February 23, 2012
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One morning earlier this week I awoke with a bit of a start. I’d been having strange dreams again, ones that had left me with a slight sense of sadness – not too distant from how I felt when I was but a seven year old child watching the grown-ups shooting pheasant in late autumn and mid winter morns. “BANG!” “CRACK!” “POOMB!” their guns would sound loudly in the stark and barren light. Under a steady stream of grey clouds, one’s which were being thrust mercilessly across a broken bleak horizon by savage winter winds, there would be sudden loud gaps of quiet… Quiet that allowed windows of peace so as to hear the gentle, soft rustle of the brown crumpled leaves shivering the cold wooded camp of trees. All the time I would look up at these snaking, gnarled limbs around me, twisted as though they were raised to the heavens in complaint over the clamor and din of the relentless gun fire, wondering if they mourning the loss of their colorful feathered friends who kept their council during these unbearing winter days.
That’s what woke me that morning. Noise. In fact is was a very loud noise… Noise in the form of a heavy knock at the front door. You see… When I fell asleep the previous night, I did so in the recording studio. Being a fully sound proofed room there was usually little or no noise to be heard from anywhere at the best of times, save for the smattering of instrumental play that filled the space when it was being used for recording. Thus, other than the general rustling of clothes (or bedclothes in this instance) and/or the low, almost inaudible, rumble of the occasional car passing by outside, it was a very peaceful chamber in which to sleep. Saying that, I had left the door slightly open that night, and when the knock was procured on the glass door below, the acoustics of the house beautifully funneled the sound in through the open door so that it cut through the soft almost empty bliss of my dreams. Up I sat, instantly aware and somewhat shocked at the volume of the herald. While pulling on my jeans, I hopped over the cables and made my way down the stairs, half expecting to see a giant flicking the glass doors gently with his little finger so as to leave the doors intact.
As I got the door, to my surprise there was no giant… Rather there was a bearded fellow dress in blue trousers and a red jacket, beaming furiously back at me while I starred disappointedly at him. As I unlocked the door, he held out a brown cardboard box, proclaiming, “Got another for ya, mate. Someone’s birthday is it, eh?” as he thrust the box through the half opened door into my fumbling sleepy arms. On he beamed, smiling at the fact that he’d caught someone wiping the sleep from their eyes so late in his morning’s schedule. I huffed a bit, mentioning that it wasn’t even… As I looked down I noticed that I didn’t even have my watch on my wrist. Smiling all the more (even if it was a physical impossibility), the delivery chap happily glanced at his own watch and mentioned that it was nearly 7.45 am. “Yes… You see it’s not even 7.45 am!” I complained half mockingly. Nonetheless he decided to take it upon himself to chirp about what a glorious morning it was, with bright blue skies overhead with a warming sun over the roof. Obviously, he pointed out, this signified the coming of an early, warm spring.
Just then two red breasted robins fluttered past us, so close as to barely miss our faces by a few inches. After the moment’s dazzle, we both erupted into a hearty laugh, after which the delivery chap went on to add something about how territorial robins were, and that these two were probably were having a scrap over who should have exclusive rights to the bird table down the way in front of my neighbor’s window. As I stood listening in agreement, I couldn’t help notice how he was tapping fervently away on a well worn machine that he desperately clutched with his hands. Looking at what he was writing, his gaze darted every now and then back to the box I was holding. Realizing he was trying to read the address at which I resided, I obliged him and quoted it from memory for his ease. After a few further moments of tapping the touch screen, he looked back towards the box trying to locate something that wasn’t as obvious.
“What you lost,” I said. “Need the barcode,” he replied. “Gotta scan the package to make sure it’s registered as delivered.” Firmly gripping the box, I revolved it around in my hands, all the while looking for any white zebra striped labels to reveal themselves. Just as I was glancing at one side, the delivery man told me to hold still. Seemed he had found what he was after. Pointing one side of the little box that he held at the target that I couldn’t quite see, he pressed a button as a red flicker of a laser’s beam shone out from a black reclined orifice. Expectantly he waited… But nothing. Looking quizzically at the screen he retouched a few keys and tried again. Red laser flashed and went off… Nothing. “Bloody thing,” he announced, “it’s been playing up on me all morning!”
As if all of a sudden, his jovial light hearted touch dimmed into a concentrated expression of focused intent as he repeated the process again. Still nothing. Besmirching the machine for not scanning the barcode as it was meant to, he began to hit its side as if to rectify whatever it was that might be wrong with it. “It’s probably still not awake what with it being so early in the morning,” I offered jokingly. “Yeah… Well they should have updated this scanning system a while back now, if you ask me. This was one of the first mobile systems that ever came on the market back in the late nineties… Uses mobile communication. Bit out of date this one now, ya know. And it ain’t like they can’t afford a new one either. In fact they spend more on the general upkeep of this system every year, what with software configuration problems they have, than a new system would cost! We checked.” Sounded like a case of bureaucracy I mentioned. “You can say that again,” he added, while repeating the scanning process again. “Seems they’re more than happy for us to look unprofessional in front of our customers, all for the sake of saving some pennies. Don’t suppose they think about it not sending out a good message… Bad advertising, if you ask me.” Again nothing.
By this time I couldn’t help but notice a slight strain that had appeared on the man’s face, almost as though all of his carefully laid plans for the morning were beginning to slide irrevocably closer into the domain of rush hour traffic. So I asked him if he had many deliveries to do, to which he replied that he had a full days work ahead of him, most of which he might not be able to do now if this machine kept playing up.
At this point, the slightly disgruntled demeanor that had over taken his mind suddenly just dissipated… As it did, he said, “It’s all about being aware. About being aware of the mind and how it controls how we perceive the world around us.” He stopped, took a deep breath, released his hunched shoulders and closed his eyes. Then opening them again he entered back into the original jovial flow of light hearted musings that I’d originally opened my door to only a few minutes ago. “Did you read the Guardian online yesterday?” he chuckled, continuing to scan the barcode once again… To which I replied that I hadn’t. “One of their reporters interviewed this Buddhist monk who lives out in France most of the time… He was talking about how we all need to be more mindful of our environment in which we live, as well as how our mind perceives it… Doing so in order to rekindle a lot of love and goodwill for this lovely world in which we all live in and share with one another… He also mentioned how we should change our living habits, getting rid of the ones that don’t work too well with mother nature, so that we can create a better, happier and easier way of life for us all living on Earth… Where we can do everything we need to do, as well as live comfortably and be able to help other people out who need help, including all the animals, plants, fish, insects and everything else.”
Somewhat amazed at how he had regained his composure over the misfortune of the malfunctioning machine… And pretty taken by what he’d just said, all I could think was… “WOW! That sounds like an interview I’d like to read.” And off I went on one, rambling on about parallels to modernizing simple systems, from scanners that delivery people needed to use, through to environmental changes in the way we generate electricity and grow our food, so as to make everyone’s world a little bit more efficient and better equipped to do the jobs we need to do without causing to much agro for ourselves… He then joined in, mentioning that it would be a good idea to change most of our antiquated, out-dated human habits that didn’t take into concern the delicate nature of how our ecosystem was balanced by indulging in more harmonious interests i.e. growing our own food, etc… “Kewl!” I though. “Here’s a guy who knows where it’s at. And I’m grooving with him.”
Smiling we bantered on for a few further minutes as he tried the machine again. Analogies between faulty computer systems and the way mankind lived in general, along with how we were all slowly causing ourselves more problems than we really needed to be doing, all to save a bit more money than we really needed, so as to spend it on more things that we didn’t necessarily need or even like (like the box I was clutching that, which for the life of me, I couldn’t even think of what was inside it)… Laughing at this, we went on to discussing how smart phones didn’t necessarily make us smarter at all; rather they just threw good healthy social interaction out the window as people became more engrossed in conversations/exchanges with people 20 miles away (or more) and, thus, paid less attention to the people in their local and immediate environment… Or even paid less attention to the environment itself… As well as becoming more stressed out in general!
Despite all this, there was still no joy with his scanning machine… So he threatened to use the old pen and paper that was waiting the van for eventualities like these. As he said this, he tried the machine one last time… “Bleep!” it went, signifying a successful entry. “Yay!” I jostled in, as he joked that it was the threat of pen and paper that must have scared the machine into working. As I wished him well with the rest of his rounds for the day he looked befuddled at the thought of the box not working for the rest of his deliveries. “Gotta stay positive,” I said, to which he replied, “That’s what the monk said in that interview. Seriously, you’d really like it.”
After jotting down an almost unrecognizable, heavily pixilated signature as proof that I’d received my parcel, I pointed out that it would probably have taken him less time to register the parcel by good old-fashioned pen and paper… To which he retorted that the paper work would have to filed when he got back, making it that little bit more work. “The bosses wouldn’t be able to keep track of me either,” he replied. “Not that it even works half the time, mind you.”
I smiled and thanked him for the heads-up about the Guardian article and said that I would look it up when I got back inside over a cup of tea. He laughed through the open window as he climbed back in the van shaking his head… “Alright for some, in’it…” Then he mentioning that the monk’s name was something like “Which Not Hand.” Finding it amusing, I repeated it a few times to myself as he drove off down the drive. As soon as he went out of sight, I looked up at the big blue sky above me and hoped he’d have more success with the antiquated system he was using. Then looking back to the birds fluttering from bush to tree I remembered the way he had regained his composure during our chat. Good to see people were able to use the power of their mind to change their circumstantial outcome.
Back I turned into the house, all the while thinking about the article that the chap had mentioned. After making a cup of tea, I decided that I should probably sit down and read it before I forgot about it, otherwise it would get swept away with the days proceedings. No doubt I had one hell of a hard time finding it, mainly because of the name. But eventually I tracked it down on an online Tweet. As it so happened the monk’s name was Thich Nhat Hanh, who was the author of a book that I had begun reading only a few weeks earlier.
I like it when magic moments like these resonate through me and change the way my day flows. It all adds to this sense of evolving wonder that leads towards better practices, into better ways of living… Urges us to embrace more aware and mindful ways of being. Bearing all this in mind, I feel that I should post the article here, as it beautifully flows into the spaces in between what I’ve already been writing here…
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Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains why mindfulness and a spiritual revolution rather than economics is needed to protect nature and limit climate change…
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.
Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
So it seems only natural that in recent years he has turned his attention towards not only addressing peoples’ disharmonious relationships with each other, but also with the planet on which all our lives depend.
Thay, as he is known to his many thousands of followers, sees the lack of meaning and connection in peoples’ lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism and that it is vital we recognise and respond to the stress we are putting on Earth if civilisation is to survive.
What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.
Thay refers to a billionaire chief executive of one of America’s largest companies, who came to one of his meditation courses and talked of his suffering, worries and doubts, of thinking everyone was coming to take advantage of him and that he had no friends.
In an interview at his home and retreat centre in Plum Village, near Bordeaux, Thay outlines how a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the multitude of environmental challenges.
While many experts point to the enormous complexity and difficulty in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thay sees a Gordian Knot that needs slicing through with a single strike of a sharp blade.
Move Beyond Concept Of The “Environment”
He believes we need to move beyond talking about the environment, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them.
Change is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
“You carry Mother Earth within you,” says Thay. “She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
“In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
“Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
“Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
“So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”
Putting An Economic Value On Nature Is Not Enough
Thay, who will this spring be in the UK to lead a five-day retreat as well as a mindfulness in education conference, says the current vogue in economic and business circles that the best way to protect the planet is by putting an economic value on nature is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.
“I don’t think it will work,” he says. “We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things.”
Rather than placing a price tag of our forests and coral reefs, Thay says change will happen on a fundamental level only if we fall back in love with the planet: “The Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or mind, which are just ideas, two faces of the same reality. That pine tree is not just matter as it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter since each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
“When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born.
“We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.”
In the world of business, Thay gives the example of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who combined developing a successful business with the practice of mindfulness and compassion: “It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us,” says Thay.
“Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness both to other people and to us … our work has meaning.”
Thay, who has written more than 100 books, suggests that the lost connection with Earth’s natural rhythm is behind many modern sicknesses and that, in a similar way to our psychological pattern of blaming our mother and father for our unhappiness, there is an even more hidden unconscious dynamic of blaming Mother Earth.
In a new essay, Intimate Conversation with Mother Earth, he writes: “Some of us resent you for giving birth to them, causing them to endure suffering, because they are not yet able to understand and appreciate you.”
How Mindfulness Can Reconnect People To Mother Earth
He points to increasing evidence that mindfulness can help people to reconnect by slowing down and appreciating all the gifts that the earth can offer.
“Many people suffer deeply and they do not know they suffer,” he says. “They try to cover up the suffering by being busy. Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth.
“The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. So the healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth and this is the insight and it is possible for anyone to practice.
“This kind of enlightenment is very crucial to a collective awakening. In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the earth is in danger and living species are in danger.”
Thay gives the example of something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. This can help transform a person’s life if he or she were truly to devote their attention to it.
“When I am mindful, I enjoy more my tea,” says Thay as he pours himself a cup and slowly savours the first sip. “I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.
“When I drink tea this is a wonderful moment. You do not need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you to be happy in the here and now. Every moment can be a happy moment. Set an example and help people to do the same. Take a few minutes in order to experiment to see the truth.”
Need To Deal With Ones Own Anger To Be An Effective Social Activist
Thay has over many years developed the notion of applied Buddhism underpinned by a set of ethical practices known as the five mindfulness trainings, which are very clear on the importance of tackling social injustice.
However, if social and environmental activists are to be effective, Thay says they must first deal with their own anger. Only if people discover compassion for themselves will they be able to confront those they hold accountable for polluting our seas and cutting down our forests.
“In Buddhism we speak of collective action,” he says. “Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it.
“But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life. If you are able to understand that, not only you suffer but the other person suffers, that is also an insight.
“When you see the other person suffer you will not want to punish or blame but help that person to suffer less. If you are burdened with anger, fear, ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person. If you suffer less you are lighter more smiling, pleasant to be with, and in a position to help the person.
“Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much.”
Touching The “Ultimate Dimension”
Key to Thay’s teaching is the importance of understanding that while we need to live and operate in a dualistic world, it is also vital to understand that our peace and happiness lie in the recognition of the ultimate dimension: “If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.
“Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky, or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves – it is available within us, in this very moment.”
While Thay believes there is a way of creating a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet, he also recognises that there is a very real risk that we will continue on our destructive path and that civilisation may collapse.
He says all we need to do is see how nature has responded to other species that have got out of control: “When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings about unnecessary devastation.
“We have learned the lesson that when we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves; and when we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.”
Remaining Optimistic Despite Risk Of Impending Catastrophe
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the gift of a box, all the evils were released into the world. The one remaining item was “hope”.
Thay is clear that maintaining optimism is essential if we are to find a way of avoiding devastating climate change and the enormous social upheavals that will result.
However, he is not naïve and recognises that powerful forces are steadily pushing us further towards the edge of the precipice.
In his best-selling book on the environment, The World we Have, he writes: “We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.
“We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth.
“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.”
by Jo Confino
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An edited video of Jo Confino’s interview with Thich Nhat Hahn can be seen here.
For information on Thay’s visit to the UK this spring, which includes a meditation in Trafalgar Square, a talk at the Royal Festival Hall, a five-day retreat and a three-day mindfulness in education conference, go to the Cooling the Flames website.
To find out where I soruced this article from, please click here.
And to find out a bit more about Thich Naht Hanh, please click here.
OR, if you would like to see Thich Naht Hanh give a talk here in the UK, please visit the London Southbank Centre’s wesbite by clicking here. Ticket’s are almost sold out!
April 22, 2011
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Knowing others is wisdom… Knowing yourself is enlightenment.
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This is the first part of a series of blogs that I mentioned would be coming… The ones where I was going to do my best to present several ideas which aptly demonstrated that the notion of a ‘self’, a notion which we all seem to cling to so ardently in life, is really nothing more than a sort of grand illusion of consciousness conjured up by the biochemically ‘aware’ molecular systems of our bodies, which – if you’re a human being (or even a bird, perhaps) – use a vocalized type of memetic linguistic patterning to confer ideas, notions, emotions, warnings and/or other data to one another within social groups of a similar species… As it happens, these memes also evolve in a very similar way to the physical bodies that we presently use to convey all these ideas/memes with (after all, we do live in a fractal like universe)… And, it should be mentioned, all of this arose ‘naturally’ from the strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos inherent within the solar system’s accreted mass of star dust… In fact this same strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos resides at the heart of all universal phenomena… But more on that later.
For the moment… Please do excuse the length of time it has taken for me to realize this post… However, much patience, practice and research was needed to construct the essence of, what I’m sure many experts on the subject will only consider to be, this very rudimentary study. And perhaps, while I am managing to be humble, I should also add – so as to be totally honest and fair – that I’m really no better off reaching any definitive conclusion about what ‘I’, or rather my ‘self’, actually is either!?!?
In fact… This study has only made me more and more unsure – more unsure than I’ve ever been before – about what constitutes an idea of a ‘self’… Demonstrating for me, at least, that what many of us seem to take for granted as being a ‘certain’, ‘definable’ and ‘constant’ notion of identity and/or existence, upon closer inspection, actually becomes a very vague, intangible and indefinable man-made abstraction centered more around linguistic syntax rather than on direct knowledge or experience alone. I know that might sound quite disconcerting to some… However, it should be noted that it is nothing more than an alternative idea to counter the many commonplace views that presently exist on how the majority of us see our ‘selves’ and our position here in the cosmos today… Not to mention that I feel it might well be a good time to start evolving a bit, both mentally as well as physically.
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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
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I know, I know… Why would anyone want to challenge the socially accepted Western view of the universe that we’re presently running along with… One that seems to set in stone a type of superiority over the rest of life here on Earth… One where the ‘self’ is all pervasive, and yet, it remains silently un-clear and unrevealed to those who need to know the most about it… ? Well, I for one don’t feel that our present state of Being and/or understanding adequately reflects our true circumstance… Let alone our true nature… And, having spoken to many fellow human beings here on Earth recently (so as to clarify whether we’re all functioning properly or not), I have discovered that many of our present problems i.e. over population, food shortages, war, etc… seem to stem from a fundamental error in the way we all perceive how we connect to the environment around us… To be more specific about this error… We all seem to be observing everything we do through an idea – or lens – of ‘self’. One that focuses our minds into modes of specific and present action within the world we presently find our ‘selves’ in.
But why should this way in which we perceiving things actually be a problem? Well… If we were to accept the idea of our ‘self’ somewhat blindly – like many of us do presently – and see ourselves as all being independently standing i.e. our ‘self’ exists separately and independently of everything else (which many of us clearly thinks is the case, seen by most people amassing bank balances, material wealth like gold, jewelry, cars, fashion based clothes, social status, etc)… Then we can actually limit the way that we see, understand and interrelate to everything and everyone else around us here on planet Earth and within the universe… Why? Because if we choose to completely disregard how the notion of ‘self’ came into being, and use only a marginalized approximation of what this unbounded essence of existence really is, then I fear we may mangle and divorce ourselves thoroughly from any real chance that we might have of developing a true and more appropriately connected state of Being that considers who ‘we’ all i.e. all sentient beings, unquestionably are.
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It is astounding that man, the instigator, inventor and vehicle of all these (i.e. political opinions and religious understandings) developments, the originator of all judgments and decisions and the planner of the future, must make himself such a quantité négligeable. The contradiction, the paradoxical evaluation of humanity by man himself, is in truth a matter for wonder, and one can only explain it as springing from an extraordinary uncertainty of judgment – in other words, man is an enigma to himself. This is understandable, seeing that he lacks the means of comparison necessary for self-knowledge. He knows how to distinguish himself from the other animals in point of anatomy and physiology… But as a conscious, reflecting being, gifted with speech, he lacks all criteria for self-judgment. He is on this planet a unique phenomenon, which he cannot compare with anything else. The possibility of comparison and hence self-knowledge would arise only if he could establish relations with quasi-human mammals inhabiting other stars…
Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961)
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I mean… If we could cultivate an understanding of things that is free of ‘self’ centered tendencies and ‘selfish’ attitudes towards natural resources and ecological processes… An attitude that is devoid of all ‘self’ importance… And, thus, prevents our ‘selves’ from taking this idea of a ‘self’ too literally… Thereby relieving most – if not all – of the unnecessary stress and folly that awaits us if we continue with these ‘self’ centered views and relationships i.e. unwittingly promoting deconstructive behavioral patterns within our societies and ecosystems… Then we might well be able to disarm the citadels of ‘self’-importance that we have all imprisoned our ‘selves’ in… And REALLY SEE how ‘we’ all closely interconnect to the world (and universe) around us…
In many ways, this is why this journey to find my ‘self’ was so important… In fact, it’s why I feel it’s a really important journey for us all to undertake. Otherwise we will be cursed to pollute and destroy our delicate ecosystem over and over again, propagating an unsettled karmic pattern from our unenlightened mind streams and resulting behavior patterns, creating a Saṃsāra without end.
Thus, bearing in mind all I’ve written about within this website, it became, for me, a natural evolutionary process to take sometime to ponder over where the true enemy lay hidden… And, by being as humble and as diligent as I possibly could (please bear in mind I still have many faults and, thus, have done only as best as I could with my present defilements of mind, etc…), I managed to catch a glimpse of the enemy within… The enemy within my ‘self’… The one who created all the ‘self’-centered views, stances, opinions, arguments and ways of being that I’ve had, gotten into or done over the years… And I wondered, how can pacify this selfish mode of being… ?
For, once we manage to dismantle this ‘selfish’ perceptive stance, we might well be able to grasp how our present worldview was constructed and, thus, develop a better attitude toward solving our problem of ‘self’ obsession from the inside out rather than trying to do it from the outside in. Nothing we can do outside will ever really permanently change what is going on inside… Why? Well, it’s a bit like what Robert Persig once wrote in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”…
“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government again and again. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
In my humble opinion, it’s in building our present conceptualized understanding of things from the inside out that we have created most of our problems here on Earth.
For example, the idea of ‘self’ – which is a designated social construct that allows anyone who can grasp it to relay, say, how they are feeling in relation to the world around them – provides us with the necessary notions/ideas for constructing sentences with, eluding to a “subject” and “object” with regards to some aspect of happening or action, OR change, between – or relative to – the two entities i.e. a subject and an object… From this formulation we derive the ability to describe to others our place in the world around us, along with the changes that effect all within it daily unfolding, and even how they affect our ‘selves’ and each other (see Noam Chomsky’s “Language And Mind”). Thus the notion of a ‘self’ gives us a very handy tool by which we can understand the world around us, conveying what we feel we need to convey to others in order to act with every one’s best interests at heart (or not) and do our best to survive.
Through this conveyance, We i.e. human beings, were able to organize – via the use of language – our ‘selves’ as collective groups who work together more effectively and efficiently as an objective, collective unit, relaying the merits of certain actions, and condemning overly ‘self’-centered interests that broke up group efforts (see Scientific American’s recent article “Groups With Good Social Skills Outperform The Merely Smart“). In this kind of linguistic/collective exchange, the ‘self’ allowed us to find a type of collective ‘fairness’ and/or ‘equanimity’ within the subsequent constructs of moral codes of conduct… Which, in time, became laws of the land.
So the ‘self’ has bestowed us with the advantage of understanding how we – as individuals – would like to be treated morally and, thereby, it allows us to develop a kind of moral, self-referenced exchange that ultimately posits an agreeable universal code of conduct between us all, precluding good living and optimal survival conditions for the majority. This is a type of morality that most of us would agree with one another upon… Why? Because it allows us to see things in relative terms i.e. the body, where our ‘perceived’ center of consciousness ‘seems’ to emanate from (more on this later), is the center of our perspective… And, relative to everything else, we desire a certain amount of ‘happiness‘ from the actions we perform, so that, on the whole, we all lead stress free and healthy lives. Thus, for the most constructive outcome within the complex dynamics of human flourishing, our actions should be morally guided with a concern for the whole… For looking after the interests of the whole precludes looking the interests of the individual.
So… Bearing all this in mind… Perhaps now is a good time for me to introduce the idea that most languages are essentially the same… I know on one level it might sound a bit bizarre i.e. Japanese is certainly not the same as French, which is not the same as English or Tibetan, otherwise we’d all speak like each other… Rather I mean that the syntax of all sentence structure is essentially the same as one another. In order to demonstrate this, I have quoted the following passage, which comes from the introduction to Noam Chomsky’s book, entitled “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.”
Taken from Noam Chomsky’s “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind”, this is a Forward by Neil Smith. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xvi, 230. Reviewed by Gilbert Harman, Princeton University
Here are seven essays that describe and deplore a philosophical double standard that respects the methods and results of physics, chemistry, and biology but not the methods and results of linguistics and other sciences of the mind.
One sign of the double standard is that, while hardly anyone thinks one can do philosophy of physics without knowing physics, it is all too common for one to think that they can do philosophy of language without knowing linguistics.
Chomsky is, of course, the leading figure in contemporary linguistics. Starting in the 1950s, his development of generative grammar was an important factor in the shift from behavioristic to cognitive approaches to language and mind. Chomsky’s approach takes the goal of linguistics to be to characterize the human faculty of language, noting its differences from the human faculties for general problem solving science. As Chomsky and other linguists tried to give explicit characterizations of the competence of a speaker of a language like English, it became clear that a child learning language simply does not have the sort of evidence available that would enable it to learn the relevant principles from scratch. There is a “poverty of the stimulus.” The child must be prepared to acquire language with these principles in a way that it is not prepared to acquire the principles of, say, physics or quantification theory.
It is clear that normal children acquire a language that reflects their particular linguistic environment. A child brought up in Japan acquires a version of Japanese. The same child brought up in Brazil acquires a version of Portuguese. So, these languages must in some sense reflect some of the same underlying innate principles.
Further reflection along these lines and a great deal of empirical study of particular languages has led to the “principles and parameters” framework which has dominated linguistics in the last few decades. The idea is that languages are basically the same in structure, up to certain parameters, for example, whether the head of a phrase goes at the beginning of a phrase or at the end. Children do not have to learn the basic principles, they only need to set the parameters. Linguistics aims at stating the basic principles and parameters by considering how languages differ in certain more or less subtle respects. The result of this approach has been a truly amazing outpouring of discoveries about how languages are the same yet different.
More recently, there have been attempts to try to explain some of the basic principles on the assumption that the language faculty is close to an ideal engineering solution to a problem of connecting the language faculty with the cognitive system and the articulatory perceptual system. This “minimalist program” remains highly speculative, but whether of not it succeeds, contemporary linguistics as a whole has been a tremendous success story, the most successful of the cognitive sciences.
One would therefore expect that any philosopher of mind or language would make it his or her business to understand the basic methodology and some of the results of this subject. But many philosophers of mind and language proceed in utter ignorance of the subject.
For me, at least, this demonstrates – via the tenets of linguistics – that languages used for communication, a ‘universal’ trait of human beings presently here on Earth, are all essentially structured in very similar ways to one another. This notion of the subjective vs. objective in turn aids, what I can only call, the programming of one’s ‘self’ – via a type of memetic feedback loop – into who they ‘feel’ they presently are in this moment of their lives.
Perhaps it should also be mentioned here that, as we use with such daily regularity a linguistic ‘method’ that defines how separate aspects of the world occur in relation to ourselves i.e. we use sentences that include a plethora of ‘nouns’ or ‘names’ for almost everything we can experience tangibly or intangibly (see the dictionary for a full scope on the number of words that we use to describe things seperately with, coupled with their manmade ‘meanings’/'definitions’) along with how these names/nouns/concepts all interrelate to the separate notion of our ‘selves’… Thus we are unwittingly cementing in place a worldview based on an understanding of ‘separateness’… Of ‘independent’ arising… Where everything seems to have an ‘apparent’ individual identity and meaning, independent of everything else. And, if we don’t check ourselves daily, then we will fall foul of this ‘self’ referential system of thought, and think that everything must be ‘separate’ from everything else… Or even have a ‘meaning’ or a ‘purpose’ of some sort… A meaning that differentiates and/or separates it from other things… !!!
Perhaps that is why many of us feel at a loss when we truly realize that there is no inherent meaning to anything i.e. that everything is ultimately empty… Even the idea of our own lives, which is just a fantastical social construct at best, has no inherent meaning beyond that which we create for our ‘selves’… And, something that has scared me recently (though I must say I am slowly beginning to feel more at ease with the idea now), that there is no inherent meaning, or even concrete definition, to the notion of my – or even your – ‘self.’ I know I still haven’t discussed why the idea of a solid, or ever constant, ‘self’ is perhaps a delusion… But I am getting there slowly…
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Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth.
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After we have seen how everything slots together within linguistic constructs – and understood from which direction we constructed the conceptualized notion of the universe around us – we might well clinch a better method of action with which to resolve most our problems of sustainability and war with… Not to mention that it might well become a highly effective method that will allow us to see how we constructed the notion of our ‘self’ within our relative modes of understanding. For, once that is understood, I believe that we might well give our ‘selves’ the power to ‘self’ realize and actualize our own remedy from within.
It’s a bit like a motorbike… If you don’t know how one is constructed… Or even what a screw does… Or, even, how this basic unit of the motorbike functions i.e. a screw… Then you will never be able to repair it when it breaks down… Just because you know how to drive a bike doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. But when you look at all the parts that gave rise to its coming together… Even how it stays together… Then we will be able to at least take the motorbike apart, bit by bit, undoing the of the basic units that built it up… And, thus, through that process, we’d be able to have a better chance at seeing what is wrong with it and, so, have a better chance of repairing it.
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So as to look at some functions within the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum… I’d like to recap on what we’ve already covered in this blog… Mainly because I feel they contain some very important aspects about how the ‘self’ functions within this here website… For example, the notion of our ‘self’ functioning as a sort of feedback loop (as discussed in Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled “I Am A Strange Loop“), along with how analogy can be viewed as the core of cognition, plus how the mind naturally demonstrates that the very process that drives it is based on an engine of nonlinear dynamics i.e. an engine of pure chaos, as well as how we are beginning to use these models of understanding in order to develop artificial intelligence with… Not to mention we have discussed concepts that treat our ‘self’ as nothing more than an amalgamation of ideas/memes that collect over the course of our lives, via a feedback loop between the mind/brain/body/environment continuum, and which are then assimilated into a central memeplex of ‘self’ for relative temporal processing… !!! We’ve also seen how prone to illusion the system of our biomechanical bodies makes us – the very bodies that we use on a daily basis to perceive the world around us with… And, thus, we can see how we should also be aware of the resulting delusions that therefore creep into our own socially constructed understanding about what the nature of reality ‘seems’ to be… !?!? And, bearing that in mind, we’ve even managed to discuss how nothing is permanent and that ‘time’ is really only a conceptualized understanding about how our past memories relate to the only moment that we really have i.e. this present moment… Thus we can begin to understand how we distort the essence of experience with social constructs, like the concept of ‘time’, which we choose to gauge gradients of change with in relation to our own, somewhat ‘self’ biased perspectives, which are usually mainly centered around our own clusters of personalized memories.
I think all these insights are so important to bear in mind… Why? Because rarely do we truly see past these prejudiced, memetically procured views and glimpse at the pure and ultimate nature of everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – which resides in a continually evolving flux of new patterns… Unfolding freely and interconnectedly from one ‘conceptualized’ moment to the next… In fact, there never was any need for conceptualization… Nor was there ever any moment… There was only Being… Being in the now… A Being that was beyond all definition… Continually evolving… Beyond all understanding… Free from any conceptualization…
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None by his own knowledge, or by subtle consideration, will ever really understand these things. For all words and all that one can learn or understand in a creaturely way, are foreign to the truth that I mean and far below it.
John Van Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381)
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‘Being’ never needed any conceptualization because experience was naturally selected for without it and, so, it spoke completely for its ‘self’… Pure ‘experience’ is unbounded and beyond all dualistic modes of thinking… But once one takes the bitter bite/byte from the fruit that came off the tree of knowledge, we instantly limit our understanding of all things and forget that we are much like butterflies ‘flapping our wings’ of imagination within the parameters of our caged, syntax based existence, ‘using our structured minds’ to shape the world in which we now live… How many of us realize that there is this beautifully unbounded, enchanting, chaotic beast lurking deep within the system of our ‘selves’… ? One that, if ignored, can amplifiy subtle changes to manifest infinitly further down the line, like ‘hurricanes’ ripple off the flutter of a butterfly’s wings… Capable of destroying as much as creating.
Without a better viewpoint of our ‘selves’ and how we relate to the universal system in a karmic manner, it will be very hard for us to develop a pure and compassionate intent that amplifies predominantly constructive modes of living, while diminishing the destructive aspects of actions suitably for optimal flourishing of all sentient beings… For, without constructive modes of living, we only unwittingly harm other sentient beings, including ourselves, much further down the line.
Furthermore… So as free our own existence from a “God created us in his image” induced self-righteousness, which seems to only further this ‘self’ obsession… I’ve also begun to touch on how science, along with other ‘human’ endeavors, are yielding results that clearly demonstrate that ‘We’ all are really nothing more than a bunch of ‘interdependently’ related chemical reactions which are slowly evolving in a closed-off, ‘petri dish’ type of a planetary environment, which is isolated from other planetary ecosystems only through space’s vast and open, inhospitable expanses… Here, on Earth, whether we realize it or not, we are simply ‘doomed’ (though I fear that is very much the wrong word with which to describe life’s bountiful delights with) to do our best to survive and work around any sudden environmental/social/universal changes that might disrupt or hamper our ability to live in stability with the environment and ecosystem we find ourselves in. That is unless, somewhere down the line, we actually forget what our original purpose was.
Here I’d like to take a moment to introduce an article from Paulo Coelho’s blog entitled, “Learned Helplessness”… Perhaps, while reading it, I would beg everyone to consider the plethora of maladies that this modern world – and its medicine – has invented for us i.e. ADHD, anxiety disorder, etc…
The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression.
A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.
Learned helplessness can be seen as a mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile.Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.
Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies.
Some experts suggest learned helplessness can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband’s commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the “normal” demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the learned helplessness cycle.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences.
A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on.
How many times could I have just given up and gone to sit with the rest of the herd, medicated up to my eye-balls, happy and supposedly contented with my lot in the daily routine of ‘supposedly’ well adjusted human endeavor… And done so until eventually, one day, I died… ? Too many times was I given this option… And how many times could I have just proclaimed helplessness within this capitalist society and given up this quest of ‘self’ discovery and operated in only the confines of some syndrome or mental disorder, looking for immediate gratification and comfortable conformity? Again, all too many…
Perhaps when one begins to formulate all this for themselves… And glimpse at a more adequate type of interdependent reality for themselves… They might well suddenly realize that our own need for stability limits the way we view this ever-changing world and universe… And, once that step has been taken, perhaps we can then also begin to glimpse at a humbling reminder that shows us we are all really nothing more than the ‘left-overs’ of matter reconfigured in the present solar system’s accretion process – all of which was constructed naturally, via processes of chaos, from a mass of fused atomic debris which had been expired, like soot from a fire, by past splendiferous burns of long gone suns…
Here, perhaps we are somewhat fortunate to have developed a type of organic Life that allows ‘us’ to be present, both here and now, and perceive the wonders of the universe as they unfold around us… Using similar structures and processes to those found in and around the universe so as to guide our perceptive mechanisms and understandings..
Well… I’m sure you can imagine how all this began to sound to a layman like myself… Especially when I began compiling and piecing together all the data and experience I had available to me – which, on the whole, was taken from a vast quagmire of scientific journals, published papers, university/researcher websites, books, video lectures and even going to (though I think ‘sneaking into’ is a far better description of events) a few university lectures in person, as well as some transcendent experiences involving psychedelic drugs and certain meditative techniques – so as to understand a bit more about my place, here, in the unfolding non-linear dynamic of the cosmos…
No doubt, while gorging my ‘self’ on the raw data that ‘I’ had amassed, ‘I’ found my ‘self’ restructuring and rearranging it into streams of, what ‘I’ can only call, an intuitive patterning, or sense of reasoning… One that came from my heart and gut as much as it did my head, all the while filling up the pages of this website with these ‘raw’ ideas… Ideas that relentlessly kept flooding into my mind’s memetic stream… And yet, whilst laying out all these ideas for restructuring, I never knew that I’d be slowly coming back round, ‘full circle’ so to speak, to look back at the observer… At the ‘self’… To see this idea of consciousness looking back at its ‘self’ in an eternal feedback loop… Like someone standing in front of two slightly distorted mirrors faced back in upon each other… And then, when I discovered that the observer, them ‘selves’, can actually shape the way in which the world functions around them simply through the act of perceiving it… !?!? Well… That blew a lot of the ‘supposed’ common sense I had learned from school and society right out of the water.
However, during this process of reflection, the hardest thing for me was trying to pin point where this ‘self’, this observer, actually was… Where ‘I’ actually came from… Why? Because, in trying to discover what my ‘self’ was – this powerful perceiving entity that could shape the universe around it simply by observing – I found my ‘self’ using all the antiquated social constructs that I had been provided with during my childhood and teenage years; concepts and ideas that I had learnt while I was at school and university… And in doing so, I found my ‘self’ needing to ask new questions within questions, so as to to puncture the crusty surface of a hard-baked, almost calcified, social reality… Questions like, if I didn’t use any type of language to communicate with, then, in the absence of any conceptualized notion of a ‘self’, would ‘I’ still be aware of my ‘self’ in the way that ‘I’ presently am, etc… ???
‘I’ mean… Surely if this idea of a ‘self’ was meant to be so obvious a fact… Like, “I think, therefore I am…” ! And as obvious as the existence of a ‘self’ seemingly was… Didn’t there have to be an equally obvious and simple answer about what the ‘self’ actually was/is… An answer that could exist independently of everything else – like language seemed to hint at – without the need to unravel the highly complex and infinitely long chain of cause and effect that brought it all into being… !?!?
But every time I looked at boiling any set of these conceptualized notions about the ‘self’ down into a concise and tidy bit of understanding… I only found endless vagaries, each of which did not quite fit the mark… Each of which didn’t satisfy my need for precision… Each of which required more questions to be asked… And each of which required more answers than the last to be defined and clarified… Spiraling into and endless foray of attach and parry that would apparently lead me to a reachable goal. Oh, how deluded I was.
It eventually became evident that a straightforward and transparent concept of the ‘self’ was not possible. In fact, the solution of my ‘self’ – which I found to be impressively colorful, soluble and ‘seemingly’ apparent in the vocalized solution of syntax which we all used in every day life, much like a dye in water – kept evading any type of concise certainty about what the ‘I’, which was being discussed, actually was. Paradox upon paradox kept layering over one another… I mean… How far could it go? Could these questions go on and on forever and ever… ? Like the way we could go on zooming into and/or out of our present scale of conscious resolution (let’s temporarily forget the apparent limits imposed by the Planck length)?
For example… When I wanted to look at the solidity of my body, where I once thought I perceived my ‘self’ to reside… I wondered whether the ‘self’ could simply be a sum of its physical parts i.e. and enduring form relating to all the atoms in their present structural configurations, connected together in cascading molecular lines/chains of environmental functionality?
But then ‘I’ remembered an idea that was discussed earlier in “An Idea About Who We Really Are“… An idea where the body’s apparent solidity comes into question.
Perhaps here it is a good time to introduce one of those paradoxes that I came across not too long ago, entitled the “Ship of Theseus…” For I feel this adequately allows us to grasp the idea of whether physical (even mental) identity – something that is related to the idea of a ‘self’ – is persistent or not…
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“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Plutarch tells us that the ship was exhibited during the time [i.e., lifetime] of Demetrius Phalereus, which means ca. 350-280 BCE.
To make the original puzzle clearer… Let me reiterate this idea in planer English… Over the years, the Athenians replaced each plank in the original ship of Theseus as it decayed, thereby keeping it in good repair. Eventually, there was not a single plank left of the original ship. So, did the Athenians still have one and the same ship? Or was it a completely different ship?
But we can liven it up a bit by considering two different, somewhat modernized, versions. On both versions, the replacing of the planks takes place while the ship is at sea. We are to imagine that Theseus sails away, and then systematically replaces each plank on board with a new one (say it is his habit to carry a complete supply of new parts on board as his cargo). Now we can consider these two versions of the story:
Simple version: Theseus completely rebuilds his ship, replaces all the parts, throws the old ones overboard. Does he arrive on the same ship as the one he left on? Of course it has changed. But is it really the original ship?
Let A = the ship Theseus started his voyage on.
Let B = the ship Theseus finished his voyage on.
Our question then is: Does A = B? If not, why not? Suppose he had left one original part in. Is that enough to make A identical to B? If not, suppose he had left two, etc, etc… Where do you draw the line? I mean… If all the new parts came from the same forest… Or even better… If they all came from the same type of tree as the pieces of wood that ship was originally constructed from did, would this allow one to call it the same ship? Or if these pieces of the same tree were carved by the same person… Would it then be the same ship? Then again… Are these just trivialities? And, if so, would it even matter if Theseus stopped along the way and used different types of wood, whatever came to hand, so to speak… Then would this still be the same ship?
The permutations on this paradox are almost endless… For example, if all the atoms in the ship, atoms that have come together after the processes of accretion and evolution that formed us all along with the rest of the solar system that we now see around us today… If these atoms were replaced in exactly the same position and manner… The only difference being that the atomic matter came from a different set of suns… Would Theseus’ ship still be the same ship? Are the processes that made us more important that the material we are built from?? Or is the notion of ‘importance’ its ‘self’ empty of all inherent meaning… And, thus, is inadequate to describe anything ultimately???
In my humble opinion… We can apply this same principle to the physical notion of our ‘self’… For example we have already seen in a prior blog, entitled “An Idea About Who We Really Are” that, over a 15 year period, the human body replaces almost every single cell within its structure. All the material changes within us… Thus, is this body, that you are now using to read these words with, actually the same body that you had several years ago? I know for me, at least, it certainly feels like it is the same body… In fact it feels similar to the body I had 15 years ago… 15 years ago I was 20 years old, and pretty much looked the same… Albeit now I have a few grey hairs and am slightly fatter than I used to be… I know I ‘essentially’ still feel the same now… And I can still do nearly all the same things I used to, etc… But, despite these similar feelings, am I really the same person?
The same happens with experience. Experience shapes the way we react to the world around us. Different experiences cause different memories to be formed… And with these memories, we temporally choose to guide our ‘selves’ through certain situations… So, if we had to two of me… Exactly the same as each other, up to a specific point in time i.e. all the materials and processes that made us both were exactly identical… Along with all the experiences up to that moment in time, etc… Then, if one of me was to experience something completely different to the other… Would that differing experience mean that ‘I’ am no longer my ‘self’?
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Even if the ‘self’ was simply just a sum of its parts and expereinces… We should ask the question… Where should one draw the lines between all these parts i.e. at a molecular level, or at an atomic level, or even at subatomic levels, as with neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, etc… ?? Or even, where should one draw the line between all these experiences? I mean… What even REALLY constitutes a part??? Isn’t it just the mind grasping at trying to understand the unfathomable process of everything… And, in doing so, procure its own brand of stupid dependability and definition???? Because to define any part properly, shouldn’t we still also include the processes that brought all these individual parts together to function as they do presently, describing, as well, how those processes arose too, and the ones that gave rise to them, ad infinitum?????
But perhaps more pertinently… Do we actually have any real right to divide the flow of an interdependent system up into conceptualized parts? You know, like we feel we do, for example, with borders between countries i.e. separating these interrelated topographies with merely imagined, fracturing lines that stem from our fractured, intellectualized memetic mind streams… I mean… It obvious that these lines simply do not exist in the real world. Nowhere that I have ever been on Earth is there some line that nature left us that denotes who should live where and how they should live or what they should be called… Nowhere!
And even if we did have a right to divide up them up… What would happen if we were to walk around these imagined borders, examining every nook and cranny of the immense majesty and diversity that fell into and out of every facade of their periphery… ? Wouldn’t we also find what Benoît Mandelbrot wrote about in his 1967 paper, published in Science, entitled “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension“?
Surely with every new question asked, a new level of detail emerges, giving rise to an unbounded and infinite boarder? Just as Lewis Fry Richardson discovered, the length of a given coastline depends on the method used to measure it. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious limit to the size of the smallest feature that should/could not be measured around… And, hence, there is no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass.
In my humble opinion, it is this very idea that should be applied to trying to understand the notion of ‘self.’ For example, when someone asks us the question “who are we?”, various approximations seem to come to mind and, with these approximations, vague assumptions are made about who we are i.e. he/she lives in Tunbridge Wells, wears sunglasses on sunny days, is a vegetarian, etc… And, perhaps, if we were from a scientific disposition, we might also include that we were made from flesh and bone, which in turn is made from proteins, carbohydrates, fats, water, calcium, etc… It doesn’t matter to our conceptualized notions that this flesh and bone changes every few years… Just so long as we can describe what it is that we vaguely want to talk about here and now… !?!?
Just as with landmasses too, various approximations exist when specific assumptions are made about minimum feature size. So… How far can we go on probing the idea of a ‘self’ with out questioning the very logic/ideas/ approximations/processes that created it? Or even the language that we use to describe it? I mean… If we go all the way… ALL THE WAY… Will we not discover that we are really inherently unbounded and indefinable… ?? That we are infinite in a perspective that present social conditioning and understanding has forced us to forget… ???
While looking for my ‘self’, I found that Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled, “Escher, Bach and Gödel: And Eternal Golden Braid”, was more pertinent than I had ever really imagined it would be… And recently I’ve found my ‘self’ coming back to it time and again… Because in many ways this search for the ‘self’ reminds me of looking at Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems.” Rather than the ‘self’ being a real entity that can be defined logically and reasonably within axiomatic definitions based on “good-old” empirical evidence – evidence that is derived from many types of experimental observation, and then assessed via modes of logical reasoning, so as to posit how it all fits together into a greater, universal picture… Upon a closer inspection, this ‘I’ or ‘self’ seems to merge with, and become part of, the WHOLE universal dynamic… A tiny part of the WHOLE picture… Like a baby Mandelbrot set in the totality of the WHOLE Mandelbrot set… Each of these little sets is dependent on all the totality of the patterns preceding it… Patterns that, if they were any different further upstream, would not have brought it to rest in its present place, shape, size and/or fashion.
Saying that… I doubt that the factors that brought about our “selves” into this present universal moment are quite as simple as zn+1 = zn2 + c… Rather, in my humble opinion, there would have to be – more likely – an infinite amount of describing equations, all entangled and entwined into one another, rippling in and out of sync with each other, feeding back through and around them ‘selves’, making – from a human’s point of view – such an overwhelmingly complex totality of indefinable and unpredictable occurring precisions that one might only be able to describe it as Baruch Spinoza once did… Simply as “God, or Nature” its very ‘self’.
When I began to view the idea of ‘self’ in these terms i.e. that there is this evolving fractal chain of interdependent events, linked by cause and effect – one that gives rise to the notion of ‘self’ – it reminded me somewhat of Kalu Rinpoche’s writing on “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness.” This unfolding cascade of events stacks up with every conscious and unconscious decision/action creating the karmic patterns that determine the unfolding nature of our reality and, therefore, our circumstance.
I know many of us might well call everything We i.e. humans, do or make or say, even, “man-made…” But in reality it is all a part of the natural flow of things… There is an order there, one that defies comprehension… It’s flow is so uncertain and unpredictable that it flexes with every new action or event that is presented to it… Never does it stay the same… In fact, it is so sensitive to everything, that even a little ripple can manifest huge changes somewhere later down the line… Certain ancient Chinese philosophers once called this the great Tao. It was unspeakable, un-describable, and all pervasive… To talk of it would limit it and destroy its essence… To define it would only end up defiling its purity.
So too with the ‘self’… When we try to define our ‘self’, nothing that we hang on ‘it’ conceptually fits ‘its’ essence properly… Every limiting word presumes a rough approximation of something infinite and unbounded… And to use limitations to describe something which is unbounded is dangerous… It breeds delusion and breaks the delicate balance between what ‘IS’ and what we think ‘it’ is. I’m sure that if we all were to spend most of our time striving for enlightenment, then we would begin to see all this i.e. that we are nothing more than a part of the chaos inherent in a universal – although even the term universal might well seem to limit what I really want to express – system that is continually evolving and unfolding in this present moment. When we let go of our ‘selves’ then we truly become free and we can see that nothing begins or ends… Nor does anything exist independent of everything else, especially in the finite ways that we have been taught to describe the world with.
So… To bring it back round to where we started from… To understand what the ‘self’ is, I found my ‘self’ having to look at all the processes that brought me into being… And while I’m sure I’ve only touched on just a hand-full of these in the infinite majesty unfolding continuously around us… It lays a good idea at the unknowable totality of the interconnectedness we all share with one another AND the universe around us… I know we might well like to describe everything in terms of how it relates to our “selves”… But it would be better not to get too attached to this way of describing things… For it can breed delusion and spread confusion by manifesting fantasies beyond what actually “IS”. I As Douglas Adams once said…
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
I will leave it here for now… The second part to this study of ‘self’ will follow soon.
July 21, 2010
Having recently been to Dr Bruce Lipton‘s talk, entitled “The Biology Of Belief,” which was held in the Logan Hall of the Institute Of Education in London this last Saturday, the 17th of July 2010, I had reinforced the idea that we are nothing more than a bunch of atomic mechanisms, built from atomic polymers i.e. DNA, proteins, fatty acids, etc… all arranged into intricate cellular clusters, which – given the right circumstances – can function with amazingly natural flows of Being, demonstrating what we can only call, from a self referencing point of view, natural organic movements… And over the years we have – funnily enough – coined these flows to be “Life-Like.”
I really believe that when we begin to see Life in these terms i.e. that Life as we presently know it usually results from the complex interactions of the atomic machinery within an enclosed cellular body, which, if presented with more differentiated versions of itself, can build larger bodies from highly specialised cellular clusters… And then, once in place, out of all this unfolds a nonlinear biology/biochemistry of perceptive functions, all of which came about through the process of what we now know as ‘chaos’ – rather than the result of some divine intervention – and thus becomes nothing more than a complex, naturally occurring chaotic system that ‘intelligently’ reacts and responds, through effective behavioural patterns, to external environmental pressures and stimuli, precipitating survival habits that have been natural selected for… The behavioural patterns allow Life to survive in an ever changing environment, and the chaos inherent in our being affords us the ability to utilise the best survival traits that we can, one of which was the development of self-biased tendencies centred around a distinct notion of “self” and “body” that many of us seem to take for granted on a daily basis.
While I will eventually get around to discussing the reality and validity of the “self” in a future blog (something that is taking me much longer than I had anticipated)… In this blog I’d like try to discuss why this idea of viewing ourselves as a machine is a lot more natural and effective a notion about our “selves” than any previous egocentric notion about what we really are i.e. we were created by one or several Gods, in their own images to be special, etc… Certainly Dr Bruce Lipton’s analogy about us being a group of living cells which function within the confines of this body as a “community” of beings, each performing their own specific roles within the body’s mechanism i.e. just as governments regulate countries and their home economies, while police men arrest criminals, so do certain parts of the central nervous system function as regulators of heart rhythm and bodily temperature, while white blood cells kill of infections from ‘maliciously behaved’ bacteria… This idea of self-similarity within the patterns of Life that we see unfolding here on Earth across all scales and modes of Being will provide us with a very deep and intuitive understanding about the subtle and – what we tend to call – divine aspects of our Being, as well as showing us all how we interconnect and relate to this universally unfolding discourse..
Bearing in mind this ‘rule’ of self-similarity that seems to present itself within and throughout the whole of this universal dynamic so pervasively… And by viewing Life as a type of mechanisation… I am curious as to where – or from which level of scale – the emotive force of Life actually originates from? Is it at the level of the body i.e. does it directly and uniquely come from the sum of all its parts, where each individual part would be able to do nothing whatsoever by itself? Or is this trait of the emotive Life force buried deep down with in the cellular – or even the atomic – matrix? Certainly when we try to address what this experience of Life actually is and how it comes about we can hopefully begin to see it does not only belong to the body as a whole unit, but also comes from the various levels of functionality within the body i.e. at the cellular and atomic levels.
Just as Jung is concerned as much with the individual within society, as the individual is him/her “self” the measure of society, so too we can apply this analogy to the cell and body. Without the individual, society cannot function, let alone exist… And without the cell, the body cannot function or even exist. Life and its dynamism directly stems from the units that comprise the whole. These units, just as much as the whole, are all subject to the same forces and methods of development as each other i.e. those of nonlinear evolution. This ‘Life,’ and its essence, relies upon the parameters of these nonlinear, fractal eddies with their dynamics. These cellular bodies that make up our own larger bodies are driven by and made from the same underlying principles of naturally occurring algorithmic phenomena… Even though at first glance it might not be obvious that they are… But they are. Thus, if these algorithmic patterns reside across all levels of scale, shape and form, why shouldn’t we expect similar ‘intelligences’ to reside across all scales of these naturally occurring systems, whether at the human body’s level or a cellular level? Ultimately it’s up to you what you believe… But to function better I personally would like to know a little bit more about the processes that give rise this “I”; the processes that drive all of Life here on Earth – and possibly beyond too – rather than giving into dogmatic nodes of parrot fashioned understanding.
As Jung once wrote in “The Undiscoverd Self“:
Human knowledge consists essentially in the constant adaptation of the primordial patterns of ideas that were given us a priori. These need certain modifications, because, in their original form, they are suited to an archaic mode of life but not to the demands of a specifically differentiated environment. If the flow of instinctive dynamism into our life is to be maintained, as is absolutely necessary for our existence, then it is imperative that we remould these archetypal forms into ideas which are adequate to the challenge of the present.
. . . . . . . .
Our denominational religions with their archaic rites and conceptions – justified enough in themselves – express a view of the world which caused no great difficulties in the Middle Ages but has become strange and unintelligible to the man of today. Despite this conflict with the modern scientific outlook, a deep instinct bids him hang on to ideas which, if taken literally, leave out of account all the mental developments of the last five hundred years. The obvious purpose of this is to prevent him from falling into the abyss of nihilistic despair. But even when, a rationalists, we feel impelled to criticise contemporary religion as literalistic, narrowminded and obsolescent, we should never forget that the creeds proclaim a doctrine whose symbols, although their interpretation may be disputed, nevertheless possess a life of their own on account of their archetypal character. Consequently, intellectual understanding is by no means indispensable in all cases, but is called for only when evaluation through feeling and intuition does not suffice, that is to say, with people for whom the intellect holds the prime power of conviction.
In order to emphasise this re-equation that we need i.e. to understand that we are part of a whole ecosystem of Earth, just as a cell is part of the body’s ecosystem, it is here that I’d like to present an article which I read not too long ago in the New Scientist magazine… One that tackles this issue of where emotive Life comes from. When we see that Life’s organic flow resides across all levels of being i.e. atomic, cellular, bodily, biospherically, or even within the planet and its solar system, we might begin to understand that some of our older religious notions of the divine state of existence that We – that is, all Life – experience no longer need to be fantasised over or marginalised in any inaccurate way whatsoever. Now, through the doors of science, we can directly see the mechanisms of Life at work, and thus ‘understand’ the essence behind their patterns and interdependent interactions, all through which we gain the essence of our Being. Natural ordering comes from the patterns of chance and chaos, which give rise to development and originality within all universal systems, whether biological or otherwise. These systems, if given favourable circumstances/environments in which to start, can then begin the arduous process of developing into complex systems of environmentally perceptive and adaptive systems. Human beings are even beginning to use these recursive patterns – which have been called the “Thumb Print Of God” – in their technological developments i.e. to develop semi intelligent robotic systems that can learn fast and develop effective solutions to presented problems in ways that surpass anything we’ve tried or known before.
Thus, with these many new observations, I believe it is time to re-write our archetypal programming. Just as when I first saw the Mandelbrot Set on a postcard from a friend while at school and immediately recognised its tortuous, writhing flow as something so familiar and deeply ingrained in my being… So too do all ‘Gods’ leave this same feeling of familiarity… Of spirituality… And of deep connection to the whole… Here lies an answer to a new understanding… That self-similarity resides within all units of the whole… If you find intelligence within the body… Then why not within cell too… Or even in the atom… After all, one essence is usually found within the other, and so permeates through the entire being. Certainly atoms are just as discerning as human beings are… We all choose what we will or won’t react/socialise/breed with. Does this intelligence then go deeper? Intelligence that can be found within the proton, neutron and/or electron… And, if so, then why not even in the quark… Or the God particle…. Etc, etc, etc… ?
The Secrets Of Intelligence Lie Within A Single Cell
Late at night on a sultry evening, I watch intently as the predator senses its prey, gathers itself, and strikes. It could be a polecat, or even a mantis – but in fact it’s a microbe. The microscopic world of the single, living cell mirrors our own in so many ways: cells are essentially autonomous, sentient and ingenious. In the lives of single cells we can perceive the roots of our own intelligence.
Molecular biology and genetics have driven the biosciences, but have not given us the miraculous new insights we were led to expect. From professional biologists to schoolchildren, people are concentrating on the minutiae of what goes on in the deepest recesses of the cell. For me, however, this misses out on life in the round: it is only when we look at the living cell as a whole organism that wonderful realities emerge that will alter our perception not only of how single cells enact their intricate lives but what we humans truly are.
The problem is that whole-cell biology is not popular. Microscopy is hell-bent on increased resolution and ever higher magnification, as though we could learn more about animal behaviour by putting a bacon sandwich under lenses of increasing power. We know much about what goes on within parts of a cell, but so much less about how whole cells conduct their lives.
Currently, cell biology deals largely with the components within cells, and systems biology with how the components interact. There is nothing to counterbalance this reductionism with a focus on how whole cells behave. Molecular biology and genetics are the wrong sciences to tackle the task.
Let’s take a look at some of the evidence for ingenuity and intelligence in cells that is missing from the curriculum. Take the red algae Rhodophyta, in which many species carry out remarkable repairs to damaged cells. Cut a filament of Antithamnion cells so the cell is cut across and the cytoplasm escapes into the surrounding aquatic medium. All that remains are two fragments of empty, disrupted cell wall lying adjacent to, but separate from, each other. Within 24 hours, however, the adjacent cells have made good the damage, the empty cell space has been restored to full activity, and the cell walls meticulously realigned and seamlessly repaired.
The only place where this can happen is in the lab. In nature, the broken ends of the severed cell would nearly always end up remote from each other, so selection in favour of an automatic repair mechanism through Darwinian evolution would be impossible. Yet something amazing is happening here: because the damage to the Antithamnion filament is unforeseeable, the organism faces a situation for which it has not been able to adapt, and is therefore unable to call upon inbuilt responses. It has to use some sort of problem-solving ingenuity instead.
We regard amoebas as simple and crude. Yet many types of amoeba construct glassy shells by picking up sand grains from the mud in which they live. The typical Difflugia shell, for example, is shaped like a vase, and has a remarkable symmetry.
Compare this with the better known behaviour of a caddis fly larva. This maggot hunts around the bottom of the pond for suitable scraps of detritus with which to construct a home. Waterlogged wood is cemented together with pondweed until the larva has formed a protective covering for its nakedness. You might think this comparable to the home built by the testate amoeba, yet the amoeba lacks the jaws, eyes, muscles, limbs, cement glands and brain the caddis fly larva relies on for its skills. We just don’t know how this single-celled organism builds its shell, and molecular biology can never tell us why. While the home of the caddis fly larva is crude and roughly assembled, that of the testate amoeba is meticulously crafted – and it’s all made by a single cell.
The products of the caddis fly larva and the amoeba, and the powers of red algae, are about more than ingenuity: they pose important questions about cell intelligence. After all, whole living cells are primarily autonomous, and carry out their daily tasks with little external mediation. They are not subservient nanobots, they create and regulate activity, respond to current conditions and, crucially, take decisions to deal with unforeseen difficulties.
“Whole living cells are not subservient nanobots, they respond and take decisions”
Just how far this conceptual revolution about cells could take us becomes clearer with more complex animals, such as humans. Here, conventional wisdom is that everything is ultimately controlled by the brain. But cells in the liver, for example, reproduce at just the right rate to replace cells lost through attrition; follicular cells create new hair; bone marrow cells produce new circulating blood cells at a rate of millions per minute. And so on and on. In fact, around 90 per cent of this kind of cell activity is invisible to the brain, and the cells are indifferent to its actions. The brain is an irrelevance to most somatic cells.
So where does that leave the neuron, the most highly evolved cell we know? It ought to be in an interesting and privileged place. After all, neurons are so specialised that they have virtually abandoned division and reproduction. Yet we model this cell as little more than an organic transistor, an on/off switch. But if a red alga can “work out” how to solve problems, or an amoeba construct a stone home with all the “ingenuity” of a master builder, how can the human neuron be so lowly?
Unravelling brain structure and function has come to mean understanding the interrelationship between neurons, rather than understanding the neurons themselves. My hunch is that the brain’s power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons. And networks of neurons enhance the effect of those neurons “thinking” between themselves. I think the neuron’s action potentials are rather like a language neurons use to transmit processed data from one to the next.
Back in 2004, we set out to record these potentials, from neurons cultured in the lab. They emit electrical signals of around 40 hertz, which sound like a buzzing, irritating noise played back as audio files. I used some specialist software to distinguish the signal within the noise – and to produce sound from within each peak that is closer to the frequency of a human voice and therefore more revealing to the ear.
Listening to the results reprocessed at around 300 Hz, the audio files have the hypnotic quality of sea birds calling. There is a sense that each spike is modulated subtly within itself, and it sounds as if there are discrete signals in which one neuron in some sense “addresses” another. Could we be eavesdropping on the language of the brain?
For me, the brain is not a supercomputer in which the neurons are transistors; rather it is as if each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers. But even this model is probably too simplistic since the neuron processes data flexibly and on disparate levels, and is therefore far superior to any digital system. If I am right, the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine, and “artificial intelligence” a grandiose misnomer.
I think it is time to acknowledge fully that living cells make us what we are, and to abandon reductionist thinking in favour of the study of whole cells. Reductionism has us peering ever closer at the fibres in the paper of a musical score, and analysing the printer’s ink. I want us to experience the symphony.
by Brian J. Ford
Despite the authors final sentiments, I still feel that this reductionism does provide us with certain, otherwise unobtainable, clarities for understanding the similarities between the processes within and without… After all, one needs to know how to make paper and ink, and understand something about the musical scoring technique before they can write a symphony down for the future enjoyment of others…
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to learn more about Dr Bruce Lipton and some of the brilliant work he is doing, please click here.
June 15, 2010
Just a moment ago a friend sent me a link to an article in Scientific American entitled “The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire.” As I’m particularly interested in delusions that spring forth from varied perceptive stances, or illusions that stem from blind spots within biomechanical processes within the mind, as well as illusions i.e. optical illusions and perceptual distortions, I’m posting this article here, as I feel it pertinently stands to remind us all about how something can sometimes seem greater than it actually is… Or closer than it really might be… Or even stranger than it really is.
Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.
This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example,researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?
Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).
These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.
Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” – two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.
Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.
The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.
In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
March 3, 2010
Just the other day I was speaking to a friend about who we really were i.e. what defines ‘us’, what is real about ‘us’, what makes ‘us’ us… And after we’d finished discussing The Grand Delusion Of Self, he decided that it was our body that defined us.
So came into question the time period with which our cells replenish and replace themselves. I had no idea about the exact facts or figures, but I had heard that every cell in the body replaces itself at least once every seven years. But… As hearsay is nothing more than scuttlebutt at the best of times, I decided to research this topic further. And thus I came across the following article in the New Scientist which decidedly covers the issue with a thoroughness that left me without any doubt that… Even though our bodies appear to be a solid structure of form and function that remain true, albeit age, for the rest of our life, they are certainly not as defining an aspect of ourselves as some of us would like think!? Why? Well… Even though I’ve been alive for 33 years here on Earth, my body is – on average – only 15 years old.
When we are presented with such undefinable aspects about the notion of our “self,” doesn’t it seem that we are sometimes overly prone to worrying about something which really not not exist? I mean, fair enough we have a need to survive and avoid certain death, for we are carrying the torch of Life for future generations; as an olympian carries the flame from mount Olympus to start the games with. But to obsess about ourselves; to worry about ourselves beyond reason… Well isn’t it missing the point of Life? Aren’t we really worrying about nothing? After all, we are nothing more than a collection of schemas/memes – ideas that originate from other people – that loosely add onto this framework of a body via the brain’s structure and ability; a body which is built from the star dust of ancient suns long extinguished, working on principles of chaos, weaving unpredictability into modes of ‘apparent’ understanding… An understanding that modifies itself all the time – via our constant study – into ever cosier comprehensions about the nature of reality and the beauty that guides it.
I mean, isn’t this uncertainty simply wonderful? For the first time it truly frees us from the confines of our own predefined humanity. It allows us to see that even WE – the predesignated arrangement of atoms that makes up our body, giving us substance in this world – are an uncertainty. I know this experience we are having seems pretty real i.e. I am really aware of the keyboard as my fingers type these words out on the keys in patterns of “QWERTY” order, and I can even interrelate these present experiences with past ones, and even calculate with a fairly accurate estimation about the chances of what might happen in the immediate future if I was to perform certain actions – like what would happen if I was to drive my bike at twenty miles per hour into the lake in the park… I’d go “SPLOSH!” and get rather wet, while ducks quack and fly off in many directions. BUT… Despite these amazing feats of organic supercomputing, our bodies and our memories are ever changing and ever shifting like the dunes of a desert. We’re just not really aware of them changing…
Perhaps this is something we should all bear in mind… That, while we might feel solid and certain at many points in our lives, ‘WE’ really are as fickle as the dunes of the Sahara. As Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, “When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”
Here’s a question: how old are you? Think carefully before you reply. It’s a lot trickier than you might imagine. The correct answer, it turns out, is about 15 and a half. According to recent research, that’s the average age of your body – your muscles and guts, anyway. You might think that you have been around since the day you were born, but most of your body is a lot younger.
That may come as no surprise. It’s a common belief that the human body completely renews itself every seven years, and though biologists would hesitate to put a firm figure on it most are happy to accept that cells eventually wear out and are replaced. In some tissues – skin and blood – we know how long it takes, for example from seeing how long transfused blood cells last. Surprisingly, however, we have no idea how often most cell types are replaced, if indeed they are replaced at all. Until a few months ago it was impossible to tell. Experiments on mice had hinted that some cells are replaced more often than others, but no one was sure how relevant the findings were to humans.
Now neurologist Jonas Frisén of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has invented an ingenious technique for determining the age of adult cells. He and others are using the technique to answer questions that have intrigued scientists and laypeople for decades: does cell turnover mean that you eventually renew your entire body? If so, how many bodies do you go through in a lifetime? If you live to a ripe old age, is there anything left of the original “you”? There’s more to it than curiosity value, though. The rate of cell turnover is a hot question in neuroscience and regenerative medicine, and may provide the key to treating numerous diseases and managing the effects of ageing.
Questions about the rates of cell renewal first arose about 100 years ago, when scientists discovered that most of our neurons are formed during fetal development and persist for life. Ever since, people have been wondering if the brain’s cerebral cortex – the seat of executive functions such as attention and decision-making – ever makes new cells. In the 1960s neurologists discovered that rodents and cats may make new neurons. Then in 1999 a study in Science caused great excitement with the claim that new growth had been found in the cerebral cortex of monkeys. Despite numerous attempts, however, the results have never been repeated.
Information about the lifespan of cells has historically come from experiments on rats and mice. The method involves giving the animals radioactive nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, either in their food or by injection. The assumption is that if cell turnover is going on, new cells will incorporate labelled nucleotides into their DNA. Post-mortem tests can later reveal how much tagged DNA there is in various tissues and hence what proportion of cells were born during the animal’s exposure to the nucleotides. These experiments undoubtedly tell us about cell turnover rates in rodents but it is unclear whether the results can be extrapolated to humans. Because humans live for decades rather than months, we might have a greater need to replace our cells.
Feeding radioactive genetic material to humans, however, is clearly not on. Some researchers have attempted to date cells by other means such as measuring the lengths of telomeres, the DNA stubs on the end of chromosomes that shorten each time a cell divides. But no one has ever been able to develop a reliable method for reading age from telomere length. What’s worse, says Frisén, “some cells, such as stem cells, appear to be able to lengthen their telomeres, which would be a problem when trying to assess the cell’s age, especially in the brain”.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Frisén decided there had to be another way. “My train of thought ran to the ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls, which were carbon-dated, and I wondered if there was a way we could use that,” he says.
Carbon dating relies on measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter. Carbon-14, a rare and weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, is continually produced in the atmosphere when neutrons generated by cosmic rays smash into nitrogen nuclei, stripping out a proton. Carbon-14 eventually decays back to nitrogen, with a half-life of 5730 years. But before it decays, carbon-14 can be taken up by plants during photosynthesis and converted into sugars. Animals eat the plants, and in this way all living things contain small amounts of carbon-14 – about 1 in a trillion carbon atoms in your body are carbon-14 rather than carbon-12. At death, however, the organism stops taking in carbon-14, and what it already contains eventually decays away.
That slow decay is what makes carbon dating of archaeological samples possible. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in something that was once alive you can estimate when it died – up to 60,000 years ago, after which carbon-14 levels have fallen too much to be useful.
Slow decay, however, also makes the method fairly imprecise. An archaeological radiocarbon date is accurate only to between 30 and 100 years, depending on the age of the sample – fine for ancient Egyptian artefacts but useless for dating cells in a human body.
Frisén’s eureka moment arrived when he realised he could use carbon-14 in a different way thanks to a unique episode in recent history – the cold war arms race. Between 1955 and 1963, above-ground nuclear weapons tests loaded masses of carbon-14 into the atmosphere. At the peak of such tests in 1963, atmospheric levels of carbon-14 reached twice the normal background level (see Diagram below). This “bomb spike” was accurately recorded at locations all over the world, creating a unique window of opportunity that Frisén is now exploiting.
He reasoned that while most molecules in a cell are in a constant state of flux, DNA is very stable: when a cell is born it gets a set of chromosomes that stay with it throughout its life. Therefore the level of carbon-14 in a living cell’s DNA is directly proportional to the level in the atmosphere at the time it was born, minus a tiny amount lost to radioactive decay. Before 1955 that level was always roughly the same. But during the bomb spike, atmospheric levels rose and then fell again – and so did carbon-14 levels in cells’ DNA. What that meant, Frisén realised, is that he could take cells born after 1955, measure the proportion of carbon-14 in their DNA and then consult the bomb spike curve to obtain an estimate of their date of birth.
If Frisén was right, for the first time scientists would be able to work out the average age of cells in different parts of the body and, he hoped, finally settle the question of whether the brain makes new nerve cells.
Before he could start, Frisén needed to know how long the window of opportunity was open for. Ever since the 1963 partial test ban treaty, carbon-14 in the atmosphere has been declining steadily, halving every 11 years as it is absorbed by the oceans and biosphere. Even so, Frisén found that any cell born between 1955 and 1990 would contain enough extra carbon-14 in its DNA to give a reliable date, give or take a year or so.
Last year Frisén and his team reported preliminary tests on a few body tissues taken from cadavers of people who had been alive during the bomb spike (Cell, vol 122, p 133). They revealed for the first time how many different ages one human body can be.
The body’s front-line cells endure the roughest life, last the briefest time and are constantly replaced – these include the epithelial cells lining the gut (five days), the epidermal cells covering the skin’s surface (two weeks) and red blood cells (120 days).
Cells Frisén analysed from the rib muscles of people in their late 30s had an average age of 15.1 years, a similar lifespan to cells making up the body of the gut, which he found were around 15.9 years old on average. It seems our bodies are indeed in a constant state of breakdown and renewal – even the entire skeleton is replaced every few years, he says.
Exciting though these forays into uncharted territory were, Frisén was eager to get on with his original quest, working out the age of the cells in the brain. “I am a neurologist and that is where my love lies,” he explains.
“Of course I want to know how often our body cells are replaced – we will do it little by little, and I hope that experts in all those areas take on the research and help us. But I want to explore the areas of the brain and discover whether we generate new brain cells throughout our adult lives.”
The standard view from animal studies – and one man who agreed to have labelled nucleotides injected into his brain as he was dying from cancer – is that once the brain is formed, no new neurons are generated except in two areas: the hippocampus and a region around the ventricles.
Frisén first applied his new method to cells taken from the visual cortex. Here, as expected, the neurons turned out to be the same age as the person they came from – perhaps because they need to be wired up in a very stable way so that each time an object or colour is viewed it is perceived in the same way as before, he speculates. Cells in the cerebellum, which is involved in coordinating movement, turned out to be about 2.9 years younger on average than the person, which is consistent with the idea that this region continues to develop during infancy.
“We’ve now mapped the rest of the cortex and are well on our way with the hippocampus,” says Frisén. “So far, it doesn’t look like there are any new cells being formed in the cortex – they’re as old as you are. But some regions of the hippocampus are exciting – absolutely there’s neurogenesis.”
Frisén isn’t just motivated by curiosity. He hopes that by uncovering the secrets of cell turnover in the brain, he can help shed light on diseases including depression and Alzheimer’s. In 2004, a team led by Rene Hen at Columbia University in New York demonstrated that mice appeared to become depressed if hippocampal stem cells were not making enough new neurons, and that drugs such as Prozac work by stimulating neurogenesis: when the team inhibited neurogenesis, the antidepressants stopped working (Science, vol 301, p 805).
Alzheimer’s, too, has been associated with a lack of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, and other brain disorders, including Parkinson’s, are linked to cell death not being balanced by adequate cell creation. Frisén’s group is now studying cell turnover in people with neurodegenerative diseases.
The brain is not the only organ where information on cell turnover may provide clues to treating disease. Knowing how frequently healthy people produce new fat cells, for example, could help treat obesity: at the moment nobody knows whether obesity is the result of having enlarged fat cells or a greater number of them. Similarly, understanding the normal turnover of liver cells – which animal studies suggest have a lifespan of 300 to 500 days – could help physicians spot abnormalities such as cancer. And understanding the cell turnover rates in the pancreas could eventually help us to manipulate the organ’s lifespan with a view to treating diabetes.
There are other possibilities too. Experts believe heart muscle cells are not renewed when they die, leaving gaps that are filled with fibrotic material, resulting in a gradual loss of cardiac function as we get older. But no one knows for sure. Frisén’s group has just started preparing some heart tissue for analysis to see whether heart muscle cells are ever renewed.
Meanwhile, a group at the University of California, Davis, led by Krishnan Nambiar, is using Frisén’s method to investigate the lens of the eye. Cells in the transparent inner part of the lens form five weeks into embryonic life and stay with you for life. New cells are generated from the periphery, where they build up and make the lens thicker and less flexible with age, sometimes leading to cataracts. “If we could learn more about the turnover of cells in the lens, we could perhaps learn how to delay the onset of cataracts for five years and make tremendous savings in the health budget,” explains Bruce Buchholz at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who uses atomic mass spectrometry to carry out the carbon-14 analysis of Nambiar and Frisén’s samples.
It is clear, then, that a large proportion of your body is significantly younger than you are, and that raises a paradox. If your skin, for example, is so young, why don’t you retain a smooth complexion even into old age? Why can’t a 60-year-old woman, with her youthful muscle cells, flick-flack across the floor with the acrobatic agility of a 10-year-old girl?
The answer lies with mitochondrial DNA. This accumulates mutations at a faster rate than DNA in the nucleus. As soon as you are born, your mitochondria start taking hits – and there is nothing much you can do about it. So while your cells may be only a third as old as you are, the snag is that your mitochondria are the same age. In skin, for instance, mitochondrial mutations are thought to be responsible for the gradual loss in the quality of collagen, the skin’s scaffolding, which is why skin loses its shape and forms wrinkles.
There is good news, however. If we ever find ways to protect or repair mitochondrial DNA – and there are many ideas for how to do so – the discovery that most of our cells are younger than we are means that we could significantly delay ageing. Perhaps in the future people really will struggle to answer the question “How old are you?”
written by Gaia Vince
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September 9, 2009
To follow beautifully on looking at the way we perceive the self through the workings of our mind… Is a talk from Jill Bolte Taylor, that begs the question of choosing how we perceive the world around us, by observing the way in which We (or rather, in this instance, she) function first hand.
Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness — shut down one by one. An astonishing story.
About Jill Bolte Taylor:
One morning, a blood vessel in Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain exploded. As a brain scientist, she realized she had a ringside seat to her own stroke. She watched as her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, self-awareness…
Amazed to find herself alive, Taylor spent eight years recovering her ability to think, walk and talk. She has become a spokesperson for stroke recovery and for the possibility of coming back from brain injury stronger than before. In her case, although the stroke damaged the left side of her brain, her recovery unleashed a torrent of creative energy from her right. From her home base in Indiana, she now travels the country on behalf of the Harvard Brain Bank as the “Singin’ Scientist.”
“How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I’ve gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career.”
Jill Bolte Taylor
Big up Jill… You’re beautiful and we’re very grateful (and very lucky) to have you here with us today to share your amazing, heartfelt story with the world! Here’s to perceiving the world through “love”.
To find out more about Jill and what she gets up to now-a-days on planet Earth, please click here.