In the book, The Ravenous Brain(1), the author Daniel Bor refers to my age group. He argues that consciousness is a “chronic mental hunger.” That has certainly been my experience. He also says, “During aging, the insatiable brain becomes less so. We are less ravenous for new jewels of wisdom, and our entire existence, examined through the perspective of the thousands of chunks we’ve acquired, can become routine.”
This has not been my experience. As much as ego would like me to believe that I’m unique, observation—through the lens of profound sameness—tells me otherwise. I can’t help but suspect that he is a casualty of groupthink and myths born of traditional assumptions.
In learning any and every thing throughout life, I find it gets more intriguing as the years go by. Each year that passes plunges me deeper into the most significant of all learning experiences—life! The same thing happened to my mother in her 90’s, right up until the end. That should be true for everyone, relatively speaking, barring some form of dementia.
The apparent “waning consciousness” he speaks about may only be the result of an older person being less inclined to be two-faced. Older people have less incentive to keep up the pretense for whatever social face they anxiously needed to show the world during youth. In other words, old people don’t develop a forthright nature as they age. They just don’t feel as much social pressure to conceal their innate nature as they once did.
One peculiarity of life I notice is the milestone aspect. The milestones I’ve passed over the years were not precipitating events, but culminating moments of realization. That said, they seldom stood out as such at the time. At the time, I usually didn’t feel the insight to be a milestone at all, but rather just another “aha, I see” moment along the way.
It is only now, looking back over the last 70+ years that I see them more for the milestones they were. Linked to that seems to be an increasing sense of constantly waking up, so to speak. Naturally, I never experienced this sensation in my youth, so simply realizing this counts as one of those realization milestones to which I’m referring. And this brings me to one of my most significant realization milestones…
Wisdom is not passed on to the next generation.
Each of us reaches the extent of our personal wisdom over our lifetime. When we die, we take the wisdom we’ve arrive at to our grave. Of course, a facsimile of living wisdom passes on to subsequent generations. The world’s ancient scripture are a prime example. However, the jewels of actual wisdom each of us finds in scripture arise from the wisdom residing within us at that moment… it’s actually in the eye of the beholder. As our eye matures, it naturally perceives deeper wisdom. I find this to be a genuine benefit of aging, and so far well worth the decline of everything else that comes with growing old. So, rather than being “…less ravenous for new jewels of wisdom” as we age, we are actually uncovering jewels of wisdom as we age.
Now, here are a few more of my lifetime’s wake-up-moments that stand out…
Waste management: (1950) At around ten years old, I accompanied my parents as they drove down Mt. Lemon to our home in Tucson below. I remember looking out over the plain and town below, and wondering how civilization could ever deal with the massive amount of garbage it generated. It took decades for that problem to become universally obvious. I suppose that counts as one of those, “Out of the mouths of babes” prescient realizations.
Trust people to be people: In my late teens, I was living in Los Angeles sharing an apartment with a Cuban refugee. One day he asked to borrow $100 (worth more in 1962!). I did without thought or concern. He never paid it back, and when I confronted him, he just shrugged it off. That taught me to be wary about the insincere flaky side of human nature.
Argument as game play: One evening, at a restaurant in Northern Thailand (1964), I fell into a serious argument with a left or rightwing political hothead… which I can’t recall. All of a sudden, I realized we were just playing a game. We were simply tossing points of view back and forth rather than a tennis balls.
Life and death are one: (1964) I was living in Bangkok and riding to work each day on the bus. When I received word that my younger brother had died, I began intensely struggling with the nature of life and death. For the first time in my life, death was real. Months later, I realized that life and death were mysteriously the same… like two sides of the same coin. Buy into one, you buy into the other, so to speak. This realization felt incredibly profound at the time — perhaps due to all the energy I’d expended pondering the life vs. death mystery.
Opium is nothing: (1965) When I first smoked opium in Laos, I was expecting a ‘cool high’. I lay there in the opium den, smoking pipe after pipe waiting for the high that never came. Nothing! All I noticed was that I wasn’t worried about anything at all. That was mildly pleasant, but not worth paying money for. Honestly, I don’t tend to worry much about anything, so opium was nothing I needed. I realized then that people are attracted to drugs like opium and alcohol because these take the edge off the emotional distress they feel.
This made me realize that thinking we have a problem is a virtual reality of the mind. Conversely, the visceral experience is what makes it a real problem. In other words, it is not the thought, but rather the emotion that spawns the thought that gnaws at us. Emotional conflict is the problem—it is a universal animal-reality.
Some people hate me: (1967) I was working as a surveyor in Vietnam. One of the American workers expressed deep dislike, even hatred, of me. I barely knew the man, which made the experience so memorable. I realized it wasn’t me at all. It was something in him that made me a target. I symbolized something that caused a great conflict within him.
Good Manners are Relative: (1968)
Good manners are relative: (1968) I stayed with the Dayak hill tribe people in Borneo. I arranged to travel with a few men from the tribe when they crossed over to the Indonesian side of Borneo. I had a hell of a time keeping up with them, slipping and sliding through the jungle. I now realize my problem was wearing shoes! Anyway, they never coddled me once, but gave me the chance to man-up. Their ‘good manners’ ethic was different than I had always encountered. I realized then how relative ethics really are. When in Rome…
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: Tokyo (1968) I’ve always been a neat-nick. That used to make me irritated whenever I saw any despoiling of nature or disregard for the environment. One day while walking across a bridge in Tokyo, I looked down at the garbage floating in the canal. All of a sudden, what would normally look disgusting now looked beautiful.
The Buddha effect: (1968) Before I left America, I remember seeing photos of the Kamakura Buddha in Japan and thinking it to be huge. I finally made it to Japan and went down to Kamakura to see it. I couldn’t get over how small it was!
A year later, I returned to Kamakura expecting to see the small structure I had seen the year before. This time, it looked huge! Huge turned into small; small turned into huge. That experience forced me to realize how deeply judgment is relative to previous experience. To this day, I call this phenomenon the ‘Buddha Effect’.
Poison or pleasure: (1968) My years in Japan were certainly a transitional time for me. I got into a poetry-producing period. Soon, I was seeing a poetic side to everything! As they say, too much of a good thing can be problematic. For me, poetic insight had become a prison, locking my mind into a poetic rut, so to speak. It brings home the view, ‘one person’s pleasure can be another person’s poison’.
Conflicting desires cause mental illness: (1972) While I was living in Sweden, I spent time with a psychiatrist discussing her treatment of her patients’ psychiatric disorders. In example after example, I realized the common denominator was a form of disconnect. The root of every example she gave seemed to rest in a conflict of desires. It all seemed to come down to, “I want this, but I want that too”, or “I want this, but I fear that”. It is not desire per se, that causes us sorrow; it is the conflicting desires and fears.
Always something wrong: (1980’s) When I finally settled down in one place for more than a few years, I realized how ‘there is always something wrong’ was an inescapable fact of life. During the previous two decades, I had not stayed anywhere long enough to notice this verity. The chaos of always packing up and moving on overshadows some recurring themes that are noticeable in a settled life. I plunged into renovating ten old houses, where each renovation often means opening up a can-of-worms. As chapter 58 says, Misfortune, yet of good fortune its resting place; Good fortune, yet of misfortune its hiding place. Accepting that this cycle is a constant reality calmed me. I later realized that holding on to any status quo makes matters worse. Getting attached to and comfortable with any standard sets us up for a fall. Keeping as flexible as possible, both physically (yoga!) and mentally (Tao Te Ching!) is my “Stitch in time saves nine”. As chapter 72 cautions, When the people don’t fear power, Normally great power arrives.
Free will is a myth: (1990’s) If Daniel Bor’s view(1) that “during aging the insatiable brain becomes less so”, is actually true, then the loss of my belief in free will might account for my insatiable brain becoming more so, not less so. My belief in free will took a good decade to dissolve. Ironically, loosing all facets of my sense of free will liberated my mind greatly. My recent post, Of Free Will, I Am, (p.319) is my latest observations on this. Essentially, the death of free will is like moment-to-moment suicide followed by moment-to-moment rebirth. This isn’t something you drop and it’s finished. Rather, it’s a continuous process of dropping, dying, and rebirthing. In some ways, it is like being returned to childhood… at least between the ears. Alas, the rest of the body ages normally.
Empties, then fills: (1982 to present) I am recording what observations / realizations lend themselves to being written down. My curiosity about all things appears to increase yearly. If anything, I need to turn off my mind sometimes. As chapter 16 advises, Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness. Ironically, this only seems to invite more insight. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. Life is such a journey… and traveling it is work! This means I’ll have to wait until I reach my destination before ‘I’ can truly rest.
Update: (2015) Delving deeply into the ethnographic research of the !Kung hunter-gatherer people appears to have tied up many cognitive loose-ends for me. And of course, this frees me up to inspect life even deeper. Anyway, I summarized this in the, Who are you? series, p.504-530. That rare research captures the essence of human existence that spanned our pre-civilized way of life—the old way. Rare because that primal way of life is now gone forever!
(1) This is the Science News book review of The Ravenous Brain.
In this dispatch from the front lines of consciousness research, neuroscientist Bor offers an introspective interpretation of what the human mind is and what it’s good for.
Consciousness, Bor argues, is a “chronic mental hunger,” the brain’s demand for more and more information about the world. This insatiable appetite has propelled humans to the moon, ushered in medical advances and compelled countless commuters to reach for Sudoku puzzles.
Bor sees this hunger in action as he watches his baby daughter learn to walk. She gleefully toddles around the room and is delighted when she figures out how to step backward, her burgeoning consciousness greedily finding patterns and making connections.
At the other end of the spectrum, a waning consciousness can signal illness such as depression, anxiety disorder, chronic pain or schizophrenia. The book opens with Bor’s father experiencing a minor stroke that leaves him with limited awareness of his left side. This constricted form of consciousness changed the father’s personality, providing Bor’s initial impetus to study neuroscience.
During aging, the insatiable brain becomes less so, Bor writes. “We are less ravenous for new jewels of wisdom, and our entire existence, examined through the perspective of the thousands of chunks we’ve acquired, can become routine.” Meditation and some forms of brain training may help, he suggests, by putting the mind in a childlike state.
Bor’s knack for bolstering personal examples with laboratory studies makes this a thought-provoking read. His ideas are tantalizing, but not as definitive as he occasionally makes them seem. Scientists still have a lot of tinkering and testing to do before they are even close to understanding consciousness.
Well thanks, but truly, whatever wisdom you see comes from within you! It must, because only wisdom knows wisdom. Fortunately, there is a lot more wisdom out there than it seems at times. Granted, biology and misinterpretation often get it the way, but that just keeps us on our toes, right? 😉
Michael A. Lewis says
Thank you for this essay. I have seven more years before I reach 70. I hope I can pick up a modest bit of the wisdom you have so eloquently portrayed.