BEYOND OURSELVES - Mental Conditioning by Experience and the Future of Humanity took the form of a book project during the months of preparation for an exhibit of paintings that bore the same general title, and that took place during the month of December, 2017 at the Art Space of the Community Arts Partnership in Ithaca, New York. An edition of 30 hand-bound copies of this book, each bearing on the cover an original painting, was an integral part of the exhibit of over 130 pieces of art, most of them unframed, monochromatic Sumi and acrylic ink paintings. There was also a handout containing a brief text meant to help the viewer decipher the content and intent of the exhibit. It is a quick and useful read, get it here.
On December 20, 2017, the Ithaca Times published a review of the show written by Warren Greenwood. You can read it here.
The on-line version of the book that follows this introduction consists of four brief essays and reproductions of some 70 of the paintings that were part of the exhibit. The writing of the essays and the preparation for the exhibit became one and the same project when it became apparent to me that, in their own peculiar literary and pictorial languages, they expressed the same vision of our species and the same concern for its future. (The essays were originally published on The Notebook, the blog that is part of this website in October 9th;15th; and 27th.; and November 3, 2017)
I hope that a print version of this book will be forthcoming.
BEYOND OURSELVES - Mental Conditioning by Experience and the Future of Humanity - I
It is extraordinarily important to realize that the cost of every “one” of us having a unique and permanently evolving identity is the loneliness, dissatisfaction, conflict, and insecurity intrinsic to a high measure of interpersonal separation. The human organism is evidently an integral part of the evolutionary process of cosmic life, but personal identity with its characteristic tribal dependence, psychological isolation, and chronic alienation from the rest of existence is a cultural construct, one that may be anything but natural.
When anyone is asked to introduce herself, the universal “I am” always prefaces the response, but is almost instantly overshadowed by the enunciation of an idiosyncratic mix of cultural traits, attributes, and claims through which a particular organism claims to be a distinct “I” and a life all unto itself. Other similar entities provide proof of this person's existential conceit by making themselves comparatively distinct and separate through identification with their particular mix of cultural determinants. There can be no “I” without a corresponding “you,” nor an “us” without a “them”.
All cultures and all particular human psyches (each a peculiar set of distinctions assumed to mark the presence of a singular, and therefore separate form of being) exist in memory and the projection of this memory through thought. The unfolding movement of life, the ground of all manifestations of human existence is, contrary to the conditioned psyche, actual, not mental.
True, we are all relatively aware of being part of this unthinkable immensity we refer to in different manners: existence, the universe, or life. However, what is of most significance to us is that we know ourselves (and would like to be known by others) through our particular identification with memories describing and projecting psychological traits, claims, attributes, associations and disassociations that, while varying from individual to individual, are uniformly determined by culture. There is hardly anything in life that is not either ignored or forcefully mapped and controlled by the blanket cultural programming that provides every particular organism its own sense of being mentally unique and separate. Culture gives even inescapable biological determinants such as gender, race, age, and general physical appearance specific social and psychological meaning and value. All this means that strictly speaking, the idea of self-determination is just that, an idea, wishful thinking at the service of cultural norms, values, and traditions.
The cultural conditioning of the individual mind defines and controls just about every aspect of personal identity, personal behavior, and social experience. Unsurprisingly, the distinct character of every culture is determined, in turn, and at every point in time, by the identity, behavior, and relational experience of its members.
Again, for the pre-programmed individual what matters most is the particular combination of culturally defined psychological traits assumed to be the source of his or her singular, and therefore separate existence —the person, “myself.” The “I am” is just the preamble to the distinguished “me” and his or her all-important life. Life itself, the cosmic ground of all being is habitually relegated to be just the stage in which humanity plays its reiterative melodrama. We exist as individuals precisely because we have largely ceased to exist as life.
Especially in modern cultures, the self-introduction of a particular psycho/social entity takes more or less this form: My name is ________, I am a woman/man born on this date __/__/____, in this city, and country __________, ____________ I am of this religious faith ___________, and belong to these racial and ethnic groups __________, ____________, _________ My educational level is ____________, and presently I work as a ___________, in this institution ____________etc., etc. "My" existence is not the unthinkable, yet conscious unfolding of cosmic life, but the performance of a set of culturally defined personal roles following predetermined social norms.
“And so what”, may well be the only response these observations deserve. After all, is it not common knowledge that different cultures determine, differently, the character and behavior of their members whose mental conditioning sustains, in turn, the general character and modus operandi of the culture with which they identify? The necessary continuity of exclusive psychological and social reality obviously demands that the same cultural program keep shaping the thought and behavior of future generations, perhaps introducing some gradual improvements over time and here and there. What else could there be? The fact that the fixed interrelation between a particular culture and the psyche it conditions keeps constant the fragmentation of the species and its general alienation from life as a whole is just the way things are, human nature, right?
Well, not quite. There are many problems with this common defense of the cultural and psychological status quo (both general and particular) of humanity. That it is mechanically determined by the same status quo is not the least of them. The conditioned mind does not take in consideration factors that are outside its limited (personal/or cultural) purview because, to do so put in severe jeopardy the identity and sense of security that we all derive from being, fundamentally, the exceptional creatures that we have been told to think we are. Highly subjective and dynamic mental deposits of previous cultural and biographical experience are not given to questioning their curiously common claim to existential uniqueness seriously.
Reality is what every cultural group and every member of a cultural group calls its additive (on-going) sense of cultural/psychological being (its own, mostly sub-conscious social contract). The general (species-wide) and particular (cultural and mental) manifestations of this reality are contradictory and conflictive, and therefore also an endless source of sorrow, yet we sustain this program with every thought, emotion, and action because to challenge group consensus and mental habit is, literally, beyond the pale. That is, what every particular cultural/psychological entity considers reasonable and good, does not include being fully alive if that implies seeing what is actually going on in oneself and the world and acting in strict accordance with this perception.
In other words, the endless injustice, inequality, conflict, and suffering that a collective state of self-projective separation generates is never entirely overcome because that implies a net loss of cultural sovereignty and personal identity that is universally considered as intolerable. Our sense of psychological being is so dependent on the general state of social fragmentation, that to gain awareness of the entire condition and its awful consequences is to put one’s psychological and social life on the line and so, few dare. The great paradox is that the well-being and, increasingly, the very survival of humanity depends on just this personal willingness to look and see the conceit of separate existence as the root of all our afflictions.
The suggestion that there is something profoundly wrong with “reality” —the habitual manner in which mental encapsulation and cultural exclusivity generate one another over time implies, of course, that some other reality is possible, a reality not based on separation. Minds deeply identified with their cultural and personal experience will immediately reject this suggestion as crazy, but not those who are somehow starting to see that staying the regular course of conflictive separation is what is truly insane. Unlikely as it seems, the further realization that is not within their "installed" capacity to do anything about this immense problem, is a big part of their nascent sanity.
The human species has developed over time enormous intelligence and a considerable capacity for affection, but this gradually achieved ability to reason and love has never entirely abandoned the view that life is a permanent struggle to attain private security and fulfillment. We are just not intelligent and caring enough to abolish the chronic distance and frequent conflict between groups and individuals all paradoxically thinking of themselves as special and therefore deserving whatever their memories can project onto the future.
It does not take much to become aware of the chronic division and sorrow of humanity and to see as well that if we remain in this intellectual and emotional vise, we may not be around for much longer. The integration of the species is an absolute necessity, and it may only be brought about by minds that have somehow freed themselves from the limiting and dysfunctional aspects of their respective cultural and biographical experience. Because they care enough to unflinchingly look at themselves and the state of the world (and see the intimate relationship between the two), these alert minds are also aware that unity cannot possibly come through the thought and action of any existing fragment fighting for its security and power. No secular or religious dogma will ever bring about unity and sanity to humanity, no matter how old and successful their tradition may be, or how smart, charismatic, and holy their leaders. Nationalism is not the road to peace, and no particular religious belief, political conviction, or form of knowledge (including science and technology) will ever bring about universal virtue and goodness. Identification with highly specialized and therefore exclusive forms of knowledge and belief is the problem, not the solution. Something entirely different is necessary, something unrelated to any mental record of the past looking to sustain itself through fear and desire. The present state of planetary disorder is the result of millennia of sustained tribal and psychological separation, so it is only reasonable to assume that the only sane response to this situation implies the end of the process of thought and emotion that generates and sustains this separation.
BEYOND OURSELVES - Mental Conditioning by Experience and the Future of Humanity - II
A critical examination of our general and particular mental programming is the natural outcome of realizing that the personal, interpersonal, and intertribal disorder this programming generates is harmful to all human organisms (and billions of other creatures), so much so that its untrammeled continuity poses an existential threat to life on Earth. A suspension of the usual, culturally determined boundaries and rules of thought and behavior is not something crazy; it sure is not advocacy for primitivism, ignorance or amnesia. Such unprecedented suspension, even if only temporary is the only way to allow for a fresh and incisive look at why we have become who we are culturally and personally, and why people all over the world continue to think it is normal to live and die the way we do.
It may help to slow down here and make some critical and closely related clarifications on the back of which this argument may safely ride fast forward. The first one has to do with the nature and role of experience in the human mind, and the second with the need to discern what are the positive and negative consequences of the mental record left by this experience.
The record of our evolution as a species and our subsequent historical development cannot be changed or easily transcended; it is factual, and personal thought can never gain direct access to the mechanical, physical and chemical, operation of the brain. We are very much stuck with who we think and feel we are for the simple reason that, long ago, the entire species inadvertently opted to tie its sense of existence to memory and to protect this conceit by projecting it onto the future through self-centered knowledge and thought. Our ancestors could not see that doing so meant gradually cutting themselves off from the totality of life and each other, and that this nearly complete encapsulation in knowledge and thought would have terrible consequences, along with some very good ones.
Our examination of reality begins then by acknowledging the past along with the further fact that its presence, both positive and negative in what we know, think, and desire individually and collectively is by the most part unrelated to the actual (not mental) reality of existence itself. The map is never the territory.
Since we experience life ensconced within silos of particular memory and cognition, change for us is only a projection of the record of previous cultural and personal experience (knowledge), and therefore never more than a relatively small modification, addition or subtraction, to the accumulated past. The mental trace left by experience differs from person to person, and it changes over time, but what remains constant is that it continues to determine the present and future for all.
Awareness of the steady insufficiency of change within the realm of mental/cultural programming is rare only because the general system of self-centered thought could not survive a true revolution in consciousness and therefore does whatever is necessary to impede it. However, the realization of this built-in incapacity is not impossible, and when it does occur somehow, it also unveils how we came to be this way and, more importantly, what is still blocking us, personally and collectively, from going beyond recalcitrant mental muddles and behavioral dead ends. A fundamental question poses itself as soon as one becomes seriously interested in investigating oneself and the world, and the intimate relationship between the two. Is the faulty, fragmented, and conflictive progression of tribal- and self-centered being and thinking, all there is to human nature and our mysterious presence in life?
Only complete attention to the character of any problem can make its solution apparent (if it is at all probable). The same is true in this critical case. An accurate and thorough perception of the human condition as expressed by our current mental, social, and ecological circumstances, immediately points to the cultural and psychological determinants that are blinding, binding, and crippling the human mind. Put the other way around, the problem of being human cannot be correctly approached, let alone solved, if any particular manifestation of recorded and projected experience is still marring the acuity of perception, thought, and action of a healthy organism. Without freedom from the trace left by a splintered and conflictive past (both personal and collective), a radically different and good mode of human existence will never come into being. Significant change necessarily implies a break in continuity —the end of one's particular contribution to a present and a future reality riddled by the chronic afflictions of cultural and psychological separation.
Please note the negative character of this characterization of freedom. The very nature of the problem of mental conditioning by experience calls for the immediate rejection of any positive projection issued by the same mental deposit full of stale failures and glories, and their equally rancid projections propelled by fear and desire. The self-centered and self-projecting process of thought cannot possibly improve or overcome itself by dipping again and again into its storehouse of tribal and self-centered knowledge, so the solution must involve the exposure of this barren process and its termination. The movement of the known projecting itself onto a “better” pre-conceived future (a more developed self enjoying improved tribal circumstances) is precisely the way in which the mind determined by experience has sustained itself since time immemorial. Strange as it may seem at first, what is so urgently necessary is entirely unrelated to pre-established, positive goals. The known must simply yield to the unknown.
The endemic miseries we suffer from are only symptoms that when carefully examined point to a much deeper malady: a general mindset that generates personal identities, each suffused with superficially different and exclusive knowledge, and all bent on prolonging themselves through what they separately and contradictorily think is real and desirable. Any serious challenge to this mostly unacknowledged general mental system triggers a reaction of self-defense based on a predetermined and automatic perception of such criticism as not founded on reality, and therefore as quite possibly deranged and dangerous. The function of this alarmed reaction is, evidently, to drive attention back to the presumed safety of what we each “one” knows as the reality of “my” people and “myself” —the past, the present, and the future of “my” familiar mental trench.
A future installment of this series of brief essays will explore to greater length how the encapsulation of the mind by self-centered knowledge distorts perception and constricts thought thus destroying all possibility of just and peaceful relationship between human beings.
The second major clarification necessary in this second installment is that not all forms of cultural conditioning of the individual mind are necessarily deleterious and dangerous. It all depends on the character and intent of what has entered memory, how and why it got there, for how long, and what effect it has had on the thinking process and the conduct of the species, and particular groups and individuals. For example, it is natural and benign for any given population to respond to its fundamental needs through a growing diversification of the work performed by its members. This functional specialization makes possible the development of different types of knowledge attuned to different needs and circumstances; increasingly sophisticated levels of social collaboration; and the capacity to promptly find solutions to problems that may be negatively affecting the group as a whole. Practical, technical specialization of the individual mind generates many different professions and occupations, as well as the ability to construct and work in dedicated institutions designed to serve the wellbeing of a given population. This form of accumulation and projection of relatively objective knowledge does not necessarily contribute to the formation of an egotistical, insecure, and overly ambitious entity at the core of the mind. Nor is it necessarily hostile to individuals living in other groups and displaying similar, or entirely different forms of culturally sponsored functional specialization.
What is not benign, and may be entirely unnatural is that generation upon generation of different human populations are brainwashed with particular and contradictory secular and religious ideologies. These ideologies create, protect, and sustain a cultural/personal identity necessarily separate, and therefore indifferent (if not openly hostile) to the wellbeing and ultimate fate of other populations and other individuals identified with their own forms of self-righteous tribalism.
When the capacity to create, internalize and project knowledge opts to extend beyond the satisfaction of the fundamental need for nourishment and physical security of the physical organism, it is not because it has completed its primary task. It is rather because an increasingly individuated consciousness has arisen demanding special attention to its particular material and psychological concerns, which includes the defense and expansion of the sub-groups to which it belongs. The ever-increasing cultural diversification and fragmentation of society is thus closely mirrored by the individual psyche as it closes in on itself and splits into two parts: a managerial, “thinking” center (“me”) and a mental periphery presumably willing to comply with the desires of its domineering boss. The intensely self-reflective quality assumed by the mind isolates the emerging persona, and this isolation generates, in turn, an intense demand for psychological security that only acute dependence on tribal and sub-tribal sanctuaries can satisfy. Cultural identification provides the vulnerable nascent persona with the certainty, pleasure, and self-fulfillment it desperately wants.
In the “right” social conditions, the increasingly personalized human consciousness was able to attain considerable intellectual capacity that, as already mentioned, was increasingly dedicated to serving the needs and desires of particular sectors of the general population. Once firmly established, these privileged sectors and individuals developed an insatiable hunger for material and psychological security that could only be satisfied by attaining nearly absolute superiority —"spiritual," political, economic, and military— power over "inferior" sectors of their own society and perhaps over "alien" societies as well. The original human tribe became more and more splintered and stratified along hierarchical cultural and economic lines as stronger, and more knowledgeable individuals organized themselves in economic and cultural sub-groups that excluded common folk (and foreigners) whose presumed ignorance and labor they exploited without mercy. Brute force acquired extraordinary sophistication by learning to serve its particular interests through the cunning assumption of (dubious) representative authority over the general secular and religious ideologies and methods that their inferiors had to adopt if they wanted to merely exist (physically and psychologically) and pass this level of existence to their descendants. Early on this pattern of dominance-dependence became general and deeply embedded in the particular mind, even though it invariably leads to chronic social instability and revolutionary violence that when successful in its overthrow of a dominant group or class usually can do no better than reiterate the same pattern with its attendant injustice, violence, and suffering.
All in all, and in whatever situation it may find itself, the self-centered and conditioned human being depends on its cultural groups of reference for its survival, its identity, and whatever measure of security, pleasure, and power it may manage to get today, and tomorrow. Conversely, the general culture of any population depends on the memory, cogitation, and behavior of its members for its own identity and perdurability. Culture and the psyche conditioned by the experience and learning that culture affords, are not different from one another. The sense of independence claimed by the individual stems from the fact that to some degree or another all forms of human culture foster the illusion of a separate and mostly autonomous personal existence. This, while simultaneously determining its perception, thought, and behavior —all in exchange for a false sense of unique identity and social status.
Nationality, gender, race, age, religion, ethnic background, social class, family, educational level, professional/occupational field, sexual preference, etc., are all aspects of personal identity defined, ascribed, and regulated by tradition at every level and sector of society. At every point in time, the world is the sum total of all our memories, thoughts, actions, and relationships, as we are, indeed, the fractious, giddy, and sorrowful world we inhabit.
BEYOND OURSELVES - Mental Conditioning by Experience and the Future of Humanity - III
Like many children, perhaps all children, I experienced several instances of severe physical and emotional trauma: two terrible accidents, with the divorce of my parents triggered by one of them, and the subsequent almost permanent absence of my father. And as I suspect is the case with most everyone else, while still a child I was thoroughly indoctrinated with only a slightly modified version of the cultural programming with which my elders and teachers had themselves been indoctrinated when very young themselves. Later on, my innocent respect for their authority and trust in their council saw me through some eighteen years of formal education. At some point, however, I started to doubt, and then actively resist their influence, along with that of secular and religious experts who seemed bent on determining the objects of my affection and filling my mind with the knowledge someone else had shoehorned into theirs. Responsible for one part of this rebellion was a growing awareness of the current state of the world and the fact that it represented the latest installment of a millennary history of division, unequal progress, injustice, and violence. The other part came as a result of my growing focus on the relationship between the ongoing disorder in human affairs and the way in which tradition and formal learning create a limited and highly biased personal identity that is prone to insensitivity, erroneous thinking, and unwise behavior.
As I moved through various phases of adult experience, I grew increasingly perplexed by the high incidence and the irrationality of the confusion and conflict I saw in me and all around me. The mental isolation and the sorrow I happened to suffer myself alerted me to the presence of the same in others. I started to see more clearly how the trace of past afflictions influences every present moment in the life of every individual, and how it goes from there to forge a future that is only a somewhat different version of the chronic divisiveness, mental disarray, and violence of the species. In real life, the claims I had heard and internalized about the greatness of human civilization and the inexorability of its anticipated development turned out to be vastly overstated. Early on I realized that war is monstrous, period. Massive, legalized murder is not made better by progress, let alone non-existent. And yet, inexplicably, armed combat continues to be widely considered as an episodic means to the preservation of periods of peace assiduously dedicated to enhancing the jingoistic mentality and its principal tool, the military.
To see life and my insertion in it independently; that is, as free of taboos and preconceptions as possible, became a necessity that expressed itself through the reluctance to comply with the imperatives of ideology and a narrow professional specialization. This unwillingness to conform brought, over time, significant psychological, relational, financial, and other social penalties, but it also made possible a dedicated, on-going consideration of a wide range of fundamental questions regarding the chronic division of the human species, and its attendant proclivity for disorder, conflict, and violence.
My steady bewilderment regarding the way in which the actual condition of individuals and human society contradicted all-too-common claims to the superior goodness and intelligence of the human mind, facilitated shedding layers and layers of early cultural conditioning. It also created the presence of mind necessary to prevent seduction by new ones. By my early forties, I had already gone through the trauma of simultaneous separation from my spouse and the intolerable constraints of institutional employment.
My new course was set by asking why human beings and their interactions, from family relations to the dealings between nations, are such a strange and perdurable mix of good and bad intentions and behaviors on all parts. Why is it that we are so divided along faulty ideological and experiential lines, and why do we continue to allow this division to so consistently cripple or outright destroy our considerable intelligence and seemingly natural tendency to unity, kindness, and happiness? In a more formal attire, this questions presents itself in this manner: What is the relationship between the determining effect that exclusive experience and learning have on the personal brain/mind, and the divisiveness, acrimony, hypocrisy, violence, and sorrow observable at every point in time and space?
I am sure that these fundamental questions have been, or are present in the minds of many people in some form or another. The problem is, however, that they are routinely blocked by vigorously enforced intra- and extra-psychic conformity to traditional values and an ingrained unwillingness to challenge personal beliefs and habits unless there is clear evidence of higher rewards granted by a different source of the same mental formatting. Every mind isolated and conditioned by cultural and traditional experience finds its particular form of insanity reasonable enough, and too cozily familiar to risk going beyond it. Besides, why do anything about this enormous problem if no one I know seems to be doing it and there is nothing appreciable to gain from it?
No one knows for sure why very early on in its co-evolutionary process the human mind started to derive its peculiar sense of separate existence and well-being almost exclusively from the cultural and biographical knowledge that pools in memory. In our day, this nearly universal identification with particular mental content continues to determine the often contradictory and conflictive ways in which we perceive, think, feel, and act.
In considering this general mindset and its negative consequences, it is important to note that individuals who doubt and start to drift away from the limitations and unreasonable impositions of their own cultural and personal encapsulation, invariably suffer the painful debasement or breakdown of a significant part of their mental operation and social position. No one wants even a small taste of the vulnerability, confusion, guilt, pain, and shame that are the outcome of questioning, even with the best of manners and intention, the general sanity of society and, within it, one’s own. And this ingrained tendency to lean away from all possible discomfort and pain is, of course, one of the most important ways in which the identity (and the certainty and security that come with it) provided by group membership preserves its constrictive hold on the mind.
Breaking with group consensus and the attendant mental artifacts and patterns that make up the self, its social status, and very sense of existence is an agony that, barring a forced or willing return to familiar sanctuaries can lead to a form of death. When this occurs, the physical organism goes on living, deeply embedded as it always is in the seamless fabric of the physical universe, but the personal psyche as defined, constrained, and mechanically propelled by recorded and projected experience, first suffers and then dies away. The notion of the conditioned self coming to an end may appear horrendous to many, but it is not when one considers that this deadly liberation from the often-dysfunctional authority of pre-established memories and traditions may bring to the mind wide-open angle of view and a greatly enhanced, though, impersonal vision. Freedom from all forms of provincialism and personalism does not come easy and can be extremely painful, but it is the only threshold with the potential to lead to something other than the predetermined regime of mental separation we have always known and suffered.
For some individuals who are keenly and widely aware of things as they are, and therefore moved to leave behind familiar but toxic attachments and limitations, this unprecedented transit away from their cultural swaddles and themselves comes early and instantaneously. The common temptation of rebelling against the status-quo only to find a different and presumably less confining identity does not fool them. They are fully aware that all versions of the same phenomenon of cultural/mental conditioning imply the same inane isolation and similar limitations. Others procrastinate and lose interest precisely because, even if they suffer and see to some extent the suffering of others, they are not fully able to see the cost involved in being who they think they are and living to chase after a made-up fantasy of future, worldly or otherworldly personal fulfillment. The presence of a well-adapted and well-related identity, perhaps further distinguished by a respected and handsomely remunerated career or trade, makes the questioning and dissolution of mental conditioning all the more improbable. This, even when misfortune and sorrow intrude, as they invariably do, to curtail or end a life of exclusive love, power, and pleasure.
The point worth taking away is that for those who have some critical, but still merely theoretical sense of the divided and suffering reality that mental conditioning creates, life simply continues to be consumed by internal and interpersonal conflict punctuated by occasional pleasures and joys that, when foreclosed, lead to new crises of identity. For human beings living today, especially the most fortunate, ephemeral periods or even isolated instances of pleasure, love, and success, makes bearable a life of banal pursuits and profound alienation. There is an overriding sense, especially in the most secular sectors of human society that good work, enough money, a little tenderness, a little pleasure, and a respectable place in the social or the post-mortem pecking order is as good as it gets. This is not to say that attention, caring, and intelligence are completely absent from the world, but rather that in the mental and social “normality" prescribed and enforced by tradition and personal habit, these faculties are severely constricted.
Given the glaring evidence that exists of the isolation, bias, and other limitations characteristic of group and personal insularity, it is extraordinary that most human beings remain content with themselves, their respective social contexts and cultural beliefs, and whatever they manage to fantasize about, get, and experience. The prevalence of contentment and inertia on the face of perilous circumstances, only goes to prove the extent to which what has been experienced and more formally learned determines and narrows down what is perceivable and of present and future concern to every individual. If humanity goes down by its own design, it will be because then, as throughout history, human beings remained too divided and too distracted by their obsession with imagined dreams of secular and religious self-realization.
The human animal has convinced itself that it cannot live free of the mental and relational comforts and tortures associated with the relatively fixed knowledge of who "one" is, where one belongs, and what are the objects of one’s past, present, and future hate, love, and desire. Thus, if the possibility of a unconditioned mind and an unrestrained, wide-open heart happens to be announced, it is instantly ignored or rejected as unrealistic or insane.
The theoretical answers given by experts and "saints" to the fundamental questions of life and death are unrelated to the day to day reality of individual human beings, and therefore irrelevant at least to those for whom not living in fantasy and falseness matters. Existence, more precisely, the human presence in the cosmos, is not a mental construct, and to approach it with ideas (mental representations of sensory and intra-psychic experience) creates a proliferation of severely limited and contradictory mental and social realities, all equally prone to systematic error and further division and conflict. Empirical knowledge has an essential role in human life, but we should be aware of its limitations because they have enormous destructive potential. Without a doubt, the most significant of these limitations is that knowledge increases in volume and acuity in direct proportion to the narrowness of its field of view and that it shrinks in size and certainty as the field widens. It is simply not within the realm of empiricism, its theoretical projections, and technical applications to give account of the unthinkable scale, complexity, and dynamism of “what is” (the totality of what is manifestly and non-manifestly occurring at every instant).
Put differently, many “things” and their interactions can and should be intellectually abstracted and thus turned into valid and useful knowledge. However, there are limits to this process. Despite all its potential for generating, storing, and projecting information, our cognitive reach (itself an abstraction sequentially identified with other abstractions) cannot come even close to touching the source and totality of life. Life is actual and indivisible, not a thing or an interlocked collection of things to be gradually deciphered for subsequent manipulation at the service of some interest or another. This immensely significant fact is routinely overlooked, or denied outright because to admit it poses an intolerable threat to the conceit of a separate existence based on the information-based and self-centered process of thought going on in every brain.
Let us unpack this a bit. The ground of our respective identities and very sense of personal existence depends on different (and more often than not, contradictory) forms of knowledge. This existential dependence on exclusive memory and its self-projection predisposes us to fear and avoid at all costs the mystery that can be vaguely felt, but that lies permanently outside the reach of the intellect. Humankind has always had some dark non-conceptual sense that the actual ground of our existence lies in life indivisible and therefore ineffable, and not in what we each happen to know, experience and think about at every point in time. However, the religious, and now the scientific intellect has always found a way to reduce this vague intuition to self-projective forms of knowledge. If we continue to ignore, or actively despise, hate, and destroy one another, it is because our separate sense of being and becoming continues to be grounded on different and contradictory forms of knowledge that do not allow for any other type of relationship.
For those with eyes to see, it is evident that the mental record of our pre-historical, cultural, and biographical experience determines our separate identities, as well as our strangely common conceit of existential uniqueness. It is also evident that the conditioned intellect issues our daily marching orders, with preset fear and desire providing the energy necessary for the intra-psychic and interpersonal struggle to comply with them. Thus, the ever-fresh newness of life is systematically stifled by what having already been experienced and conceptualized, mechanically determines what is to be either avoided or pursued today and tomorrow.
Not even the worst outcomes of this corrupt general mental system persuade a critical number of individuals to question it and look beyond its confines. Ours is an illness that refuses to acknowledge itself, and pay due attention to its symptoms. As already repeatedly suggested, it is because we conflate existence with knowledge, we are only too quick to conclude that there could not possibly be any advantage to a mind free of mostly irrelevant cultural and personal information. We are so terrified of the unknown and unknowable (life and death) that we opt at every instant to continue toiling day and night in lukewarm pursuit of the questionable material and psychological carrots that some hare-brained ideological consensus puts at the top of our wish stick in exchange for exclusive commitment.
Despite this overwhelming mental rigidity, or perhaps because of it, civilization continues to have its discontents. Not a reference this to the uniformly predetermined revolutionaries, lunatics, and sociopathic criminals part of every society and present throughout history, but rather to those individuals who for some unknown reason are and remain quietly aware of the limitations and dangers of provincial, partisan, and self-centered knowledge and desire. Occasionally this awareness is so independent, thorough, and accurate that the memory-based ego dissolves in it leaving behind only what is indivisible, and therefore imponderable: the all-encompassing unfoldment of life.
The outcome of humanity’s general mental alienation from the mystery of life is the self that is both source and consequence, cause and effect of our unending atomization, animosity, struggle, pleasure, fear, and pain. Paradoxically, only a constant and impersonal love of life that defies this general alienation contains the energy necessary to independently and passively observe the stream of conditioned sensory perception, thought, emotion, and desire that everyone calls “my” self. This impersonal, timeless love is all that is sufficient and necessary and, paradoxically, all that is.
Please bear in mind that what I have to say about the plight of humanity, how it came about, and why we should attend to it with all our being, comes mostly from direct observation. Observation of the world in and around us, and of the mental operation unfolding right here; index finger pointing to this (my) head. I make absolutely no claim to authority, and for several reasons, the most important of which is that the subject at hand —the stream of conditioned consciousness— is fundamentally the same in every human being alive, and yet only accessible to each of its psychological manifestations. Thus, the only worthwhile thing my words could do is nudge to independently look at your mind and the state of the world and uncover, in yourself as a particular instance of thought conditioned by experience, the source of all the mental, social, and ecological problems of humanity. This peculiar perception may well be, in itself, the deactivation of the cultural and biographical record of previous experience that is so necessary to ensure the future of humanity. However, nothing will happen if the possibility of both, full perception and simultaneous negation of the human condition is just an empty concept expressed by one person and heard by another who may then dismiss it or put it on top of the old memory heap. Insight in this essential matter is not transferable because it is ultimately unrelated to knowledge and thought. The awakening to and from the false reality created by thoroughly pre-programmed mind is not something to learn, or even to do, but to be.
What follows is an admittedly rough sketch of the developmental transit of humanity and the gradual conditioning of the brain by experience. The primary purpose of this examination of the past is to make evident the commonality of human experience and the reasons why the cultural and psychological isolation (particularity) intrinsic to mental conditioning can only produce new social and personal iterations of the same ancient friction and misery. In our own time, the conflictive fragmentation of the species has brought about the confluence of extremely dangerous and tightly interrelated factors and circumstances that are putting jeopardy its very survival.
First of all, let us make sure that we are on the same page regarding the nature of the brain. Much like the liver, the kidneys, or the heart, the human brain is a generic physical organ shaped, along with its equally generic mental function, by millions of years of adaptive evolution undergone by the species as a whole. Consequently, there is no such a thing as “your” brain or “my” brain. If (our) day-to-day mental function is ordinarily assumed to be a personal possession and attribute, it is because it has split in two, with one part adopting the pose of separate being and externalizing everything else, including thought.
The equation of human existence with personal thought —“I think, therefore I am,” as Pascal’s dictum puts it— is the very source of the faulty perception and divisive cultural and personal action we both enjoy and interminably suffer. It is far more accurate to say: we are who we think we are because we have collectively become the disparate and contradictory collection of associative and dis-associative mental artifacts we have each accumulated over the years and every day strive to augment vying for an imaginary better future. The worse part of this condition is that the multiplicity, contradictoriness, and defended isolation characteristic of personal and tribal identity make the definitive solution of our core problem —the constant and acrimonious mental distance between us— seem nearly impossible to resolve (more about this in the fourth and last installment of this series).
The word “reptilian” commonly used when referring to the ancient core of the brain, highlights the continuing presence in the human being of physiological characteristics and instinctual behavioral drives identical to those that allowed the survival of the animal species that preceded, and then accompanied humanity in the general co-evolution of the species. Survival at this foundational level resides in the steady ability of any given organism to attain nourishment and a few other conditions of well-being, security, and procreative continuity. Survival also necessitates the concomitant ability to avoid circumstances that would bring about hunger and other forms of stress and distress possibly leading to death.
Proprioception, (“The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.”), sexuality, territoriality, fear, aggression, and some measure of social organization are all components of the primordial instinct for survival. The same alternate pain/pleasure current energizes and orients the operation of all these factors of survival. In the species with the most evolved brains this primary drive was amplified by a higher degree of sensitivity and inquisitiveness that eventually led to the human being and its nascent capacity to record and project experience, that is, to learn and utilize knowledge as a unique and superb adaptive tool.
In the evolutionary process of humanity proper, the reptilian core of the brain is gradually overlaid by two other layers or systems of experience-based physiological and mental conditioning that over a very long span of time produce the exceptional size and progressive differentiation of the modern brain.
Humanity starts to consolidate its planetary presence by means of its demographic growth, and the resulting geographic dispersion of significant numbers of increasingly disconnected groups all exhibiting the same growing functional diversity and collaborative organization that will grant individual organisms and families the possibility, not only to survive but thrive. The development of language and tool making, and the creation of increasingly more specialized social roles and entirely new ways, not just of adapting to the natural environment, but of deliberately and craftily exploiting its resources, finally break with the rigid instinctual determination characteristic of the animal brain. An ever-increasing portion of the surface of the planet is gradually inhabited by different cultural enclaves that exhibit a similar capacity to create, accumulate, and project knowledge derived from the everyday trial-and-error experience of adaptive challenges.
It is in this manner that our species journeys away from the instinct-bound animal kingdom (and the actual unfolding movement of life), traveling on the vessel of mental representation it has created to survive. Our ability to conceptualize whatever happens to come our way has made our life possible and in some ways much better because it has given us (some of us, never all) a significant degree of progressive security and wellbeing. However, this unique gift turns out to be as well the source of unforeseen problems, many of which do not yield to the tools and abilities fruit of our entire intellectual and social development.
Demographic growth and territorial expansion inevitably start to bring back in contact cultural groups that had formed in the first expansionary movement away from humanity’s point(s) of emergence. All too often, this contact takes on a brutal and bloody character due to inter-tribal competition over limited territory and other resources but also, and increasingly, due to stark differences in the cultural identity that each group has adopted utilizing the same species-wide capacity to produce, internalize, and project images and ideas. Today we may wonder why the level of intelligence that was already available at that distant point in time opted for violent conquests and the exploitation of conquered populations, instead of endeavoring to manage these encounters in more reasonable (non-violent) and almost certainly more fruitful ways. However, this line of inquiry immediately brings to mind that, despite all the progress we attribute to our great intelligence and goodness, we are still using extraordinarily stupid and violent means to defend our particular sources of identification and to pursue our private ambitions at whatever cost to others. The last few centuries of human history are, in great part, the record of countless and most absurd instances of injustice and violence afflicting every sector and level of human society.
Another extraordinary development occurs during this extended transitional period in which humanity moves mentally and physically away from its source in the animal kingdom and, more inadvertently, from the mystery of life itself. Within the protective cocoon offered by cultural affiliation and the development and diversification of knowledge, individual human consciousness turns back upon itself and becomes self-conscious. That is, the existing representational and self-projective reservoir of experience (memory/knowledge/thought) splits in two with one aspect of it assuming central dominance over the periphery of the psyche. This internal division also generates a constant egocentric separation from “others” who display the same dubious distinction of being unique and the same presumption to lord over (their) knowledge and the separate and entirely subjective portion of reality this particular knowledge creates.
Nestled within the primary layer of images and ideas representing the process of socialization undergone by the particular organism at the hand of its tribal/cultural sponsors, now lies a second and far more intensely conscious layer containing the distinctly psychological conditioning of the brain/mind by what is now separate, “personal” experience. The sense we each have of a distinct “you” and “I” and “us and them,” comes from a combination of particular cultural conditioning and the sense of a continuous personal existence that stems mostly from the accumulation, retrieval, and projection of images and ideas related to strictly biographic experience.
For the conditioned person, existence is not so much the mysterious wholeness of being, but rather the mental time and space we all know as “me” and “my” self, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Together, these closely related layers of recorded and ever extrapolating cultural and personal experience, differ from the reptilian core only in that their presence and effect on groups and individuals (their perception, thought, and behavior) are particular. The exclusiveness and particularity of remembering and thinking, in turn, allows individuals organisms to conceive of themselves as different enough from one another to justify claiming a separate existence —again, a conceit paradoxically common to all. To know one-self as a distinct instance of being necessarily implies an idea-based comparison with others who use the same culturally endorsed capacity for isolated self-reflection make a similar claim of existential separation same distinction; this, even if they happen to derive a large part of their identity from the same cultural group.
The ever-increasing conflictive fragmentation of humanity created by the recorded experience of particular groups and individuals accounts for the diversity and complexity of traits (cultural, psychological, behavioral, and relational) displayed by modern-day individuals. However, regardless of what its level of acquired sapience, ability, and virtue may be, no separate entity can escape the limitations that the general phenomenon of sustained mental programming imposes on every cultural group and every individual. Thus, the fundamental fact we have to contend with is that, despite all the advantages it has accrued from its unique intellectual capacity, humanity remains divided and conflicted by the self-centered record of its experience, and also unwilling, if not unable to see and overcome this condition. Put differently, no matter how self-conscious and smart, the particular patterns of thought and action that emerge from different instances of historical (cultural) and psychological differentiation, both obscurely influenced by prehistorical mental conditioning, are also the block impeding proper perception of the fact and negative consequences of conditioning itself. Without the ability to adequately see the entire problem of mental conditioning our thoughts and actions, no matter how nobly intended, remain unintelligent, uncaring, and insufficient.
Particular cultures, institutions, and individuals perceive each other’s memories and projections as significantly different from their own and, naturally, this appreciation determines the nature and quality of their relationships (in the terms we are discussing, rarely for the better). It also hampers their capacity to detect and eliminate the dangers posed by the mental distance separating them. To give an obvious example, the title “United Nations” is indeed an oxymoron considering that nation states are permanently divided internally and externally, bitterly competitive, and all too often violently at odds with one another.
At the personal level, the mental and relational problems we suffer from (despite the fact that particular identity invariably stems from some claim to unique distinction or even superiority), are routinely ignored or cunningly blamed on someone else’s pathetic existence, faulty thinking, and bad behavior. Not only is the myth of psycho-somatic uniqueness false, it demands protection, expansion, and extension at all costs. Widespread psychological distress, mainly due to insufficient or unhappy relationship, and the general incapacity of the species as a whole to do anything genuinely useful to integrate itself and assume proper kinship with life, are the worse consequences of being permanently conditioned and isolated by slightly different expressions of fundamentally the same human experience. The problem is, few are willing to let go of their particular convictions (political and religious), fixed attachments, mental habits, and other equally noxious mainstays of separate identity. We insist on protecting who we think we are and are meant to become even though it is increasingly evident that all forms of sorrow stem from the partisan egotism we all embody. The future of humanity depends on nothing other than the willingness of a critical number of individuals to seriously and independently examine how the nature of their conditioned minds and the quality of their relationships daily contributes daily to an acrimonious and disintegrating world.
There is no doubt that the gradual differentiation of humanity has brought about enormous advance in some areas of life and in certain places. However one must take issue with the perverse way in which the significance of this progress is often exaggerated to hide that its actual benefits are not always benign, nor distributed justly among the general population. Division along the lines of tradition, ideology, and exclusive distinction and power, invariably breeds injustice and abuse that, in turn, breed violence and sorrow. Different secular and religious ideologies, all claiming to best represent the goodness and truth of life and hence be the potential source of unity for the species as a whole, live in permanent tension with each other. This animosity helps consolidate the general division of the species and is a continuous source of distress and violence that occasionally explodes into the absolute brutality of war that leaves wounds that never seem to heal. The existential risk posed by the continued development and proliferation of thermonuclear weapons with which certain nations intimidate, cajole, and blackmail others is the ultimate irony and most malignant form of progress.
Advances in the development and private accumulation and utilization of knowledge have also led to excesses in the extraction of the natural resources needed to satisfy the ever-increasing levels of consumption that certain segments of the human population demand. Extravagant consumerism has brought about, in turn, widespread ecological disruption and environmental catastrophes that are already afflicting significant sectors of the world’s population and outright destroying countless animal species. Still, many remain reluctant to see that there is no point to forms of growth and development that are the source of suffering for multitudes and a potential existential risk for the species as a whole. This marked indifference to increasingly grave dangers is a clear indication of the mental atrophy and emotional deadness brought about by our divisive thinking and dysfunctional relationships.
As we have endeavored to show all-along in these essays, thought produces as many problems as it solves, and human society is so rigidly conditioned and divided by what it knows and covets, that it cannot muster the energy necessary to think collaboratively. Paradoxically, the only thing we seem unable to learn is how to come together and deal promptly and conclusively with issues that have become an affliction and a threat to all. When considering our current problems —wholesale ecological disruption, rampant militarism and nuclear proliferation, excessive population growth, secular and religious dogmatism, notable increases in mental illness, etc.— it is reasonable to expect that the future, if there is to be one, will only a modified reiteration of the great sorrows and little pleasures we have always known. This, of course, unless we come to see the absolute necessity of a mutation in consciousness, and fearlessly open ourselves to it.
The first of this series of essays aimed to provide an overall picture of the phenomenon of mental conditioning and the cultural fragmentation and psychological isolation it permanently generates. The second essay attempted to clarify further the nature of conditioning and self-isolation by experience and to identify its positive and negative consequences, both mental and social. This essay, the third of the series, has given a little information regarding the person writing these pieces and his motivation for doing so, and hopefully provided some sense of the prehistorical and historical evolution of mental programming and its current consequences.
The fourth and last essay will examine the necessity and implications of becoming fully and directly aware of one’s experience-based mental predetermination and its impact on the world.
BEYOND OURSELVES - Mental Conditioning by Experience and the Future of Humanity - IV
The last essay ended with the assertion that only a mutation in consciousness could free the species from the endless suffering created by its chronic division and conflict, intra-psychic, interpersonal, and intercultural. Nations, religions, and other particular cultural groups are constitutionally averse to the solution posed by holistic, and therefore unbiased perception of fundamental human problems because it disregards the distinct ideological character on which their very separate existence depends.
Particular individuals are similarly, but inversely, reluctant to consider the general issue of divisive mental conditioning. In their case, it is because their identity and relative sense of security and wellbeing (their psychological existence) depend, in great measure, from loyalty to the social groups to which they belong. However, it is the brain that the cranium of each organism cradles that is the foundational deposit and vehicle of all forms of cultural tradition, not the social entities that are their public box of resonance.
Despite our habitual mental turpitude and ironclad dependency on social structures and cultural traditions dispensing much of our sense of self, only the individual mind might seriously, and effectively consider the plight of the species as a whole and, consequently, the inescapable necessity of an unconditioned brain/mind.
Put differently, social and cultural forms and their particular historical movement from the past to the future are only expressions or externalizations of the constellations of images and ideas that exist and operate in every psychosomatic entity alive. Institutions do not, in themselves know and project themselves. They appear to do so only because of the knowledge, thought, and behavior that exists and operates in their constituents and representatives. The primacy of the personal mind in this subtle respect determines, in turn, that only it might be capable —to the extent of its independence from cultural influence and mental habit— of rigorously examining, and abandoning its particular accumulation of biased images and ideas and dangerous behavioral tendencies. To see one's contribution to the continued existence of divisive and oppressive socio-cultural forms and selfish personal behavior is to end it.
Considering my previous indication that this last essay would deal with the possibility of a mutation of the human brain/mind, and the fact that only the individual is capable of considering, I felt that the best form it (the essay) could take was that of a personal letter. The intent in utilizing this more intimate form of communication is not, of course, to romanticize or otherwise trivialize the crucial matter at hand. This is not a literary sleight of hand, but the proper way to speak about the love of humanity and life that pulsates in my heart and, I suspect, in yours as well. Even though I most probably do not know you in person, it seems only true to affection, and therefore to reason, that you and I attend, together and with all the strength of the being we share to the possibility (and the difficulties) of going beyond the pleasures and pains of separation.
My dear friend,
I am grateful for your interest and patience in reading the three unruly essays that preceded this letter. The fact that you are still here with me justifies the assumption that we share the same sense of the millenary sorrow of humanity and the general mindset that keeps generating it and blocking its overthrow. Even if it is only in very general terms, we are both well aware of how our capacity to learn from experience enabled the survival and expansion of our species, to then unwittingly become the tumultuous stream of cultural fragmentation, mental disorder, and contentious relationship in which we are still struggling, and drowning today.
If we agree that this much is valid, it is not a stretch to go further and considering the current circumstances, assume as well that we both realize the tremendous danger that the persistence and inclusiveness this primitive and misguided mental system poses to the very survival of our species. How could we be blind to the insane claims and appetites that are presently taking to brink the delicate ecological balance of our home planet, and that are not averse to making use of conventional and thermonuclear weapons of unimaginable destructive potential, and for the stupidest of reasons?
If I dare speak to you of the necessity of a mental mutation, it is for two reasons. The first is that we are no longer talking to each other from the timid or openly fearful and hostile mental bunkers that allegiance to fixed cultural beliefs and personal opinions create. The second reason is intimately related to the first. The distance we have somehow managed to take from provincial, sectarian, and psychological barriers and their mostly false protection has made something painfully evident. Traditional secular and religious ideologies and methods are impotent when it comes to dealing conclusively with the cultural and mental distance separating and often enough antagonizing different groups and individuals. The unity of a disintegrating species will never come from the experience, knowledge, and intent of any one of its countless secular or religious groups. The authority claimed by the experts and leaders representing these social entities and their particular interests no longer fools us. They are as confused, fearful, and ambitious as those who naively seek guidance from them.
Despite our standing, not isolated but alone and in some discomfort, we seem to coalesce in the realization that what is urgently necessary is entirely unrelated to what is widely considered familiar and “normal.” The fact is, the dissension and the collective alienation of contradictory tribal, interpersonal, and personal realities cannot sustain life for much longer, at least not in any widely tolerable condition.
I trust we are also together in sensing, however obscurely still, that what humanity needs is an alteration of the status quo, both mental and social, radical enough to seek the unthinkable —unprecedented and irreversible freedom from conformity to said status quo. There are enormous implications in our common realization that full surrender to the imperative unification of the species is not an option among others, but the essence of mental health, and perhaps, a life-or-death decision as well. Nothing short of freedom will do. Not the brass license of egoic vanity and power, but actual liberation from the cultural walls and mental blinders that have forever prevented a genuine encounter between “you” and “I.” Without individuals merging, the distance between the traditional “us” and “them” remains constant, and the merging of our species with its ground in life, impossible.
Freedom of this kind and level is far from popular. After even a little peek at the long-standing and harrowing reality of humankind, one can always choose to run back to what is most familiar and remain an obedient serf to the mental and behavioral patterns set by cultural and biographical experience and its supreme authority. On the other hand, you may willingly choose to withstand the shock of passively seeing the immense problem of human division and suffering, and thus open the space necessary for a mutation of the brain/mind the nature and consequences of which thought can never make out.
Let me try a different way of putting this, and please forgive me if I am not entirely adept at conveying the readily apparent and the more subtle difficulties involved in handing oneself over to the imperative of human integration. I am heartened, however by the conviction that there will be other opportunities to converse about these issues and, more importantly, by the fact that, in the end, this is not a matter of transformation, going from one form of being and thinking to another, but of dispensing with self-centered thought altogether. What could I, or anyone else, say about that?
The positive conception and implementation of any conceivable plan can never achieve the unity of the species. That is, it is useless to assert the desire of any one particular instance of a collective phenomenon of tribal/psychological conditioning and separation, to merge with whatever limited image or idea it may have formed of what this integration and its consequences might be. The fact is that what you and I know, (along with everyone else) is the state of separation that is simultaneously responsible for who we each think we are, and the pleasure, conflict, fear, and pain we all constantly experience, albeit in different forms and degrees.
Therefore, the mutation that may be the only solution to the general problem of human suffering, and that I am so clumsily attempting to present here, must be approached negatively. For it is only in the deactivation or outright disappearance of everything that determines the sustained presence in you and me of mental isolation and its attendant internal and interpersonal frictions, that a full and accurate perception of the problem of being human becomes available. There is no solution possible when the problem is either invisible or poorly seen.
The possibility of an encounter not mediated, in either exclusive alliance or enmity by what either one of us knows, thinks, and desires is, naturally, entirely predicated in just this impersonal, and therefore direct and thorough insight into the human condition as it manifests in and acts through the particular human organism we both refer to as "me."
To some, this may sound very strange at first, but the truth is that an equanimous mind capable of intelligent, caring relationship, requires the negation of everything that in making us who we think we are and wish to become, also turns us into isolated instruments of division and bitterness. We may abhor even to consider it, but the absence of real intelligence and love results from the overbearing presence of a rancid self endlessly demanding from others some predigested form of attention and favor. Every manifestation of the conditioned human brain/mind carries the same generic infection of fear and arrogant ambition that turns life into an experience that is, for most, more sour than sweet, and far from transcendent.
Words fail in this matter; I hope you can directly see what I am trying to convey. The quality of the encounter between human beings, between you and I to be more specific, cannot be but revolutionized when we stop meeting in progressive and ultimately always restrictive and banal, conceptual agreement or disagreement. The divisiveness intrinsic to personal experience and knowledge that mediates traditional relationships at this foundational level is, and I am sure you can see this, the very root of a self-blinding, broken, and afflicted reality of the human species as a whole.
Fortunately, the absurd distance generally stretching between us cannot possibly resist the impact of realizing, together, that we are nothing if not almost identical manifestations and sustaining agents of a human mind predetermined and alternately pleased and tortured by slightly different versions of the same experience. If honest and fully awake, one can see oneself with the utmost clarity in the mirror presented by "the other" and the hopelessly segmented and blighted world we all create with every divisive thought and every cruel, or merely dysfunctional action.
Now, would not this perception of our falseness be, in itself, our first encounter with an immediate truth powerful enough to undo the foolish, sedimentary conceit of existential separation that may still be active in either one, or both of us? Since we have come this far together, it may not be unreasonable to push even further and, without rushing back to ready-made answers or encouraging any new foolish illusions, inquire where an all-encompassing insight beyond the realm of separate experience and thought may lead us to. Can the mind stay in the realm of the unknowable that is all there is when the claim to a separate existence and a unique and evolving identity has collapsed?
Yes, I know —why and how could anyone, let alone little you and I, bypass standard procedures of intellectual conception and understanding in pursuit of the truth beyond culture and self? It is terrifying to think of being deprived of the patterned knowledge and habitual thought, and some of the roles and behaviors on which our psychological distinction and isolated being perch, however shakily. All I can say to this type of objection is that after a certain point in self-inquiry, it is far more difficult and foreboding to look away from what is happening in the world and one’s mind and relationships, and slink back to the now evidently false protection of self-projective memory and tradition.
Having traversed the expansive territory you and I have together, how could we, separately or jointly, tolerate, even if still a bit lonely and occasionally terror-stricken, a mindless and heartless complicity with the forces of barren division, dissension, and death? Besides, is it not increasingly apparent to you (it is to me) that fear of the unknown is only part of the strangulation of the mind by self-centered knowledge, the essential depository and vehicle of dysfunctional and divisive thought and emotion?
The all-important stories we have been conditioned to tell ourselves about who we are and ought to become in fraudulent comparison with whomever we think others and their projections might be, cannot withstand the unthinkable, all-embracing truth of life and death, our only true and firm common ground. Even if we feel vulnerable and somewhat confused, we can hardly go back to circling the familiar wagons of anxious self-defense and in that phony enclave continue pursuing little compensating achievements, pleasures, and joys. Seeing what there is to see, how much longer can one stomach the increasingly apparent insanity of the idea (because it is only that, an idea) of unique existence further burdened by the steadily burning urge to realize some other concept of exclusive worldly or “spiritual” success?
At any rate, please tell me frankly if you feel I am wrong when I say that there is nothing that either one of us needs more than simply being at ease with one another. Everybody craves a good relationship, but since each one secretly wishes this relational excellence to play along predetermined lines and after equally preordained goals, the actual implications of this prevalent inclination are seldom acknowledged, let alone carefully examined. What I, for one, feel is the urgent necessity of a profound encounter unencumbered by the superficiality, nervous remove, and cunning deception typical of most relationships. We shall never experience sanity, and therefore justice and peace, if we do not find our way to this encounter beyond ourselves. I suspect you are as tired as I am of settling for the type of relation in which, perhaps behind an amiable facade, the mostly dull, but noisy, and lacerated mental record of different cultural and biographical experience keeps the participants distant from one another, and permanently susceptible to unbridgeable separation.
I hope you do not mind if I go on and dig deeper, but staying with these same convoluted issues. After all, you may choose to share this note with others who may be less conversant with them than you.
I sense the brain itself is irreversibly altered by direct awareness of the chronic disorder and violence in the world, and the billions of particularly conditioned individuals who are responsible for this mess; each barely set apart from the others by the way a given personal brand of mental predetermination acts out its marching orders. No trace of subconsciously and consciously enforced loyalty to the cultural purveyors of personal distinction, both ascribed and chosen can survive the effect, on a particular brain, of seeing the truth. This, even if this truth is circumscribed to what is so tragically false and harmful about its particular form of mental isolation and concomitant separation from others and life at large.
Personal identity always stems from a particular combination of a relatively small number of physical, cultural, and psychological variables that are for the most part common to all human beings. I am sure you are well aware of this, but I will anyway rattle off what these variables are. Gender, race, age, general physical appearance, ethnic background, nationality, religion, social and economic class, political conviction, profession or occupation, different talents, preferences, aversions, and anything else that serves the chimera of separate existence and its penchant for competition and extravagant recompense, worldly and otherworldly.
The good news is in the realization of the mental and relational dead end that is identification with an idiosyncratic combination of these multiple attributes. And, if this realization occurs, the mind inevitably opens to a realm very much unrelated to the limitations imposed by the conceptual representation of exclusive experience, and the disorderly and cruel social reality that innumerable personal iterations of the same phenomenon of mental conditioning create.
As an aside, I will briefly acknowledge the tired argument that there is nothing one can do about the psychological and mental implications of the color of one’s skin, age, general physical looks or what there is between one’s legs. I am sure you realize that on the surface that argument is undoubtedly valid, but also that there is nothing but ingrained images and ideas barring awareness of the divisive and otherwise harmful consequences of an intense, culturally policed psychological identification with the non-renounceable attributes of the organism.
Let us say that "I" am unmistakably male, blue-violet in complexion, and as old and ugly as sin, at least as far as idiotic current standards of beauty are concerned. Others may be insensitive enough to make evident their indifference or open contempt for this unavoidable physical appearance as me. However, none of that matters if "I" am not identified with, and therefore remain mentally unaffected (within certain limits, of course) by the thought, sentiments, and behavior of others regarding tributes entirely beyond my capacity to change. The physical reality of the organism is just what it is, and for that matter "I" am not any less an insignificant part of the cosmos and the mysterious significance of life than anyone else.
For the sake of space, I will not make a similar comment here regarding the tribal and personal isolation that stems from strong identification with strictly cultural and psychological traits and attributes. I hope it is enough to reiterate that our root problem lies in the general reluctance to see how strong association (or disassociation) with any culturally defined attribute of personhood and social status (no matter how occasionally pleasurable and rewarding they may be) is a constant source of mental suffering and social disharmony. Many people find and empower themselves through their association with widely available forms of religious and political dogmatism. However, the intrinsic divisiveness and proclivity to violence of the convictions they internalize is never a good thing for the mental health of the organism or the quality of the social order.
Having said this, and in order to avoid attracting cumbersome arguments of false opposition, I must also reiterate a couple of points I have often made before . Within certain limits, I see both practical knowledge and the particular contribution everyone has to make to earn a just keep in society as essential components of human life. I am certainly not promoting some benign form of mental atrophy, a saintly retreat away from the world, or just plain ignorance for ignorance sake. However, and precisely because I am not entirely an ignoramus, a naively self-declared holy man, or an amnesiac, I will make my central point once again. The good news is that anyone who cares enough to look honestly and widely at herself and the world can see that self-centered knowledge/belief encapsulates and desensitizes the collective and the particular mind, making us largely indifferent to disorder and suffering, especially the suffering of others. Within the field of sensitivity unencumbered by separation, lies another extraordinary realization. The isolation and foolhardy dedication exacted by a false claim to existential uniqueness inspired and sustained by an almost irresistible cultural parenthood, nearly blinds us to our seamless presence within the mystery of life, manifest and not manifest, and certainly not determined by, or reducible to knowledge and the endlessly creative tricks of fearful and ambitious thought.
I would not be at all surprised if you let me know that you too can somehow sense the infinity and indivisibility of life. To anyone who bothers to look, it is fairly evident that nothing exists in separation. And it is precisely because the conditioned mind insists in conjuring up, at every moment, the false notion of its separate existence, that it keeps generating, in myopic contact with the irreducible actuality of life, a chaotic mental and social reality made of half-truths and complete falsehoods.
Life is equally present within all the separate forms that the secular or religious intellect may care to abstract by cutting-up and otherwise distorting and misinterpreting the totality of what is with its contradictory definitions, categories, and imaginary and self-serving stories.
For the mind entrapped in self-centered knowledge and the to-and-fro mechanics of identity-based thought, the mystery of existence is either a threat to be avoided, or something that has already been, or will eventually be, reduced to some ideological map or another.
The thing is, the personal intellect is itself only one of many equally faulty maps issued by the general phenomenon of mental conditioning. Being as hung up on the notion of unique identity as it is, the intellect conditioned by experience is hugely reluctant to admit that what it knows is pitifully unrelated to the unthinkable living territory it must either sidestep or foolishly pretend to represent in order to be itself. In either case, the dense cloud of words and numbers created by the fear and vanity of self-centered thought is powerful enough to tragically obscure the mystery of life. We pay an incalculable price for this unfortunate power that only yields the puny and often unjust sense of certainty and security of multiple and contradictory instances of cultural and personal distinction that can never get well along.
The mystery of life reduced to knowledge and private property becomes a meaningless, reiterative reality made up of many different and opposing cultural stages. Sequential generations and hordes of confused, ambitious, and pleasure-loving, and therefore also aching individuals fill these scenarios, all desperately struggling against one another in their equally mad search for ultimate self-fulfillment in private forms of certainty, pleasure, and power.
There is nothing more intimately present and more precious than our participation in existence. I sense you realize that, as well. And perhaps you also share how it hurts to see the effort we put in disregarding what does not carry with it some semblance of unique status or rich reward. What madness! We are unwilling to accept a gift of infinite generosity only because it happens to comes to everyone in equal measure. Life does not makes the odious distinctions on which the intellect thrives.
And there is nothing more profoundly mysterious in our generic participation in manifest existence than the awareness within, and through which everything becomes apparent, including, for some of us, and perhaps only at times, a barely discernible and utterly undecipherable sense of its wholeness. If the mind is fully occupied and regimented by the record of limited experience and the fear and desire with which this vague trace extends itself in time, awareness —which in its pure form is timeless and nothing in itself—becomes “my” awareness, rigidly time-bound and full of self-concern as "myself." It is then rendered incapable of taking in any-thing in its entirety, let alone the beyond-cosmic integration of the indivisible everything that so quietly denies the insane existential separation claimed by the self.
Awareness tragically turned into one more particular “thing” also yields to its absorption into an atomized universe that revolves meaninglessly around the made-up personal entity that poses as its knowing nucleus and is bent on getting its way, sometime down imagination lane, and at whatever cost.
I trust you are not concerned with what may be the best method available to access this awareness unpolluted by the highly questionable distinction of personal knowledge, fear, and desire. You must surely realize that any means found or created to that end would only be something crafted by the conditioned mind looking to prolong itself, and therefore the negation of pure awareness.
When one inquires into the possibility of a fully attentive mind uncluttered by unnecessary knowledge, all we have is the possibility of gaining a comprehensive and clear view of what clutters it, first in oneself and just as one is at every point in time, and then also in others, and the world at large. It is essential at any stage of this confrontation with the chronic reality of the conditioned mind and its effect on society and the Earth at large, that one does not rush to old conclusions or anxious projections. For that would be only a reiteration of the perennial attempt of the same decrepit memory-based process of self-centered thought to safeguard and extend itself. The very falseness of separate being condemns all of us to the permanent travails of fruitless becoming.
There is a point, however, in which this wide-open and passive observation of what is happening becomes so sharp that it instantly detects and negates any movement of thought attempting to dodge the problem of mental programming. This avoidance may be occurring through either the denial of its existence, or by what is more likely to tempt you and me: the effort to make oneself better, or something entirely other than what one is, that is, someone with a case of mental conditioning comparatively superior to that of everyone else.
This peculiar stance may seem like the worse possible case of mental paralysis, an ultimate impasse, but that is the furthest thing from the truth. When the fullest attention the organism can muster is locked on the barrenness of self-centered thought, the unnecessary and harmful aspects of the imprint of experience dissolve and consciousness turns into "something" (the attempt of conveying the absence of separation is not well-served by words) that thought can never decipher or desire. Particular cultures and the conditioned individuals that constitute them can only conceive of, and covet that which it already know in one way or another. One has reached the bone on this issue of the impotence of thought, when there is no further speculation about what may lie beyond the possible collapse of the mental barriers (past, present, and future) separating us from one another. If we have come this far together, all we have now is the same fierce unwillingness to be distracted from mounting evidence of the toxic ballast of self-isolating memory and desire. The first step towards the truth lies in seeing the false. There is no second step.
With all this very much at heart, I will not say good-by, but offer instead an ever-fresh hello, from the unknown to the unknown, from life to life.
With affection, Fernando