This morning when I opened the blinds in my bedroom, what first caught my attention was the breeze-induced movement of the fronds of the palm tree that’s intent on dominating my view. The more flexible tips with their thin, hair-like fringes were swaying and curling hypnotically, and I stood there transfixed by them for several moments. Then my gaze slid past them to the buildings and rooftops of my neighborhood, and it struck me that these man-made structures had grown, too. I had a vision of the buildings all growing at once, swarming with workers moving like the images of a movie in fast-forward. I can imagine human history in fast-forward, too, evolving from huts to skyscrapers with all the accompanying inventions from bronze to the printing press to computers, and all the changes in ideas that grew as part of the process.
We often make a distinction between the “natural” world and the structures added by human effort, but human creatures are as much the products of natural forces as palm trees. We grow in the same way as trees, individual cells mindlessly following the blueprint of their DNA, modified by the local environment. Our inventions grow organically out of what we are.
The only difference between human beings and the rest of nature is that most of us in this culture think that we consciously choose what things we will build and how—that we have free will. In fact, our belief that we are consciously in charge is a cultural growth, and arose as naturally as a tree.
Each of us has grown organically, too, from baby to adult, with changes in outlook that most of us took for granted, although some have encountered transformative experiences that were, at times, frightening and/or exhilarating enough to demand notice.
When I realized, almost twenty years ago, that I didn’t have free will, it wasn’t clear how that insight might alter my brain’s operation. The effect wasn’t instantaneous. There has been a long, slow evolution toward a reality-based vision of myself and others.
My life had given me a belief in the value of truth and honesty, so part of the response was to notice when my thoughts reflected the conventional assumption that I and everyone else had free will, and acknowledge that those thoughts were mistaken. It was a bit like pruning the dead branches from a tree, with no clear idea of what shape the tree would have when I was done. The shape of my self has changed considerably, and will no doubt continue to change till I die.
When I realized that all of us, from the best to the worst, are shaped by the same forces and burdened with the same inadequacies of senses and consciousness, it seemed natural—built into the genome, I think—to empathize and feel compassion for everyone, including myself. Since I had not shaped myself, I became much more interested in understanding the influences that had shaped both me and others, and to consider how current circumstances might be shaping what I was to become. I became more choosy about my input, knowing that whatever I was exposed to would be incorporated into my brain’s operating system in one way or another.
Pride, shame, and anger seemed nonsensical, but weeding them out takes time and persistence, and those feelings are never totally expunged from the brain. They can still be triggered by the right set of circumstances, but at least my brain recognizes them more quickly and can override them with preferable ones.
You may have noticed that I wrote “my brain” rather than “I” in that last sentence, and that represents one of the trickiest transitions I’ve been involved in so far. While in some senses “I” am the whole organism—brain and body—my conscious experience of brain and body are severely limited. The appreciation of just how limited my experience is has repeatedly boggled me.
I have no consciousness of the things that influence the function of my liver, spleen, pancreas, etc., so those organs don’t feel very much like “me.” They’re not part of my conscious experience unless they hurt, and even then it’s hard to tell where the hurt is coming from. It doesn’t feel so much like me as like something that is happening to me, and in a sense that’s true insofar as I identify my conscious experience as “me.”
The non-conscious workings of my brain are as unavailable to my experience as the workings of my liver. I feel like a non-participant who is watching the show as my brain presents it, with no understanding of the real-time, behind the scenes machinery. As time goes on, my existence seems more and more surreal, blissfully so, as I watch myself continue to function, moving around in the world, making things, interacting with people.
If someone had described to me, twenty years ago, where I would be today, I doubt that I could have imagined it. In fact, Rumi and others have made efforts to describe our potential destination, but I’ve never felt convinced that I’d finally arrived:
When you eventually see
through the veils to how things really are,
you will keep saying again and again,
“This is certainly not like
we thought it was!”
(Copyright Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi, p. 168)
Things, now, are certainly not what I thought they were in my youth, but I’m prepared for them to become stranger still as reality continues to reveal itself.
My eyes suck me through the world,
Music provided by ears,
Occasional accents from nose,
Solidity from muscle and bone,
Hints of surface from clothes and a breeze,
Narrative bubbling up from nowhere,
“Lucky, lucky, lucky.”
(All the entries in this blog, The Short Version, describe events or insights in my journey since 2007. The Bare Brains podcasts start in 2006 and overlap with the blog somewhat. The Journal covers from childhood to 2000.)