Plus Ça Change

photo by the author

“Everything had changed, but nothing seemed different”
— Meg Hutchinson, True North

Lately I’ve been reading back over some of the old posts in this 15+ year-old blog. Some of what I wrote still mostly makes sense, but a lot of it has my eyes rolling back in my head. How could I have been so naive, so arrogant, so blind, so caught up in what everyone else believed and said?

Yet, I am learning that what we perceive, or more accurately conceive, as time, and its passing, is just an illusion, something our brains made up as a convenient way to categorize, store and recall what we think of as memories. A figment of our imaginations, though one widely shared and (as Einstein said) “very convincing”.

If there is no time, no past or future, and most of all no “now”, there can be no change, which has to happen ‘over’ time. As John Gray has written “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”

If this is so, what is this apparent change that ‘I’ have gone through? If there is no time and no ‘me’, how shall I account for the fact that I once apparently believed that our civilization culture could and ‘should’ be reformed? That I thought things would be better if we worked to elect different governments or “reconnect with the Earth”? That I used to blame people for what I saw as their deliberate bad behaviour and stupidity, and ridiculed the idea of us not having free will?

During ‘moments’ when my self has fallen away, and there has been a glimpse, a true perception (not a conception) of what really is, it has been apparent that this magnificent life just is, and that there is no ‘reason’ or ‘how’ or ‘why’ or purpose or meaning for any of it, including the astonishing feat of co-evolution that has seemingly brought about an incredible complexity of atoms, cells, creatures and environments into the co-choreographed dance of life on Earth that, in our quieter moments, we so appreciate that we call it, all-of-it-as-one, Gaia. When there is a glimpse, this is still appreciated, still wondrous, but seen to be just an appearance, a game that nothing plays appearing as everything, outside of time and space. Time is seen as just a way of looking at the tiny subset of the infinite, endless possibilities that our senses are able to perceive, a way of ordering them to try to make sense of them, a putting of them in a seemingly-useful sequence, like cels in a movie that can then be played backward or forward to make sense of the memories — when those cels are just appearances and have no need for order or sense-making.

This is not a psychedelic or other self-awakening or personal enlightenment, or even an ‘experience’; it is not something you finally wake up from and ask whether it was real or not. It is not a ‘knowing’ — in fact it is the realization that nothing is or can be ‘known’ since there is no reason for it, no continuity, no existence within (our conceptions of) time and space. There is no explanation for it, and it needs none — it is totally obvious. It is just seen to be true, as everything we seem to know, including the knowledge of our selves, is seen through as illusion, false patterning like the animals we read into cloud formations, and like the characters and events in our dreams we try to make meaning of.

Human nature and institutions are not immutable, unchangeable, as the expression plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose suggests. But neither are they mutable. They just are, and (infuriatingly) also are not. They are our collective agreement of what is absolutely real, because ‘we’ can’t function without belief in absolutes, and belief in change. We’ve just all agreed, through mutual conditioning, to act as if our selves, and time and space, are real and separate and even controllable, even though very young children, who don’t get the joke, are incredulous and think we’re all acting, until we force them, with every word we utter and every action we take in their presence, to admit and then fervently agree that the naked emperor is indeed finely attired. Only on this strange footing can the business of the separate self and the adventure of ‘conscious’ human beings begin, ludicrously lacing together the unconnected fragments into a sad, veiled, and finite ‘life’. Our sense of separation is a horrible, fatal and incurable affliction. ‘I’ would rather be a bird, please.

Birds, I believe, are not encumbered with a sense of separateness, finiteness, mortality and self. That doesn’t mean there is no pain, no sadness, no fear; in fact I think these are felt much more by creatures without the veil of self, without the illusion that these are things to be suffered and (oh, progress!) overcome. And likewise, I believe, they feel more joy than our miserable selves are capable of. But for the birds these are not personal feelings; they are feelings that arise in what I can only, annoyingly, call ‘oneness’. These feelings do not belong to ‘them’ because there is no separate ‘them’. So there is no identification with these feelings, and the related thoughts, and hence they quickly dissipate, with no ‘one’ to attach them to.

I have thought a lot about what seems to be, in times of great stress, a sense of separateness, self-awareness and responsibility within wild creatures. How can there be what seems obviously ‘separation anxiety’ if there is no separateness? While the emotion is obviously real, that does not preclude it being instinctual — not automatic, but conditioned by the creature’s DNA and socialization. Wild animals show much more emotion when trapped than they do when they’re in (even acute) pain. Is that because entrapment is much more likely to be a death sentence in wild spaces than pain is, and the more virulent reaction is therefore evolutionarily selected for? Again, I am not saying they’re senseless — they likely feel much more fully and deeply than we can, living in our uncomfortable, artificial construct of reality instead of the ‘real’ world. I’m just suggesting that they are sensate creatures (alive and seeing and feeling the world principally through their senses and intuitions, seeing and feeling it as oneness, timeless, and endlessly wondrous) rather than ‘self-conscious’ creatures like our afflicted species (alive, and made endlessly anxious, only through the shallow representation of the separated world we conceive of and then attach our selves to).

‘I’ would rather be a bird, please.

The birds ‘know’, I think, that rien ne change, et rien ne reste immuable — that nothing changes, and nothing ever remains the same. We humans, sadly, will never understand.

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