The Jellyfish, the Silverfish, and Me


photo by Mitchell Kaneshkevich
About 650 million years ago, jellyfish evolved with, most likely, the first eyes of any creature on the planet. At first, apparently, these were only capable of  distinguishing shades of light and dark. It is not even clear that the evolution of sight from these genes was more than an accident — the genes seem to have many functions unrelated to sight, and may have evolved for other reasons. The evolution was quite a success — jellyfish quickly evolved to have up to 24 sets of eyes, though only the primary set can see in colour. What’s more remarkable is that jellyfish do not have brains, central nervous systems or any of the other characteristics we ascribe to “intelligent” creatures. Yet their eyes clearly “see”. And their eyes are very similar, genetically, to our own.

Is a jellyfish conscious? Does it have a self? If it doesn’t, how can its sophisticated behaviour evading predators and catching prey be explained? How could “instinct” be such an astonishingly complex quality that it can drive such effective behaviour in utterly different sets of circumstances without any reference to a ‘self’ to be protected and to survive?

I have watched silverfish (relative newcomers on the planet compared to jellyfish, emerging only 400 million years ago) show evidence of considerable cleverness at evading capture. They instinctively flee light (and they move incredibly fast), but they also will stop and hide in crevices in full light where they cannot readily be seen, rather than running to darkness further away. And they will not take a straight path, but rather a zigzag, uneven-speed path that makes it harder to catch them.

My observation of these two ancient and “primitive” creatures leaves no doubt in my mind that their actions are deliberative (etymology: “well-weighed, considered”). They appear to make decisions in the moment that optimize their chances of survival. In the case of jellyfish, they do so without brains or central nervous systems; the jellyfish has to ‘decide’, for example, when to use its venom (based on the chemistry it senses in the object it encounters) and when to conserve it (ie when the object is neither predator nor prey).

As a non-dualist, I have come to accept that the self (human and otherwise) is an illusion — it doesn’t actually exist. What we think of as ‘decisions’ made by us are in fact the only thing we could have done in the circumstances, drawing on a combination of the ‘inherent’ biological nature and the ‘learned’ enculturated nature of the creature ‘we’ presume to inhabit. The ‘deliberation’ itself is not conscious. ‘We’ (our ‘selves’) merely ‘consciously’ rationalize the decision after the inevitable action has already been taken. Our actions are no more conscious than those of the jellyfish and the silverfish. No self is required for the appropriate action to be taken, though one may be employed (pointlessly and unwarrantedly) to regret, pride ourselves for, or otherwise second-guess, the action taken.

Suppose we look closer at what happens when an apparently simple ‘decision’ is made. When the jellyfish is evading a sea turtle, or the silverfish is evading my shoe, or I am evading a car coming at me, this is what seems to be actually happening:

  1. Photons, a form of energy, hit the surface of the eye.
  2. Neurons (in the brain, or in the case of jellyfish, in a distributed neural network) pattern the photons and identify something separate that is judged, thanks to each creature’s biology or learning, to be a threat.
  3. Our organs of motility take evasive action.

But while the energy is real, the brains, the neural networks, the creatures, shoes, cars, and organs of motility are not. Also, since there is no time, none of the above actually takes place in time.

So let’s try again. What is really happening here?

  1. Energy in the form of photons is emitted.
  2. That energy is converted to electro-chemical form (messages).
  3. That energy is converted to kinetic, physical form (movement).

But still, you may be thinking, that energy is in separate particles in space and the conversion happens over time. Yet there is no separate anything, and there is no time. This way of thinking about what is happening is evidently still wrong. Why would we be so deluded by our minds and senses to believe this is reality?

We can only make sense of things in accordance with the tools we have to make sense. The evolved retina stores and ‘models’ the images it ‘reads’ from the photons in a two-dimensional raster, and the brain not surprisingly interprets what it ‘sees’ as something having separate two-dimensional substance. The brain also files as ‘memories’ successive images, creating a model of sequences of apparently two-dimensional images (and apparently three-dimensional when it blends the images from both eyes into a stereo image) that seemingly happen over what it perceives as ‘time’ (having invented time as a representational model of these sequences of images to ‘make sense’ of the sequence). This is simply the brain imagining, modelling reality as discrete sets and sequences the best and only way it can. It has nothing to do with true reality, which is just timeless energy appearing as nothing and everything — appearing as all-there-is and what-is-happening.

Here’s a metaphor — yet another inadequate model of reality that cannot hope to capture it, but might perhaps be helpful in getting a sense of it nevertheless. Imagine a 2GB movie in .mp4 format. We can’t make sense of the bytes directly — a brilliant alien species coming across the file in space might be utterly unable to ‘decode’ it. But, filtered through our senses, it is a powerful representation of reality, time and space. It’s complete. What apparently ‘happens’ in the movie is the only thing that could happen, under the circumstances of its production — events seemingly happening in time and space, with apparently real separate characters experiencing real things.

We can get so caught up in the movie that we ‘experience’ it as real. We may even cheer on and encourage the heroine, and boo the villain, towards a desired ending, although we ‘know’ none of this is real, and we know that the ending is ‘already’ as present and complete as the opening credits. Our interventions have no effect, yet we react as if they might.

Analogously, life — all-there-is — can be thought of as a meta movie. When ‘we’ apparently witness it, it appears to represent the reality of real people and depict actions happening over time. It appears that interventions should be possible, decisions between alternatives that will affect the outcome. But that is only an appearance, an illusion. Like in the 2GB movie, all our emotional and intellectual engagement is futile. The ‘movie’ all-there-is is already, timelessly, complete.

The mind cannot grasp this. It needs the model to make sense of things, and all-there-is is vastly too complex to be modelled by a self/mind that is itself a construct, a by-product of the patterning of the brain, which can only ‘know’ what it can represent. Our feeble brain equates ‘completeness’ with everything-being-foreordained, but nothing is foreordained; it is contingent on all the unfathomably complex circumstances apparently present when something apparently happens. But those circumstances are the energy of nothing and everything. Our struggling brains have to separate everything out in space and time to make any sense of it at all, but in so doing just create a model of reality that is infinitely less than the ‘natural reality’ of all-there-is.

I have in past described the self as a disease, an affliction. That is because, similarly to the way the mind is able to conjure up and then become anxious about all kinds of possible eventualities, the furious patterning that creates the self causes the hopeless sense that the self can and ‘should’ intervene in every situation, and creates its own confirmation bias by grasping at the situations in which the rationalization of the self most closely matched what apparently happened, and re-rationalizing the situations in which things apparently didn’t go as the self planned, to bring what had already been unconsciously decided into line with the self’s explanation for how ‘it’ made that decision. A lot of furious and futile energy accomplishing nothing, except perhaps to cause neurosis and other suffering. The self is like a useless and frustrating piece of very buggy software, or a virus, that apparently comes bundled with a very large brain capable of abstraction, and seems impossible to eradicate.

Natural reality — not the sad simple representation our minds perceive — is complete. You might say it’s ‘perfect’ but it’s not that and more than that. It is nothing and everything, one, timeless, all-there-is. There is no room in it for separate selves or separate anything.

None of this will make any sense unless there has been a ‘glimpse’ of it, when all-there-is is suddenly seen, when there is suddenly and briefly no self, no ‘you’. Thankfully my self has, on several occasions, left the room.

These glimpses are indescribable, but since several people have asked me about them, here’s a probably foolish attempt to describe them. Maybe if you’ve had one, some of this might resonate with you, and then the rest of this article might make some sense:

the glimpse

it is suddenly obvious what is really real —
oh, this! — of course!
why wasn’t it always obvious?
there is no need to do or strive for anything,
no need for purpose —
everything is just naturally as it is.
there is no fear of it going away,
as it’s recognized that it’s always there, timeless.

it is a remembrance, a connection to all other glimpses,
full of wonder, unveiled, unfiltered, unrestrained,
startling and unexpected, full-on,
open and with complete acceptance, without resistance.
it is totally stunning, completely alive,
intense in colour, sound, smell, flavour, feel.
in it, everything is effortless, free of anxiety and fear,
peaceful, still, weightless, unconditional.
it is a cheshire-cat-eyes-wide-open-endless smile
full of love (but of no one for no one),
at once an infinitely bright wow and an infinitely gentle mmmmmm.
it is like ‘awakening’ but only metaphorically, not really
no one has awakened.
the ‘I’ has just vanished.

what it is not:
it is not awareness, presence, consciousness,
wisdom, knowing, or understanding.
it is not bliss
(since non-blissful things happen in it,
though they are all taken lightly in stride).
it is not ‘I am’, not a higher ‘self’,
not anything personal or emotional.
it is not ‘more’ or ‘more of’ anything —
it is utterly different from anything
the self can experience or imagine.

what can somehow intuitively resonate with or evoke it, for ‘me’:
light — candles, path lighting, street lamps, a fire’s glow —
they somehow have a ‘wavelength’ that recalls the glimpse.
music, if it’s wordless and not connected to a personal memory.
sense perceptions in unperturbed, ‘uncivilized’ moments —
the whisper of the wind, the scent of rain,
the reflection of the sun or moon off the sea
or of light on a raindrop on a leaf at nightfall.
non-verbal sounds — birdsong and pounding surf and purring
and coyotes howling at the moon —
(language liberated from abstraction, judgement and intent),
scents that bypass the self’s circuitry — sandalwood, raspberries, lilacs,
and events that transport the animal creature beyond the self’s influence:
the sudden yes! of realization of something that was long elusive,
or the first limerence of falling in love.

But this doesn’t describe the glimpse at all. There is no describing it, no understanding it, no experiencing it. There is no path. One moment the virus is doing its worst, afflicting an innocent creature with its mad delusions. And the next moment there is nothing and no one ‘there’ or anywhere, and never was.

The jellyfish and the silverfish are free. For us, the afflicted, a life sentence. We wait, hopelessly, for parole.

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8 Responses to The Jellyfish, the Silverfish, and Me

  1. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, I’ve drafted a comment similar to this one several times, but I can’t remember if I’ve said this before. Forgive me if I have.

    A lot seems packed into and insinuated by your choice of the word ‘illusion’. I wonder if the word ‘fabrication’ is more helpful.

    It’s been well established that our world, experiences, sense of time, and selves are fabrications. It doesn’t follow that they aren’t real and don’t exist (you haven’t defined ‘reality’ or ‘existence’). The house I’m in is fabricated, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Likewise your blog post.

    I have now in my possesion a Roger Zelazny novel, which I wouldn’t, had Ran Prieur not blogged about Zelazny yesterday. If that blog post isn’t real, it’s hard to see what is.

    Another candidate word: “interpretation”. We experience only interpretations, not the world directly. But that’s enough for now.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks John. There are two types of ‘reality’ — the first is what ‘we’ (our selves) perceive to be real. It is ‘real’ to the ‘person’. And then in natural reality, everything is seen to be both real and unreal — no thing appearing as everything. The ‘person’, the self, is unable to see that everything is also unreal, so it is convinced that its perceived reality is the only one. No thing really ‘exists’ — there is no time or space in which for any thing to exist. There is only what is happening. Because of the apparent blog post yesterday, what you perceive as the real you had no choice but to apparently buy the Zelazny novel. That is what was apparently happening. But there is no you, no blog, and no novel. And there are no experiences (for an experience there has to be time) — there are just appearances.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Meanwhile in the world that is both real and unreal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAGz45V9Xz8

  4. John Graham says:

    Yes, jellyfish are incredible, and since you wrote about them previously, they exist for me in a way they didn’t before. I was glad my nephew was with me when our local beach had a glut of them during a recent spell of hot weather. It’s somehow reassuring to think that, when the future of “life on earth” seems at stake, the jellyfish will be fine for quite a while. So thank you.

    By your own measure, everything you’ve written about jellyfish is a delusion. “About 650 million years ago, jellyfish evolved”. ‘Deluded’, you can’t resist the narrative configuration. And I agree with you about time: in a sense, nothing happens without time, and time in a sense “doesn’t exist” outside of narrative configurations.

    But I don’t experience your narrative configuration about jellyfish as a delusion. I don’t see the human condition as only an affliction, a curse. It can be seen, and traditionally has been seen, as a blessing *and* a curse. Bloody hard at times, and yet…

    Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine”.

    Three things I appreciate about these posts of yours are:
    1) Jellyfish
    2) Your attempts to convey something of something very subtle, your ‘glimpses’. This work of poesis is not wasted.
    3) The way you problematise naive conceptions of how ‘reality’ works, things we can easily take for granted. Personally I wouldn’t want to ‘accept’ a new dogmatism around some of the assertions you’ve made. There are philosophical issues here such that a conversation on them could continue ad infinitum. For one thing, there’s an ancient prejudice against ‘Appearance’ viz-a-viz ‘Reality’, hence my past recommendation of Bortoft’s “Taking Appearance Seriously”(not that I entirely grasp that book myself).

    I’m frequenting Paul Ricoeur’s work a lot at the moment, and slowly grappling with his three-volume ‘Time and Narrative’ . Ricoeur seems to encourage us to lean in to what he calls the “conceptual network of action”, whereas you seem to think we’d be better off going feral on it. This conceptual network implies actions, goals, agents, responsibility, interventions, changes of fortune etc. “To master the conceptual network as a whole, and each term as one member of the set, is to have that competence we can call practical understanding”(vol 1. p55). I think he says, roughly speaking, we wouldn’t understand life in terms of these concepts, if we weren’t enculturated into how narratives work.

    Giving up on the conceptual network of action is giving up on practical understanding, which in turn is giving up on the ancient ideal of ‘phronesis’, practical intelligence. I don’t want to give that up myself (and I hope our plumber doesn’t give it up), regardless of what some quantum physicists think they’ve proven to themselves.

    To find glimpses what of what people would be like with little or no narrative resources, I look to the children like those my teacher-aide friend describes, who literally can’t tell their elbow from their knee, and don’t speak in sentences because they haven’t been spoken to. It doesn’t seem like a good thing.

    I wonder what your narrative-therapist friend thinks of the options of throwing narration out, versus developing richer styles of narration, “thick descriptions”.

    Anyway, so many words. Thanks for provoking me to try writing about this.

    One final (for now) Ricoeur quote:(from Time and Narrative v.1, p.75)

    “We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes on full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative.”

  5. John Graham says:

    Correction, perhaps I should have called phronesis “practical wisdom” rather than “practical intelligence”

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you John. As I was reading your comment I was, of course, going “but…but..!”. Yes, everything is an illusion (etymology: “a playing at” apparently originally in the theatrical sense), an appearance (etymology: “a birthing or bringing forth”). And narratives are necessarily fictive, since they are firmly placed in time, which does not really exist. What is real (etymology: “belonging to, or complete in, itself”) cannot be described, but sometimes there can be a resonance apparently arising from the hopelessly-flawed attempt to describe, in narrative, what cannot be seen, but which somehow, to some of us anyway, seems intuitively “true”, and seems (though it is not) achingly close. I have bookmarked your wise comment to review, and to follow your recommended readings as solace, if and when I get discouraged with waiting hopelessly. Cheers from Kaua’i to Napier.

  7. John Graham says:

    “As I was reading your comment I was, of course, going “but…but..!”.”

    I’m glad it’s mutual! :D

    Your well-written comment is worth coming back to, as well. Those etymologies are interesting.

    Re: recommendations and hope, you might be better off sticking with TS Eliot:
    “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

    I seem to recall you’ve read The Four Quartets; it’s on my must-get-around-to list.

  8. Kari says:

    Entering the conversation late, I have little to add… except I just wanted to say John already pointed out most of the “buts” that were rattling around my mind, as well as tipping his hat to most of the points I also felt resonated. I’m redundant here!

    Only thing left to say comes from the trickster within, with a wink and a giggle: of course everything is a construct, hence it’s all a fiction. One of the things that always has me grinning like a loony in narrative therapy is the fact that once you’ve got someone to see that their “reality” is just an arbitrary selection of threads they’ve woven into the story of their life, you can also get them to see the whole board, so to speak, and realise that they could pull any of the threads together in any way to build any narrative. This is in itself a great exercise in discerning fiction from fiction, recognising that we never truly see “what is” for what it is, thanks to the lens behind which we’re trapped rendering certain narratives more plausible than others. We can sigh, shake our heads at what we understand to be layers of constructs, and then go back to living as though they were real… :-P The parameters within which we are capable to act are limiting, regardless where our mind’s fancy takes flight.

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