The Immanence of Everything

Tardigrade photo by Frank Fox at, from wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

Recently I’ve been reading more of the work of Parul Sehgal, whose article laying out the dangers of stories inspired my last article on immanence, which is perhaps the best piece of writing I have ever done. Stories, she suggested, might be a distraction from (and impediment to) seeing the world as it really is.

I could obviously speculate on whether our stories are “all we are”, such that the ‘story of me’ is a ‘loud’ fiction that obscures and dumbs down our capacity to see things in all their complexity. Or that all stories, including the ‘story of me’ are lies and propaganda, describing what we want to believe happened (or is happening, or will happen), rather than what actually is happening (which can never be contained in a story). Or that immanence, the simple ‘being-ness’ of things without thoughts or stories or meaning-making about them, is what radical non-dualists are referring to when they say “All there is, is this.”

Parul’s follow-up is a critical attack on the modern prevalence of ‘trauma plots’ — novels, films and other stories (including some people’s summing up of their ‘life stories’) that attribute everything that happened to their characters to their traumatization. She ascribes this to lazy writing (and, I suppose, to the propensity of many in our bewilderingly complex world to want to hear stories that are simple and pat). Some have even described it as “trauma porn”.

That got me thinking about my recent use of this ‘cycle of trauma’ model.

Am I guilty of over-relying on this ‘simplistic’ model to explain too much modern human behaviour (the genocide in Palestine, for example)? It’s certainly possible. The more I learn about bonobos, the more I have to acknowledge that at least primates (ie not just humans) may have a natural inclination for brutal violence, and only bonobos have evolved devices to (mostly) keep this propensity in check. More about that, perhaps, in a future article.

Parul also wrote a review of another book that touches on human nature, our propensity for remembering, re-triggering and blaming others for profoundly negative (traumatizing?) events in our lives, and the potential value of forgetting these events (or our stories about them) when this is healthier for us than remembering — Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting — which I am currently reading. Probably more to come on this subject in a future article as well.

Today, I’m thinking about what we are without our stories, and what the world simply, ‘really’ is, in the absence of our stories about it.

In his now-classic book The Spell of the Sensuous, phenomenologist David Abram provides some sensory meditative exercises of the “stand still and look until you really see” variety whose purpose might be described as focusing our attention on the immanence of the (‘natural’) world, the simple ‘being-ness’ of things without reference to our stories about them or trying to make sense of, or meaning from, them. As I wrote earlier, I liked the book but found his exercises unhelpful and somewhat annoying. But he makes an important point, I think, about what such exercises are trying to address:

Today the speaking self looks out at a purely ‘exterior’ nature from a purely ‘interior’ zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain. Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual ‘interior’, a private mind or consciousness unrelated to the other minds that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness, and all that exceeds or subtends this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and wilderness.

Like many philosophers and ‘gurus’, David takes for granted that the universe is conscious, and that what is required is to reconnect our consciousness with this larger, universal consciousness. I have, over the years, tried quite diligently many such programs and exercises, and found them pretty much completely useless, only to be told that I need to try harder, or longer (perhaps for a lifetime), or else that I must not be “doing it right”. The belief in some “larger consciousness” that can be attained or achieved is, alas, I think, just another story. And, as Parul has noted, when we find that a story we believed to be important and true is no longer credible, our usual response is “to cast about for another one.”

Having no desire for recognition as a philosopher or guru, I have no hesitation in suggesting that there actually is no way for humans to reconnect with the rest of life on earth, and truly ‘see’ that “all there is, is this… immanence“. So rather than suggesting exercises for reconnecting, I am content to describe some exercises that might give us some insight for why ‘we’ very smart creatures uniquely equipped with separate selves and an extraordinary capacity for abstract reasoning and imagining, cannot hope to see this immanence, while for all the less-intelligent creatures around us, it is blindingly obvious.

If they were capable and motivated to do so (which they aren’t), I suspect these ‘lesser’ creatures would be wondering: What the hell is the matter with these humans, that they can’t see what’s actually, obviously going on in the world?

One exercise I have explored is to challenge what we humans ‘see’ and ‘sense’ as real. We ‘see’ the sky as being unquestionably blue, for example. But birds see it as blue-violet, because they see a much wider and more finely differentiated spectrum than we do. Birds also see much broader and more complex rainbows, for the same reason. And because their eyes and brains process more ‘frames per second’ than humans’, they also ‘see’ a richness and clarity we can’t imagine.

In some languages, like Korean, they don’t distinguish blue and green as different colours. And in others, what is called ‘blue’ and ‘green’ varies enormously. In Japan, for example, they use the word for ‘blue’ to describe the colour of traffic lights and unripe fruit. The ancient Greeks had no word for the colour blue at all. And in Russian there are completely different words for what we call ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’.

Of course, the sky isn’t ‘really’ blue at all — that’s just a trick of light coming through our atmosphere and fooling our optical sensors. And the ocean isn’t ‘really’ blue either — though a completely different trick is at work in fooling our senses to see it as we do.

We humans are trapped by our labels and our propensity for trying to make logical sense of everything, and once we have labelled something, that’s how we see it and make sense of it. Other animals, I suspect, just see things as they appear to be, without the need to label or make sense of them. (That’s not to suggest their instincts won’t provoke a “yellow fast-moving thing -> tiger fight/flee/freeze response”, but rather that this instinct is faster, and not associated with the after-the-fact intellectual process of ‘making sense’ of that yellow thing.) So perhaps part of the reason we humans cannot see things just as they are, “immanently”, is that our labeling and sense-making create a veil between ‘us’ (this complicity that seemingly comprises ‘our’ bodies) and ‘everything else’.

Today I’ve been looking through my little $19 microscope. I looked at a green stripe on a box, only to discover it was an optical illusion — through the microscope, I see only tiny blue and yellow dots. I looked at my computer’s LCD screen at a photo of a rainbow, and discovered it, too, was an illusion — through the microscope there are only tiny squares of red, blue and green of varying degrees of darkness. And, of course, the rainbow is itself an illusion, of a different type entirely. Still, we are seemingly compelled to always try to ‘make sense’ of what we see, regardless of its illusory nature. I cannot ‘un-see’ the blue and yellow dots, yet still I label the stripe on the box ‘green’.

I looked at a tiny sample of murky water, soil and greenery from a nearby creek, and saw, at 120x their ‘real’ size, giant mountains of glistening crystals, forests of impenetrable and infinitely varied foliage, and all manner of living creatures, including the ubiquitous translucent tardigrades clawing their way through the watery jungle. With their tiny brains and single-celled ‘eyes’, what do ‘they’ see? ‘They’ consist of only about 1,000 cells, and yet are staggeringly adaptable to an almost infinite variety of environments.

They also reproduce in multiple ways, asexually (without fertilization), sexually (with fertilization, copulation lasting about an hour, with the two genders recognizing each other by scent), or as hermaphrodites (self-fertilizing). And they have an apparent propensity to ‘snuggle’ together for ‘reasons’ seemingly unrelated to reproduction, warmth, or protection.

It is easier to imagine them as a complicity of their cells, rather than a creature “all of a piece”, than it is to imagine myself as such a complicity. Its cells share information and coordinate actions to achieve — what purpose? For a creature that can devolve into a dormant ‘tun’ when conditions get difficult and ‘come back to life’ unharmed even decades later, a creature that doesn’t really ‘die’ but rather more ‘wears out’, its cells quickly repurposed into other creatures and environments, can we say that its (or their, if we think of it as a complicity of 1,000, a cooperation rather than ‘a’ creature) ‘purpose’ is to ‘survive’? Seems a stretch. To what extent are they ‘conditioned’, biologically and culturally, by their genes, environment and other creatures they encounter?

I think the truth is that there doesn’t have to be a reason or purpose for them and their lives — or for ours. They just are. They don’t have stories, or need them. What are they without their stories? Freakin’ amazing!

Each of the tardigrade’s 1,000 cells is comprised of, conservatively, 50 billion atoms (human cells each have, on average, 100 trillion atoms). By what Stephen J Gould calls a ‘random walk’, over a billion years, all of these 50 trillion atoms that we collectively label as one tiny tardigrade self-organized into this rather adorable clumsy water-bear. And that’s what I’m looking at now — not one microscopic creature, but a performance with 50 trillion players, just being what they are and doing what they do. Apparently. I say apparently because we can only guess. We cannot possibly ever know. And our insistence on making sense, on understanding, on knowing, is, I would suggest, the veil that separates ‘us’, or at least our human ‘selves’, from everything that simply is, for no reason. The veil that separates our selves from the simple immanence of everything.

What are we without our stories? Not ‘individuals’, that’s for sure. Not things with a purpose or a meaning. Not things in ‘control’ of anything. If tardigrades (and the megacities of differentiated and unceasing activity that we claim and label as ‘our’ bodies) are just freakin’ amazing without their stories, I would assert that ‘we’, human ‘selves’, are nothing without our stories. ‘We’ are our stories, made-up fictions we choose to believe to be real, and nothing more.

Can ‘we’ get at least a brief sense of the immanence of everything by recognizing and ‘seeing around’ the artificiality and misconception of our selves and our stories? Absolutely impossible, I would say. ‘We’ cannot ‘see’ the immanence of everything any more than a map can ‘be’ the territory it presumes to represent. Even worse, just as the territory doesn’t ‘need’ a map to represent it, the immanence of everything doesn’t ‘need’ a ‘self’ to represent it, or for it to (apparently) function perfectly well. No ‘consciousness’, either ‘personal’ or ‘universal’, is required, or even useful. ‘We’ can only ever be ‘conscious’ of our stories, which are mere, absurdly simplified representations of ‘parts’ of the (actually inseparable) immanence of everything. The ‘subjects’ and  ‘objects’ of ‘our’ consciousness are just stories ‘we’ invent to represent (badly) ‘parts’ of this immanence.

You probably knew better than to hope that I would give you some exercise that might enable you to see or at least imagine the immanence of everything beyond the obscuring veil of our selves. The best I can do is suggest, rather inarticulately, why this is impossible to do. Our selves, our ‘consciousness’, our stories, are the prison from which ‘we’ cannot ever escape. Or at least not escape alive. It is freedom from our selves, which is the death of our selves, that we both seek and fear. Because what would we be without our selves? ‘We’ would not be. All that would be left is the immanence of everything. It would be seen, but not by ‘us’.

Apparently. Aye, there’s the rub. Even worse than the loss of our selves would be the loss of what our selves imagine and believe to be ‘reality’ — the assurance that things are real and solid and substantial and enduring in time. But the immanence of everything does not require anything to be real or solid or substantial or enduring. It does not require anything, period. It just is.

The little tardigrade in the image above doesn’t have to ‘really’ exist. Nor do its apparent 1,000 cells or 50 trillion atoms. They don’t ‘have’ to be ‘really’ moving through ‘real’ time and ‘real’ space. The immanence of everything has no specifications, no requirements.

Yeah, I know — this is not at all convincing. ‘I’ my ‘self’ cannot ‘believe’ it.

But it just might possibly be true.

PS: If you want to see tardigrades:

  1. Buy an inexpensive microscope capable of 100x magnification.
  2. Collect some moss or lichen from a nearby pond, riverbank, tree or roof and moisten and prepare it for best viewing. 
  3. Find a comfortable viewing position and be patient — it’s worth multiple tries, and worth the wait.
This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Immanence of Everything

  1. Renaee says:

    Ideas, thoughts, descriptions, and stories, can’t tell us what this is, or why it is, or
    why it happens the way that it happens….as you said – it just is!

  2. Ray says:

    Immanence is probably good enough for most structures that play the universal thermodynamic game in their particular environment.
    Most animals who, for some thermodynamic reason, are endowed with a brain, live in a more complex environment. It pays for the brain to build up a database of experience and scenario’s to better anticipate things that might happen and so are better equipped to live long enough to produce offspring that can contunue playing the thermodynamical game.
    Humans are like these same animals but they, who knows why, overlay these brain functions with a narrative on top. That gives them magical powers and also creates a lot of unhappiness, while essentially still only playing the thermodynamical game. They even seem compelled to seek meaning in their strange existence. In their free time, when not fighting for survival, they also philosophize over (invented) concepts like

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