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Consciousness, reflective consciousness, the ability to know "I am thinking this", this what makes the difference between humanity and all previous creatures. It is reflective consciousness that makes us aware of observation, not just observant, but aware of being the observer. It is reflective consciousness that makes us aware of beauty, beauty in nature and beauty in art.


These two figures from Medieval sculpture are quintessential evocations of consciousness. From about 1250 we see Uta, the wife of the Margrave of Hesse, a master work from Naumberg Cathedral in Germany. She is a young woman, married to an powerful aristocrat, and the carving combines in her a delicate reticence and a noble authority. She is aware of herself, aware of the shyness of a girl combined with the stamp of nobility. The other figure is from the previous century, a prophet from the west front of Chartres Cathedral, one of the best among a group of carved figures which represents a peak in the history of sculpture. This was the first post-Classical sculpture in Europe that portrayed men and women with a quality of being spiritual beings, people aware of themselves as more than just humans. The last time that this had been done was perhaps in Olympia fifteen hundred years earlier.


Consciousness makes it possible for us to become aware of our thinking, but it is intriguing that although the its effects have been examined for millennia, consciousness itself has come under exacting scrutiny only in the last few decades. This scrutiny has so far done little more than examine the problem, and the mystery of how matter can develop consciousness is referred to as "the hard problem", which some consider will never be resolved.


The human brain is complex beyond any comprehension. It is said that each human brain has some tens of billions of neurons, and each neuron has about six thousand connections to other neurons, so that the number of connections is a figures with fifteen or sixteen zeros after it. Our thoughts emerge out of the interplay of the firings of these neurons, firings which take place thousands of times a second. The number of patterns that can be formed out of these connections is in the order of ten with a hundred trillion zeros after it, a far higher number than the total number of elementary particles in the universe, and that is only in one stationary instant, for the pattern changes thousands of times a second. The human brain is complex beyond any comprehension.


There are philosophers of cosmology who postulate that the design of the universe made it inevitable that consciousness would develop, and who suggest beyond that, that the consciousness develops to transcend time, and itself becomes the cause of the universe. This is very close the the theology at the heart of most of the religions, that the essential nature of the divine is consciousness, in which each of us participates, apparently as a minute part, but in reality, the mystics tell us, in full, for that divine consciousness cannot be divided. It is interesting that the word "individual" is taken to mean "a unique, separate, person", but the origin of the word lies in the idea of being undivided, a complete person, in Jung's terminology an individuated person.


The argument between free will and determinism has been played out for thousands of years, and it makes a paradoxical dilemma within both the Christian and the Vedantic traditions. Human beings in their lowest condition seem to be complete slaves of circumstance, and as their state improves, they seem to rise to complete freedom, but if their state rises further to the most profound realms of thought, in both philosophy and religion, of which the mystics write, then freedom of action seems to be subsumed into pure Consciousness. In the Islamic tradition this is held in the expression "It is written", in the Vedantic tradition in the idea that we are not the authors of the drama, and the in Christian tradition in the ultimate prayer, "Thy will, not mine, Oh Lord."


In this,consciousness is all, and, seeing truly, we see what is right to do, and we see beauty. Timothy Freke, in his little book "Zen made easy" (Godsfield Press 1999) reports the Zen Master Daie as saying "The teachings expounded in the Buddhist scriptures are merely commentaries on the spontaneous cry 'Ah, this!'" Consciousness brings to us the beauty, wonder, and joy of the universe. Wake up! See for Yourself!

Magravine Uta, Naumberg Cathedral
Prophet, Royal Portal, Chartres Cathedral
Green Man, Cloister, Norwich Cathedral
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