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Out of the Box

15 Sep

Watts: “There are two ways of understanding an experience. The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it. This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past. The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not even stop to think, ‘I am happy’.”

The business of meaning-making is the chief preoccupation of our minds. Like fish in water, we are immersed in the mystery of life: it pulses inside us and swirls all around us, carrying us in its rhythms and currents. What the fish can’t do but we can, however – by virtue of this big brain of ours – is take a perspective on the “whole thing” and contemplate (really, construct) what it all means. We are constantly pulling reality through our mental gills and extracting what relevance can make life personal, meaningful and worthwhile.

Memory is an evolved capacity of an organism for tagging its environment with values that correspond to specific internal states of its body. Neuroscientists have uncovered various strata in the anatomy of the human brain, with each higher (and developmentally later) layer adding a unique “power” to the advancement of memory. From simple reflexes of behavior to the complicated life stories we make up, memory serves as a primary way humans adapt and make sense of our experience.

Somewhere in there is what researchers call “implicit memory,” which is not about conscious recall but pre-conscious recognition – as when you feel like you know that person but can’t fix a time, place or name to them. This is probably the layer where our working assumptions are located, as the value judgments and visceral reactions that we never think to question. They are the way we see reality. Before we even begin the process of consciously reflecting on our experience, these filters have already done their work: information has been sifted, selected, packaged and labeled by the time we start thinking about it.

So we should acknowledge the survival advantage for an organism that can recognize features of reality on the basis of its past experiences (and thus be prompted to take a wide arc around that rattling sound in the grass, for example). But every higher power comes at a price. As we are busy interpreting the present moment in terms of the past, sorting things out, making comparisons and boxing up the relevant data, the spontaneous mystery of life itself utterly eludes us.

It’s happened to all of us. The first time you experience something new, the portion that is unexpected (because it’s novel, inspiring or unpredictable) catches your attention and holds your interest. It’s easier during this phase to pay attention because your mind is naturally drawn to novelty – likely because paying close attention to what was strange and unusual  made it possible for your ancestors (human and pre-human) to react quickly to danger and risk.

Then what happened? Familiarity, that demonic shadow of knowledge, began to pull more of your mental focus and energy away from the present mystery and into the boxes, channels and routines of meaning-making. This is the preferred business of the ego anyway, since identity (“I”) is constructed out of your multiple identifications of/with the world.

But this flashing moment – the spontaneous mystery of being – gets disqualified and squeezed out of consciousness. What you know makes you blind to – not what you don’t know, but what can’t be known.

We’ve all been in the stream of pure experience. We are in it right now. Most of the time, however, we’re standing on the solid bank composing the commentary of our personal myths. We need meaning; without it we would probably lose our minds. But once in a while it does us some good to leave our boxes on shore and surrender to life as human beings.

Joie de vivre! Here’s to skinny-dipping existentialists.

 

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