If soap opera script writers are to be believed, a case of total amnesia resulting from a blow to the head is quite a common occurrence. And if cartoon script writers are to be believed, all it takes to reverse this condition is another blow to the noggin of equal force. This is pure fiction, of course. People do not forget the details of their identities and personal lives while retaining the ability to walk, talk, read, write and drive a car. There is no “identity lobe” in the brain that could suffer damage while the areas responsible for language, reason, impersonal memory and the application of motor skills continue to function normally. Regardless, I’d like to play with this idea for a moment. What if this type of amnesia actually befell a person? I’m not talking about memory loss resulting from dementia, alzheimers, drugs or psychosis, but a complete inability to recall one’s name, spouse, occupation, religious faith, political associations, family or friends while retaining the ability to communicate and function normally in all other ways. My guess is that someone “suffering” from such a condition would be the sole man or woman on Earth who knows what it feels like to be fully, naturally human. This person would be just like a staggeringly precocious and intellectual infant, yet he or she would be utterly free of regret. Whether you’re a mindfulness advocate perpetually admonishing others to live in the present moment or just a fan of the “Look Who’s Talking” franchise, you’d almost certainly find an individual so afflicted most fascinating and you might even envy their situation.
In a broader sense, every single one of us might just have such a case of amnesia and if so, it’s far from enviable. Despite the continuing march of scientific discovery, no one has yet been able to prove that the phenomenal Universe is anything other than a product of mind. A projection of consciousness that adjusts its hallucinatory images and sensations according to the beliefs and expectations of its spectators who are also nothing more than projections of consciousness. I’m speaking once again of pantheism, the theory that what we call “God” is every one of us. It basically posits that Consciousness is all there is and at some point, this Consciousness decided to play a game of hide and seek with itself. In order to play this game, of course, it needed more than one participant so it splintered into countless life forms all of whom are immediately saddled with amnesia as to “their” true identity. The game thus initiated, each of us run to and fro trying to figure out why we’re here, what’s our purpose and what awaits us after the deaths of our physical bodies. But we can never really hope to get those answers because of this very same self-inflicted amnesia. Refusing to admit defeat, we instead just started making shit up and repeating it with such frequency that slightly varied arrangements of this shit formed all of our personal belief systems. A caveat, in case this wasn’t clear: while this idea makes perfect sense to me, it is still just one more metaphysical best guess and I can offer no proof of its veracity. Therefore, my belief in this theory isn’t any different than a child’s belief in the Easter Bunny — or an adult’s belief in the Holy Trinity, Allah or Xenu. In fact, what it has most in common with these other theisms is that it appeals to the particular tendencies of my ego and therefore, contemplation of its implications is a meaningless exercise. It is precisely this ego and its misapprehension of the self as an independent and eternal entity that must be debunked in the spiritual practices aimed at liberation. Despite its insubstantiality, it is the sole idea from which we must liberate ourselves if we wish to vanquish neurosis.
All of that was a pretense for me to answer some very compelling questions recently posed by Tom Being Tom as part of his Liebster Award acceptance. Like me, he recently read the excellent book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari — a book I highly recommend to everyone who reads — and his questions are infused with the subject matter of this incredibly fascinating and refreshingly philosophical history of mankind. Aside from the upcoming Q&A format, I think I can tackle his inquisitions without drastically changing the theme already established. Let’s proceed, shall we?
According to Harari, what separates man from beast is man’s ability to create stories that unite us into larger and more formidable numbers than any other creature on Earth. It may also be what separates our large groups from one another. Throughout history, man has created these stories and mythologies to not only explain nature, but to unite peoples. Of the hundreds of thousands of gods man has created, do you still believe in one? If so, why? Have you ever considered this question before?
I do not believe in any gods, per se, at least not of the popular anthropomorphic variety. By the same token, it would be inaccurate for me to identify as an atheist due to my predilection for pantheism described above. Not only have I considered this question before, but I’ve spent so much time in the futile contemplation of it that it has actually become its own obscuration — a way of engaging in discursive and irrelevant thought at the exclusion of the type of contemplation that dissects and defuses the ignorance inherent in such pointless eternalism. This is why Gautama Buddha allegedly answered a disciple’s theistic questions with the deceptively simple answer, “I don’t know.” He was trying to steer this student away from such a contemplative double-bind as that which we all still foolishly entertain. I am leveling this same criticism at everyone who may be reading this, of course, because not only is it the primary driver of our collective and individual suffering, it is the only one. The question of god is absolutely meaningless and it compounds our neuroses.
While the pantheist aspect of Hinduism may satisfy a certain intellectual curiosity for me, it does nothing to alleviate my delusion or even bolster my feelings of universal equanimity due to the fact that it is, after all, just another concept. Therefore, of the major world religions, the one from which I draw most liberally is Buddhism. Before cultural norms and superstitions began to attach themselves to this amorphous wisdom tradition, questions of reincarnation and the Bardo had no place in its cosmology. In fact, it can be said with some accuracy that the pure core of Buddhist thought dispenses of a cosmological theory altogether. That’s exactly the point. The reason Buddhism remains the major religion with the least number of adherents worldwide is due to its uncomfortable insistence on dismantling our precious egos. Here in the West, it is almost a heresy. There are only two pillars that form the base of Buddhist thought: interdependence and impermanence. And it just so happens that those two realities are the most distasteful to our sense of self-importance and our addiction to attaching invented meaning to our lives. The discomfort that arises from questioning our deeply ingrained sense of self is exactly what motivated people to create pacifying myths that purport to infuse reality with sense and purpose. But once a myth is established, it develops a mind of its own and insidiously infects every single person trapped in its cultural orbit. This can be seen quite clearly in the West in the way our alleged atheists express themselves in the very same religious language of extremes: things can be viewed nihilistically or eternalistically at the exclusion of all views potentially contained in the vast chasm between those two poles.
An example. Do you remember XTC’s 1980s hit “Dear God”? This purportedly subversive piece of pop sacrilege is nothing more than a self-contained contradiction. I would have expected more from the normally cerebral Andy Partridge, but maybe he was just trying to fulfill some contractual obligation for his record label and thus didn’t put much thought into the lyrics. The song reiterated the most common yet ridiculous mental habit of modern man: the tendency to attempt to negate the existence of God through anger at the very same God allegedly disbelieved by the one who is angry with it. In the final verse, Andy accuses God of drowning babies, waging wars and a host of other atrocities caused by his meddling in our earthly affairs. Then, after this exposition of the charges brought against the Creator, Mr. Partrdige perplexingly concludes, “…if there’s one thing I don’t believe in — it’s you, dear God.” What?! How could one of the premier artisans in the realm of thinking-man’s rock entertain such nonsense? Do you disbelieve the myth or are you angry at its central character? You cannot allege that you don’t believe in god in one breath while in the next detailing your petty grievances against it. If you are truly an atheist, you can only shine your spotlight of judgment on something other than god since you’ve allegedly relegated the very notion of “god” to the realm of fairy tales. If you claim to harbor no theism whatsoever, expressing anger at god is the same as raging against the inhumanity of The Grinch. This is because the whole myth game is rigged to create a convenient scapegoat. If you really wish to give a good ass-chewing to the entity behind your suffering and confusion, all you can do is yell into a mirror. But that would be too much like taking personal responsibility for your own lot in life and we have made what should be the only worthwhile human endeavor into an iron-clad social, psychological and cultural taboo. To fill the void created by this refusal to engage in uncomfortable introspection, God entered stage left.
I am of the belief that morality and ethics are independent of our myths. Those of religious faith who also feel empathy, compassion and forgiveness do so despite their faiths. Those who have little or no compassion hold up their faith as flimsy proof of their pitiful reserve of morality. Therefore, I think that the value of our mythology has passed. Whereas it once had the power to unite formerly independent pockets of culturally-diffuse humanity, it long ago turned a corner and became the very thing that divides and devours us. The only way to break out of this imaginary yet powerful force of myth is to tame your own mind in such a way that it no longer harbors the anxious desperation that relies on such mythology. In other words, you need to let yourself feel deep down in your gut the truth that you do not have an existence independent of everyone and everything else and that in the not-too-distant future, you are going to die. For the purposes of vanquishing delusion and its attendant suffering, you must also dispense of such eternal concepts as heaven, hell and an eternal soul. If these things be true — and again, there is no way to prove that they are or aren’t — they still do nothing to solve our most basic human problem of ignorance and thus deserve no acclaim whatsoever. The only way to discover your “eternal self” is to paradoxically understand that there is no such thing. The longer we continue to model our society and our sense of self on these dualistic myths, the deeper into the quagmire of suffering and strife we sink. If you’re an atheist, be a fucking atheist. That means when your cat dies, you do not have the option of shaking your fist at the sky at the unfairness of it all. Right view does not recognize fairness. Justice is a notion born of a gross misunderstanding of what and who we are in relation to each other. So what do you do? You shed a few tears for Fluffy and you move on in the knowledge that cats, like everything else, are by their very nature impermanent. And if that sounds cold, it’s only because it subconsciously offends your ego that congratulates itself for such natural drives as kindness to animals. Yet once an organism dies, it no longer needs your kindness. These kinds of after-the-fact declarations of love and affection only benefit the one feeling them. Fluffy is utterly unaware of your tears and even if she witnessed your touching display of grief, she still probably wouldn’t give a shit.
In summary, here’s a suggested practice: try to spend the next week blaming no one and nothing for negative events or moods that might arise. For those who are a bit more advanced than that, try fully experiencing whatever comes without applying the labels of negative or positive to it at all. If you can manage to do this even sporadically, you are on the doorstep of liberation. God need not apply.
By the same notion, we create more than just gods, we create imaginary borders and mythical unions called “nations.” We then exalt our own nation as the greatest one. Do you believe your nation is the greatest one? If so, why?
The latter part of this question is something I can answer quite succinctly: hell no. As imaginary notions go, the United States of America may just be the most dangerous of them all and this was true long before the advent of T***p. The US in its very short history has been the initiator of almost every major war fought since its inception and has incarcerated more of its own citizens than any other “free” nation on the planet. There are, of course, countries that treat their citizens with far more immediate cruelty, but none of them strut around like peacocks proclaiming to be the “greatest country in the world” or even more ironically, the “Land of the Free”. Fuck the United States of America. If that last statement rattled or offended you, then you are clinging desperately to a phantasm to bolster your individual self-esteem through association with an idea designed to foster a feeling of collective self-esteem. Do you see the relation to the god myth here? It’s the same psychological drive to invent meaning from meaninglessness. Ditto for the imaginary notions of money, culture and language. So really, for me to have started this paragraph with a scathing rebuke of one myth in comparison to others was nothing more than an illustration of this tendency to reify the legends we pull out of our asses. Clearly, I have just as long a way to go in achieving something approaching right view as anyone.
Take this quiz. Report back to me your coordinates on the grid. If you’ve taken it before, please do so again. Were you surprised by your results? If you took it before, have your results changed?
Your Political Compass
Economic Left/Right: -6.75
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -7.74
Do you believe that man has ever stepped foot on the moon?
Inasmuch as this question assumes the existence of such a celestial body, yes, I do. Remember when conspiracy theories used to be fun? Questioning the moon landing along with implicating thousands of shadowy people in the assassination of JFK used to be very entertaining ways of wasting time on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Then, and very recently at that, the kooks who tend to really buy into such far-fetched theories and unfounded doubts became the loudest and most influential voices in society. The lunatics are having their day and if you think that’s anything less than an extreme existential threat to the species, you’re not paying attention. Just to clarify: the earth is round. It revolves around the sun. The moon is a satellite of the earth. It is close enough for modern conveyances to reach it. Oh, and there is photographic proof of man’s landing upon its surface for those who still believe the information gleaned by their senses. If that last thing seemed unnecessary to point out, then take a look at the next high profile civilian-shot or lapel-cam footage of a cop beating the living shit out of an unarmed “suspect” and compare what you saw with your own eyes to the almost always successful defense of the act as being somehow “proper police procedure”. It would be threatening to the system to admit that brutality itself is what cops consider “proper police procedure” so instead, shifty attorneys in the employ of police unions endeavor to make us question our own powers of perception. Incidentally, this is the one and only ploy utilized by the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in an attempt to cover their criminal tracks.
Is Bigfoot real?
Maybe. This central figure of modern cryptozoology seems to have some compelling evidence to back it up, but often this very evidence gets debunked years after it was released into the public eye. It seems to always be described as a primate and it is rarely endowed with any sort of supernatural abilities, so its existence as just one more specimen of the animal kingdom is very possible — perhaps even more so than the already verified existence of the unlikely platypus. However, the odds of Bigfoot’s reality become more and more slim with every forest habitat we destroy. The fewer untouched areas of wilderness that are left on the planet, the less likely it becomes that there is an as yet undiscovered primate inhabiting them.
If we are on the verge of technology that would allow a human life to continue indefinitely, as some believe, would you choose to do so?
A thousand times no. This question brings us right back to our central neurosis – the misguided desire for immortality. First of all, nobody ever seems to really think this through. Immortality would be a curse, not a blessing. An event that begins must, by definition, end. Without such an ingrained death wired into an organism as the natural pole to its inception, it would be impossible to appreciate the very fact of being alive. Remember Fluffy? The only reason she was able to lay around and puke on your furniture for 15 years or so is because she was destined to die from her very first breath of kittenhood. If you really want to celebrate her life, you must understand that the death aspect of it is essential to the whole process that she was (and still is as her constituent parts rot and disintegrate somewhere in your back yard). An immortal life form is an oxymoron. Learn to view it as such.
If we are on the verge of technological and societal achievements that would allow us to feed, clothe, and shelter all human beings on Earth at zero cost, as some believe, should we do so?
YES — absolutely. If our knowledge and resulting technologies can’t be used in service of the basic needs of all people, it is nothing more than vanity. At the present, our technology is forging a questionable evolutionary path that we refuse to acknowledge due to our addiction to convenience at all costs. More often than not, when friends “get together” these days, what that really means is they are sitting in close proximity to one another while at the same time completely ignoring each other in favor of their stupid fucking distraction devices. We have happily allowed technology to vastly increase our ego-driven antisocial tendencies, but we still fool ourselves into thinking that we’re communicating with others when we tap furiously on a schmutz-covered touchscreen, oblivious to the real people all around us to whom we could be communicating via that antiquated device called “speaking”. This is also just one more attempt at controlling our environment. The rise of “smart” home devices like Alexa (just an improvement upon “The Clapper” of the early 90s) illustrates our folly in bending over backwards to achieve maximum control over our artificial environments when the real power that so few of us seek anymore is to intuitively understand our inherent symbiotic relationship with nature. But the overwhelming feeling that would result from such a return to our roots would be an understanding of our inter-dependence — again, a truth that offends our anxiety-ridden desire for independence and immortality. Your iPhone holds no answers nor does it alleviate suffering but it does further solidify your delusions of self-importance. I wish this were nothing more than a fad with a correspondingly short shelf life, but clearly that’s not the case. At the very least, though, can’t we please press at least some of our limited funding and brilliant minds in the service of altruism? You can still have your precious phones, I promise you. But maybe while you’re busy retweeting another stupid meme, some poor kid on the other side of the globe can eat today.
I think I’ve pontificated more than enough for today, eh? Before I take my leave, though, I’d like to make one final statement. Usually when I compose a long-winded, finger-wagging diatribe of this nature, I tend to dial back some of the things I’ve said in the comments section when faced with a reader who thinks they have a uniquely personal reason for being exempt from such universal truths or the application of the antidotes to human ignorance. Comments like “Yeah, I understand what you’re saying, Paul, but in my case, I have no choice because…” will not be entertained in the wake of this post. You are not unique or precious and you have no legitimate “but”s to constitute a fly in my philosophical ointment. Nor do I, of course. There are only two approaches to this mysterious thing called life: ignorance or wisdom. The way of ignorance is always defended by declarations that begin with the words “yeah, but…”. So just for today, please deposit your buts in the ashtray located conveniently at the exit. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.