Beyond the Self: Dolphins, Dreams, and Cosmic Consciousness

The photos recently offered up by the James Webb Space Telescope, whose resolution and sensitivity provide crisper glimpses into our universe than the Hubble Space Telescope ever could, briefly caught widespread public attention—a rare moment of shared wonder in the ever-churning news cycle. For some of us, those images of swirling galaxies and billowing nebulas inspired renewed reflection on our place in the universe, our cosmic significance. We gaze at the stars for the same reason we gaze upon the ocean—to immerse ourselves in that expansive wholeness. To feel both insignificant and significant at the same time; insignificant in the presence of such vastness, significant in the unique ability to perceive it as such.

The cosmic horizon (a.k.a. the ‘edge’) of our universe is rapidly expanding, stretching the space between galaxies as it grows. According to some calculations, 97% of all galaxies in our universe are moving away from us faster than the speed of light, meaning that even though we may eventually observe the light they emitted billions of years ago, we will never be able to reach them. Every year, 20 million stars slip beyond our grasp. For those of us prone to existential melancholia, this is a hard fact to swallow. How can we find comfort and connection in a universe that is steadily pulling us apart? As conscious beings, we are at once a minuscule part of the universe, and incredibly uncommon. 

Physicist Alan Lightman provided one anecdote, through an appreciation for the camaraderie that our unlikely existence inspires: “Life in our universe is a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos,” he said. “A realization of the scarcity of life makes me feel some ineffable connection to other living things… a kinship in being among those few grains of sand in the desert, or present during the relatively brief era of life in the vast temporal sprawl of the universe.” 

For Walt Whitman, who enjoyed regular solitary ambles into the quietude of nature, the answer lay in understanding that everything in the universe is forever entangled. “As I watch the bright stars shining,” he wrote in his poem On the Beach at Night, “I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future. A vast similitude interlocks all…And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.” The bulk of the poem attempts to list everything that comprises that ‘all’—every living being, every inanimate object, every particle and entity, all “interlocked.” 

•••

Once, I had a dream that I traveled to the center of the universe, which my dream self recognized as the source of pure consciousness. It was a being of sorts, a living, thinking fountain from which all-knowingness flowed. Everything in that center was black, but not a foreboding blackness—it was rather like a warm, thick blanket wrapped around me; it knew me, and held me with tenderness. The conscious entity was not visible, but it was palpable. It beckoned me to ask the one question that lurked at the root of all my existential wonderings. So I did. “What is the point of it all?” I asked without speaking; and the consciousness understood. 

In response, it pulsated waves of pure love and compassion through my body.

I felt a sense of wholeness like nothing I had ever experienced. The incessant anxiety that typically gnawed at my stomach disappeared, while weightless peace floated in to take its place. As the waves continued to radiate through me, I felt like I was dissolving into nothingness, or everythingness, not part of the Whole but the Whole itself.  I awoke in tears, still buzzing with the electricity of that resonating, universal love. Somehow my mind and body had together conjured this visceral experience—or maybe something had shocked my system, like a frenetic bolt of lightning—and for a few precious seconds in that transition from slumber to wakefulness, I continued to feel the echoes of that pure, all-encompassing oneness. 

More than a year after my dream, I came across an account by 19th Century psychiatrist and philosopher Maurice Bucke describing an experience eerily similar to my own. My heart pounded as I read his words:

“Like a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos…is in very truth a living presence…Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.”

Writer Maria Popova sums up Bucke’s revelation: “In that instant, as ‘the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,’ he experienced something he could never forget, which he called ‘cosmic consciousness’ — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.” Indeed, Bucke was both an enthusiastic fan and friend of Whitman, who inspired much of his work. Bucke eventually wrote a book based on his moment of clarity, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, which in turn inspired the likes of Albert Einstein, Alan Watts, and even Steve Jobs. 

Bucke documented similar experiences of transcendence among many notable figures throughout history. Whether via dreams, drugs, or quiet moments of solitude, each of these moments appear to share a feeling of rising out of the fog in which we live most of our lives, and for a few moments (or longer, for those lucky enough to retain the feeling) emerging into a crystal clear blue sky, where all questions are answered and all things are known as one thing. It is a feeling remarkably similar to the one that washed over me in my own cosmic dream, and that I search for in waking life.

At the gross level, each of us can be described as a ‘discrete’ being, which we call the ‘self’. You are you, I am me. But in other ways, we are also indistinguishable. We are we, or perhaps we are One, we are the Whole, just as the atoms that make up our cells, that make up our organs, that make up our bodies, that make up our societies can all be described as one integrated system. However you want to describe it, there is an underlying unity to our universe that we may experience as love, or compassion, or bliss, or simple tranquility. However it manifests in our neurons and synapses, it reveals a layer of consciousness beyond division. Like a single quark, at the scale of a universe. 

***

Humans aren’t the only earthly creatures that experience a sense of self—i.e., an awareness of what characteristics make you, “you.” Biologists think that certain animals, including primates and cetaceans, may have self-awareness akin (or superior) to human beings. Dolphins easily pass self-awareness tests in which they recognize themselves, and have unique identifiers (a.k.a. names) for each other. But dolphins don’t simply exhibit self-awareness; they also appear to have a unique ability to empathize with each other in ways beyond human comprehension. 

Dolphins use echolocation to target and identify objects, and in some cases to communicate with one another. Cetacean researchers have observed that dolphins often release ‘burst pulses’ of sonar clicks at such a rapid rate (up to 2000 clicks per second) that they are unlikely to gain any sonar information from the returning click echoes—these bursts are thought to be communication signals, not echolocation signals. Dolphins of many species release burst pulses when they are excited or angry, which appears to transmit an emotional ‘thought’  or feeling to other dolphins within the signal’s range. The result could be described as a shared emotional experience, a bit like a group of concert goers simultaneously getting goosebumps during an intense musical performance. If this is indeed the case, then a grieving mother dolphin who has lost her young calf, for example, may transmit that grief via sonar to other dolphins in her pod, who will then feel the same emotional pain. 

As behavioral scientist Harry Jerison puts it, for dolphins “the communal experience might actually change the boundaries of the self to include several individuals.” This would mean that dolphins, and likely other cetaceans, experience the self as ‘we’, not ‘I’, at least some of the time. The strong emotional and empathic connections shared among cetaceans could even explain mass strandings—one could imagine that when one dolphin or whale is ill and strands itself, its compatriots don’t differentiate the suffering of the individual from that of the entire group. Because they all share the same ‘feeling’ of illness, the entire group stands itself. None of this is scientifically proven as of yet, but it is highly likely that cetaceans, and perhaps other animals, have evolved empathic communication pathways that equate ‘self’ with ‘we’. ’

Research shows that those human cultures that prioritize collectivism over individualism also experience heightened levels of empathy, though likely not to the extent that the ‘self’ is indistinguishable from other ‘selves.’ That personal identity could dissolve stretches the meaning of self-awareness toward something beyond ‘self’ in the conventional sense, into the realm of shared consciousness. This requires us to perceive consciousness as independent of any individual being. Rather than thinking of consciousness as an emergent property of the mind, it may be more like the sap flowing through a maple tree, something we can tap into and share, something that adds a unique sweetness to our lives, nourishes us through winter—if we know how to access it. Maybe dolphins are already feasting on this syrup.

According to author Annaka Harris, “[Without a self], consciousness could persist as is, while the character and content change, depending on the arrangement of the specific matter in question. If two human brains were connected, both people might feel as if the content of their consciousness had simply expanded, with each person feeling a continuous transformation from the content of one person to the whole of the two, until the connection was more or less complete.” Harris’s description of consciousness as an entity existing beyond the individual aligns well with the theory that dolphins may experience a selfhood that expands to encompass a communal identity.

Physicist Erwin Schrodinger (of cat in the box fame), took this a step further. “Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason,” he wrote, “you—and all other conscious beings as such—are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole.”

•••

A little known marine biologist and underrated philosopher named Ed Ricketts thought a great deal about achieving transcendence, a process he called “breaking through.” Ricketts was one of the closest friends of author John Steinbeck. The two met in Monterey, California, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when they were both young, struggling, and hungry for knowledge and life experience. They spent countless hours philosophizing, combing local tide pools for specimens (which Ricketts studied and then sold to schools as a source of income), and drinking beer with their bohemian circle of friends. In 1940, Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered a boat to Baja, California—ostensibly as a research trip to study intertidal organisms, but also as a chance for the two to escape troubles at home for a few weeks while enjoying the freedom of exploration. 

They co-authored a book documenting their adventure, Log of the Sea of Cortez. While the second half of the book catalogs all the organisms the team identified during their six-week voyage, the first half acts as travelog and expedition diary, a sometimes comedic and other times heart-wrenching reflection on life, culture, resource exploitation, and evil outboard motors. In one chapter, Ricketts dives deep into his theory of transcendence, in which he describes what it means to ‘break through’ lower levels of existence and reach greater consciousness, or as Bucke would call it, cosmic consciousness. Ricketts devoted much of his life to understanding this phenomenon, much like Bucke, Whitman, and many others before him. Alas, it seems to be a fleeting experience for most (including myself), often uninvited and therefore hard to replicate, except perhaps for advanced meditators and psychonauts.  

Still, even these brief moments of clarity seem to share a common feeling of unification. At the gross level, each of us can be described as a ‘discrete’ being, which we call the ‘self’. You are you, I am me. But on some higher, more attuned plane, we are indistinguishable. We are we, or perhaps we are One, we are the Whole, just as the atoms that make up our cells, that make up our organs, that make up our bodies, that make up our societies can all be described as one integrated system. However you want to describe it, there is an underlying unity to our universe that some of us, if we are lucky enough during our short lifetimes, will stumble upon, like finding a sunny meadow within a dense, shadowy forest. The resulting feeling may equate to love, or compassion, or bliss, or simple tranquility. However it manifests in our neurons and synapses, it reveals a layer of consciousness beyond division. Like a single quark, at the scale of a universe. 

As Ricketts and Steinbeck wrote, “all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

***

So are we each a discrete, embodied self? Or are we vessels for a consciousness that spans the universe? We may not yet have a definitive answer, but the encounters of cosmic consciousness experienced by the likes of Bucke and Whitman (and possibly, myself), as well as the observed interactions of other living beings, point to the possibility of the latter. 

Alan Watts, that colorful conveyor of transcendent spiritual philosophy, came to the conclusion that “the only real ‘you’ is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For ‘you’ is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new.” Self identity is fluid, like life-giving water, or like the stretching ether in which our galaxies float as they are pulled apart. Ironically, I find some small comfort in the idea that the ‘me’ of this moment is not the ‘me’ of the next. There is no mold we must fit in, for we are constantly in flux, expanding and changing our point of view as new angles are revealed. As Harris said, “humanity is young, and we’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.”

Whitman would have likely found kinship with Astronomer Rebecca Elson, whose poetry reflected a deep search for meaning among the stars. Diagnosed with a terminal illness at the age of 29, Elson found solace in weaving together science, art and philosophy to create poems that capture the essence of our desire to understand our place in the universe. Her poem Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter) encapsulates this yearning:

For this we go out dark nights, searching

For the dimmest stars,

For signs of unseen things:

To weigh us down.

To stop the universe

From rushing on and on

Into its own beyond

Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,

Its last star going out.

Whatever they turn out to be,

Let there be swarms of them,

Enough for immortality,

Always a star where we can warm ourselves.

Let there be enough to bring it back

From its own edges,

To bring us all so close we ignite

The bright spark of resurrection.

What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the region is actually the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, roughly 7,600 light-years away.

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