Rediscovering Our Natural Selves

Sophie Sheppard
What we think of as ‘us’, headquartered in our minds, is merely a complicity of our bodies’ invention, a figment of reality. In reality our minds are the battleground between our bodies’ organs, which invented and co-evolved our minds as their problem detection system, and our society, which seeks to co-opt our minds to (as ee cummings put it) “make us everybody else” as part of a collective army to fight that society’s imagined enemies. In the sense we have come to conceive of ourselves, there is no ‘us’.

I am coming to believe that our bodies’ organs co-evolved our minds for a purpose other than their immediate and selfish self-protection. The second purpose of our minds, I think, is self-restraint. Why? Because self-restraint of creatures with exceptional capacity to influence their ecosystem is essential to the health of that ecosystem, and hence to the health of all creatures within it. Most creatures do not need self-restraint because, at their worst, they can do little to perturb the balance of life. But larger, fiercer, smarter creatures can wreak havoc, so their minds (in the collective interest of all-life-on-Earth) should inevitably have evolved self-restraint as a critical characteristic and determinant of decision-making.

Most of who ‘we’ are continues to be the autonomous processes of our bodies’ organs, and the subconscious realizations that we call ‘instinct’. Our conscious thoughts comprise a tiny proportion of our information activities. So what happened to us that we now equate ourselves with our conscious thoughts, and even believe we have an identity, a consciousness, that transcends our body entirely, and even defines reality? Some would have us believe it is our abstract consciousness, our ability to conceive, that ‘makes’ the world — that there is no reality without consciousness. (This belief reminds me of the equally arrogant belief of religious fanatics that the world was created six thousand years ago by a superhuman. It defies all credibility. But whatever gets you through the night, I guess.)

Most creatures exercise self-restraint, a manifestation of a humility that appreciates and realizes that the delicate balance of nature that has evolved over billions of years is the best model of sustainability, the best way to live. They ‘voluntarily’ reduce their birth numbers to keep them in balance with the rest of their ecosystem. This remarkable phenomenon seems to arise as a result of hormonal changes that respond to overcrowding and other stresses, changes that indicate a collective awareness. Only if that fails do nature’s other remedies kick in — increases in other predators, disease, and, as a last resort, aggression and violence leading to rising death rates.

I believe we had this same self-restraint, until, as an unexpected consequence of our sophisticated brains, we invented civilization, and its artifacts, including the suppression of our ‘natural’ self-restraint. “To be nobody else” is indeed, as cummings said, “the hardest battle”, and it requires that we rediscover our instinctive self-restraint, become truly natural creatures again, each one of us, alone, and free ourselves from the slavery and propaganda that our society, with the best of intentions, has imposed on us. We have lost that humility, that self-restraint. We have become disconnected from all-life-on-Earth so that we no longer sense that we are devastating the planet, that our way of living is unsustainable. Why?

My theory is that it began with either the ice ages, or with the rapid extinction of large mammals that followed our invention of spears and arrowheads. Suddenly, what had been a life of astonishing and continuous abundance became a world of great scarcity. That scarcity bred fear. That fear (in an autonomous process that Hall has shown occurs precisely the same way in mice) produces murderous violence, which in turn precipitates mental illness, trauma, shutdown, suicide, and vulnerability.

At about the time of this collective mental breakdown, we also invented, perhaps as a means of trying to manage social disorder, abstract human language, a tool that enabled the invention and dissemination of propaganda: Once we learned to communicate accurately, we quickly learned the advantage of lying.

The combination of emotional illness and psychological vulnerability, and propaganda exploiting this weakness produced, I would theorize, four phenomena that exemplify our modern society: groupthink (“becoming everybody else”). frenetic behaviour (inability to pay attention), disconnection, and dependence (on others higher in a hierarchy). A very sad, unhealthy, destructive and unnatural way to live.

If this is the case, what would we need to do to become our natural selves again? To stop being “everybody else”? To regain that humility and self-restraint?

It would be difficult, even more difficult than cummings suggested. We would have to deny all the conventional wisdom that we are taught from birth. We would have to live simpler, in order to re-become self-sufficient. We’d have to shut off the noise and propaganda that bombards our every waking moment. We’d have to refocus on the simple joys of life: eating, sleeping, loving, playing, and spend less time doing things that rely on others, people we don’t know. We’d have to talk less, and talk about what’s important. In place of the inane chatter we’d spend time reconnecting with our senses, our bodies, our instincts, and the natural world. We’d have to stop living the dread-ful life inside our heads and start living as part of all-life-on-Earth, in the astonishing, joyful, real world. We’d have to stop living in clock time and start living in Now Time.

We’d have to re-become simply who we are: A collection of organs amazingly complicit in realizing their collective success and happiness, inventing and reinventing and succeeding ourselves, connecting with love and without restraint, instinctively, under the spell of the sensuous.

Could we even do this? I think it’s possible. I think artists are, by nature, closer to this simple, open, vulnerable, natural, truthful way of living. We have a billion models — the wild creatures all around us, and the children, not yet disconnected and damaged and beaten into submission. They are showing us the way.

Painting above by painter and environmentalist Sophie Sheppard, auctioned in1999 at the Authors Unite in Defense of Mother Earth festival.

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4 Responses to Rediscovering Our Natural Selves

  1. Janene says:

    Hey Dave –I think you are slipping into that ‘if only people were better/humans are broken’ trap. Evidence suggests that we ‘became civilized’ not because of scarcity, but rather, because of abundance. But we can leave that for another day.What I really wanted to do is suggest a documentary that you may find useful…. have you seen “What the Bleep! Down the Rabbit Hole”? It’s a follow up to the original What the Bleep, dealing with the big questions of mind, consciousness and (get this) quantum physics. I found it be… quite interesting… saying mostly things I already knew, intuitively, but then I have some pretty outrageous opinions about mind and consciousness. There is also a segment where one of the physicists describes Roger Penrose’s theory of consciousness, which I found mind blowing… but also very technical, so you have to have some understanding of quantum physics to grasp where he is going….Anyway… for what it’s worth :-)Janene

  2. lugon says:

    Not sure. Maybe we humans are not broken at birth, but broken later because we’re so good at learning? I know many clever people who seem good at adapting to their environment – so good that they become miserable. Those less good at that game can change their environment and sometimes live fuller lives. In other ways, I’m not sure we’re either “broken” or “not broken”. Things are more like “I behave as broken in certain situations, and small changes can help me behave as less broken”.Just one small example: my room’s a mess, right? I pile up things with no end. After many years, this lady comes in, looks through the pile of junk and says Hey, you could have a bamboo carpet if you want to type barefooted. The whole compost-pile place changed in my mind, and I’ve started making it a much nicer place.Yes, I guess that’s my story about change. :-)

  3. lugon says:

    It’s not “In other ways” but “In other words”. Sorry. :-)

  4. andrew says:

    “worlds without grounds” — Varela et al

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