My First Computer

August 30th, 2017

I built my first computer when I was sixteen, in my dad’s garage—and literally out of bits of wire.

As a budding mathematician in the early 1960s I was fascinated with the new field of computing and the basic processes behind their operation. Deep down most of what a computer does is add binary numbers (strings of 0s and 1s). This is accomplished through some very simple and basic switches, known as gates. The “AND” gate gives an output of 1 if both the inputs are 1. The “OR” gate gives an output of 1 if either of the inputs is 1. And “NOT” gate gives the opposite of its single input (1 for an input of 0, and 0 for an input of 1). Assemble these three gates in particular way and you can add two binary digits. String these assemblies together and you can add binary numbers. And from there you can build a computer.

The first generation of computers, such as the one Alan Turing’s team built to break the Enigma code, used mechanical switches. My simple, proof of concept, computer likewise used mechanical switches—electromagnet coils which flipped a switch when a current passed through them. My father was in the electrical cabling business so I had all the wire I needed. I built a machine to wind the wire into coils, fixed them to a board, wired them up as AND, OR and NOT gates, and sent the output to a row of lights. And I had my first computer.

A few years later while studying maths at Cambridge University, I got to experience a second generation computer—EDSAC2, one of the early experimental computers at the Cambridge Computing Lab. This generation of computers used electronic valves (otherwise known as vacuum tubes) for its switches. In 1965, I went along to its decommissioning and took away one of its trays of valves and other electronic components. This I hung proudly on the wall of my student room. Recently I read of a team who were trying to reconstruct the EDSAC2, and were looking for anyone who might have information on how it worked. If I had kept that tray of electrical gear it might have become very useful. But sadly it was eventually thrown out.

In 1964 I got to work on a third generation computer. In these machines the switches were transistors, soldered together with capacitors and resistors on a logic board. Much smaller than EDSAC2′s trays, but still large enough to see the individual components. I had six months free before going up to University and took a job at what was then one of Britain’s major computing companies, Elliott Automation. They had an 8K machine—yes, 8K for everything. The cabinets were about the size of four household refrigerators, sitting in a special air-conditioned room.

One of my jobs was to boot up the machine every morning. The term “boot” comes from the expression “to lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps,” which is effectively how you got a computer started. There was a row of buttons on the console, each representing a binary digit (a 0 or a 1). I had to punch in a binary number by hand, which instructed the computer to go to four lines of code that were hard-wired into it. These four lines were brilliant in their simplicity and power, reading in a series of binary numbers from a paper tape and storing them in memory. These numbers formed a simple program that read in more paper tape containing the basic operating system. When complete, control was handed over to the operating system. The computer had booted itself up.

Some days when the booting up failed, I had to call in a technician who rummaged around in the cabinets and often found the fault was some insect that had crawled in overnight and shorted out one of the boards. There was a bug in the computer. Yes, that’s where the term came from.

My initial work at this company was actually on an analog computer, not a digital one. We hear nothing these days of analog machines, but back then they played an important role. Whereas digital computers work with digits—discrete bits of 0s and 1s—analog computers worked with continuously varying electric currents and were much better suited to solving differential equations, which occur in any system with changing variables. For example, the equation describing the path of a ball thrown through the air is a differential equation. It’s very difficult for a digital computer to calculate the smooth curve of its trajectory; it could take numerous iterations and then only come up with a good approximation. With an analog computer one builds an electrical circuit with resistors and capacitors that is analogous to the problem. Using a system rather like an old telephone switchboard, or sound board in a recording studio, in which cables are plugged into sockets to link the components together, an analogous circuit is created. A current is fed in at one end, and the solution appears as a varying current at the other end—representing, for instance, the path of the ball. Or more practically, whether a system is stable, and how long it may take for an oscillation to damp down. However, within a few years digital computers had progressed to the point where they could give acceptable, if approximate, solutions to differential equations, and the analog computer disappeared into history. But I always treasure the fact that the first computer I actually operated was an analog machine.

Several years later I studied for a post-graduate degree in computer science at the Cambridge Computer Lab. Now there was another generation of digital computers, those based on integrated circuits—the first computer chips. We had one of the most powerful machines in the country at our disposal, the aptly named Titan, but still feeble by today’s standards—a mere 16K central processor. And we had hard drives. Heavy, eighteen-inch wide disks with 30 MB capacity that had to be hand-loaded into cabinets for reading and writing. Downstairs we had a new PDP7. This was one of the first machines to have a visual display—a circular cathode ray tube in the front of the cabinet. The two were linked by a 3-inch thick cable (no match for today’s USB cables).

My thesis focused on the networking of the two computers and programing the visual display. It was entitled “The 2-D stereoscopic representation of the 3-D projection of rotation in four dimensions.” (In those days one could focus on almost any project providing it was sufficiently complex in terms of the computing.)

As a teenager I had been fascinated by Edwin Abbott’s story of life in a two-dimensional world he called Flatland. A 3-D object passing through Flatland would be experienced as a series of slices—a sphere for instance would on first contact appear as a dot, which expanded into a circle, growing in size, then contracting again into a dot as the sphere passed through the plane of Flatland. Or a cube would appear as a 2-D hexagonal slice—similar to its silhouette. If the cube was rotating, then that slice would continuously change shape. I surmised that a 2-D creature in Flatland might get a hint of what the third dimension was like by observing the changing shape of the 2-D slices of the rotating cube. So I wondered if we might be able to get a hint of a fourth spatial dimension by observing how a rotating 4-D cube appeared in our 3-D world.

On the Titan machine upstairs I built a program that modeled a rotating 4-D cube. Projected this down to 3-D. Then created two slightly different 2-D projections—one for the left eye, one for the right. This data was sent down the link to the PDP7, which drew them out, side-by-side, on its screen. Then with a mirror placed edge-on to the screen I arranged for the two images to go one to the left eye and one to the right, so that they gave the appearance of a 3-D object twisting and morphing in space.

The results were fascinating to watch, but sadly revealed no great insight into the fourth dimension. I did however have a lot of fun. Wrote a fascinating thesis for my professor. And in passing created what was probably the first ever virtual reality set-up.

Moreover working on the linking of two computers led me to see that the future of computing was their global networking, giving rise to the basic ideas for my book The Global Brain.

My next computer, the first I ever owned, was an Apple 2E.


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Get Real Ray

June 29th, 2017

A Critique of Ray Kurzweil’s Predictions

Ray Kurzweil recently announced his year-by-year predictions of the future. Here are just a few samples (full list here):

2020 – Personal computers reach a computing power comparable to the human brain.

2025 – The emergence of mass-market human implants.

2031 – 3D printed human organs used in hospitals at all levels.

2041 – Internet bandwidth will be 500 million times more than today.

2045 – The earth will turn into one giant computer.

2099 – The technological singularity extends to the entire Universe.

I’m not sure exactly what this last item means, and how it fits with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity limiting communication to the speed of light, and whether he means the entire visible universe up to 4.5 billion light years away, or the, possibly infinite, universe beyond that, and why other advanced civilizations haven’t already triggered this. But I’m sure a mind like his has thought all that through.

Here I would like to point out a more down-to-Earth shortcoming of this genre of utopian technological futurism. They assume business as normal in terms of scientific and technological progress, and generally fail to include the very real crises facing humanity in the coming years.

To sober ourselves up from Kurzweil’s lofty predictions, let us consider some of the challenges and their potential impact.

At the forefront is climate change. It is happening much faster than most scenarios predicted, and given the potential for runaway climate change once the tundra thaws, we could be witnessing some devastating consequences in coming years: major crop failures and famine, extreme weather events, millions dying of heat stroke, massive migration. These and other potential impacts will send shockwaves through our already vulnerable economic and social systems.

It is assumed that the Internet will remain functional, but as cyber-weapons get more powerful, and cyber-criminals more sophisticated, it is very possible that current attacks will escalate into widespread infrastructure shutdowns. Given how totally dependent we are upon the net for commerce, banking, science, technology and almsot eery other segment of society, it could be a catastrophe. Indeed, a widespread failure of the electrical grid for more than a few days would lead to a breakdown of society from which it would be difficult to recover.

The global economy is shaky, to say the least. Ever-deepening national debts, stock market bubbles and banking crises promote the likelihood of widespread global recession and possible collapse of currencies. Not the best environment for high-tech venture capitalists.

Terrorism cannot be ignored either. Previous terrorist movements had a goal in mind—reunification of Ireland, Algerian independence—and were open to political settlement. But those fermented by Islamist movements have deeper ideological goals which cannot be satisfied through any talks or mediation. Current approaches to dealing with them only fuel the flames. They are probably here to stay in the medium term, and with their growing resourcefulness, could have unforeseen impacts on the economy and social stability of many nations.

Nuclear war, deliberate or accidental, remains a distinct probability. So do global epidemics of drug-resistant bacteria and viruses.

These are just a few of the scenarios that could derail the technological dream. The financial and social investment it requires assumes a relatively stable society. If things start falling apart, the progress Kurzweil and others foresee will begin to splutter.

Some blindly assume that artificial intelligences far surpassing human intelligence will be able to solve these various problems, and the steady march of progress will continue unabated. It is possible that advanced AI may helpo solve some of them, but we cannot count on it, and certainly cannot count on it resolving all of them.

Furthermore, although we may play down the likelihood of any one scenario, the chances of one or other happening remains high. If there are say ten scenarios each with only a ten percent chance of happening, then the likelihood of at least one of them occurring is eighty percent. And several of the above, particularly major climate change, have much higher likelihood than ten percent.

Moreover, there is another factor that needs to be taken into account: the stress of accelerating development. Stress can be loosely defined as the inability to adapt to change. Many of us can feel that in our lives, the promised freedom offered by information technology seems only to have filled our lives with more things to take care of, and to do so with less time and increasing urgency, leading to increasing fatigue and burnout. At the other extreme, climate change can be seen as a consequence of accelerating development—the exponential increase in the use of fossil fuels, producing far more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere can easily dispose of, putting the climate under stress in ways that are becoming all too apparent.

The advances that Kurzweil foresees will undoubtedly continue to accelerate the rate of development. Indeed that is one of the fundamental tenets of his vision; what he calls the law of accelerating returns. As the rate of development continues to speed up at an ever-dizzying pace, the stress on all the systems involved—personal, social, economic, geo-political, environmental—will rapidly increase. And increasing stress in a system eventually leads to breakdown and collapse.

So accelerating change may not be such a beneficial trend after all. It could well bring about our ultimate demise. (For more on this, see my essay Blind Spot: The Unforeseen End of Accelerating Change.)

We will, I suspect, see a number of Kurzweil’s technological predictions coming true—although perhaps not as speedily as he envisions—but they will almost certainly be occurring in a world that is dealing with the consequences of major catastrophes. How this will play out I don’t know. But it would serve the likes of Kurzweil to include this level of realism, and the all-too-likely probability of economic, social and environmental chaos, in their predictions.


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Sat Chit Ananda

June 7th, 2017

Sat-chit-ananda is a common theme in many Indian teachings, and is usually translated as truth-consciousness-bliss, or something along similar lines. It is often interpreted as some experience or state of consciousness to be attained. And a lot of spiritual literature reinforces this, leading people to look for, or hope for, some exceptional new experience. But if you go back to the Upanishads and Vedantic teachings where it first appears, you find that sat-chit-ananda is a description of the true Self, of the “I” that is the knower of all experience – that “by which all things are known.”

The Sanskrit word “sat” means “true essence” or “that which never changes.” It is actually the present participle of the verb “to be”, so could be more literally translated as “being”, or “that which is”. The quality of “I-ness” is ever-present and unchanging. My ego, personality, my beliefs and views, and other personal characteristic may change over time, but the sense of “I” that is aware of them never changes. In that respect I am the same “I” that knew my experiences yesterday, last year, and as far back as I can remember. It is my true essence. When I stop identifying with my thinking and other mental qualities, and drop back into the Self, I find that familiar sense of “I am.” Not I am this or that, but simply “I am.” More accurately, since there is no longer a sense of individual identity, simply “am”. Or, as I like to put, “am-ing”, which is the first-person experience of “being.”

“Chit” means consciousness, that which is aware. The Self—the unchanging ever-present “I”—is the knower of all experience. I am consciousness.

“Ananda” has often been translated as bliss, but this may have done a disservice to contemporary understandings Indian spirituality. In the West the word “bliss” conjures up notions of some extreme happiness, or euphoric state. This translation probably came about because early Western translators of Eastern texts had little personal experience of these states, but were doing the best they could from their own cultural understanding. Now that more of us are tasting what past teachers were pointing towards, we can have a new, and much more helpful, appreciation of the term.

The word “ananda” stems from a-nanda. “Nanda” means contentment or satisfaction, nothing more is needed. The prefix “ã” (the long “ã” as in “part”, rather the short “a” as in “pat”) is used as to denote strong emphasis. So ananda means great contentment. The prefix “ã” can also mean “return to”. In this rendering, “ananda” is the contentment that comes from returning to our true nature. This is in line with most people’s experience. When resting in the Self, we experience a deep inner stillness, a peace that passeth all understanding, a great contentment, an unconditional natural ease in which nothing more needs to be added, there are no desires for anything else, and no striving to be anywhere else, or anyone else. It is a coming home. We may indeed call it bliss, but it is a quiet, still bliss, not the ecstatic happiness we normally associate with the term.

Thus sat-chit-ananda is not about reaching some new exotic state of consciousness, but recognizing that which you already are, but were not noticing because your attention was on the phenomena arising in consciousness, rather than the “I” that is aware of all that arises.


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Our Blind Spot on the Future

January 27th, 2017

We can all see how the pace of life is speeding up. Technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds.

And we feel it in our own lives. Remember when you used to write a letter, stick a stamp on it, mail it, and then be OK waiting several days for a reply. Now we email or text and expect to hear back within hours or minutes. There seems to be more and more things to take care of, more and more information to absorb, more and more technologies to adapt to, more and more time spent on line, and less time to do it all in.

But this accelerating pace of change isn’t new. Throughout the history of life on Earth development has been compressed into shorter and shorter times.

Imagine the 4.5 billion years of our planet’s history compressed into just one year.

Simple cells first appear in March.

But multicellular life doesn’t evolve until early September.

The first mammals appear on Christmas Day

But human beings don’t arrive until a quarter of an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

In the last twenty seconds, the first civilizations.

The Renaissance, four seconds from the end.

Moon walks, the Internet, global warming—all in the last quarter second.

So where’s it all going? What is going to happen in the next fraction of a second?

One thing’s certain, development will continue to be compressed into shorter and shorter times.

You’ve probably heard of Moore’s law in computing which shows how computer power keeps doubling every eighteen months. On this basis,, sometime in the 2030s there will be computers whose performance surpasses that of the human brain. These super-intelligent machines could then be used to design even more intelligent computers. And do so even faster. Leading to a further explosion in acceleration. Within decades, rates of change would be astronomical. In the century beyond that, unimaginable. The curve would be off the charts. It would be both way beyond our comprehension—and way beyond any feasible reality.

But when we come to look at our long-term future, ever-accelerating rates of change present us with a major contradiction. On the one hand, there’s every reason to suppose the rate of change will keep increasing. On the other hand, when we imagine a long-term future for humanity, we unconsciously assume that rates of change will be relatively static.

Take the TV series Star Trek for example, set several hundred years from now. Technology on the Enterprise, and that back at Federation headquarters, doesn’t seem to change much over time. But how could that be? There is every reason to suppose that science and technology would still be developing fast. Indeed, given the exponential nature of development, the pace of change would have become unimaginably rapid long before the Enterprise was launched—and even more rapid in the following years.

The same is true with just about every other long-term vision of humanity’s future. They are not set within the context of accelerating change. In most cases, any development there might be is imagined as linear and slow—more appropriate to pre-industrial times.

This is our bind spot on the future. Accelerating change is inherently incompatible with a long-term future.

But anyone who contemplates the future of humanity hundreds of years ahead must first explain how the acceleration of development—which has been going on since the dawn of life—will suddenly come to an end. How does exponential change transform into slow linear development?

And we’re not just talking about technological or material development, but cultural, social and mental development. It would mean human innovation and creativity slowing to almost nothing.

If the rate of change continues to accelerate—and there is every reason to suppose it will—or even if it should steady up and remain at today’s dizzying pace—we have to radically reconsider our ideas about where we are headed.

It calls for an entirely new paradigm of the future. And of the role of humanity in the cosmos.

—-

For a more detailed exploration of the implications see: Blind Spot


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Synchronicity and the ‘Support of Nature’

October 29th, 2016

Back in the sixties I spent time studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India. When he was assessing how we were each progressing in our practice, he was often not so interested in our experiences within meditation itself—whether we were noticing subtle levels of thinking, discovering the true self, having deep insights or visions. His principal interest was whether we were noticing, what he called, “increased support of nature” in our daily lives. By this he meant: Were we noticing that the world seems to support our needs and intentions—in other words, were we noticing what many of us would call increased synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences.

His thinking went as follows: In meditation we are transcending thinking and reconnecting with our true nature. Much of our thinking is a manifestation of our ego-mind—thinking that is primarily concerned with our personal needs and desires—and by transcending, that is “going beyond,” it we are freeing ourselves from its demands. It is clear that many of the problems we see in the world—from international and environmental problems to social and personal problems—stem, in one way or another, from our egoic thinking. So by stepping out of the ego-mind we are supporting nature in the most fundamental way possible. And nature returns the favour by supporting us.

I have never heard of any other teacher taking this approach (which is not to say there may not be some). And although it may sound a little like “magical thinking” I have noticed it to be frequently true in my own life. When I am meditating regularly, and in particular when I have been on a meditation retreat, life seems to be working out very well, many little coincidences leading me to just what I need at the right time. On the other hand when I’m stressed, not in touch with my true self, but caught up in the demands of egoic thinking, synchronicities like this do not happen so much.


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Loss and Revival of the Timeless Wisdom

September 18th, 2016

The following is from the Preface I wrote for the new edition of Rupert Spira’s book, The Transparency of Things

We live in unprecedented times. Science is answering age-old questions about the nature of reality, the birth of the cosmos, and the origins of life. We are witnessing technological advances that a century ago would have seemed science fiction, or even magic. And, more alarmingly, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact our burgeoning growth is having on the planet. Yet, along with these rapidly unfolding changes is another development that is passing largely unnoticed. We are in the midst of an unprecedented spiritual renaissance, rediscovering in contemporary terms the timeless wisdom of the ages.

Most spiritual traditions began with an individual having a transforming mystical experience, some profound revelation, or inner awakening. It may have come through dedicated spiritual practice, deep devotion, facing a hard challenge, or sometimes unbidden, out of the blue—a timeless moment in which one’s personal dramas pale in the light of a deep inner security. However it came, it usually led to a delightful joy in being alive, an unconditional love for all beings, the dissolving of the sense of self, and an awareness of oneness with creation.

The profound transformation they experienced caused many to want to share their discovery, and help others have their own awakening. But those who listened to their teachings may have misunderstood some parts, forgot others, and perhaps added interpretations of their own. Much like the party game of Chinese whispers in which a message whispered round a room can end up nothing like the original, as the teaching passed from one person to another, from one culture to another, and was translated from one language to another, it gradually became less and less like the original. The timeless wisdom became increasingly veiled, and clothed in the beliefs and values of the society in which it found itself, resulting in a diversity of faiths whose common essence is often hard to detect.

Today however, we are in the midst of a widespread spiritual renaissance that differs significantly from those of the past. We are no longer limited to the faith of our particular culture; we have access to all the world’s wisdom traditions, from the dawn of recorded history to the present day. And the insights of contemporary teachers from around the planet are readily available in books, recordings, and via the Internet. None of this was possible before.

Rather than there being a single leader, there are now many experiencing and expounding the perennial philosophy. Some may be more visible than others, and some may have clearer realizations than others, but all are contributing to a growing rediscovery of the timeless wisdom. We are seeing through the apparent differences of the world’s faiths, past their various cultural trappings and interpretations, to what lies at their heart. And, instead of the truth becoming progressively diluted and veiled as it is passed on, today our discoveries are reinforcing each other. We are collectively honing in on the essential teaching.

As we strip away the layers of accumulated obscurity, the core message not only gets clearer and clearer. It gets simpler and simpler. And the path becomes easier and easier.

At the leading edge of this progressive awakening is what contemporary teachers such as Francis Lucille and Rupert Spira call “the direct path”. Recognition of our true nature does not need studious reading of spiritual texts, years of meditation practice, or deep devotion to a teacher; only the willingness to engage in a rigorously honest investigation into the nature of awareness itself. Not an intellectual investigation, but a personal investigation into what we truly are.


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Consciousness does not identify with anything

June 23rd, 2016

I sometimes hear people claim that pure consciousness identifies itself with the ego, with thinking, or with the body. What they are effectively saying is that the pure Self, i.e. that which is conscious of all experiences, believes it is a separate self, a thinker, a chooser, and doer of actions. But the pure Self, does not believe or think anything. It is that which is aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are arising—the “knower” of all experience.

This Self is not tainted or affected in any way by the perturbations of the mind. It’s essence remains unchanged, just as the water in a wave is not itself changed by the wave’s motion. Unchanging, the Self is the silent knower of all that appears in our experience.

What is actually happening is that the attention becomes absorbed in the thought-system of the ego.

Attention is intrinsic to being aware. It might be thought of as the spotlight of awareness, focusing on one particular aspect of the enormous breadth of the totality of our experience. It’s job is to attend to things that may be important.

The attention has two basic modes of operation. There is a relaxed mode where everything is OK. We are at ease, and the attention moves effortlessly, from one possible interest to another, with no voluntary effort or control—attracted to the sound of a bird, an itch, a moth flying by. In this mode, our attention is not pre-occupied with who we are, or our sense of self.

Then when we do notice something of interest our attention stays there for a while. We pay attention. We consider whether this may be important for our well-being? Do I need do anything? If so what? The focus of consciousness is now on the issue at hand, and the thoughts we are having about it.

If the issue at hand is deemed important for our well-being, then the seamless whole of our experience is divided in two. There is this body, the organism that needs taking care of, and the world around that may need to be changed in some way, or conversely be prevented from changing. We create a sense of being an individual self who is thinking and acting in the world. But this sense of self is, in the final analysis, just a set of thoughts and beliefs. It is another form arising in experience, another “thing” we are conscious of.

Consciousness has not identified itself with this sense of self. The identification is in our thinking. Consciousness itself remains, as ever, the silent witness of all these shenanigans. It is simply aware of them as it would be of any other thought or experience.

The separate sense of self is like a character in a novel. If it is an engrossing novel, we, the reader, can become so absorbed in the story, the ups and downs of the hero’s adventure, that we temporarily forget we are the reader of the story. Our attention is absorbed by the drama, imaging the world of the hero. Similarly with the dramas of our own lives, our attention becomes absorbed in our own hero’s journey—the challenges and opportunities, our hopes and fears, the choices we must make, the risks we must take. But the pure Self, the knower of all experience, has not identified with the separate self, the character in our personal story. It merely experiences the machinations of this particular way of thinking.

So when we say consciousness becomes identified with the ego, with thoughts or the body, what is actually happening is that the attention is so focused on these aspects of our experience that they dominate our experience. For a while, the fact that we are much more than that does not get a chance to enter. We forget we are that which is watching the drama unfold.


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There is no such thing as self

June 17th, 2016

Let me be clear, the emphasis is on “thing”. We all experience a sense of personal self, a “me” that is reading these words, an individual with its own thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes. And we also know a sense of I-ness that is always present, that which knows this experience right now, and every other experience we’ve ever had. But neither of these senses of self is a thing, an object we can identify and go find.

When I look within I find various things that I am aware of—thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. I also find ideas about who I am: a name, gender, age, personality, memories and fantasies, hopes and fears. But these are not my self. They are just experiences that give me a sense that I am an individual being, with a unique set of attributes.

When I feel I am caught in my ego, there’s not a “thing” that is controlling me. What I’m caught in is a self-centered way of thinking—usually about how can I get what I need from the world so that I can feel OK. It is just a mode of thinking, determined by a mind-set or belief as to how to get what I want. There’s no actual thing called an “ego” directing my thoughts; just patterns of responses, each in their own way seeking to help me feel safe and survive. And at times I am very grateful for this way of thinking. Without it none of us would have survived for long.

Then there is that ever-present quality of “I”, the knower all experience—including the experience of being a separate unique self. That is no-thing either. Unlike the ego-mind which has a whole host of qualities associated with it, the knower, the “I am” at the center every experience has no intrinsic qualities. It is consciousness, the subject of all experience.

Having no intrinsic qualities, the ever-present sense of “I”, often called the “pure self” or Self, can never be known as an object of experience. For that it would need to have a form that could be known. One may seem to experience it as a location in the body, a quality of presence in the heart perhaps, or a deep feeling of me-ness. But in the final analysis, however, subtle, and perhaps “spiritual”, these experiences might be they are all experiences, and as such are known to and by consciousness. They are not the pure self, that which is aware of them all. For that reason this self can never be known as a thing.

If I ask “Who are you?” the mind can come up with all manner of answers. But if I ask simply “Are you?” the answer invariably is a simple “Yes.”


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The Emergence of Self-Awareness: The Mirror Test

July 7th, 2015

Do other animals have a sense of self?

One common way of answering this question is with the “mirror test”. Does an animal recognize itself in a mirror?

The test was first devised by Charles Darwin who held up a mirror to an orangutan in a zoo, noting how the animal reacted with unusual facial expressions. In the 1970s the test was refined by placing a mark on an animal’s face, and then observing how it responded when it looked in the mirror. Orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos will poke the spot or try to remove it, showing that they see the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves. Bottlenose dolphins and orcas also pass the test. And recently elephants have been shown to pass it.

Dogs and cats, however, fail the mirror test. Dogs will occasionally bark at their reflection, and cats have been known to go look behind the mirror, but generally these animals ignore their image in the mirror. It is therefore assumed that they have no sense of self. But can we draw such a clear line between creatures with a sense of self and those without?

That a dog or cat generally ignores its reflection rather than behaving as if it were seeing another animal is interesting. They do not pass the test in the sense of recognizing themselves in the reflection; yet they do not completely fail the test either. They know they are not seeing another dog or cat. I call this “not-other” awareness, as opposed to full self-awareness.

I suspect not-other awareness is to be found in any animal that drinks from water. As it leans forward to drink, it is likely to come face to face with its own reflection. If it interpreted this as another animal looming close, it would probably back off (and, if repeated continually, die of thirst). For such creatures, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in the inhibition of the “other” response when seeing their own reflection in water.

With the great apes, dolphins, and elephants, consciousness has now evolved to the point where it can recognize the “not-other” as itself.

So it would seem that the evolution of self is not a black or white affair. There are many shades of gray between no self-awareness and self-awareness.


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Fireworm Spectacular

April 11th, 2015

Sitting on a dock in Isla Morada, watching the stars come out as dusk turned into night, when suddenly a bright green luminescence appeared in the water. At first I thought it must be a glowing jellyfish. Then more appeared, and looking more closely I saw each was a brightly glowing wriggling worm, a couple of inches long, creating around it a luminescent pool about a foot across. They were there for a minute then vanished. Altogether forty or so must have suddenly appeared, and just as suddenly disappeared. Within minutes the show was over.

Subsequent research revealed I had just seen the mating ritual of the bearded fireworm. It happens on the third quarter of the moon in Spring, fifty-six minutes after sunset. The females come out of the mud, swim up to the surface and put on this spectacle, attracting the males up to them.

But how come such exact timing, I wondered? At first I must I thought be triggered by the degree of darkness reached 56 minutes after sunset, on a day when there is no full moon. But a day or two after the full moon, the sky would be that dark. Why did it not happen till the third quarter – and this was exactly on the third quarter, seven days after the full moon.

I was left in wonder. One of those fascinating ways life on Earth is linked to the cycles of the moon – and so precisely.

And my own timing was perfect too. Had I not stayed on the dock till it got dark, I would not have seen them. Had it been en another day, I would not have seen them. Perhaps this is the only time in my life I will be privileged to witness this magic luminescent dance. But I shall be eternally grateful for having done so. (Or maybe I will return on the third quarter of the April full moon next year.)


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