Have you ever wondered about the fact that the universe exists? How it works? How it is designed? How anything — and everything — is even possible at all?
You’ve probably heard the scientific explanations before, but have you ever really tried to imagine how it is that the interactions of protons and electrons and neutrons give rise to atoms; and the interactions of atoms give rise to molecules; and the interactions of molecules give rise to various forms of matter; and the interactions of matter in our cells, tissues, and organs give rise to each of us; and each of us gives rise to an awareness of the experience of being? This is the nature of emergent complexity, or emergence, which describes how relatively simple patterns of interaction at one level of scale can effect and affect more complex patterns of interaction at a greater level of scale. Emergence is the reason why we often find order in the world where we would otherwise expect to find random chaos.
Even as the concept of emergence helps us reimagine science and understand how we exist, it also offers us ways of reimagining human nature and understanding the deeper dimensions of our own awareness of our existence. If we thought of awareness as a kind of emergent system, it would essentially involve multiple levels of perception. Instead of levels of subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc., awareness would involve levels of physical (sensory) perception, affective/emotional (associative) perception, and abstract (conceptual) perception. As a creative frame of reference, we could think of these levels in terms of body, heart, and mind. We could even begin to imagine their how they relate to the level of spirit.
AWARENESS AS A FUNCTION OF THE BODY
It is through the body that we are able to sense everything that is around and within us, from the warmth of the sun to the movements of our muscles. Sensory perception, as a body-based awareness, involves processing sensory interactions (or sensations) from the physical world. For example, when we see an apple, we aren’t actually seeing the apple as it really exists. What we are aware of seeing is the result of our brain processing sensory information into a cognitive representation of the physical apple. At this level, we are aware of the apple as a sensation from the physical world.
AWARENESS AS A FUNCTION OF THE HEART
If the first level is sensing, then the second level is feeling, a property typically attributed to the heart. The cardiovascular system, driven by the physical heart, connects and supplies nutrients to every living cell in our bodies. Associative perception, as a kind of heart awareness, is about relationships, which includes affective or emotional awareness. It involves processing how sensations from the world are related to each other. For example, based on our prior experience, the visual sensation of an apple is associated with other sensations of apples: how an apple feels, smells, tastes, etc. As a fundamental part of understanding language, we also associate these sensations of an apple with a distinct set of sensations involving the sound, image, or movement of the word, “apple”. At this level, we are aware of the apple as part of a network of associations to other sensations in the physical world.
AWARENESS AS A FUNCTION OF THE MIND
For our purposes here, we will say that thinking follows feeling. Similar to the cardiovascular system, the nervous system connects and coordinates signals through the entire body. Instead of processing sensations or their networks of associations, abstract perception involves processing relationships among networks of relationships. For example, when we encounter an apple, we are aware of it as both something that represents a network of sensations directly associated with apples and also something embedded within its relationships with other networks of associations. Symbolic language emerges when words (as a specific set of sensations) represent individual networks but are also embedded within a network of relationships to other words. At this level, we are aware of the apple in the context of multiple physical and symbolic networks of relationships.
AWARENESS AS A FUNCTION OF THE SPIRIT
From this perspective of emergent awareness, how could we conceptualize the relationship of body, heart, and mind to spirit? We could imagine spirit as a deeper level of awareness from which the other levels arise. There could even be a fractal element to this relationship by which spirit is the underlying theme and awareness emerges as variations upon that theme. Or we could image spirit as a higher level of awareness. Perhaps it is even something more complex than what we understand to be awareness. It could also be that spirit is both the beginning and the end, the lesser and greater scales of awareness beyond body, heart, and mind — an awareness beyond our individual experience of being. There are so many possibilities.
An emergent systems perspective of awareness invites us to explore these possibilities and more. It opens the door to different ways of thinking about and working with the complexity within, between, and all around us. In doing so, it serves as a template to inform our cultural imagination about the physical, cognitive, and spiritual dimensions of being human.