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Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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Whether you think about it in terms of a newborn baby or a pre-language ancient human, the thoughts can lead you to the realization that, for each human who has ever lived, there has been a time of great confusion. A period of being overmastered by an uninvited occurrence – the emergence of sentience.

The tendency of all sentient beings to try to make sense of their environment and living experience produces a frustration during those times when the demands of experience exceed the ability of the tools at hand. Pre-linguistic and without the accumulated experience necessary to begin to build useful models of the world and life as it is found, it is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle in the dark.

At first comes unspoken fears and useful instinctive responses. But, as these prove less than adequate, tools are developed which support a more sophisticated understanding.

The potential in all sentient beings is the possibility of achieving self-awareness and to integrate into that self-awareness information gathered about the encountered world and the experience of being alive. One of the tools that is developed is that of language.

Language is not reality. It is an attempt to model narrowly focused parts of experience using symbols. But that is insufficient as a description. Language must also be a common understanding across similar beings – a generally accepted convention. If I am the only being who refers to this thing before me as a ‘tree’, then there is no language. Until others begin using the same symbols, nothing important has happened.

In it’s early stage of development, before a given sentient being has developed extended experience with being alive in the world as it is found, language can be a prophylactic against the terrifying unknown. As an example, there was no need of the idea of god until humans discovered the concept of mortality and the unsatisfactoriness of the natural world. There was no need for the idea of sin until the realization came that life continues by killing and consuming other life. These understandings are reached as the narrowly focused tools generate temporary understandings of a world dominated by impermanence.

Tool such as common understandings provide another advantage. They allow similar beings to transmit experiences and understandings – thus short-circuiting the need to each successive generation of the tribe to discover anew. In that sense, such understandings need not be spoken. Nor are they necessarily essential to survival. On the Japanese island to Koshima, there is a tribe of macaque monkeys that has learned to wash sweet potatoes before eating them.

In modern human society, we wash our tools before using them to manipulate other tools. Increasingly isolated from nature and experiences that triggered the need for tools like language, we now are like the talking heads of the news media who have replaced reporters – reporters who had, as their mission, to go out and interview news makers. But the talking heads spend most of their time interviewing each other! In a similar way, modern humans develop tools to talk about tools. Ways of looking at ways of looking at things. Now the jigsaw puzzle is not the un-understood experience of living in a world that is unpredictable – a world of predators and poisons – of joys and boons – of yes and no – of maybe and perhaps. It had become the disjointed pieces of a manufactured reality that has less and less of a direct relationship to the world that molded humans.

With the emergence of sentience comes the need to understand and order the experience of the world as it presents itself. But with the emergence of self-awareness there comes the need to understand the being that is experiencing being alive in the world as it presents itself.

One of the parts of human experience where this transmogrification is most impactful is in the areas of religion and spirituality. (I make a distinction – religion posits the existence of a god while spirituality is agnostic on the question.) In a meaningful sense, the roots of both are pre-linguistic. They arise from, and are driven by, a sense of unease and a need to find tools that will allow a self-aware being to come to terms with a realization that is, on its own and in itself, unfathomable.

The dilemma comes with the realization that language and the other tools that are designed to come to terms with the world as it is experienced are inadequate in the face of emerging self-awareness. In a meaningful sense, the journey to self-discover is one back into the pre-linguistic. The cornerstone of this realization is the discovery that the self, as it is experienced, is itself pre-linguistic. And so, the idea of experience that is beyond language – beyond explanation emerges for a second time.

In both religion and spirituality, we encounter the idea that somethings are beyond explanation and can only be experienced in their most direct sense. One must simply accept and experience. Explanations are inherently inadequate to the task.

What does this mean to the internal journey of self-discovery? In a fundamental sense, it means that we are back in the dark with a new jigsaw puzzle. But here the darkness is our inability to comprehend the implications of our own self-awareness and the conundrums that it presents. Finding that the light produced by tools such as language and culture are inadequate to light our way, we are left to seek the illumination within ourselves.

Now we encounter the great divide – the two roads that diverge in a yellow wood. Along one path, the illumination emanates from a supposed super-natural being. The glory of a gift from an absent father. The other insists that it is self-knowledge that brings illumination. In the first case, the puzzle assembles itself – indeed was preassembled by a divine hand. With the other, the burden is to self-assemble. It recalls the final verse in Robert Frost’s poem:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The decision is to believe or to conceive. But the implications of such a choice are profound. Belief does not advance the inward journey. In fact, it abrogates it – makes certain that it is never undertaken. Only the spiritual journey can accomplish that. The conundrum is clear. The well-spring of self-awareness is avoiding the dead end of belief and embarking on the perilous journey inward to seek the illumination that will sunder the darkness and render the jigsaw puzzle visible at last.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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