I’m picturing a mostly unconscious human being – a mind occupied all day by video games, food, sex, drink, and sleep. Or I could picture a corporate executive who has utterly surrendered to the sociopathic profit motive, perhaps somebody at Shell who has helped to bury the science on climate change. Or even myself more often than I care to admit – my thoughts like mice constantly scurrying to the higher end of a perpetually sinking ship.
But it’s all the same state of mind in one fundamental way at least – a mind perpetually busy trying to outrun itself, trying not to notice the unfathomed compulsion that keeps it busy. In this state of mind (if there aren’t sufficient distractions available) the tendency is to feel subjected to thought, tossed and turned by thought. To avoid the sensation of drowning in this tumult, an inner director, a thinker in charge, a focus of Self, is created, which seems to be a retroactive gloss that thought itself compulsively places over its own shenanigans to retain an illusion of order and control. But in this state of mind there is only a running script (though ad libbed) in which this fantasy of a director (a Me playing the starring role) ends up organizing what is still only a compulsive escape from its own unfathomed turmoil.
I need to emphasize this distinction between people and the habits of thought that hold them captive, otherwise I fall into the common misconception that people who think and do ugly, evil things are inherently (in their blood and bones) ugly and evil, and not merely ill with thought. If I blame the person — even my own starring Self — too much (and I often do) I become susceptible to the illness itself, willing to injure that person just to stop the ridiculous ideas driving them (or me). Then the distinction between these dimensions of life (between the actual human being and the thoughts driving them, between territory and map) is lost, and then I’m driven by the unfathomed compulsions of thought, and capable of ugly, evil things.
So it’s oddly helpful (not as nuts as it might seem) to picture the human being as a prisoner of thought more often than not. And then it’s possible to distinguish these two dimensions and recognize a deeper potential than who we “think” we are. Then I might treat others and myself a little less harshly, not as evil caricatures (no matter how evilly we do behave), but as patients in a psych ward of sorts, requiring empathy, not punishment — beings stuck in a state of extended immaturity, in a perpetual cocoon of certainties, crazy like caged animals, too afraid to grow beyond the shape of its imprisoning indoctrinations.
Whenever I don’t make this distinction (or don’t understand it deeply enough), I end up as psychotic as the military. Look, they’re designed to squash human bodies in order to stop the spread of disagreeable ideas. The ideas survive because the dead are breeding grounds for dangerous thought. They reinvigorate the competing ideal with visions of martyrdom and vengeful heroism. It’s not the bodies, not even the guns, which build opposing armies. It’s the images, beliefs and indoctrination – the imagination alone — which bombs are trying to eradicate in enemies and promote and protect on their own side. Yes, I’d take away the world’s guns if it were possible, because humans in the presence of guns is a psych ward filled with weapons. We don’t know what we’re doing, we’re shooting at hallucinations in defense of hallucinations. The world’s arsenal is in the hands of schizophrenics, and that’s everybody.
The point is, those of us captive to a busy mind, one that is constantly writhing in restless opposition to itself, suppressing, denying or crusading on behalf of certain images and ideals – that mind, that voice in the head shared by you and me, is essentially warring with itself, and never reflecting on why it acts in this way. It’s a cop out to say “it’s only natural.” Madness isn’t part of a natural development. A dimension of perception has gone missing. It confuses itself with the thoughts that occupy it. And so it can kill a person without realizing the magnitude of its mistake. It gets captured by thought, loses contact with the dimension of real intelligence, expert only in the objects of fantasy, but ignorant entirely of what drives it to pursue these objectives.
Most will say that the pursued objectives themselves are intrinsically desirable. But take money, security, power, control, status, fame and serial sexuality. Systemically seen, these goals always fall short eventually, always require more. They can’t satisfy a need that originates in a different dimension from thought.
I’m trying to direct attention to something I’ve never had the patience to stare at long enough until the fact itself becomes clear: That there are different dimensions operating simultaneously, that there are in fact parallel realities; that my thoughts may seem to be “my own” from a superficial level, but from a deeper or wider perspective they are not my own, but part of a predatory momentum that pretends to be me, deceiving this human potential into pursuing dangerous red herrings.
So the human being is born into a momentum of indoctrination that is not its own stream of thought. If the person remains within this subtle wave of indoctrination individuality is an illusion. The cultural momentum of beliefs and thoughts moves the human to speak and think things that are not emanating from them, no matter how convincing the illusion. Thought runs us in that case, as Bohm observed.
And each person is taught to believe that he or she can single-handedly change the momentum of history. My schooling has taught me to make such waves, to be that hero! Otherwise I’ll be a nobody, meaningless. And even though I know it’s a dumb story, it’s not easy to drop this illusion of heroic individualism. We’ve grown attached to it, and believe it encourages good works, but we’re unconscious of the trap this creates, the orientation it establishes, the fear of being nobody, the resistance to one’s own imperfection this sets in motion, the momentum it serves.
Let’s be honest for a moment and then resume the illusion if necessary. But no single person changes the course of history unless they land at precisely the tipping point of a particular wave of change already underway. I mean the momentum must have already shifted prior to the impact of that individual, shifted enough to create that opportune moment of suspended destiny when every butterfly wing is rapidly beating to become the one and only flutter that changes the course of history. So this heroism is mostly an illusion. From this vantage point the Great Individual is like the fly on the wagon wheel giving itself airs — “Oho, but don’t WE raise a lot of dust.”
I think that even the most remarkable individuals are placed on far too high a pedestal. They are dangerous to emulate, because they merely landed in a wave of momentum that momentarily parted at their location. And if anyone hopes to repeat their destiny it will lead them into a delusion of self-importance and self-defensiveness, which is perpetual immaturity.
What I’ve been saying implies that people rarely, very rarely, think up the thoughts that are carrying them away. I know it feels like they’re my own, and I depend on feeling like I’m thinking for myself. And admitting to having no meaningful effect on the momentum of history is like confessing to being a nobody under today’s prevailing philosophy.
But a momentum moves the brain along habits of thought. They emanate from the cultural momentum. That only sounds crazy because I’m carried along by a cultural momentum that insists on an individualistic (or atomistic) lens. That belief in individualism is also not my own even if I tend to voice it. The point is, I didn’t “think it up”. It’s only the momentum of belief into which I fell.
And what is momentum? What ties me to the habits of perception carried by the culture? No real intelligence is involved if I merely stay within the framework of certain unconscious assumptions. Only when I begin to dig out and face those assumptions does the momentum begin to slow.
Occasionally, then, a new perception occurs to somebody, and for reasons noted above it’s good enough sometimes to change the momentum of history. That’s the refraction through which the individual looks heroic. But from other angles that looks too simplistic. Because new possibilities arise when we stop participating in the momentum of history, stop following the dull plod of indoctrinated thinking, which is a rare thing and even most rebels are merely plodding in opposite directions, making competing waves, not actually ending their participation in the momentum.
That’s why I also can’t intentionally stop myself from making mistakes. The very effort to improve, to not make mistakes (which seems so noble on the surface, but which was a main pillar of indoctrination) is itself a deep mistake, because if I try to prevent myself from making mistakes I’m preventing myself from learning and maturing. Rather than trying to stop the flow of mistakes and pretending to be perfect or at least aiming to be perfect, it’s better to allow the life-giving flow of mistakes to happen so that I can confront them openly, without resistance or frustration, and learn from them after the fact or while they’re happening. This, of course, threatens the image I’m trying so hard to maintain as a kind of monument to life. But if I let the monument decay, then this ends the dishonest attempt to deny, justify or feel guilty about what I’ve done. This breaks the chain reaction of resistance, which is the backbone of mindless momentum.
The greatest human insights have tended to be these rare cessations of momentum, not originations of a new momentum. That is, the Buddha, Christ, Lao Tzu and Krishnamurti[i] too warned against this very thing: do not put me or even the teachings on a pedestal and commence a new momentum of plodding belief. Free yourself from momentum itself by breaking the chain reaction of denial and justification. Meet the world without any allegiance to precedence, to the illusion of a promised land. Allow error to happen, which breaks the chain reaction. Allow stupidity to expose itself so it can be metabolized. Take yourself less seriously.
These breaks in the momentum of thought are rarely heard fully and merely leave the listener plodding dutifully along behind a slightly altered habit of thinking. The insights are almost always absorbed into the old positive momentum, carried along as mere changes in the direction of certainty. The momentum of map-making co-opts every new territory no matter how insightful every Buddha or Lao Tzu might have been, just as capitalism co-opts everything.
What is the nature of a real break in the momentum of thinking? It’s not only a break in the chain reaction of resistance, and a release of the tension wasted in trying to maintain a monument of Self. It’s also the birth of a true individuality, where there is never (never) any established path in learning, where a person sees through their own habits and prejudices as they form, freeing perception from any positive certainty that begins to take root. So then it can actually think without conformity; posit ideas in metaphoric form, which is a way to think in perpetual suspension or uncertainty.
Momentum itself is predatorial, because it captures the human being in a trap of certainty, placing blinders over our capacity to see through this illusion. So momentum is always tending towards dogma. But this only happens as long as I take the beliefs into which I was born as literal and unquestionable facts, and not merely as stories.
In other words, Momentum only forms whenever I succumb to the illusion that my stories are telling unbendable Truths. This doesn’t just apply to religion, but to anything I take for granted as a literal truth, including myself. Literalism could be a way to name the stickiness that keeps me in thrall to schizophrenic ways of seeing and relating to life.
Momentum means putting the mind on automatic pilot and trusting the old ideas to always remain valid. It means going to sleep. And it’s dangerous to sleep in a multi-dimensional reality where there are natural predators lurking in some of these dimensions.
Nevertheless, we also need to accumulate knowledge to survive. If a culture lives in balance with the world, sees metaphorically and mythically, then whatever remains by default after the negation of dogma develops into a rich cultural tradition. But a techno-centric culture like ours is accumulating a culture at the whim of machines, dogmatic structures into which the human is forced to adapt and become a mere cog. If the negative and positive aspects of learning are in balance (as discussed in prior essays) then a beautiful momentum of material knowledge builds, guided negatively by wisdom. At the cutting edge of that accumulation, in other words, leading that charge, is negative awareness, constantly refining and negating what is not necessary. But to trust my life to this momentum without this negative awareness (as the culture does now) is to allow myself to be carried along by a predatorial force.
The mind has to take root in a pathless land, proprioceptive, free from the momentum of beliefs. Then thought becomes metaphoric, mythic, guided by negative awareness. If this mind is free from literalism and dogma, which is the momentum of beliefs, then a body of knowledge finds its own healthy, accumulative momentum. But these are two different dimensions of life, one requiring momentum, the other requiring freedom from momentum. Knowledge and wisdom.
The ending of Literalism is the ending of a belief in a Literal Self and the birth of a more metaphoric vision. If I don’t realize how abrupt a shift this suggests then I’ll busy myself with minor alterations to a momentum that never dies. Maybe this abrupt shift has only happened to the Buddha or Krishnamurti or some even stranger person living in a shack with their flute someplace, who will never be known, who will never “change the momentum of history”, but who will in fact negate that momentum and in so doing perhaps even weaken the momentum as a whole more powerfully than all the famous fools who lead armies, countries and companies. These things change in a different dimension.
“A new world is only a new mind”, as William Carlos Williams wrote. A new world is unlikely to arise through activism, no matter how well intentioned. It’s going to require a fundamental halt in ways of thinking and living that are taken for granted at present – it’s going to require a non-participation in our bones and blood, a strike that goes far beyond economics.
[i] Relevant quotes:
“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” (Lao Tzu)
“As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it.” (Lao Tzu)
“Stop thinking, and end your problems” (Lao Tzu)
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” (Buddha)
“Don’t follow anybody, including the speaker. Don’t follow any system because it will make your mind dull. It destroys whatever energy you have, and you need tremendous energy to go beyond all thought” (Krishnamurti)
“Truth is a pathless land” (Krishnamurti)