Radical Erasure Takes Care of a Defective Portrait
I recently received a note from Alvaro, an old childhood friend of mine who, like me, has lived abroad for many years. In it he told me about an email exchange that resulted from having shared with all his old schoolmates, myself included, a short story revealing his concern about the state of our species and his hope for a radical change involving, among other things, the abandonment of divisive religious dogmas. To illustrate his comments, he attached to this note some of the responses his story had elicited from our classmates. I was startled to read in one of them a reference to another one of them who was described as being, like Alvaro, an atheist, and an artist, and equally prone to broadcast strange notions, surely presumed to originate from an early abandonment of the beliefs and traditions inculcated by the country of birth. This person was not identified by name, but could only be me.
At first, I found this summary account of my being inaccurate enough to be annoying. However, a thorough examination of both, the lousy portrait and my initial reaction to it, turned into the germ from which this brief reflection on being human sprouted.
The first thing that came to mind in considering who I might truly be was that we generally find the all-inclusiveness of existence abhorrent because it denies our overwrought claim to unique personal being. Few want to reflect upon with any seriousness about their true existential insignificance, let alone come directly face to face with it, even though sanity and a proper relationship with others and with life at large depend on doing just that.
Particular claims to separate identity gain existential relief and social significance only by negating the common ground on which we all stand. In other words, in order to make a claim to separate personal existence and some type of social pedigree, we deny that life and death are fundamentally the same for “you” and “I” and everyone else. We chose to give short shrift to the fact that we all share the same life cycle, the same genetic code, the same physiology, instinctual drives, and psychology. We are also equally dependent on particular cultural structures, norms, and values to both, claim the self-worth and social status by which we know ourselves and allow others to see us as acceptable peers dutifully participating in the same social consensus. In general terms, given that we emerge from and inhabit the same cosmic reality, and share essentially the same genetic code, the same instincts, the same physiology, and the same historical and psycho-social context, it is quite evident that, underneath the superficial differences that separate us so, we are fundamentally the same. And this, of course, implies that we are nothing (special) in ourselves.
How is it then that we are so prone to act as though our particular pain and sorrow, loss and frustration, love and hate, rage and joy were different and therefore better or worse than those of someone else? In one way or another we manage to“reason” and behave as though our presence in life were unique and therefore separate from, and more often than not more valuable than that of others. The outcome of this blind trust in the notion (for that is all it is, a notion) of separate tribal and personal existence has been nothing short of disastrous: endless disorder, conflict, and violence, and yet we still cling to it, literally, for dear life: “your” life and “my” life; “our” lives and “theirs”.
It takes keen and sustained attention to the base of the human iceberg to realize the absurdity of our particular claims to personal uniqueness and separate existence, the claim regularly made by the seven and a half billion (and counting) little self-inflated promontories perched on its cold and highly insensitive surface. Naturally, the all-encompassing character and enormous vitality of this attention can only come into being only when the aberrant optics of ethnocentric and sectarian self-centeredness are no longer distorting perception and, consequently impairing thought.
We are each so invested in our particular version of the existential self-isolation adopted by the species as a whole, and this old and dangerous conceit is by now so fused with our physiology and capacity to reason, that it is nearly impossible to detect it, let alone question it deeply and effectively. Not to try is, however, akin to negating the very heart of our shared humanity. This a serious commitment, though, because a severe query into who we are will not only rattle, but rapidly end the particular symbolic sense of psychological, social, and material reality that is the foundation of every instance of separate existence and self-serving action. That termination seems terrifying, but not when it becomes clear that it only applies to what we merely think is the ground of our alienated being, and may well usher-in an infinitely freer, intelligent, and loving mode of being human.
One way to start this exploration into our being is to take notice that the differences and similarities we detect between ourselves —and that are widely seen as evidence of separate personal being— are not related to existence per se (not even when they are of a physical nature, like gender, race, age and other aspects of appearance). They are, instead, standard-issue mental constructs and principal components of the self-replicating mental record of experience that particular social contexts create, and then impose on the individuals whose lives they regulate. Because we derive so much of our identity and sense of global reality from these social contexts and cultural paradigms, we also unwittingly assume that the made-up psycho-social entity that each one of us calls “me” constitutes the essence of the human, personal and collective, presence in the universe. This prevalence of mere symbolic constructs in the determination of our sense of inner and outer reality is immensely harmful because their multiplicity, exclusiveness, and contradictoriness sink the natural sensitivity and intelligence of the organism into the stupor that is still preventing us from realizing how far we have strayed from the indivisible flow of existence that is our common ground and the only truth.
The self-defensive mental and social barriers erected by our chronic cultural fragmentation and the memory and desire-based self are high and dense. Not all is lost, however, because if raw attention somehow manages to escape even just the most opaque forms of cultural control and personal inhibition, the resulting clarity starts to disentangle the mind from its self-centered experiential conditioning. The whole of existence, the ever-unfolding movement of life and death is infinitely greater than (and in significant ways unrelated to) the particular forms of knowledge, belief, and desire that generate and sustain our false existential conceit with its comparative, and hence highly divisive sense of private meaning, security, and agency. Our ingrained sense of separate and evolving being is a deceptive and harrowing dead-end, the essence of our collective alienation from life, and the source of all our antagonism and sorrow.
If “I” think of myself as an independently existing entity, then “you” too must be different enough to exist in your own right as some”one” else altogether. In one way or another, we have all been induced to think that “you” have your life and “I” have mine, which is evidently false. This superficial, comparative (idea-based) sense of existential distinction (tribal and personal) is also the reason why we can so easily and routinely justify to ourselves misrepresenting, ignoring, discriminating, exploiting, or even hurting others psychologically and even physically.
The vital relationship that exists between parents and children is paradoxically the factor that most intimately enables the continuity of this false and highly damaging mindset. For it is adults, thoroughly conditioned by their groups of reference and their own limited experience, that impose on the young a particular iteration of the same ancient regime of mental separation. In due time, the culturally and existentially isolated offspring will —barring some profound awakening to the falseness and cruelty of this forced inheritance— similarly impose themselves mentally on their own progeny, convinced as their elders were that in doing so they are complying with the duties implicit in social propriety and parental love.
At a very young age, the core of tribal/personal identity has already been profoundly imprinted in every child’s brain, and from then on the mental residue left by every experience of pain and pleasure adds itself mechanically to this self-reflective core deposit. To be sure, a person (a mind), formatted and set apart by the cumulative record of biological, cultural and personal experience has a limited and highly biased vision of life and death. Worse yet, the perceptual and cognitive limitations imposed by self-centered isolation and allegiance to a given set of relatively fixed tribal norms and values produce friction with others who are similarly diminished and prejudiced by a different cultural and psychological version of the same universal phenomenon of mental conditioning. It is from the aggregate recording of physical, and especially of psychological experience of pain and pleasure, security and insecurity, that emerges the mechanical drive to imagine an idealized (less painful and more pleasurable) future version of ourselves living in a better social context. This self-projection is a wishful act that must endlessly seek its highly improbable realization in strenuous competition and frequent conflict with others doing the same on their own behalf. Pain and pleasure are, indeed, two faces of the same coin.
The conditioned, ethnocentric, and egocentric human psyche is thus engaged in an interminable effort to improve or transcend itself, even though the exclusive nature of billions of contradictory fears and fantasies projected at every moment onto an imaginary future serves mostly to preserve the division, disorder, and sorrow that have already grieved our species for millennia. The security and well-being that at least some portions of humanity have achieved throughout the length of our collective presence on Earth are, evidently, the result of this mental ability to codify experience, formulate mental images of better future circumstances, and create the methods needed to attain them. However, the benign character of this faculty is denied whenever it is restricted to serve the outlandish material interests and psychological and spiritual conceits of certain groups and individuals, more often than not harming others and the Earth itself in the process.
Now, and to go back to the anecdote with which I begun this essay, I will say that it is only because I am aware of all this that I can honestly tell my old classmate (whom I have not seen since we were about to graduate from high school, over half a century ago) that he is wrong in assuming that what I write, here and elsewhere, only reflects the impact that a foreign culture has had on me. Yes, I left our common country of origin a long time ago, but not to lend obedient loyalty to another nation and be re-programmed by its culture. I live in a tiny blue sphere lost in the ever-unfolding stream of existence where I can safely presume, he, and everyone else lives as well. This argument is not personal, it is born from refusing to live in a small mental and provincial corner willfully unrelated to the actuality of life. Nationalism, religious dogmatism, and other similar aspects of culture aspects no longer inform and restrict (my) the perception of being.
Our shared inclusion in the totality of existence is of enormous significance, but of paradoxically limited visibility because the knowledge and belief to which we have already reduced ourselves, splintering human culture and desensitizing the human mind in the process, cannot similarly trap the mystery of our presence in its puny, representational net. Anyone, anywhere, can come to this same perception of things, but it must be independently, that is, free of all predetermined ideation and self-projection.
How things are framed matters immensely and for many reasons. It matters especially when the task at hand is getting to the bottom of who we are because the scale, flexibility, and accuracy of the conceptual framework we utilize to look at ourselves (and to speak with one another about what we see) determines, among other things, whether everyone is included and how. Small-minded representations of what is to be human (nationalistic, sectarian, and egocentric takes on reality) regularly exclude millions, if not billions, of human beings, and this constant and cruel insensitivity has already caused untold harm to countless individuals and the species as a whole. As already mentioned, our trumped-up existential isolation (both psychological and cultural) continually justifies belittling, excluding, or utilizing others by "reasoning" that there is nothing of greater importance than to protect and expand who we respectively think we are and feel entitled to own materially and become psychologically, socially, and "spiritually".
And yes, my friend, you are quite right in assuming that I do not belong to any religious group. It was long ago that I stopped believing in any of the numerous available versions of god created by the same fearful and ambitious mind. At some point, you too may want to realize that the plurality and contradictory nature of different forms of consensual religious belief makes evident their shared falseness. What sustains the division, conflict, and sorrow of human beings living at every point of space and time is our absurd loyalty to the traditions and ideologies of the private social enclosures to which we subscribe to be whoever we imagine and are told we are and are likely to become.
It bears repeating, the actuality and wholeness of existence have nothing much to do with any form of religious or secular sectarianism. Life is fluid, indivisible, and therefore ultimately unthinkable and, for that very reason unrelated to all the disparate entities and things that result from the naming and categorizing proclivity of an intellect that in its identification with particular and self-centered forms of knowledge has grown more and more alienated from its source. The timelessly unfolding, living totality of existence does not have, and will never need, one “truthful” interpretation to which all others must presumably surrender at some time or another so that peace and goodness may enter the world. There is no representational net capable of ever trapping the infinite vitality and creativity of the whole. We are only the multiple, contradictory, and conflicting personal versions of being the mind conditioned and atomized by experience has concocted. That this has come to be is not anybody's fault, but we are nevertheless responsible for our ongoing personal contribution to the general mess we have made of our participation in life.
There is something else that I will tell my old classmate while I am on this issue of sectarian identity. You are in some way right in thinking of me as an atheist, because (for me) it is evident that all pre-established forms of religious belief are mere mental representations of a reality that is utterly and forever beyond the puny reach of knowledge and thought. However, you are entirely wrong if, with his characterization, you are placing “me” in a box with atheists in general because I am not just rejecting positive or negative forms of religious belief, but self-identifying conceptual enclosures of any kind. From this all-encompassing rejection of traditional ideologies emerges a steadily open and independent manner of seeing things that, to complicate matters even further, is religious, albeit not in any of the traditional forms that religion has taken historically. I employ the word “religious” advisedly and only as a particular interpretation of the Latin term re-ligare, meaning the tying back together of everything the intellect has torn apart with its cumulative representational record of limited experience and its stubborn pursuit of exclusive cultural supremacy and psychological security.
Anyone who cares to cast a broad enough look at the social and psychological reality created by countless and self-projective records of private experience can see that all the organized and disorganized forms of deism, non-deism, agnosticism, and atheism the human brain/mind has created over time are equally at odds among themselves. After millennia of "progress," self-contained memories and desires continue to block the ever-more necessary integration of a species with its back resolutely turned to life as an indivisible whole and, as a result, permanently at war with itself.
To finish correcting the portrait drawn by my old friend I will say that “I” am not an artist either. The function of making things that may find a place in the category of “art” is simply the result of this particular organism (“me”) falling prey early on to particular forms of socio-cultural conditioning that gradually lead to the performance of distinct occupational roles. (Art is only one of the specialized social roles I have played during my already long life). Even though our general mental conditioning makes of the occupational or professional role that a particular individual plays in society a very significant aspect of its presence in life, the truth is that doing (as thinking) is not equivalent to being. I am not what I do to make a living, and no one else is, either. I make art because that is what I know and enjoy, and because it is a skill that occasionally manages to reflect things just as they are, thus making a constructive contribution to others and society at large. In my case, the practice of art is best seen as the use of a given language in the attempt to graphically express the urgent need to find liberation from fixed mental conventions that reduce and distort our common (and therefore impersonal) participation in life. This declaration of the potential liberating value of what I do must not be taken too seriously, however. The freedom from mental programming to which I merely point is not an idea, but an actuality, whereas the art and the writing are, of necessity, only a conceptual and image-based representation of it.
The realization that being stands outside the realm of knowledge (knowledge being the representational trace left in memory by experience/formal learning and prolonged by fear and desire) determines that “I” truly do not know who or what I am. This uncertainty regarding (personal) identity and existence, problematic as it may be in navigating the narrow conventional channels of any group or society, is a blessing in that it returns (the) mind to its mysterious source in the timeless and unbroken flow of life. Anyone can be free of the predetermined resistance to see that a separate tribal/personal existence is a collective fantasy with real and constant negative impact on our mental health, the quality and stability of our relationships at every level of human society, and the ecological equilibrium of the planet.
Anyone can also wake up to all the insensitivity, injustice, violence, and sorrow presently afflicting the world, and realize that the source of these scourges is our endemic cultural fragmentation and self-centeredness. Well-being, happiness, and love do exist in the world as it presently is, of course, but to the extent to which they are highly exclusive, and perhaps the fruit of unjust privilege, they too contribute to the larger historical tragedy of humanity and our remarkable incapacity to become alert, and therefore caring and intelligent enough to do something conclusive to end it.
The full truth of our ancient malady only becomes fully apparent, not through a laborious mental process, but at that instant in which conventional and self-centered thought, with all its attendant fears, habitual behavioral patterns, and reckless appetites, stops informing perception, conditioning and isolating the mind, and fracturing society. An independent, accurate, and complete perception of who we are, and of what is our responsibility for the world our actions and relations help create is, in itself, the liberation of the mind from all the pre-programmed and self-identifying content chronically blocking this perception. And, no, proper understanding makes clear that this is not a circular argument; the mental hold of conditioning is not unbreakable. That part of of mental programming that generates and sustains tribal and psychological isolation and conflict is pathological, which is why its dissolution (sanity) does not claim, and much less project, separate existence and particular virtue.
Since some may profit from taking another look at this subtle matter of mental conditioning and false existential self-isolation, I will give it another brief turn. An ancient and rigidly self-protective cognitive system has forced the human organism to derive a particular sense of existence from relatively exclusive identification/association with groups, ideologies, norms, and methodologies that have their source in the same system, and that after 50,000 years are still regulating the way just about every one of these organisms lives and dies. Within that general context, the realization of one’s insanity — that is, sudden awareness of oneself as a particular manifestation of an all-encompassing and deeply dysfunctional mindset— implies mental freedom from the psychological predetermination and existential isolation intrinsic to identification with (“belonging” to) any given combination of nation-state, religious dogma, race, gender, sexual orientation, educational level, profession/occupation, etc. In other words, sanity demands the dissolution of a false, and therefore ever unstable sense of separate existence necessarily obsessed with improving its psychological, financial, social, and "spiritual" status in contrast with that of others and, perhaps, also to gain a favorable judgment from one god or another.
The chaotic reality brought about by the cultural fragmentation and psychological insulation in which most of humanity lives obviously cannot ever redeem itself through the traditional forms of progress. Our endless efforts to escape from the particular forms of loneliness, animosity, violence, and sorrow we experience (and generate) are, in fact, the manner in which the general fragmentation and alienation of the species —and the conditioned and isolated self at its base— extend themselves in time. The only possible way out of this persistent personal and collective impasse lies in the dissolution of all the forms and means of identification from which the tribally determined and falsely evolving mental self extracts its sense of unique being.
Yes, it is true that things change in general and that some improve, but they do so in a manner that guarantees that the general tragedy of humanity remains, fundamentally, constant. To whomever dares to look and see things, not as they ought to be but as they actually are, the only possible route out of this permanent psychological and social impasse lies in the dissolution of the forms and means of identification and the laborious lie of personal mental and ethical development without which the self-centered mind cannot exist.
No “one” can survive the shock of coming directly (not just intellectually) in contact with the falseness of the general claim to a paradoxically separate existence and the futility of all the endeavors through which we attempt to fortify, expand, and extend it. The end of the participation of “one” self in the false processes of tribal progress and personal becoming seems terrifying, in great part because it does not offer a view of the same “me” enjoying improved psychic and social circumstances in the future. All that one can reasonably surmise is that the end of separation is the replacement of the known by the unmediated revelation of the ever unknowable unity of existence. It is not, then, that “you” or “I”, or both of us together, somehow manage to grow aware of the undivided mystery of existence, but that in the dissolution of the petty collection of memories and ambitions that constitute and sustain the self (any self), this imponderable reality is all that is.
I trust that it is evident to the reader (and to my old friend who was kind enough to elicit it) that this text is not intended to improve the distinction, and hence, the self-regard and social status of the author. All it cares to do is invite the reader to take an independent and complete (and therefore unprecedented) look at the disorder of human affairs in space and time and, more importantly, to the full extent and character of her participation in this disorder. The invitation has no value in itself, nor does its source. What is essential is a keen interest in mental health, a true concern for the fate of humanity and, coherent with that, the instant relinquishment of all the secular and religious versions of reality proposed by different and conflicting tribes and individuals (including oneself, of course).
To be continued. Your comments and questions are welcome.