Why my jockey is lost…

After some time away I have returned to Existentialism. I guess when working life is getting the better part of you, it pays to focus on the things under your own control – your mind, how you spend your free time and where you focus your attention.

And this is a key aspect of Existentialism, as Gary Cox sets out in How to be an Existentialist’, because although it takes a body to have one, the mind is what defines us. Indeed understanding the nature and peculiarity of consciousness plays a key part in Existentialism.

Cutting to the chase, a key feature of consciousness – I discover – is it is always noticing what’s lacking: what isn’t happening, what is wanted and what the future is keeping from us…

Consciousness is always predisposed to find something lacking because lack is intrinsic to the very meaning of every situation for any particular consciousness. This is why, according to existentialist philosophers, a consciousness, a person, can never be completely satisfied. A person will always interpret a situation in terms of what it lacks for him.

If he is cooking, his meal lacks being cooked. If he is eating, his meal lacks being eaten. If he is half way through a movie the movie lacks an ending so far. If the movie is poor and he does not care about the ending then his situation lacks interest. If he is tired he lacks sleep (tiredness is lack of sleep). If he has just awoken and is ready for the day he lacks the things he hopes to achieve that day and so on and so on.

And if these seem like small things, it gets worse…

In general, a person always lacks the future towards which he is constantly heading, the future which gives meaning to his present actions and beyond which he hopes in vain to be fulfilled and at one with himself.

Ever onward, the endless march of time, towards a future that is presently lacking, an absent future that will fall into the past as soon as it is reached, a past with its own absent future.

It seems that the endless march of time constantly cheats us of what we are, prevents us from becoming one with ourselves, but really, what we are is this endless march forward in time, creatures that can never become one with themselves.

So this is why my jockey is constantly lost… I’m dashing through life seeking myself; doomed never to find me. As indeed are we all.

As Cox puts it:

Existentialism recommends bravely accepting that this is how life is and making the most of it. It recommends building your life on the firm basis of hard, uncomfortable truths rather than the shifting sands of soft, comfortable delusions.

Ironically perhaps, there is also the suggestion that people will actually be happier and relatively more satisfied if they accept what the endless temporal flight of consciousness towards the future implies, namely, that it is alien to the human condition for a person to be completely satisfied and contented for any length of time.

Existentialism offers satisfaction of a stoical kind through the acceptance of the inevitability of a certain amount of dissatisfaction.

And I’m all for stoicism. But returning to the starting point; if it is the restlessness of consciousness that defines, us then Cox points out:

We constantly encounter a world characterized and defined by the motives, intentions and attitudes we choose to have and the evaluations we choose to make.

This is not to say that the world is anything we wish it to be, far from it, but it is to say that there is a very real sense in which the world for each person is a product of the attitude with which he or she approaches it. This realization is, or should be, enormously empowering.

The person who chooses to be positive and confident or, at least, genuinely tries to be positive and confident, will encounter a very different world from the person who chooses to be negative.

So that’s where I’m focusing my consciousness; if you can’t change some of what’s happening around you, focus your mind on what you can.

The Silent Cinema

Now here’s a peculiar thing…

Having done a fair bit of listening to people with soothing voices inviting me to contemplate my feet… and having read a couple of harder core books from the Dalai Lama… I’d concluded mindfulness and meditation wasn’t really me.

I’ve learnt how to breathe, seek enjoyment and find peace ‘in the moment’. I’m getting pretty good at it; and had assumed that was it.

But one slightly terrifying day in July – the 29th to be precise – I met and said ‘oh, fancy that; hello’ to the actual ‘me’ inside. The most bizarre experience I think I’ve ever had.

The simple process is to imagine yourself in a cinema, completely caught up in a film. Then imagine yourself sitting deeper in the chair and detaching yourself from the film and noticing all the people sat around you (especially vivid if you think of them as wearing 3D specs).

Next imagine yourself alone in the movie theatre… and then imagine all your thoughts and sensory perceptions are on the screen.

Now imagine that screen going blank…

What’s left?

The silent person watching the screen inside.

I found it frankly really weird. For the first time I met the silent, energetic, unstable whoosh of raw consciousness and mental energy which is the ‘me’ that sits deep inside.

I’ve not been back since if I’m honest. I noted it down and slightly left it be. It feels like a thing not to be messed with. Pure consciousness is enlightenment, life and death and personal identity all wrapped up in one bouncing, pinging, luminous, easily distracted, unstoppable beam of ‘always on’ energy.

I get meditation and Buddhism now; and fear pain and fear itself a little less. But I’m not sure I want to go back into the cinema and turn everything off again…

I’ve kept myself busy since writing ‘Enlightenment’ in my iPhone notes on 29th July. My next entry is a ‘to do’ list for two weeks of camping – on the 30th July – which feels a good enough excuse; especially given all that’s happened since.

But the quiet seat – in the totally silent and empty cinema – is a place I will have to visit again; even if I don’t fancy it much.

Absent a sudden and violent death, the silent cinema is an important place to know the way into I reckon… That’s the purpose of Buddhism I suspect – to be able to detach the ‘silent witness’ and the constant flow of mental energy from the ego, angst, fear and pain which capture it for most of the living years.

A bit scary though.

POSTSCRIPT

Having written this, I popped back into the ‘silent cinema’ this morning. All very painless. Eyes closed: hearing the planes, noises off, feeling the grumbling in the stomach and the ache in my shoulder – and slowly turning attention away from them and towards inner silence. A few thoughts and ideas ping around, a sense it’s all a bit self-conscious in there and then quiet; just quiet… a couple of good thoughts float by… then eyes open and life’s Technicolor cinema immediately fills the screen again with dazzling light, noise, distractions and opportunity.

Life seems even brighter today after a few minutes in the silent cinema.

Strawberry

20111113-150850.jpgI’ve discovered Philosophy Now via Kindle. And a find it is too. This month’s edition delves into the Philosophy of Mind which I studied twenty odd years ago. What’s new? Quite a lot. But, also, quite a lot is not.

Neuroscience is the new 200lb gorilla on the scene. Is philosophy, contemplation and introspection irrelevant when you have brain scanners and MRI? The argument cuts both ways. Reductionism says its a simple case of describing something complex. I used to agree, now I’m less sure.

Before cosmology we harboured intuitive, and often mystical, beliefs to explain sun, moon and stars. Then telescopes were invented and we moved on to facts and evidence. Aristotle imagined ‘biles and humours’ drove the body, until medicine discovered intricate circulatory and nervous systems. Reductionists say we’ll get over our belief in ‘consciousness’, ‘intentions’ and ‘ideas’ once the science advances enough to describe ‘brain states’ better.

The alternate thesis – much more where Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might land – is that describing a TV’s wiring misses what’s on screen. The ’emergent phenomenon’ is a living feeling being, living a unique life, intimately connected to other living feeling beings, all equally unique but interdependent with each other.

It comes down to complexity in the end. A computer or iPhone full of data apparently weighs fractionally more than an empty one. But it is only fractionally more. I read the entire ‘weight’ of data contained in the Internet could easily be stored in the mass of a strawberry. But the ‘knowledge’ exists in myriad computers, data centres and browsers interlinked with myriad minds.

In one way a strawberry already contains a nearly perfect dataset to describe humans. In its DNA it describes carbon-based life, an oxygen rich atmosphere, the rise of flowering plants – and who knows, maybe, some clues to cultivation. It is already bursting with data, just of a ‘natural’ flavour.

And this is the point for me. Let’s imagine we could load the entirety of human culture, knowledge and experience into a strawberry and fire it into space. Billions of years on, when our planet has long since expired, suppose an alien civilisation finds it. From which would they learn more about living as a human being – reading the data locked in the atomic structure of the strawberry, or simply eating it?