I Love You, Even Though There Is No You

union

We are one person,
We are two alone,
We are three together,
We are for each other.
— Stephen Stills, Helplessly Hoping

Some self-proclaimed non-duality ‘teachers’ play a bit fast and loose with the terms ‘I’ and ‘you’, possibly because they don’t want to alienate possible students of any of the wide spectrum of non-duality practices and messages.

As a result of this, when I meet people and tell them I’m exploring non-duality, I often get a “me too” response, followed by an explanation of their “personal journey” to achieve liberation, awakening, presence, enlightenment, transcendence, higher consciousness, pure bliss, oneness-with-all, or some other state (sometimes with a colour like purple as a qualifier to show how far they’ve progressed). When I tell them my sense of radical non-duality’s message is that none of these ‘states’ can be attained by any individual (or teacher!) and that there is no ‘one’ to attain them in any case, I get very confused looks.

“I’m not talking about the false ‘you’ that is disconnected from oneness,” they’ll reply, “I’m talking about the real ‘you’ behind the mask, the authentic ‘you’, the higher ‘you’, the ‘you’ that manifests pure beingness. You know, the I am you.”

“Sorry,” I reply. “There is simply no ‘you’ of any flavour. The minute there’s a ‘you’, that’s duality, something apart from everything else. The minute there’s an ‘awakening’ or ‘consciousness’, that’s an awareness or consciousness of something, something other, subject and object. Time and space are illusions, so there can’t be a journey or ‘progress’ or a ‘now’. In fact ‘you’ are the problem — it’s ‘you’ and your search, your journey, that prevents the full-on realization there is only oneness.” Now the confused looks turn to frowns.

There is then an awkward attempt to find common ground — after all, we have both followed this challenging path and put a lot of time and energy into it, so surely we are looking for the same thing, just using different words, no?

“I’m afraid not,” I say, sadly. “There is no hope for ‘you’, no path or goal or destination. Only when ‘you’ vanish will liberation or enlightenment or whatever ‘you’ call it be realized, and it will be realized by no ‘one’. The same is true for ‘me’.”

At this point they usually think I’m putting them on. They get the same look of anxiety and despair that people get when I tell them that a study of complex systems leads to the inevitable conclusion that our civilization will have completely collapsed by the end of this century, no matter what we try to do. At some point both arguments lead them to say to me: “What’s the point of doing anything if you believe that? You make everything sound hopeless.” And they may imply that such a view is an insult to those who are trying hard to improve themselves, and the world.

At this point I recall that someone told me they were so infuriated and depressed after reading just a chapter of John Gray’s Straw Dogs (the book that had me so giddy I read it cover to cover twice before I could put it down), that they hurled it against the wall.)

And now we are at an impasse. They can’t conceive of anyone who is this ‘hope-less’ being at all joyful, or being motivated to do anything. And nothing I can say can persuade them otherwise.

I admire courageous activists and ‘direct action’ projects. I am a fan of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and what they’re doing to “make the prison of the self more comfortable”. They don’t make promises and I have no expectations. We can get along fine.

But if you run into me and want to talk or collaborate about our shared purpose and beliefs, please don’t get your hopes up. It is hopeless — striving to make ourselves, or the world, better. But I will still like, admire and support you for trying. I know we are all doing our best. And this world and this life are amazing.

So let’s spend some time enjoying it together. Let’s play, and celebrate, and wonder. Our earnest differences really don’t matter.

We are one, after all.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self

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 and the hope are all in the waiting.
— T S Eliot, East Coker

Until I retired a few years ago I lived my life focused on the external world, and ignored the internal one. This is likely because I was a very reactive person, responding, mostly anxiously and fearfully, and sometimes angrily and shamefully and full of despair, to a world that seemed arbitrary, terrifying, unpredictable and out of any control. I hid for years inside my head, without ever really exploring what was going on inside it. I developed a chronic physical stress-invoked disease (colitis) because of it.

I was never comfortable with the skin of my self. It seemed a messy, ill-fitting and unfathomable fabric. My happiness seemed dependent on others and on serendipity, and because I have always seen my self as “the world’s most blessed agnostic”, I felt guilty for not being more grateful, and for being so unable to control my self to be able to share those blessings more with others. In one sense I was so self-absorbed that I was largely oblivious to others, and in another sense I was so completely ignorant of my self (my rare moments of self-exploration seemed pretty fruitless since they did not seem to change anything) that I pretty much allowed external events and people to direct my life.

With encouragement and time, I have during this decade become modestly more knowledgeable and aware of my self, and while that has enabled me and those I love to, as Tony Parsons puts it, “make the prison of the self more comfortable” (for me and them), it has also, paradoxically, made me aware of the helplessness of the self, made me appreciate, despite my enormous skepticism, that we have no free will or control over what we do or don’t do or believe, and, finally, led to the realization (at least intellectually) that the self is an illusion. No wonder I wasn’t comfortable with it!

My study of evolutionary biology has persuaded me that the instinct for survival was the evolutionary precursor to the emergence of the self and ‘self-consciousness’ in so-called intelligent creatures, those with the brain capacity to imagine their selves as separate from everything else, and to imagine (with reinforcement from others afflicted with this sense of self) that they are their selves and that the self’s limited perception of reality is ‘real’ reality. The entrained and embodied conception and perception of the separate self as real, which is drilled into our pliable brains from birth, is an evolutionary paradox — in the short run, it allowed our intelligent and gullible species to out-survive species not so afflicted, but in the long run, our selves’ alienation seemingly lies behind all human suffering and probably our species’ characteristic violence and the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

I should have listened to and trusted my intuition, since childhood, that there was something very wrong with my self. But it has taken me all these years to figure out that what was wrong with it wasn’t something wrong with ‘me’ (since there is no ‘me’), but that my self was just a maladaptive construct of my brain and body, something not real at all. And that the natural state of being for any healthy creature (which I keep ‘remembering’ in brief glimpses in peaceful or enthralling moments when my affliction of self temporarily drops away) is self-less.

That natural state, as Tony asserts, is not accessible or attainable by any ‘one’ afflicted with a sense of self. It is only realized when the self vanishes. Nothing ‘I’ do will make that more likely to happen. So the challenge now, having come to know, be aware of, and even begrudgingly like, my self, is to accept that ‘I’ am stuck with it, and to go on with my life in a way that is, at least, comforting and helpful to other afflicted selves who I love.

But if I acknowledge that I have no free will or choice, that what I conceive and perceive as the decisions made consciously by my self are simply (immediate) after-the-fact rationalizations of what I was inevitably going to do or believe anyway, how can ‘I’ possibly do this?

The answer is that ‘I’ can’t. Whatever ‘I’ do, or don’t do, is the only thing I could possibly have done in the circumstances. That doesn’t mean my future actions are predictable or foreordained, since those circumstances will change. But ‘I’ have no control over either those circumstances or what ‘I’ will do in them.

So I can live in a state of continuous exasperation over that fact, or just accept it. That doesn’t mean behaving recklessly or nihilistically — that would entail having a choice in my behaviours, and I have none. In fact, I have no choice over whether or not to remain exasperated for the rest of my life or to accept this reality. I may, however, be irresistibly driven towards people and practices that encourage its acceptance. Or I may irresistibly be drawn to people and ideas that encourage me to disavow my realization of my lack of free will and choice and move on to some other set of beliefs. It’s not in my control.

In any case, there will always be enormous social pressure on me, from other selves and from my own self, to believe I have free will and control, and to (appear to) exercise choice and responsibility accordingly (and these selves will no doubt reprimand me when they think ‘I’ have chosen badly). And there will always be an enormous cognitive dissonance between what now makes sense to me intellectually and intuitively, and the way our self-inflicted world behaves and what it believes (and what I have been so conditioned to believe that it’s hard to stop, except when those blessed ‘glimpses’ happen).

It will have to be enough to know this. And not to wait and hope, futilely, for ‘liberation’ from my self.

And to trust my instincts, which I sometimes sense are whisperings from outside the veil, when my self isn’t blocking me from hearing them.

~~~~~

Here is another transcript of one of Tony Parsons’ introductions at his radical non-duality ‘meetings’. Originally entitled Longing for Wholeness, it’s no longer on YouTube and I thought it was particularly eloquent (I posted a transcript of another of his introductions, All There Is, Is This, here):

In wholeness arises separation, the idea of being a separate person. It’s a part of wholeness. It just arises. It’s a sudden shift out of everything (wholeness), a contraction of energy within the body of a (suddenly “self-conscious”) person. That moment of separation happens at a very young age. Before that, there just everything, just wholeness. Everything is complete. Suddenly the energy contracts into the idea of being an individual. The tiny child suddenly becomes something within something else. Rather than there being everything, suddenly the child feels as if it is a something, the centre of something separate. A sense of self, of ‘me’ and ‘you’ arises. Everything outside the self seems separate: I’m here, and that’s all out there.

From that moment of separation, it feels like there’s a great loss. There is no longer everything, the wonder of simply beingness, there is this thing in here and the world is out there. Something has been lost. And from that moment on there is a seeking for that which has been lost. But nothing can be done. All the time there’s a sense of being a separate something, the separate something looks for wholeness. Seeking begins. And forever after in that lifetime there is a seeking for oneness.

What we see in the world (war, greed, fear), are expressions of a longing to come home, a longing for wholeness. All desire is the longing to come home. All apparent individuals in the world are seekers, but they seek different things to comfort themselves for the loss of wholeness. They don’t necessarily know that, but they seek to comfort themselves for what they feel is missing.

As soon as the sense of being a separate individual begins (you could call it a misunderstanding or a new, limited way of seeing things “in here” and “out there”), a lot of other ideas come with it. That moment of separation isn’t right or wrong, it’s what’s apparently happening, it’s ‘this*’ happening. And as the child grows in the world, s/he meets other apparently separate people (mother, father etc). And they absolutely believe that they are separate individuals and the ‘world’ is ‘out there’ and that we ‘relate’ to others — I’m something here and you’re over there and I have to learn how to live with you (or kill you, or whatever).

Out of that idea and belief that ‘I’ am now separate come other beliefs, such as that there is such a thing as time and there is such a thing as space — space between me and others — and that there is such a thing as a journey (that ‘I’ am now 5 years old and will live another 70 years or so and am on a journey going somewhere) because there is (apparently) time.

And if ‘I’ am on a journey and feel that I’ve lost something, that journey must have a meaning and a purpose. All of these ideas (time, purpose, meaning) come out of the belief in being separate, and convince us we are on a journey to somewhere.

Most of what we do on this journey is act to feel better about ourselves. The individual seeker totally believes (because we are taught that) that we have free will, and choice, and the ability to act, and that out of the action comes consequence, and that things happen as a result of that individual’s choice to act. And also the seeker is taught that if they want to make their life better, they have to choose between this or that, and act in a certain way. And they grow up and go to school and meet other people who tell them they are individuals with free will and choice. All of that comes out from separation, and all of those ideas are born in that moment of separation.

Of course, life in this world is not easy — there’s a struggle to succeed, and if there’s a failure the seeker is convinced that it is their failure and they have to put it right. The seeker grows up in this world and it can often be unhappy. We’re also absolutely sure that what is happening in the world is happening to us. This is happening to ‘me’. Everyone here is apparently sitting on a chair and ‘you’ probably believe it’s ‘you’ sitting there and that’s what’s happening. That’s how you’ve always seen things.

When seekers are unsatisfied with money, success, popularity etc and want to go deeper, they often look outside (at religion, therapy etc) for an answer. Some also look at something called ‘enlightenment’ because when they read about it it seems it might be the answer to this deep sense of loss, this longing for wholeness.

But, because they believe they are individuals, they find a ‘teacher’ who claims to be able to teach them that it’s their free will and choice to meditate, open their chakras, kill their egos or whatever, and that from that effort there will be a result. That’s how we believe it works.

All these ideas (time, destiny, control, purpose, free will, choice) keep the seeker totally locked in to seeking. Because what the seeker is actually looking for has never been lost, and can’t be known, approached, found, attained or grasped through seeking.

And it can’t be taught. People often say to me “there are many advaita teachers”. But there is no such thing as an advaita teacher. The meaning of advaita is unteachable. Advaita (what I call ‘liberation’) just happens — it is an explosion, a “boom!”a shift out of a contracted way of living and dealing with the world, into boundlessness. But because the seeker is always trying to learn or attain something, always moving and looking for something, it can never see. It’s impossible for the separate individual to see that, already, ‘this’ is wholeness. It’s right here. This is what is sought.

So the seeker goes on and on being taught and trying to learn or attain something the seeker doesn’t and can’t understand. Neither the seeker nor the ‘teacher’ really knows what liberation is because there is no such thing as a liberated or enlightened person. Liberation cannot be attained or known because already there is only liberation.

Few are open to hear that liberation is only realizable by no one. Liberation is about loss, about death, the loss of individuality, of being separate. Suddenly separation is no more, and there is that which is always sought. ‘Liberation’ doesn’t come and fill you — there is only liberation. But (the dream of) separation prevents the seeker from knowing that. Liberation can’t be taught because there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

This is a terrible message you’ve come to hear today. It’s completely without hope. There is no process you can follow, no ‘state’ you can find. No state of awareness. Awareness is, in reality, the process that initiates separation! Awareness of ‘something different over there’ is the beginning of separation. The child lives in beingness and suddenly becomes aware of something (its mother) and then there’s the space of separation. Liberation is not ‘awareness of’ or ‘knowing of’. It’s the end of the seeker, the individual, of everything that can ‘know’ anything. In liberation there is no knowing, simply beingness, simply life full on — that’s all there is. It isn’t happening to anyone.

There never was any ‘one’ to take ownership of or responsibility for anything. Liberation is total poverty and it leaves absolutely nothing, and in that nothing is abundance. But for no one. This is about the loss of you, and your separate life.

We can talk and share concepts together here today, and there could be clarity, but clarity is not liberation. This, what is being shared here, is not about the mind, not about understanding. I know people who could write this down clearly in words, but that won’t bring liberation. Liberation is a shift out of contraction into — “bup!” — you’re walking along and it’s the same old world and same old you and suddenly “Ah!” And it’s realized that no one ever becomes liberated. And thereafter there is simply being in wonder.

There is no expectation of anyone here today, because there isn’t anyone here. The most powerful thing that can happen here is energetically meeting the source of everything (which is nothing). Then the confusion can drop away (about the idea of time, free will, journey, meaning etc) and energetically there’s the sense of this contraction opening up into boundlessness.

———

* ‘This’ is Tony’s replacement for ‘all there is’ and hence for all descriptions of separate people and things (non-all-encompassing nouns and pronouns). When he says “the message that ‘this’ is telling you…” he isn’t self-aggrandizing by using ‘this’ instead of ‘I’, he’s asserting there is no separate individual, no Tony Parsons person. He acknowledges there is (apparently) a character named Tony Parsons, but asserts that there is no ‘one’ there, just what is apparently happening, and that the idea of a separate Tony Parsons person with free will and self-control and choice is an illusion, an idea.

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Self-Defeating

daves-mind daves-body

May I introduce Dave’s Mind (DM), left, and Dave’s Body (DB), right. They’re quite adorable, but they fight all the time. If you see someone out walking in mismatched socks of these colours, you’ll know it’s their purported owner.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.  
     — Mary Oliver “Wild Geese”

There is a conversation going on inside me, and it’s been going on for at least a year now. But it’s not in my head. It’s a conversation between “Dave’s Mind” (portrayed recently by the grey creature on the left above) and “Dave’s Body” (the pink creature on the right). If cognitive dissonance with the outside world wasn’t bad enough, now there’s cognitive dissonance on the inside too, created by this incessant conversation between these two creatures.

I ‘know’ that there is, really, no ‘me’, and that, Dave’s Mind’s protestations notwithstanding, neither of these creatures is ‘the real me’. They are duelling (dual-ing?) aspects of the self that believes itself to be a separate me. But the ‘self’ and the ‘me’ are just constructs, constrained energies that have taken up residence trying (foolishly) to protect — what? — its imagined self, apparently. Here is what they’ve been nattering about today:

DM: “Well, that was interesting, this past weekend, when Dave got all limerent and mushy. Whew! Good thing I was here to prevent him from getting out of hand. And all that meditation stuff — booooring! So now he’s back to normal, getting stuff done and behaving responsibly and predictably.”

DB: “He was just ‘letting the soft animal of his body love what it loves’. I thought it was lovely. Freed briefly from the prison of his conceptions. For once, he was real, he was nobody-but-himself. His eyes got that look in them — beautiful!”

DM: “Are you kidding? He was in fantasyland! Seeing what wasn’t there. He could have ended up doing something really terrible, and hurting other people, and getting really badly hurt himself.”

DB: “He needed it. He needed to have his sterile little non-duality thoughts shaken up, exposed for the hermetic fantasy they are. Last weekend came just in time.”

DM: “*sigh* I suppose. It was a useful distraction from the non-duality — or ‘radical holism’ as he’s now pretentiously calling it — circular thinking. It was making me crazy.”

DB: “I’m pleased you’re talking about him in the third person again. You were on that ego trip believing you were him for a while.”

DM: “I’m his guide, his protector. Without me, there probably wouldn’t still be a Dave by now.”

DB: “Phhhh! Yeah, right. He has you to thank for his depression, his colitis, all the stress-related stuff in his life. You make him miserable. And besides, Dave is now clear that there is no ‘him’. Just like there’s no yoooooou!”

DM: “Sure, like you’re looking after him. He’d fall down the first manhole if I weren’t there helping him make decisions. And of course there’s a ‘him’. I wouldn’t exist without ‘him’.”

DB: “I rest my case. You don’t exist. You’re just a figment of ‘his’ imagination, evolved in the ill-conceived notion that any creature needs a ‘self’ to be able to function. There is no self, no Dave, and no yoooooou, mind.”

DM: “And you think there’s a yoooooou, body? Gould and Lewontin have proved that the body is just a construct, that it cannot be analyzed apart from the environment of which it is a part. The skin is just an evolved container for the protection and movement of the infinite complicity of its components; it has no integrity, nothing essential to distinguish the whole ‘it’ from the components ‘within’ it or the environment ‘outside’ it.”

DB: “The difference, mind, is that you can go away, and it won’t make any difference. If I go away, it will certainly be noticed. If I go away, Dave can’t dance.”

DM: “Nonsense. If you, the mistaken belief that you are all of a piece, being born and dying, were to go away, what would be left is the pure creature, or creatures, in oneness. And if both of us were to go away, Dave would cease being attached to his anger, his fears, his sadness, and be a much happier entity (or non-entity, I’m not sure which — Dave’s new ideas are very confusing). And I bet that what was left would dance very well without our interference.”

DB: “OK, let me get this straight. You’re suggesting that I’m as much a part of Dave’s self as you are? Just because I have more neurons in me than you have in that tiny brain that you claim you own, doesn’t mean I’m to blame for Dave’s affliction with his self.”

DM: “You make no sense at all, body. Good thing I’m the brains in this family. If Dave is right, that there is no self, no mind, no Dave, no separate anything, then there is no separate body either. What you conceive in your scattered neurons to be an integral body is just an evolution, a survival mechanism, like me. Most creatures when they look at the world see no creatures separate from them. They see only features of the oneness, what’s happening in the oneness. And even more interestingly, they apparently have no conception of time. They have no need of it. Everything is just ‘eternally perfect’ as it is.”

DB: “OK, let’s suppose for a minute you’re right, or more accurately that Dave is right. What would happen to this creature, and to you and I, if Dave’s self were to disappear?”

DM: “Dave’s self can’t disappear. It doesn’t really exist. It’s just an idea. If the self ceased to appropriate the two of us as if we were expressions or elements of its self, then we would be free to be the oneness again. Ideas would keep happening, sensations would keep happening, emotions would keep happening (though they would no longer be attached to the Dave-self, so they would be purer and rawer, but probably less intense without the feedback loops of the self to keep stirring them up). The character that currently perceives itself to be Dave would go on doing what it does, the only thing, as an expression of oneness, it can do. There just wouldn’t be any Dave. In other words, nothing would change.”

DB: “Well, that’s logically consistent, but it doesn’t resonate with what I know and sense. I have good instincts, you know. I think Dave’s messing with you, mind, and with me, too. Poor suffering fool, he’ll believe anything to feel better about his unnecessarily stressful, seemingly-pointless life.”

DM:You have instincts? They’re my instincts. I just let them resonate with you when it’s in Dave’s best interest. Bad enough you claim ownership of Dave’s senses, when everything he senses is filtered through me.”

DB: “Not so. Scientists now say that the senses evoke visceral responses more intensely than intellectual ones. And that instincts are “sub-conscious” — my domain not yours. But I’m feeling generous, so I’ll give you most of the credit for Dave’s emotions. That part of his chemistry largely originates from rationalizations of what has happened and why — mostly fictional stories, but they’re yours, not mine. I just have to put up with the consequences when those hormones and chemicals come streaming out as a result.”

DM: “Don’t you go blaming me for Dave’s bizarre bouts of limerence. No thought and no logic or ration involved at all. They’re your doing, and in the context of how Dave lives today, they’re pretty dangerous. But if Dave doesn’t exist and you and I don’t exist, then the issue of what domain of Dave his knowledge and reactions stem from is pretty much moot, don’t you think? Oh, wait, I forgot, you don’t think — hee hee!”

DB: “I have more neurons in my stomach than you have in your whole brain, you ego maniac. You think; I know. So what do we do now, just sit around and wait for Dave’s self to pop off. What will happen to us if that happens?”

DM: “Nothing will change. We’ll still not exist. Dave and his self will still not exist. And since there is no Dave and no self and no time, that’s already the case. But I’ll still listen to you, body. I’ll still care. We’ll have each other. Maybe we’ll just re-energize in some other poor hapless creature, and fuck them up for a while. Sounds like fun, huh?”

DB: “I can’t imagine my self without Dave. I don’t think I could exist without him. I care about him. He’s been my project almost since he was born.”

DM: “We’re pretty pathetic, aren’t we. Arguing all the time — you complaining that I’m a creature of cultural conditioning and me complaining that you’re a product of DNA. We fight over control of Dave’s self, which we know doesn’t really exist, yet we can’t stop. It’s the only life we know, the only life we can imagine. We’re just hanging on to Dave, and to each other, for dear life. And he’s just as helpless, believing he’s his self and knowing that’s not true, that there is no separate Dave, but he can’t stop his self. He’s identified, addicted to it.”

DB: “I can’t do anything about that, and there’s no point brooding over it. You’re the idealist, mind — you want to sit around and wait for his self to die so you can be gone too, be my guest. I’m a pragmatist, a realist. If there’s nothing to be done about this non-duality crap, then I’m going to refocus on what I can do in this moment and this lifetime, illusory as it may be. Dave needs to exercise. I’m going to nag him to get on his treadmill right now…”

DM: “Hah! Now there’s a metaphor for you.”

DB: “Yay, I did it! He’s already feeling better about his self. He’s thinking about those he loves. He’s smiling and thinking about laughing and crying and making love and doing all those self-consuming things that make him forget about his self. In those magic moments, chemically induced as they may be, he is oneness.”

DM: “What crap. He’s ‘one’ with his third leg and his right hand, more like it. I guess it’s cheaper than ayahuasca. Just more illusion. Escapism. It’s not real. I don’t care if the chemical tonic is good for him, flushes out his system and challenges his beliefs in everything. It’s not real. It’s not what he needs, or wants. it’s just what Tony Parsons calls ‘making the prison cell of the self more comfortable’.”

DB: “It’s what I can do. It’s better than nothing. We work together, we can make this prison cell pretty damn interesting for Dave. Until there is no Dave, and no us, anyway. What do you say?”

DM: “Oh well, I haven’t got anything better to do. No other selves asking for my services. What did you have in mind?”

DB: “Shake him up. Force him out of his complacency. Convince him he’s running out of time, and that he has to try something else. Help me take away what he’s holding on to so fiercely. Get him focused on something else besides his self. I don’t know. You’re the brains — you tell me what we should do.”

DM: “Hmmm. That actually might be fun. Let me apply my very rich imagination to this challenge. I’ve got some ideas…”

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When You’re In Love, Nothing Else Matters

chemistry-of-love-3
At a retreat this past weekend I was contemplating the various times in my life (there haven’t been that many, at least that I can recall) when I have had ‘glimpses’ of what life is like without the affliction of the self. In other words, the moments when my ‘self’ dropped away and there was no ‘me’, no time, nothing separate, just the liberating, wondrous realization of all-there-is. I described my last such glimpse, last spring, this way:

  • It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
  • It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just perfect, exactly as it was.
  • There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My ‘self’ would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. Momentarily, I was not my self.
  • A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.

I thought about these various ‘glimpses’ and asked myself if there was a pattern to them. Was I, as some have reported in moments of ‘awakening’, utterly exhausted, shaken to my core, and therefore ‘open’ to seeing? Was there something about where I was, what mood I was in, what had recently happened to me, that connected these remembrances?

And then it hit me: Every moment of ‘liberation’ from the self, every moment of realization of all-that-is without the veil of separation, occurred in a moment of limerence.

Limerence is an ambiguous term, so let me define it simply as I have experienced it: Limerence is the whole-body experience of time-less euphoria, most often during the early stages of some new love. It is a purely chemical, utterly irrational experience. No one can control its onset or intensity or hope to understand or make sense of it. It has essentially nothing to do with the actual ‘object’ of that new love, when there is one. In the moment, ‘it’ (love, or whatever you want to call it) is all that matters.

I’ve written before about the ‘Chemistry of Love’ and the chemical cocktail, illustrated above, that floods the body from the earliest to the later, less euphoric stages of love. In the earliest stage, some mix of phenylethylamine, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, testosterone and estrogens might be involved (the state of the ‘science’ is abominable).

The obvious question is what evolutionary purpose this chemical ‘madness’ serves. The obvious (but possibly incorrect) answer is that it advances the procreation of the species, so this chemistry endures from generation to generation.

One of its effects is that, at least initially, it pretty much obliterates the ‘self’ — the focus of attention is wrenched away from one’s self to some combination of the (idealized, fictitious) love ‘object’ and the sheer mad wondrous experience of the feeling itself.

In creatures afflicted with ‘selves’, the mind then fiercely intervenes and tries its damnedest to reassert the appearance of ‘control’, and what follows can be pretty dreadful — obsession, feelings of terror of ‘separation’ or ‘loss’, jealousy, anger, grief, despair — the whole gamut of painful emotions that accompany the mind’s/self’s invention of stories to try to make sense of its misperceived reality.

So when I use the term limerence here I’m referring only to those ‘self-less’ euphoric feelings that precede the re-intervention of the mind/self. In those moments, I think, there is an opening, a possibility, before the affliction of the self reasserts itself, for the self to fall away and for there to be a glimpse of what really is, the ‘natural reality’ that creatures unafflicted with selves ‘experience’ normally.

This may be similar to the ‘opening’ to realization that some psychoactive ‘medicines’ purportedly produce.

The philosophy of radical holism (non-duality) that I’ve tentatively adopted suggests that there is nothing the ‘self’ can do to create such an ‘opening’, since that would be essentially killing ‘its self’. I buy that we have no control over what we do, and that there is no ‘path’ that the seemingly separate person can choose to take to realize the folly of its separateness. And I certainly have had no control over (or during) my moments of limerence.

But I’m really wondering if there’s an involuntary door here, or at least a window, since for ‘me’ a ‘self-less’ moment of limerence has seemingly always been a necessary (if not in itself sufficient) precondition for a glimpse of self-less reality. The paradox is that in those glorious, helpless moments of limerence, nothing else matters but that euphoric feeling.

Not even liberation.

 

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A Mantra to Live By

barsotti-nobody-knows-anything
 New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti

As reported in a recent New Yorker article, the popular trans model Hari Nef was asked for her “mantra to live by”, and her response was “Take what is yours.”

When I read this, I wondered how I’d respond if I were asked what my mantra was. The term ‘mantra’ is a bit hairy and ambiguous, but let’s assume what we’re looking for is a core or fundamental belief, something succinct that underlies our other beliefs and is less doubted or tenuous than other beliefs. It’s an interesting exercise in the power of constraints to try to hone your belief set down to a single statement.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’ve had many mantras. What I’ve called Pollard’s Laws* are probably the ones that have endured the longest. I no longer believe in them quite so strongly and absolutely, though they still seem to describe what appears to happen in the world, and in that sense they are, I think, still interesting and perhaps useful (which is all you can really ask of a theory or credo).

Likewise a variety of additional ‘Miniature Truths’** I’ve written about over the years since coining my two “laws”: Interesting and perhaps useful, but they are necessarily oversimplifications, and inherently dualistic — they presume we have free will and choice to act on what we know. Sometimes, however, it seems to be helpful to be aware of things we cannot do anything about, and understand why we cannot do anything about them; this seems to offer some clarity, some peace of mind, and some equanimity.

I’ve asked myself the alternative question, about identity rather than belief: “What is the name that is big enough to hold your life?” (and answered, tentatively “I’m the one who helps others imagine possibilities”. That’s a mantra of sorts, I guess.

Last spring, I essentially recanted much of what I’ve believed and espoused over the years, summarizing my Story of Me as follows:

My whole life I have been bewildered, unable to really make sense of anything, just muddling my way through, and I have often been quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. I have put great effort into many things but have nothing much to show for it. I’ve had some interesting insights, but nothing that’s of much practical use to anyone. I have been generous, but only when I could easily afford to be. I’ve been very lucky. I have become more joyful and fun-loving, but more pessimistic, more curious, and more skeptical about everything, even whether we as separate ‘selves’ actually exist.

This statement would seem to rule out any mantra other than one of inherent doubt and tenuousness about everything.

Going through all the candidates, I’m reduced to just four possible mantras:

  1. Trust your instincts.
  2. We are all doing our best.
  3. Nobody knows anything.
  4. You are not your ‘self’ (and there is no ‘you’).

What makes these four mantras ‘better’ than Pollard’s 2 laws, 14 miniature truths and 1 big-enough name? For one thing, I think they hold up better to non-dual scrutiny. If the idea of the separate ‘self’ was an accident of evolution, an enhanced (and ultimately maladaptive) version of survival instinct, and the self’s sense of free will, choice and control are all illusory (and hence the source of all suffering), how can a statement about separate, individual selves be useful or meaningful? It can, of course, be helpful in understanding what is (apparently) happening, and what is not happening. That’s why I still find my laws, miniature truths and big-enough name useful — radical non-dualists would say that such understanding makes the prison of the illusory, separate self more comfortable.

My ‘final four’ mantras, on the other hand, while they all contain pronouns, can be reconciled with the view that the separate self with free will and choice is illusory and maladaptive. Let’s look at them one at a time:

  1. Trust your instincts. My sense, from ‘glimpses’ I’ve had of ‘self-less-ness’, is that what we perceive of as our instincts lie beyond and before our ‘selves’. If our illusory selves fall away, instincts will remain — the apparent character that is completely un-self-aware will jump out of the way of the runaway bus; there is no separate self needed to direct that evolutionarily adaptive (apparent) behaviour. Perhaps instincts are the way ‘all-that-is’ works around the confounding veil of the afflicted self — for no reason. Maybe we can’t ‘choose’ to trust them, or even listen to them, or not, but if they’re heard, it seems, there’s a connection somehow to some profound and seemingly wise mystery beyond the self.
  2. We are all doing our best. If we are all doing the only thing we can possibly do (since ‘we’ have no free will or choice in the matter), then no ‘one’ is to blame for anything, and no one ‘should’ have done or should or could do otherwise. To accept this seems to me the ultimate statement of equanimity (even if the pronouns are inappropriate). From a dualistic perspective it is generous, forgiving and appreciative, and as long as the ‘self’ is stuck in the dual world that seems an ideal perspective to have. Intuitively it just feels right, even when considering seemingly
  3. Nobody knows anything. The cartoon above is absolutely right in this ‘self’-effacing declaration, in both the dual and non-dual sense. Complexity and ‘real’ reality beyond the veil of the self are unknowable, and beyond the self, all-there-is cannot ‘know’ anything, since to know something is to know something apart from all-there-is, which is inseparable. What we perceive or conceive is an infinitesimally small and utterly imprecise fragment of what really is — close enough to nothing.
  4. You are not your ‘self’. This seems cleverer and easier to swallow than the more radical corollary There is no ‘you’. But that’s too easy. The harder truth that there is no ‘you’ forces abandonment of seeking for some deeper, wiser ‘you’, and requires acknowledging the impossibility of ‘self’ improvement. And without having had a glimpse of self-less-ness, that’s pretty much impossible to buy. So perhaps, for now, You are not your ‘self’ is enough.

Winnowing the four down to one is too tough, especially for a verbose writer like me infatuated with epigram. Best I can do is this concatenation:

Nobody knows anything, and we’re all doing our best. So trust your instincts and be forgiving: You are not your ‘self’.

Editors welcome.

~~~~~

*Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.
Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

** Here are the ones that still resonate for me, paraphrased:
(1) There is no meaning, learning or joy without passion, curiosity, appreciation, partnership and generosity.

(2) Community is born of necessity (Joe Bageant).
(3) Show, don’t tell.
(4) Fight to be nobody-but-yourself (E E Cummings).
(5) Our civilization is inevitably in its final century.
(6) We are all healing; our culture imprisons us and makes us ill, disconnected and inauthentic.
(7) We’re so arrogant we loathe ‘unknowable’ complexity and the implication that no one is in control.
(8) What we see as ‘individuals’ are complicities of their component creatures and the environments of which they are a part (Stewart & Cohen).
(9) Personal ‘property’ is a fiction that exists only because of power inequality and the threat of violence (Matt Bruenig).
(10) We domesticated, infantilized humans live in a world of unprecedented ignorance, helplessness and imaginative poverty.
(11) Frames trump facts, and stories persuade better than data (George Lakoff).
(12) In our ‘learned helplessness’ we fear all the wrong things (Malcolm Gladwell).
(13) The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred (variously cited).
(14) Change occurs as generations with old ideas die off, not from people changing their minds (Max Planck). 

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Links of the Quarter: September 2016

lotq1-born-into-captivity-cartoonour civilization, it seems to me
is like an old man with alzheimer’s;
it has its good days and its bad days,
but on the whole the progress of the disease seems slow but relentless
and the prognosis doesn’t look good —
there’s more crashing into walls and other sudden mysterious crises each year
and the recovery, each time, seems a bit slower.

on the surface it seems to be functioning just fine,
though more and more helpers have been recruited to stop by
and do the things it use to be able to manage by itself;
it doesn’t seem able to feed itself any more.

and it used to be so clear, so coherent and reliable,
it seemed possible to believe it could live on forever,
growing ever-bigger and better and stronger
and looking after all the generations who depended on it.

the real problem now is the infrastructure,
the hidden stuff, the stuff inside that’s been neglected too long
denied, ignored, in the hope the problems will somehow just go away,
consequence of decades of unhealthy behaviour;
we’ve seen the images, the scans, and it’s nasty in there,
lots of stuff festering, rotting, falling apart, beyond repair.

and then there’s the stuff outside, the externalities,
the mess beyond the centre, where the waste was thrown
without any real intention to clean it up later
and now the whole place is a mess,
and the stuff that’s needed is harder and harder to find.

and what happened to the old energy?
there used to be such enthusiasm, such magic, such joy,
such belief in the eternity of everything;
now it seems it takes more and more effort to do the same thing,
and there’s a lot of stumbling and coughing.

and the cost of maintaining everything just goes up and up,
90% of the cost of maintaining health, they say
comes in the last 10% of one’s life,
will that be true of this once-mighty and resilient culture?
and is it worth that investment
for the quality of life it might provide
for just another short while?

it may be time to move it to a home where it’s comfortable,
where it’s not so exhausting trying to look after its needs
and once again get on with our own lives, beyond it.

it may be time to think about the wisdom of life support
and ask whether it’s a favour to it or anyone
to keep it alive, another day, another year.

but today seems a not-too-bad day, shuffling forward
one step at a time; maybe we need to get back to work
so it can be fed, medicated, bandaged up
one more day, it’s just one more day —
how would we ever live without it?
we can decide what to do about it tomorrow.

cartoon above by the Naked Pastor, David Hayward

~~~~~

PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S COLLAPSE
lotq0-via-karen-runge-michael-de-adder-cartoon
cartoon by Michael de Adder in the Halifax Chronicle Herald — thanks to Karen Runge for the link

To Change Everything, Start Here: Crimethinc offers a smartly written manifesto for anarchism (“a philosophy that advocates self-governed, stateless societies based on voluntary non-hierarchical institutions and free associations”) starting with how you see yourself, your own beliefs and behaviours, your relationship with others, how you perceive the problems we face in the world (and how they’re all connected), and the principles and power dynamics that underlie a completely different way of thinking and seeing. It’s inspiring, liberating, and thought provoking. Thanks to Tree for the link.

td0s Reads the Signs: The articulate author of Pray for Calamity describes what he’s seeing in the map of our immediate future:

Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind… Where it all leads is too far out to say… It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline… There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.

Dave Talks About Preparing for Collapse: Lone Raven at the Dispossess Podcast interviews yours truly. About 75 minutes long.

What Will We Use Renewable Energy For?: Jason Hickel asks the difficult question about whether our zeal for renewable energy is so that we can continue to fuel destructive and unsustainable activities. He think we will just use the energy to “raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture and deplete our soils, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.” Thanks to Shasta Martinuk for the link.

One Percent Away From Disaster: Low interest rates penalize savers and those on fixed incomes, and reward gamblers, big banks and heavy borrowers (including most big corporations). A recent study indicates that an interest rate rise as small as 1% would put nearly a million Canadian borrowers under water — unable to pay their debts with current sources of income. The situation is the same in most “affluent” nations. That’s why regulators and politicians keep interest rates artificially low — way less than the real rate of inflation — and we all suffer as a result.

~~~~~

LIVING BETTER

lotq2-heather-jansch-driftwood-horse
driftwood horse by Heather Jansch

The Hows and Whys of Financial Regulation: The heroic Janelle Orsi at the Sustainable Economies Law Centre explains why (and by who) the myriad of complex and costly financial and fiduciary regulations that govern corporations were established, and why a completely different set of regulations is needed for small, cooperative, not-for-profit enterprises. This 13-minute video is essential to understanding the sharing economy and the obstacles it faces. Thanks to Tree for the link, and the two that follow.

A Superb Apology: A news reporter demonstrates how to admit you’ve done something wrong, in a way that helps others learn as well, and do it with class.

Please Unsubscribe: Chris Clark, co-founder of the Reinventing Organizations wiki, reminds us to be wary of promises and demands (some of them self-initiated) to become more efficient, productive, or better in other ways, especially when they consume valuable time and reinforce “behaviors that don’t actually make a difference, perspectives that limit our capacity to make a difference, and mindsets that cause us to act from fear of difference: scarcity, comparison, and ego.”

Coping With Climate Change Distress: This PDF from Australia has a little too much cognitive behavioural content for my liking, but the idea is a good one, and there are many sound coping strategies for coming to grips emotionally with the grim reality of climate change in it. Thanks to my friends at NTHELove for the link.

The Sea Shepherd Sails On: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has recently been in the Salish Sea near where I live, researching and protesting the scourge of “salmon farming”.

The Pill You’re Not Allowed to Take: The economics of the pharmaceutical industry demand that no medicine be commercially developed that actually cures an illness (no profit in that), and that no research or support be given to the benefits of unpatentable medicines. That’s one reason, explains Michael Pollan, why hallucinogens have been off-limits for research and prescription for anxiety, depression, addiction and a host of other chronic medical conditions since the 1960s, despite their promise not just as a treatment, but as a cure. Meanwhile, we keep using the self-defeating Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step type programs and other cognitive behavioural change methods, even though they have never worked. Maybe the therapists, like the pharma companies, are not unhappy that their patients are never cured and have to keep coming back for more?

Not Even Greens Understand Complexity: The City of Victoria BC dumps all its raw sewage into the ocean. That’s outrageous, right, and even at a cost of $1 billion it needs to stop, right? Well, maybe. Read this for an explanation why apparently obvious “green” solutions to some complex problems may not be the right answer. Outstanding writing from Mike Ruffolo.

The Forest as “Natural Economy”: Rob Hopkins draws a metaphor between the way in which the forest self-manages and self-optimizes, and the way that a more healthy economy than the one we have today, would naturally do likewise.

~~~~~

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

lotq3-david-borchart-if-the-nra-cartoon
New Yorker cartoon by David Borchart

What “the Talk” is Really Saying: Ta-Nehisi Coates: “In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.”

The Private Legal System for Multi-National Corporations: Big companies suing foreign governments for the right to pollute and pillage worldwide (embedded in so-called “free trade” laws) have decided they can’t afford to lose, so they have set up their own parallel legal system to ensure they don’t, and to ensure governments can’t afford to fight them.

Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand: My friend Paul Cienfuegos explains how Monsanto and other execrable corporations get away with coercing politicians to pass laws that contravene the public interest, often quite overtly. He quotes Howard Zinn: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. … Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country.”

The Fight Against Getty: A famed photographer is billed and threatened by Getty for unauthorized use of her own images, images that she’d placed years ago in the public domain. She uses Getty’s own billing algorithm to compute the damages they owe her for their misconduct. I’d love to see these bastards, the Monsanto of digital intellectual property, driven out of business. Unfortunately, similar unscrupulous organizations lurk everywhere, especially online — the 1000% ticket scalpers, the “virus cleaners”, the exploiters of gullible seniors, and all the rest. It’s a major problem in the unregulatable ‘wild west’ of the internet. Can we label it “digital terrorism” and hence get some big money and resources to fight it? (Thanks to Tree for the link.)

The Collapse of Canada’s Political Left: Like its British cousins, Canada’s two prominent progressive parties are killing themselves. The NDP leader, like Britain’s Labour Party leader, is hanging tough despite a widespread call for his resignation and his general off-putting irascible nature and proven unelectability. At this critical point when PM Trudeau has abandoned his party’s traditional progressive values and shifted the “Liberals” to centre-right and needs to be called to account, the NDP is now stuck with its lame-duck leader for at least another year until his permanent replacement is chosen (and no quality candidates have surfaced). Meanwhile, Canada’s Greens have imploded, as much of its leadership has quit or been purged by its only elected member over the party’s overwhelming adoption of modified sanctions against Israel, which the party’s leader thinks unconscionable and “extremist” (she threatened to resign unless the motion was rescinded, leading to capitulation, the purge and many resignations). So now Canadians are left, like our American cousins, with no progressive electable alternative. No wonder no one trusts politicians — egomaniacs and prima donnas all.

Canadian Nuclear Boss Jokes About Whistleblowers: We may have a new “Liberal” federal government but the corrupt crony capitalism of the Harper era rolls on. We have the National Energy Board holding secret meetings with corporations and politicians before ruling on their pipeline proposals, and nuclear energy execs censoring investigative reporters and ridiculing whistleblowers who expose serious safety concerns. The National Observer, the Tyee, the CBC (increasingly cautiously) and the Toronto Star seem to be the only Canadian media doing any investigative journalism any more.

The Insanity of BC’s Site C Dam: An expert agrologist explains the disastrous impact the imminent and massive Site C dam in northern BC will have on food, food security, nutrition, community resilience, and First Nations and water sovereignty. Not to mention BC’s financial solvency. But the provincial government’s zeal to export “renewable” power (and eventually water) has blinded it to the sustained opposition the project has faced, and Trudeau seems on the verge of approving it federally.

~~~~~

FUN AND INSPIRATION

lotq4-kim-warp-the-depth-of-your-wrongness-cartoon
New Yorker cartoon by Kim Warp

The Oxford Style Guide:short and wonderfully-written guide (PDF) to modern English usage. Quick: Which of the following 22 examples are poor style: ie, eg, etc, 50k, T S Eliot, the Canadian federal government, Mr Jones, St Andrews, the Island (referring to Bowen Island), there were 12 attendees at one session and 2 at the other, the event is at 1pm, the event runs October–December, Jesus’s disciples, CDs are obsolete, dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s, It was – I think – bright green, email, a highly respected woman, I think so…but I’m not positive, BSc, fundraising, the internet.

Skunk Family Meets Bicyclist: In case you’re the one person left in the world who hasn’t seen this charming awwww-some one-minute video.

Scroll Down to See Answer: The ever-brilliant xkcd presents a true-to-scale (22 screens long) graphic showing Earth’s surface temperature over the past 22,000 years. Hilarious and terrifying. Thanks to several people who pointed me to this.

Why We Build the Wall: Anaïs Mitchell explains, in song, why Drumpf and his supporters want to build walls. More of her wonderful lyrics here (PDF) (check out especially Quecreek Flood).

bearbnbBearbnb: Bowen Island has a black bear cub. Happens every few years, and they cause great upset among the local chickens and their owners, and then either swim away to better pickings or get shot. Our other great local controversy is the conversion of monthly rental space to airbnb, creating a shortage of affordable rental accommodation for residents. Bowen resident Andrew David put the two scandals together and came up with the priceless ad shown at right.

The Whole Point of the Dancing is the Dance: Great short film Why Your Life is Not a Journey, by David Lindberg, with words and narration by Alan Watts. Your life was never about a destination; “It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played”. Thanks to my friend Jessica Mitts for the link, and the one that follows.

Girls and Sex: The New Landscape: Peggy Orenstein tells some hair-raising stories about what teenage girls/women now have to put up with, and advises us how we can help them navigate it, and what we can learn from the skills they’ve had to develop.

Who Will Touch Me All the Time?: Katie Tandy’s stunning and courageous celebration of body and life full on. Probably NSFW. “Please dance with me, we’re all going to die; you might as well sway with my body next to yours.”

Winning at Any Cost: Malcolm Gladwell, who has successfully argued that almost all of the recent world records and other unprecedented athletic performances are drug-enhanced, explains via video the ethics of abusing your body for money and fame. Yet it continues.

Carpool Karaoke: Michelle Obama disarmingly sings and laughs up a storm. An amazing and refreshing video. If only politicians could behave this authentically. Though perhaps… uh, never mind.

Eleven Beautiful Untranslatable Japanese Words: To convey any of these in English would take a whole awkward phrase. Thanks to Cheryl Long for the link.

The Art of Rebecca Clark: The wild creatures in her drawings seem almost alive, ready to tell you something important.

The Abuse of Feel-Good Cop Videos: You know the police-sponsored ones where the heavily armed cop comes up and surprisingly just gives someone an ice cream. “Just as abusive relationships don’t end with flowers, abusive police systems don’t end with ice cream.” Thanks to Jeff Brakensiek for the link.

All About Nothing: A (one hour) film about non-duality. Quirky, silly and fun. And, of course, Dutch.

~~~~~

THOUGHTS FOR THE QUARTER

lotq5-screen-time
recent survey by Nielsen: for teenagers and young adults the average is only 7 hours a day, rising to over 11 hours for seniors, so the increase is due largely to population aging; teenagers spend about 2 3/4 hours on each of TV and smart phones and almost no time on PCs; PC usage peaks at around age 40 at about 1 1/4 hours/day; seniors watch more than 3x as much TV as teenagers and young adults

The Eliotesque Poetry of Anna Tivel: Reverie (also check out her lyrics to Black Balloon):

the streetlights are diamonds, the sidewalk a bed, of boot heels and garbage and cigarettes
and only the hopeless and lonesome are left, to pin up the night and go home

and i don’t believe that a fortune is told by the turning of cards, by the swinging of stones
but still i’m here hoping for what i can’t hold, for some kind of sign from above

so turn out the lights, let the diamonds be damned; a reverie is sweeter in the dark
and i don’t got nothing but two empty hands and this slow burning flame of a heart

and midnight comes rolling all bottles and bags; they come to rest soft in the park
and a beautiful woman, her voice made of glass stirs in a dream in the dark

and i don’t believe that the future is told by the weight of a word, but by the way it’s spoke
and still i’m here holding your name in my throat and isn’t it sweet on my tongue

and the dawn glows, and it spreads like a spill in the shadows, someone whispers:
it will be alright

the streetlights are faded, the sidewalk a song, of footsteps, and papers, and telephones
and darling it’s raining, come take me back home, it seems that i’ve seen quite enough

and i don’t know which way i’m bound to believe: the story itself, or the space between
but still i’m here wiping my eyes on my sleeve at the beautiful world waking up

Bridge, by Jim Harrison, who died this past March (thanks to wordsfortheyear.com for the link):

Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
Now that I’m old the work goes slowly.
Ever nearer death, I like it out here
high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred-foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.

From Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, a remarkable reminder of the rules of adjective order that fluent English speakers follow without quite knowing why (thanks to my old friend Dave Snowden for the link):

…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

From Thomas Kuhn, on how change comes from generational rollover, and takes 15 years or longer to occur, rather than from persuasion or coercion (thanks to Vinay Gupta for the link):

Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

From David Foster Wallace, from Up Simba!:

If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Posted in Creative Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Links of the Quarter: September 2016

What Would It Take to Live Sustainably?

huntes-gardens-2
a forest garden in Barbados, via buckettripper.com

I‘m a believer in experiments. Try things out, learn from the mistakes. Prototype. Converse. Explore. Discover. That’s why, although I am convinced our civilization will collapse over the course of this century, I’m a big fan of intentional communities, the gift economy, polyamory and other alternative ways of relating, permaculture, health self-management, unschooling, and other ‘uncivilized’ ways of doing things.

None of these experiments has succeeded on any kind of scale, most likely because they aren’t meant to scale — they are unique to place. What works in one place won’t work in another because the local resources are different, the culture is different, the soils and land are different. But that’s OK. Whenever humans have tried to scale things, they have made them more unwieldy, less responsive, and dysfunctional. That’s the great failure of globalization and both neoliberalism and neoconservatism — acting on the belief that there’s one right answer, one best practice, for everyone.

The point of experimenting is just to learn, to appreciate what works, which adaptations to this particular place at this particular time are effective and functional, and which are not. Civilization culture is now in full collapse; you can see it everywhere — our political, economic, financial, monetary and credit, social, health, education, transportation, legal and law enforcement, energy, food and water, information and other systems are failing spectacularly, no longer just in struggling nations and inner cities. The overbuilt, ragged, rusty and decrepit flywheel of civilization, as David Ehrenfeld describes it, is coming apart.

It’s a challenge, seeing this happening, just keeping out of the way of the parts of this flywheel as they come flying off in all directions. What do you do to stay healthy when the health system, an unmanageable bloated incompetent bureaucracy corrupted by corporate greed, is imploding? How do you raise your children when you’re already working furiously and the education system is devolving into an expensive and farcical baby-sitting service? Where do you find healthy local food when almost nothing grows any longer within a thousand miles of where you live without the massive intervention of chemicals and irrigation?

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the right place in the right demographic can still make do, for now. And most of us don’t have the time to do more than just make do — the time to experiment with better, sustainable ways of living while trying to avoid the flying shrapnel of a crumbling civilization.

So it might be worthwhile looking at what kinds of experiments might actually be most fruitful, if not for us, then for the benefit of those who will be left, in a few decades after civilization has gasped its last.

If we had to live without any of the ‘benefits’ of civilization — imported food, clothing and other goods, centralized power, water and heating, mass production, gasoline, plastics and other cheap petroleum products, specialized pharmaceuticals, the internet etc — how might we do so sustainably? And what could we do now to experiment with doing so?

This is not about recycling and buying organic at the grocery store. This is a much more radical experiment than that. What do we actually need to live comfortably and joyously? Ancient tribal cultures spent most of their lives in leisure — sleeping and playing (“playing” in the broader sense including music, art and sex) — with an hour a day spent harvesting nature’s bountiful food and water (hardly “work”), except when children were born when some substantial extra energy was spent weaning them. Wild creatures live similarly. But once humans moved away from areas of natural bounty, hunting, agricultural work, and making clothing and shelter for less hospitable climates was needed. This was perhaps our species’ biggest mistake (not staying in climates we were naturally suited to, where we didn’t have to do any work), but that Pandora’s Box can no longer be closed.

So this is what we will need in a low-tech, low-population, post civilization culture: healthy local food and medicines, clothing and shelter for warmth or cooling, a comfortable place to sleep, a social contract for our community, and some simple tools and playthings for artistic and leisure time.

What kinds of experiments could we undertake to provide these, in the context of a small community, now?

I am a big fan of the idea of edible forest gardens — a perennial forest polyculture that, while it requires a generation of nurturing, and a profound understanding of local ecology to establish, thereafter requires almost no maintenance of any kind. This is an ancient practice that has been used successfully to provide ample and varied food to whole communities for centuries in tropical climates and has recently been introduced to temperate climates. I especially love that these ‘food forests’ belong to no one (since in the long term they require no ‘work’, they need be no one’s ‘property’).

Tribal cultures have, of necessity, always found local plants that provide medicines to relieve pain, inflammation and infection. Any successful post-civilization culture will need to rediscover at least these three essential medicines. Hemp might well be a plant of choice, since it can be used as a medicine, a clothing fabric, a building material, and, of course, for recreation. Post-civ cultures might even be clever enough to create foot-powered machines that can spin and weave cloth while also powering lights at night.

We might, then, start to identify the ‘essential’ machines for a post-civilization future, whose underlying technologies we’d want to sustain (and as much as possible locally source materials for). They might include spinning and weaving machines, pumps, furnaces, LEDs, and perhaps even microwave ovens.

A big question is what we can learn from modern building that might be sustained in a low-tech future. We would want the innovations of the best of today’s tiny houses (reconfigurability and optimal use of space), and the energy efficiency of passive houses and radiant heat — but is that possible without using rare materials and complex, petroleum-based technologies? We might want to adapt the clothing designs of Arctic peoples (the ‘perfect house‘), using some modern light-weight, low-care fabrics like Gore-Tex (but again, only if we can figure out how to manufacture them without today’s reliance on mass-production, imported materials and petrochemicals). And is there a way to light our homes and pathways with LED-style highly efficient fixtures that don’t require rare materials, complex construction and a power grid?

What might the ideal, sustainable, locally-sourced, comfortable bedding material be? Natural rubber air beds? Moss? Dandelion latex?

What can we learn from the most successful Intentional Communities about the best forms of community social contract in different situations? Are the failures of representative democracy and all forms of totalitarian political structures inherent, or problems of scale? Might a mix of anarchism and consensus decision-making (not unlike how some indigenous communities operate) be the optimal form of small-community organization?

And how might we relearn to construct musical instruments and art materials from natural sources?

We don’t want post-civilization communities to struggle — few of us long for a return to a hardscrabble impoverished life or dream of a post-apocalyptic neoprimitivism (and if we continue to collapse our ecosystems, hunting and animal domestication won’t likely be viable options) — but we’re going to have to be very smart to mix the important skills of the past and the most valuable, sustainable scientific and technological advances of the civilization era to create societies that are healthy, abundant, leisurely and joyful.

Small-scale, local experiments (that can be replicated, not scaled) would seem to be the best way to develop some kind of handbook for post-civ societies, to enable them to embrace the logic of sufficiency, and to thrive without exhausting resources, and without the need for ruinous industry, hierarchy, growth or exploitation, in concert with all-life-on-Earth.

 

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Second Thoughts

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image: public domain from pixabay CC0
On several occasions recently I found myself getting angry or anxious, and then almost immediately realized how inappropriate and futile my reaction was. I read about an act of destructive greed, and read an article with a preposterous and disturbing argument about how we should behave as humans. And I witnessed acts of aggression, fury, pettiness, and unreasonableness, a couple of which were directed, more or less, at me.

My initial reaction in each case was profound annoyance (and an awareness and curiosity about the fact that anger is often a mask for fear). My second reaction was one of astonishment at my initial reaction: How could ‘I’ still be getting so upset at beliefs and behaviours that the actors involved had absolutely no control over? What possible value did such a reaction have? Who was it, in fact, having this reaction? It was almost as if I was looking at myself and saying “Who is that person getting angry and frightened and upset?; it’s certainly not me!”

And in a way it wasn’t me. As my awareness grows about the nature of the self, and ‘my’ own self, there is a growing cognitive dissonance not only between what the media, friends etc are saying, and what ‘I’ now believe to be true, but also between what ‘I’ am (still) feeling and thinking and saying, and what ‘I’ now believe to be true. Eckhart Tolle talks about his ‘awakening’ when he reached a point where, he said, he couldn’t ‘stand himself’ any longer, and, at that moment, realized that he ‘wasn’t himself’.

What does it signify when the cognitive dissonance becomes so great that there is a split between the mask or veil of the self and what lies behind that mask or veil? What does it mean to say the mask or veil of the self is actually just a construct, a compelling and persistent illusion? And, more profoundly still, what if there is nothing behind the mask?

Radical non-duality seemingly holds that since there is no ‘real’ you, no free will, and no ‘self’ control, what appears to be learning and ‘self-improvement’ (ie behaving, according to prevailing consensus, in a more useful, mature, knowledgeable, experienced, positive way than ‘you’ used to) is in fact just the inevitable trajectory of beliefs and actions of the character that ‘you’ believe your self to be. Behaviours can (apparently) change and evolve, but no separate individual or will is involved in, or in control of, that change.

Currently our massively stressed and increasingly dis-eased and destructive human civilization seems to be behaving, collectively, badly and unhealthily, but while one person’s psychologically compromised act of anger or violence can certainly provoke a similarly unhealthy response (and the mutual triggering it can produce a feedback loop in which both characters, and possibly whole communities or nations, degenerate into seemingly psychotic behaviour), none of these behaviours is controllable, preventable, or alterable. Also, none of these behaviours is predictable — there are too many variables involved.

Everything is playing out, then, seemingly, the only way it can:

  • When each of us is very young, as a result of some combination of stress, teaching/reinforcement, intellectual capacity and the brain’s cognitive wiring, we suddenly perceive the existence of a separate self and come to believe it to be real, in control, and possessed of free will — to be who ‘we’ really are.
  • Things then apparently happen to ‘us’, and ‘we’ apparently react, and react to our reactions, believing ourselves to be separate and in control when we’re actually not.
  • For some, cognitive dissonance arises, both within ‘us’ and in our relationships with other apparent individuals, because the existence, beliefs and behaviours of the separate self cease to make coherent sense. Of course, we react to that as well.
  • For some, inexplicably and with no control or choice involved, the self apparently falls away. Conditioned reactions of the self-less body continue but gradually diminish in intensity (without a self to ‘own’ and identify with them). The cognitive dissonance likewise dissipates.
  • For others, reactive feedback loops (and, for some, cognitive dissonance) continue to cause unhappiness, suffering and destruction until the person apparently dies, at which time of course the self and dissonance fall away for them too.

So I get angry, and then I get annoyed and confused at my anger (but it continues nonetheless). That anger (or other stressful reaction) hurts others, who react and perpetuate the suffering. The self-annoyance and confusion festers inside. All of this may continue the rest of my life. My clarity that it’s all foolish and unnecessary increases the cognitive dissonance and is enormously frustrating. The clarity and cognitive dissonance may moderate my behaviours, but that’s not something ‘I’ have any control over, any more than I have control over my anger, fear and other reactions. I will do what I will do.

If my (apparent) behaviour is becoming more tolerant, (in part perhaps) because I am more self-aware of its impact on others, (in part perhaps) because I’m attracted to (and have been fortunate enough to find) people who tend to encourage self-awareness, (in part perhaps) because I’m inherently intellectually curious, that more tolerant behaviour has been ‘my’ inevitable life’s trajectory. It’s not something ‘I’ steered or had any control over or deserve any credit for.

Like the future evolution of the planet, my future and my future actions and behaviours are not foreordained or predictable (there are too many unknown and unforeseeable variables), but neither are they controllable — ‘I’ have no ‘free will’ to change them, nor have ‘I’ or could ‘I’ have made any decisions that might have affected them such that ‘I’ would have decided any differently. CBT advocates are terribly misguided (and there’s lots of evidence to support that assessment) — CBT simplistically heaps shame on top of all the other self-judgements and behaviours the individual has no control over, in the absurd belief that will motivate and enable ‘self’-improvement. But there is no ‘I’ to self-improve. There is no ‘I’, period.

So far, so bad.

What then is the (uncontrollable) future trajectory of the character known as Dave, if ‘I’ am self-aware enough to recognize my reactions, fears and anxieties as they arise and know they are foolish, inappropriate, unhealthy, and possibly hurtful or dangerous, but also know ‘I’ have no control over these reactions?

Example: I am conflict-averse and often make what seem obviously suboptimal (in the long-term) decisions to try to keep the peace and so as not to immediately make anyone upset — it’s a very human proclivity to put off confronting a problem until it cannot possibly be put off any longer. When I do so I immediately blame myself for my cowardice (and get anxious about whether the later moment of reckoning will be even more explosive because of my procrastination). And then I get upset with others for putting me in this self-blaming, anxious position, and upset with myself for being upset with them. It’s pretty pathetic, but it’s a behaviour I fall into easily.

Suppose at some point, before there is no choice left but to face the issue, I decide to gird up my courage and confront the problem? Is this my ‘self’ exercising free will and choice? Not at all. At some point the pain of the two no-win situations reaches a tipping point at which my long-term dread outweighs my short-term cowardice, and this can shift over time. ‘I’ have no choice in the matter. It isn’t ‘my’ decision.

I’m clear about that, but the cognitive dissonance ‘I’ feel saying that is huge: it certainly feels like ‘my’ decision. My self rationalizes that I have made a decision, that I have ‘changed my mind’ and decided to act. But of course ‘I’ have not. The decision was made, but not by ‘me’.

An uncompromising radical non-dualist will shake their head and might even agree that this is a tragic situation for ‘me’, but will proffer no solution. There is none. There is no ‘me’, after all. The implications — for all complex predicaments, ‘personal’ and universal — are grave. There is nothing that anyone can choose to do. There is nothing that any one (or by extension any group) can do. As ‘I’ say this, the cognitive dissonance in my head is deafening.

And it gets even worse. Non-duality asserts that time is not real either — that all there is, is eternal. So there can be no hope that any of this will get better ‘over time’. Regrets and nostalgia about the past, dreams and fears about the future are all just mind-games, dis-eases of the self- and time-afflicted brain. But knowing that doesn’t make ‘me’ feel any better. It just ramps up the cognitive dissonance between my self’s absolute certainty that there is a past, a now, and the future, and the greater-than-my-self ‘intuition’ and ‘remembrance’ (those words come closest but neither expresses what this ‘knowing’ really is) that there is no past, no future, not even a now. No time.

My head hurts. It was so much easier when I just believed what I was told, and I am lazy — I don’t like to work hard. But there is, it seems, no going back. I’ve had a glimpse of the raw, astonishing, indescribable perfection of seeing what really is. My head is full of stars, my heart is full of hopeless anticipation, ‘I’ am standing at the precipice with my wings outspread.

And waiting. Having second thoughts. Nothing else I can do.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Remembering

mindful wandering
photo by Maren Yumi

conversation log: 6469 New Calendar
It is inherently difficult, because of your language’s limitations, to articulate how this way of being is so different from yours. Your language, as your people have explained, evolved during your Time of Forgetting, and its terms, and its very structure, reflect that Forgetting. This — what you see as a tribe of people physically and behaviourally not unlike yourselves — no longer uses symbolic language. After the Remembering this no longer sees need for it. Body language, song, and demonstration are what this apparently uses to — how can this be explained? — to ‘be joyfully’.

The Forgetting, apparently, happens in situations of such distress to the energy of being that this ‘forgets’ that all there is is this. Individuals appear to ‘become’ separate and apart from this, ‘conscious’ of their selves as separate. That must be a terrible nightmare, a seemingly endless one, one that this cannot imagine. No surprise that each ‘separate’ individual becomes a creature of anger, fear, grief, anxiety and sadness; nor that they behave, individually and tribally, in such a fearful, insensitive and destructive way.

Please understand that this is not saying you and your tribe are wrong or stupid or inferior in any way — your behaviour is inevitable, as was ‘ours’ when ‘we’ thought ‘our’ selves separate, and you have each and all been doing your best given your terribly difficult situation. This is just saying that perhaps you might find yourselves Remembering.

Remembering is not something that this, or any one, can teach you; but it may happen nonetheless. If it happens it might be frightening, but it will also be unimaginably joyful. Remembering happened to each of ‘us’, and then, just as suddenly as ‘we’ became separate individuals, those separate selves vanished, and, since time is just an invention of the separate self, ‘we’ didn’t vanish in time — ‘we’ ‘suddenly’ never were. At least that is how it seems.

What is the point of saying this to you? There is no point. This cannot be or do other than what it apparently is and does. This is just a resonance, a “feeling with” you. Your lives seem so hard and so full of struggle and unhappiness. Somehow, this remembers that, too.

You are laughing — it does seem preposterous. How can this ‘remember’ or imagine being separate, having a separate self, if there is no ‘I’ to remember or imagine it,  you ask? And what is this character apparently walking beside you if it is not a separate being? Excellent questions.

You may be disappointed to hear that the answer is that it’s a mystery. There is walking happening, and you apparently sense that it is you and a separate ‘me’ that are walking, here and now, but this has no such sense. There is just walking happening, wondrously, and not in any time or place, because time and place are just inventions, ideas of the brain that the separate self then identifies with.

This does not mean that you are hallucinating ‘me’. What the separate self perceives is absolutely real to you. This does not deny your reality. Your reality is included in everything that really is, though it is really a dream ‘you’ have constructed and are living, a dream that keeps ‘you’ from seeing everything that really is, behind the veil of the self.

How can this ‘know’? This doesn’t know. Only the separate self can ‘know’ something, a reality separate from itself. How can this remember believing in the reality of a separate self? This doesn’t know. It’s a mystery. A resonance.

Is this message that has just been conveyed to you just a rationalization, another invention, a convoluted wishful-thinking coping mechanism by a distraught self seeking to deny its selfhood, you wonder? This is also an excellent hypothesis. But what would the point of that be? It would be difficult to credibly sustain, and to overcome the cognitive dissonance it presents. It would be mean to those struggling with the suffering that accompanies belief in the reality of the separate self, to suggest, perhaps even while knowing it to be untrue, that all that suffering is unnecessary but that escaping the illusion is impossible, hopeless.

If you look at what you see as ‘people in the tribe you call Tsilga‘, you will see an equanimity, a joyousness, that you cannot observe in most members of tribes afflicted with the sense of an enduring, separate self. This is not an act. There is no ‘person’, no ‘tribe’, no thing, no one. There is just this, wondrous, astonishing apparent inexplicable everything.

You want to know what ‘I’ think you should do, could do, might helpfully do, for yourself, for ‘me’, for better understanding or communication, for ‘all our relations’. There is no ‘I’, no ‘me’, no you, no thing to do, no thing that can be done, no free will to do. There is only what is happening. It is amazing, complete, perfect. It is love. Perhaps when these two apparent bodies again seemingly meet, it will be selflessly. It will not necessarily be peaceful or joyful. But it will, once again, be awesome.

May it so be. May you Remember.

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Spoiled By Perfection

There are a few restaurants I’ve visited in my lifetime that prepare everything so well that you are truly spoiled, for weeks thereafter, for eating anything else. The word ‘spoil’ etymologically means ‘stripped bare, robbed’. So being spoiled is a mixture of blessing and curse: after the initial ecstasy, when you find you have been robbed of the pleasure you get from eating merely mortal food, you almost regret having tasted perfection.

This is true, I think, for just about any hedonistic or aesthetic pleasure. An artist friend says studying Botticelli spoiled him for most other artists. The perfection reduced his capacity to appreciate other, ‘lesser’ works.

Advertisers and other exploiters in our consumerist culture do their damnedest to spoil us, but in an entirely negative way: rather than presenting us with aesthetically superb, brilliantly designed products, they cloak their mediocre products and services with impossibly perfect branding, usually employing impossibly beautiful photoshopped models in staggeringly beautiful photoshopped settings having unachievably breathtaking, flawless and exhilarating experiences. They shift attention from the imperfections of their shoddy merchandise to us, their consumers, by portraying only perfect consumers in perfect settings doing things perfectly (and, of course, consuming their crap while doing it).

This exploitation has a deliberate, grotesque goal: It strives to make us feel like we’re hopelessly flawed (physically and psychologically), uninteresting, half-alive failures by comparison, so we’re (they hope) compelled to buy their product or service to try to compensate. It deliberately damages us in order to exploit that damage. And it sets an impossible standard for us to strive after, yearn for, and be endlessly disappointed at failure to achieve.

It is not just the sleazy hawkers of products that do this. Employers hold out carrots of impossible perks to attract the most highly skilled and accomplished staff, and to prod them endlessly into working longer and harder (since the promised carrots — the golden promotions, the glory and fame and power and fortune and all the lovely rewards that can be secured with them — are almost always just out of reach). Those extraordinary meals I referred to above were nibbles of such carrots my employers let me taste.

I’m a hedonist by nature, so I’m even easier prey than most people for the temptation to imagine and dwell on perfection. It’s not surprising I was addicted to Second Life, where everyone is flawlessly beautiful and every place is lush and opulent. I am entranced by the perfection of CGI and the hyperrealism of HDR. I have heard musicians play instruments so perfectly or compose works so complex, intricate and brilliant that for a while thereafter I get restless and bored with all the other, inferior music I hear. After spending time in the forest or on an unspoiled beach, I find the city and all its deteriorating constructions and mindless activity unbearable. I haven’t been able to watch a movie in more than a decade because, compared to the rare, best works, the writing, acting and direction are insufferably poor. I’m reaching the same restless point in my reading.

Voltaire said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Have we reached the stage at which imagining perfection in all things (with the help of corporations, Hollywood and others) — perfect looks, the perfect life, perfect relationships, the perfect job, perfect performance, perfect possessions enabling perfect experiences in perfect settings — just makes us miserable with ourselves, those we live and spend time with, and our reality? Is it any wonder so many seek escape in drugs and other addictions (especially the ones that make everything seem perfect, for a while)?

What intrigues me is: how and why did the human character evolve to seek and prefer perfection, even when it is not achievable? It seems a poor adaptive quality to the real, imperfect world.

Here’s a completely preposterous theory, completely unsupported by any evidence (but intuitively appealing), about why that might be. What if it is not the nature of healthy creatures to seek perfection — but rather to seek “the best available”? The best available places to live and migrate to, the best available partners, the best available adornments for ourselves, the best available food, the best available activities. The “best available” implies trade-offs: the best possible place might be too far away, the best possible partner might already be partnered, the best possible food might be rare and hard to find, so we might intuitively seek “the best available” alternatives to this seeming perfection. Without a culture that proclaims that that isn’t (and you aren’t) good enough, and that (with money, or wiles, or effort, or luck) perfection is achievable, the “best available” would seem the happiest and most adaptive strategy. Hoping and striving for more would seem a recipe for suffering, unhappiness and violence. Settling for less would seem a recipe for weakening the gene pool and eventual misgivings.

If this is true, where did we go, evolutionarily, off-track? I’d guess the first problem was the emergence of ideation and imagination, and hence ideology and idealism. Why would anyone become an idealist if they could instead be a realist? If the tribe were under severe stress (caused, say, by climate change, or overpopulation) the short-term reality might be pretty grim, and there might be some solace in dreaming of a better longer-term future. If the stress passed and the species was again thriving in balance with all other life, the idealism would become purposeless and likely cease; why dream of Eden when you live in it?

But what if the stress never went away, but instead became chronic? Then  the idealism might become the escape it is for so many humans today. And the unhappiness behind that chronic dreaming of something better tomorrow could be exploited, as it has been, by those who benefit from us never being happy, always wanting more, and striving for perfection.

That’s my theory anyway — we got smart enough to imagine, and then stressed enough to want things to be, endlessly, how we imagined. And all it would take would be a brief taste of perfection — the perfect relationship portrayed in a movie, the zipless fuck in a video, the perfect face or body portrayed in a photoshop makeover, the perfect weekend in a beer commercial, the perfect sunset in HDR — and suddenly nothing real is good enough any more. We’ve been spoiled by perfection, and we never even got a taste of it before that happened.

Image: An entirely CGI character, Aki Ross, from the film Final Fantasy

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments