The interplay of cognitive systems is incredibly complex. Regions of the brain work independently yet cooperatively to shape what we consider “reality”. Reality being the way we collectively see the world as a human species. But the “reality”, as science has increasingly hinted at, is that we only experience a small spectrum of sound, light and energy. For instance, as humans we aren’t able to sense the amount of solar electromagnetic radiation we are absorbing through our skin, via UVA and UVB. Yet, UVA waves can penetrate our thickest layer of skin, the dermis, and UVB will burn the epidermis without ever feeling “hot”, our primary indicator of potential burns being the somatosensation of touch. Dogs can hear frequencies we cannot, bats primarily communicate and navigate their environments using audio frequencies we can barely perceive.
I digress a bit, but perhaps you can think of your own example of environmental conditions we cannot perceive? It is relatively unnecessary for us to concern ourselves with these unseen forces impacting our lives, until we want to tune into them for our own benefit. Radio waves, WIFI, bluetooth, cellular communication, and many more communication platforms allow us to tap into unused spaces in human perception. The one thing we don’t have a good tuner for is the processes that underlie our cognition and freewill. fMRI and EEG technology has led to development of the Glass Brain (see video here), a visual representation of brain activity measured using frequency waves we are unable to detect otherwise. We can map the processes, collect data, see the neurons and their pathways, but we still don’t know exactly what is going on to create our stream of consciousness, the thing that allows us to be in the moment yet consistently recalling past experiences and analyzing them in the context of our current situation as it relates to potential outcomes for the future…yea, i know.
In the present, remembering the past, considering the future. That’s what we do, constantly. And this can be overwhelming if one of the processes is lingering too long. Spend too much time in the past and the present becomes a re-run of the same TV series, over and over and over and over. Dream to the future too much and the present becomes something to simply pass through to get somewhere else. When someone is having a conversation with you, and you are so focused on responding to something that sparked your attention that you lose the ability to continue listening, due to anticipation of the future event of offering your thoughts. A simplified example of losing the present to the future. Enter the Ego.
All these things are going on, the cortex is flashing with realized action potentials between synaptic gaps, and the Id is clamoring for satisfaction (think of a crying baby who can’t communicate their needs), and the Superego is being critical and considering social norms and context and morals, and the poor Ego is stuck in the middle trying to rationalize between this firestorm of needs, desires, emotions and expectations. You want to act this way, but you are supposed to act that way, so a compromise must be found. If the Ego is weak, one of the other systems will dominate the process. Reward seeking with no long term or social considerations is what society would consider “bad”. Overeating when sated, late stages of drug and alcohol addiction, unprotected sex with strangers, moments of violent rage, ect. Identity is a big part of this process. The roles played in your life shape the expectations the people around you will hold against your actions. They will be amazed if expectations are exceeded, and disappointed if you “let them down.”
Brene Brown would start talking about vulnerability and shame right around this moment. Here is a link to her popular Ted talk on the power of vulnerability, I think it’s worth 20 minutes of time. Expectations can lead to shame, quite simply, if you fail to meet expectations. People will remind you, the elephant in the room never forgets, right? And the shame can degrade the confidence the Ego has in making rational, informed decisions. Ok, we made it to the meat and potatoes of this post, congrats! Putting ourselves out there is making ourselves vulnerable. I have not posted consistently due to being ashamed of my perspective, knowing good and well that I can never consider everything involved in forming a complete assessment of anything, really. When I realized just how connected everything is, how intertwined and complex the most seemingly innocuous decisions, actions and entities influence each other, I was taken aback. I stopped, simply stopped.
It was my goal to dissolve my Ego. Shame and guilt rooted in my privileged position in a wealthy country with opportunities abounding was suddenly too much pressure. No matter what I do I impact someone else’s life, or many other people’s lives. But that is “someone else’s problem”, according to the fictional character Ford, in the 1982 Douglas Adams novel Life, the Universe and Everything, which is part of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. According to our post-modern identities, it really is someone else’s problem. Our Ego has to agree, and in doing so become complicit in potentiating the strength and impact of the entire system. At least, that is what my Superego was convinced of after I had sufficiently dissolved my Ego. But now that I’m figuring out what role my Ego will play in my life, I am considering a different version of the past, thanks to re-consolidation, the process of altering memories due to repeated recall. It is a similar process to exposure therapy for anxiety disorders and PTSD, continually revisiting something that elicits a threatening response until your brain realizes that your current situation is safe.
My new summation is that my Ego was ruthlessly attacked by my Superego, which is now experiencing some repentance for it’s actions. Coming back online is difficult. Nihilism goes hand in hand with my default setting: cynic. The strange part is that It isn’t how I want to be. I recently watched The Accountant with Ben Affleck, and I resonated with his character wanting to have relationships but not being able to. I too would like to have relationships that are consistent and healthy, but feel like I can’t maintain such things. I sabotage myself by having a poor relationship with my own thoughts.
I enjoy reading about the statements made by Robin Williams’ wife Susan Schneider Williams after his death, The terrorist inside my husbands brain. My appreciation comes from the realization that someone can be the most joyful, energetic, and entertaining person on the planet, but secretly carry a burden that only their most intimate relations are aware of…and no one is aware of the extent of internal struggle.
While I don’t have a neurological disease that I am aware of, I do feel like their is a self-destructive force in my head. I wish only the best for others, and convince myself repeatedly that my absence is more beneficial than my presence. If I am not around to be awkward in a conversation, or speak up too frequently in class, or make someone think they did something wrong because I would have done it differently, the world would be a better place. At least that is the narrative. You’re never good enough. You could have done better. Why did you do that? You know better. Think damn you! You’re a fool, making foolish decision, in foolish ways…the king of fools. Intelligent but unable to complete tasks and articulate concepts with congruity. Easily distracted, and equally distracting to others at the expense of their focus and attention. And FOCUS, fuck, if only that could happen effectively and efficiently. And it goes on and on, the negative narrative turns external observations to internal conflict. Why bother trying if it isn’t going to be what you want anyway?
So here I am, rebuilding my castle on the hill so that I may fly my flag of preferential opinion and identity without concerning myself with those in the “lower levels”(figurative reference) of my awareness. I started my journey some 6 years ago, becoming aware of my ego-centrism due to a critical thinking class at Rogue Community College. Working all this time to deconstruct what I think I know, so that I may see things for what they really are. Remove judgement and distaste for the way the world turns, and objectify my perception, to see things as they are, not what I want them to be. But, in that quest I lost my armor. The Ego is like armor, or a shield, which allows us to decide whether something is good or bad (to us). And life is a battle in that sense, assessing risks, striking strategic positions to dominate the landscape and create security and control over the processes involved with existence. Without a shield to protect you, you are very vulnerable, and everything is overwhelming because you sit and loop situations and outcomes in your head. Past and Future focused, losing complete control over the present. Existence becomes futile at that point; knowing actions should be taken, but paralyzed by anxiety and inhibitions.
I came to a point where I decided I don’t want to life anymore. I want to live, but not this life as I know it. Now that is a profound thought, because I am also fully aware of my instinct to continue in life, but unable to act on that instinct. The Id says go do something fun and gratifying, the Superego says whoa buddy are you sure you want to do that? And the Ego is comatose, unable to settle a state of dissonance with a decision to act on either. I was in a bardo state, or what our Christian nation would consider purgatory. I was neither of this earth nor beyond it’s boundaries. I was decaying, slipping away from myself and others, sleeping day and night so that I may escape the harsh reality of self-defeat with vivid dreams of other worlds and identities. At least in my dreams I didn’t have volition, no need to risk my psyche by making decisions and suffering consequences. In my dreams I felt good, I did things, I went places, I enjoyed myself and others, and an added benefit was when floating between the waking and dreaming worlds waves of sensation would flow through me, which were pleasant and intense, a stark contrast to my energy depleted reality. Drifting in and out for several months, coming out of my den occasionally to satisfy obligatory interactions. It was no way to live.
I have always been plagued with swings in mood, cynical outlooks, and a deep disdain for myself as an actor in a terribly flawed global system of oppression and dominance. So i came to a point where there was no point. Humans will destroy themselves whether or not I can make my life “pure” by my own standards. Save the planet? I don’t think so, we need to save humanity. But do we even know what humanity is anymore? It isn’t colonialism, or industrialization, or post-modern attitudes of extreme individuality and dissolution of truth discernment. To me it is being seen. And anyone who lives in an area where cellular data and WIFI is easily accessible can tell you that the act of being seen as a physical being in physical space is becoming far more difficult. People standing in lines aren’t talking, they are texting, or snapping, or twittering. And heaven forbid you actually say hello to a stranger. Strangers are bad, remember? And this is the narrative of the cynical me, seeing the world as I wish to see it, and getting upset before considering that my own impact on the world could change the way I see and experience it.
I went to an event a few weeks ago called, “What We Risk: Creativity, Vulnerability, and Art.” It was facilitated and organized by Jason Graham, and he is an energetic, driven individual who wants to open dialogue between strangers to overcome social boundaries to communication, expression and emotions. The most striking part of the experience was 60-seconds of face to face silence with a complete stranger in the room, followed by a short pause and an additional 180-second face to face period of muted mutual observation. In the first 60-seconds both myself and my staring partner were smiling and making constant eye contact, which was unusual but moderated by the smile. During the 180-second portion my partner changed her affect, going neutral and peering deeply into my soul. I heard what I thought was laughter coming from several groups, and I quickly realized that I was hearing emotional outbursts of tears and weeping. I felt myself grow insecure, and had to fight the urge to express my vulnerability but my face turned on it’s heels and I could no longer muster a smile, or even a smirk. The energy of the room had shifted from light-hearted and fun, to heavy and serious in less than 5 minutes total, with no spoken words.
My take-away from that experience is that we want to be seen, but it is so uncommon an occurrence that once we are being seen we want to let it all out. Expression is meaningless if the experience cannot be shared and validated by social interaction, in my opinion. I found it deeply gratifying to be seen so deeply, without past, without future, then and there in that moment for as long as the moment lasts. And I need not express the distortion of time in that short period, it could have lasted forever or ended immediately and I would have been none the wiser of actual time spent lingering on that diametrically opposed experience of connection and separation. The words we use to express ourselves are powerful tools for our analytical, pattern driven minds to make sense of the world and communicate our experiences to others. However; I would argue that their is something we have lost with all of our intellectualization. We have made so many things to fill our spaces and satisfy our senses that simply sitting in silence and pursuing a formless connection to our human experience is unobtainable by the vast majority of the worlds population.
In Zen Buddhism there is the practice of Zazen, sitting in concentration. The goal is to achieve a formless state, neither here nor there, neither this nor that. In the formless existence there is the potential for nothing and everything, simultaneously. It is a structured and disciplined approach to what we now hear about as mindfulness meditation. There is no right or wrong path to get there, as you cannot strive towards nor renounce success in the practice, as it truly does not exist. You’ll simply know you are there, because you must come back from the formless to exist within the materialization of our universe. So why go there if you can’t stay formless? Well, I suppose it comes from the ability to have a level of control over our perception of the world. Where the Ego justifies itself to itself, the ability to perceive no form to physical and social constructions provides a freedom over the will to interact. The best way to describe someone who has mastered Zazen practices is to imagine a bullshit meter, and the effectiveness each individual has with interpreting the results of the meters activity. If you live in a construct, you accept whatever bullshit goes along with it, or suffer the dissonant consequences. A Zazen master can detect bullshit before anyone who is incorporated into a system is aware it is happening, because the master is outside the system looking in while existing inside the system independently.
We lie to ourselves, which creates a foundation of dishonesty with our formless selves. We put everything in boxes and package ideas into easily digestible munchies for convenient consumption and effortless digestion. It presents itself in “That is just the way it is.” We grow from curious children knowing it isn’t just the way it is and asking questions about WHY it has to be that way, into adults; convinced that complicity is the only path to success. But is that growth? And what exactly is success? Isn’t success a social construct as well? Of course, because biologically speaking success would imply continuous copulation with a diverse population to increase biological adaptation capability and proliferate your genetic material to the highest degree of your mental and physical capability. Darwin argued something similar when providing the world with evolutionary theory of creatures. Somewhere in the depths of our species’ past, we developed the ability to create alternate realities, beyond the biological impulses of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. We developed a unique sense of self which allows us to create a separate identity from our environment. We are not of the earth, we own the earth. We are not all one, because I am me, and you are you, which makes us us and them them. More boundaries, more classification, more ethnocentrism as a way of life. You are a product of your environment, which was created for you by millions of years of evolution, proliferation, acquisition and consumption of resources and beliefs.
But where is this all going, and why are you still reading this? I have been sitting here for hours typing, and it is this stream of consciousness that I had lost when I discovered the true nature of form and matter. What a responsibility to know that anything and everything is possible, yet understanding the butterfly effect of taking action. Who will I impact? Can I be “good”, whatever that means. Do I really want to go out there if all I smell and see is a bunch of bullshit? What if I do something that hurts people? Living and participating in life processes appeared to me at that time to be too much of a liability. Anything could happen at any moment of any day, but nothing could happen as well. The problem comes from nothing being an impossible outcome, at least since that one time the entire universe burst into existence from divine or stochastic processes. Decay is always part of life, you can’t stop time, nor slow it down, nor reverse it. You grow or you decay, and taking the passive approach can lead to decay, and furthermore feeds a compliance towards the status quo, which is the source of feeling compelled towards being a passivist.
So activism is required to change the circumstances which turn good people (which are an overwhelming majority of people in my opinion) into cogs in the wheels of the system churning our human experience into a quantifiable, pre-packaged and monetized sterile environment of detachment from the source to feed the voracious appetite of the wolves of wall street, and the vultures circling the remnants of humanity’s past. Heavy stuff, but if you are still reading this, then you get it and can relate to my somewhat misguided, yet passionate exposé of my vision of existence and reality. My grandmother used to say, “You only get out what you put in, Benjamin”, and she was right from the perspective I am offering here. If you feed the wrong wolf, it becomes powerful and dominant over the rest of the pack, leading to misguided leadership and vastly unequal power differentials.
But what can I do? What can you do? What will we do? For me, it is about practice. I know what I want, which is honesty, compassion, love and understanding…an equitable life system which can be ethically sustained. When we hear about growth in modern contexts, we are likely hearing about economic growth. The absurd idea that we are not successful unless we are consuming more in the effort to produce more in the effort to accumulate more monetary wealth which exists within the global system; bought and paid for by all of us. Money is no longer based on securities(tangible resources), per-say; rather, it is based on 1’s and 0’s in a computer database, and all you need to do to get more is have more….duh. If you are fortunate enough to be located in a resource rich environment you would be evermore fortunate to be able to capitalize on those resources. However, this is not the growing trend, as more privatization separates local populations from the control over extraction and distribution of resources. We outsource certain parts of the incarceration segment of the criminal justice system, and if that isn’t absurd enough for you, I’m not sure what is.
Fight it with your dollars! I hear that a lot. I don’t particularly agree with it, as it is supporting the very system which it attacks. You can fight it with your creativity. You can fight it with your physical presence. You can fight it by developing new narratives for that age old saying of, “That’s just the way it is.” What if it isn’t just the way it is. What if boys aren’t just being boys when they sexually assault intoxicated and “provocatively” dressed girls, and what if the girls were not asking for it? It is the same concept, scaled towards the economic system. Complacency killed compassion, and everyone has to suffer the consequences because that’s just the way it is. No. I don’t think so.
Nothing is just one way or another, nothing is the potential of everything, and in that realization is power. Not old-fashioned oppressive power; but instead the power to change yourself and the environment within which you exist. The people, places, institutions, and ideas are yours for the making, the shaping, the manipulating, the accepting or disputing. That is the human condition, the ability to take something, look at it long enough to decide to change it, and make it happen. Action. Taking things are not the problem, it’s the way that things are taken. So if you take with you one thing from this, take action. I’ll be over here doing the same and I hope we meet up and talk about it soon. Thanks for listening. Hearts, rainbows, and cognizant dreams to each and every one of you, and out of compassion I’ll accept the things that I offer, even if it makes me feel vulnerable and exposed 🙂