Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Light.

I have had a day, unlike any day that I have ever had before, in which I have seen things that I never knew I could see, all because some interpolation into The Mahabharata called The Bhagavad-Gita suggested that I try sitting up straight with my chin up and breathing deeply as a means to achieve perceptual clarity and relaxation.

Try this for long enough in a sitting position, and then see how long you can keep doing it while in your daily activities, and you will come to some insights that you didn’t realize yourself capable of: you will begin to realize that that bitch Jane at work was never the person bothering you; she never did anything wrong to you at all. You created that situation in your imagination. What Jane, or Bill, or Sancho, or whoever did was stand too close too you, causing your ancient, primate brain to start producing panic hormones which in turn causes your breathing to grow shallow, which creates more panic chemicals because now your brain is telling you that there is a threatening animal standing too close for comfort and that it isn’t getting enough oxygen. But no—for most people Jane’s just a bitch.

Breathing deeply calms the panic of the brain, which allows it to fall in tune with the senses, to become aware of the body in way it probably hasn’t been since the creation of an egotistical identity in early infancy. In turn, it begins to recognize things that were causing it be uncomfortable, that all this time the created identity of the ego was misdirectedly blaming on people and things outside of it. That’s right, you’re angry at Tom because you didn’t wipe well and have got an itchy bum; Juan is an asshole because you skipped breakfast; your boss is a tyrant because you’re hung-over, sleep deprived, nervous from the caffeine, winded and exhausted because you’re out of shape. You don’t need to change a single one of those other people, and you wouldn’t stay happy for very long if you did, because they weren’t the ones causing your unhappiness. You were and are causing your unhappiness. You are the problem. The world is fine, doing its own thing, as it has been for 4.5 billion years. It’s you. Get in touch with that idea.

Keep breathing, as you go out into the world—into Wal Mart, Costco, the local stadium, anywhere a lot of people can be found and just keep breathing, holding your head up, and looking at every single person that you pass. You’ll be able to do this now, without looking away, because you’re breathing and heart rate are going to tell your brain that you are calm and unafraid. Keep looking into the eyes of every single stranger you encounter, free from the chaotic maelstrom of your preconceptions, your ideas, your opinions, your past and future. Just look at them, and watch how their eyes shimmer and twitch. Keep breathing and don’t look away, stay in this place for as long as you can. Don’t worry; 90% of them will look away in terror in less than two seconds, because you have just issued them a challenge by rules of their DNA, by their long evolutionary history, stating that prolonged eye contact is a challenge to fight or mating overtone, just like it is for dogs. Just smile if they do look back, and you may unexpectedly find yourself in a very pleasant conversation. Do this for at least half an hour, carefully looking at the eyes and face of every person you encounter, the movements of their lips and nostrils. Don’t get scared; breathe.

No go to the zoo, or if you haven’t got that, the library to pick up an issue of National Geographic, or watch The Nature Channel. Start looking at apes and monkeys, the way their eyes move, the way they maintain or avoid eye contact, the way their eyes shimmer and twitch. If you can do this calmly, it’s gonna hit you like a ton of bricks: that’s right—you’re an ape, and I’m an ape, and you’re looking right at your-not-as-precocious cousins.

The incredible thing about the human brain is that its capacity for imagination and memory are so powerful that it can manufacture for itself an identity, commonly termed the ego, which believes itself separate from the larger organic entirety. To our knowledge, we are the only primate capable of doing this, but that’s only to our knowledge—because we can’t teach chimpanzees to speak or write. We can, and have, taught chimps sign language, and when we do they invent new combinations of words, including vulgarities involving bodily wastes and sex organs, just like their smarter cousins. Evolution is as real as the air you are breathing, but our imagination’s capacity for fiction is so powerful that billions of upright-walking, hominid apes, Homo sapiens sapiens have talked themselves into some crazy mass denial of what they are and where they came from, to a point where only scientists and philosophers are privy to the truth.

But because we can talk and write, drive cars, erect buildings, and have successfully outlasted all of the other hominid races, silly, vain, religious sects begin to craft the outlandish lie that they never existed at all, that the extensive and growing fossil record of their existence is all some kind of plant by a fictional character from Hebrew myth called Satan, or a persistent error on the part of deluded P.H.D. anthropologists who, after all, spend their whole lives studying the matter. The writing and the building and the talking just make us very smart apes with very dexterous forepaws, which is why evolution’s verdict is that we will eventually be the only apes, because that’s just how things work.

Something followed with this understanding, that these same “religious” folks’ understanding of the concept of God is so primitive, childish, and stupid that they deny evolution based on some crackpot belief in magic, that poof, one day man appeared, just like a group of nomadic Jews, eons before the dawn of science, living 5,000 years ago in a desert, with a language too primitive to contain punctuation, and hence impossible to accurately translate, concluded, without necessarily even believing that it was anything other than a convenient myth. They believe that an omniscient and omnipotent God could not possibly have had the foresight to include anything as wonderfully subtle, as splendid and democratic and fitting as natural selection in His divine plan. Idiots.

So there I was, an ape that took 32 years to recognize what it was, walking home from Wal-Mart, when it began to rain, rather hard. My rent check and a utility bill were in my knapsack, and my cell phone was in my front pocket, and so, rather than sulk, my ape brain wisely pointed out that perhaps my ape body should seek shelter. It did, finding, an awning attached to a building that once housed an office of some kind. The awning had a dry bed of straw underneath it, the perfect place to sit and wait out the rain, or at least the heavy rain.

We fight because there are too many of us.

It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning, but more painful. We fight bar fights and skirmishes and World Wars, thinking that we are fighting for France or Allah or Democracy or the Celestial Empire, when we are fighting because we are in a state of perpetual unease about being too close too one another, in a population so dense that 2 million years of hominid evolution is already telling us it is a state of territorial invasion, that we are already at war with one another based on violations of our instinctive, animal ideas about space. We are fighting because all territorial animals pushed too close to one another erect hierarchies of power, to dominate or submit to that which it can no longer escape. We’re monkeys flinging poop who have concocted the greatest delusion in all of the history of the natural world, that our capacity for language and hence accumulated learning makes us exempt from the rules that govern all other mammals, that we are enforcing and defending Higher Purposes with our wars, that only animals engage in wars over territory, that we are Human Beings, with names and jobs and iPods. Human Beings couldn’t possibly create imaginary verbal justifications for things we were naturally predisposed to do. Never mind that we look like primates, eat like primates, copulate like primates, eliminate like primates, share nearly all of out DNA with chimpanzees, and if you’ve ever seen too untrained guys slug it out, fight just like any other ape. Our reasons are different, because we say they are, and because we have the capacity that no other animal has—to tell lies to ourselves and others.

All this time, I was taught and came to believe, due to the belief’s very flattering nature, that I was something other than what I am. Today I have seen something with eyes that have never before seen it, that I am just a very smart ape, and so is everyone else, decorating ourselves to attract mates, fighting over whose patch of grass this is, living chemically dictated lives that we distort into the twisted logic of language. I cannot explain how terrifying and simultaneously liberating this understanding is.

10 Comments:

Blogger Dublin Saab said...

We fight because there are too many of us

Hmmm? Interesting insight but I'm going to have to disagree. There is no evidence of a time when we didn't fight. Without the ability to show that when our population was below X there was no fighting it's an empty premise. Like saying we have 10 fingers because grass is green.

Proximity can certianly be a causal influence to the start of a fight but saying fighting is cuased by our numbers being too great leads to many hard to explain examples. Too many times in history an area was more violent when there were less people. The riads and massacres in the "wild west" when damn near no one lived there. NYC was treated to endemic violence in the 1840's with a population a fraction of what it is today. Europe was a bloody mess during the 30 Years War, so based on you're idea why is it today, with a population many fold greater than the early 17th century one of the safest places on Earth?

The numbers just don't back it up.

Wed Aug 17, 10:52:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Good, interesting points, Chad, but I think by citing "history," you are missing the main thrust of the argument: history comprises 10,000 years of civilization, a drop in the bucket of at least 2 million years of hominid evolution. Yes, we fight when we meet bands of strangers, regardless of population density, because we're wild apes and that's what wild apes do. The fact that there are an awful lot of us just means that the fights occur with great frequency and on a large scale.

We can be taught otherwise by the coercive power of educated parenting and goverance, because we are intelligent animals that can remember correction as a means to avoid future suffering, that can be trained like any other smart mammal, but that changes our basic nature none whatsoever.

In other words, the reason that we have some safer societies than we did 300 years ago is that we have tools like history training us, like a choke leash, to be something other than ourselves, in order to avoid extinction via nuclear warfare or pandemic disease. Our capacity for learning, in short, is at war with our animal natures, two different kinds of evolution locked in the same brains.

Fascinating, isn't it?

Thu Aug 18, 02:08:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dublin Saab said...

Okay, so then what you are trying to get across is a new article of faith for you.

Like the Muslim who believes that the Koran is the true word of Allah, or the Christian who believes Jesus loves him and the Marxist who believes that eventually everyone will be communist. I can’t prove any one of these articles of faith wrong, and like them I can’t prove this wrong, can I?

Here’s a try.

2 cave men in 10,000 square miles on openness stumble across each other and start fighting? Too close.

Alright, here’s another.

127,000,000 Japanese living together peacefully in cramped conditions? Still too close but, “by the coercive power of educated parenting and governance,” they aren’t at each other’s throats.

Okay, I give.

I could present 1000 different situations and you could, through the use of caveats and qualifiers, adapt your thesis to fit each and everyone of them. But like the ancient Egyptians, who could explain every phenomenon they witnessed with their pantheon of gods, just having “explanation” is not equal to having “knowledge”.

Can proximity be a causal factor? Absolutely, as I stated before. Could it be a primary factor? I wouldn’t bet against it. Is it the only factor? No. It is a massive over simplification, ignoring the complex dynamics of life, to boil it all into one line, no matter how much it feels like an epiphany. Just as it is also an over simplification to say we are, “just apes”.

Is a Duisenberg just a “car”? Is it no different than a Chevette? Is the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome just a “church”? Is it no different then Baptists in a double-wide? Was Alexander just a “general”? Is he no different than George Custer? The only time those questions get answered yes is when the person answering is seeking to lay low what are in fact awe inspiring examples of the lager family grouping.

Which gets us back to being just apes. Are we a member of the same branch as apes? Yes. Do we share much with apes? Yes. Are we just apes? Not really, unless your goal is – as the above examples – to diminish us, to wipe away that which makes us unique, to deny our “divine spark”.

We aren’t just apes and not everything can be turned into just being too close, and the proof – for me – is that no matter how pushed, no matter how provoked, we can choose not to fight. (think Gandhi) If then we can choose not to fight when a ape would, then it also goes to reason that we can choose to fight for reasons beyond the reach of the ape in us all.

Thu Aug 18, 04:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dublin Saab said...

Jesus Christ! Blog spam?!

Thu Aug 18, 04:50:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Actually, Chad, we are apes. Biologists consider us apes, sociologists consider us apes, anthropologists consider us apes, and study us accordingly as unique, highly intelligent primates, but primates nevertheless. Just because we have abilities to do things that other animals cannot do is no reason to draw an artificial and quite arbitrary line between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom. No, we are not special. We are just smart, and the ability to craft illusion that being smart entails has allowed us to come up with palpably untrue ideas about ourselves like intelligent design, virgin births, physical resurrections and pantheons of gods sitting atop Mt. Olympus. These are fables and myths, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, designed to prove points and disastrously harmful when taken literally.

You are, just like me, a nearly hairless upright walking, primate with dextrous prehensile forepaws that developed slowly from millenia of not walking with them. There's no shame in it; it's just the truth. There is no reason to feel proud or self-important; we're apes, typically living ape existences, with the curious exception that we can become aware of our condition and alter it, something that no other ape can do. It makes us deeply interesting apes, to be sure, but the idea that we are something else is a fiction manufactured in the imagination, that isn't, and never was, real.

Thu Aug 18, 07:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dublin Saab said...

My first post took issue with the idea that we only fight because there are too many of us. My second post took issue with the same. I have not denied that we are apes and I’m not going to get into a hair splitting battle over the definition of what we mean by “member of the ape family” or “ape”. ToMAYto, toMAHto, whatever.

That said I see you admit, “we can become aware of our condition and alter it, something that no other ape can do.” Great. Then we are in agreement in that but were just using different verbiage.

But I feel now that you have admitted a difference you will have an ever harder time justifying why, though capable of things no other ape can do, we fight for only one most basic ape reason that we share with are other apes. If I choose to take a baseball bat to Mike Fleet for the express reason of proving your thesis wrong, how would you be able to get that into the “too many of us” bottle?

Thu Aug 18, 08:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

I think that you're fixating unnecessarily on a single sentence. I didn't argue that that is the only reason that we fight, not once. What I am suggesting is that we live in numbers far greater than nature originally intended, whatever that means, and hence are in a state of unrecognized anxiety because very primal aspects of our brain are telling us that we are surrounded by strangers, which from an evolutionary perspective means competing for food and subject to attack. The peaceful Japanese that you cited as an example to disprove this were in fact the most savage race on the planet until you-know-who dropped to A-bomds on them and convinced them to play nice. They also have the among highest rates of alcoholism and suicide on the planet, persistently avoid eye contact, and bow to indicate deference. Sounds to me like they are a perfect working illustration of my point.

But tell me this: who's more laid-back and tranquil, farmers in Iowa or New Yorkers? Londoners or Siberians? Our evolution tells us daily that strangers are potential enemies, and the fact that we are now constantly surrounded by strangers makes us uneasy and aggressive. Sociologists have been saying the same thing for decades, but get shouted out by the idiotic fundamentalists whose arrogance and stupidity usually wins at the end of the day.

And I am perfectly confident that Mike has no reason to fear a baseball bat from you, just to disprove a thesis I didn't state, because you aren't insane. But if you were, you clearly would have been driven to it by the proximity of your neighbors. Okay, just kidding on the last point.

Thu Aug 18, 08:55:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dublin Saab said...

I don't know... Rico has been getting on my nerves lately!

Enjoyed hashing this one out, too bad it wasn't over a beer.

Thu Aug 18, 09:40:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nigela said...

Interesting post, EJ, I'm going to have to think about this one.

Thu Aug 18, 11:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamel said...

We're animals, maybe a bit more advanced (sometimes) than apes and rats, but we're still animals.

We fight because we all have the want for more power, as an individual or a part of a group. No one wants to be the individual or nation that always gets its ass kicked.

Fri Aug 19, 12:10:00 AM EDT  

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