In memory of Pat Styer
I’m having more trouble than usual picturing the reader. This project will lead me far from my usual comic shticks. As I leave my comfort zone, sneers and arched eyebrows appear on the imagined face of this unfamiliar reader. And it’s not helpful to focus on the few familiar faces out there. They differ so much from one another that it makes me nervous.
It reminds me of being at a party. With respect to each person I act and feel completely differently. Talking to all of them at once builds a mini-Babel. There are awkward silences interspersed with comments bordering on Tourette’s. Editing does wonders.
I’m uneasy because I don’t feel any overriding persona I can lean on like an old friend.
I’m a shifting perspective exhibiting the personality implicit in whatever angle of view happens to be momentarily dominant. (And that wasn’t a good way to introduce myself to girls at college).
I don’t like speaking as if I were the representative of all these personas. They sneer at me too, eyebrows arching. There is no such speaker, but the “I” is unavoidable.
Probably most people burdened by so-called “self-doubts” see things a bit like this. But others think it’s a joke. Some psychologists might claim it’s a pathology – the failure of an ego to develop properly. I don’t think that’s it. But as childhood became more competitive and self-assertive, I drifted inward, alarmed by the flimsy basis of self-confidence. And by the time I failed 7th grade, I felt downright trapped in solipsism, which reached occasional pathological extremes.
These extremes erupted in conjunction with a logical leap between an “if” and a “then”: If the brain only invents a reflection of reality, then I can’t touch another person, or feel the earth, because in fact I’m only in contact with the circuitry of the brain: Then it’s all essentially hallucination, the wishful distortions of a dreamlike (and eventually nightmarish) consciousness.
When I was 13 this fearful possibility began to dominate waking thought. It was clear that what I took to be me was only an image, and every attempt to refute this perspective involved the further employment of imagination, extending the fabrication infinitely. It made me acutely conscious of the facsimile nature of everything and everyone. I couldn’t merely “forget it.”
On one particular night, this perspective hit like an electric jolt. I saw an undivided (singular) awareness twisting in and out of stories fabricated to reflexively fend off the horror of an inexplicable isolation. That physical jolt made the vision ironically more real than anything I’d ever felt. The cold horror of that experience was the worst thing I’ve ever known or could imagine knowing. It lasted for months. This happened two more times over the next four years. And the burden of this “knowledge” made the world look colorless, drab.
A few years ago I saw a horse pawing at a stream to reach some flooded grass. It reminded me of what I’d been doing then. I was trying to think my way past this stream of consciousness to reach solid ground.
At the time, I couldn’t tell anybody about this because I couldn’t trust they were there. Even now, the fear residing in that perspective radiates some heat. So it feels a little flippant to say this now, but I think in the end the experience was something very good, because it opened up a new perspective on what “I” am, and on reality itself.
But this fear still resonates because that solipsistic perspective isn’t merely “mine.” It exists as a potential in assumptions found in human consciousness as a whole. The whole culture seems to be making familiar leaps between innocuous looking “ifs” and “thens,” landing in conclusions very close to that old horror.
I think we make these leaps because in some sense we’re “seeing double.”
Some tacit, blanket assumption of separation dogs human thought, regardless of the culture. Or maybe it’s built into the structure of thought. If it is, we don’t seem to recognize the danger of this cross-eyed bias. This assumption of separation even fragments one’s own supposedly integral self-consciousness into imaginary Siamese Twins – the observer and the observed (as Krishnamurti pointed out so well).
When I was 13 – immediately prior to that “jolt” — I think I briefly realized that self-consciousness was a falsifying fragmentation of what is undivided by nature. I seem to have stumbled on this perspective of wholeness before I was savvy enough to recognize how fear and ignorance would distort that perspective.
But it’s not hard for a child to see the whole. Children have to be trained out of this perspective. And sometimes the drifty class-clowns hold out longer, are in a better position to intuitively recognize the tautological character of the training – that in being taught to see everything as separate, divisions are provoked and then given back as proof of the validity of the training.
Maybe the child also occasionally saw through the “obvious” evidence that we’re physically separate from one another. In his somewhat drifty manner he wondered how deeply this separation extends. Impertinent questions stirred: Don’t we grow out of one another? Isn’t the same air part of us, aren’t we composed of the same perpetually recycling matter? Do people conflate wholeness with sameness? (Branches in a tree aren’t the same, but they’re also not separate). Aren’t there other ways of being connected than the ones we’re trained to see?
Later it’s harder to disentangle the fine mesh of accumulated learning that hangs like a veil, causing us to see double.
But even at an advanced age, it’s still possible to recognize our own reflex reiterations of that old cross-eyed training. Then the perception that another person is separate from us can be felt as an arbitrary barrier erected by imagination. In the momentary dissolution of such barriers there’s wholeness by default.
Then it’s possible to feel the shared nature of memes and emotions and feel awareness flowing through life in much the same way that atoms are said to flow through every star, planet and being since at least the Big Bang.
After such an encounter, however, it’s very easy to be deluded into believing that one has “grasped” wholeness.
But the whole is impossible to grasp. The physicist Hans-Peter Dürr talked of the neo cortex as a “virtual hand.” It molds the flowing whole (Wirklichkeit) into a collection of things (Realität). And the very fact that this virtual hand leaves its mark on everything can lead us to leap to the conclusion that there is no other possible way of knowing the world.
Every mode of perception is its own infinity. And if we were beings who could only hear, and were told about a world of sight, we would probably ask, What does sight sound like? And if we were told “it’s no sound at all,” we might fear that this new perception would plunge us into emptiness.
Likewise, in trying to recall the whole, we use our imagination to “step outside” the experience, as if it were a single, graspable object. In this way, the memory of wholeness gets distorted into something that still feels separate from the tacit observer. Wholeness, which is all-inclusive, devolves then into something that feels isolating, empty.
When this happens, the usual meaning of Self gets twisted up in this false memory of wholeness, either inflating self-worth beyond all proportion (as in “I am God”), or depressing and suppressing the Self-image into a disparaged unreality.
When the latter happens, the tacit observer gets stranded (so to speak) as a kind of disembodied suffering under the glare of that “singular” consciousness. This can easily lead to schizophrenic fears of manipulation and control.
I think human culture is stuck in perspectives that often mistake the singular for the whole, totalitarianism for harmony; control for integrity. And I think this perspective leads to a familiar alienation and fragmentation.
Look at how a recent Scientific American article on neuroscience begins:
“It is a fact of neuroscience that everything we experience is a figment of our imagination. Although our sensations feel accurate and truthful, they do not necessarily reproduce the physical reality of the outside world.”
This recapitulates the 13-year-old’s solipsistic trap. Note the separation between “our sensations” and an “outside world.” It draws the picture of a mind isolated from reality behind walls of bone. It’s this assumption of separation that manifests crises, whether wars (separation between nations), or environmental destruction (separation between humanity and nature); or various forms of pathology (separation within consciousness). In various ways, the same panic and alienation I felt as a teenager is manifesting worldwide. And the earth itself is being converted into the same drab landscape that I saw as a teenager.
Scientists don’t necessarily recognize their own hand in bringing this about. When there’s too much focus on positive results, it’s hard to see our shadows.
Sheldrake convincingly depicts science trying to rid itself of the immaterial shadow of mind. This shadow dogs their investigations into hard-nosed matter. The attempt to outrun this shadow brings to mind that horse pawing at the stream again. Science is a little like that scared kid trying to think his way past illusion. Maybe it’s absurd to equate the tribulations of a 13-year-old with the complexities of science. But the essential contradiction of an isolated, immaterial mind haunting a materialist vision is similar.
The whole of human culture is haunted by this shadow. It’s a lost element of our being. It’s the absence of what David Bohm calls proprioception. It was exiled when attention got fragmented into an observer and observed. We can’t name or grasp this missing element, but its footprints are visible as “externalities.”
We are injuring the fabric of being through tacit assumptions of separation, by ignorantly addressing the world as if it were an Other. Our efforts to heal these injuries only create more, because the same externalizing relationship endures. The one thing we haven’t tried (in any cultural context, especially science or politics) is dropping our allegiance to this assumption. When we do so, then mind can extend beyond its hall of mirrors. Then the equivalency of matter and energy can be extended to include mind.
Several months after my first psychic shock, the drabness began yielding in rare flashes of color. It was like briefly walking into a different universe. Immediately afterward, I’d doubt the validity of the experience. The fundamental assumptions of the two universes made them incomprehensible.
But over the next years these bursts of color chipped away at assumptions that tended to reassert that drab, solipsistic perspective. I was able to enjoy baseball, long nights driving around back roads with friends. The fear became less oppressive. It was slowly dawning on me that the fear of unreality was itself only an image. There’s a proprioceptive element to such a perspective.
When I was twenty-four, the absurdity of trying to find a solid reality beyond image became clear. In the past, I seemed to realize this. But there had always been that lingering observer trying to outrun the infinite plane of his own thinking.
When I finally saw that there was no possibility of pawing past this stream of imagery, the effort to do so stopped. In that instant, the fears, assertions, illusions – including any tacit sense of an observer – ended (though a milder version of that stream would eventually start again).
I learned only enough, apparently, to eliminate the fear I had when I was thirteen. This resolution was basically that everything infinite is also limited. There are worlds beyond worlds; no need to suffocate in solipsism.
And at that moment both “reality” and “unreality” became irrelevant remnants of a universe of words and image. What remained by default is precisely where words and images stopped, where a different manner of relating to the world began — larger, because it rose perpendicular to the two-dimensional (oppositional) plane of thinking, recognizing its coherencies and incoherencies.
For a few weeks thoughts rose, hovered momentarily like fascinated fish staring for the first time at the walls of their tank, and then happily dissolved, leaving the mind alert with unspent energy. In effect, thought was negating itself, overwhelmed by wonder. The brain seemed to be waking to its potential as a sense organ of some subtler order.
I want to playfully name this order beyond the farthest reach of thought (into which a clever and observant thought refrains from trying to leap) a negative geography.
Positing (or insisting one CAN cognitively touch) such orders, and denying any possibility of such orders, appear to go hand in hand. Positing and denying are styles of thinking that are mere opposites. Some things are more than mere opposites. Negation erupts entirely outside the context of thought.
Negation suggests the simultaneous perception and transcendence of thought. But look: I don’t understand “transcendence.” If that moment was in fact transcendent it belonged only to the perspective that arose at that moment. And it reemerges only when that angle of vision is reencountered. The vision doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the perspective itself.
Maybe I could phrase it like this: I don’t have an inherent nature. I’m an embodiment of perspectives. These can change, though I tend to stubbornly cling to certain perspectives, changing little.
Sometimes this new way of looking at “self” is clear and beautiful. And sometimes it’s disturbing. I’m trying to speak from a clarity that isn’t always present.
The mask of the “I” still incarnates over a wide range of perspectives, some as old as Kindergarten, some still insisting upon the impression of a consistent and confident “me.” I don’t disparage these images anymore. They embody some real force, but their reality is limited and momentary.
In general, “I” waver between dropping the assumption of a separate me, and being reabsorbed in a society entirely overrun by separate me’s, trumpeting the virtues of self-confidence. But the desire to be reabsorbed is half-assed now, because self-confidence seems a naïve and extravagant assumption in a universe this wild.
And yet I still think some individuality is authentic. It’s not an individuality tied to self-confidence. An authentic confidence doesn’t rest in oneself, but in the flow of meaning itself.
This suggests a different kind of inconsistency from the inconsistencies of nervous self-consciousness.
The writer “I” intend to lure onto these pages lacks self-confidence and consistency. His confidence doesn’t rest in static “Truths”, but in coming close to a world that exceeds every static formulation. His confidence isn’t rooted in rational proof (e.g. science), nor in the denial of rationality (e.g. fundamental religions), but in the wider vistas that incompletion makes possible. This gives the mind room to play with vaster formulations.
I have no idea if such a writer will ever show up. The most I can hope to do is face my own fragmented mind, with a little humor and forgiveness. If possible, I speak as someone who might punch someone at a bar, and then forgive himself immediately. I intend to let myself off the hook, to suffer no guilt, because I have nothing to live up to, no overriding image.
So I don’t want these carefully edited words to create the false impression that I’m somehow beyond confusion. I suppose my wife could be invited to play the Greek Chorus.
However, there’s no need to go to such extremes, because inconsistencies will out themselves. All I really hope to do is establish the right intention before mucking it all up. Besides it’s the limits, the incompleteness, that engender the confidence to continue.
Writing as a “Ceremony”
This project is the product of extremely introverted perspectives. However, the intention is to plunge my head even further up my own ass than usual, thereby provoking a kind of poor man’s second sight, staring out and in at the same time (not to be confused with “seeing double” in part I). I’m hoping to see my own idiocies as they unfold. I think an immediate recognition of one’s own idiocy is possible, and “promising” in some way that will take a long while to make clear.
Here is Beckett’s encounter with his own idiocy:
“Up to that point, I had thought I could rely on knowledge. That I had to equip myself intellectually. That day, it all collapsed. I wrote Molloy and the rest the day I understood my stupidity. Then I began to write down what I feel. I caught a glimpse of the world I had to create to be able to breathe.”
This “second sight” may be just this — seeing how I create that suffocating world; and what it means to create a world with breathing space.
This “second sight” might also be proprioception– not seeing in the typical sense, not as an external observer watching oneself. Not as the introvert Narcissus, enthralled by image. Proprioception is another kind of seeing altogether.
The usual introvert, for example, has a very external relationship to himself. The possessive “my” and the possessed “self” imply this estrangement.
To Beckett, “all is a question of voices.” He saw the self as a kind of voice-throwing trick — throwing the “I” perpetually outside the wreckage of the “me.” Maybe it’s not an intentional insincerity. But even when nobly trying to confront its failings, the voice misses its own alienating effect, which is to eject itself into the abstract, landing in some outside perspective, gazing back at its failures like the lab-coated know-it-all, not the dummy in the wreck.
Proprioception is a completely different kind of introspection. It’s sensing one’s own backside (the dummy in the wreck), but not from an abstract vantage point, not as some superior or abject persona observing the wreck externally. It’s a self-penetrating knowing. Proprioception is thought physically sensing the incompleteness of itself. It implies a freedom to see the “me” as yet another metaphor – a freedom from the self-induced enchantment of the metaphor.
When perception is bent in on itself just right, it’s possible to see these bewitching metaphors from the inside, as they emerge, evoking the world. They’re charms calling up visions that manifest the world accordingly. Look at how jingoism lures the mind into a nationalistic vision that manifests as real and bloody war.
If these charms are not recognized for what they are in that vivid and physical sense (proprioceptively), they become increasingly destructive. Ignorance and fear distort them. And the world responds in kind, setting up a feed-back loop that can easily spiral towards panic.
Proprioception releases us from enchantment by plunging far enough into our own incoherencies – into the various mantras of thought driving us – that the magic trick is unmasked, releasing the mind from the enthralling double-bind. When this happens, we inevitably catch sight of a vaster world, where we are finally able to breathe.
It’s fun to think of writing as a kind of ceremony, where each letter is carefully placed, as in a dance around a fire. The fire is one’s own authenticity, one’s internal relationship to everything encountered. The flame dies at the first false step. Even a trivial lapse throws water on the fire, and leaves one idiotically padding around the keyboard, lost in the smoke of solipsism.
And yet it’s not the misstep that matters! What matters is whether the dance is resumed or perpetuated in this moment. If there is resistance in confronting a loss of authenticity, then the fingers tap the keys in pretense; then the mind indulges in self –delusion. Indulgence and resistance dance hand-in-hand. But the moment there is no resistance to the false step, the fire reignites. I think it’s that simple.
So the intention here is not to write words that are “correct”. They can’t be correct, only perpetually corrected. I’m interested in writing words that have second sight (that relevate, in Bohm’s sense) – that are so far up their own backside they can sense their own false steps at the moment of inception.
The intention is to “fail, fail again, fail better.”
The absence of an overriding persona notwithstanding, I can always go into a room and be alone — free from the web of mutual expectations that is the “me” and the “you.”
This is rare. Usually I go into a room, and I’m merely “by myself” – still spinning in the wake of the previous room’s social vortexes. But now and then a door opens leading to an empty space, one with no self-conscious observer interpreting the situation.
But I don’t think it’s healthy to look at this room as a sanctuary. When I do that I notice that the walls of the room become thicker; the distinction between solitude and social engagement becomes more pronounced; and the hypocrisies, or at least contradictions, between the moment of clarity and the rest of the everyday clutter become more annoyingly apparent.
I think it’s hard to be alone (as opposed to being “by myself”) because the insights implicit in that empty space have not been shared widely enough not only between “us”, but between all the other stubbornly held perspectives within this single brain.
Outside the empty room, self-consciousness is tied to a particular combination of assumptions. In a space that is empty of self-consciousness, every assumption is held aloft like a prism, admired for the refractions of meaning these assumptions and metaphors make possible. And here one doesn’t have vested interest in conclusions or particular versions of Truth (with a capital T). Here what holds interest are the ever-shifting portions of eternity that metaphors allow us to navigate.
What feels necessary is to break down the walls separating the various perspectives of the mind – to undertake a publicly demonstrated private dialogue between the various perspectives so that the implications evident in the empty room can circulate through the whole mind.
And where does this mind end? Where does one person actually differ from another if his personality is a differently combined and emphasized collection of social constructs? Constructs such as language, memes and assumptions? It seems to me that all writing is public writing, and looking at oneself ceases to be a personal inquiry and becomes a public enquiry.
I’m not even sure it matters if anyone reads this. The very act of addressing these matters of self publicly feels healthy – as if a window is being opened into rooms that all of us share.
Dialogue is opening windows. Dialogue is proprioception in a larger, livelier, more unpredictable social mind.
And there’s something a little comical about the ego’s relation to dialogue that I haven’t been able to put my finger on till now. Dialogue often begins in a slapstick encounter with one’s own rational limits. It’s a psychic version of the rake-handle/head collision. I think we run into dialogue accidentally, by discovering the futility of thinking our way beyond our own glaucoma of opinion and wishful thinking.
Getting to know Tony Dias through his essays, and through our audio dialogues with Jeppe Graugaard and Declan Elliott, was one of those accidental collisions the rational mind believes it caused to happen, by its own initiative. This initiative, however, amounted to nothing more than allowing the conversation to unfold unimpeded by ego resistance — fear, shyness, self-doubt…. From a certain angle there was no initiative. Resistance was merely overwhelmed by a genuine interest in the possibilities raised.
It’s interesting that it’s not necessarily an “absence” of resistance that allows a good conversation to start. There may still be resistances, but somehow, now and then, they don’t impede the emergence of something meaningful.
You start to feel that bumbling along in the wake of an unspecified tug of interest, something orderly emerges without us having to intrude intellectually. It’s uncanny how often order emerges by simply surrendering to ignorance.
This is how dialogue seems to happen. There’s an initial recognition of one’s own absent-mindedness. If I’m in the context of a “normal” High Noon conversation, where I’m expected to draw my opinions faster than the next guy, drawing a blank feels like an ignominious defeat. Faced with my own blank mind, my usual reaction is to scurry for cover. Or to shoot reflex opinions from the hip, hoping the noise at least drowns out the other person’s stupid opinions.
Somehow dialogue emerges from a mind as stupid as that. It doesn’t emerge by resisting or trying to be better than the idiots we are, but by finding the whole keystone cop charade of scurrying from our own ignorance futile and funny.
Dialogue starts when at least one of the gunslingers admits that his mind is firing blanks and surrenders. This flatters some former enemies, confuses others. After all, one minute you’re shooting your mouth off with everyone else. Next thing you know, you’re surrendering to your own slack-jawed befuddlement.
Writing dialogue is the same. These streams of thinking flow through every mind. It’s a whole stream – certainly not a single stream! It includes varied and colliding currents.
In an empty room or in a crowded room, dialogue begins when we proprioceptively grope the contours of our shared ignorance, and notice patterns in this hitherto unfathomable world. Your own ignorance becomes more interesting than being right.
This bewildered engrossment in bewilderment (second sight) can’t differ much from the mind of a baby. The bemused, bewildered baby manages to construct an orderly vision of the world out of scraps of inexplicable sensory excitations, and apparently accomplishes this by leisurely flailing its arms and legs with no rhyme or reason. I think it manages this because it’s graced with the absence of a judgmental overlord criticizing its every move, intent on being right. In that freedom from shame, a baby learns very fast. And if the “gagas” and “googoos” indicate anything, seems to enjoy its bewilderment.
Writing to Live, not Living to Write
I assume it’s inevitable that an overlord forms. But maybe it’s possible for the Self to be implicitly understood as a contextual convenience, with no overbearing qualities. If that could happen, then the Self would be a lovely invention, rising as needed fish-like in its infinite but limited tank, and then going poof with a wink.
But sometimes I picture the self-metaphor more like an egg shell, protective and helpful up to a point, offering a manageable horizon until wider vistas can be dared.
Now I think this self has developed too thick a shell, poisoning the yoke of mind with the excretions of excess rationality and control. I think the mind is being challenged to bust past this shell into wider horizons. But it can’t do so prematurely, without first realizing the Siamese nature of the self. Otherwise this little ego will scramble itself accidentally into false visions of the whole, which can lead to horrors of grandiosity or solipsism.
I’m going to start by merely admitting that the self I have in mind is not me, not whatever this mystery of existence may be.
There are memes circulating that enchant us all into seeing closed worlds, infinities that appear to offer no other possibilities, no breathing space.
We may be resistant to some effects of these black charms circulating in the social context. But we’re never fully free from their poison until these enchanted memes are exposed on the ceremonial dance-floor of dialogue.
These communal ceremonies of healing involve the spontaneous eruption of shared metaphors of a wider empathic horizon. This is an action of profoundly real magic that can dissolve incantations of fragmentation and separation that drive us to madness and war.
I want this blog to be part of that communal ceremony of healing. Not because I want to be a “writer”. Because I need space to breathe.
Appendix March 14, 2022: I finally discovered the name for what I experienced as a kid — depersonalization/derealization!