What is Ordinary Illuminated? It is a series of essays that appreciate our ordinary conscious experience. The illumination that takes place in every present moment, no matter how typical.
In Ordinary Illuminated, we will resource both those examining life with deep insights from the inside and those that explain existence using the latest science. Ordinary Illuminated will be at times cerebral, at times common.
We’ll talk to people about if they hear ear-worm songs in their head or only read the same lyrics over and over. We’ll talk about sensations around the kitchen, both using tasting as an instrument–like while cooking–and eating for sustenance. And we’ll talk to the color blind about consciousness and its compensations. We’ll talk to neuroscientists about consciousness and to physicists about what is likely to replace spacetime as the fundamental component of materialism.
My name is Justin Harnish and I am an ordinary man trying to live an examined life. I grew up in Montana in a small town surrounded by natural beauty that I was taught was the tide pools of a prehistoric sea. The rimrocks, mesas, and valleys transformed by a knowledge of geology into beaches, inlets, and a submerged jungle. I lived in a Latter Day Atlantis.
I logged a lot of miles and read a lot of pages. My curiosity often matched my reading to my wanderings: head pointed up into the sky to investigate clouds or beyond them stars that I was studying; or pouring over statistics before making my own playing whiffle ball in my friends’ backyards imagined to be Wrigley, Fenway, or the venerable Polo Grounds.
I am lucky. I grew up happy and loved. I had many good teachers that believed in me as a student. I had my needs met and I learned to entertain and sooth myself with books, sport, and being outdoors. In high school, I had a job selling baseball caps that was equal parts performance art and sporting goods apparel. I had an audience that–to a second order–paid me for my opinions and humor. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
In university, I used the curricular and extra-curricular to expand my mind. My friends and I played a the Glass Bead Game of our own making, which included healthy doses of rhetoric, science, music, fractals, and meditation, and psychedelics.
Semiconductor engineering and the use of my education brought a middle-class life and eventually, the opportunity to serve as a human rights activist and community builder for forcibly displaced women. Refugee, immigrant, and asylum seekers resettled in Salt Lake City found a safe space, developed a custom plan, and began on a path toward self-reliance thanks to the nonprofit–Women of the World–that my wife and I co-founded.
Approaching mid-life, the knowledge I have gained and the knowledge I hope to impart, have time and again brought me to the need to develop a platform. When that knowledge was based in a life path akin to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, that platform was going to be called “Heroic Life Path.” As I hoped to bring about a merger between the science of my training and vocation with the literature and writing of my advocation, it morphed into “Consilience Now.” While zines were popular, I imagined a guide to an examined life in the same way that Martha Stewart’s Living is a guide to home improvement and so I gobbled up domains surrounding “Examined Life Living” that I never really used. I was even convinced that I could sell hard-charging American consumers on the idea of focusing on appreciating what they had on a foundation of what I was calling “Strategic Settling.”
My domain dominion is an exhausting list of what is not quite right for what I want to say… until now.
One afternoon, I was relistening to Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” talk. I have been a Sam Harris fanboy since I read his first book, “The End of Faith.” His most recent work, targeted at building a secular path for a first-person investigation of consciousness, is his opus. Sam’s insight into the content, curriculum, and the app media for making meditation available to those seeking to live an examined life hits “the middle of the bullseye” to use his phrase.
Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Sam started by discussing the meaningfulness of experiences, first talking about the Hubble deep-field photo and the implications that in this small patch of sky there are either no other life forms looking back at us or each galaxy is teeming with life. He goes on to discuss how the insights gleaned from the most profound components of existence are not the only ones with a valence to a deeper meaning. Indeed, the ordinary conscious experience of this and every other present moment, just being you, from the inside, in the here and now is one of the greatest scientific mysteries facing science today. “The fact that the universe is illuminated where you sit…”
This was enough to once again set me off to find a domain.
There is something sneakily special about everyday ordinary waking consciousness. You can feel it. The experiences you have are only completely like that for you. You can train your attention on felt experience, making your mind full of just consciousness and its contents, or you can simply let it pass without recognizing that you are mindless, your mind lost to thought or autonomous action. If you are like me, you wonder what it means that there is a particular character to experience from behind your face and a different sort of makeup to the rest of existence.
Just look out on the scene in front of you. For those of you that are driving, maintain your automaticity of driving to the level that is safe, for the rest of you, take in as much of the scene as you can with your peripheral vision. You might be in an ordinary seat looking at a room or outside looking over your yard. Do you feel like you are watching this scene on TV or recording it with your eyes to be stored in your brain? It doesn’t, there is only so much fidelity a 2D, visual only scene has to felt experience. Even modern VR can only capture a modest verisimilitude to the real thing.
One of the major reasons that this ordinary scene is illuminated is because of the first-person nature of it. While your identical twin, standing right next to you with the same visual acuity as you might see the same things to new perfect fealty, they are undoubtedly having different thoughts and feelings about the scene. The scene feels different because it has replaced the space where your head should be. You can only guess at what the experience will be when jumping into the shoes of your identical twin and viewing the scene from where their head should be, but you can never do this.
The life you have to examine is unique to you. The way you chose to examine life can be optimized. Imagine again standing next to your twin in the back yard looking at an autumn scene. Your twin sees the pine needles and leaves to rake and their mind goes to the money required to hire someone to rake the yard or the time spent in this drudgery. On the other hand, you enjoy the scene, the sensation of the crisp air, the love you feel for your twin, and the appreciation for the time you share. Same scene, similar biology, but different attention… in your case to the present state of consciousness & its contents, in your twin’s case, to thoughts of the future.
My friend and beginning meditator, practically speaks of the ordinary illuminated nature of conscious experience as the greatest life hack to keep from being bored. By maintaining a finely tuned mindful approach to even the most ordinary details, you can appreciate the high-definition and integrated nature of experience and entangle yourself fully in your relationships by listening more, acting more warmly, and reacting less and with shorter periods of upset. Developing your attention to and appreciation for the ordinary illuminated nature of experience is the exercise that ensures that the mind you live within is at its healthiest.
Photo by Joline Torres on Unsplash
Like any good lifestyle improvement package, there are add-ons that kick up the lumins of our ordinary experience. One of these is knowledge of existence. Our current scientific knowledge of the way the universe works adds an upgraded overlay to conscious experience. The progress of scientific knowledge is another thing, along with conscious experience, that makes humans unique in a material universe. Our ability to use universal processes, like computation, logic, and selection to formulate theories that can fully explain and predict a segment of the world and that allows us to construct complex machines is different from the creation of items by the universe, but no less amazing. The complexity of our machines marvels that of the complexity of the creations of anything in the universe, and it is likely that our advance of knowledge is just at the “beginning of an infinity” of progress against the increasingly difficult problems that we will be required to solve to stay alive.