Concept 4: Are we Individuals or are we God?

One crowd…Many individuals (Photo by Jethro Watson)

In the song Pneuma by Tool, Keenan’s lyrics talk about becoming Pneuma. Becoming breath, but breath is the same to all of us. We are essentially made up of the same thing, born of one breath, one spark as Keenan so eloquently puts it. What does this have to do with anything? Well strap in it’s a wild ride.

I’d like to take you on a Sci-Fi journey through a strange thought experiment. I invite you to imagine that you are not in fact Human but Taelon. Whats a Taelon? Back in the late 90’s Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) penned the ideas for a TV series called Earth: the final conflict. In this universe, the Taelons had come to earth looking for a cure to their mortality. Whilst the plot and intricacies of the series arent relevant here, the Taelons were quite an interesting race. They had evolved into beings of energy and were connected by what they called the Commonality. This was a kind of macro neural network which allowed them to share a collective identity. Whilst still retaining and individual personality and free will they were simultaneously an individual and communal consciousness. You might think it would be impossible to fully imagine yourself as such a being, but lets take a gander anyways.

Lets start with connectivity, the ability to be connected and communicate with others almost instantly. Well we can now do that between individuals, there’s a multitude of platforms out there to connect people. Perhaps that doesn’t seems so alien after all. But what would we be connecting to in this case, an individual or a collective? Whilst communication would certainly be possible between individuals in the Commonality, it strikes me as far more useful to connect to the aggregated knowledge and experience of the collective consciousness. This collective ‘being’ is built up of the minds of not only those Taelons currently living but also those deceased. The insights provided by this collective would be invaluable indeed and would no doubt heavily influence the behavior and thoughts of individual Taelons. However, such information would be on a scale impossible to comprehend through the mind of an individual. How exactly the Taelons were aware of this communal consciousness is unclear in the story, but I’d wager that it wasn’t as cut and dry as we would like it. Perhaps the individual Taelon was not capable of understanding the communal consciousness per say and was influenced by it through a more dream like or unseen process. A process not dissimilar to our unconscious. Mysterious perhaps, but when we watch its action over time and across many individuals we see that there are unmistakable patterns to this unconscious. Perhaps that’s not too alien either. The Taelons created this Commonality to restrict their more animalistic tendencies to rage, violence and darkness, again this is very much how the idea of Archetypes functions in our subconscious. This thought experiment is starting to seem uncannily close to reality. So let us further imagine a full lifespan as an individual Taelon. They are born and assimilate into this communal consciousness and when they die, their experiences remain known to this ‘one consciousness’, the ripples of their lives mixed in with those of countless others, subtly influencing the collective and allowing it, through the aggregate of all its individuals, to experience everything. Allowing it to know what its like to be everything and everyone, ever. Now that’s fascinating, what an alien idea. But its not, let me call this idea by another name we Humans use to describe this kind of all encompassing structure: God. So we have one last stop on this make believe journey, life itself. Never in this story did Roddenberry explain or attempt to explain where life came from. Each individual Taelon was born (through a process of energy) and came into the world, much like we do, suddenly awake in this world of chaos with no idea where they came from. Yes they were given tools and structure by the Commonality, again much like us, but they weren’t given a manual for life and told ‘This is the point to all this and this is how you go about it’. They were still exposed to the same existential problems we face, they too were trying, without reference, to make sense of this crazy universe we live in. They were born randomly into the energy bodies they inhabit and in a time not of their choosing and confronted with the chaos and suffering of facing extinction. They were doing their level best to make sense of that and trying to out run the inevitable entropy buildup in the system which they were inexplicably conscious of. Just like us.

So why am I asking you to imagine yourself as a Taelon? Well partly because its amusing for me to think of people out there going ‘ Im a Taelon, I’m a Tealon’ so just humor me on that front. But mainly because I couldn’t think of any other way to approach this concept without people rolling their eyes, calling me a hippie and running back to their ever entrenched individuality. Its a complex concept which when stated simply tends to get distorted into the ideological. So lets then give this concept a name to define it and then I’ll go through some of the examples which I’ve come across in our Human world: We are one!

By outlining the examples below I’m not trying to convince you that any of them are true in a reductionist sense. I’m pointing your attention at the idea from different viewpoints in an attempt to create a deeper and more nuanced understanding of it.

Ok so throw out the Taelons and lets start with Jung again, this guy is truly fascinating, the more I learn of him the more incredible I find his thoughts. I found this video on YouTube whilst researching for this post. Ill list the four points here so as to continue with the conversation, but its worth a watch.

  1. The experience of the world is just as much psychological as it is physical
  2. The psychic world corresponds in structure to the physical world
  3. Extroversion places deciding weight on the objective factor and introversion places deciding weight on the subjective factor
  4. Just as the physical (objective) world is already there for extroversion to draw from so too is the psychic (subjective) world already there for introversion to draw from

Bear in mind that introversion and extroversion occur to some degree in one individual, otherwise we’ll leave it out for now. Essentially there are two worlds that we experience and both precede us in origin. Its easy to believe that the physical world precedes us, I don’t think that many of us ever really question that. It is however, a bit more challenging to conceptualize a psychic world which exists before and independently of us and yet is simultaneously only perceivable from the inside of one’s self. Jung believed (in as much as I can understand what he believed) that the psychic world was in large part made up of what he called the Collective Unconscious. This ‘a priori’ type structure was common within all of us and jung called its constituent elements ‘Archetypes’. Essentially they are powerful personalities independently at work within us, directing our thoughts and actions on a moment by moment basis depending on the need. Some aspect of this can, in my view, be seen in the actions of ourselves and of those around us, we sometimes act as if we are the same beings. And to the extent to which that is true, can be said to be the extent to which we are the same. Not merely similar as in displaying the similar characteristics, but actually being, in part, the same thing. Its interesting to note that Jung thought that the worlds were of the same value in terms of experience (kinda like saying the same size) and that the collective unconscious makes up almost all of that subjective world. That’s a lot of you that’s actually something else. Or if you turn it around, that’s a lot of something else that’s you. Only that something else is tied into a much bigger structure. For me it’s easy to see how that bigger structure was conceptualised as being a level up in a way. A deity or a kind of meta-consciousness thats built up of our individual contribution to it.

Through the ramblings of Dr Jordan Peterson I learnt of may examples of myth and story which embody the idea of this kind of oneness that we share. Stories like those contained in religious texts, which are in part at least a written record of some of the stories we as humans have been telling each other for thousands of years. Stories like those contained in cultural storytelling like Dostoyevsky, Tolkien or Rowling (which are very similar to the religious stories anyways). Essentially the ‘a priori’ structure is in part, in Petersons view, transmitted to us through culture and its stories and customs. He makes connections between stories in the Bible to this idea of oneness or meta-consciousness. Ideas like man being made in God’s image; that Christ was associated with the logos (the ‘individual’ force as opposed to the all encompassing structure); and that every person could truthfully repent and be forgiven. I think the idea of unilateral forgiveness gives us a good clue here.

In the beginning of this clip he talks about our failure to believe the idea that we are all connected and valuable, from about 2 minutes in he talks about the idea of the Trinity which is interesting but not as relevant.

Let us look briefly at what we are. You were born into this life fully aware (or moment because you can’t actually remember being born), but you have no idea where you came from or how you got here. These are essentially physical questions, not why, but by which mechanism did you arrive? You truly have no idea, you can believe in some story but in the absence of that, you just don’t have the capability to know where you came from or how. So in that sense we are all the same, we arrive here with no clue and suddenly we are faced with, you guessed it, suffering. Its a raw deal to be honest, even if you’re born rich and powerful you’re still going to hit that suffering at some point. We learn from what is given to us genetically and what is transmitted to us culturally and we become an Ego. We modify the pre-existing physical and psychic worlds slightly, enough to have our own individual or subjective experience of it. An experience that we can, almost simultaneously, recall, influence and plan to modify. Our best bet is to modify those worlds so that we can reduce the suffering inherent in them, or if not reduce it then at least forge a reason for its existence. We are all part of this potential to forge reason from suffering. Each one of us is essentially potential personified. Which isn’t too far from the concept of a Commonality (potential) intertwined with the existence of an individual (action).

So the idea of unilateral forgiveness says that if we truly became aware of our shortcomings or even our own grievous malevolence, genuinely denounced that as wrong and sought to ‘repent’ by seriously turning our thoughts and actions around so as to achieve good or less suffering, then we should be given the opportunity to do so. Why? Well because we all in some way represent the potential to act and change existence. Perhaps we go on to become one of the heroes of the world or even the cosmos, who knows. Its an interesting concept that might be hard to apply in the real world as a human and we might be justifiably weary of believing it blindly. But if we dont believe that each and every one of us shares this potential, we tend fall back into that Egotistical state of contempt, distrust and warring tribes, because of course we possess this potential but its quite clear from the evidence that you do not! And there is quite a lot of evidence out there. Its no wonder that we sometimes come to think that we are so separate to ‘the other’ and special in comparison. So perhaps thinking that we are all equal on some level, the level of potential say, isn’t such a bad idea after all.

We can debate the necessity to tie that belief to some deity, but the idea that we are somehow connected and equal on some level remains. A more way out look at this concept was outlined by Deloris Cannon who, through a process she called Quantum Hypnosis Healing Technique, told of how many subjects recalled the same experience of a higher plane of consciousness and how above that there was another level still. Continued until we reach the source, the One Consciousness which has fractured itself into various sizes and shapes to try to experience all that can be experienced (all of reality) to understand what it is, where it came from and how it got there. I haven’t followed this path of research very far so I may have it a bit wrong. But whilst it sounds whack, an element of it is familiar. Another interesting look at this idea comes from the book The Law of One which was apparently scribed by a team of three people channeling the entity called Ra. Ill include a link to a video describing the seven layers of consciousness and how we all eventually tie back into the one source. An interesting perspective but I wont dwell on it here. The point I’m trying to make here is that although this idea that we are one sounds esoteric, we humans have been thinking about it for quite some time and in many different ways. It seems as if there is a large part of who we are which is effectively someone or something else. It may or may not be conscious itself but to conceptualise that as a Commonality, a ‘one consciousness’ which we are part of but that is not our individual experience, may be useful to use.

A way out look at the idea of ‘Oneness, but it illustrates the idea quite well.

I think that to conceptualise this Commonality as being the same entity (The One Consciousness) is phenomenologically true, we can certainly experience it that way with careful reflection either theistically as a god or atheistically as an archetype. But how do we make this leap from similar to the same thing? Thats where this concept of belief comes into play again. We choose to believe it, because that necessitates that we behave in a certain way, the conviction becomes so strong that to act against it feels like committing a sin. That’s the general idea anyways. Many people do actually believe this in some form or another , we have already explored the religious and the esoteric perspective, let’s look at a more social perspective.

We can see this idea manifested in the legal code which governs the ‘western’ world, although it can be poorly implemented at times. This code says that you are innocent before proven guilty and even then are permitted to lay forth any mitigating factors which you think may show your dedication to lessening the suffering after the fact. An astounding concept given that we are so quick to generate contempt through our Egos. We have moved from “He’s on the other side, kill him” to “Ok so he might have done wrong, but let him speak, perhaps he’s the same as us and can help in some small way to ease the way through this journey of suffering”. Even when someone is convicted it seems we are loath the condemn them to death lest they still have some value. Although we do use capital punishment, I’ll wager there are more people in prison currently than ever executed by the modern civilised world. Why bother, if we have decided they are criminals and can no longer help us to create a better world, why not just get rid of them? Well that’s what the Socialists thought in Russia, the Fascists thought in Germany and the Communists thought in China: We are not one and you are beneath us! That didn’t seem to work out well for us as a species.

Another manifestation of this idea is Human Rights. As a collective we have decided that there are certain inalienable rights transferred to each and every human by virtue of them being born. Whilst this idea has not been adopted by the entire of humanity, we in the ‘civilised western’ world certainly do believe this. Institutions like the United Nations and The Peace Palace in The Hague are built in part to protect and ‘enforce’ human rights globally. It is clearly offensive to people if you so much as glance at their sheet of rights, but we struggle to conceptualise the structure of belief needed to bring such a bill of rights into existence.

The way I see it if we are part of one consciousness then there is a cause for hope, hope that the future can be better than the present. Hope that the aggregation of experience over many individual lives will help guide us to a place of greater complexity. If we believe that all people are valuable and that they help to build this complexity then we can begin to see differently, we can see past the Ego and its workings and connect on a much more meaningful level. Even if we cannot identify with an experience, at least we can understand that that experience is necessary for the Commonality. That every experience (which is an act of doing in some way) is a’test’ answer to the existential questions of life and that that experience could just as well have been manifested by our own individual form as by another’s. A failed test, a test of suffering or perhaps successful test somehow but necessary nonetheless.

A more respectable view of this idea that we are all moving toward ‘Oneness’ but not too far from the Law of One or for that matter Religion or the doctrines of Social Law

So lets try another though experiment, this time closer to home. Pretend that you are you, ever so briefly. Imagine that you’ve arrived here in this world and you have no idea what you really are, where you come from and what happens when you die. Thank god this is only a thought experiment right, thats a lot of existential angst to deal with. Now imagine that everyone is like this, with no concrete knowledge regarding the meta-questions of life. In this experiment, I’d like you (remember that you have no idea whats really going on here) to judge and condemn another individual next to you for their thoughts and actions, understand too that they will judge and condemn you for yours (and they also have no idea whats really going on). How did that feel? Hollow in some way, ‘you’re wrong go to hell, but wait so am I in that case and where is this Hell anyways?’. Where would we get the knowledge and experience to judge? Not from our individual selves, we don’t possess the ability to accumulate an understanding of the necessary structure (in one lifetime) to make such judgements. We need some kind of ‘a priori’ structure to guide us. Some kind of accumulated knowledge from many many individuals, perhaps all the individuals, that creates a structure or guide for us to ‘fit’ into. If we, as a collective species or individuals, posit that a core part of this structure is that we are in some ironically intangible way all part of the same thing, we seem to fare better. But we needed all that experience to get to that understanding, all the evil and all the good.

Now I would like to invite you to conduct a real experiment, try to believe this axiom in the next few dealings with other people. Try to believe that the person you are engaging with also has no idea what is going on, on an existential level. That they, like you, were suddenly awakened in this reality and they too are striving to make sense of it all. The probability of them or you being born who you are is so close to zero that it eliminates any specialness that you might possess as you, outside of your own subjective experience. Their experiences are accumulated through a random but mostly deterministic process which has shaped them into who they are. In this way they are you, or at least try to believe that and see how that changes the way you act. When I do that, I become acutely aware that my own limitations as an individual are also the limitations of others. That my problems are also the problems of others and theirs, mine. That on some level we are all connected, we are all God, we are all Complex. On some level, we are all one and its worth respecting that. It certainly seems that when we don’t, all Hell breaks loose.

How often do I actually get that right? Well, I’ll leave that answer up to those who know me. Its not easy to think of that person who has in my mind been incarnated as the epitome of malevolence as being the same being as myself, suffering from the same burden of existence. But if we can manage that or at least move towards that understanding, then perhaps we can tolerate each other long enough to get things done, to live here in the same place and not create Hell on earth, just for a few hours at least.

I think that this principle is one of the foundational reasons for the support I’ve received after the accident. This idea has helped me connect with a wide range of people, people whose ideas are far different to my own but no less valuable. It is this diversity which has ultimately allowed me to find the ideas which prepared me for the accident and support me through its aftermath. Contrast this with my previous conviction to disconnected individual nihilism and its easy to imagine that without this idea, I would never have had the courage, the ability nor the support needed to survive this ordeal.

Concept 3: Meditation and the Ego

Ok so you’re born, you don’t really remember that, which is odd. It’s a pretty big deal in your life and you don’t remember it. Anyways, you don’t quite know nothing at this point but its close, only a few instinctual circuits like ‘SNAKE! AAARGH!’. But as you grow and test the world around you, you learn. You assimilate knowledge which is generated from theory and experimentation. This knowledge is valuable, without it you could not survive let alone thrive. This process of learning is one of our greatest tools, integral to our continued life here. But then something interesting starts to happen, you start to get better at theory crafting. Using your developed knowledge you build better and better theories, emboldened by the fact that most of these turn out to be correct or at least close enough. The theories that you get wrong can even be explained away by your rational mind as exceptions that don’t disprove the rule or perhaps even as the malevolence of others  Soon you have theories which are so right that you don’t even need to test them. Theories which have deep roots inside your psyche, perhaps they are not even articulated knowledge but a more primal emotional embodied knowledge. These theories become imbedded in your identity and help to form what is know as the Ego. Congratulations you now have an Ego. May God help you.

This term has been defined in many ways and is an elusive concept, partly because we cant bear to have it attacked in any way (I mean we might get offended right), and partly because its incredibly difficult to define something, which is of ourselves, and which we cannot easily see or experience. So what is it exactly, what does our collective knowledge say about this phenomenon called the Ego?

I am not a psychologist, so this is an opinion which I’ve built up from reading and observation (theory and testing in other words). I view the Ego as a process of continuation. Continuation at all costs, whatever needs to be sacrificed or achieved for the Ego to continue is justified by the continuation thereof. This is a massively powerful force. So lets unpack this process and define it as clearly as possible.

The Ego, in my mind, has the following characteristics which are worth understanding:

  • It is part of but separate to the self (The Ego is not ‘me’ per say)
  • It can be conscious (often when ‘I’ am not)
  • It is concerned only with continuation of itself
  • It can fool me into believing that It is me
  • It is not ethically bound
  • It is of and for itself
  • It is necessary for our survival and for us to achieve
  • It can be observed and moderated

Ego and Self

Carl Jung was one of the most influential thinkers of the last century and he defined the Ego as a process born of the self and only as a component of the self, or as he put it a complex. A complex is essentially a sub-personality operating around one principal or idea. Hunger, desire, anger and our goals and dreams are all nodes around which these various complexes operate. Often these complexes are hidden from us and direct our behaviour in ways we are unaware of.

As I have experienced it, the Ego is essentially the main complex or a collection of the strongest complexes at work in our psyche. I don’t believe that the Ego is the base conscious experience but rather a process at work within us, it is however a very powerful process and can in a sense hijack the conscious experience.

The Ego as the Conscious Experience

When our Ego is in control, we are essentially tricked into believing that we are the thoughts and emotions which manifest themselves inside our conscious experience. We experience this as an all consuming emotion or thought, blind rage for example is a complex operating around anger, we experience this as if we are the rage, rather than the emotion being present in the space that we experience everything. We often use the term ‘lost in thought’ when a thought captures us and we cannot see outside it, it repeats and shapes our reality weather we want it to or not. As our emotions and thoughts rise up out of our unconscious, our Egoic process consumes them and uses these complexes as fuel to keep its fire burning. To continue its existence.

The Ego Must Continue

The Ego is concerned with one thing only, its continued existence. This is its purpose, to analyse the recourses available and do whatever it takes to survive. In other words it gathers thoughts and emotions which rise up from within us, organises them and creates actions to ensure its continuation. So if we are angry, or sad, the Ego can use that to continue. It tricks us into believing that we are that anger or that sadness and that we cannot be without it, to let it go would cause a fundamental shift in our Ego, it would involve our Ego loosing control of the conscious experience. This drive for continuation is not concerned with wellbeing, happiness or any definition of good or bad, it is only concerned with continuation from moment to moment.

The Unethical Ego

When the Ego is in control, bearing in mind that its sole purpose is to continue, it can act in a purely selfish way. Only actions which will continue its existence are considered, if this appears to be an ethical action when observed from outside, it is only because the Ego takes into account all the variable outcomes, including social pressures like humiliation and possible reprimand from the community. At base it is not concerned with the wellbeing of others, only its continuation. If it can execute an action which is harmful to another and not be diminished or reduced by the outcome, it will do so. This is evident in the most extreme cases of Egotistic behaviour, Narcissism. The Narcissistic complex will at any given opportunity seek to create a level difference between two Egos. It does this by generating contempt for the other Ego or Egos. This is a particularly useful tactic for the Ego, what better way to justify this ‘right’ to continuation than to be different and better than all other Egos (people). The Ego is a machine of survival, physical and psychological survival, not of ethical behaviour.

The Ego and Time

The Ego is a process which occurs in the present. Although it takes into consideration our past memories, experiences and our imagined future, it only does so to the extent that it can create a continuation of itself. When it is threatened or under pressure to survive, it’s focus can be laser accurate, taking only that which will create an immediate continuation into account. This extreme reaction can be detrimental to our future selves. Eckhart Tolle described this best when he referred to the Pain Body, a body of knowledge and experience which the Ego holds onto and makes us identify with. The more we continue to identify with this pain body, the easier it is for the Ego to create this illusion of continuation. The same can be true of ‘future memories’ which are created by our imagination to guide us to the future that we want. Getting a promotion or achieving some goal or other is an example of a future memory and, even if it is no longer possible, the Ego can hold onto this future memory to create continuation.  The Ego is the process that stabilizes our psyche through time, it says ‘I’ve been to the past and seen the future and this is how it all fits together with the present’. When the present moment doesn’t line up with the ‘fully complete’ picture that the Ego has created,it threatens the Ego, then it says ‘if I’m wrong about this moment, then…’. The more threatened the Ego becomes the more likely it is that it will continue to use thoughts, emotions and memories which are detrimental to us to create that all important continuation, moment to moment.

Survival

Despite this dark side of our Ego’s which is prevalent and even sometimes encouraged in our society, it is a necessary force. It is what has allowed us as individuals, and therefore as a species, to survive. When our adrenaline spikes and our blood vessels dilate, readying us for either fight or flight, it is our Ego which rises to the challenge. It is our Ego which says ‘I got this, stand aside and let me create continuity’. This can be brought on by a physical threat or a threat to our identity, a challenge to our body or a challenge to our beliefs. Both of these are vital to our survival and the Ego is instrumental in protecting them. When our Egos get too damaged say by a rock or a kind of Damascus experience which fundamentally alters our beliefs, it can cause pathological problems. The Ego can ‘fuck out’ as it were, if we are conscious of it doing so we are left naked and exposed to the raw chaos of the existence, if we are not, then we are doomed to experience the frantic, terrifying death of a part of the Ego which we would be currently perceiving as our self. Having had this occur to me, I attest that it is one of the most mortally terrifying things one can experience. When your Ego says ‘I was wrong, this changes everything’ and then fragments into bits and pieces, re-amalgamating with the chaos from whence it came.

The Ego and balance

So we need the Ego but we also cant allow it to have full and unopposed reign. We need to know what its doing so that we can moderate its behavior, either is too ‘on’ or its too ‘off’ (or maybe it’s just broken). How then do we achieve this balance? If you’ve been reading this Blog, then my answer shouldn’t surprise you: Pay Attention. There is a field of consciousness in which all of our experiences manifest, this conscious experience is the base of the self and it is possible for us to rest as that space and observe the things that we experience in such a way that we do not necessarily identify with them. There is a way to be consciously aware of when our Ego is operating and which complex or collection of complexes it is using to create the illusion of continuity. We can stand back, as it were, and observe the truth about reality, we can experience without judgment those things which are occurring inside our consciousness. In general (although I’m weary of generalizing) in our society we are for the most part unaware of when our Ego is active and what it is doing. I might even go one step further and say that we are mostly unaware of what our minds are doing, our attention is for sale and we pass it freely to the agents who will sell it, often to our detriment. It is the rare individual who has sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to continuously rest as that conscious experience and only allow the Ego out when absolutely needed. Most of us, myself included, are dominated by the Ego and it is a rare occasion for us to be able to stand outside it and observe what it is doing. Often when we do, we see that it is acting in a way that doesn’t actually serve our best interests in the current situation or the future.

Meditation

Meditation is the practice we use train train our minds to stand back form this process and observe it. If we can observe it, we can at least start to control it. Then we can seek the balance which is necessary to create a life more focused on well-being instead of the blind conquest for continuation of Ego. I’m far from an expert, but as I see it, the base of the meditative practice is to pay close attention to the mind, either through use of a kind of mental tether (like a mantra or the breath) or through experienced and practiced will. The idea being that you could potentially become aware of a thought (and not identify with or judge that thought) the exact moment that it spontaneously generates in your mind. Although we aren’t sure where these thoughts actually arise from, I think its linked to this concept of the future you, which is in my mind a process of the Ego. The more we practice this technique of actively watching our minds (and the world around us) and differentiate our consciousness from the things appearing inside our conscious field, the more ‘automatic’ this separation of perspective becomes. This has been one of the most earth-shattering discoveries of my life, to discover that you don’t need to be the thoughts in your head and you don’t need to be the reaction you feel to some truly horrid external stimulus like getting hit by a rock or someone offending you (heaven forbid). You can actually stand back and look at it nonjudgmentally, then you can start to craft a truly constructive future, a future of order and not the chaos of pure instinct. And if you can’t craft the future, at least you can craft the now, you can decide to just be, fully attentive to the current moment, immortal in the now. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

In Rocklands, during the few months prior the accident, I had resolved to take up meditation. I used an app called The Waking Up App by Sam Harris ( https://wakingup.com/ ), which I highly recommend. Although I had never meditated with any conviction previously, I was struck by how quickly and how profoundly I took it it. I created a daily meditation habit almost immediately. This brief spell of practice allowed me to observe my Ego when it fucked out, when it crumbled and went off spinning into the void, fragmenting and dying with the realization of what was happening to me. When the chaos became too dense and the me that was was overcome, when my consciousness was left bare for existence to have its way with, my conscious mind found this habit and to the best of its ability amidst the pain and terror, it crafted what it could of the current moment. The raw conscious experience which I had come to experience through meditation was all I had left to hold onto, and almost autonomously I did that. buffered by this ability to find a meditative state, without the obligation to identify with the frantic terror of the ego and without the necessity of dealing with the overwhelming chaos, I was able to calm, able to focus on staying lucid and conscious. Purely conscious with no past, no future and no judgement. Although I wasn’t able to hold this state consistently whilst lying broken on the mountain side, the ability to al least tap into it for brief periods was enough.

The Challenge

For me Meditation has been a profound discovery, it has allowed me to see the world in a way which I never thought possible. If somebody as flawed and imperfect as I am can find the discipline to create a habit of Meditation, then surely others must be able to do the same. Consider this a challenge, not just to create a habit of meditation but a challenge to shake loose the bonds of your Ego, to challenge your Ego by observing it and starting to recognise what it is and what it does. If we all do this, if we all develop the habit of paying attention, of being mindful, I postulate that we will no longer need to strive to make the world a better place, it will happen automatically. Download the Waking Up App or another app if you please, learn to meditate, learn to pay attention, to what’s really going on, to the truth: THE FUTURE OF OUR SOCIETY DEPENDS ON IT!

You have been challenged. Watson out.

See things differently
Photo by: Jethro Malan Watson

Concept 2: Consistency

The Labyrinth in Hogsback, South Africa. Just a cool image, it doesn’t have anything to do with consistency. Or does it….
Photo by: Jethro Watson

It is said there is no substitute for Consistency. But consistency of what, what was it that led to the changes in my life and to my achievements in climbing? It wasn’t consistency of climbing, that’s a bit vague. To understand what consistency is we need to look at three things: The Present, the Past and the Future. With an understanding of this temporal space, I’ll start to piece together how I think consciousness functions to create habit and why the consistency of monitoring this process is critically important to achieve a life of meaning.

Our conscious awareness allows us to build habits, habits of thought and habits of action, this process of habit allows us to act in a way that brings about our desired future. The synergy between the meaning of habitable or habitat and habit cannot be overlooked, we use habit to create a habitable space for us to live in. Said another way, we use habit to create the future.

Humans have an odd ability which often leaves us quite confused about a specific variable in this universe: Time. We possess an ability which allows our minds (not the same as our brain) to be ‘in’ a different temporal space to our bodies. It allows our minds to be in the Past and the Future (and the present when we are fully aligned). We can switch between these temporal spaces with great efficiency and alarming speed. If we are mindful we can train this ability, often when we do not and it trains us.

The Present

What do we know about the present? Well, if you’re thinking about the present, you’re actually not in it. You’re actually ‘in’ the past. To be truly immersed in the present is to be in that space where the infinite regresses of the Past and the Future meet, its not a space you can think about, its a space you have to be in! The way I see it, the present only exists when we call it into being using focus and attention. When we concentrate sufficiently on the moment that our minds are neither in the past nor in the future. This ties in with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow. A state where time actually becomes distorted.

This is the quickest description of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow concept I’ve come across, think of anxiety as too much future and boredom as too much past.

This focus and attention, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the ability to change the present, it just is. The immediate future, the very next micro-moment, is the only thing that we can change (and the past to some extent, but we’ll get to that). We change the future by acting in the present, by using our agency in this world to make a change and bring about a possible future. A future that we have created, first and foremost, in our minds. But how does this process of agency work? We think that in the present, we make decisions, choices between various different options and occasionally creative solutions to problems. I don’t think this commonly held view is quite what’s going on.

In my experience our thoughts and actions in the present appear more as a continuation of habit rather than conscious decisions. Our focus and attention merely let us observe these thoughts and actions for later review. For a time when we are oscillating between the Past and the Future. This idea was born in part from my observations of myself in the present and part from my fascination and research into free will. Whilst I still doggedly believe that we possess this free will, I’m uncertain where this manifests. It doesn’t seem to manifest in the present. Ill give you just two examples.

When I was trying to quit smoking and failed to exercise self restraint, I noticed a kind of duality of being. What I wished was not to take out a cigarette, light it and smoke it, but sure enough, there I was doing just that. I would sometimes observe this in a detached way and ask, ‘where is my free will here, surely if I am acting of my own accord I could stop this behaviour?’. But, alas, that task took me years. Another time I noticed this autonomous, habitual reaction to the present which was contrary to my conscious desires was whilst climbing. Both before climbing a sport route and sometimes during,  I would be totally overcome by fear, my consciousness had seemed to decide that it simply couldn’t get onto the climb or do the set of moves that were clearly terrifying. But oddly enough, there I was watching myself performing the actions of tying in and lifting off the ground or automatically engaging with the set of moves. What was going on here, I wasn’t deciding to do these things, so who was? The answer I came up with was that it was in fact my previous self that had made the decision and had prepared my mind in a consistent way that it acted out of habit. My mind was either re-running practiced engrams or was making creative adjustments to previous experiences of a similar nature. My mind had done this before, or at least something similar and faced with the present moment in which I needed to act, it produced an action out of habit.

But are these not specific examples of the present where we are influenced by some internal struggle for self control? If we had the will power, surely then we could overcome the addiction or the fear? To answer this question, lets have a brief look into the idea of free will. A great deal of our society is predicated on the idea that there is some kind of personal identity with a ‘will’, a force which allows that identity to be self determining. From a subjective level this makes sense, we hold people accountable for their actions as if they have free will and we all believe that we should be able to determine our own futures. But how much of this is just a fiction we created to help us in this world of chaos and how much ‘will’ do we actually have? I’ve listened to Sam Harris on this topic and his thoughts are hard to dismiss: when we think a thought, where did it come from? Did we think ‘I’m going to think the following, and then actually go and think it?’. Its unlikely. So which identity decided to think the thoughts we think? We might think them but did we decide to think them? Again the answer I came up with for this strange question was the same, my previous self did.

This is the best video I could find of Sam Harris talking about thoughts arising in the mind, Although I agree with him about not being in control of the thoughts that arise in the present, I think that with great effort we can change the structure of our minds though the mindful creation of habits of thought.

So who is this previous self, he too doesn’t seem to manifest in the present and if he doesn’t exist in the present, does he exist at all? And if there’s a previous self, is there a future self? We can use our minds to put us ‘into’ the Past, essentially reliving present moments gone by. It is in this ‘Past Mind’ state that I believe my previous self exists, not focused on the present but focused on the Past. Its as if we allow our consciousness to be consumed by memory and experience the Past as a very real ‘present’. We use the same process when we are ‘in’ the future. We can think of this as the ‘Mind’ state of being. It’s the opposite state of being to the present and I think on average we spend most of our time in this state. Although this layer of thoughts are actually experienced in the present, I see it as a separate state to the reality outside of our minds, the very real Present. I think of it this way, in mathematics some outcome can be defined as the function of a set of variables, so if thoughts and actions are the outcome, then this ‘Mind’ self is the function which gives them form and the variables are the Past and the Future. So how do the Past and the Future influence what we do in the present? Lets dig into what the Past and the Future are in our minds.

The Past

The Past is complicated for sure. It involves using memories of experiences which both we and others have experienced. Memory can be a fickle and unreliable thing to begin with and we haven’t even got to our biases and potential pathologies yet. But be that as it may, memory and the past is crucial in determining our actions. We can review, analyse and make changes to this ‘real’ Past replaying in our minds. Changes which determine how we might remember things in the present when we need the information to think and act in a certain way.

Each time we recall an event or even an idea, we rebuild a memory in our mind, we can use this ability to analyse the memory and learn from it. We can also change that memory in certain ways, we can alter the memory, we can see the memory with new experience and alter how we feel about it, sometimes we can even forget or, put another way, fail to recall a memory either in part or in full. All these tools help us build repetitive recollections of the same type of memories, grief, our religious convictions, patterns of behaviour, negativity or positivity, who we are and the engram used to climb a certain route. As a climber we go through this process of changing the memory which we will later recall as we make changes to the Beta we use to try to send a route or problem.

In this ‘Past mind’ mode, we have far greater control of our thoughts but there are still restrictions. For example we may recall things erroneously and we cant think an idea we have never been exposed to before (although I think we can synergise ideas and improve upon them to create ‘new’ ideas, this process is subtle and whole new concepts or groups of concepts don’t just spontaneously appear in our heads). So we do need to continually review and question our thoughts to ensure we minimize the errors, this includes having some humility to admit our errors (to ourselves and others) . We also need to go exploring, exploring usually comes in the form of challenging your own ideas, seeking out ideas which are strange or contrary to your own and thinking about them, testing them against what you know and experience and then deciding if they are ideas you want to incorporate.

If this process of Past analysis and habit forming is so important, which ideas should we incorporate then? How do we decide which thoughts to think consistently to form these important habits of thought? That’s where we turn to the Future.

The Future

Fist off, its important to note that the future is a created space, created by us. Everything that we have done is first created in our minds and then brought into being, it might not be brought into being in exactly the way we envisioned it when the future collides inevitably with the restrictions of the present, the restrictions of reality. However, the process of mental creation or dreaming is vitally important in guiding us to create the right habits.

So is this just a question of goal setting? I think that’s too simple a way of looking at it. A goal is a valuable milestone for sure, but what happens if you cant reach it or, even worse, if you do reach it? Without a framework to set new goals, you’re doomed to disappointment or the tragedy of stagnation and egotism. Again, I think Dr Jordan Petersons view on this idea of creating the future is the best description I’ve heard to date: Take Aim. He describes a kind of feedback loop which allows you to track and change course as your knowledge and experience deepen (that’s the Past influencing the Future) and as life throws its proverbial curve balls at you.  

Jordan Peterson holding forth on the idea of Taking aim, if the idea doesn’t get to you then just be inspired by the mans passion 🙂

An important aspect of the Future is that we create multiple versions of it, so many in fact that if we didn’t ‘set our aim’ we would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of possibilities and would flounder in the sea of futures ahead of us. I think many people are caught in this state where the future is too vague. Their decisions and actions in the present tend to be erratic and random, leading them nowhere. Sometimes we build several promising futures and are then forced to sacrifice one or more of them to make space for the most important of our dreams. Its in this ‘Future Mind’ mode which we are able to perform this task.

Consistency of Thought

Okay, so at this point I can almost hear you asking, so what? What does this have to do with consistency? When our minds and body are aligned, we are in the Present, experiencing, recording and acting from habit. When we are in the Past or Future, our minds are analyzing and creating. If we purposely put ourselves into this ‘Mind’ state, we can control the process of analysis and creation, we can eliminate those thoughts which do not create in our mind the future we desire and eliminate those past memories which will not build the habits we need to achieve these futures. We can then go exploring for new ideas which will fill the void of those ideas which we have stopped thinking. If we do this enough, we create habits of thought. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, described much this same process in companies which went from good companies to companies which outperformed their competitors for years on end: Dedicated Thought and Dedicated Action. This same concept applies to our mental space. We should mindfully enter the ‘Mind’ state and consistently think about the future we want to create and cultivate the right thoughts and ideas that will get us there, simultaneously we should eliminate the unnecessary. If we then enter the present mindfully we can be prepared to think and act in a way that allows us to physically create the best future given the constraints of the present. If we monitor and repeat this process with sufficient consistency then we can achieve amazing things.

I couldn’t find a video of Jim Collins talking about the actual chapters in his book Good to Great, but this touches on the idea.

Pay full attention to the present when necessary. Mindfully allow the Past and the Future into your consciousness. Consistently create the future you want and analyse the past strategically in your mind to create habits of thought. Repeat Process. Its actually that simple, in a complex way.

This process has helped me to send climbs I though weren’t possible for me to send; it’s helped me to stop smoking and change my diet when I started consistently thinking of a better climbing future, it’s helped me to make decisions on my work status to allow me time for climbing and training, it’s helped me to rely on my schedule and train when I was having a down day and it’s helped me to think the right thoughts to get me through the day of the accident when my body and mind where overwhelmed by the present. A state where I didn’t have the time or ability to rationally decide what to think and do, a state where I could only act from habit.

The Centre
Photo by Jethro Watson

Concept 1: A Belief in Being

Sunset over Pakhuis Pass in the Cederberg. A true reflection of the complexity of life, each sunset is unique and can be experienced in full only once. Photo by: Jethro Watson

I thought I’d start this discussion of concepts with an easy, light, beginner sort of concept: Belief.

Why? Well because it ties into so much else that we think and do and allows me a good starting point to discuss some key ideas which Ill return to in more detail later. So get some coffee and strap in, we’re going to the root of it all first up.

The puzzle of belief has vexed me for many years. When I was younger the idea of belief appeared to me to be a kind of dichotomy between whether there was a God or not. This seems to be such a prominent question in our society that we just cant lift our heads from the fodder for long enough to understand that the concept of belief has a much broader context.

Belief is actually something we do everyday to a lesser or greater extent. When we brush our teeth in the morning, we believe that this action will lessen tooth decay and postpone any dental work we may need. We understand that there are many scientific studies and statistical reports of this actually working. But have we read any of those studies? Or do we know or understand the statistical process they used to come to this conclusion? Unless you’re a statistician, probably not. To overcome this problem we form beliefs about knowledge (This is one of the primary concerns of a branch of philosophy called Epistemology). Only once this belief has been tested, and it passes, can we call it knowledge. In reality a belief is formed from various inputs, like advertisements, parents teachings and professional advice (because they obviously ‘know’ the truth of the matter). This belief is powerful enough to get you to brush your teeth often enough to avoid tooth decay. The interesting thing is that this belief works and later on in life you still have teeth.

Beyond this kind of belief about knowledge, we have integrated belief into the way we achieve as well. We have all heard of the idea, in some form, that when you believe in your self, you achieve. How often has a climber said to another ‘you’re there, you just have to believe and you’ll send’. And it works, people who continuously doubt themselves, saying ‘I’ll never do that’, don’t typically end up doing it. In corporate companies, experts are employed to create a brand vision and then run workshops on communicating this vision to its staff, the goal is not to get the staff to understand the vision but actually believe in it. This belief becomes a shared goal with almost mythical properties, suddenly everybody’s on board. And it works, companies who have managed to create a corporate culture based on their belief in the future vision have achieved extraordinary things.

So belief works, it seems to me, to help us achieve things, from daily actions to bigger goals. It also seems apparent that we are in some way wired to believe things, without this ability we wouldn’t be able to acquire knowledge and achieve future goals, or at least the process would be harder. Subjectively I’ve also noticed (and this seems to be anecdotally repeated) that when I believe in something it makes me feel better, its as if belief bolsters our emotional well-being. When I believe that ill be successful at some task, I find the journey less arduous. When I believe that brushing my teeth prevents tooth decay, I feel more motivated to do it. So if belief is such an integral part of our lives, and we become mindful of this process, then we arrive at the question of ‘what should our beliefs be?’. Well that question immediately invokes the idea of Meta-Beliefs. Beliefs about God, ethics, spirituality and even existentialism. Whilst I’m not a fan of the ‘powerful leading the unquestioning’ model of organised religion and I think the question of whether there is a God or not is actually a redundant question, I certainly don’t have the all the answers to this question. However, it does seem to me that we should be mindful of our beliefs, and that we should believe something. We should have some lighthouse or beacon that we can point to and say ‘I believe that, I know its a leap of faith but I’ve chosen to believe it for the following reasons’ (also bearing in mind that those reasons can change and as such so should your belief).

To this end, and this being a platform for me to discuss the concepts which have helped me achieve the kind of rejuvenation of life and to remain sane and positive during this journey. I’m going to detail the most important thing I’ve chosen to believe and why. To do so however, I need to tell you my take on two concepts: ‘Being’ and ‘Good’, then I’m going to tell you about hatred. My hatred, of everything.

Dawn in the Drakensberg Mountains
Photo by: Jethro Watson

Lets deal with Being first. What do we understand by the word Being? We could launch into a truly existential debate about how being is a purely subjective thing and that we could never actually know if reality exists outside of our own consciousness. But that seem overly academic, I think we can all accept, at least on a practical level, that there is a universe out there and that there is something we call time. These two things, in my mind, are what define Being. Firstly that there is a reality, which encompasses all matter and all things that matter (so thought, feelings, beliefs, etc…). Secondly that this universe changes over time in some way, this is important as the only thing we can change is the future version of the universe, we cannot change the present no matter what we believe.

‘Good’, well this is a bit more difficult to unpack. I’m going to skip the classical literature here which could involve a long discussion of the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (Do look them up them up though). I’m going to define ‘Good’ in two ways. They are in my view different sides of the same spectrum and they turn ‘Good’ into a process moving along this spectrum. Firstly, Its a movement away from bad. Secondly its a movement towards Complexity. Ill explain. To definition of what good is needs to encompass a wide variety of things, the individual, the collective, both of these over time and then all three of these for multiple species in different places (and even possibly for what we consider inanimate matter as well). This is an almost infinite amount of complexity, but that seems to me to fit. I just cant help but see increasing complexity as what we are all aiming for, as esoteric and out there as that seems. It also seems to me that Consciousness is key to this process. I see the universe as being balanced by two opposing forces, complexity and entropy. Our (and other) conscious minds seem to have the ability to counteract this process of entropy through our agency in the world. Our beliefs and actions are able to renew the energy of failing systems should we choose to do so. If we do, we create more complexity, building on what has gone before with exponential effect. We have no idea where this will lead, its far too complex an algorithm for us to understand, but we each play our part for good or bad. ‘Bad’ on the other side of the spectrum is easier to define, in its simplest form it is needless suffering. Its a purely subjective thing, a consciousness specific darkness. Its the dark side of anger, hatred and most of all resentment. Its the thing that leads to the idea of Nihilism, the idea that there is no meaning in life and that the world can go to hell and take my depression with it! The most fundamental form of this needless suffering is created by malevolence, the ultimate betrayal of Being, to create suffering for the sake of suffering. Its purpose is to dim the light and colour of existence, to create the opposite of complexity, a perpetually experienced nothingness.

During high school, towards the end of my university career, during my time in Port Elizabeth and again when I was living in Standerton, I had succumbed to this pattern of depression and Nihilism to some degree or another. Sometimes my hatred was so complete that I would say things like ‘Its not a great species this, we shouldn’t continue it’ or ‘reality was a mistake’, sometimes it was just a sense of lack of meaning that left me disillusioned with life. But either way he depression was slowly taking its toll on me, it wasn’t sustainable and looking back it was soon going to end, for better or worse. As it happened, climbing pulled me out of that hole, allowing me physical escape in the moment, which seemed to alleviate the sense of meaninglessness that I felt. Although I wasn’t yet able to identify and articulate this process of meaning in my life, it was nonetheless embodied in my actions. Climbing gave me a light to aim for and slowly my life became more complex. With the meaning and direction that climbing brought to my life, the depression and Nihilism vanished. And with it too, the sense of resentment towards Being which I had felt. I was, for the first time in a long time, free of the seemingly eternal hatred I had harbored towards existence. I was only able to fully articulate this idea after listening to Dr Jordan Peterson’s lectures on ‘The psychological significance of the Biblical stories’ (linked Below), he gave me the language needed to fully analyse the process through which I had been growing. I was able to retro-engineer the belief that had lead me out of that dark hole and back to life.

Sunset in the Highveld of South Africa
Photo by: Jethro Watson

So this is what I’ve chosen to believe: That Being is fundamentally Good. The very existence that we inhabit is in fact a good thing. That Being moves from a state of simple suffering to a state of greater complexity and as conscious beings we have the responsibility to ensure that what we do inside of ‘Being’ promotes and accentuates this process. The opposite of that is malevolence, resentment and suffering without necessity , creating a hell within ‘Being’.

There is in fact no evidence for this premise. Who am I to proclaimed that there is actually a good, perhaps the universe doesn’t care, perhaps its all just experience -no good and no bad, perhaps its all just chance and one day it’ll count for nothing. If we want to go way out on the spectrum of ideas, there could in fact be no Being at all. Well I have no argument that could say one way or the other, there is in my mind no way to know whether these theories of mine hold weight or if there is just nothingness in which we float. But belief in something is powerful and if you are to live in this reality and you make the leap of faith that on some fundamental level, Being is Good, then you set yourself up for a better life, a life less prone to being Hellish. It opens a path to meaning and hope. It creates a world in which you can stand up and say that you’ll keep trying, keep fighting to make it a better place and avoid the darkness of meaninglessness. It gives you the fortification necessary to withstand tragedy and malevolence as best as your situation allows. It gives you the reason to breathe and to hope for another dawn and another sunset when your legs are crushed and your world consists of nothing but pain.

So if I am to live in this Being, then I choose to believe this. Being is Good. If you think otherwise, I challenge you to ask yourself, as I did those yeas ago, where that theory leads and what you would do about it if you had the power?

Sunset in the Drakensberg Mountains
Photo by: Jethro Watson

Many of these ideas have been explained by Dr Jordan Peterson and I would like to credit him for the articulation of these ideas, specifically: the idea of ‘what matters’ and the idea of ‘resentment towards being’. I encourage you to visit his YouTube Channel and invest some time listening to the lectures on ‘The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories: https://www.youtube.com/user/JordanPetersonVideos/featured