The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Solitude and Quietness

Why we need it to be whole

I was about six, when one day our elementary school teacher, Miss Shaw, sent all 15 of us in the class home for the weekend with a copy of William Wordsworth's poem "The Daffodils." We were to read and memorize all four verses, and come back on Monday morning prepared to recite the poem from memory. Settling low into my seat didn't help me escape Miss Shaw's gimlet eye. I was the first to be called: "On your feet Collier. Get on with it." It had been an easy poem to learn: seductive alliterative rhythms conjuring mental images of remote mountains and lakes, and initiating a hitherto unsuspected and compelling attraction in myself to the solitary wanderings expressed by Wordsworth. Here is the first, scene-setting verse of "The Daffodils:"

I wandered lonely as a crowd

That floats on high o'er vales and hills

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

In the following two verses similarly descriptive lines occur:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance.

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Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Followed by:

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

I gazed - and gazed - but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

And then comes the grand finale:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) lived among the lakes and mountains of northern England's ‘Lake District' and it was the remote, natural beauty of this place that inspired much of his poetry. He walked the heights and valleys alone—in all weathers—and found both sublime pleasure and a transcendent significance in his wanderings as these verses reveal. In my view, "The Daffodils" is unique in that it illuminates the extraordinary two-part system of awareness delivered by consciousness.

First, it tells of the objective side of consciousness where the senses are brought into play—reporting on the presence of things; on the physical, material nature of the outside world—of everything going on in one's environment—all the result of Wordsworth's dominant and acute visual sense reveling in the elemental grandeur of the Cumbrian landscape. Second, the reader is introduced to the subjective workings of the poet's consciousness—automatically triggered by this visual experience and bringing bringing him to know an inner and personal psychological realm: a wealth of associated thoughts, feeling-attitudes, contemplative musings. He writes, "my heart with pleasure fills"; talks about "the bliss of solitude."

Such is the complexity of human consciousness: working objectively through the senses on the one hand; subjectively through our interiorized mental life on the other. And to become ‘whole' as a human being requires that both sides are acknowledged and accepted. It is this complementarity that brings one to know oneself in terms of character, personality, direction...and all to what end?

But without experiencing periods of solitude, and quietness, this state of ‘wholeness' is difficult to achieve. Yet the social interconnectedness that distinguishes our electronic society does not encourage such solitary independence or such Wordsworthian revery. The computer facilitates the easier route by ensuring that one is always sensorialy part of the world‘s affairs, living vicariously through constant contact with others. A supremely existential existence. Little retreat into that ‘vacant and pensive mood'. In 20 years from now, the Jungian theme of individuation—becoming whole as a self—may have little meaning or relevance. And to talk about the ‘human spirit' may label one as being somewhat old-fashioned.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will discuss a few outstanding instances of the effect of extreme solitude, taken from my book, What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To? But to sign off here, I would just mention the astuteness displayed by Adolph Hitler in the holding of vast rallies such as those held at Nuremberg. As a result, individual thought and feeling had less chance to take hold in Nazi Germany. Imagine: tens of thousands standing shoulder to shoulder; military bands playing; soldiers marching; the electrically amplified voice of the Fuhrer haranguing the crowd. No solitude; No quiet. Personal contemplation and reflection? Fat chance!

 

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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