A contemplation to gain perspective in anxious times.
As a person, I walk this Earth for some eighty years. Born of my parents, I thrive, suffer and die. As one of billions, I think, speak and act, a tiny yet distinct fragment in a societal mosaic. In my travels, I behold magnificent sites, listen to bewitching sounds and otherwise take in my surroundings. Seen this way, I am a body harbouring a mind. This person is experiencing anxious times in a world turned upside down.
Beyond this human evidence, I suspect there is more to me. I appear ill equipped to fathom just what that is, but in magical moments I can conjure a glimpse of my greater self. It is only an image, a pale representation of the ungraspable, but it holds and fortifies me. No matter whether it is a window on reality or a useful metaphor: when I access it, my world calms, and I process events with less neurotic waste of energy.
In one such moment, I imagine myself as water — not just some water but Water, all the H2O on and around this planet of ours.
When I picture myself as Water, I traverse the sky in cloud guise, sometimes puffy and white, others thundering and charcoal. I hang, muggy, on humid days, beading the outside of a cool lemonade glass. And I fill that glass, mixed with other substances. I float in cubes on the drink’s surface. On high, my vapour drifts, pregnant, until I gather in drops, ice pellets or flakes. Then I fall, for months at a time in Southeast Asian monsoons, hardly ever over deserts’ crust and dunes.
As Water, I cover the poles and mountaintops, cold and solid. I swirl in dancing spirals when winds whip my powdery form from its sparkling blanket on moonlit meadows. Frozen, I flow, glacially slow, thick and white, until I melt on Everest’s lower slopes. Or I crumble as giant bergs into myself, the sea.
I, Water, move as awesome waves in the Southern Ocean, as a short-lived vortex at the swish of a tuna’s tailfin. Lightless and heavy, I rest in trenches eleven kilometres beneath my own surface, which covers three-quarters of the Earth.
I trickle in clear streams. As languid river or rushing alpine cascade, I descend, seeking my ocean self. Fallen rain, I soak the soil, pool in lakes. And I gather in Life, composing and moving through plants and animals, microbes and fungi. Falling over turbines in furious torrents or rising through them with steaming force, I power human endeavour.
In my Water fantasy, I am the hydrosphere, a water world that bathes, cloaks, permeates and connects everything on and in the Earth’s skin. I take vastly different forms, appearing as countless seemingly separate instances. I may be a dewdrop poised on the tip of a drooping leaf, but I am not only that. No matter where, when or how I manifest, I am also all that Water is.
Water outlives and transcends all its forms, but it is not separate from them. How much truer is this of Life?
The lion, the wildebeest, the bacterium, the chicken and the egg are instances of Life. Each lion. Each chicken. Life manifests as the rose, the beanstalk, the truffle and the hemlock leaf. It has cycles and phases. Life consumes and repurposes itself. Life is Ouroboros — the mythical snake eating its own tail.
Yes, the good Samaritan, the executioner, the rich man, the caring mother and the naughty child are Life. Alongside the majestic, Life’s forms include the unkind, the ignorant and the unfortunate. Good and evil sit comfortably in Life’s arms. Innumerable instances of every being I can imagine, these are Life’s equivalents to Water’s drops, flakes, bergs, floes, clouds and mists.
In Life, as Life, an embryo becomes a child (or a cub or a calf…). Life takes care of digestion. It breathes in all its forms. Life fights, flees or freezes when it meets threat. In some awkward cases, like mine, it contemplates itself.
This blessed life
I am a tall, bearded man in London, UK, but is that all I am? If Life both composes and transcends any life, as Water does the dewdrop on the leaf, what does that mean for me?
This man was born and will die. Each of his thoughts and feelings has a beginning and an end. Each experience he has arises and passes. If he is an aspect, a fragment of Life, which am I? The man or Life? I know I am alive because I think and feel, because I experience living. Does the man do that, or does Life? Might Life do it through the man?
The New Testament invites a parallel consideration of Jesus as the Son of God. Was Jesus a man or God? Were Father and Son two entities? Perhaps God lived on Earth as Jesus. Might the Father and Son be One, because the Son is a very special manifestation of the Father? The Father may be God in transcendence; the Son, God made imminent. Could that apply to us all as God’s children, a truth Jesus’s story can help us realise?
I’m no biblical scholar, so I give only my lay interpretation. It matches my vision of Life manifesting through every life. Life lives as each life, including this man’s. I am man and Life. The man only exists as an expression of Life. Life only ever appears as a specific being, looking out and experiencing from a particular perspective. Each needs the other. They are two sides of the same coin.
Sometimes, Life, as a life, recognises this truth. If that life is an awkward, self-contemplating one like mine, this recognition may allow it to relax and surrender to Life in even the most challenging times. My life may glimpse itself in the image of the dewdrop — suspended, a liquid prism glistening for some time at leaf’s tip, then falling to earth and continuing its journey as Water, to Water.
It's okay to not be okay.
Photo via Pikrepo
Will this novel coronavirus reach you? Will you contract its disease, COVID-19? Might your parents? Other loved ones? If so, who will survive? Who won’t? Will you be able to pay your rent or mortgage in the coming months? When things return to ‘normal’ again, will you have a job? What will that new normal look like?
The enormity of these questions and the obvious strain they place on us can have a liberating silver lining.
No one is secure
We are swamped by more uncertainty today than we’ve ever encountered. Isolated and half-informed, we face a deep insecurity that was unimaginable only weeks ago.
The threats and risks before us remain unevenly distributed. This disease is particularly harsh toward the older and less well among us. Our sudden economic contraction hits some sectors harder than others. Those individuals and families who’ve only just been scraping by are most likely to fall behind as resources run short.
Still, in a sense we’ve not felt before, this crisis threatens everyone. With a virus this nimble and an economic shock this comprehensive, neither fame nor family name guarantees immunity. COVID-19 respects no border, favours no religion, exempts no employment status, makes no credit checks. Nobody knows what next week or next autumn holds for them. You do not have personal security, but you are not alone. No one is secure.
No one has ever been secure
It’s true; the world is different than it was at the end of 2019. In their details, our lives have shifted immensely in just a few months.
But drawing back, we see that our reality, writ large, is much as it has ever been. Any sunrise might be the last for us or our loved ones. The comforts we’ve counted on can slip away or be taken from us at any point.
In any one of those thousands of showers we’ve taken, we might have slipped and cracked our skull. We’ve driven countless miles and could have crashed spectacularly through no fault of our own (or through a single silly mistake on our part). Among our many stormy nights, a lightning strike could have found us. Triggered by who knows what, a mutation in our cells could have set off a cancerous cascade. Our employers could have gone under despite our best efforts at work, casting us into the ranks of the unemployed. Flood could have taken our homes. Our investments might have gone sour, evaporating our retirement dreams. In fact, most of these things have befallen people we’ve known.
Even the prospect of global destruction is not new to us. We lived for decades with the threat (still very real) of nuclear war consuming our civilisation. NASA and others have long scanned the skies for asteroids that could do to humanity what we suspect one did to the dinosaurs.
You see, we’ve never had security. None of us. No matter how much we want some things to stay the same, everything changes. No pleasure we enjoy is guaranteed to continue. We can beaver away to create small niches that seem secure and within a certain range of conditions might make us more secure than others. But whether we call it Life, the universe, reality or God’s will, there is a whole of which we are a part. As a part, we can’t bend the whole to our will. Neither can our intelligence wrestle the unfathomable complexities of nature to certainty. We can’t chart an untroubled life, let alone deliver on the plan.
You have never been secure. No one has ever been secure.
Now, you can drop the mask of security, the pretence of certainty
This coronavirus is not a gift, but there may be silver linings. One is that the health and economic threats posed by the virus are so in-your-face that there is no way to pretend, even to yourself, that things are fine.
We spend so much of our lives in this charade of okay-ness, but we don’t realise the enormous energy we waste on it. It’s a self-perpetuating force in our society. Why?
We see our friends and colleagues projecting an image of strength, solidity and well-being. Yet we have an underlying sense of doubt, anxiety and malaise. “I must be messed up,” we tell ourselves, “The one misfit who feels this way.” This thought that everyone else is okay while we are not magnifies our unease. We put on an act to hide our vulnerability and look as with-it as others appear. We reach a point where we can’t even admit many of our weaknesses and insecurities to ourselves, so we expand the make-believe to deceive not just those around us but also ourselves.
But very rarely, something truly awful and overwhelming on a global scale emerges. This novel coronavirus is one of those events; the last of this magnitude was the Second World War. In the face of such cataclysmic threat, few of us can keep our mask in place.
Here is the silver lining. We see the mask slip on others. What has always been true becomes obvious: no one is secure. As we recognise that, we realise we are not solitary screw-ups in a world of comfortable and self-assured people. We are just like everyone else. As the masks around us start to falter, we might invest less in our own. We may begin to re-capture and divert the energy we’ve spent maintaining our projected image. Where might we apply it, as we admit insecurity and uncertainty, as we face our own vulnerability?
We might direct this energy toward dealing with our situation and helping those around us. We can tend to our own mental health. Recognising the importance of connection, we might reach out to those we love and to people most at risk. We can share our vulnerability and in doing so invite them to do the same. This invitation helps them free the same energy we’ve rediscovered, energy crucial to their surviving this crisis and thriving after it.
The charade of security we’ve played throughout our lives is, in a way, the pretence that we can hold the perpetual change of reality at bay, that we can secure ourselves against it. Of course we can’t. When we realise that it’s okay to be insecure, that we are not weirdos for feeling not-okay, we can stop the deception. No longer putting on our act, we can instead face and deal with this frightening and ever-changing reality. Then we’re able to help others do the same, simply by sharing our vulnerability, letting our mask fall.
It’s okay to not be okay. Take this chance to stop pretending. Instead, connect, share and cope.
And that's okay, because life has your back
Do you remember those amusement park turnpike rides, where you drive a car around a course, often with a small child at the wheel? Alan Watts made an amusing analogy between one of those kiddie cars and our egoic sense of authorship in life. Here's my own version of it.
The mind is a hyperactive driver
The rational mind as a driver is hypersensitive and exacting. It, acting on your behalf, holds the wheel making continuous corrections left and right to keep the car (you) on course. Hardly a moment passes with the mind happy about the current heading. The wheel must always be engaged to correct problematic deviations from the mind's most recent assessment of how things ought to be.
Like a child in the driver’s seat of a fairground ride, the mind has good intentions as it fiddles and fidgets to drive with perfection. It means no harm. But its incessant problem-solving course corrections take their toll on the energy and maintenance fronts.
Life does the steering
The thing is, there's a rail in the middle of the lane all the way around the track, and the car cannot deviate from that path. The child's steering has no real bearing on the car's travels. This steering wheel cannot override the guiding rail.
As at the fairground, so in reality. Life is an intelligent process that guides everything from the movement of celestial bodies to your digestion and the goose pimples on your skin. It is a single flow. You do not author a second, separate process. Life carries you just as the rail steers the child's car. It only seems, from where you sit, like you are driving. If you realised life had the wheel, you'd save a lot of energy, wear and tear.
Life travels the course, regardless of its details
The child at the wheel may wish the car moved more quickly, may think the course should be more hilly, more winding, less bumpy or less polluted. Likewise, the mind is full of ideas and judgments about life. But the course doesn't change in response to the child's wishes, and life is life irrespective of the mind's preferences.
Life travels the track. Life cares not whether the road is rough or smooth, hilly or flat, straight or winding. If anything, it seems to favour variety, with each characteristic and its opposite represented somewhere along the course.
In fact, life lays the rail, one moment at a time, in a process of unbounded creativity.
You are not the car; you are life.
Guess what: you are not the car travelling on the course, guided by the rail. You are the whole shebang - the car, the child, the rail, the course and the unfolding movement that is life.
For most of us, most of the time, the course is such that we feel we are only the car and our mind seems to be the driver. Really, we are the experiencing of the whole scene. The busy mind is part of life. Ups and downs, twists and turns in the course are part of life. The sense that we are driving is part of life. Our judgments about the course are part of life.
And we are life.
Enjoy the ride!
I got the seed for this post from a post on Facebook by J'aime ona Pangaia titled You, Me and Harry Potter.
As you read the book in your hands, you follow Harry Potter’s journey from indistinct and unloved orphan to powerful wizard. The words take life in your mind, and Harry learns his craft, battling dark forces that killed his parents, forces that now threaten the world. He pursues adventures with friends, suffers setbacks, makes decisions and enjoys or endures consequences. It seems this Harry leads an extraordinary life.
In a moment of pause, still feeling the book in your hands, you might catch your flowing thoughts and ask, ‘What does this Harry Potter experience?’ The book’s weight on your palms might remind you that Harry Potter, the boy wizard, the beloved character of J.K. Rowling’s ultra-successful fantasy series, experiences nothing. This Harry is a fictional character that Ms. Rowling, through the medium of her words, has created. He is, in one sense, nothing more than curved patterns of lines on a page, patterns that conform to an alphabet, language and grammar that have meaning to you. While Harry exists as this beguiling character, he does not exist as that which the story makes him out to be - a real boy wizard in the real world, a boy who experiences what is happening like you do.
In another sense, we might say that Harry is not these words but rather the composite character that the words, together with your imagination and memory, create within you. If any experience is being had here, then you are the one having it. You are experiencing Harry’s adventure and that of the other characters in a way determined by the interplay of Ms. Rowling’s text and your mind. Because you are sitting in a chair and reading rather than rushing about a magical castle-school, that experience differs not only in content from your everyday life but also in colour and texture. Although in many ways it feels ‘real,’ its nature is clearly different from your full-sensory lived experience.
You might rub the pages between your fingers as you consider four components to this reading-Harry-experience of yours: the author, the medium, the story and the experiencer. J.K. Rowling authored the story of Harry’s adventures. Ms. Rowling’s brilliant mind conjured Harry and the entire environment in which his life unfolds. From a verdant well within her, the story blooms. Although she almost certainly draws on personal experience, proclivities and perspectives to create this work of art, although it has come and could have come only from her, she knows that she is not the story. She knows that the story is not her life.
What emerges physically from J.K. Rowling’s hand is words in patterns on paper pages. This is the medium through which she transmits the story to you. Through your eyes, you absorb the patterns, and thereby the story. The nature of the medium influences the story and your eventual experience of it.
The story folded into these words is rich. It includes Harry - descriptions of him and his actions, a privileged view into his thoughts and feelings, perceptions from his point of view. Multiple other characters move through the story, and you may gain access to their perspectives as well as a ‘God’s eye’ view of some action. A whole world of sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, actions, decisions, happenings, things, people and strange creatures is woven into the medium of squiggles on paper.
Harry as a character is part of that weave. It is obvious when you think about it that he cannot move separately from it. If J.K. Rowling writes, ‘Harry ran down the stairs,’ then that is exactly what Harry does. If she had written, ‘Harry decided to leave magic behind and become an accountant,’ then Harry would have decided just that. J.K.’s words on the page dictate the story’s every detail, which is what Harry’s life and the unfolding of everything in his world are. Harry and the other characters are not free; the story binds them.
At the receiving end of this chain of story transmission, you, the reader, sit. Your eyes and mind conjure a final alchemical transformation. What began as thought sprung from a creative well in the author, what made its way to you encoded as ink on paper, transmutes into experience. The words on the page interact with your mind, which is to say with your history, your way of making meaning, your assumptions, your quirks, to create a unique instance of J.K. Rowling’s story, to bring Harry and his world to life. This life is known only by you and only as the private experience in you as you read. Harry, his friends and his enemies experience nothing; only you as the reader experience the story. The story lives in you.
When you read of Harry’s sadness as he thinks of his lost parents, of his pain as the Hogwarts headmistress makes him write with that pen that carves its message into his skin, of his mortal peril as monsters corner him, you feel strong sensations and emotions, both for Harry and on his behalf. Deep down, though, you know that there is no Harry to experience these pains in the way a real human does. Although you can enjoy being swept up by his story, you recognise deep down that you are not Harry, so the nature of your experience is not the same as if the real you were sad, terrified or pained like the character is. You as the experiencer of the story are close enough for it to entertain you but not so close as to make you mistake yourself for Harry or to believe that the story’s ups and downs are your own. The story binds its characters, but you as the reader remain free.
Not all stories arrive by written word. Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire for performance on the stage. A creative wave issuing from him and traveling through time joined more recent ones from a director, costume designer, set designer and others to form a live audio-visual offering to today’s seated public. The playwright's submission does not complete the creative, pre-performance input. An entire team, with the playwright to the fore, replaces J.K. Rowling’s solitary role in generating the content and setting.
And we might include the actors who play each character within the creative team, for create they do. But we might also consider them as part of the medium. It is through their words, facial expressions and actions, in the crafted setting of the stage and theatre, sporting costumes, employing props and furnishings, that the story unfolds. Their performance and the setting in which it takes place are the medium in this artistic form.
When Blanche Dubois utters, ‘Whoever you are… I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,’ the words, born of Tennessee Williams, do not reach you through quotation marks on a page, but in the voice of Vivien Leigh. Vivien has latitude in her tonal and bodily expression when delivering this line, but except in limited cases of artistic licence, Mr. Williams’s script binds her.
Vivien plays Blanche, but she is not Blanche. At the end of the performance, she will step from her role and engage in her offstage life. Even onstage, we might suppose that her thoughts, when she is less actively engaged in the scene’s action, browse any number of topics that have nothing to do with the play. She knows that she is not Blanche, and she maintains a personal distance from the great trauma and turmoil that Blanche suffers in the play. When Blanche is humiliated, raped or led away to an asylum, Vivien does not suffer. She must be able to get very close to Blanche’s feelings, words and movements so as to play her role convincingly, but we would have to pronounce her mad if she took herself to be Blanche, if she fused with the character itself. Vivien’s experience is not Blanche’s but that of playing Blanche.
Let’s turn to the story, and within it, to Blanche herself. Like Harry in your book, the character of Blanche is more inescapably defined than Vivien is as an actress, for Blanche can only be what the summed creative efforts of the playwright, the director and the actor dictate that she is. Blanche is not free. Blanche cannot wonder, ‘Is it Vivien Leigh who is playing me tonight?’ unless Vivien Leigh utters the question for her, and that may be somewhat greater artistic licence than the director would allow in diverging from Tennessee Williams’s creation.
Your experience, sitting in the audience, differs from what it would be if you read A Streetcar Named Desire from the page, differs from how you experienced Harry’s story. Whereas you could access much of Harry’s inner world, you only have access to what Blanche externalises through words or body language. You watch and hear the events taking place on the stage rather than looking at squiggles on a page. Perhaps this gives more vivid visual and auditory experience than your imagination mustered when you read the descriptions of Harry’s surroundings and events. Perhaps it leaves less to your imagination to fill in?
Still, the final step in the chain, the step whereby the entire production becomes your experience of it, happens within you. Your eyes and ears take the story in, and your mind does the rest. Because it is your mind, the creative merging of the ‘raw’ story with it generates a unique experience - not an experience, like one of the actors, of playing one of the characters, but rather an experience of the story as a whole. If the story is a powerful one, if it is one that resonates with you, if your state of mind this evening is one that lends itself to immersion in the story, then it will move you deeply. You will have strong feelings of empathy with some characters, judgment of others. But you’ll not mistake yourself for Blanche or any other character in the story, and you’ll not mistake this story for your own. You experience it in an individual way no one else will, but it does not capture you completely. At evening’s end, you will leave the theater and proceed with your own story. As the audience, the experiencer, you remain free.
Mike26 is your avatar’s name in a near-future version of Call of Duty: Battle Sense, a multi-player online game. In Battle Sense, your avatar fights alongside other avatars and pre-programmed but flexible characters. The enemy unit is populated the same way. Behind each avatar is a human player, who may be sitting anywhere in the world, connected via the internet to the centralised game engine. Stealthy patrols, devastating raids and pitched battles fill your game time, fill Mike26’s life.
Battle Sense is the product of a delicately balanced creative process of agile design and development that tip-toes the line between structure and openness. Hundreds of software engineers and designers contribute to the game world’s birth, to the pre-programmed characters, to the avatars the players adopt and adapt, finally to the dynamic engine that, along with the real-time input of the human players around the world, dictates how the game unfolds second-by-second. The authorship of any period of gameplay is therefore highly distributed, both across the team that created the product and among the players currently sharing it. This story has virtually countless parents.
The medium through which the story evolves is paradoxical. On the one hand, the product that the engineers and designers create is a static collection of binary information: 1s and 0s storable in a small box that you could hold in one palm. On the other, it is a womb of structured potential that can manifest in unpredictable ways depending on players’ actions. It is, in a sense, both static and dynamic. Its resting state encodes movement.
The name Battle Sense comes from its five-sense immersion. Players wear virtual reality headsets, noise-cancelling headphones and haptic bodysuits. They hold small, refillable bluetooth lozenges in their mouths and sit near a refillable vaporiser. All of this means that they experience all five senses from the perspective of their avatar in the game. When Mike26 takes a punch to the mouth, you taste blood. When a grenade explodes twenty-five meters away, you not only hear the deafening blast but feel its shockwave and smell the lingering cordite. You see the whole scene only through his eyes. You hear the avatars’ voices, each with a live human voice behind it. Mixed among them are the shouts and utterances of the game’s pre-programmed characters.
The story here is a series of realistic battle scenes in which your actions and those of your fellow players determine the outcome. You see colleagues die. Your own injuries hamper your movement and sap your strength. You take enemies’ lives. Through occasional accidents as happen in all war, you even extinguish the lives of your own comrades. All around you swirl death and destruction. Sometimes, oblivion taps you on the shoulder: Mike26 perishes, and you wait out the remainder of the scene on the sidelines, reliant on the game for a regeneration. The game world cheats the real world by giving your Mike26 countless lives.
Eventually, in each scene, one side emerges victorious, and the scenario shuffles forward to a logical next stage. Mike26 is not free. You control him. Considered more carefully, your control is only partial, for his life is also constantly influenced by the actions of the other players and by the intricate lines of binary code that determine the unfolding of the game. In truth, what is happening with Mike26 in any moment cannot be disentangled from what is happening in the game as a whole. In any moment, the game state determines Mike26’s state.
Connected, watching, listening, deciding, feeling, tasting, smelling, you sit and experience technology’s best approximation of the fictitious Mike26’s life. The depth to which the game places you ‘within’ Mike 26 is impressive and unprecedented. In so many ways, you are experiencing him and his life. You are ‘wearing’ and ‘driving’ him. His part in the unfolding of the Battle Sense story is, to a large degree, what you experience. And you are the only one who experiences it; of course Mike26, as a computer avatar, experiences nothing.
Still, as you remove your game gear and step out for a bite to eat, you consider how your experience falls short of perfect immersion. Setting aside any sensory imperfections, you focus on the most obvious aspects of experience that always remain yours rather than Mike26’s: your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, emotions and preferences, your hopes and intentions. Because of these and other personal specifics, the experience you have is different from what any other ‘driver’ of Mike26 would have. As a person, your experience derives from the collision of the ‘raw’ input to your senses from the game with your conditioned mind.
The intimacy of your Mike26 experience is certainly greater than your Blanche experience and probably greater than your Harry one. Yet you always retain a degree of distance from identification with Mike26. Your identity doesn’t meld with this character. You know that you are distinct from these experiences. As a person, you have one foot solidly outside the game world and can contrast the game world with your own. You experience Mike26, but you are not him.
You sleep peacefully next to your partner under your favourite duvet, and you dream. In your dream, DreamYou is walking to class. DreamYou meets your friend, and you head to English class together. She mentions in passing that she was up all night completing her term paper. A knot forms in DreamYou’s gut as they step into class. The teacher welcomes everyone and announces that he’ll be collecting all term essays at the end of the period. DreamYou now fully realises that they’ve completely forgotten to start, let alone finish, their ten-thousand word essay, which makes up most of the course grade.
You are the sole creator, the lone author of this story. It arises from the creative spring of your mind. Every detailed aspect of the dream is exactly as it is because your mind calls it into being. And yet, you don’t create it through any conscious effort or decision. You don’t decide that DreamYou will forget the paper; you don’t will the mistake into existence. Although you are the author, your creativity arises spontaneously. The dream issues effortlessly from you.
What is the dream’s medium? Of what is it made? You’ve never really considered it before, but this and all dreams play out in your mind and seem to be made of nothing but your mind. There are no hardcopy materials, no screens or stages, no computers or speakers. The entire story unfolds within you.
That story involves DreamYou, which during the dream seems to be you. But the story also involves your friend and your teacher. And both of these characters, just as surely as DreamYou, exist only in your mind and are made solely of your mind, as is the classroom and hallways you walk with your friend. Isn’t it interesting, though, how, when you tell your partner in bed the next morning and then your work colleagues later in the day about the dream, they all say they’ve had one just like it? So perhaps, though made only of your mind, the dream has also existed with small variations in and been made of countless other minds!
You as the sleeping dreamer are the experiencer of the dream. DreamYou experiences nothing. DreamYou is an aspect of the dream, a sliver of what is experienced, a character in the story. Only you as the dreamer ‘hear’ the dream words, ‘see’ the dream images and ‘feel’ the dream anxiety. What’s more, during the dream, DreamYou is absolutely certain they are you. It doesn’t even arise as a question in the dream. Yet, upon waking, it is just as obvious that DreamYou was not and is not you. You are too old to be in high school English class. You have no paper due today. You are not in trouble. You needn’t worry.
That sinking feeling, that escalating anxiety as DreamYou realised they had forgotten the assignment, was something you experienced, but now you realise that, even then, at the time of the dream itself, there was nothing for the real you to worry about. The unpreparedness in the dream was never a threat to you as the dreamer; it was only a problem for DreamYou. Having woken, you realise things are fine and that things were equally fine even as you slept and experienced an anxious dream, a disturbing story.
You don’t have to scold DreamYou. No need to admonish, ‘How could you have been so silly?!?’ DreamYou couldn’t help it. They were just a character in the dream, in the story that existed within and was composed of your mind. DreamYou could do no differently than they did. DreamYou was not mistaken. As the character, they were bound by your mental creation of them; they were simply being themselves as they were.
DreamYou knows nothing of you the dreamer, because they know nothing at all. They cannot understand you, because they understand nothing outside the context of the understanding you give them within your dream. They are a character whose composition may include ideas about a higher level reality, but those ideas, if they are present in DreamYou’s ‘mind’, are there only because the real you dreams them.
You needn’t be disappointed in yourself either, ‘How could I have mistaken myself for that dream character?’ You didn’t mistake yourself for the dream character at all. You were simply the experiencer of the dream, and the dream was a story in the first person from the perspective of the main character, DreamYou. You experienced the story with perfect clarity and accuracy. It’s just that the story contained the strong sense of subjectivity that the main character was a conscious self with a will, a history, preferences, senses and thoughts. Upon waking, you realise the illusory nature of that sense, but within the dream, there was no perspective from which to see this. The perspective is part of the story. There is no perspective from outside while experiencing the dream, only once it ends.
You were not mistaken. You experienced your dream exactly as it was.
Now, something to consider.
What if the you who dreamed the DreamYou above is really a DreamYou itself? What if that which you’ve always taken yourself to be is not actually a subject at all, is not the experiencer, the knower of your life? What if that personal you is a DreamYou and therefore an object of experience in a greater consciousness?
Would this be scary? Does it mean you don’t really exist? Wouldn’t it instead, since you rather than the person you’ve taken yourself to be? Let’s consider it as we did the previous scenarios: author, medium, story, experiencer (reader, audience, player, dreamer).
In this scenario, the ‘greater consciousness’, which is You (capitalised here onward), is the author of the story. Like in the dream scenario, this author is the creator in the sense that the entire story arises from the well of potential that You are, but You do not choose how the story unfolds, do not sculpt its details through design decisions. You are the author, but not in the sense of a dictating director expressing a will. No, rather as pure creativity, infinite potential. This greater consciousness (which is really the only consciousness) that You are, is not a person drawing on preferences, experiences and imagination to create. You draw from your own essence - unbounded freedom and creativity.
Of what is the story made? On what page is it written? What is its medium? It is made of experience. It is experience. The story is the experience of the story, the experience of itself. And that experience is made of nothing other than the greater consciousness itself. It is nothing other than You. You are both the creator and the medium of the story.
This story is, from the perspective of the person (now recognised as a character) you once took yourself to be, absolutely comprehensive. It is your personal life. It is everything that happens, everything experienced from that personal perspective, across every second of the life that that experience constitutes. The story is a personal life including the person itself, all the other characters and the entire environment in which the life unfolds. From the personal perspective, the story is life, reality, manifestation, the universe, everything.
Yet, the person is part of the story. The person is, like the rest of the story, experienced. It is not the experiencer. It, the person, is not You. You are the experiencer of the story, of life, of reality, of manifestation, the universe, everything. If your personal name is Bob Smith, then consider that Bob Smith experiences nothing. Only You experience Bob Smith, his life, the story of which he is the main character.
You are this greater consciousness that is not any thing, is no thing, is nothing. None of the particulars of the story apply to or limit You. You are no object that has defining properties. All objects and properties arise in You, all are composed of You. You experience all properties but are bound by none.
Yet, because the story is composed of nothing but this consciousness, this experiencing, You are everything. You are nothing in the story, yet You are everything in the story. The story is created by You, composed of You and experienced or known by You. The story is Your experiencing of Yourself. Consider too that, since all that differentiates Bob Smith and his life from any other character from any other life, all that differentiates any story from another, is detail, limiting and defining properties that apply in different measure and in different combinations in one story than in another, You, this experiencing consciousness, are the same You that experiences all main characters, the subject behind all perspectives, the author, medium and experiencier of all stories.
In the previous scenario, the dreamer was a person. That person awoke to a more fundamental level of reality. From that waking level, the person could assess the dream ‘from the outside’. The person could realise from outside that DreamPerson was not the real person. The person could compare the dream to other dreams and to waking life. The person could analyse it, consider alternatives to it, judge it.
In the current scenario, which is to say in reality, a greater intelligence, You, experience all stories, but experience each only from the inside. This is why Bob Smith is unable to know, can only guess at, Sally Brown’s experience. You know every story by experiencing it, but Your only experience, aside from the eventless knowing of Your eternal stillness, is through one or other of the countless stories, from countless different personal perspectives, that spool from Your creative heart. You are none of these people, but each of them exists only in and as You.
These stories. These endlessly varied, uncountable, comprehensive lives and perspectives are each whole and perfect, as is Your knowing of them.
Bob Smith may be accepting or judgmental, but You as the experiencer of his life accept every aspect of the story that arises within and as You, including Bob’s acceptance or judgment. All judgment, like its opposite, sits with Your perfect acceptance. Anything that exists, exists only because You have accepted it.
Bob may understand his current situation, or he may be confused, but You as the knower of his experience see this understanding or confusion with perfect clarity. All confusion, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect clarity.
Bob may seek pleasure and avoid pain, but You know his seeking, his avoidance, his pleasure and his pain without concern or preference. All pain, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect peace. All preferences and aversions sit within Your unjudging awareness.
Bob may struggle or he may rest in the flow of life, but You know his struggle or ease with absolute effortlessness. All struggle and effort, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect ease. All that happens, including the feelings and thoughts of effort and struggle, happens with no effort whatsoever.
Bob’s travels might take him to remote continents. He might even traverse the stars to distant galaxies. All locations and space itself lie within Your dimensionless infinitude. You occupy no space but hold all space enfolded within Your experiential field.
Bob may be virtuous or sinful, good or evil, but You know his good or evil from beyond good and evil. All good and evil, all love and hate, sits within Your unconditional, welcoming love, a love that says Yes to all that arises to, in and as You, a love that blesses all with Your radiant awareness.
Bob makes decisions, exerts influence, exercises his will. But all decision and action sits within the flow of manifestation arising from the creativity of Your unbounded freedom. Bob is free to be exactly as he is. You are freedom itself, the field of limitless potential and all possible manifestation.
Yesterday, Bob may have been ignorant of his own true nature as You. Today, he may have realised that nature and awakened to his true self as You. But Bob always is You, whether he realises it or not. You are untouched by Bob’s or any character’s ignorance or enlightenment. Enlightenment, like happiness, wealth and virtue, are for the persons, the characters; they are not for You but in You.
Bob was born and will die, but You know his and all birth and death, and You see each moment of every life eternally. All birth, death, movement and even time itself exist within Your eternal stillness.
You seem to be a person living out an amazing story. You seem that way because that is what the story is. All that You experience is through story, not from outside it, looking in. The story is You.
You experience Yourself, and thereby the world is born - not once and for all but in every moment of existence. All that can possibly happen awaits manifestation in Your infinite well of potential. Yet no story truly waits, because You bless each eternally with Your creative, radiant awareness. Every moment, from every perspective, spontaneously arises and instantaneously passes, side-by-side, in the timeless blessing of Your presence.
You are. I am.
I've been reading Michael A. Singer's The Untethered Soul, in which he expresses the need for openness very well. My paraphrase of what I take as his central message is, "All fortresses are also prisons."
We erect and occupy fortresses - be they physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological or ideological - to protect us from something outside them. And what are we protecting? Ourselves, which is to say our selves, our egos. Our egoic fortresses are the assembled constructs - collections of images, narratives and labels - that give us the impression of solidity, durability and independence from the flux of change that surrounds us. We hide in these redoubts in the hope of defining a realm of control within a vast sea in which we recognise we have none. We cower in them for comfort.
These bunkers of self-definition need constant maintenance to keep them from crumbling. The insistent flow of reality splashes against them and drags at their foundations incessantly. What else do we expect to happen when we try to set fixed positions in a reality that rushes, dancing and laughing, at and past it in perpetual renewal? Our tenets and definitions of self, based on past pain and pleasure, now frozen, cannot help but conflict with ever-evolving reality. Which do you think wins?
But let's come back to the twin-faced nature of these citadels. How are they also prisons? Do we not see that, however effective they are in keeping out the things that might cause us pain or discomfort, they are at least as effective at denying us access to much beyond the walls that would bring us delight. Our fortresses protect our comfort at the cost of our freedom. Avoiding exposure to that which we fear, we equally cut ourselves off from much for which we yearn.
Alas, we cannot have both untroubled comfort and the freedom to recognise our own peace and wholeness.
You can read Singer, who says all of this so much better, for yourself, but I'll let you in on some good news. These fortresses are a simple matter (not the same as an easy task) to bring down. The world itself, the collision of reality against the fortress walls, will bring them down, if only we will stop shoring them back up. A further happy truth: our repair of these walls has been soaking up untold amounts of our life energy, and all of that becomes available to us if we can relax and release from our defense of them.
First posted 20 Nov 2003. It's interesting that my view has shifted significantly at the foundational level but that much at the 'so what' level remains consistent with what is discussed here. The differences?
We persons are special, at least on Earth, in that we have subjective experiences and are also able to step 'outside' those experiences to consider the world, including ourselves and the subjective experiences we have, more objectively. My assumption is that while many other animals are sentient they cannot take this external, objective step.
This ability has contributed greatly to our success, but it has also saddled us (or those of us with nothing better to do than consider it from time to time) with a seemingly insoluble problem: how do we reconcile our subjective feeling of an 'I' inside each of our bodies that serves as the agent of our actions, with our objective understanding of ourselves as parts of the natural world - parts made of 'standard' materials, parts operating subject to well-understood physical forces, parts constructed of reasonably well-identified sub-components with specific functions, parts whose actions are ultimately explained in natural terms without need of or room for this agent 'I'?
As I've said before in Destiny, I think that the answer to the riddle is that our subjective perspective is real but is not based in any agent of free will. Instead, subjective mental states correspond to (and I believe are caused by) specific but complex brain states, which influence and are influenced by body states. There is no free will. Yet our day-to-day, minute-to-minute belief in it cannot and should not be eradicated. I actually encourage a naturalistic expansion rather than an elimination of our concept of the 'I' behind our actions, but I won't repeat my thinking on that point now.
For now, I wanted to look at what I think is an interesting relationship between the objective and subjective, a relationship that, as far as we know, only exists through us as persons. As viewed from the furthest objective reaches, our brains and bodies (not to mention our minds) virtually disappear from the explanation of anything that is going on. The ultimate objective explanation of the dynamics around us would likely appeal to much smaller - and perhaps occasionally much larger - physical structures. Cells, genes, proteins, molecules, atoms, quarks collide, interact. Supernovae explode, singularities evolve. It seems 'we' matter not at all.
Yet without us and our fellow sentient creatures, there would be no screen for this great film to play on. The universe has created its own sets of eyes, ears and fingers to check itself out. I don't mean this in a teleological way. I don't think this was an end toward which the universe evolved - it's just one of the outcomes of the evolution. Light is seen; crashing waves are heard; slippery ice and warming sun are felt. Our animal cousins join us in this feast.
But our feast (we presume) has an additional course, for we have stumbled upon the ability to reason about the contents of our own minds. This self-consciousness opens the door to objectifying our view, not just about our own mental states, but about their place within the world around us. If I tie this back to the big picture, it means that the universe has created not just a set of video recorders but also a set of computers (who in turn have created computers, but I won't get into the role of technological evolution), capable of examining the rest of the world, describing (if not explaining) its past and predicting its future. Within very limited bounds, we recorder/computers also alter its future, but once again, from the ultimate objective standpoint, this is not so special.
The thing that is special is the existence of recursive subjective states, even if you believe, as I do, that they are epiphenomena of physical states. Their existence is uniquely confined to sentient beings, and a subset of them exist only in persons. They are only ever effects, never causes, yet they are remarkable. Although the history and future of the universe can be explained without reference to them, although they are in one sense redundant, although they never outlive the physical body that causes them, the universe would not be the same without them.
And let's unbundle them to individual minds. Consciousness, coupled with memory and intention, constitutes an individual window on the world in each of us. Once again, this is not teleological. We don't exist to provide this window. Yet each of us provides one none the less. Although the 'self' derives from wholly physical causes, it takes flight in the emergent magic of sentience and self-consciousness. Your subjective experience of the world is what makes you special among the rocks and trees.
Only you enjoy that unique show. There is no objective observer, but if there were, he would be able to explain your every action in physical terms. He could trace every atom of your existence backward to the Big Bang and forward indefinitely. He could pinpoint the arrival, manipulation and transfer of every idea by neurochemical, mechanical and electromagnetic means. But he would not be able to comment at all on what it was like to be you. That is what makes our living moments special among all the moments in which our constituent particles and their interactions have existed and will exist.
We are objects, with pasts much greater than our age and futures more enduring than our life expectancy. But we are special objects, each with a unique subjective window on the world. And within your window is yourself, both as subject and as object. A frame in a frame in a temporary frame.
First posted 17 Feb 2004 - This film covered a lot of ground. It may have lacked rigour. It may have made insinuations that outreached any fact base. But you can't deny it prompted questions and presented interesting material in relatively digestible form. My own views have shifted significantly from those I held at the time of this review. Some are now closer to the film's, some still not.
Having seen 'I Heart Huckabees' on Sunday, I saw a preview screening of 'What the Bleep Do We Know' this evening - quite a philosophical week. 'Bleep' will probably launch properly in London in March or April.
Well, Bleep certainly covers a lot of ground. I am on board with the need for a paradigm shift - from one dominated by the residue of our longstanding and recently ended infatuation with major western religions to something that retains the connection with the numinous while using what modern science has to offer.
I have to say that the paradigm I envisage differs in a fundamental way from that suggested by the film, but it also shares much ground. Irrespective of whether I or anyone else actually subscribes to the film's specific direction, it is a must see - simply because it is so thought-provoking.
Particular items that caught my attention or stirred a reaction were:
Quantum mechanics (QM)
The film starts with a strong version of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, which says that sub-atomic particles cannot be said to exist independent of observation. Unobserved, 'they' exist only as potentials, the probabilistic evolution of which is well defined by a mathematical construct called a wave function. In this wave form, the 'particle' exists as a weighted superposition of all its possible selves (with different positions and momentums for each potential self). Only upon measurement by an observer does the wave function 'collapse' to a unique particle with definite characteristics (not all of which can be known to arbitrary accuracy at the same time). This interpretation obviously gives a special role to the 'observer' in nature.
This is combined with a specific view of the self, one in which Mind stands outside the laws of material nature and in a position of primacy relative to the material world - literally Mind over Matter. I guess you could say the film was espousing an Idealist as opposed to a Realist (read materialist) view of the world: thoughts, ideas, intentions and emotions are the primary building blocks of the world, not atoms, molecules and cells.
The film intertwines these two propositions and draws the conclusion that we each create reality everyday. Further, by adopting more positive attitudes and engaging in more positive thought patterns, we can impact the material world around us to make our world a better place.
As you'll know if you've read my articles on QM (If you think you understand this, then you don't, Quantum Determinacy, Problems with Quantum Orthodoxy, and Revisiting the Quantum - information please) and the Self (Who Am I?, Destiny, Subjective Objects), I disagree fundamentally with each of the two propositions above. I am a causal realist at heart, believing that there is an objective material world that exists independent of us and that subsumes us. And although I think that the Mind is awe-inspiring, I think that it is wholly resident in and reliant on the body.
So without going into any refutations of the film's positions (because I've discussed that in the articles I've mentioned), I'll just say that the film's position on those dimensions does not resonate with me. I don't view either of them as absurd in their own right. However, I do think that the leap to the overall conclusion about our ability to literally impact matter and space with our minds is a bit far. QM's interpretation is still a mystery, with many holding views close to the interpretation cited in the film and some holding views closer to mine. Consciousness is also a puzzle, with clear-thinking people on each side of the Idealist - Realist debate. However, just because QM and consciousness are both unexplained doesn't mean that they are related to one another in any way, let alone a causal tie as blunt and direct as the film proposes.
The Arrow of Time
One of the contributors pointed out the peculiar asymmetry of time. Most (I don't know whether we call say 'all') of the mathematical formulae that so accurately describe the world around us are indifferent to the direction of time, working just as well backwards as forward. Yet we can only experience time in one direction. We can (if we can trust our memories) have knowledge of the past but not of the future. We are troubled by the thought of our not living into the unending future, but we have no problem with the fact that we were not alive for the many thousands of years before our birth.
Some (but not this contributor) have suggested that time's arrow is tied to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, entropy increases over time. Entropy MUST increase as time moves forward, so perhaps this irreversibility drives the same irreversibility in time. But upon closer inspection, entropy's increase is not absolutely necessary: it is only probabilistic. It just so happens that the universe began in a relatively ordered state. Since there are many more (uncountably so) disordered states than there are ordered ones, entropy's march is staggeringly probable - NEARLY assured. Yet that is not the same as being necessary, absolute. So... if we are to tie time to entropy, we would also have to accept that time's direction is not irreversible in theory, but is only practically guaranteed by the high probabilities discussed above.
The Brain and learning, habituation and addiction
Several contributors discussed the role of neural pathways or networks in our behaviour. We reinforce the formation of certain sets of connections through our habits. The reinforced sets 'wire' themselves to respond to the frequent call for their combined performance. Other possible combinations, if not called upon, do not wire themselves up. We can, through conscious habituation, re-wire some of these networks (e.g. the ones associated with more positive outlooks, more pleasant moods, more confident postures and more successful behaviours).
And this electrical component is accompanied by a chemical one, with parts of the brain creating (or causing to be created) different chemicals for different needs. Just like we can become addicted to external drugs, we can become addicted to some of these internal, home-made concoctions. We then engage in the behaviours and nurture the states of mind that give us our fix.
The important point is that a bit of us can stand outside the fray, perhaps up on the mental balcony, observing and intervening to break the vicious cycle. But we have to recognise and support that bit, exercise it and have confidence in it.
I don't know the science well enough to comment on the accuracy of this 'folk' version of it, but it doesn't seem outlandish; in fact, it jibes quite well with the rough understanding I have from some previous reading.
I'll see it when I believe it
One scene is built around the story that the natives in the Caribbean did not see Columbus's ships as they sailed in, because they had no visual or mental construct for a ship. The more general point is that we cannot see or accept things that do not already exist in our mental model or paradigm.
To be honest, I don't buy the foundational story at all. I can accept that the natives would not know that the ships WERE ships. I can understand that they would be confused as to what these dark patches on the horizon were, confused by the shapes they became as they grew closer. But I cannot believe that they literally did not SEE them.
Like everything else in the film, though, it is thought provoking. It recalls to mind a vague picture I have of how we deal with sensory input and with anomalies in particular. We are bombarded with sensory input, with much more than we can process, in every waking moment. Our brains are partially hard-wired through evolution (i.e. natural selection) to help discern the useful info from the 'white noise', and our particular experiences further shape the more plastic aspects of that filter.
From our earliest days, we begin to assemble our working model of the world. What matters? What does not? What framework allows us to maintain internal consistency across the broadest range of our experience - to make sense of the world? When new input arrives that is labeled as irrelevant, we do not attend to it (unless perhaps we pay the price for ignoring it and our brains pick up on that fact and adjust the framework). When new input fits the paradigm and is labeled as important, we attend to it.
But what happens if new information is so far outside our accumulated experience and reasonable extrapolation from it that we can make no sense of it at all? We tuck it away into a certain bit of the brain where it sits in a cache; at night, while we sleep and dream, among the routine brain maintenance that takes place is a re-assessment of the framework (or paradigm) in the light of any new anomalous information. What is the smallest adjustment that can be made to the overall model in order to accommodate, make sense of, this new input? Do we need to scrap the whole model and start anew (when rocks begin to talk or we find out that we are just carnival entertainment for some other, alien and invisible race!)? If the accommodation necessary is too large, we may well end up just disregarding the anomaly (the Red Sox didn't REALLY win the World Series) and just continue with the paradigm intact.
So you can see that I identify more than a grain of truth in the film's underlying point here.
Back to the addiction theme, another segment looked at it from the somatic cell perspective. Every cell has loads of receptors for receiving information from its environment, including the chemical drinks discussed above. If the receptors are incessantly bombarded by some protein 'hit' they shrink and become less responsive to it, meaning it takes more of it to give the same 'fix'. Cells can then become so engrossed in getting their next 'high' that they neglect other important functions like communication with neighbouring cells and even elimination of their own waste products. Keep in mind that I'm talking about 'internal', not 'external' drugs here (although I wouldn't be surprised if the story were much the same for external ones).
You can tell by my over-use of analogy that I'm not up to speed with the proper science here, so I can't judge the accuracy of the scientific claims. It does, though, appeal to common sense. (Yeah, yeah, I know, common sense often leads us astray when we venture away from the normal life scales and conditions in which it developed.)
One contributor spoke (a bit too loosely, I think) about cells being not only alive - an assertion with which I wholly agree - but also conscious. She said a cell was conscious because it interacted with its environment and processed chemical information. This doesn't, for me, suggest consciousness. Or, to put it another way, if it DID qualify as consciousness, then we would have to admit that computers and computer networks are conscious. Perhaps we should...
No good, no bad
Several contributors pointed out that there is no objective good or bad 'out there' in the world. A belief with which I am in agreement, as you can read in my articles: Right and Wrong, Sources of Morality, Ethical Notes, Disobedience, Pragmatic Ethics and Nietzsche's Call to Creativity.
No Personal God
All contributors who discussed religion found the creation of a person-like personal God harmful to mankind and in many instances antithetical to what they saw spirituality as.
I tend to agree that, however powerful, insightful and well-intended the original spiritual messages are, when organised religion accretes around them, the foibles of man dilute, pollute and hijack them.
This isn't at all to say that all clergy are guilty or that all followers are silly. I just think that the more organised a belief structure is, the more likely it is to lose sight of the wood for the trees.
As I said, there were a number of things with which I agreed and a number of things - including the major thesis - with which I didn't. Still I can heartily recommend 'What the Bleep Do We Know' as an interesting, challenging, thought-provoking film that may well make you want to sit down and put your thoughts to paper.
First posted 12 Apr 2004. Tying together Robert Pirsig, Eckhart Tolle and Nietzsche - early influencers of how I now see the world, this post also touches on music, one of the great loves of my life. Just a taster. Oh, and I got rid of my Vespa a few years ago, so now the maintenance analogies have to find their home in the bicycle world...
Ever find yourself in the middle of a confrontational daydream - hypothesising things that might go wrong in the future and then spinning through in your head how you might deal with them? Or have you caught yourself re-living an event (whether glorious or humiliating) from the past, perhaps second-guessing your actions? Or how about sitting in traffic, in a queue or in a boring meeting at work, waiting to be able to get on to something interesting or important that lies in the near future?
If you're like me, you probably spend a fair bit of time thinking about the past, the future or some alternative and preferable present. We do it so much that we think nothing of it. Yet when you really step back and consider it, as I do whenever I re-visit Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now like I have in the past week, you realise that all this mental hyper-activity is really a useless exercise.
Let's acknowledge up front that of course it is useful to reflect on past events in so far as that reflection generates learning that better prepares us for the future. Likewise, it is certainly useful to think about the future so as to identify things you can do today and along the way to make that future better. Our brains are wonderful tools for learning from the past and planning for the future, and we should stroke them lovingly for the outstanding work they do for us on those dimensions.
The problem is that, at least for me, most of the time spent dwelling on the past or fretting about the future involves little of this useful activity. If learning and planning were all we did, we'd spend a small fraction of the 'non-Now' time we do. No, what we do is mull over things again and again, causing our hearts to race and inducing other fight-or-flight reactions in our bodies. We put ourselves through unnecessary worry, regret or other pain.
Although it is almost too obvious to warrant mentioning, let's just remind ourselves that there is NOTHING we can do about the past. Aside from some science fiction writers and Hollywood producers, no one has found a way to reverse time's arrow. It naturally follows that obsessing on the past (beyond the aforementioned reflection for learning's sake) is useless.
Not quite so obvious, but equally true, is the point that worrying about the future does nothing to avoid or mitigate negative future events. Once again, some planning might help, but beyond that, much of the future-anxiety we experience is driven by phantoms, dreamed up proto-scenarios that may or may not ever materialise.
The whole 'so-what' of this is that all we can ever directly influence is NOW. Every action we ever take is taken in the present. We might as well pay attention to the present, since that is all we ever directly experience.
So at one level, a strictly practical one, I personally am trying much harder to minimise the time I spend with useless, unhelpful and uncomfortable past- and future-oriented activity. Don't get me wrong: I do not purport to be a guru or an expert on this. I just struggle along like everyone else, but I AM doing better at simply recognising when I begin to drift into unhealthy past-or-future zone. And just recognising it really does go a long way toward making it stop.
As for the future (because I tend to be much worse about drifting in that direction than drifting toward the past), I find lists to be very helpful, and here's why. If I think of something I need to do in the near future and don't write it down, it just swirls around in my head until I get it done. And it doesn't swirl around peacefully, it leaves a trail of anxiety. Whereas if I write it down, then I feel it is captured. Then I just cross it off when I do it, whenever that is.
Now some people have problems with lists, because they make these really comprehensive ones that try to encapsulate EVERYTHING they need to do to 'get themselves together.' Having filled page upon page with these details, they then look at the list and are instantly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project before them. All I can say to this is that we all need to prioritise and schedule among the demands on us. You work your way through that list the same way you eat an elephant - one bite at a time.
A Deeper Level
Now let me turn to a slightly different problem, that of following our minds into alternative, preferred presents rather than directly our minds towards the ACTUAL present in which we sit. This is the category of problem that includes the anxiety in traffic jams, long queues and other 'useless' periods.
At the risk of (once again) stating the obvious. Either we can do something about the situation in which we find ourselves or we can't. In the former case, we should just get on and DO it. In the latter, we can but make the most of it. In either case, the first step is to accept (which is not to say celebrate) the real present, recognise and acknowledge it. Only having done that can we figure out whether we can usefully act. All too often, I just skip this all-important step and move straight into emotional over-reaction, with the accompanying unhealthy physical manifestations of stress and frustration.
Now this is where I could really be a lot truer to my professed world-view. I believe that whatever happens is the best that CAN happen and the worst that CAN happen. In other words, whatever happens, happens NECESSARILY. By better keeping this in mind, I can more helpfully acknowledge what IS and then work WITH it to the limits of my ability.
There is another reason for paying more attention to and granting acknowledgment to the present moment. There is an entire world out there as well as within us. Our real contact with that world, is entirely in the present. If we restrict the attention we give to it by frittering away part of our capacity on past and future ghosts, then we degrade our connection with reality.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig speaks of quality - that characteristic that defines something that is good from something that is not. In essence, quality surfs right on the leading edge of the present moment. It imposes itself on us in its raw, undefined Romantic form in the instant between awareness and consciousness. Once our rational, Classical consciousness - a filter defined by our make-up and experiences - takes hold of it, we analyse it, dissect it and place it into the appropriate category or pigeon-hole. If our awareness is in itself inhibited because our minds are leading us away from the present to battle past or future demons, then we are twice poorer: first in gaining only an attenuated or partial experience and second in what we can extract from that experience.
The mechanics who screwed up Pirsig's bike weren't sufficiently engaged in their work to do a good job. This might have even been the case if they did care deeply about achieving a good final product. The point is that you have to care about what you are DOING, not what any future product of it is. Caring about what you're doing (which is always in the present moment) is the single most important thing in motorcycle maintenance - and of course by extension, the most important thing full stop.
For Nietzsche as well, reality was this pre-rational raw wave within an ever-evolving flux. The front edge of that wave is all we can ever access. In fact, this unmitigated experience is so powerful that we have evolved physically and socially so as to buffer ourselves against it. Given our self-imposed safety padding, designed to protect our sanity, the closest most of us can safely get to unadulterated Being is through music.
Music speaks to us without words, riding a standing wave at the edge of our awareness and the rest of existence, with which that awareness is inextricable entwined and essentially one. For Nietzsche, only a new being, born of man but incomparably braver and sturdier, can 'face the music' without being overwhelmed. It opens the window to not only the beauty but also the terror of existence.
Just to come back to the mortal world, I have to admit that my experience with music has never been this earth-shattering. Yet I do see something in what Nietzsche is saying. Music does help bring me into and hold me in the present moment. It brings my mind out of its self-generated battles and makes it still. Then, whatever I turn to do, I do with a clearer mind. I am able to immerse myself more deeply into that activity, in the DOING rather than the product.
I don't do my own maintenance on my 50cc Vespa, but if I did, I would want to have my MP3 player nearby.
Originally posted 9 May 2005. My view shifted less than a year after writing this, when I came across Julian Barbour's The End of Time. Still, this was a step along the way. I guess my present view isn't far off what is expressed here briefly as 'Presentism'. But in another sense it is a special case of a B-Theory, with no 'real' flow of time.
I have for some time held a 'Block' view of time, without realising that it had such a name. Upon thinking a bit more about time, I realised that my view on it is so closely entwined with my views on personal identity, determinism and morality that I really should make it a matter of record.
The Block view at a glance
By a 'Block' view of time, I mean this: that time can be seen, within limits, as a space-like dimension that, when visualised in conjunction with the three spatial dimensions, creates a four-dimensional 'Block' of spacetime. This Block is the vessel that contains the complete history of everything - or simply IS the collection of all histories - in our universe. If space or time is infinite (as it now seems at least space is), then this Block too is infinite. This, I think, is the standard scientific view of time, and four-dimensional spacetime is the stage on which Einstein's general relativity is set out.
But there are potential problems with this. From a scientific angle, at least one of the leading candidate theories of quantum gravity - the required next big step in reconciling relativity with quantum theory and advancing our understanding of the universe - does away with spacetime altogether. From a philosophical perspective, some say that such a view fails to account for the flow of time. Leaving quantum gravity for another time, I'll concentrate hear on the philosophical issues.
My Block view falls under the umbrella of what is known as the B-Theory of time. There is another set of theories that fall under the A-Theory umbrella. Essentially, I think that the key differences are these:
A-theory and B-theory of time
The A-theory believes that the flow of time (temporal becoming) is real, objective and absolute. NOW is a moving instant that flows at one second per second. The A-Theory also believes that the temporal properties of futureness, presence and pastness are real temporal entities. A specific version of the A-Theory, Presentism, denies the existence of past and future, leaving only the eternal NOW. See my post on Eckhardt Tolle's The Power of Now.
The B-Theory holds that past and future events, like present ones, are real. As a matter of fact, B-Theorists hold that, just like there is no objective special place called 'here', there is no objective special time called 'now'. There are just points in the temporal dimension at specific dates and times, and the only real temporal entities are the temporal RELATIONS of earlier than, later than and simultaneous with. The image is one of a time axis on which we can see that some points lie to the left of (and are hence earlier than) other points. But the thing to grasp is that events that lie to the 'left' and 'right' of the time we presently occupy are just as real (at those times) as the events we witness now. And it goes further.
The philosophers discuss time mainly by talking about the truth of statements about temporal relations. For B-theorists, if my mother kisses the US President at 12:30 pm on 5 December 2003, then the statement, "D's mother kisses the US President at 12:30 pm on 5 December 2003," is true not just at 12:30 pm on 5 December 2003, but eternally. Eternally in this sense does not mean 'at all times' but rather timelessly. That truth, like the truth 2+2=4 does not exist in time at all.
A closer look at the Block view
But talking about truth values of statements doesn't do it for me. I want to talk about the existence of things and events. I am drawn, and have been since long before I read about the philosophy of time, to an image of spacetime, as seen from a perspective OUTSIDE spacetime. Of course, such a perspective cannot be attained, but we can think of it as a God-like one. From outside spacetime (and therefore necessarily outside time), we 'see' a four dimensional container, and that container holds the entire history of every particle, field and every other entity. If we were to pick out a single rock, we could follow it along the time dimension (which, since we can't visually represent 4 dimensions very well, we might think of as going from left to right) and see that it's spatial position shifts (up, down, etc) as it moves 'forward' through time. Now, I've said we can imagine this God-like perspective, but the more important point is that this is how things are, although we cannot attain the proper perspective to see them this way.
Just as the philosopher says that the STATEMENTS 2+2=4 and "D's mother kisses the US President at 12:30 pm on 5 December 2003," ARE TRUE eternally, I believe that that rock and everything else within the spacetime 'container' (or collection) EXIST eternally. Once again, this isn't to say that they exist at all times; if we say that we are still thinking within the time dimension. The Empire State Building came into existence at a particular time and will no doubt cease to exist at some time. It is rather to say that anything that exists at ANY TIME, exists eternally, timelessly, from this God-like perspective, outside of the time dimension.
This visualisation I've used also helps show the main objection that B-theorists have with the A-theory: there is no special time in this 'vessel' labelled 'Now'. Time is just a fourth axis for the grid system.
But this simultaneously throws up the big problem that A-theorists have with B-theory: it doesn't adequately account for the Now-ness or presence of certain events. The vessel is filled with events, but why do some specific ones feel very different than the rest, i.e. why do they feel like they are happening NOW. B-theorists answer, once again, more in terms of the truth value of temporal statements rather than about events / things per se. But I am quite happy to take it that the events that are happening NOW as opposed to at some other time are those events that are near-simultaneous with my asking 'Which events are happening now?' Events that happened in the past are those that happened earlier than my asking that same question, and future events are ones that happen later than when I ask the question.
What makes time unique among spacetime dimensions?
But this does highlight another problem that many B-theorists have with my particular Block time version of there own theory. Time is obviously not a truly space-like dimension.
This is where the real mystery comes in, and perhaps it is a particular weakness in my theory that leaves me in this cul-de-sac having to throw up my hands and appeal to mystery... But I haven't seen anyone else bottom it out yet either.
We could say, and many philosophers do, that it simply is the case that the temporal dimension is qualitatively and irreducibly different from the spatial ones - objectively. Or we could say that it is not that different objectively but that there is something about the nature of sentience and consciousness that makes our inter-subjective experience of it seem different.
If we're willing to accept one of these explanations, what are the knock-on effects? Well, on my view, accepting the Block theory of time answers the free will / determinism debate once and for all. Although such a theory of time is not necessary for determinism to hold (an A-theoretical flow forward from a set of initial conditions according to fixed and determinate laws does the job as well), I think it is definitely sufficient. If all of history is captured in spacetime, with us just consciously 'riding' through the time dimension, then everything we do, we do necessarily.
I think that the block view also prompts interesting questions about sentience and consciousness, life and death. If all that exists does so eternally, and if the flow of time is simply something that we experience subjectively, then are we not eternally living those lives?
When I die as when I live, all of the moments of my life exist in that four-dimensional spacetime; if that window that moves along the time dimension, providing access to the 'present' as it rolls forward, is not objectively in the nature of the temporal dimension itself but rather in our experience of it; if no moment in time has a privileged position relative to all the others, then I live my life, from 16 June 1966 to the day I die, eternally.
That doesn't mean that I live my life over and over again. It doesn't mean retracing and taking different turns through supposed possible worlds, as it is always exactly the same. But it could mean that my subjective experience itself (or perhaps more exactly each and every moment of it) runs eternally between those two points on the timeline. My first sentient experience (probably even before birth) exists eternally. My last dying experience exists eternally. And so does every experience in between.
Maybe the whole history of the entire universe sits, still and unchanging, four dimensions. Maybe the only movement is the eternal subjective movement of sentience between the start line and the finish line of each sentient life in the temporal dimension. And the existence of that sentience, that subjective perspective, is just something that happens to be, arising from the relations among entities in that four dimensional space...
If so, then Nietzsche wasn't far off with his doctrine of the Eternal Return. Although he saw eternity as a never ending looping repeat of history, which is quite different from what I've spelled out, the recommendation is the same: live each moment of your life as if you will live it eternally. See my post on Nietzsche here.
First posted 4 Aug 2004. Reading now, I know how influenced German philosophy, including Nietzsche's, was by eastern thinking. Now familiar with those influences, I can see them wrapped in Nietzsche's strained metaphors. Nietzsche ended up losing himself in his metaphorical labyrinth, not keeping enough contact with society and the real world to anchor him between his metaphysical flights. He saw and articulated the dangers of modernity, but his alternative was insufficiently stable for either Nazi Germany (whose leaders hijacked his words) or himself.
Nietzsche calls on us to be the poets of our own lives. Given his love of music and his belief that music brings us closer than anything else can to the raw experience of Being, perhaps the better metaphor is that we should be the composers as well as players of our own lives. Regardless - creativity is at the centre of Nietzsche's programme. He applied this to himself as well, seeing philosophy not as a field for discovering truths but for creating them.
Nietzsche didn't need to argue that objective truths don't exist, although at least sometimes he did make just such statements. He could just as well point out that, irrespective of their existence, these truths are ultimately inaccessible to us. The epistemological argument could still allow him to reduce practical truth to a battle of forces. A person defines his moral truths (albeit while being acted upon by social, cultural and individual forces around him) and then sets out to live by them. In so living, he brings his 'truths' into contact with those of others around him. Either by demonstration, persuasion, trickery or force, some truths emerge as dominant in the rich mix of human interaction.
Nietzsche has no time for democracy per se in this process, holding no great respect for the mass of humanity. The great souls will emerge from the fray and set the light by which others live. The greatest of these souls are the artists, who through music and metaphor exert the most powerful influence on the game. They set (or more often tear down) the boundaries in which the contest of life takes place. For the most part, Nietzsche believes they are - and should be - completely unconstrained in this creative act. Nietzsche held what might be called an aesthetic worldview, believing that mankind's existence was justified only by the accomplishments of its most gifted members and that nothing should limit their creative powers.
This all sounds a bit scary for the great collection of us humble enough to recognise that we are not among the earth's true shakers and movers, but Nietzsche assumed that the great men would act nobly. This mustn't be confused with any sense that the supermen would respect the common men. Nor did it guarantee that a few people didn't get squashed along the way. Nietzsche saw war as a great tool of Dionysian creative destruction that shook mankind from its slumber and re-stirred the creative forces. In his more balanced moments, he did admit that these Dionysian forces did need to be balanced somewhat by the more structured, ordered Apollonian ones - a sort of hot and cold bicameral system that could be applied to the individual psychologically but also to the world in cultural and social terms.
This all sounds a bit extreme, but we do have to keep in mind what Nietzsche saw it as an inoculation against. Nietzsche believed two things, and he believed that these things were becoming increasingly clear to people in general. First, there was no God. God had not created man but vice versa. The fact that science and scepticism were undermining faith in the numinous made him worry that mankind would be left adrift, anchor-less. Second, he subscribed to determinism in its strongest sense. At heart, none of us could choose to do other than we do. Our actions were driven not by a cause-free agent but rather by the currents and eddies of a continuous flux of forces - the Will to Power. As science increasingly demonstrated our place as part of the natural world and its causal flow, the common man would descend into nihilism - a submission to the view that nothing mattered.
Only humanity's strongest (who, in Nietzsche's view, transcended humanity to become a new type of being) could overcome this undertow and provide a new framework in which others could operate healthily. Doing so required not only casting off the shores of Christian false comfort and braving the tumultuous waters, but also choosing a new shore - legislating a new code, creating a new order. One had to embrace the knowledge of Being's flux and destiny's necessity. One had to walk mockingly on the edge of the abyss.
And of course, Nietzsche realised that he too operated within the flow of determinism. What he wrote, he wrote by necessity. Whether others were influenced by him, followed him rather than descending into nihilism, was also a matter of necessity. He, like the rest of us, was a vehicle for (or a current in) the ever flowing Heraclitean flux of existence. He embraced this as what he was and charged onto the field of battle with passion and steel.
The challenge Nietzsche saw and sought to meet posed a difficult dilemma. How do we simultaneously accept that our actions are fully determined and yet plunge into and through life with vigour and relish? We adopt the perspective of the creative front of a wave of action (for Nietzsche, more strictly, Will to Power), that defines itself, and then imposes that definition on the world. We 'become who we are.' One need accept no boundaries in the application of this creative force, save one.
This boundary is an internal one only, one imposed by the perpetual realisation that what one does this once will be relived over and over again forever. Nietzsche believed, not just metaphorically but metaphysically (in keeping with some scientific hypotheses of the day) that time recycled without end. His doctrine of the Eternal Return served notice to all that one must act such that one wills that act to repeat in perpetuity. When considered deeply, this brings very great weight indeed to moral decision making. Yet the weight does not lean toward any particular desired corner.
We can call Nietzsche to account for a certain lack of clarity in his writing, certainly when that writing is held to the standards of modern analytical philosophy. Nietzsche's answer would be a simple one - that the greatest truths are not discovered through reasoned clarity but rather brought into being by creative genius. Metaphor (our closest verbal approximation to music) is the tool of true philosophers. We can also disagree with his metaphysical commitments to a Will to Power and the Eternal Return. In my view, though, these were only one step too far. While rejecting the idea of the Will to Power, I subscribe to the view that reality is a continuous flux. As for the doctrine of the Eternal return, I prefer to view it instead that what happens now echoes in eternity - it is 'captured' in the great eternal camera reel that plays through one frame at a time. Anyway, these are also just metaphysical speculations themselves!
What I appreciate about Nietzsche's message is that while we are part of the deterministic flow of nature, we cannot possibly know what our destiny is, so we must think and act such as to create that destiny for ourselves but also for all that surrounds us, bringing ourselves to bear on the world. My choices and actions define me, yet I (not as a cause-free agent but as the sum of all that has come together in me at this moment) compose the song that is my life - this short special time during which all that is me assumes a living, sentient, conscious form.