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Artifacts of Awareness

A Contemplation on Being of and Among Other Beings.

Right now, you are aware. The words you’re reading, the thoughts you’re having, the sensations arising are present in your awareness. The core experience of being human is the quality of being aware. It is something we share with each human alive today, and in fact all of our ancestors who were here before us. Not only do we all share this quality of being aware, but the echoes of everyone who has ever been alive reverberate around us every day.

We can define consciousness as being aware of whatever experiences are present at that moment. At this moment, for you, it is the awareness of these words. Or now, you’re aware that you are breathing. If you hear a dog bark outside, that sound is something you are aware of. If you are remembering your last vacation, that memory of the past is what your awareness is focused on in the present. Even when sleeping, when we are ‘unconscious’, we are aware in our dreams.

You may not remember everything that happened in your dreams last night. You might not recall anything at all, but in the moment of the dream the quality of awareness is present. When woken from a dream, there often is a vague feeling that there was some experience, but no distinct memory. There is a feeling that we were there, in the dream, experiencing something, but we can’t remember exactly what it was. Even in our deepest sleep, there is a pinpoint of awareness, given that we can be awoken with enough stimulation. In addition, our instinctive mind keeps the processes of the body running, our heart and gut continues to operate with their own instinctive awareness, pumping nutrients through our bodies. This unchanging quality of being aware is the irreducible fact that underlies consciousness, and in fact everything that we know.

The experience of knowing comes from the quality of being aware. We know what we see with our eyes, or feel with our hands. I know the sky is blue and my cat is soft. We know our senses, and so too we know our thoughts, feelings, and imagination. If I ask what is the sum of two plus two, you know the answer is four, not only because you were taught that is the correct answer, but because if you imagine you have two apples and you receive two more, you can now see in your imagination there are four apples. If I ask you how you are feeling, you know how you actually feel, even if you tell me everything is fine. This quality of knowing is the same as the quality of awareness. I know that I am aware. I am aware that I know. That which knows, is also that which is aware, and that awareness is always present, always with us.

This insight, which each of us can recognize from our own experience, helps to prepare for some of the larger questions of consciousness, but it also sets the stage for the trap of solipsism. This is the philosophical theory that ones own consciousness is actually the only one, and everything and everyone else is arising as an experience in this one single consciousness, alone. I call this idea a trap because, while it isn’t provably false, it doesn’t lead anywhere except depression or sociopathy. It is unfathomable that all of this vast complex, seemingly continuous and constant world, and the billions of people and countless other living beings, are all a product of my imagination, and I am completely unaware of this enormous, complex and creative undertaking. I can barely keep track of who is doing what on my favorite shows! So, if I am not alone in experiencing this state of awareness of my life, then others too must also share this experience. It is then a simple thing to extend an acknowledgment of consciousness to the seven plus billion human beings in the earth.

As easy as it is to hand wavingly grant that every human has consciousness, it is another experience entirely to really contemplate this fact. If you really feel into the idea that every human has a conscious inner life, it is a rather profound experience. This contemplation was granted a name by John Koenig in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The moment of recognition that every human, every passerby on the street, every grocery checkout clerk, every taxi driver, has an inner life as rich and complex as your own was dubbed ‘sonder’. Contemplating the strangers on the street is often called simply ‘people watching’, and sometimes it is fun to invent stories for people as they pass by, but the feeling of sonder acknowledges the intimate and unknowable depths of someone’s life and experiences. No matter how detailed a story you come up with, it can never be as rich and complex as the reality that each person actually lives. Even if every detail about that person in the story you made up it still would be incomplete. Language and stories are always an approximation of the actual lived experience of our lives that each of us are privately aware of every day.

Even though words are only approximations for experience, I still think of verbal language as our super power. Language is a way to connect our conscious minds in a very direct and literal manner. The words you are reading are manifesting in your mental space, and causing you to think new thoughts. This thinking changes your brain, with new synaptic connections being formed. Language helps us create memory, and then share that memory with others. A story is a more compact form of remembering an experience, and the telling of a story evokes a sense of experience in the imagination of those who hear it. Complex verbal language and written communication are the one thing that separates us from the rest of life on earth, but it is not the only way we communicate.

Verbal language is one experience that we have that is unique among the animal kingdom, but communication is more than just words. A great amount of information is communicated non-verbally. When you’re speaking to a friend, there are numerous subtle cues that give you additional insight about what is being said. Vocal tone and pace, facial expression, hand gestures, and body posture speak volumes. Even the way we smell, our scent or how we obscure it, can communicate subtle nuance about our inner experience.

We use objects in the world to communicate. Our hairstyle and the clothes we wear make a statement about our inner self. The way we decorate our homes, the type of vehicle we drive, the neighborhood we live in, all communicate something about us, because all of these, whether we consciously choose them or not, are material things that we have had awareness of. Everything in our lives is illuminated by our awareness of them.

I have taken to calling the physical material things that communicate information about the person or beings who interact with them ‘artifacts’. All conscious experience creates artifacts in the physical world of some sort. You can’t be a living being and not impact the physical world in some way. Our metabolic processes consume material and eliminate waste into the world. The work we do moves the material world around, sometimes creating raw materials into new artifacts. These artifacts can last a while, in the case of things we make, manipulate or move, or they can be extremely short lived, like the eddies of air currents we create with every breath. Even the words we speak are artifacts. Sculptures of compressed air in intricate and minute patterns, that emanate from our vocal chords and travel through the atmosphere a short distance until they no longer have enough energy to go any further.

Artifacts don’t even have to be created by living things. The moon pulls on the ocean and creates tides. The rock and ice on the earths surface hold information about times long past if you know how to interpret the signs. Interpreting the information conveyed by these artifacts is one of the greatest accomplishments of science. We can see clear back to the almost the beginning of the universe by tracing the evidence left in artifacts like stars and the cosmic microwave background.

On a more human scale, looking around at the objects in our surroundings, there are echos of the consciousnesses of countless humans in all of the human made things of modern life. Our cites and homes are filled with them. Contemplating the attention that has been paid by people in everything surrounding us has a similar quality to the feeling of sonder. The wooden planks of my floor were harvested from trees cut down and processed by people decades ago. A team of people then moved them to the site of this building, where others crafted them into the floor I walk on every day. Every object has a history and a lineage of human minds and hands that reverberate from their past. Each piece graced, for some time, with the focused attention of human awareness.

So if you’re ever feeling lonely, just look around and think of all the people whose efforts and attention helped to create the world that surrounds you. I find an immense sense of gratitude in acknowledging and honoring those who helped to make the world what it is today. They each give a part of their time here on earth shaping the artifacts around us with the focused intention of their awareness, and this awareness we each embody is ultimately the core of who we are. A part of each person and their story lives on in the artifacts they have moved, touched, or created, and these artifacts reflect the unique contribution they have made to the universe, and the impact they have on our lives.


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