The World’s Most Blessed Agnostic

I’ve said before that I believe we’re all suffering, and all healing, from what I’ve called Civilization Disease — the combination of mental and physical illnesses that results from the relentless stress of horrifically overpopulated industrial society and the global nutritional poverty of the now-ubiquitous industrial food system.

I thought it might be interesting to look at Civilization Disease from a non-dual perspective. Radical non-duality says that there is no real you (that the separate ‘you’ is an illusion), and that since there is no space and time, just an eternal and infinite field of possibilities, nothing is actually real (or unreal) — everything is just an ‘appearance’, without reason or purpose.

As I’ve argued before, as crazy as that sounds, it is entirely consistent with new discoveries and theories in astrophysics, cosmology, quantum science, philosophy and cognitive science. So, while there are thoughts and feelings, they aren’t anyone’s thoughts and feelings; they just arise, as appearances, for no reason. It is the illusory self that claims that thoughts and feelings are its thoughts and feelings, and that they are real and pervasive and meaningful, and cause for action.

As a passionate fan of Gaia theory and evolution, it’s hard to square this with the sense that Gaia (ie all life on earth and its ecologies, as a single staggeringly-complex ‘organic’ system) seems to be co-evolving life on earth in a logical, consistent and ‘biophilial’ way. But Stephen Jay Gould (in Full House and elsewhere) has argued that while there is pattern in all of this, there is no intention, no direction, no ‘intelligence’ to evolution. It is just (apparently, if you’re a non-dualist) a playing out of a possibility, a game full of randomness, without purpose or ‘progress’.

But if we try to at least understand the apparent ’rules’ of the game of evolution, it seems that at some point brains evolved, and have been creating havoc ever since. Stewart and Cohen in Figments of Reality argue the evolution of brains happened because the creatures* that make up organisms experimented with a centralized ‘feature-detection system’ as a means of protection for the body’s component creatures, and, as this seemed to be an evolutionarily successful development brains are now standard equipment in most (but not all) animal species.

The brain may have evolved to detect ‘features’ (mostly food and predators), but its complexity allowed the development of intricate ‘predictive’ models (‘figments’) of reality, including, at least in humans, the recursive invention of the ‘conscious self’ as the centre of the model.

There is increasing evidence that this invention was an evolutionary misstep, since, according to radical non-duality and recent neuroscience, the ‘self’ is completely unnecessary to the success and survival of the brain-equipped character*. We would be better off without a self, since it is “a useless appendage” that comes with a ton of undesirable side-effects; most notably it ‘suffers’ from the illusion that it has free will, choice, agency, responsibility, and control of the apparent character that it presumes to inhabit.

This suffering is to no avail, since it changes nothing — the character that the suffering self struggles fruitlessly to try to control and understand is completely indifferent and oblivious to the existence of the illusory self.

One of the largest causes of the self’s suffering is its (mis-)identification with and claim of ownership of, emotions (feelings). You’ll have a hard time explaining this to health professionals, however, since the worldview of radical non-duality and that of psychology are so utterly different. But let’s see if it’s possible to reconcile these worldviews.

One of the best-known taxonomies of feelings is that of Karla McLaren. She identifies 17 key emotions in three main clusters, which I’ve depicted (as I understand them) in the chart above. Karla believes there are no ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions — that they are all messages from the body to advise ‘us’ of appropriate actions to take for our well-being. She doesn’t list depression as an emotion, describing it instead as a ‘shutting-down’ coping mechanism that arises when facing a situation that is just too much to handle.

Like most psychologists she’s a believer in CBT and MM, the fanciful and hopeful idea that we can master our feelings and change ourselves by how we think about them and react to them. Tragically, people are so desperate to believe that there must be a way to deal with depression, anger, addiction, sadness and fear, that they’re prepared to ignore the overwhelming evidence that CBT and MM don’t actually work.

Non-duality would explain this quite simply: these therapies can’t work because there is no ‘you’ to undergo them, and because the illusory self has no free will or choice, no control or agency over the character* it presumes to inhabit or indeed over its (the self’s) own (claimed) feelings or thoughts.

Although it’s perilous to try to explain the evolutionary ‘purpose’ of claimed emotions (non-duality, after all, asserts there is no purpose for anything), it’s irresistible to the pattern- and sense-making self to at least try, so let’s have a go at it.

Let’s start with the three principal reactions of most apparent living creatures in response to existential threat: fight, flight and freeze. These map rather obviously to Karla’s three major categories of emotion — anger/hatred, fear/anxiety and sorrow/grief (perhaps including depression when the sorrow is deep, chronic and relentless). The chemicals that drive these responses to threats are evidently the same as those that register the corresponding emotions.

Assuming you accept that non-human creatures feel emotions, let’s take a look at Karla’s emotion taxonomy from the perspective of a squirrel. If the squirrel’s young are threatened, the squirrel will react with rage and risk all to protect them. If the squirrel sees a cat, it will react with fear, and most likely ‘choose’ to flee. If it is surrounded by cats, so that flight is not an option, it will likely freeze, play dead, and then, when the danger has passed, furiously ‘shake off’ the dreadful frozen feeling and get on with its life.

I would argue that envy/jealousy is also a characteristic emotion of squirrels just as it is in humans, and that this feeling is related in part to fear (fear of not having enough if another squirrel hoards more than its share) and in part to anger. I would also argue that squirrels fall in love, in the sense that their behaviour in certain circumstances is totally driven by a rush of chemicals that lead it to mate and bond with another. And I would also argue that squirrels, in the absence of any of these ‘negative’ (sorry Karla) emotions, feel something akin to happiness, pleasure, contentment and joy, or at least equanimity.

I’m not so sure the other two groupings of emotions — boredom/apathy and guilt/shame/loneliness — are felt by squirrels. These are particularly complex emotions, and what is interesting to me is that they are the only emotions on Karla’s list that I am not personally familiar or experienced with. In fact, I don’t understand them at all. I am astonished when someone says they’re so bored they want to gouge their eyes out. I have had some fleeting experiences of guilt and shame (though since I no longer believe in free will I am quick to ‘forgive’ myself for whatever has caused these feelings, so they rarely last). And I can’t relate to feelings of loneliness at all.

This is a bit distressing because I know and care about people who suffer terribly from loneliness (and sometimes boredom as well), and I have no basis of experience to fathom it and hence empathize with it. I have simply never been bored, or lonely, even in the darkest depths of depression, or when afflicted with the ‘winter blues’, or feeling bereft from the loss of a loved one. Perhaps I’m more like a squirrel than a typical human.

Let’s suppose that our emotional squirrel is not afflicted with a self like we poor humans. How does it ‘feel’ these emotions? My sense, from personal observation and from discussion with non-dualists who appear not to have a ‘self’, is that without a self to take ownership of these emotions and dwell upon them, feelings simply arise as a manifestation of the body’s chemistry, and act upon the conditioned creature to provoke an appropriate fight/flight/freeze response, and then they quickly dissipate. The squirrel does not ‘stay’ angry, sad or fearful, because it has no self (or need of a self) to continue to feel and think about the event that gave rise to these feelings. That is not to say that there isn’t great anguish in the moment — it may well be that without an intervening self, these intense feelings are felt even more strongly than they are in humans, and that likewise the physical manifestations (pain and distress) are felt more acutely by them than by humans.

But in creatures not afflicted with selves, there is (to use Eckhart Tolle’s terms) no reinforcing cycle of egoic-mind thoughts and pain-body emotional reactions to preoccupy and distress them once the immediate source of the distress has passed.

(A side-note: I confess I’m uncertain about what happens in non-human creatures that face chronic stress — those in factory farms, zoos, laboratories, abusive homes, and areas under relentless human or other encroachment and threats. Such situations are anomalous and symptomatic of collapse situations, and not sustainable. That’s a subject for another article, so chime in and stay tuned if this is a subject that interests you.)

So in the absence of chronic stress, it seems to me that while pain is real and inevitable (and sometimes intense) for all creatures, suffering is not. Suffering requires a self.

I think that may be why squirrels probably don’t feel lonely, ashamed, guilty, apathetic or bored. These emotions require a judgement that the situation is unfair and that someone or something (possibly the creature itself) is to blame. I doubt that such thoughts and feelings preoccupy squirrels the way they (uselessly) do human selves. I share the view of radical non-duality that no one is to blame, not even one’s self, so perhaps that’s why I am seemingly not prone to these emotions either.

Loneliness may be even more complex to understand. Gabor Maté has a hypothesis that most chronic mental and physical illnesses arise as a maladaptation to the failure of the young child to get two essential needs fulfilled: attachment (to its mother and then to others and to its community; a sense of comfortable and supported belonging), and authenticity (the capacity and freedom to be one’s true evolving self, rather than living a lie based on others’ demands and expectations). Some of the emotions on the chart might not arise in those who’ve grown up with a strong sense of attachment and the freedom to be authentic. Loneliness in particular seems to entail a feeling of social alienation that may stem from the kind of early-life physical and psychological abandonment that is endemic in our fractured and disconnected industrial civilization culture. Similarly, boredom, the desperate feeling of emptiness and the need to fill one’s life with distracting activity, might stem from the acedia that is bred in the absence of a sense of attachment to the world and a sense of oneself as worthy and authentic.

I don’t think I would ascribe all emotional suffering to lack of attachment and authenticity though. Much of it, I think, is a reaction to the ghastly and relentless stresses of our massively overpopulated, crowded, disconnected and dangerous civilized world — ie Civilization Disease. We all have it, but those who also have suffered the absence of early-childhood attachment or authenticity probably have it worse. Or, to be more precise, their selves have it worse.

There is no help for Civilization Disease. The illusory self is the embodied, incessant reaction to this chronic disease, and it can’t overcome itself, or think or wish itself away. That’s the CBT/MM myth.

But I have not given up (no self can) wondering if by simply being more aware of the self’s tragic plight, and where we seem to be moment-to-moment on the feeling path between the self’s dark emotional circles and the joyful equanimous space shown in white on the chart above, our selves might lessen the intensity and duration of their reactivity and hence the extent of their suffering.

It seems ludicrous to think that an illusion can do that (or can do anything), but as I slowly become a little more self-aware, and learn more about the ideas of radical non-duality, it seems to me that suffering is gradually losing its hold on me. I am still angered and saddened by the same things, but not as intensely or enduringly. I am still driven by fear, and have no control over that, but the realization that it is usually ungrounded or disproportional does seem to lesson its charge a bit. And I’m guessing that my continuing struggle to deal with anxiety has a lot to do with getting less and less practice at it, as my life becomes less and less stressful, so that when something stressful does happen it hits me harder than it once would. But I’m not sure. This may be just wishful thinking on my inconsolable self’s part. I probably need to explore this further too.

So when I say I’m the world’s most blessed agnostic, I’m being ironic, but not entirely. I did grow up, it seems, with a healthy sense of attachment and the freedom to be authentically myself, and although that early-childhood health was severely tested by the subsequent shock of encountering and dealing with our brutal educational system and work world, and by the astonishing insensitivity and savagery of those most severely afflicted by Civilization Disease, as well as by decades of recurring deep depression, I seem to have survived these tests, and now live an astonishingly healthy and blessed life. And my life is relatively free of the stresses — financial, social, and cultural — that bedevil the vast majority of humans, so in that sense I am truly blessed.

Life should not be so hard, and it actually isn’t. “The dark and gathering sameness of the world” that Civilization and its Disease have wrought may seem awful, but it is only so to the selves that cannot help but judge it. To the characters we presume to inhabit, it is all unreal, a wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, outside of space and time, a magic show. But although we may know it’s all sleight of mind, our selves can still, somehow, feel the bite of the magician’s ghastly saw, as it separates us from everything.


* This is mind-boggling stuff to absorb, so I am continuing to use the term ‘character’ to describe the (actually plural) complicity (the term Stewart and Cohen use) of (apparently) living creatures that their shared brain serves. As Richard Lewontin has explained (in The Triple Helix and elsewhere), evolutionary biologists now understand that there is no real border that separates one apparent creature from another, or indeed one creature from its apparent environment. Gaia really is just one, and trying to analyze it by separating it into discrete parts is dangerous and ultimately futile. Radical non-dualists would, I think, appreciate why this is true. So though I would prefer to describe the apparent creatures that arise, wondrously and for no reason out of the ‘one nothing’, as complicities, to convey their plurality, I will continue to use the terms characters, or creatures, depending on context, to describe the apparent bags of water-filled organs we call people, as it’s more familiar and easier to fathom.

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8 Responses to The World’s Most Blessed Agnostic

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Suggest you take a look at: Briefly, every system, including inanimate systems such as river basins, seeks to flow. As it finds better ways to flow, it evolves. So there is a direction to evolution. Now I will interject my own opinion. Humans can sometimes choose what it is that they are maximizing the flow of. For example, during sex, a person can try to maximize their own pleasure or choose to maximize the mutual pleasure of both partners. Likewise, a person eating can choose to maximize the energy content eaten, or choose to maximize the homeostatic effects of eating. It is the latter choice that promotes health. While the search for flow applies to both biologically living organisms and to organisms such as river basins, some creatures appear to have a wider set of choices. Water doesn’t seem to have much choice but to move to sea level. Humans, at the other extreme, have a wide array of possible goals. Humans will, however, make most of their goal directed actions without thinking very much about it…for example, taking a shortcut….Don Stewart

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Don. I’m still not convinced we have any choice, but I appreciate that it certainly seems that way. My sense is that we’re conditioned to be generous or not during sex, to be aware of our health or not when we eat, to take shortcuts or not. When we’re driving, we seem to ‘make’ many decisions, but often arrive at our destination with no recall of how we got there, which suggests to me that ‘our’ decisions aren’t conscious, they’re not really ‘ours’ at all, and when we think ‘we’ have made a decision that’s just our brains rationalizing what has already been decided as being ‘our’ decision. That rationalization inevitably leads to judgement, which leads to emotions — shame, pride, etc depending on whether our rationalization fits with our evolved moral compass and worldview or not.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dave…Bejan thinks that the hormone release involved in emotion has a purpose: to motivate us to move. (When we perceive the need to move, but also believe or find that we cannot, bad things happen.). Bejan thinks that he has discovered a new law of thermodynamics when he traces the evolution of flow through both ‘non-living’ and ‘living’ creatures…he describes river basin as ‘living’ because they clearly morph over time to facilitate easier flow. I suggest that Nora Bateson’s concept of Symmathesy distinguishes the river basin from an animal: Nora makes the distinction based on learning. I doubt that describing a river basin as ‘learning’ to get to the Gulf of Mexico more quickly is very helpful. But it is helpful to describe, for example, a husband and wife learning to live together to produce more harmony and purposeful activity. It is probably helpful to describe the gut microbes and the body proper of an animal, or plants and the soil microbes, as learning together to maximize biological health. Disease is, then, evidence of failure to learn or inability to execute (e.g. perhaps due to resource depletion). A related concept is epigenetics. Briefly, genes are very slowly evolving digital code, but the epigenetics which controls gene expression is an analog code which can change in a few minutes. Consequently, the GrowBabyHealth initiative which targets the epigenetics of the pregnant mother has been remarkably successful in facilitating healthier babies. I believe it is fair to say that the GrowBaby learning community consists of the mother and daughter team who lead it, the pregnant mothers individually and as a group in group therapy, and the developing babies in the womb. The product of the learning is the epigenetic inheritance that the baby is born with, and the health with which it begins life. So I think that Bejan’s theory plus Nora Bateson’s concept of symmathesy are useful. Whether the individuals in a GrowBaby group are best described as singular actors or only definable as a group is probably not a very productive argument to have. Nora’s father, Gregory, observed that if any individual in a group changes, then all the other members of the group must also change at least a little because of interdependence. Best to think of individuals as launching impulses into the group relationships, with reverberations coming back from the group and changing the original change agent, and so on ad infinitum….Don Stewart

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Dave…another angle on Nora Bateson’s notion of learning and communicating communities: The gist of the study is that it is not sufficient to study the individual factors involved in a complex system such as the growth of plants. Studying reductively the individual parts and adding them up does not give one an estimate of what happens in the real world. A former university agriculture professor recently spoke here, and apologized for all the years he taught reductive science. So is this another example of a ‘learning community’? Are the microbes and the plants and the soil critters and the humans all learning from each other as the ecosystem develops? (And here Bateson would chastise me for using the language of parts and wholes…which gives an incorrect impression and suppresses the real issues we should be interested in.). Don Stewart

  5. Andrea says:

    Pain has it’s own purpose to aid survival just like conciousness, it is well documented. I recommend to study systems theory, behavioural evolution, (Robert Sapolsky is great) and the Dunning-Kruger effect that you will appreciate (only after further reading and studying) . Radical non-duality as thinking mode is a bit strange because the mere preoccupation with the subject means that the person has difficulty to really grasp it.

  6. Julie Hughes says:

    Thanks Dave, this post was very thought-provoking. I am guessing you are familiar with Stephen Jenkinson’s work based on your writing, I recently did a workshop with him and his view of one’s “personal feelings” are very similar to the views you’ve expressed here. He is a big critic of modern psychology and always points out that in the last 50 years or so Western culture has focused more on one’s “inner work”then ever before and yet during this time of supposedly “healing the self” the physical realities of our planet have gotten much worse. So where has all this inner healing work gotten us? I speak as a therapist myself here so its challenging, but its interesting to me that you point out our similarities to animals here in our primal basic function of survival and the fight/flight/freeze response. To that degree it isn’t our emotions running the show at all, its actually our physiology and our reptilian brain which communicates to our nervous systems in such an instinctual way that we don’t have a choice in how we respond (much like your squirrel example). From the early attachment wounds, generations of trauma (fleeing from war, starvation etc) and the stunted emotional realities of our civilization perhaps collectively we’ve all “frozen” in some infantile/adolescent state of inflated ego/self-importance? Without the healthy culture practices of initiation and without the guidance of culturally-made Elders we are all lost, wandering, disembodied children with no home. Jenkinson speaks a great deal on grief and he never describes it as a feeling, rather he refers to it as a “function”. One akin to gratitude and deep human responsibility. Many people believe that the appropriate response to our global climate crisis is to embody the grief of all that has been lost. Not to dwell in it and make it “personal” but allow it to open us to a place of deep love and reference for the earth we live on. Recognizing our inherent smallness in all of this has been a big part of the process for me. Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

  7. Philip says:

    We have a sense of self because this insures self interest prevails. This has a survival value for our particular species. Ego dissolution is never complete until death. A radical non-dualist has a blind spot that others see. Genomes, plagues and ecosystems are what they are. Time is natures way of preventing everything happening at once. The past must be accepted in an emotional sense because it has indeed ‘happened’ and it is possible for a humble consciousness to realize the ego is determined it can make a difference in the short and long term, while it accomplishes nothing. As my father -77 changes in mental capacity I find it reassuring that he is increasingly at peace despite the turmoil of life that seemingly increases. I try. Language is no more than a practical convenience. The best we can do is find meaning through words (also vision and feeling), for language is not related to truth. Thanks again for exploring, Dave.

  8. 1in7.7B says:

    I’m fully aware of the delusion I’m living & I’m enjoying it except for the constant interruptions of the voices in my head.

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