A Different Kind of Animal

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little microscope

I am watching a couple of tardigrades — an animal quite distinct from any other in existence — under a microscope. They’re only about 1/2 mm long, but under the 150x lens of my $19 microscope they’re easy to see, and, if you start with wet moss, pretty easy to find too (they actively toss the moss around looking for food, so you just look for movement and there they are). They have 8 clawed legs, distinct heads, two ‘eyes’, brains, complete digestive and nervous systems, muscles (but no bones), and blood cells, but no one knows how they actually breathe or circulate blood and oxygen (they have no heart, lungs or veins). They’ve been around about a half billion years, can live over 100 years, and can contract into a dormant ‘tun’ state when living conditions are unfavourable, for an almost indefinite period, returning to life as conditions improve. And they are everywhere.

They give me pause, even though in many ways they’re much less strange than larger and equally ancient creatures like jellyfish and bats.

When I look at the tardigrades, I realize that, inside this body, there’s a similar world of billions of tiny creatures making me what I ‘am’. And that what ‘I’ am is not a creature, but a complicity of billions of creatures, gathered together in a shell called ‘skin’, just like the tardigrade. To call the collective within that skin a ‘creature’ is a mis-conception, a convenient naming convention, but nevertheless a lie. We apparent humans seem to use that convention in an honest and understandable attempt to make sense of things.

But that isn’t quite right. The thing that is trying to make sense of things, apparently, is the brain. The impossible complexity within what we label the digestive system also makes sense of things, usually quite brilliantly thanks to the billions of years of conditioned ‘knowledge’ in its DNA, and thanks to its experience (which, sadly, in the modern human body is horrifically limited due to the impoverished nutrition of homogenized and sterilized industrial agriculture, and to our equally sterilized, diminished living ‘environments’).

Making sense of things is what the brain does, and in very large and complex brains it does this in part by abstraction. It looks for patterns, invents models, and tries them out. Because this process is so slow, and so energy-intensive, it is unlikely it would have evolved as a survival system; until we fucked up their ecosystems, many species with large brain capacity thrived without any apparent need to abstract anything. Their brains instead serve almost exclusively (as ours used to) as what Stewart & Cohen call a centralized “feature detection system”.

Creatures like jellyfish have a highly-effective feature detection system, but it is distributed throughout their bodies rather than centred in one specialized processing ‘centre’. The fact they have been around for 650 million years while humans are still struggling with our first million, suggests their sense-making might be at least as good as ours.

As I’ve mentioned before, my hypothesis is that the abstracting capacity of large centralized brains was a spandrel, an unintended consequence of the growth of brains that occurred when we apes left our home in the trees of the rainforest and went to the sea, with its more moderate climate and its abundance of protein-rich foods. Human creatures never needed large brains in the rainforest that was our home for most of our million years on the planet — everything we needed was in abundance and in arms’ reach.

But when we left our forest Eden, likely because of drastic climate change (ice ages, catastrophic cosmic radiation etc), our survival depended now on a capacity to adapt to many different and new threats and environments. Early human ‘civilizations’ generally popped up in coastal and marine areas where there was an abundance of protein rich seafood. So my hypothesis is that our new protein-rich diets expanded our brains’ capacities, and that such expanded capacities were essential to our species’ survival (we apparently reached numbers as low as a few thousand humans in the transition, and lived almost exclusively by the sea).

These new larger brains would have some essential qualities — an ability to memorize more types of food, more places, and more diverse dangers. One such new memory would have been the discovery that after catastrophes (fires, floods etc) there would briefly be an abundance of a few homogenous plants, before successor species and the planet’s natural propensity for increasing diversity and complexity again took hold. What would have gone through the growing brains of prehistoric humans witnessing this? The fact that continually disturbing that diversity (via irrigation, the use of human-made fires, weeding etc) might allow that abundance of one type of food to continue indefinitely. Thence was born, I would posit, what is called catastrophic (monoculture, high-intervention) agriculture, enabling (indeed, requiring) the first human settlements. And in fact, this is seemingly how human civilizations began, independently in many places around the globe, and likely before language or other abstract inventions came into being.

So, I would argue, the capacity of abstraction wasn’t necessary for any of this to happen — just brains large enough to manage a greater diversity of memories, patterns and sense-making.

But such brains are capable of abstraction, and as long as the creatures with these brains were thriving on their new seafood diets, the capacity for abstraction was, I would suggest, inevitably going to be one of the experiments that nature tried out. Even if it was completely unnecessary, if it survived in these new larger brains, this new capacity was going to hang around. In that sense it’s analogous to sex and death — qualities that jellyfish and tardigrades show us really aren’t essential to a species’ or ecosystem’s capacity to thrive. They were never needed, but because the creatures that had them thrived, so did those amazing, dreadful characteristics.

So our brains evolved the capacity to abstract their environments in a very simplified model — to create the concepts of space and time as placeholders for their increasingly sophisticated memories, and then to begin to conceive of cause and effect — patterns that seemed correlated in space and time, and to start to ‘predict’ what might happen in an abstracted ‘future’. No matter that these models and predictions and the ideas, thoughts and feelings they provoked, were illusory and useless (too simplified, too slow) — the brain had evolved the capacity to notice features and patterns and make sense of them, regardless of their utility, and so it did.

And then came the pièce de résistance — in order to make these models more complete and satisfying, the brain invented, conceptualized, made up from nothing, the concept of a separate self, something to put in the ‘centre’ of the model which hopefully would make it more useful.

As I think most will admit, once the brain has decided something is true and real, it is very difficult to shift it. It has ‘made up its mind’. So, I would conjecture, ever since then, the brain has rationalized that everything that happens to that separate self is real, that this separate self actually controls the brain and body that invented it, and that everything else around this now-real separate self must perforce also be real — including space, time and other ‘people’ (abstractions of collections of cells and organs within a skin, including the brain that abstracts them and the ‘self’ that presumably sits at the centre of them).

Every decision that is apparently made by this collection, this complicity of cells and organs, is thereafter rationalized as being a decision ‘made’ by the self from its position in alleged control over the brain. And every conceived action of ‘other’ complicities of cells and organs is rationalized as being an action of that complicity’s controlling ‘self’.

This is of course what most of us ‘selves’ take for granted. But science is demonstrating that it just isn’t so. There is in fact, neuroscientists say, no such thing as a ‘self’, and the actions a particular complicity of cells and organs appears to take are in fact autonomous, merely being rationalized (made sense of) in the brain afterwards, as being the ‘self’s supposed action. And quantum science and astrophysics and philosophy are quickly converging on a consensus that there is no real ‘time’ or ‘space’ within which anything ‘real’ can happen — that these are just mental constructs, persuasive but illusory sense-making by the brain. And even more astonishingly, that there is no need for time or space or a separate ‘observer’ for the mathematics and physics to model with delicious precision what is actually apparently ‘happening’.

When this first occurred to me, I set it aside (like other things that seemed to make some sense but which I couldn’t make sense of). I started to explore ideas for ‘realizing’ the illusory nature of my ‘self’ and the apparent ‘unreality’ of time and space and everything separate. This naturally took me into spiritual studies, and then to self-proclaimed spiritual teachers (Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, ‘Direct Path’ non-dualists etc) who suggested pathways and practices that might lead to such realization, to a confirmation that this very strong intuition that there was ‘not two’ — nothing separate — was true.

I found the paths frustrating and fruitless (though this character is, by nature, impatient), and finally stumbled upon Tony Parsons and the other ‘messengers’ of what I (and some of them) have come to call Radical Non-duality, which posits this simple, hopeless, pathless statement:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose. That’s it.

For the past four years I’ve been probing this, convinced that it’s too simple, too pat, and too outrageous to be correct. I am the definitive Doubting Thomas. But today I believe it more strongly, partly because it stands up intellectually so well to new discoveries and doubts, partly because there have been times when there has been a glimpse during which it was seen as obviously true, and partly because, well, it just seems intuitively correct. Something in me resonates with this statement of what is.

In some cases, it seems, the illusion of the separate self can just, without cause or reason, fall away, and, as in the ‘glimpses’, this truth is seen (but not ‘by’ me, not ‘by’ anyone) to be true. And in some cases the falling away of the self is apparently permanent. Frank McCaughey has now interviewed a number of apparent people who say this has apparently happened (but not ‘to’ anyone) and that there is no longer a sense of separation, self, or ‘reality’ ‘there’. Frank’s another Doubting Thomas like me, just as obsessed with this, and just as stubbornly and unwillingly imprisoned by his ‘self’ as I am.

When I first listened to (and later met) Tony and Jim, and then listened to Tim, Kenneth and others, I was suspicious that it was a con — they mostly know each other and in some cases have come to use many of the same words to describe the mystery that this message refers to. But it’s too consistent to be a con — no one could talk about this falsely for 20 years without making some mistake revealing it to be an invention. None of them is making any money communicating this message. And it’s not an easy gig, especially when some of the ‘messengers’ are struggling to make ends meet, continuing to work at terrible jobs, and in a few cases are not terribly well-read or articulate. Still, no matter how variably worded and described, it’s clearly the same message. I’m convinced that if Einstein were alive today he’d be on board with this, and people would be lamenting that he’d lost his edge, and his mind.

The reason that watching the tardigrades puts me in mind of this is that it brings home just how much of what is apparently happening is beyond our grasp, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, not just for now but always. For some, that might be enough to drive them to religion, or spirituality, or therapy, and leave it at that.

But this ‘I’ can’t leave it at that. There is something here, something obvious, something at once awesome and awful, something forever beyond our human selves’ reach. Something I’m guessing that, outside of selves, is universally and perpetually seen. The self does not stand in the way of the apparent complicities of creatures that appear, amazingly, out of nothing, without limit, without beginning or end or purpose or meaning, outside of time and space. Seeing what is is not an issue for the tardigrades, or the jellyfish, or the bats. There — everywhere — everything can see the wonder of everything that is. It is only the spandrel of the human self, that tragic cosmic accident, that cannot see.

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10 Responses to A Different Kind of Animal

  1. Euan Semple says:

    As I’ve said before Dave I’m following a very similar path and I’ve ended up thoroughly enjoying two books by Robert Saltzman. The Ten Thousand Things and Depending on No Thing. Both highly recommended. He is very skeptical, articulate, and as he calls it “awake”.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Euan. I checked out the two books, read the two introductions (love the photos in 4T) and would say that the same thing has happened in his case, as in the case of the radical non-dualists, but that Robert is not at all a radical non-dualist (he states up-front that he finds “absurd” the assertions of the radical non-dualists I have summarized above). Robert also expresses an admiration for Rupert Spira and, from what I have read, seems very much in that “camp”. The radical non-dualists, especially Tony Parsons, are pretty dismissive of Rupert Spira, because Rupert continues to assert the ‘real’ existence of a self and a ‘real’ phenomenological world of time and space, and the capacity of the self, with the right ‘attitude’ (Robert’s word) to enable ‘awakening’ to happen and yet the self continue to exist in an altered state of awakening.

    For us seekers, these very different messages are, of course, disconcerting. We want to know what it ‘will’ be like to be ‘awakened’. Will our self be gone, or still have some ‘hold’ on ‘us’, and if the self is seen to never have been, how can it still be remembered and influential? What are we to make of Richard Sylvester’s assertion that while there is no ‘self’ there, a sense of being ‘located’ in space returned, or Giselle Suarez’ assertion that, after her self fell away, deep fear was still felt when there was turbulence in a flight (by who?), and that ‘she’ sometimes almost misses the exhilaration of ‘looking forward’ to ‘future’ events?

    There is little doubt in my mind that all these speakers have been through (I won’t say ‘experienced’) the same (apparent) phenomenon. But there seems to be a continuum of ‘beingness’ ‘afterwards’, from all sense of self and separation being gone and ‘seen’ as never having been (as Tony, Jim, Tim and Kenneth describe), to those like Adyashanti and Eckhart Tolle who seem to have quite intact ‘selves’ and strong beliefs there is a path to seeing, with Rupert and Robert and Richard and Giselle being somewhere in between.

    Damn. Just when I thought I was clear on it, that it was all cut and dried and simple, something always seems to come along to make it muddier.

    Of course, ‘we’ will never know.

  3. nozulani says:

    Alas, those glimpses you’re talking about are also illusionary. Those are not moments that you’re closer to directly witnessing “the truth” itself. I might even say that they’re worse than the “normal” mode of being, as they give you the false sense of awakening, breaking through an illusion. Likewise for other animals, including tardigrades and jellyfish. The appearance they’re experiencing is not more truthful at all. It’s just different, but those animals too are obligatory non-dualists. Just like you and me.

    And speaking of me… see how I’m bossing you with facts? Almost looks like I’m possessing a higher level of truth than you. It’s also what non-dualist “teachers” are doing. But I’ll give it to Jim that he explicitly tells people he doesn’t have anything to teach, that nobody will get enlightened by his message, that it has no value at all. But ironic that he talks about the “truth” anyway: “I don’t exist, this is already perfect, everything is just an appearance”. And people still listen to him, as if they will get closer to grasping the truth by accepting that there is no truth :) Well, it’s all bullcrap. Including everything I said in this comment, in case you will be mislead that I made a good point whatsoever.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    noz — you’re probably right, though I’m not sure I could presume to speak for jellyfish; I think the reason I listen to Jim et al is that his message makes intuitive sense and is intellectually appealing in a way I can’t put my finger on, not because I believe that listening to him will get me anywhere

  5. Not a nihilist says:

    This sounds like nihilism and not like the best path. https://realitymaps.com/2014/06-advaitanihilism.html

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Not: Radical non-duality is not advaita, not a belief system at all, but a description of what really is, that cannot, unfortunately be seen by those of us whose vision is clouded by selves and belief in the reality of separation. It is the absolute antithesis of nihilism, as it sees everything as one, and perfect. It is a positive, passionate message, much less despairing than any other message I’ve ever heard. And it’s absolutely not a ‘path’ at all.

  7. Euan Semple says:

    Actually Saltzman is critical of Spira’s retaining of what he calls “magical thinking” and sees as just a modern rehashing of Advaita Vedanta which itself retains a lot of Hindu religious thinking. There is still an idea that someone or something outside of direct experience is in control.

    Like you there is still a me in here desperately trying to “make sense” of all this!

  8. Not a nihilist says:

    We will have some form of self as long as we’re on earth and still eating and so on. When we recognize our personality/small/mundane self as an illusion, we simultaneously identify with a larger creator self. Neo-Advaita negates even that. There’s a reason people historically have followed paths to that latter negation. I’m glad you find it positive and passionate. To me, it looks like people using their “Enlightenment” as spiritual bypass: because there is no self, including the observer, I do not need to deal with the personality disorders that appear as I feed myself, talk to others, etc. Do you notice how many of them appear flat/have similar affectations? People who see their personality selves as illusions typically maintain many of their historical traits to move through the world. That’s not because they’re recreating all those traits. It’s because it’s easy, embedded by habit. They still breathe and live and make decisions— even while seeing it’s an illusion. Even as an illusion, life can be easy and great fun. With Tony Parsons and similar groups, something they would not acknowledge as a self is doing that flattening, almost like an affectation. To me, “Enlightenment” is the beginning of a path to full integration with the whole. It is not the end, although these guys have clearly chosen the latter. This kind of “shortcut” does not look positive to me, although I see how theoretically it might appear to be.

  9. ginsudo says:

    I think that consciousness seems like a spandrel because it’s hard to see a clear *individual* evolutionary advantage, and it’s easy (for some) to imagine a human species without consciousness that’s nevertheless just as successful.

    But I think these are mistakes, overlooking the *group* evolutionary advantage that consciousness gives to humans. It’s only consciousness – a sense of self, an ego – that allows people to place themselves in the context of a very large and very oppressive society. Humans are amazing animals – each of us has the intelligence and tools to survive in a self-sustaining way that is in harmony with our natural surroundings – but instead, we allow ourselves to be placed in, and constrained by, larger societies. And that’s true whether our aim is to be at the top of society, or merely survive near the bottom. Our egos cause us to reach for the heights, but also allow our oppression.

    A social group where a small number of elites effectively control a very large number of equally worthy but oppressed subjects will, over time, always dominate a society of equals, simply by the sheer force of numbers. That is the evolutionary advantage of homo sapiens, and it is enabled by consciousness.

    Many of us strive to rise above the illusions of self and the delusions of ego. And many who are successful in this eventually lose the desire to congregate in normal society, even losing the (often ego-driven) desire to procreate. And that of course, only illustrates my point. The oppressive societies will win and continue to “win” until civilization collapses, while the “enlightened” among us contemplate the end.

    I’ve only been marinating in these thoughts for the past few years, and found your blog a few days ago. Thank you for chronicling your journey with such detail and compassion. It’s good to know we’re not alone, although really, we’re all alone in the end. Cheers!

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks mishallison, Euan and ginsudo. This stuff is endlessly fascinating. It will be interesting to see how it all falls out, falls away, or falls apart.

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