Yes, this is a flower. But it’s also a photograph! Photo by JM Watson
In any given day, as you go about your business of life, how often do you recognise the beauty around you? The intoxicating beauty of the process of nature or the fantastic ballet of human life with all its passions and endeavours? In fact, when last did you even do this? If the answer to that question startles you, perhaps you are not listening the the right music. Perhaps you should be listening to the music of this awe.
An Ancient stream of Beauty
The songs opening lines, spoken by Richard Dawkins, start in exactly the right place.
The deepest solace lies in understanding This ancient unseen stream A shudder before the beautiful
We’ll get to the solace part later, but this ‘ancient unseen stream’ opens up some vivid imagery. like a wave of synergy through time, this stream of beauty accumulates power and complexity as it weaves its way through time and cosmos alike. Many streams perhaps, colliding, coalescing, creating the very river of being itself. What could be more beautiful than that? This unseen process that we are slowly beginning to understand. And an intrinsic part of that process is us, you and I. Truly it makes me shudder when I pay attention to that.
The Music of the Universe
I am not a physicist but I have been fascinated by the ideas surrounding quantum physics. Whilst there is debate raging in the scientific circles, two ideas seem to be more or less consistent. Particles behave as a wave before measurement and the process of observation is integral to whether its a wave or a particle. At least this is how i understand it. For me this has so much synergy with the world around me. Just like Quantum physics requires there to be an observer to ‘collapse’ the wave function of particles, ideas too need an observer to collapse then into some sort of corporeal form that has an impact on reality.
And just like the Quantum wave states of particles would crash and blend together forming a rich tapestry of energy from which reality coalesces, so too do the Quantum wave states of ideas form a rich tapestry of energy. some of which we can not even begin to fathom as we have no real sense with which to perceive it. But the coalescing of that energy that we can perceive alludes to its depth, it’s beauty. Perhaps even all things, of any description, physical or of the psyche, require some form of consciousness to define them into the real. Who knows but I think it’s beautiful. An infinite tapestry of complexity, unfathomably rich and mysterious, full of wonder, brought into the real by Us.
For me, the waves are there, the synergy that surrounds me is there. Flowing through time, space and consciousness. Observed like notes in a song, collapsed into reality for a moment of beauty only possible through an understanding of the rhythm, timing and wave of music that proceeds and follows it. Until you decide, it is unclear which defines which, the silence or the sound. In the formation of Arda, it was the music of Iluvatar that was there first, not the silence. Seems like a better way to view the world to me.
The music of this awe Deep silence between the notes Deafens me with endless love
Beauty in everything
As I walked in the mountains whilst writing this post, I was constantly in awe of the flowers blooming after the rain. Bold and colourful, some big. some small. All the culmination of an ancient unseen stream of seemingly infinite depth. The foliage converting sunlight into energy. The roots tapping into a rich earth of life and nutrient. The ecosystem that allows it its niche and benefits from it. And all of that is made of stardust. Brought into the real in a stunning display of different forms, different focal points of the same wave, ‘the flower wave’. This endless flow of beauty is all around us. Like the Force from George Lucas’ Star Wars, it brings life and flows through all things. A mycelium like web of connections stretching through time and space. It’s just staggering! And that was just a flower!
I know, I know, it all sounds rather flowery and hippie’ish. But this act of finding in all things the opportunity to recognise the synergy around us can really make us appreciate the awe and majesty of it all. It seems to cut through suffering and heal schisms of vast differences.
The gift of life
The unknown The grand show The choir of the stars Interstellar Theatre play The nebula curtain falls Imagination Evolution A species from the Veil Walks in Wonder In search of The source of the tale
That we get to participate in this endlessly complex Interstellar theatre play is truly a Holy Gift. The odds of such a thing happening are so stupendously low. Actually impossible when you think about it. Of every possible combination of matter and time, here you are. Imagine the dice hadn’t fallen your way, perhaps your would be father died in the Gulags or maybe the universe just didn’t quite make it to support life at all. Who knows but its pretty fucking crazy that the unique experience of what its like to be you is occuring right now. Nightwish use the words ‘a species from the veil’, we are born of this ancient interstellar process but can only glimpse it through a veil. Compelled as we are to search for its full beauty.
Awe is the Seed of Love
For me the only response to this seemly endless flow of beauty is love, its endlessness matches that of the beauty. To be awed is where love begins in my mind. I really loved climbing, its seemly endless depth awed me. It was a depth that I would never fully understand, even if I had continued climbing. I would imagine the ancient streams which fed it. The natural processes of the formation of our planet, the erosion of the rocks, being part of the ancient human tradition which allows us to communicate sufficiently to make climbing shoes instead of killing each other. The complexity of the interaction of my body and mind with those ancient streams would often awe me. What followed afterwards was love and gratitude. The same is true of another human, or a dog, or a God. The seed of love is found in that convergence of the waves, where its most intriguing.
I’ve chosen to carry this line from the song with me to remind me to look for the beauty. It reads as an instruction from me to me. Shudder before the beautiful. That act of being humbled, shocked even, by the awesomeness that we are witness too, opens us up to love. To take comfort in that seed of love, to be a part of this awesomeness. And we can do this every day, many times a day, if we remind ourselves to. If you are building a list of spells to help guide you through this chaos, a touch of awe is a solid place to start. Which is why I decided to start here, with the end in mind, with spell 21:
Why me? What did I do to deserve this torment? I am not a murderer of thief who got his comeuppance. I do not deserve this. I was peacefully going about my business and God or the world or someone came and fucked that up. I want my money back! The world has wronged me and now it owes me. It’s Its fault and I am the victim. Wronged and oppressed by Being itself, I have a right to be upset and a right to justice.
But How Does This Help Me?
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t understand this argument. Or even if i said that it wasn’t forefront in my psyche at times. It’s a powerful and alluring pathway of thought. Wouldn’t it be easier to blame someone else, perhaps Nick who lead me into the area where the accident happened? Or the whole climbing community for not educating me of the dangers? Or maybe even the government for not making sure nature was ‘safetyfied’? Why not go all the way to blaming God, if he exists, I mean surely its his fault right? Whilst it might be possible to mount compelling arguments in favour of such an outlook, I cant see thats it helpful.
So far as I can tell, if you pass the buck of blame to someone else, you pass the responsibility of remedying the situation as well. The two things are inseparable in my mind. This is a pretty brutal concept because it means that the reason my life is a fuck up, is me. I am a victim yes, but a victim of my own inability to assume enough responsibility for the shortcomings in my life. Could I argue that this is 100% the case, of course not. But it is how I have chosen to see it. I have chosen to believe that everything that befalls me is my fault. As such, I have the agency to do something about it. Not someone else. Not God or Being itself. Me.
Taking Extreme Ownership of Life
So here I want to unpack the various ideas that have lead me to this way of thinking. Again I ask you to suspend your own biases as I try to flesh out the thoughts in my head. Try to put yourself in my shoe bearing in mind my legs were crushed and my dreams destroyed.
There is a randomness at work
Id like you to think back to the very first time you realised you were conscious. You can remember that right? Just after you were born yes? Did you think ‘Shit, this isn’t what I asked for?’. Are the circumstances of your birth your fault? Not? well then whos fault are they? Is there a law which says thet it must be someone’s or somethings fault? Perhaps its just the way things are.
There is a randomness at work in life. Its brutal I know. Why are some born in Russia circa 1930 and some born in monasteries where life allows them to be perfectly content living peaceful and meaningful lives? When you look at life from a bigger perspective, there really isn’t a reason. Sure, we could say that its the Socialists fault that life was as horrid as it was. But why was it that a specific consciousness (yours or mine perhaps) is born into that place and time? When I try to answer that question I hit a solid wall. I do not believe there is a reason. Its just random.
Turns out there is a lot of randomness about life. Not only is the society that we are born into random but being born at all is random. To our knowledge there has never been a single repeat of a specific consciousness. There is also no reason to assume that there ever will be. That’s truly amazing, each life born on this planet (or another) has a unique conscious experience. If there is some stock or reserve of consciousnesses out there in the aether it must surely be infinite to sustain this continual production of unique conscious expressions. Perhaps there is not and another process is at play. But it’s still hard to fathom how any one specific consciousness, you or I say, came to be generated from this vast process. That’s about as random as it gets.
Oppression is the norm, not the exception
When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t walk. why? Well in short lets say gravity was the problem. Without two legs I was unable to overcome the pull of gravity in anything approaching the definition of walking. Gravity was oppressing me, holding me back for my true potential. My liberation was me putting on my prosthetic, once again having two legs I could now walk.
We recognise oppression by human means,race, creed, gender, ideology. These structures create limits to what we can do and achieve. But nature also creates these limits and we are often slow to realise that the entire world oppresses us. Unfortunately this is just the way it is. We could say that the reason we cant fly unassisted is Being’s fault. And perhaps its not wrong, but I doubt we would have learnt to build aeroplanes by complaining about how gravity oppresses us.
We have limits in life. We are always oppressed by something. As far as I can tell the correct approach to this isnt to blame the limits themselves, but rather to blame ourselves for our inability to overcome them.
Individual responsibility is key
I have often told people ‘don’t make my problems yours, you have enough as it is’. This is usually met with initial confusion and then utter acceptance. If I have a problem, regardless of who’s fault it is or what randomness created it, it’s my problem. To solve any given problem I am usually incapable or insufficient in some way, so I upskill. Sometimes taking on the necessary learning to find a solution or outsource to someone or something more capable. I still define the problem and specify the criteria for a solution, it’s still my problem.
Taking a high level of responsibility for the life one lives is as liberating as it is brutal. One must have a truthful open conversation with oneself. Seeking out the flaws, demons and inadequacies hiding in the shadows. There are parts of oneself which are difficult to face. But it allows for a much greater agency of action to improving oneself. If you’ve read my first concept you’ll understand why I think it important to make things better. The area in which one has the greatest agency to do that is with oneself.
If you embody the ‘good’ you will improve the world around you in some way. If you embody the ‘bad’ things will get worse around you faster than you can imagine. Assume then that you yourself are the ‘bad’ and take responsibility for fixing that! No one else can. No one else will.
Responsibility and meaning
I have heard many people say of my accident that it happened for a reason, as if the event is tied into some grander meaning which we cannot fathom. I implore you, if you ever meet someone who has had a major disruptive change in their lives, do not say this. There are two problems with this. Firstly there is no intrinsic meaning with which we are imbued, meaning is something we construct. Secondly it alleviates the responsibility of the individual involved to create meaning. If the meaning already exists, why bother.
Is there a cosmic meaning to life? Could be. Who knows. But I think this is the wrong question. A better, more helpful question is: What meaning can I make of this life? If you ask that question, you simultaneously take responsibility for the fulfilment of its answer. Perhaps you decide that the best meaning for your life could be derived from saving lives. You then bear the responsibility to find the course of action that leads to that outcome. Becoming a doctor or perhaps an anti nuclear weapons activist. But it is you who must take responsibility for that and forge meaning, your own specific and unique manifestation of it.
In Physics scientists call the Higgs Boson the particle of mass. By analogy responsibility is the particle of meaning. Life is meaningful, but only if you take the on the responsibility of making it so.
Rehabilitation is My Responsibility
When I arrived in Rehab, I couldn’t walk. That, I decided, was my problem. The coincidences of a boulder falling from its slowly eroding perch just as I happened to be there was perhaps a random tragedy. But the fact that I couldn’t walk was decidedly my fault. I had not done the necessary healing. Nor the necessary hard work of rehab to build muscle and skill to be able to walk. I took ownership of that struggle and resolved to do something about it.
As shouldn’t surprise you now, I took motivation from a Tool song, 10 000 Days. In it Maynard sings of his mothers persisting faith being rewarded when she demands entry to the gates of heaven. I resolved to keep my faith in Being and take responsibility for my part in it. This is the list of Mantras I crafted from the lines of that song to motivate me in the rehab centre.
Give me my wings
Its your time, do whatever you can without assistance
Spread your wings, see how far you can push
Tell them, speak your desires and your future into being
You’re the only one, no more excuses
Give me my wings, ask the question and deserve the answer
The Ouroboros, the snake that eats itself, a creature struggling to survive by eating itself and simultaneously creating its own suffering. Photo by JM Watson
I have been fascinated for some time by the ability of the human spirit to overcome suffering. People like Victor Frankl have suffered more than most of us ever will in our comfortable suburban ‘Hells’. He had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of Aryan in Germany. The Nazi’s would force him to abort his child with his wife. He would also lose his wife, parents and brother to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Despite this he survived the camps and continued with his life’s work as a psychologist. Developing and applying what he called Logotherapy. A psychological treatment which posited meaning as its central theme. Perhaps it’s a naive opinion but when a man like this has something to say, I think we should listen.
I won’t quote the entire book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. But If you haven’t read it I suggest you do so, like now! Ill distill out three quotes which stood out for me whilst lying in a hospital bed broken both physically and psychologically.
“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” Viktor Frankl
“There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.” Viktor Frankl
“There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.” Viktor Frankl
Life is about meaning. Without meaning we are lost. It is the thing that sustains us a humans, not value, not power, not hedonism, but meaning. There are three main channels to find meaning in our lives: Love, Work and Suffering. The last is the only constant in our lives and as such the most important. There will always be suffering to overcome.
Suffering is the Substrate of Life
We say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I think this is a poor attempt to hide the truth. Suffering is the only certainty. If you are born (and that is far from a certainty) you will suffer, it is unavoidable. Even those born in full health and with wealth of resource to spare will fall ill and die. That’s not accounting for their peculiar hardships that they may suffer. To disregard this truth is what the core of religion describes as the path to Hell.
I am not well schooled in Buddhism but I think that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are one of the best summaries of the fabric and meaning of life I have ever come across (believe me I’ve searched). The Four Noble Truths are:
The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
The Truth of the End of Suffering
The Truth of the Path That Leads to the End of Suffering
If we accept that: There is suffering. That it is essentially caused by Life or Being itself (to be specific, this differs from Buddhism a bit here but the idea is similar I think). That there is a way in which we can end that suffering without the cessation of Life or Being itself. Then the means by which we do so becomes the meaning in our lives.
Suffering is embedded in Life and transcending that suffering is the ultimate purpose of life. This is the fabric of Life, it is the substrate from which our conscious experience emerges.
The Last of my Freedoms
“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity…” Viktor Frankl
Lying broken in a hospital bed unable to climb, walk in the mountains with my dogs, feed myself, or even move without pain, I still had the freedom to choose. My love of life had been stolen from me by suffering. My passionate work to improve myself in the realm of rock climbing had been destroyed by suffering. But at least I still had suffering. Whilst reading Frankl’s words, I listened. As I had in ICU, I again chose to embrace that suffering, to find meaning. Before transferring to the rehab facility I did know how the journey upwards would go, but I took the first step in Vincent Pallotti Hospital. I laid down a foundational phrase which would help me rebuild my life in the dark times ahead.
When faced with Unavoidable Suffering, Suffer Bravely
I have been struggling to articulate my thoughts on this next concept for three weeks now. So instead of trying to express myself in a more detailed and articulate form, I’m going to get real fuzzy here. I’m going to describe to you how i feel about the idea of having an Aim for your life. When I actually faced up to it, because it is terrifying, I decided that my Aim in life was to be the best climber I could be. That Aim improved my life beyond what I had conceived possible. Now the terror is fully realised, I have failed, I will no longer be able to posit that Aim for my life. Perhaps the reason I have been unable to fully engage with this topic is because the loss of that unifier is still apparent and may actually never be resolved (more on this in a future post sometime).
We talk a great deal about having goals, but not so much about having Aims. I think that’s a function of our modern world moving away from what might be loosely defined as the spiritual, but that’s a discussion for another post. Whilst ‘Goals’ and ‘Aims’ can be interchanged in use, for the purpose of this post I’d like to define them more precisely. I understand that goals are important and that there is a collection of literature surrounding goals I don’t think, however, that they are as important as Aims.
So to distinguish them, think of the following comparisons. Where goals are specific and measurable (SMART for those who like acronyms), Aims are a more loosely defined collection of ideas which guide us over time. Unlike goals, our Aims are never realized. They are unending motifs that define our lives, allowing us to forge meaning. When you are hungry, the goal may be to eat, but the Aim might be something like feeding yourself consistently and in the best way possible. Where goals are more fixed, Aims move and change. As a climber you might have a certain problem or grade as a goal, but the aim might be to be the best climber you could be and it could morph into being the best boulderer you could be. Where setting goals is a more logic driven function, requiring some definition and structure, Aims are more rooted in emotion and an elusive quality of interest or curiosity. As an investigative journalist you may have a goal to write a book, but the Aim would be to investigate themes and questions that consume your thoughts.
Whilst I refer to having a single Aim in life, it is infact a complex idea, for some there may be several Aims closely linked, for some perhaps just one. However you cut the cake, I believe it is important to have an Aim for your life. I mean the alternative is quite literally to be Aimless. To be so diffuse, like a spinning compass, that you are both everything and nothing simultaneously. Potential lacking the specificity to be anything at all. Having an Aim informs you, orientating your brain, emotions and the very core of your being towards something. It unifies you and guides your thoughts and actions where otherwise there would be pure hedonism, animalistic desire in response to stimulus. It is what they refer to in the Bible when they say ‘straight is the way and narrow is the gate’. Our Aims don’t just keep us on the path, they create the path. They create the meaning in our lives and a life devoid of meaning is truly Hell, I’ve been there, I know.
So how do we go about discovering what our aim in life should be? The best sense I have been able to make of this question is to combine your limitations to with what you find interesting or what your curiosity pulls you towards. This idea of curiosity or interest is elusive, but it does operate within us. We have all heard the adage that we regret what we don’t do more than what we do. As difficult as it is to define, we know what it feels like to be disappointed that we never chased an opportunity or investigated a desire. It cuts at us and only we, as the individual, can truly understand just how much. On the contrary, doing ‘what we love’ seems to imbue our actions with a kind of magic that is mysteriously lacking in that which we do not find interesting. But we must follow our hearts within the limits we find ourselves constrained by. You may not have the means to become an astronaut, or reinvent yourself as a Doctor at 50 or 60 years old. There are truths about existence which cannot be overlooked. Part of having an Aim is to transcend those limitations, but we also need to be reasonable and not attempt the impossible. Finding that balance can be difficult but as Yuval Noah Harari said ‘Life is hard, deal with it’.
I wont delve too deeply into how I came to posit Climbing as my Aim in life but to sketch a brief scenario. I was disillusioned with life when climbing offered me a release, and hope, if somewhat unconsciously. The progression that climbing offered and sense of alignment found in the flow state which climbing requires was contrary to the Nihilistic view on life that I had been infected by. Suddenly there was an emotional (ie feeling based and not articulated knowledge based) improvement in my life. Something i didn’t think was possible. I had been on this emotional journey of meaning for a few years when I was introduced to the ideas of Dr Jordan Peterson who allowed me to see that having an Aim was important and that I should do it consciously. He also said something along the lines of: Ok so you don’t know what to do, then pick something, you’re gonna get it wrong anyways but it beats Aimlessness. And so I chose climbing, because I had the resources to follow that Aim and it called to me with increasing curiosity and interest. It may not have been a conventional Aim or even worthwhile in the eyes of society (I mean if you’re not fighting for the rights of some disadvantaged group or making money what are you doing?), but it was my Aim and that was important to me.
As it turns out Peterson was right, almost immediately I began seeing the world differently. I improved my nutrition, work life, even how I viewed and interacted with people. Moving away from the cynical ‘everyone is a cunt’ model I became more and more accepting of people, if for nothing else so I could get more climbing partners to climb with. I discovered fasting which improved my energy and helped shed fat I could never get rid of before. I started working from home and increased my discipline, producing work of a better standard and faster so I could take Fridays off to go on longer climbing weekends. My training increased to include running and pilates to boost my strength and overall fitness. The pursuit of climbing became the pursuit of the unknown, looking for more challenging routes, problems and even climbing areas that were remote and difficult to get to. Climbing became the inspiration for change and growth in my life, allowing me to rediscover the awe and majesty that life has to offer. In short, it saved me.
But lying there in that hospital bed in the new ward it was apparent that that Aim was lost. the very thing that had rekindled in me the love of life had been smashed. I was forced to painfully and inescapably experience the disintegration of my psyche when the centre pin was removed. Whilst I understand that it wasn’t climbing that actually changed my life, it was having an Aim, climbing was the mechanism by which I came to understand that. It was that which was lost. It was like knowing that it is not air that sustained me but breathing. I was unable to breathe albeit that there was air a plenty. As I write this now, I am still Aimless. I do not know if I will ever find another Aim that calls to me as climbing did, although I am acting in a way that allows me the greatest chance at following such a calling if I happen to identify it. Its like wading through a foggy swamp, there is no visible end, no motivation, but I must continue to wade. Into the Unknown, with no heading, no destination and quite possibly no reward.
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.
The experience of the world is just as much psychological as it is physical
The psychic world corresponds in structure to the physical world
Extroversion places deciding weight on the objective factor and introversion places deciding weight on the subjective factor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Ego, in my mind, has the following characteristics which are worth
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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
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
‘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.
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?
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