How does the human brain transform itself from a complex biological phenomenon into an even more complex creative mind and spirit? Renowned pioneer in the personal mythology movement, Sam Keen offers a look into what goes into—or comes out of—the amazing process of being human.
"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." —Rilke
“Always the beautiful answer. Who asks a more beautiful question?”—ee cummings
The notion of “thinking outside the box” that is all the rage in business circles these days is an idea that needs to be unpacked. Creative thinking is not a technique that can be reduced to ten easy rules. There is no One Minute Guide to Becoming a Genius. As you live, so shall you think. To win freedom of mind and spirit is to embark on a heroic journey and become a life-long questioner.
That human beings are mindful or spirited animals means that we are animated by a quest for something more than bread and shelter. Our reach always exceeds our grasp. We are travelers on a journey to an unknown destination. Some longing, some missing fulfillment, keeps us searching for a holy grail that is hidden just beyond the mist.
The great mono-myth of “the hero with a thousand faces,” about which Joseph Campbell wrote, converts the process by which we break out of the constraints of mind and spirit imposed upon us by our society and become self-transcending persons into a dramatic narrative of a literal quest in the external world. But the greatest adventures and travelers may never stray more than a few miles from home. Indeed, they may be confined to a wheelchair, as is Steven Hawking.
The road is not clay, nor is the path through a literal wilderness any more than the boxes out of which we must break in order to be free are made of wood or metal. “Stone walls do not a prison make, no iron bars a cage.” The grail is no cup that once held wine or hemlock. The quest is not a mythic journey undertaken only by the heroes, but the essential activity that transforms the brain into mind and spirit.
In the beginning, the brain is a biological phenomenon. It is well organized to handle practical matters. It sees to it that we breath when we are asleep, seek food when we are hungry, avoid such obvious dangers as high places, loud noises, and large wild animals. But beyond programing us with basic instincts for survival and preparing us to learn primitive skills of hunting and gathering, most of the brain is unemployed. It remains asleep, awaiting the kiss of the imagination to bring it to life. In the beginning, it is an acorn, an oak-in-waiting, a raw potentiality that may be actualized in as many ways as there are unique persons. Its dance card is mostly empty. What the brain is to become is written neither in our genes or our stars.
To change the metaphor, think of the brain of a newborn child as similar to an ancient forest with a few organized enclaves (the reptilian and mid-brain). It is like what you might see if you had an aerial photograph of medieval Europe: a largely uninhabited wilderness containing a few walled cities connected by footpaths and primitive roads. The brain is an underdeveloped country that only becomes mind when intricate neural pathways develop. As civilization is created when new towns and cities emerge and roads are built into the interior, so the mind is created when a neural communication system joins the cerebrial cortex—the new brain—to the wilderness of the primitive brain. The mind is a self-created network of criss-crossing roads leading to destinations more numerous than the stars.
Perhaps the greatest enduring mystery that theologians, philosophers, and scientists continute to ponder is: How does the kingdom of mind emerge from the unspecified potentialities of the brain? By what magic do we escape from the prison of impulse and instinct, from captivity to the automatic responses coded in the reptilian brain, and become freely pondering and deliberating animals? What is the origin of the impulse that travels across the synapses linking neuron to neuron to form pathways where there were none? What is the divine spark that causes biological entities with unprogrammed brains to metamorphosise into self-creating human minds? Michaelangelo pictured the moment on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel when God touches Adam and gives him life, but how are we to understand this in a less literal and mythological way?
My candidate for apotheosis, for that ever-recurring divine instant when flesh becomes spirit, is nothing more or less than the humble question. The heros and heroines—the questers—are the men and women who ask new questions and open our minds and spirits to new possibilities.
We are unfinished animals, biologically endowed at birth with a brain but destined to become self-conscious and self-creating. The informing principle of all life—the cosmic DNA—call it God, or Nature, or the indwelling creative principle—does a strange trick with humans. He-She-It implants an impulse that will carry us beyond our own programming. We are created to be self-transcending. What is unique about human beings is that at the heart of our DNA lies the necessity of freedom, the potentiality to become something that is not yet defined. We are driven to transcend old boundaries and limits, to surpass the biologically given conditions of our lives of necessity, we transcend “nature”—the imposed reign of instinct and automatic responses—and become creatures of mind or spirit. As the nun in The African Queen says to Humphrey Bogart: ”Nature Is what we are put here to rise above.” We are designed to be escape artists. Like Houdini, our destiny is to break out of boxes.
The creative mind is a gypsy that is destined to wander into unknown lands and explore new mysteries. It respects no boundaries and gives no loyalty to settled conslusions. It is at home only when it is on the move, confronted by problems, baffled by paradoxes. What we mean by “mind” is our perennial romance with the unknown, that impulse that drives us to explore some problem or mystery just beyond reach. Mind creates and inhabits worlds without end. It entertains questions without end. The more it fails to find what it is looking for, the more powerful mind becomes. The destiny of the human mind is to grow more powerful as it is used.
If we stick to description rather than interpretation there is no need to manufacture an unnecessary conflict between the science of mind and the vision of human beings as spiritual animals. All but the most doctrinare materialists will agree that human beings are meta-biological animals, hyphenated beings. Something drives the most creative members of our species beyond the inherited and imposed limits of their biology and culture. This restlessness has myriad names: the spirit, the divine spark, the logos, the image of God, “the exigence to transcend” (Marcel ).
Whoever is touched by this divine daemon is destined to wrestle with an angel in order to win a mind, a spirit, a name.