views into account, and that is what this book attempts to achieve.
In the year 2,000 I began teaching at Roger Williams University, and shortly thereafter was asked to teach a Core course in human behavior. There was no textbook and I struggled to find one. The focus of the course, aside from human behavior, were such themes as human aggression, the different ways the two sexes think and the idea of identity and one’s coming role in society. What will these students do with their lives and how will they contribute to society once they graduate?
The structure of the course brought up the issue of the individual in relation to society and the concept of psychohistory, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation undertaken at Saybrook Institute with Stanley Krippner. One of the things that such psychohistorians as Adorno and Marcuse did was to combine Marxist theory with that of psychoanalysis. In other words, how social and economic or exterior forces structure our consciousness as compared to psychoanalytic or interior imperatives.
This French cave drawing is approximately 30,000 years old.
In order to gain a handle on exactly what human consciousness is, what forces shape it, what the unconscious is and what the higher states are, I decided to start at the beginning. This brought me to the question as to when the so-called cradle of civilization actually began. Although biologically, modern man may have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, the general consensus is that what we would call modern society began about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, in the Fertile Crescent, now part of Iraq, around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why there? Because of the climate which allowed one to grow crops, and because of the rivers themselves, which by their nature, promoted commerce. But, how would one keep inventory? Buying and selling products would help promote not only social interaction and language, but also the need to create goods to trade with, and the idea of counting. This would evolve into the ability to write down how many of each item one had, and how in written form, to differentiate one object from another. Here is where written language began.
But what about those cave drawings in France which go back 35,000 years, and the question of why Cro Magnon man survived and Neanderthal died out. As I understand it, where Neanderthal man may have had a larger brain in relation to body size, Cro Magnon man had a more highly developed larynx or voice box. Thus, Cro Magnon man had more developed language skills and this led to greater cerebral complexity which would enable him to better plan and coordinate troop movements and so on. Odds are, although there may have been some interbreeding, Cro Magnon man probably wiped out Neanderthal man who stayed more primitive because his language skills were no match. So, when did civilization really begin? Was it a half million years ago, when man emerged from Africa, 35,000 years ago with the cave drawings in France or 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia? One way or another, on the time scale of life on the Earth which goes back hundreds of millions of years, man as a civilized being is a recent development. Like it or not, we are the new kids on the block.
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