What if all of life is just a process of becoming more aware?

Don’t get any big ideas — They’re not gonna happen.

You paint yourself white
And fill up with noise
But there’ll be something missing.
– Radiohead, ‘Nude’

I wanted to open with this quote because I think that so much of the time we overwhelm ourselves with the pressing urge to really do something grandiose in order to make any impact on the world. The fear is that to give, we must give big, and to do something creative, it has to also be really fresh and innovative in some way. But, as Yorke says, you can paint yourself white and fill up with noise but there will still be something missing. So what is that something? I think it is about living in the mind versus living with a full heart, or emptying the mind and letting go and seeing what happens then.

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining.
– John Lennon/The Beatles, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

It is unnecessary to over-identify with your thoughts and products of the mind. They too shall pass. And to let them pass is not dying, you may see the beauty of within. Thoughts are not the only generators of creativity and love.

Today, while driving home, I delighted in the thought of this Halloween costume idea: John Malkovich. Because that way I could be Being John Malkovich! It started with the idea of making a marionette costume, which would be hard because, in order to sustain the illusion, there would have to be something above pulling me up. How could I visually represent and embody the concept of Being John Malkovich? Would I just wear a suit and have a mask of his face, and miniature Malkovichs pasted all over? I would have to carry a miniature marionette, of course. How would I capture a portal to and from my head? Anyhow, I think this is in the cards for next year. This year I am the Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, wearing my deck of cards in a garland around my neck. Although, I suppose at the end of the night I will turn into a cat when Alice wakes up.

Being-John-Malkovich

Movie Poster for Being John Malkovich. Maybe I need a clay figurine of a hand above my head with strings in order to fully achieve this costume?

What is experience? That is the big question guiding this whole project, right? And so for a month now I have regaled you with stories fresh from my own experience, politely poeticized through musing.

As a phenomenologist, I like to see experiencers as hubs for truth since all experience is experienced by or for someone. So, if we can learn to communicate and share experiences then we can learn to communicate and share truth, and expand our truth beyond the limited scope of our own experience. Because what access do we have to truth other than through our experience?

The most we can do is objectivity in parentheses, which is the endeavor to see without judgment while knowing still that we are still ourselves, seeing through our own eyes and from this one entrance to reality through our experience. Further, our situated being within an experience is part of the fabric that makes that experience. While we can pretend that the (objective) reality of an event would unfold the same for all experiencing bodies everywhere, given the proper instructions for methodology in approaching the design and analysis of the event, we fail to pin it down.

This is why, I think, science and Western culture love tools. With tools, an event in reality can be approximated. Someone somewhere can measure it at one point in time and someone somewhere else can measure it at another point in time and both can share an experience of this one event. There is a magic to this because it makes us feel closer to something greater than ourselves. Reality has some stable ground, and we can even start to understand it as though we were not a part of it. Because someday we will die and not be a part of it anymore, but it will go on.

I have terrible vision, and I have for most of my life. It started when I was in pre-school, so I think I must have been about 5 when I got my first pair of glasses. They had little tiny Mini Mouse decals on the sides of the little red frames and everyone loved them. In preschool we had to do a circus performance that involved walking across a balance beam and then doing a summersault. The summersault was an amazing experience! I recall practicing doing a summersault in my living room and not believing that I could do it, and then I came up on the other side of the summersault, amazed.

“For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess, and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day, a Queen.” – First heard in The Books’ song ‘Take Time’, but originally derived from Jim Corbett quote left in the guest log at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya

(Sometimes I forget how brilliant The Books are. And then I remember, and it’s magic all over again. Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned and continue to re-learn from The Books. Ironic, isn’t it?) Art is wise.

Anyhow, that was how I felt after I did my first summersault. The summersault was like a super power. What I also remember, though, is the fear that I had of walking across the balance beam. Because, you see, when I looked down at my feet and down beyond balance beam, my vision would start to get blurry because the bottom of the lenses of my glasses did not cover that area of my visual field (I was looking straight down with my eyes). This was very scary to me because if I could not see my feet and beyond then I just had to trust my body to follow straight ahead in a line and not fall. And yet, if I could just manage to get across the balance beam then I could do my magic trick — my summersault!

blurrfeet

A photo of blurry feet, to give you a sense of what it is like! Photo courtesy of Harper Larper

My poor vision has been something that I like to forget in my life. I wear my contact lenses from the moment I wake up to the moment that I get ready for bed. In fact, for years I have fallen asleep with my glasses on just to avoid that moment of uncertainty through the blur. Because when I cannot see clearly, I feel like my mind can fool me because the world does not look like it should. It is actually rather alarming when the forms start blurring together. My friend Grayson once said of his poor vision that he loved it because he felt like he could at any moment elect to walk through an impressionistic painting! I love that optimism, but struggle to share it. The blurry world of my un-augmented visual reality is scary to me. On a perhaps similar note, I struggle to sleep in complete darkness because my mind comes alive with creative wonder through the blank canvas freedom of darkness. Yet, I would rather have darkness than the fuzzy logic of my mind struggling to make sense of a world it cannot make out clearly. There is a peace in darkness that is different from the unsettling feeling of a blur.

When I started out as a psychology student at about age 17 or 18, I was very fascinated by reality-bending mental illness. To my young mind, it was devastating to think that a person could live in this sort of reality + hallucination situation, knowing that the hallucinations were a distortion of what was real and yet still not be able to control them. What I did not know at the time was that most mentally ill people have no idea or cannot accept the truth that their experience of reality + hallucinations is not valid and is not real. They are not self-aware in this sense. So mental illness can become this really extreme form of insular and inescapable solipsism.

When I walk around without contact lenses or glasses, I can sometimes feel that I am only a few steps away from hallucination. Because nothing is clear and I often confuse objects for being other than they are. And I start to become very scared of the things off in the distance that I cannot see clearly. Sometimes whole shapes and forms will blur together in a cluster of darkness.

So, flash forward four years and I am 21 at Knox, finishing my Junior year. At this time, phenomenology is my biggest passion. As I talk with my physics and psychology friend Ian, I start convincing him (the ultimate skeptic) of how significant phenomenology can be. We were talking about how the ultimate truth in terms of experience is that experience is always for someone. So, Ian challenged: by that token, even hallucinatory experiences have truth merit. It sort of threw of my whole argument.

But it made me wonder tonight. Hallucinations are very real to the person experiencing them, just as in a dream a dream body and dream scene and characters can feel very real. But what if all of life is just an engagement, a challenge, to become more lucid and to discern what our minds create from what is real? Even stress and anxiety are mostly just based on self-imposed unpleasant realities based on myths that we create.

What if self-awareness can be taught? The most common denominator of success in case studies of individuals with neurological and mental illness that I have seen has been an ownership and awareness of one’s limitations and how they influence experience and the shareability of experiences. For instance, Oliver Sacks writes about a man with extreme Korsakov’s syndrome who was able to people, “I am very sorry, I have a memory disorder, and will soon forget this entire conversation.” What if, similarly, individuals with paranoid schizophrenia could say, “I’m sorry, I have paranoias that haunt me. Sometimes I will try to convince you that they are real too because they have a heavy pull on me.” or something. (I actually never took an Abnormal Psychology class so I know very little about mental illness. It was the one Psychology class that I never took because I was scared that it would lead me down a rabbit hole of diagnosing everyone I know on the spectrum of various mental illnesses and I didn’t want that.)

I like the idea that we could teach or show that who someone really is may be larger than their mental or neurological illness and that perhaps through the waves of treatment and relapse of symptoms they could realize over time that something deeper persists.

We could do this even for the “everyman” healthy person too, by showing them to not overly identify with the contents of their thoughts because they are transient and rise and fall. So, what persists? What lasts? And why?

All along it was a musical thing, and the point was just to dance!” – Alan Watts

Alan-Watts-Dancing

Please share your thoughts below! (Trick for the wise — you can be completely anonymous when sharing comments.)

Copyright © 2014 Lynda Joy Gerry

5 thoughts on “What if all of life is just a process of becoming more aware?

  1. I don’t hallucinate, but I do spend a lot of time in my head; an escapist tool I developed while young to get away from some rather difficult family situations. Unfortunately, once you learn to tune out time, it becomes easier and easier to do and harder to tune back in—or want to tune back in. You distract yourself with minimal expectations, time passes, when you raise your head again things are different.

    It’s actually a rather destructive habit to have as an adult, and one I struggle to control. Combined with the anxiety and attention deficiencies I developed from 20 years of undiagnosed Graves’ Disease, the time doctors spent therein packing me full of psych meds for inaccurate diagnoses, my exceptional intelligence and my wildly overdeveloped imagination and sense of empathy, it will, in fact lead me “down a rabbit hole” if I let it. As easy as falling.

    It was a tool, and now it’s a potential affliction.

    But I am large, and male, and shaggy, and I have all my limbs. I can walk, I can fix bicycles and move boxes and so the response from the vast majority of people, directly or indirectly, is that I should “suck it up” and “get over it”, not realizing the kaleidoscope of thoughts running through my head and the challenge it can be to just rise out of the cacophony every day and interact with the world with some semblance of normalcy. Because, I’ve learned, being big and shaggy and male AND weird is disconcerting to the general populace.

    But this is where I come around to the rest of us. I have a habit of calling things that can kill World Killers if used in a potentially-lethal way, because… as the popular Sandman quote goes::

    “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
    ― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

    … we all have an entire world in our head. Not just the flights of fancy we develop from our personal experiences, but even the mere act of experiencing the world every day builds that world in our heads. Two twin girls raised the exact same way could still experience a their first hissing, angry cat differently, and so angry, hissing cats end up meaning different things in the heads of each twin.

    And while people want to point out that we experience tragedy differently, or success, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just the big events of one’s life that builds the world around them for them. It’s ALL perspective, every event for every person, and I sometimes suspect the only thing that makes our world as a whole work is that many of us agree on some matters of consensual reality.

    But… for each of us… a growling dog, honking truck, a heavy rain or a cold cup of coffee or a visit to the dentist can mean something different. And this is where many people get stuck; they have trouble imagining how something might matter differently to another person. I spend a lot less time worrying about my own tendency to tune out and more worrying about how people try to control each other because they can’t empathize with each other. And I don’t know if it’s difficult for them… I can look at things from another person’s perspective easily (a side effect of high intelligence and a strong imagination), but maybe other people have to… try harder, maybe?

    So, people can’t identify with what it’s like to be me, and so I am instead expected to conform to their opinion of my situation… and others may very well have it worse, because I DO have some (potentially questionable) coping tools for “fitting in” and they may not. And all because people can’t be bothered, perhaps, to try and look at the world from another person’s perspective. But this often does seem to change over time, as people get older, learn more, think thoughts new to them and experience being surrounded by others with evolving mindsets.

    This is why I don’t generally mock people for seemingly eccentric fears and anxieties, and why I can strangers “”brother” or “sister” or “friend” if I address them… because I know I can be alarming. And I do hold out hope that the process of life might be a process of becoming more aware, more self-aware, and developing greater empathy.

    One can only hope, I suppose!

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  2. I like your point about how magic and self-transcendence can inhere in the experience of using tools and measurements. The Greek obsession with number and mechanism, and the Platonic search for ideal forms, as vital to Western spirituality, as attempts to reach through the chaos to a perfect world.

    And yet, following Nietzsche and other critics, I have often focused on the Faustian and world-denying aspects of tools and reductive analysis. Thank you for reminding me that these are not only tools for controlling the world, but also sublime ways of communing with it.

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  3. This is a pretty great discussion topic. I think increasing awareness is vital to human development based on experiences that create the awareness, as our reality is best developed through the experience. I struggle with the term “real” only because whether you see an object in your sober reality, lucid dream about said object or observe it in a psychedelic state, the object is real to you in that experience. Reality is a construct of sobriety agreed upon by those existing in the sober universe but it doesn’t discount the reality of at least three experience had by those that don’t entirely exist in that universe.

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  4. I’ve learned that “we” do not all consider giving back to the world a mission in life. I am in the opinion that most people, in spite of the capacity for higher cognitive function, still default to the animalistic goals in life: eat, reproduction, sleep. This is especially silly considering how common depression is and how it has been proven that altruistic individuals are in large a “happier” group. Humans are constantly torn by need versus what could be accomplished with little-to-large sacrifice.

    It is interesting to me, but also sad, that you consider thoughts and creativity/love to potentially be mutually exclusive. Thoughts have been the driving force behind the greatest love story, in my life thus far. But that is just me.

    In regards to next year’s John Malkovich costume, all you really need is to don a John Malkovich mask and matching outfit with ab external body suit of also John Malkovich that appears partially unzipped. The only hard part is finding John Malkovich masks.

    Experience. Oh experience. The problem with objectivity is the human apparatus. It is the ability to be conscious of self and share that consciousness that makes humans a unique animal. So it should follow that humans should exploit this potential, this higher cognitive function, and share human experience. (It is also my fascination in this world.) However, I don’t think that most of humanity does not share this desire. At the very least, not the sector of humanity deciding the fate of the rest. Human experience is fascinating because it is different bottom-up or top-down. As an example, there is no way to confirm that what I perceive to be “blue” is what you perceive to blue or what John Doe perceives as blue. And although you perceive blue as calming, my top-down processing might have an association that makes blue the sign of impending doom, and perhaps even mean nothing to John Doe. But at the end of the day, we point at a “color” and say this is blue and we learn to standardize things, even make more minute differentiations. Further, society draws conclusions from the majority experience and determines that blue is calming. After all, it is the color of water, the real superhero of our world (from a matter point of view). But in all seriousness. The problem with objectivity is that there is not entity or human, as human only trusts human, that can be objective. The issue comes from both a micro- and macro-scopic level.

    Tools are not a western culture advent. Calculus and astrology both come from the “old world” that the rest of the world was yet unable to understand. Aqueducts come from the later “new world” that explorers were unable to understand at the time and therefore destroyed. Tools for measuring serve the purpose of standardizing experiences so we can share them and expand upon them. And yes, this allows us to understand the world as if we are not a part of it. But merely measuring something changes it’s nature, much like a person who is unaware they are being observed versus the person who is aware. Scientists take this to heart, even measure the percentage of error [as much as they can], most try not to address it. There is no guarantee that reality even exists. What if humanity as a whole has evolved the capacity to hallucinate in a similar/communcal manner?

    It is the idea of hallucinations, especially reality-based hallucinations such as palinopsia, that intrigue me. Movies like “Minority Report”, have catalyzed the idea that when we preclude sanity to only what “we” can confirm, perhaps we are missing out on another realm of perception; perhaps we are stifling human evolution in the direction of present cognition.

    Anything related to neuropsychology is very much worth studying because it integrates tangible standards such as brain area-function, in terms of measurable standards such as voltage and time, with subjective perceptions of self. Korsakoff is a bad example because it banks on the perception of one who is, generally, lacking basic self-control, which points to an inherent physiological difference that is somewhat unfavorable.

    Do not be scared to take a psychology class. It is the acceptance of the dissidence between who we think we are versus whom we are actually that allows us to mostly eliminate the distraction of self. I am truly of the belief that the severity of the condition of one with a mental condition correlates with tangible measures such as fMRI; it is the most tragic feature of mental illness healthcare that brain function has yet to be standardized, in the very last from a categorical point of view.

    What do you have on neurophenomenology? It was the subject area I regret most not divin into in my undergraduate years.

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