Nevermind the Watches

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Book Reviews / Reflections / Science

This holiday season I received a gift subscription to Audible, and because I spend most of my reading time with works of fiction, I thought I’d use the daily commute for non-fiction. The first book I chose was Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. For reasons I cannot explain, I found myself curious recently about the theory of evolution, how it has evolved with the emergence of genetics, and what some of the open questions and modern findings are.

I should note that as I sit to write this post I’m about half way through the book, and very much enjoying it—the science in particular. Dawkins has a great knack for using readily accessible analogs of complex technical issues to introduce them, and then anticipating all the reasons why his readers might find those examples to be limited, and addressing those concerns as he moves deeper into a given subject. I marveled alongside of Dawkins at the prowess of bat echolocation, at the myriad creative possibilities a simple computer program with just nine “genes” could “discover”, and at the molecular micro-machines within our cells that spin and whirl and copy and catalyze in every instant of our existence. I’ve also enjoyed his reference to seminal experiments in modern biology that demonstrate the veracity of various points that he makes.

Dawkins’ proselytizing, however, is far less intriguing.

In periodic asides, Dawkins feels obliged to note that everything he’s just explained demolishes theism in general, and intelligent design arguments in particular. I understand the importance he places on this topic, given his personal position on the subject, but I find his need to interject on such matters a distraction from the very enjoyable and well-written insights into the science of evolution. One reason for this reaction is that his approach to the subject is quite shallow as compared to his thinking on the subject of evolution.

He writes as if the question of what the universe is, and how it came to be, may be reduced to a single multiple-choice question with but two answers. One must be right. The other wrong. And because of the black and white nature of the subject, it’s perfectly okay if he speaks pejoratively about and/or trivializes those he disagrees with. Readers like myself, who don’t have any issue with evolutionary theory, but still don’t think the case is closed with regards to what the universe actually is, how it came into being, or how it functions at the deepest level, find ourselves annoyed by Dawkins treatment of this subject. I did, at any rate. The only option offered aside from the position for which he advocates is to be a simpleton, and I think it’s unfortunate that Dawkins chose to adopt this artificial taxonomy of human thought.

I want to reply to this a bit, and begin by noting that the danger in doing so is the same danger Dawkins faces by electing to engage with the subject as he has. It’s the same danger we face in any argument on a complex subject that we reduce to a stark polarity. We’re obligated by the very context of the discussion to deploy facts as foot soldiers in an argument, and we’ve lost the opportunity to simply appreciate them with the gentle touch of an open mind. We find ourselves quickly choosing sides, and this has consequences to the conversation. Ultimately, it prevents creative dialogue from occurring, and all that can be sustained are bilateral rhetorical skirmishes. These are pointless. The marketplace of ideas where I prefer to do my shopping is not a bilateral monopoly, but something closer to perfect competition. Perhaps this is the market in which Dawkins actually operates—I hope so—and he simply aims to shrink it as much as possible to suit his literary purposes.

I very much enjoy the way Richard’s mind works when he sticks to the asking and answering of interesting scientific questions, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his past experiences have made it important for him to address a particular subset of the overall marketplace of ideas. In other words, people like me probably don’t trouble him all that much, while people of a much more fundamental Biblical bent (as one example) probably do. I can understand that, and appreciate his passion, even if I don’t agree from my vantage with his seemingly perpetual need to challenge this particular subset of society to a duel.

One reason I disagree with his need to do this is that it marginalizes anyone who doesn’t align strongly with one of the two positions he sustains in his commentary. It shrinks the conversation, and to borrow from ideas I think he would potentially endorse, a society faced with an evolutionary crisis as we are today that only explores two possible memetic solutions to its difficulty would be departing from the strategies that served biological evolution so well in the past. My understanding is that evolution casts a wide net in the possible space of solutions so as to explore as many alternatives as possible.

The retort might be that because a person like me is in the minority, and not winning the memetic competition for air waves, pages printed per year, clicks on the internet, or some other such datum that corresponds to reproductive fitness, that evolution is working perfectly fine. The ideas that people like me carry are simply “losing” in the processes of cumulative selection at work in our world. So all is well.

This just shows how complicated these issues are. We can deploy them on any side of the argument we wish, in logically consistent ways. Yet neither of the two sides currently contesting this issue may be “ultimately” right. Because our planet is in the midst of an evolutionary crisis—a point in which collective transformation is urgently required—winning the battle of ideas, but losing the war of planetary stability for all species would be fruitless. To be “ultimately” right in this case is to land upon solutions to the challenges we face that are best for the planetary environment as a whole, and which allow for prosperous and peaceful human cohabitation with one another and all of life. It’s not clear to me that either of the bilateral positions to which Dawkins elects to give credence are going to be ultimately right.

Dawkins obviously feels strongly that regardless of what people with quieter voices and lesser public influence such as myself may think, those who believe in an intelligently-designed universe are “ultimately” wrong—meaning, he must believe in his heart of hearts there is no way for us to navigate the present planetary crisis while certain ideas remain viable. This is not something I’m prepared to agree with, because I think the very challenge we face is that of transcending the idea which says “my” survival, at the expense of “yours”, is acceptable. In other words, it is polarity itself that we must find our way beyond. The problem is not necessarily the other side of the coin, but the coin itself as we have minted it.

If evolution has taught us anything, I think it is that life solves problems by transforming and expanding on what came before it. Likewise, I believe transformation is required, but not transformation of one particular element of the meme pool at the expense of another. I believe we must evolve together, somehow, and what we must evolve beyond is the inherently destructive perception of polarity. In this sense, Dawkins’ work underscores the true challenge before us, though it does precious little to resolve it.

Restitution (A Short Story)

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I’m pleased to share that my short story Restitution will appear in the pending Fall/Winter issue of the Tahoma Literary Review. I believe printed and digital copies will both be available for purchase next week, and meanwhile an audible version of the issue has been uploaded on the TLR Soundcloud page that is freely available.

This was my first foray into making a voice recording of my writing, and I must confess a challenge. I owe a debt of gratitude to my old friend Hariod, who told me with all the British eloquence he could muster that my first version simply wouldn’t do. Suffice to say he encouraged me to keep at it, and this was invaluable. (He also read early drafts of this piece and several of his proposed edits are in the final version.)

I’m not really set up for this sort of thing, so finding a quiet spot in the house in which to work was the first challenge. One night the pitter-patter of a soft rain on the windows put me out of commission. Another evening I shut-off the breaker to the heating system. The town fire alarm went off in the middle of one section, and I realized we have more dogs in the neighborhood than I thought. Eventually I realized the room I had selected for this work possessed the harmonic subtleties of a trash can. By then I could hardly stand to look at the piece anymore.

That was the easy part, though.

Actually keeping sufficient concentration to add inflection and range to the work was all but impossible for me to do for long stretches. And for me, a long stretch was anything over about 3-4 minutes. I had no idea what inflections to even add until I’d been reduced to mumbles at least four or five times per passage. Then something would start to make sense. It was a bit like writing in that regard–only instead of words, it was pitch and inflection that I fumbled in the dark to grasp. I realized the voice in my head, though meaningful to me, is not profoundly theatrical. The process was like learning to dribble a basketball—the timing of my voice and the syllables slapped against one another, and often missed entirely. My hat’s off to professional narrators and seasoned readers.

Each of the contributors was asked to give a little background on the origins of their work, and I thought I’d share that with you here:

This piece began as a reflection on the idea that our woundedness—the unhealed places within us that drive us apart—may ultimately be redeemed. In particular, I was interested in the idea that the process of redemption transcends the individual. The process of making whole not only elides our conscious direction, it touches each of us simultaneously. We are all made whole at once, in essence. This piece was part of a series that I wrote to explore the movement of grace in our lives—to examine those moments when we lose ourselves, only to find ourselves.

Working with TLR was a great experience for me. The team there was professional, courteous and insightful, and I hope that, if you can, you’ll consider supporting their work.

Hope you enjoy!

The Heart Opens Into the Tongue

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The way
a cloud breaks,
after wicking water from the sky
for several days of a moon’s turn inward,
and a droplet of water taps a leaf
on its way to the ground, and says,
I have heard you,
is the way that we are blessed:
with premonitions
of what has already been given.

My heart is Bell’s Inequality.
On one side there is meaning
and on the other side there is only its absence.
But the pulse in the middle confirms:
this land is uneven,
the magpie speaks,
there are no hidden variables to my existence.
I have always been broken open.
I have always known this sky could weep.

In Chaco Canyon they smoke for the rain.
The elders. Their faces drawn by the sun.
Their innards hollowed.
Their memories not their own.

If the pipes are not smoked it is only the weather.

But if hearts touch the sky,
and say, without you, I would not be,
then what rains down is a reply,
a landscape of voices in an organ of starlight.

The plants have their instructions in any case.
The weather they can endure. For a while.
But they flower when the circle is closed.
When the Truth is our only ambition.
And ambition is empty.

Reality is only a ruse when
we turn our back on it
and count to ten.
The Truth, then, like shoe leather,
tires our teeth. We cannot swallow.
We are caught with full mouths.
Once it was a game,
and now it is tragic.

If one ounce of water is random, then they all are.
And if one is the voice of my heart,
and one leaf is wakened by this pattering high five,
then they all are.
There is nothing to be desecrated but us,
because it is all just one thing or the other.
And the other is thingless.

There can’t be some things we know and some that we don’t.
There can’t be some things sacred and some that aren’t.
There can’t be one heart awake, and others still dreaming.
But we can always pretend.

We can call it the weather.

A mind apart from the heart is an experiment,
a poorly worded question,
and look what it has gotten us.
Let’s have all the papers by Friday, shall we?
Before the lights go out and the sky shakes
and the reeds bend low to the ground
and the snakes shelter under the stones
and the bluebirds cloister close to the trunk.

There is an antidote, of course,
an antidote to us,
but it can only be sung.
Try to sing, and you discover your pieces.
My mind knows only words.
My heart only music.
My teeth are tired,
and my tongue is caught in the middle.
The most delicate muscle in my body,
they say it is where the heart opens,
and I am holding it out to the sky
like a leaf.

Like all of us, I am waiting,
for what we know is to come.

Where We Are

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The weeds in my heart have gone to tassel.
They are purple and rose edged
in the soft light from Beyond.

The sun here is setting, rising, calling, giving, knowing, holding, flying, burning.
And I am listening, watching, walking, dreaming, dying, wishing, burning.
Shadows of the unkempt reeds are dancing together on the ground.
They are playing in the mud without getting wet.

A world without shadows, I whisper, is a world without magic.

I’ve been away,
waiting for the train,
adjusting my shirt sleeves,
leaning into the wind,
reading a magazine,
trying to get the skin of a green pepper
off the side of my molar with one pinky,
picking an argument with this one article’s author.
He’s of the opinion we need another opinion.
He is paid to have an opinion.
And I wonder:
Does he always have one?
Or does he wander, like me,
back to this place we’ve always been,
where opinion is like a flat washer
you find in your pocket
when you’re following some moonlit trail
through the wilderness.
It’s not particularly harmful, this disc of metal.
If you look through the middle of it
the bear staring down at you
from the other side of the valley
may come into focus.
Or maybe you’ll trip over a root.

This morning I happened to notice:
One, time is in charge of the décor in my heart.
And two, the weeds in this place have all gone to tassel.

People are disembarking from their trains
and I decide not to get on the train
so there’s a void that remains
in the space where everyone was. Now
all those leaving know where they are going
but me, and they are getting there, alright—
you can just tell,
and I think, for some reason,
not out loud, just for me and you,
that I am already there.
I am already there…
And you are here with me.

This is where we are.
Where is there to go?

They’re not really weeds, anyway.
Though they have gone to tassel.
They’re markers. Raised hands.
Beings with roots that burrow deep in the mud.
When I began to harvest them
they organized a conference in my mind
about raft-building and the birds came
and ate all the secrets that fell on the ground
from the crumbling tassels
and flew away
and now I am after them,
floating on the river of my heart,
and I’m picking an argument with the author
of this one article because I wonder how—
how could you possibly have an opinion
when you are a river lengthening forever
across the land from one end to the next
wondering where those birds went?

Onyx feathers. Blue feathers. Red feathers.
A splash of light and all is revealed.
My longing coalesces.

They are out there, just over the bank,
singing the songs that live inside them.
They are visible if I look through the tasseled reed heads,
through the empty place at the center of my flat washer.

They are defecating those secrets right now
from the tips of branches and hollow reeds,
Sowing my next breath’s crop of yearning.

Stella’s Radio

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My short story “Stella’s Radio” was published this week by Delay Fiction. It’s a story about love and connection, about the awkwardness that sometimes attends the becoming of who we truly are, and about the way life’s circumstances can propel us into the open, out from the cover of normalcy and safety and little dreams.

I didn’t know these things when I sat down to write it. A story begins with some little nudge of inspiration, a moment that conveys an energetic charge. I feel it in my body. There is a visceral need to start setting some words out onto the screen, to start the process of constructing all the things around this point of entry. It might be as simple as the image of an elderly man shaking hands with a another person. He has a certain look in his eye—a tone that rings throughout his being. A joy settles into my chest. A recognition. Then it’s off to the races. Who is this person? What is he doing? Where does his clarion presence come from? I could spend days envisioning scenes and moments and people, and nothing would grab hold of me, and then out of the blue something will stick. I’ll be dragging the trash cans out to the curb, and it will hit me. The feeling. It’s like being a child and discovering some new trail in the woods. Where does it lead?

Sometimes people ask what a story is about and I find myself taking a heavy breath, as if I’ve just been asked to explain how the world began. I find the essence of a story is just too much to say before attentions wither. And even if I manage to say something simple and relevant, like I tried to do in the opening paragraph here, that’s still not what the story is. How to explain this thing that has no beginning and no end and is part of every story and is the only reason we write in the first place?

We read for many reasons, but we write for only one. A story is a truth you can’t say any other way. It’s a peek at the heart of things, at the point where you end and everything else begins—the point where nothing is missing. To write is to pioneer one of these routes to the world’s center, to enter the whole of things more deeply than usual. You put on some instant, some moment or place or being, like a costume—it’s interesting at first, you could just take it off, right?—but then you discover you can’t go back. You can’t unlearn what you learned when you sat down to write. You can’t forget what you called upon to set those words upon the page.

A story is a vantage. It’s a simple movement usually, from the sandy ground on which we usually walk to the outcropping twenty or thirty feet overhead. We scramble around a bit, find our way up there, and the distance we travel on paper is very short perhaps, but once we arrive, and turn to look back, we discover nothing is quite what we thought it was. Things are renewed, made fuller–ourselves included, as both writers and as readers. How do you say what a story is about, when really it’s this movement, the moment of looking back, and what each of us finds there? I cannot say what you will find. What it’s about depends on you…

Writing is a lovely, challenging, sometimes debilitating process, but ultimately it enriches and sustains me. And hopefully, if you read this story, you will get a glimpse of what I’m talking about!

On Conflict and Freedom

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Course Ideas / Reflections

I have come to an important realization I think. And it’s not to say that I didn’t sort of know this already, but there’s a difference in knowing something and really knowing it.

We’ve all seen these dichotomies: the zone defense or man-to-man, materialism or spiritualism, unrestrained capitalism or comprehensive socialism, cardio or strength training, STEM or liberal arts, the Right or the Left… And we all have at least one or two thoughts on these things. If you’re like me, though, you’re not reducible to a multiple choice form, particularly one with only two answers. The truth is that we’re all unique, and even when we do align on some big picture issue, the motivations behind our choices are often distinct. Even when we agree, it’s often for different reasons.

But we live in the age of convincing. We always have, of course. There is nothing unique about the fact that in the present historical moment we are berating one another right, left and center over the ways that we think, feel, and encounter the world and one another. The failure on our part is not in thinking there’s a right answer, but in thinking there’s only one right answer. And this is the knowledge to which I’m returning.

Wherever we’re each at in our exploration of who we are, is the right answer for each of us. It’s a hard pill to swallow, because some people are in a place of self-exploration that requires the people around them to suffer. Something ought to be done about that, we think. But what’s really tricky here is that before we get all the way down the chains of causation that lead to the accruing and exercising of power over others in a manifest way, we pass this little place called the need to be right, and what we seldom realize is that the need to be right comes at the expense of others, too. You’re on my side, or you’re one of them. All our difficulties stem from this, from our inability to wrap the cloak of inclusion around everyone.

The crux of the matter for me is whether we’re living in a world that is simply happening to us, or one that responds to the movement of who we are being, and who we are becoming. This might be restated as suggesting that we either live in a zero-sum game, or we live in an open-ended movement of creation. My opinion is that we live in the latter, but when I forget this, and act as if I live in the former, then antagonisms necessarily develop.

In the zero-sum version of reality it is necessary to assert one’s particular views with the degree of force that is acceptable to one’s conscience, because this is the means by which the desired outcomes are obtained. We’ve set some boundaries on the sorts of force that civilized humans are able to bring to bear upon one another, but within those boundaries we are quite tenacious. And having boundaries doesn’t change the fundamental condition under which we labor. That condition is one of limited views in conflict.

Part of my discovery is that there simply is no wholeness in conflict. When I slip into the zero-sum version of reality, I am myself conflicted, sliced in two, and ineffectual. In the interactive version of reality—the version in which we are all related, in which the countless dialogues between the individual and the Whole somehow yield the multi-dimensional fabric of daily life, a curated experience of being supplied to each one of us—there is a unique sort of freedom on offer. It is the freedom of comprehending that reality is working.

The tremendous difficulty in accepting this freedom is that it implies a tacit complicity with all the evils of the world. There’s this idea that if certain things that obtain in our world were resolved, then things would be pretty good. It hinges upon the notion that if we could somehow convince those people out there who are doing screwed-up, awful things, or even just innocently deluded things—which if you think about it, amounts to the same thing—then we could get things on track. And in a zero-sum reality, this is perfectly correct.

But when one offers the benefit of the doubt to reality itself, and allows for the fact that reality is working, then one begins to understand that our efforts to change other people is identical to having our cake and eating it, too.  In other words, a world in which we remain precisely who we think we are on every level, but without the collective difficulties we face, may not be a possible world. The difficulties may simply be symptomatic of our incomplete understanding of who we are. They are simply the feedback—as immutable as the effects of gravity on a bouncing ball—the effect of the cause, which is our ignorance.

The acknowledgment that reality is working simply takes the edge off. It doesn’t mean to suggest that the difficulties we see are not worth tackling, but it frees us to express who we are without getting everyone else on board first. And I think it is this freedom—the possibility of offering the gift of who we are on behalf of everyone, and expressing the clarity of our hearts without becoming mired in the need to correct or push down another, that will ultimately transform this experience for everyone. Because this type of movement is undivided, and whole, and true.

Consciousness, Panpsychism & A Course in Miracles

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

This week I listened to Sam Harris interview his wife Annaka on his podcast Making Sense. She has recently written a book entitled Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, which I should note I haven’t read. An interesting moment occurred when she said it was not altogether obvious why consciousness should exist from an evolutionary perspective, because there is very little, if anything, that we cannot imagine occurring just as well without a conscious witness to the proceedings. We can visualize a computerized intelligence, for instance, with the right programming, that could behave much like a human being without actually being aware of what it was doing, or how it felt to be doing those things.

This led Annaka to ponder the possibility that consciousness is not something that is the product of matter and energy, but is a fundamental part of nature, or fundamental to physical reality let’s say. It exists in the same way that matter and energy do, as a given. I’m a little unclear on exactly what to say about what she really means, because I haven’t read her book, and because its admittedly a challenging topic to review in detail. She and Sam were very careful at this point to note that this is a scientific conception of consciousness, wholly unrelated to New Age ideas of the topic. It always amuses me when people insist on these distinctions, because it’s sort of like saying we have a scientific theory of why things fall down to the ground, and just so you know, it’s completely unrelated to the layman’s delusional awareness that things fall down due to a mysterious force.

These false categories do nothing but sustain false lines of demarcation. We draw them because it makes us feel good to be on the right side of them, but they are of no real value to the process of inquiry.

Enough on that. What brought me to the page this evening was an interesting idea that struck me as Sam and Annaka were exploring this topic of panpsychism, which is the word for a range of ideas related to the idea that consciousness exists—in some form—at all levels of physical phenomena. I realized there is an insistence when approaching the topic scientifically to note that atoms have such a miniscule, dim, and protean form of consciousness that it would barely be considered consciousness at all. In other words, humans are at the apex of known forms of consciousness, and atoms have the awareness of comatose bricks in a wall. The idea that struck me is that we quite possibly have this backwards.

I’m going to get New Age now and refer to A Course in Miracles, which for me is as valid a source of information as any scientific experiment. It also is irrelevant, as core ideas in the Course can be found in essentially all spiritual teachings that aim at offering its practitioners the experience of non-duality. The Course is just one form of what I believe is a universal truth, and this particular form happened to appeal to me. At any rate, there is an idea presented early in the Course, and which only appears on a few occasions, but which made a big impact on me when I first encountered it. It goes like this, “…the mind is naturally abstract.” I would like to relate this to the notion that human consciousness is quite possibly a much more limited form of consciousness than that which obtains throughout the universe. It’s just a fun idea to ponder, so bear with me please.

Now, when the Course speaks about the mind, it is speaking about the One Mind, or the whole Mind, or the instantaneous totality of being of which all that exists partakes. It’s hard to describe in words. You can’t describe it in words. But you can give some inklings, just as you can give kindling some heat, and hope that at some point awareness catches fire… The basic point in the Course is that specificity, and the situational awareness so conducive to winning professional sports titles, is really secondary. It is illusory, and fundamentally related to what Annaka and Sam would both describe as delusional notions: one being the sense of a personal self, and the second being free will. These don’t exist as we think they do, according to Sam, and I agree. I’ll actually agree and disagree simultaneously on the notion of a personal self, because it’s paradoxical to a certain extent. But for the purpose of this discussion let’s equate a personal self with an egoic awareness—with the idea that there is an “I” that exists separately from all other “I’s.”

The Course says, “Everything the ego perceives is a separate whole, without the relationships that imply being. The ego is thus against communication, except insofar as it is utilized to establish separateness rather than to abolish it. The communication system of the ego is based on its own thought system, as is everything else it dictates. Its communication is controlled by its need to protect itself, and it will disrupt communication when it experiences threat. This disruption is a reaction to a specific person or persons. The specificity of the ego’s thinking, then, results in spurious generalization which is really not abstract at all. It merely responds in certain specific ways to everything it perceives as related.

“In contrast, spirit reacts in the same way to everything it knows is true, and does not respond at all to anything else. Nor does it make any attempt to establish what is true. It knows that what is true is everything that God created. It is in complete and direct communication with every aspect of creation, because it is in complete and direct communication with its Creator. This communication is the Will of God. Creation and communication are synonymous. God created every mind by communicating His Mind to it, thus establishing it forever as a channel for the reception of His Mind and Will. Since only beings of a like order can truly communicate, His creations naturally communicate with Him and like Him. This communication is perfectly abstract, since its quality is universal in application and not subject to any judgment, any exception or any alteration.” (emphasis added, quotes taken from the Text, Chapter 4, Section VII, Paragraphs 2-3)

What does it mean for the mind’s natural state to be a perfect abstraction? It sounds kind of ridiculous. But what it means is that the mind, in its natural state, might say, “I love,” and stop there, instead of saying “I love ice cream.” There need be no object—no specificity—to the mind’s natural extension of Love, since it extends love simultaneously to all that exists with it, and as it, and thus has no concept whatsoever of inventions or schemes (such as the ego’s concept of a separateness between beings) that do not ultimately obtain.

What I’m proposing when I suggest that the scientific notions of panpsychism as presently framed are fundamentally backwards, or upside-down, is that the simplest forms of matter and energy are the least constrained. We like to think consciousness is all about having experiences, and for us that means having experiences as a human being. For the vast majority of us, that means having experiences as a particular human being. The forms of conscious awareness most readily available to us are those bound by this beautiful complexity we call a body. But a particle—whose behavior in quantum mechanics can be explained perfectly by presuming that it explores every possible state available in the entire universe simultaneously—is not bound at all by this complexity. It could, conceivably, possess a far more abstract form of awareness, which for us is indeed unfathomable. We could say it is so dim as to be nothing at all… or we could flip the coin and say it is so bright as to be everything at once. It really is not possible for us to distinguish between these two possibilities.

The long and short is that I find it very interesting to consider that complexity is, paradoxically, proportional to limitations when it comes to consciousness. That’s not to say there are not beautiful and holy spaces to explore through this lens. There are. But I suspect a valid theory of panpsychism will need to reframe the very idea of materialism, by considering that physical systems do indeed inform consciousness—not by building it up, but by focusing it down into very specific pathways, in order to yield very specific forms of experience. Materialism would then predict that the formation of complex systems is the product of collapsing the natural, unbounded and unified form of consciousness that ultimately exists within and as everything, into localized, ephemeral, illusory, but instructive vehicles for the creation of novel experiences.

The body in this view is not an exemplar of heightened consciousness, but an exemplar of specificity, giving rise to a very limited form of consciousness.

On Genius, Part 3: Lolita

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Book Reviews / Reflections

I finished my first Nabokov yesterday. Lolita. I thought it was shockingly good—delicate, grimy and translucent all at once—though I’m acutely aware I will need to read it another time or two if I wish to speak intelligently about it. As I sit here and wonder how to take the seething swarm inside of me and capture it somehow on the page, I’m realizing it’s an interesting opportunity to continue the vein I began in my previous post—about our innate ability to recognize truth.

I was thinking more about science and religion last time than I was about art, but there’s myopia in such a view. To speak about science and religion without speaking about art seems an empty pursuit to me, for in any human endeavor, the fundamental activity—whether we wish to admit as much or not—is the expression of who we are: of who we know ourselves to be, and of who we are becoming.

I should say that I can appreciate why Lolita is a controversial work. It is, in its most parsimonious form, the story of a middle-aged man’s perverse subjugation of a twelve-year-old girl. For some readers, I know—as well as appreciate and respect—there is no degree of linguistic brilliance or artistic distillation that could be summoned to redeem such a foundation. For me, however, the work was sublime, and this is how we arrive once again at the seeming incongruity of our appreciation for exactly what it is that events, and moments, and encounters actually consist of.

While some see Lolita as a book written by a man, and narrated by a man, who self-indulgently recounts his barbaric relations with his stepdaughter, others confess to having been so taken in by the subtlety and effulgent beauty of Nabokov’s prose as to have missed the true depth of his protagonist’s evil. But for me, neither of these readings does more than scratch the surface, and what lies beneath is infinitely more difficult to wrestle wholly into view. It is precisely here, I think, that great art begins and ends.

We are ushered, before we’ve realized it has happened, into an enigmatic void, where both sweet and sour obtain, where we resonate with what we despise even as we find ourselves suddenly skeptical of all that we abide. The question is whether we can suffer such difficulties long enough to see where they lead, if anywhere, or instead find ourselves so breathless in the presence of this paramount candor that we must insist on wrapping its arm around our necks, so that we can tap out with our dignity intact.

What I think Nabokov has done, somehow, is lure those who will follow into the place where categories intermingle and mutually dissolve, where the trite cannot subsist, and the compass needle is rendered impotent. It is not a work to say that truth is in this or that; it is a work that points to the existence of a trap door in our awareness, and asks, have you seen this, too?

The foreground of this work is alarming, and it is given to us by Nabokov with such alluring, iridescent prose, that it is all too easy to be deceived. But when those two curtains part, for those still in their seats, what remains is an encounter with the abyss of stray connections, frayed ropes and discarded belongings that could lead to just about anywhere. What this vacant stage will not do, however, is field questions. The lights will not come on and reveal that all this time we’ve simply been in a theater surrounded by carefully parked cars and ice cream shops and cloudless skies. The lights have come on, in fact, and revealed the faceless potency over which all our fabrications have been laid.

And this is where the truth emerges for me, in all great art—in this whipping of our world suddenly from view, to expose the fathomless marrow of being in which we are all equally ensconced. The madness of art is that to bring such a primordial distillation of ourselves into view we must be profoundly faithful to the details of our mirage. We must illumine the fabric of what is right before us each and every day with a nearly-blinding light. We must tease and pluck apart the bolster, examine each and every thread until it, too, is found wanting—too friable to have carried the real weight of being—and we are left with nothing of which we began. Only now we’ve found what everything is.

The fragmentation of our hearts and minds that I spoke about last time can be viewed as a means of retreating from this uncanny position. This retreat is what Reich described as armoring, when I quoted him saying, “There is much good reason to assume that in such experiences of the self man somehow became frightened and for the first time in the history of his species began to armor against inner fright and amazement.

This seemingly gaping core that we witness can be staggering, but it is only so for an instant—that instant being whatever duration of time is required for us to release our grip upon the fabricated notions of self and world to which we cling. The other side of that instant is the fullness of all that we are, rampant and unbroken. It is all that we have inadvertently deprived ourselves of coming to know, and join with, because of our fractured rigidity and our self-deceptions.

Great art—genius art—pierces the veil of conceptuality, and invites us to breathe deeply the luminous air that lives within us all.

On Genius, Part 2

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

In this second article on the topic of genius, I found myself drifting towards our ability to recognize beauty and truth. I thought it was an interesting topic, because it relates to how we process information and perception as individuals, and part of what is so beautiful about genius is that it breaks apart our clotted mentalities.

The reorientation of perception that comes with encountering genius can be startling, but also I’ve found it can be delightful, because with the recognition of what is true, there is joy. There is release from what binds us. Over the years I’ve come to trust in this experience, and to recognize that we possess an innate faculty that recognizes truth and responds to it with feeling. This is not a logical computation, but a sensation. Feelings of joy, or peace, or even a regenerative sadness emerge, and as we follow these feelings, we are able to sift insight from the dross ground of experience, and this too, is genius. Eventually we recognize the universality of what we are discovering: it is not for us alone.

But is the truth “true” for all of us? Or are we each merely mining a tableau of personal fancy? Is there, in other words, an ability within us to recognize genuine insight—to discover, while bypassing the convolutions of logic, a deep and genuine understanding of the nature of reality? My answer to this question is yes…

But some would argue no. Just look around, they might say. If we all possessed this faculty we obviously wouldn’t disagree so vehemently about so much. It’s a powerful argument, but I don’t agree with its premise, or its conclusion, and here I turn to some of the genius writers and thinkers I’ve enjoyed exploring over the years for an alternate explanation: although we all possess such a faculty, we do not all access it equally.

A hallmark of genius, I’ve found, is the ability to not only see the big picture, but to think in terms of wholeness. To see the invisible relationships upon which the visible “facts” depend. I mentioned at the start of this series that I had recently read my first Wilhelm Reich book, Ether, God and Devil. One of the points Reich made in that book that I resonated with was the notion, from his research, that we are each “armored” to varying degrees, and that this armoring directly affects our sensations, perceptions, and feelings. He even goes on to say, “the organism can perceive only what it itself expresses.” We are thus all in the business of defining the parameters of our experience.

Without going into extreme detail, it is sufficient here to note that the armoring Reich describes is a protective mechanism that conditions our experience of ourselves and the world, and is marked by a constriction of normal, life-enhancing functions. It is an imposition of constraints on what we might otherwise think and feel—a rigidity of thought and feeling akin to an authoritarian type of control on the flow of life within and through us. We do this instinctively to protect ourselves, just as a tree becomes hardened in the area of a wound.

I believe in Reich’s mind this was a rather ancient development in humankind. In the book Cosmic Superimposition, which was printed together with Ether, God and Devil, Reich tries to imagine how this armoring could have come about, and says of humankind’s dawning ability to reason and examine it’s own self, “There is much good reason to assume that in such experiences of the self man somehow became frightened and for the first time in the history of his species began to armor against inner fright and amazement.” He goes on to say that, “it is quite possible that the turning of reasoning toward itself induced the first emotional blocking in man.” And later he concludes, “in attempting to understand himself and the streaming of his own energy, man interfered with it, and in doing so, began to armor, and thus to deviate from nature. The first split into a mystical alienation from himself, his core, and a mechanical order of existence instead of the organic, involuntary, bio-energetic self-regulation, followed with compulsive force.” (Cosmic Superimposition, pg 293-294)

What resonated with me strongly here was the notion that both mechanistic/materialist viewpoints and fundamentalist/religious viewpoints are in point of fact mirror images of the identical inner dysfunction. This is the ability of genius to see wholeness in what we take at face value to be completely different, and seemingly antagonistic, responses.

The answer to this problem, in language other than Reich used, is the integration of the heart and mind into a functional whole. In the perceptual modalities most important to me, the heart is not marginalized, but integrated with the logic of the mind. It is the heart, I believe, that is the compass I mentioned at the outset of this article—the heart that recognizes truth and chimes in with visceral acclamation. And what is missing for me in both a mechanistic and a fundamentalist religious view of the world is the awareness and wisdom of this most important faculty. Both perspectives are rooted in a certain rigidity of thought that seeks to impose a particular set of limits on the world’s magnitude, and make it more readily apprehended, judged, and subdued.

I first encountered this idea reading another genius—(to me)—Jose Arguelles. I read his book The Transformative Vision while in college, and I recall it being a beautiful exploration of the idea that the “true human being” was a seamless merging of what we call science, and what we call art. I recall Arguelles suggesting that it is only in the joining of these two fundamental aspects of our being that our authenticity and power as beings emerges. This is a theme I find echoed in Reich’s exposition of armoring, in Viktor Schauberger’s lamentation of our “techno-academic” systems, which he found as life-negating, exclusively male-oriented, and damaging to the planetary ecology, and in what A Course of Love refers to as the joining of heart and mind into wholeheartedness. (These are but a few of the places in which I’ve found such a view expressed.)

I think the reason a given individual’s recognition of truth is so often perceived as a matter of individual fancy is that we are coming at this problem primarily as “split” individuals. As split individuals we function with limited access to one or the other faculty, and are thus inaccurate perceivers. Our ability to access the inheritance of genuine knowing within us is stunted. It is a well-known fact that just about any argument can be justified with reasoning, for instance. Recognizing innately this profound difficulty, science relies upon externalized experimentation, and religion upon sacred books. But neither provides an accurate accounting of what we call life.

In my opinion when we are in our hearts, which I do not personally take to mean a marginalization of the mind, it is possible to reach the type of alignment that simply doesn’t exist when we are arguing in favor of our individual perceptions. And when we are in our hearts, I find we agree–not on facts, but on the truth expressed between us, and as us. All too often I have fallen victim to reacting to a particular idea that rankles me, but the truth is that there are no winners in the debate of ideas. The path forward is not in being right, but in being true—and ultimately this means being true to ourselves, and the entire spectrum of who we are. Geniuses throughout time have seen this, and understood that what hinders us is the profound difficulty we each have in transcending our fractured pscyhes.

On Genius, Part 1

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The first task with a subject like genius might be to define it, but I’m going to resist that temptation. I’d rather develop the ideas as we go, so that just about the time we think we’ve put our finger on it, we’ll understand why we can’t. What I’ll say is that while genius may seem to be a rare bird in our present society, it is not because any one of us lack access to it. What is suggested by this word is the fundamental nature of who we are, and if that sounds like a boring or inaccurate beginning it is only because of our lack of imagination about ourselves.

We’ve been led in our culture to believe that genius is evidenced by superiority of achievement in a field, which is not to say that it is not found in the masters we look upon with awe, but such an emphasis can be misleading. In any field there are those who possess a particular talent for it, which, if combined with years and years of practice and the type of ambition that shapes matter to its aim, may lead to the emergence of a sophistication. But technique alone is insufficient for genius. We are all familiar with those who possess astounding technique, but lack, for whatever reason, that little something extra that truly captivates and inspires us—that speaks to the very heart of who we are. Skill alone can be tedious.

On the other hand, we are also each familiar with those who lack the particular physical talent or practiced complexity that mark the most technically accomplished of a given field, but who, by the force of their passion and the manner in which they reveal the mystery of who we are, touch us deeply. We are wounded by such offerings, ushered to the brink of the roaring intensity alive within us, even as we are transported to the star-swept womb of a lowing silence. Genius inspires us to identify with what lies beyond necessity, beyond convention, and without which we would be but empty shells.

We might say that genius is the character of life itself, but this too is inaccurate, for what is meant by life? For too many of us yet, the experience of this world is a treadmill of survival. Genius may reveal itself in the face of life’s trials, but it is not the trial itself. There is no genius in suffering. There is no genius in earthly power, for that matter—in persecuting or enslaving others, in whatever form—just as there is no genius in deriving power from fealty. The power of genius is that it entitles everyone to a share, and where there is real genius, this is instantly recognized. Where there is genius, everyone is rewarded.

This niggling something extra we call genius cannot be captured or taught. It cannot be codified, reduced or pinned down, and no structured program can synthesize what is in truth the very content of our being. We cannot make ourselves any more or any less who we are, but we can desire to know who we are, and in our explorations is genius revealed. We can proceed only by remembering, and discover only by sharing.

The hallmark of genius is that it reveals us. Genius eclipses the norm, to be sure, but the norm is an arbitrary convention that nowhere exists, and uniqueness itself is not genius. We’ve all seen the sort of turning-away that is prideful and affected. Genius involves an authenticity that transforms all who partake of it, by releasing us from the bonds of our mistaken conclusions. It doesn’t rancor against what has been, but eclipses it with a beautiful certitude that renders our previous muddling moot. Though genius is not out to claim victory, it is our way out of loss, because genius makes us whole.

The problem with genius is that it is not a respecter of qualifications. It requires no resume or previous training, and our systems tend to be built on the convention of paying dues—on entitlement, seniority and lineage. Some of this is as it should be. And some of it is not. If you want to go farther in a field than those who previously set the markers, then you may have to retrace some of their steps. Genius is not about a willy-nilly hunch—it’s not about strapping wings made of wax onto your back and diving off a cliff. Too often we equate genius with derring-do. The genius is not in any particular feat, but in the attentiveness we give to our dreams, in the knowing that we work with—which no other can give us—and in our scraping away the barnacles of doubt we’ve picked up from the tidepools of history into which we were born.

Where there is genius, there is magic. The unknown is made real. There is conception, and birth, and new life. What existed for no one, comes into existence for everyone. There are stocks of this little something more within all of us, and I think the challenges we face on this planet arise principally from our efforts to come up with systems that work without resort to this most fundamental resource. It’s like trying to grow food without resorting to the use of sunlight, like trying to breathe only the air we’ve first squeezed into tanks.

If we had this stuff we’d use it! we say. But this is not so. The truth is we spurn genius, and we are frightened by those who can enter the sanctity of their own being and emerge with something we think we could not have. We think fairness is when long-suffering is the only resource at our disposal. Insights are too unpredictable; there is no obvious proportionality between the work that is input and the revelation received, and so they upset our tiered systems of privilege. But so long as we sustain a world in which the inventor reaps a reward that no caregiver can hope to receive, a world in which only what is provably earned may be received, genius will be thwarted.

We’ve created a world where power trumps authenticity, and this world requires only such genius as may be trademarked, copyrighted, or patented. In this world we cannot compute the possibility that what is real is only that which is shared by everyone. It is ironic, is it not, that the victors in our systems lay claim to the spoils? What we call power in this world exists in equal measure to all the unused stocks of genius that have gone rancid. It is the product of our dismay with all those who refuse to know so little as we ourselves do.

But worry not, for genius is the power of who we are, and it is the only power that will remain. If that seems like a definition, then perhaps you know something about us that I do not, for I have yet to even glimpse the horizon.