Things tend to come together. I never thought the simple act of splitting a log for kindling was a particularly profound experience. Until I allowed myself to really experience it for what it was. I ran out of kindling just prior hearing the weather report announcing an incoming snow storm. The cold front was bringing rapidly falling temperatures though at the time it was relatively warm out. I was delighted to have a free afternoon to prepare for what was to come. I imagined that after a busy day I might be able to wake up to an ample supply of kindling and logs. Anything to get the day’s fire going and make this potentially harsh winter day a bit more peaceful would be a simple gift to leave myself.
I consider activities like this opportunities for moving meditations. Like if you have ever gone on a walking meditation. Some weight trainers pursue working out in this way. Taking care to mindfully notice how your body responds to the work out while methodically loading and unloading the weights. There is a type of concentration that focuses the mind and coordinates the body unlike how we often move throughout our more chaotic or rigid everyday life.
On this particular day I found myself consciously opening up to my senses. There was the brisk cool air that stood in contrast to the warm front that still lingered above it. I was cool but comfortable. The musky smell of stored wood and fresh scent of split fibers really caught my attention. The texture of the fibers, the weight of the ax in hand and the fullness of my lungs all seemed particularly accessible to my awareness. I began severing these quarter or half logs into 3, 4, or sometimes 5 segments often of various thickness. Being the musician that I am I took pleasure in the differentiated melodic tones given off as the pieces collided while I stacked them in a pile.
Yup, this was just simple enjoyment in what might have just been an everyday activity. And then something struck me. I’m not going to try to name it. While raising the ax to strike I had the awareness I was a part of some process that was weaving together my inside and the outside world in a miraculous way. As I drew breath and felt the fullness of my lungs I simultaneously knew that the ax would fall in just the right spot peeling away just enough wood to allow for a few more segments to be parsed out. Time and again the ax fell and the wood obliged leaving me with a gorgeous stack of sticks. I drove a wedge shaped hole in the ground that kept it’s shape with repeated blows. Such precision. How was this possible? What type of consciousness can pull such a thing off?
While I admit that there were times I had allowed myself to enjoy thinking about just how miraculous it is to coordinate the body with the ax and the log, I kept from analyzing or classifying what was going on and just…”went with it”. While consciousness is transparent, meaning we don’t perceive it directly, we seem capable of sensing and feeling the working of it. There is a type of pleasure that emerges from this awareness. The awareness of being in direct contact with our environment engaged in purposeful activity.
Giulio Tononi’s research makes a claim that consciousness itself is “integrated information”. Not a thing at all, but the coming together of things. For us humans, the merger of inside and outside worlds. Disparate parts that for a time create a whole seem to give rise to it.
“Light is the soul, and hard to find, hides in the brain as if it were a naught; ah, the soul, the soul must be the weight of God — the soul is just no weight at all.”
The phrase from Giulio’s role play of Galilieo as a “subjective scientist” in his book “PHI” above expresses the intricacies of dealing with a subject in science that has no way of being “objectively measured”. Despite being the single most sophisticated advancement in human evolution human consciousness evades our perception. Some say that the “soul” is equivalent to consciousness as Tononi’s imagined quote from Galilieo suggests above. When I entertain this idea it seems to makes some sense to my wood cutting experience. I think of phrases like, “Listening to music is good for the soul.” Or really any phrase that suggests something is “good for the soul”. What do people mean by these observations?
If the soul isn’t a thing but a property that springs up out of things coming together in just the right way, then maybe what is good for the soul is what allows it to be. Like the pursuit of matching the inside and outside worlds together in a shared experience. Maybe the more things “come together” the more soulful we are, the more soulful we feel. For example, when we pursue a passion that is born out of our own musings and find the external resources to bring it to fruition. It would stand that if this were true then the pursuit of goals that lack an inner motivation would be soul less. Without a soul. A non-consciousness. Like me chopping wood without thought of its purpose or how I’m participating in a seasonal activity that many of human-kind in my longitude are engaged in this time of year. There always seems to be a physical and social environment that our consciousness is embedded in and brings together. Culture and cognition. Consciousness is relational.
Like the baby bird in “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman. The hatchling bird is separated from its mother and begins a journey to find her. Things just don’t feel right without her there to help the baby bird learn about what it is to be a bird. He encounters a variety of animals and then machines before being reunited by a helpful frontloader. The ominous mechanical monstrosity appears menacing at first and then is pictured scooping up the lost fledgling and lowering it to its mother. Finding out how to bring things together in just the right way is in part determined by chance, determination, discernment, and a host of other factors indeed. However, a healthy dose of soulful living never hurt the effort.
If consciousness is soul, then maybe our willingness to hang in there and see how it all comes together is what living soulfully is all about. Like our baby bird. The deeper our awareness of ourselves the more we see how things fit together or not. By enduring ourselves we come into contact with what is enduring and what just fades away. Who knows how a dog, pig, or large vehicle will be involved in bringing us back home to ourselves? It’s hard to say what role things will play in our lives that in the moment don’t seem to fit. But like the pursuit of warmth in the winter, the adrenaline rush of executing sophisticated motor movements, and a the longing to love and be loved the soul knows where the good stuff is…