Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dance of Consciousness

The word consciousness is commonly defined as "an alert cognitive state in which one is aware of oneself and one's situation." We use the word when referring to someone's concussion, self-esteem, or mindfulness. It is a term that permeates the physical, emotional and spiritual bodies. In fact, these images are three of the images that come up on the very first page of Google Image search results when prompted with "consciousness" as the search word. These images represent the physical, psycho-social, and spiritual components of consciousness.
C. Robert Cloninger draws distinctions between consciousness, awareness, and, cognition in his book, "Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being,"
"Awareness is a synonym for consciousness... Furthermore, the words aware and conscious both refer to our sense of recognition of something in relation to our self. However, the word conscious emphasizes feelings associated with inner recognition. A third word, cognizant, emphasizes outer recognition on the level of reason and intellectual knowledge rather than on the level of intuitive feelings... Intuition is defined as immediate apprehension, or direct perception and recognition, independent of any reasoning process. In other words, intuition is an inner sense or senses that act like an in-built mirror of our self and the world in which we live."

Studying consciousness involves the integration of neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, physics, genetics, physiology, and chemistry, and undoubtedly other fields as well. The subject of consciousness is often charted as the territory of religion, and in a society hypersensitive to political correctness and freedom of religion (thank goodness!), we become lax in moral and spiritual development. This is partially due to fear of offending others or confrontation of our beliefs (which just goes to show the determination with which we believe things), and partially due to the laziness that arises when presented with a seemingly overwhelming and challenging task; such as health, enlightenment, or changing beliefs and behaviors. We get knee-deep into relativistic fallacy and shy away from taking a strong stance in what we believe, and have no way to encourage people towards growth. Now, I'm not supporting religious dictatorships, but merely suggesting that we begin to raise these questions in homes, schools, and public forums.

What does it mean to have consciousness?
How do we "raise consciousness"?
How do we measure levels of consciousness?
And why should we care?

Well that's just what I plan on finding out. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's All Uphill From Here

In case you haven't checked out the page on my blog; Bike to Build: in the Himalayas- do it now. I'll wait.


Pretty cool, right?!

Well yesterday, I started training. I did a 12-mile road bike ride starting at about 800ft elevation, probably without much gain, although those hills are killer.
A little reflection on yesterday's ride:

I remember hiking about a year and a half ago in the Columbia River Gorge in Northern Oregon with my sister. My sister is stronger and faster than me in almost everything. This particular hike was when I really came to peace with that. Always about 5-10 paces behind her, I was huffing uphill: the sound of my breath overpowering the sounds of birds and soft rainfall around me and failing to smell the fresh air by breathing deeply in and out of my mouth, my glare was down at my feet, making sure I didn't trip over anything as I tried to hurry my pace to catch up with my sister. There came a point where I stopped trying so hard to match her footsteps. I took a breath in through my nose, looked up at the beautiful temperate rain forest around me, and most importantly, I stopped berating myself. The voice of, "I can't," quieted, and I could hear my footsteps on the wet leaves, my breath, the birds, the kiss of water against the treetops.

I wrote previously about a short backpacking trip I took last summer in Colorado with my boyfriend, and how we stopped just above a pretty steep pass and he asked me how I felt. I answered, "I feel inadequate, like I can't do this. Frustrated. Tired." Or something along those whiny lines. He looked at me, and said, "Would you shut up?" I was slightly taken aback, and in that moment I caught a glimpse of my surrounding environment at 1200 feet in altitude in the Colorado Mountains, snow covered peaks, the sun just over the crest. And I thought, "Wow. I've been harping on all this negativity, when THIS is surrounding me?! What a waste of energy." I looked back at my friend, and thanked him for telling me to shut up.

While biking yesterday, after about 40 minutes of this somewhat steady uphill ride, my mind and I were deeply entrenched in some ugly warfare. That same, nasty "I can't" voice was louder than my breathing (which was pretty hefty), and I was about ready to give up on the goal I've set to bike 480 km from Manali to Ladakh, India. Then I reached the top of the hill (one of many), and again took in the view of the sun peaking over the clouds beyond the mountain peaks, the river rushing past and the rich smell of manure that I've come to love. Then I kept going.

On the way back, a mostly downhill ride, my riding partner (the same gentleman who so lovingly told me to "shut-up" last summer) commented on my supremely improved attitude. I reminded myself of a hike with my sister where she observed that she is always in a much better mood when the hike is descending rather than ascending. In other words, downhill = happy. As we rode our bikes near top speed, he asked me why I was in such a sour mood earlier.
I loosened my grip on the brake, and proclaimed, "IT DOESN'T EVEN MATTER!"

So while, I'm still unsure of my capability to ride almost 300 miles through dirt roads in Northern India with a top altitude of 17,580 ft., I haven't given up yet.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I have not been enrolled in any traditional educational institution since early December, and while I definitely miss the atmosphere of a community of learning, I've not stopped learning by any stretch of the imagination. One of the greatest things about not being in school is the amount of time I have available for leaisure reading (although most of my leisure reading prompts the people around me to ask me, "is that for school for or fun?"). It's amazing to me how lost this pleasure had been for me; this idea of reading for fun, for the sheer beauty of mental stimulation and entertainment. It seems like our lives in the 21st century are so full of constant over-stimulation in the form of media, electronic devices, and just the general underlying stress of our daily lives (very aptly described by Dr. Candace Pert in Molecules of Emotion, that the thought of engaging more mental energy to read seems either daunting or exhausting. Considering, especially that the general social attitude towards reading stems from the experiences starting as young as 5 or 6 years old when the teacher pulled the pen out of your left hand and told you draw with your right hand, or in middle school when summer reading assignments are about as boring as they are obscure and the intentions of such assignments are far from child-oriented. Reading is seen as a task, met with responses of children watching their weekend plans destroyed.

And yet when we are given the luxury of "free time," and the option to do with it what we please, it may be surprising what we end up doing. For example, I'd been working in retail, about 50 hours a week, three of which was spent on the same shift as a 17 year old, high school student, a very sweet boy, we'll call him Greg. Greg was preparing for the HSPAs, a state-wide test given yearly to keep track of the progress of students etc., and he brought his "practice problems" to work one day after school in case there was any down-time. I watched him do a couple of problems before jumping up and asking him to make me copies of his homework- I wanted to do some math.
Let me repeat that. I wanted to do some math. I hated math in high school and I haven't taken a math class since senior year, in fact, I haven't taken a math class seriously since junior year. And all of a sudden, the prospect of figuring out how fast train C was going from point A to point B was not only challenging, but fun.

Malcolm Gladwel talks about teh variation in success, in his book "Outliers" (which I highly recommend), and he discusses the widely-held belief that Asians are better at math. His argument is that because Asian languages have a more logical numbering system (ie, twentyone is literally "two-tens-and-one") and because the words for numbers are shorter, and therefore take less time to say (the human brain can only easily remember what can fit into a 7 second chunk of time), Asians have a leg-up on what most Europeans, or at least, Americans have difficulty with- math. His argument suggests that it is not something innate about Asians, but their environment that allows them to hone better math skills over time. (Gladwell presents these points in a much more concise and understandable fashion with more detail.)

This argument gives us hope, because it means that, like Asians and math, it is not necessarily the information presented in schools, but the environment in which we are placed to learn. This is one of the biggest reason why I myself have loved college. The incredible opportunity to be engaged, constantly, with other students, thinking, learning, experimenting, exploring; it is a unique community- one that I have missed during my time off from institutional forms of education. Other aspects of school have been, thus far, less inspiring. While we all learn relatively huge quantities of information in school, some of the most important lessons we ever learn are not the ones taught in class rooms, and even though I learned a lot of very useful and interesting information in my old college (hereby referred to as college A), probably one of the most important things I learned was that there are many ways to an education, and college, or formal institutionalized learning is not necessarily the end-all-be-all.
And thus, I am on to college plan B!

love and props go out to my friend and fellow "eduventurer"!