Now that I am no longer spending the bulk of my waking hours doing what my boss tells me to do, I’m beginning to entertain some heretical thoughts.
I am beginning to believe that civilization has so warped us that, to a greater or lesser degree, we have all forgotten who we really are. Perhaps some of us never knew. Who are we? We are each our own story, a culture of one. Our story begins at birth with a discovery, an exploration, a connection with the world around us. Whether we are human or animal, we are at first profoundly connected to the rest of the world through our senses. We are filled with wonder. We are incredibly vulnerable, but we are not helpless. It will take several years before the brainwashing of those who have forgotten who they really are convince us that without them, we are helpless. The real truth is that we are brilliantly equipped for survival. Evolution has seen to that.
If we were living outside of our terrible civilization, the first things we would learn would all be through our senses. Our senses are there to give us joy, to make us want to live, and to help us survive and thrive in communion with the rest of life on Earth of which we are a part. As animal babies we immediately start to move around and see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. We do the things that give us sensory pleasure. Our instincts guide us — they tell us to smell our Mother’s breath to learn what is good to eat, and find those things to eat, and, for reasons we don’t really understand, or need to, not to eat other things. And our instincts also tell us when to flee and what to flee from, when to migrate, and when to stay and, if need be, to fight. We learn enough language, depending on our species, to communicate the location of food, our presence, and the presence of danger, and to express ourselves. But most of our time for our whole lives is spent just experiencing sensations and enjoying life.
Those of us born into civilization soon start to follow a very different path. As our animal kin’s brains are forming to reflect the memories of sensation and place, ours are forming to reflect the language we our taught. Our sensory exploration and learning is interrupted, from a very young age, for abstract lessons of language. We are taught definitions, that what a thing is, is its word — kitten, puppy, Mommy. Bizarre learning that has no resonance in the three million years of instinctive knowledge wired into our DNA. And then, immediately, we are taught, and taught and taught what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, what is ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’, ‘logical’ and ‘foolish’. And we begin to be judged not on who were are (or, as the lessons proceed, who we used to be), but rather on what we’ve ‘learned’, what we ‘know’, and what we ‘possess’. And we are judged on how our behaviour reflects and reinforces that terrible learning — on our conformity (tellingly, we actually use this word in describing pet training ‘success’). For the rest of our lives we will be taught, and told, what to do, how to do it, and how to behave, learnings that are utterly abstract and disconnected from who we are (or were). We will, as we have been taught and told, fill our lives with arduous, full time work, with fearsome consequences if we ‘fail’ (poverty, being labeled and shunned as a ‘failure’, the shame and terror of not having enough). And finally, we become that abstract other that is our strange learnings and behaviours. We learn to live outside ourselves.
I will leave it to others (at least for now) to pass judgement on why we do this. I am, as usual, more interested in the solution than the definition or cause of the problem.
How can we reconnect with the true self that we leave behind when we take that strange abstract journey into otherhood? How can we remember who we are (or were) before this terrible world stole that identity from us? There are many ways to reacquire some of that subsersive knowledge. If you’re a woman, you’ll probably find it easier than men, because in my experience men are, for the most part, more enthusiastic about abstraction and all its rules, and less attuned to and comfortable with the sensory world.
Probably the easiest way is to spend time outside of civilization. Walk in the forest or the park, unassisted by and as far away from man-made artifacts as possible. Slow down. Stay, or keep doing it, until you feel yourself changing, until your abstract brain gets bored and turns off and your senses take over. Take along an animal friend to show you the way. Look Until You Really See: Move in close, so you divert attention from individual objects and start to see instead colour, texture, shape, shadow, reflection, pattern. Find an unusual perspective from which to look — get down on the ground and look up, look at something through trees, through a microscope, or by candlelight, anything that will let you see things differently from usual. Look at things under unusual conditions — in the fog, at night, right after a heavy rain, just at dawn or dusk. Stimulate your other right-brain senses — get your nose up close to things, listen to birds, or insects, or train whistles, or music. Walk in your bare feet. Walk or bicycle without a pre-determined destination, direction or time limit. Study something — birds at your bird-feeder, time-lapse of a flower over the course of a day or a week, a spider-web, how moving or dimming the lights in a room changes its character, how a bottle looks different when viewed from different angles.
Or turn off the buzz at home. Spend an hour, or an evening, or a day, without the distracting sensory inputs of civilization. Burn candles instead of lights. Turn off the TV and the radio and the PC and spend the time doing something that requires no electricity. Then invite some friends over and do it again. If you can’t get rid of the background urban noise, put on a CD of natural sounds or instrumental music. Or grow something from a seed or seedling. Or meditate, or use some other exercise (ideally, outside) that focuses your mind on the here and now, and makes it still. Or eat a meal (ideally, outside) that consists entirely of natural, organic, uncooked, unprocessed foods.
What other ways have you found to re-connect with who you really are, or were?
It is hard to describe what happens to us when we do regain connection with our true, instinctive selves. It is liberating, warming, exciting, stimulating. But it is also deeply unsettling. It can irrevocably change you, make you dissatisfied with that other you that you had become. It can cause you to question everything you believe, radicalize you (in the true meaning of that word — taking you back to your roots). It can make others afraid of you and angry at you, and even, alas, dissociated from you. Human kind cannot bear very much reality, as Eliot said. It is like getting a day pass from a prison you have lived in all your life, but never realized was a prison because you had nothing to compare it to.
But be careful with this new knowledge, the knowledge of who you were before our well-meaning civilization made you like everbody else. It’s dangerous.
Cartoon is by Dan O’Neill from the 1970 Jefferson Airplane CD ‘Volunteers’.
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Dying of Despair
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What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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May I Ask a Question?
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Several Short Sentences About Learning
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A Harvest of Myths
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Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
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All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Healing From Ourselves
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Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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Under No Illusions (Short Story)
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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