Friendships are Parallel Universes
Almost a year ago, one of my truest friends died. Pat Styer. I never met her in person. It didn’t matter. We spoke the same fundamental language. It wasn’t about agreeing or disagreeing. It was about playing catch with a perspective that few in my circle at that time seemed to find worth picking up. What she said broadened my own vocabulary. And whatever I said, she received without distortion. It was as if we were learning something that could only be discovered between us.
I think every relationship (whether with a human or a dog or a cat) gives rise to someone new between us, creates a context of understanding that will never be duplicated with another. We move between parallel worlds. Each infinite, but limited to our mutual contexts.
With my wife Margie, our world sings in frequencies that seem to extend beyond a mere lifetime. We don’t hear these deeper chords all the time. But on each occasion something of the whole song is heard. An implied eternity. Like stumbling together on hidden gardens, or opening a small box to find some vast and beautiful world.
It’s a song we feel viscerally, though it was there long before us. Something unique to us and yet inexplicably universal too.
We all seem to hold the smallest kite string of familiarity between us. The string extends by some discontinuous magic into a universal unknown.
This is the strangest thing – a visceral connection to something that has nothing to do with me, with the person I imagine myself to be.
It’s only in losing self-consciousness that these deeper chords tremble to life. When I’m not here. When I’m not who I think I am.
I Am Not Who I Think I Am
“I’m not who I think I am.” The statement doesn’t pretend to know who I “actually” am. It’s the neutralizing exposure of such assertions. It suspends, doesn’t conclude. It starts the learning process, doesn’t end it.
Negative knowledge is a launching pad, not a landing strip.
I need to step carefully into the next phase of this ceremony – for this feels like a shamanic dance across the keyboard, exorcising memes that possess me, exposing them to a ceremony of dis-enchantment. I can’t fall for the enchanting lie that I offer anything other than my own entrails of ignorance.
There is an active ingredient in negative knowledge that I resist, because it brings my own ignorance into focus.
“I am not who I think I am”.
I tend to read some presumed conclusion into these words that isn’t in the text. Sometimes I take it to mean I’m “more” than mere thought. But there’s no rescuing image of a transcendent me in the statement. Or sometimes I project a nihilistic denial of self in these words. But the statement also doesn’t assert my non-existence. If I tread lightly, it suspends every assertion — shuts down the projector room which broadcasts all this unDead imagery. Stops thought in a receptive neutrality.
This is the active ingredient, negation:
“When we understand the nature of that positive [assertive] structure – the understanding is the learning and the doing – the mind has moved away, as it moves away from poison; and that movement is negation” (Krishnamurti).
When this happens, then the question of who I am is left behind. Not merely because it’s ungraspable, but because it’s a wrong question. It’s a quest that leads meaning astray, trapping it in surface refractions of self-consciousness.
This is what I think Krishnamurti meant when he said “there is no psychological evolution.”
Look, all my ambitions scurry between surface simulacra – between defended “positions”. When there is a discontinuous leap into the unknown, I’m not the one who leaps. I end with that surface tension. Self-consciousness is lost in a visceral absorption in the world. “We die to ourselves,” as Krishnamurti would say.
What’s lost is a compulsive conformity to the expectations of an isolated self. In losing myself, life flourishes, and the most singular things can happen. And this is what blows my mind: none of it involves me.
David Bohm once said “individuality is only possible if it unfolds from wholeness.” I think he means a life lived without the fragmentation of self-consciousness.
Suspension is trusting these obliterations of Self, death’s good intentions. Not trusting in the sense of expecting something in return. But trusting the clarity implied in moving away from these undead and misleading surface traps. Come what may. Leaping into the unknown, into Nowhere.
“Negation is freedom“, Krishnamurti said. “And it is the free man who lives, loves, and knows what it means to die.”
Altogether Elsewhere, Vast…
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast — (from Auden’s The Fall of Rome).
I dreamed I rode on a train through a vast, treeless valley. We were traveling at a tremendous speed, almost flying down a long, low grade into the middle of the valley. The train didn’t seem to be following any tracks, but roaring into a new world. All of us on the train felt like an animal exploding out of a cage, already free in the act of moving away.
There were enormous stone towers of impossible construction set back a few miles from the tracks. As we passed the towers, they began to fall, one after another. They were so tall that they seemed to fall in slow motion.
When I woke up that sense of freedom didn’t go away. For quite some time it stayed, maybe a week. I felt lighter, like some useless weight had been cut away. I couldn’t find any specific thing that was not there. I didn’t feel bereft of anything. Living felt efficient, free of friction. It took a few minutes or maybe even hours to realize that what was missing was that inner voice.
It was hard to notice the difference because it wasn’t that the voice completely stopped. Now and then I would still make comments to my “self”, but these comments dissipated immediately, without causing any ripples of further thought. Intentions could be seen at their inception (in their “implicate” state), before they could lead meaning astray into the usual hall of images. A compulsion to verbalize was unmasked. A beautiful silence followed every utterance. An alert quality so unlike my usual state. Something like what’s felt in reading those lines from Auden.
An assumption had been removed. One that would be put back within a week or two. It all ended quickly and never happened again. But it offered a revealing glimpse of the architecture underlying seemingly intractable perspectives. It showed how cladogenesis can happen.
We all encounter similarly limited discontinuities of experience, even if it’s playing music or basketball. A context arises that removes a key foundational assumption supporting long-standing towers of belief and behavior. The disappearance of the need to convert experience into static shapes (words) can collapse personas and move meaning into a trackless territory. Effectively, then, we switch allegiance from what Bohm called the “explicate” to the “implicate” field. It’s what amounts to a dive from the solid ground of static structures of thought (reality) into the fluidity of life itself (actuality).
The Architecture of Dying
One of the most beautifully balanced pieces of negative knowledge is this one by David Bohm: “A change in meaning is a change in being.”
This can initiate a collapse or a leap or whatever we wish to call it. A discontinuity, a death.
When fundamental meanings change, we live fundamentally differently.
My friend Pat Styer described it like this:
“[Imagine] the ‘smallness’ of all of the simple assumptions that have been discovered as faulty or irrelevant, in relation to the largeness of the worlds that have collapsed upon such discovery. The upside-down pyramid is the architecture of these worlds. Worlds spin on little pins.”
And in another letter, she said this:
“A very interesting use of “active information” comes to mind in that in the pre quantum model, the base of a pyramid … would seem to have to be broad and highly energetic, so as to be able to ‘support a lot of weight’ whereas in the quantum model of “active information” the “pyramid” is ‘set up on its nose’ and it is the tiniest bit of energy (the formative energy) that “holds up” the entire structure.”
Negative knowledge acts by kicking the legs out from certainties at the base of inverted pyramids of meaning. Suspension can easily lead to a clarifying collapse of old blinders. But in most cases the assumptions at the base of wider, deeper, pyramids re-implant those temporarily negated assumptions, thereby re-constructing the whole sub-edifice of self that had collapsed. That’s why flow states of one type or another are short lasting — context dependent or simply not fundamental enough to avoid being re-implanted by more fundamental assumptions.
The Ant Colony
The theory here is that an inverted pyramid of gargantuan proportions rests on a core confusion between thought and thing.
How else explain the ease with which I mistake image for reality, how easily absorbed in myself I become? Society as a whole seems to be making this mistake. Images become necessities for which people sacrifice the lives of their offspring in wars for imaginary nations, and sacrifice their own life energy in careers that consume them.
We aren’t controlled by Bilderbergers — should such idiots exist — but by our own colonized mentality (an ant-colony mentality) of self-operating memes – the “Great American Media Mind Warp”, as Joe Bageant used to call it. Bilderbergers and all legendary boogeymen from Huns to Americans are not capable of controlling anyone who is not already chained. The conquerors are chained also — to dimwitted and self-defeating hallucinations of independence.
Should it read “vae victus” (woe to the conquered) or “vae victor” (woe to the conqueror)? Are we conquerors or conquered? Or do the categories merge and disappear as we learn that the “we” in the equation has hardly been born yet. In this Dark Age, thoughts are still so diffuse and mindlessly automatic. There is nothing to be done but confront and catalyze the confusion of our own en-darkened reflexes, like the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Light-giving minds poised to be born?
Sounds difficult. But lucky for us, we only need to be stupid to learn. Error is the fuel, and it will never run out.
Evolution operates by error. Mutations. They leap from the remains of previous Flops. Ad infinitum. This seems to be reflected in the subtle mud of the brain itself. The brain-stem, cerebellum, and all the complex segments of the cerebrum lie in layer, like pickup sticks dropped willy-nilly.
So we’re not doomed by a lack of brain power. Its power is already so great that it entraps an unborn mind in its folds. What dooms us is an attitude that is too positive, seeking correctness, answers. What we seem to need is a neutral alertness to limitations. The alertness of a tiger turned to a more subtle jungle — itself. Here, the persistent failure to distinguish thought from thing is the danger. And at the bottom of this thicket lies the thought of me. A new potential seems tied down by this thought.
The “me” has gotten all entangled in noble ideals. Nations, God, atheism, scientific materialism, the list of allegiances is endless. Our lifeblood is funneled into them. Like Horkruxes in Harry Potter. So we engage in schizophrenic fights with hallucinations of nationalities and ideologies, unconscious of the unimaginably precious parallel universes of plants and animals that we crush.
What’s being sold as individuality unexpectedly resembles the regimented group-think of an ant colony. “Thoughts run us,” Bohm said. Regurgitated ideas merely rearranged as something new pass for individuality.
An unborn life is trapped in an ant-colony consciousness. This consciousness marches to memes singing “I’m unique!”
Switching Allegiances From Solidity to Fluidity (From Reality to Actuality)
This exorcism is only starting. I’m still under the delusion that life happens on a solid continent of certainties, involving only rare excursions into a fluid unknown. The ideas brought back from these excursions are hauled grudgingly from one fixed position to another, and gradually hoisted into towers of learning.
It’s on this solid ground that habit functions like gravity, holding together static forms, making it possible to converse in relatively stable languages and build technologies.
But is it possible to reverse this basic relationship between the known and the unknown? Can meaning suspend itself in a fluid of shifting perspectives (an implicate order), making only brief excursions to static forms, to utilitarian identities?
Proprioceptive sojourns in an implicate order suggest no evidence of an in-between state. The kite string linking me to some ever-larger world (anagenesis) includes breaks (cladogenesis). One such break is a collapse of the inverted pyramid of self-consciousness. This is death, or more optimistically, a slapstick collision with the limits of thought.
I can’t decide to make this leap into a new allegiance, a new being. But I might come to realize the increasingly destructive limits of this current allegiance.
Losing someone is losing everything. Every parallel world of shared meaning is infinite.
I miss Pat, but I love the way she faced death. Her wonderful close friend, Diana, described how she was still ordering books right up to the last day. Her passion for learning was not aimed at adding static knowledge, but in feeling that swift transparency of her own intentions.
An entire world of clarity and intelligence became inaccessible when she died. We die in a different way with every friend.
And we’re born to new universes with every new friend.
2 thoughts on “Death’s Good Intentions”
Re-edited “The Ant Colony” section. Was a real mess. Had made some last minute changes before putting it up and that’s always a bad idea. This is at least somewhat better.
Came across this, which is basically what I tried to say: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/10/06/dropping-ashes-on-the-buddha-hate-mail/