Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Spirit, Networks, and Emergence

Hello again folks, hope you are all doing well!

Today I want to talk some about some recent pieces that I have read recently. The two pieces in question are really fascinating to think about in the context of an animistic practice.

Both of these pieces come from NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. If you are not familiar with it, I would highly recommend checking it out. There are some great writers over there.

The first piece is by Marcelo Gleiser, and is entitled Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul? To frame this discussion, I start out with a quote from the article;

“The idea that neuroscience is rediscovering the soul is, to most scientists and philosophers, nothing short of outrageous. Of course it is not.

But the widespread, adverse, knee-jerk attitude presupposes the old-fashioned definition of the soul — the ethereal, immaterial entity that somehow encapsulates your essence. Surely, this kind of supernatural mumbo-jumbo has no place in modern science. And I agree. The Cartesian separation of body and soul, the res extensa (matter stuff) vs. res cogitans (mind stuff) has long been discarded as untenable in a strictly materialistic description of natural phenomena.”

I have to admit, I had the same kind of reaction when I first read the title. The world really is a fantastic mix of matter and energy, but these things are interchangeably and so far science has not found what might be called a “spirit particle” or anything of the sort. From what we know of this world, everything is pretty much matter or energy.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons. Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Gleiser says it this way;

“But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

Just as we have unique fingerprints, our brains, their “connectome,” are also unique. Surely, all brains are made of the same stuff, but wired in very individual ways. Recall that our brains are plastic, and mold themselves according to environmental and emotional inputs — the stories of our lives. To this, we must add our bodies and their relation to our brains. For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration as mapped through the complex highways of nerves interlocking all of you.”

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Remember that part about emergent properties and integration, we will be coming back to that.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self.

In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

As Haskell says;

“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. Many of the first fossilized cells of life on Earth lived in integrated bacterial stacks called stromatolites. Today, all major ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, grasslands, ocean plankton — are built on conversations between interdependent partners. Cut these conversations and the ecosystems fall apart. The first artificial cells also have a networked character. When scientists organize chemical reactions into arrays of tiny, interconnected compartments, life-like properties emerge: cycles of protein production, gradients of signaling chemicals, and the ability to maintain a steady internal state. Without the network, the homogeneous chemical soup lacks any tang of life.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge. As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

[Credit: NASA/Suomi NPP VIIRS/Miguel Román/Joshua Stevens]

Thanks for reading!

References/Sources;

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/05/522738015/is-neuroscience-rediscovering-the-soul

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/04/522011396/the-key-to-life-is-the-network

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Spiritual Engineering

Hello again folks!

Now that things have calmed down just a little bit, I have had the time to sit down and knock out another post. As far as updates are concerned, we are about a month away from opening the shop back up, and I am finishing up proofing on the fifth book of the Elder Blood Saga. It really has been a hell of a ride, and I am sad to see that series come to an end. But all things come to an end, so now I move on to other projects.

Just what are we talking about today? You might have noticed the title of this post is “Spiritual Engineering.” You are probably wondering what exactly I am getting at?

Naturally, I will be happy to explain. But first, some context. As some of may know, I have recently started the coursework for two year shamanic intensive. It has been rather fantastic so far! I am still in the introductory work, and there is already so much to think and write about! Of course, that is good news for you, my readers, as you get to come along for the ride.

In the intensive, I recently went through a course in which we talked a great deal about neurology, and our own set of spiritual “wiring” in the context of shamanism. What we are really going to be talking about is energy work, and the “hardware and software” we use to make that work.

However, first I want to be clear about how I am using terms. When I refer to energy work, I restrict that usage to the “self”. You have probably heard the adage that “everything is energy”, and I certainly don’t disagree with that. However, I would add that in an animistic context, every is not just energy. Once you move into the world external to yourself, you are no longer dealing with just energy. You are dealing with persons; each of which has their own will, awareness and most importantly, boundaries. I learned this the hard way. I’ll tell you that story sometime, as it has taken me a while to make sense of that.

While it may be true that trees and rocks are made up of energy, they are more than JUST energy. The point being, once you move beyond the self, we are talking more about “spiritual social work” than mere “energy work.” Beyond the self, in an animistic context, you are now interacting with the social world of other-than-human persons. I hope the distinction makes sense.

So, for this post we are only talking about individual energy work. The work you do with your own personal spirit. Now, I have a pretty complicated view of the spirit. That is because the singular individual “self” we conceive is anything but singular. We are made up of countless number of individual cells, all of which form to together to make this collective individual we refer to as “me.”

In an animistic context, all of those cells have their own spirits; but in the grand scheme of things the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Still, the point is that all of these cells exist in great vast network. It is those connections and networks that make all of systems work together, and from the connections in our brain that allow us to conceive of ourselves in the singular.

In addition, it is my working theory that the spirit is in many ways analogous to our physical body. Just like neurons in the brain, all those little connections and networks are part of our spirit, and constitute our “spiritual wiring.” You with me so far?

Now, you get at least two camps when you talk about spiritual wiring, especially in regards to shamanism.

On the one side, you get what I might call the hard-wired camp. These are the people that claim that shamanism is only for those with a certain “energetic circuitry”. Basically, if you don’t have the right make up, you can’t be a shaman.

On the other side, there are those that think it is more of a universal thing. That in short, any one can be a shaman. If the calling is there, and the spirits have come forward, the “wiring” is a work in progress. It might be worked and reworked over and over again over the process.

Which is where the spiritual engineering comes in. For me it is certainly not an “either/or” type of thing. We are pretty adaptable as organisms, and even our brains have a noted plasticity in their connections. However, I also take more of a moderate view. Some parts of our “wiring” might be hard-wired, and it places limits on what we can do and what we can’t do. Yet, it can be rearranged and adapted as well. Weak circuits can be bypassed, and new augmentations can be added. They can also be removed and stripped out too. That is spiritual engineering. Tailoring the “wiring” for the job at hand.

Are there limits, sure. Some might even be built into my “core structure”, or whatever you would like to call my predetermined wiring. But that doesn’t stop me from doing a redesign either. I little rewiring here, a little bypass there. I plug this plasma conduit into that warp core, and bam! Ready to go!

(From Google images. I think it makes the point.)

Let me use shielding as an example. I am just going to assume you all know what I am talking about. Shielding is one of those things I really enjoy to play with, because it is only limited by your imagination. I am sure none of my regular readers would be surprised if I said I have played with sci-fi inspired shielding, fantasy shielding, and pretty much anything else I have been able to imagine.

For example, say I want to wade into some kind of spiritual nightmare. Maybe I have to deal with a spiritual nasty at the boss level. As such, I want to engineer a shield that can hold up to some punishment. So I take a good hard look at my spiritual wiring, and realize it can’t handle what I need to do. I’d be pretty SOL if I couldn’t do some adaptive redesign.

So I build myself an armor suit straight out of Mass Effect, all N7 and such. But I find that one of my spiritual circuits just can’t handle the load I want to run through it. It would be the analogy of running 100 volts through a 12 volt wire. Obviously, if I don’t do something about that, my circuitry is going to fry.

I also find out that this given circuit is one of my “hard-wired” bits. It is required for something else to work, so I can’t really cut it out and replace it. It’s required equipment. I CAN however bypass it. So I install a bypass that can carry the spiritual current I need, and never have to worry about burning the little 12 volt out.

That way I can run the power I need to, and be good to go in the ass-kickery department.

However, just like real life engineering, I wouldn’t recommend just jumping into this kind of thing. The example above is for illustration purposes only. Just like I wouldn’t recommend Joe-Unskilled from the street take over Scotty’s position on the Enterprise, I wouldn’t advise messing with your wiring without the expertise to do so. Or at least without “adult” supervision.

Realize, that this kind of energy work has taken me many years of training and study to even guess at. Just like real world engineering, it takes expertise, experience and study to become proficient at it.

As such, the “don’t try this at home” caveat applies.

As always, thanks for reading!