PEOPLE AND NOW
So our culture helps form us; obviously how we speak and dress, how we behave, our self-confidence even. These are the influences that bear upon us from without. But what of the myriad bits that make us from within? The parts that constitute each individual? We have evolved various disciplines to understand us as parts of a greater whole: history and the arts, the political, environmental and evolutionary sciences. And to describe us from the ground up, from our constituent parts, we have biology, chemistry, physics (and now, even quantum biology); psychology and the neuro sciences for how the brain coordinates the parts; genetics and morphogenesis to describe inheritance and growth. Elsewhere I have suggested that we might refer to those things we generate, such as society, culture, the environment as ‘the future’ … they occur only after the point of ‘self’, or the present; and the parts that make us what we are as ‘the past’, in that they have already occurred , to generate the point of self, the present. ‘Hard’ science tends to look at the constituent parts. We can look at the structure of a molecule or a cell, and understand its behaviour with conviction because we can study its function within a system. There must necessarily be more guesswork in trying to understand the larger forms of which we are mere parts. We can observe the cells and the organs working as part of the body, because at the point of the present the body is formed. A football match, a society, a solar system we can only fully understand when finished or dead; those to which we contribute are by necessity incomplete, so their outcome uncertain. We should heed Hume’s advice however, that it is only by the evidence of the past, even that of apparent regularity, that we can predict the future. The bounced ball may well return to the hand a thousandth time, or two hydrogen atoms bind with an oxygen to create water, but it is only a probability reinforced by habit, not ordained by God.
But for this essay we speak only in broad terms, and these are that on the whole the ‘hard sciences’ describe well enough for us how we come about, even the uncertain behaviour of the subatomic world, up through the measurable behaviour of chemistry and biology. From quarks to amino acids, cells, livers and whole bodies we get a pretty full description of how we work, and neuro science and quantum biology are making great inroads into how the brain coordinates all, even memory.
Consciousness, however might resist analysis forever, for while we consider it, as a ‘future’ form, it is by its nature incomplete. It only comes into being at the indivisible moment of the present. In fact, if we use Descartes’ insight, and reverse engineer the idea, I can be nothing else but ‘am’. I might conjugate the verb ‘to be’ to imagine other states of myself … ‘I was’ or ‘I will be’, but the actual moment of existence can only be now; and this, I believe, is what we mean by ‘consciousness’. I discuss elsewhere how we might extend the moment of existence to everything else beyond us (by invoking the ‘actual’ as well as the ‘absolute’ present), but for this essay just wish to emphasise the unique experience of the individual. However many zillion times we might recombine the letters of the alphabet to describe each moment of ‘now’, each one will be different. However many times the experience of being born, getting bigger, teeth growing and falling out, dying happens, it is never repeated. Each moment, and thereby each of us, is unique. I am no more, nor less unique for being one of eight billion similar beings than I would be as the sole survivor of the human race.
So each of us is suspended in the moment of ‘now’, the present, by all that has gone before, everything that has conspired to that point, all our tiny bits and pieces, all the disparate historical strands … and by all that has yet to happen, which our very being helps conjure into existence. This may sound all too obvious; a grandiose way of saying ‘there’s the past and the future … we’re just the bit in between’. But I wish to wrench these two aspects of existence into the level of our own personal experience, for I think it gives some insight into actual happiness and misery.
A good number of years ago, I noticed a similarity within two people very close to me … that it was two rather than one persons is only relevant in that I may not have made the observation in isolation. They were both people for whom I had a great respect and knew well, but with whom I found a certain frustration, in that they did not seem to share the high opinion that I – and others – had of them. They shared an honesty in all their worldly dealings and with people … an unswerving honesty that implied a moral certainty beyond the average. They knew the difference between right and wrong, were not easily swayed by opinion. They were well rooted, and knew who they were.
So why did they share such an uncertain opinion of how the rest of the world saw them? For as certain of their intrinsic worth as they seemed, they had no self-confidence … one even to the point of temporary paranoia, which he characteristically decided to confront, with what I thought of as embarrassing results (going up to various virtual strangers in town, and saying, “Excuse me, would you happen to know if people are talking about me??” ). Neither would be comforted or convinced of their friends’ high opinion of them.
It struck me that there were two opinions of themselves they had: the first, and most essential, being an innate sense of their own worth, and the second, how they imagined people saw them. I should say that this was a great many years ago, and both individuals came to some resolution of the problems, one by professional attainment, and the other just through perseverance, and eventually love.
In terms of this essay, we might say the first opinion was generated from within, by the constituent parts of that person; by measuring the experience of growing up with the world around them; with how they were told the world was, and how it accorded with their own experience. This was stable, and needed no dissembling or pretence on their part … hence honesty. Let us call this the ‘internal self’. The second was externally generated, how they thought the world saw them. Perhaps concentrating on the immediate tangible world distracted their attention from the social sphere, or they were knocked slightly out of orbit and lost their social bearings … both had been successful and popular at school, both underwent changes from the expected path of university and profession. These factors were from outside themselves, incomplete, and thus to a degree intangible … opinion! Notoriously fickle! The significant element though in this is the discrepancy between the internal and the ‘perceived’ (let us call it that) self. I thought at the time that this discrepancy might almost be measurable, and the greater the difference, the greater the unhappiness.
This was definitely an issue for their own personal happiness at the time. Might I apply it more generally, I asked myself. Can we all be described in terms of the internal and perceived self? I could immediately think of people with inflated ideas of themselves, but who appeared unworried by the opinions of others … with a blithe and unjustified self confidence, just the opposite of our first two examples. The quality of happiness immediately becomes an issue. The man strutting his stuff, with little apparent awareness of being a tit, but feeling as cool as Shaft is suffused in happiness; he is The Man. And who are we to judge the quality of his satisfaction? Unless there is a recording angel, according points for honest endeavour against bullshit, we must assume he is every bit as happy as the honest broker who just goes about his business with no thought of his effect. In fact, the honest broker doesn’t even benefit from the rosy glow of being cool. True, as life plays out, the tit might find it harder to get the good job, and eventually suffer for his presumption, but the judgement of society is the nearest we get to a recording angel. My friend who became a lawyer, and who put her life back into balance ends up tossing coins to the one who once cut a dash in the pub, but ended up an alcoholic on the street. But the other one (Honest Broker 2), who leads an equally blameless life ends up as the carer for the alcoholic, who has all his needs taken care of. HB 1 meanwhile, might be wondering what she used to do for fun, as she prepares for yet another evening of well behaved boredom. If HB 1, 2 and the Tit found themselves leaning against the rail on a ferry crossing as the sun goes down, comparing notes, I doubt that the passage of their lives would be a decisive arbiter of happiness. There would be much sighing and shrugging of shoulders, maybe regrets and the like … but would any claim to have been happier than the others?
In terms of effort and result, the Tit might seem to have chosen the wisest course. And however unjust that may seem, we must be wary of seeking a moral interpretation, and fortunately for this essay I can skirt round the issue. But we might describe the ‘happiness’ of the Tit as deriving from the future … it is an idea that he is bathing himself in, an idea of himself that he basks in; it is an on-going performance, not formed by the past, the bits that naturally make him what he is. The perceived self, how he thinks the world sees him, is a source of satisfaction, but it is a fragile happiness, depending continually on his imagination.
Let us propose a third type, the well balanced person who is in equilibrium, whose innate idea of himself does not conflict with his perceived self. He is happy within himself, with sufficient confidence to be unconcerned with the opinions of others. We all know people like this, and they are generally attractive; we don’t have to worry about offending or startling them on the one hand, but neither do they ask us to join in with the fictitious performance of the Tit. They live in the Now, where the past and future meet, and take life as it comes. I would suggest that this is our unconscious aim, to live in the now, and we admire those who are naturally blessed with such balance.
Of course, these three types are just that, types: no one is immutable, and each has its place. Let’s ascribe a typical profession to each type, for the sake of visualising the argument. The ‘honest broker’ can be an accountant … steadfast, keeping his head down below the parapet, securing himself in the service of others. The tit becomes a musician .. perhaps a wannabe rock star, given to flights of fancy, with himself as the centre of attention. The balanced one in the middle might be a tradesman … nothing to prove to either himself or others, driven by neither anxiety nor ambition. So far, my descriptions have been rather loaded, but this will hopefully correct itself as the discussion progresses. The real point that I wish to make, is that we all strive for that point of balance, to live in the now. However we start off, whether blessed or cursed by birth and circumstance, we continually adjust ourselves to find equilibrium. Choice of profession or job, vocation, training or study as we emerge from childhood; choice of partner or parenthood as we mature; whether we pursue a hobby or past time, where to holiday or the company we keep etc on an on-going basis; to eat that sweetie, answer the door, go for a pint or phone a friend … most of these decisions may be taken for us, as we float on the stream of history, but we tweak our fate at least, and do so on a daily basis, as we jiggle the lens of the two extremes of self, to focus on the ‘now’. The accountant, having drifted into his profession by accident, not daring to challenge fate with anything so presumptuous as ambition, finds himself writing poetry or taking up fell-running, to complete himself, bring him self up to the moment of ‘now’. The tradesman, though essentially content with his life, his wife and his family, develops an interest in stock-car racing, to prevent stagnating, and introduce an element of danger, to enliven the ‘now’. The musician, having survived his drug fuelled rock star youth, takes up origami and growing bonsai trees , to re-connect with himself, and meet the ‘now’ on his way back down.
I realise that, despite this talk of ‘types’, we are not fixed entities. Our bodies grow and decay, we digest food and oxygen, we shit and piss. We process the information our senses admit, our moods alter with our environment and our action. Our characters change depending on the company we are in. I am a different person when driving, (literally .. I become man + car), walking in the hills (man in landscape), or strutting my stuff in the disco (sex god). There are a million subtle changes occurring every second, making us what we are at that point of the now. In this essay, I’m identifying the biological and chemical events, from the intricacies of cell formation right up to the edge of our awareness, as comprising the ‘internal self’. These are things over which we have no control. By the time of awareness they have already happened; they are in the past, whether it is the breath we have just taken or the circumstances of our birth. Those other external factors, such as culture and environment, including how we think the world views us, I refer to as the ‘perceived self’. Any conflict between our internal, automatic view of ourselves, who we really are, and this external, ‘perceived’ self, causes distress. Of course, we can fool nature to some degree. We might go on a keep fit program, and thus change how our internal self (our actual body) behaves. In this analysis, the decision to diet is born of the future, externally, and becomes internal as the regime takes effect.
The past has passed; we cannot alter it (at least not in this prosaic version of the argument). But the future descends upon us whether of our own volition, or willed by others. This we can effect, and in so doing create the present, the moment of our consciousness. A paradox of this model is history … or rather the discipline of history. Our view of the past may be easily mistaken for the actual past (in the same way that we mistake what we really like)… but it is only a story, that we can accept or reject as we wish. It is part of unfolding existence. We might have to do more than just snap our fingers to change history, because we have to convince ourselves quite apart from anyone else. Likewise, the study of ourselves, whether as a microbiologist, a research doctor or a psychologist, is adding to our culture, so is involved in forming an idea of ourselves … a future form. If these received facts are simply reiterated, they merely reinforce the past, the established part of ourselves. But nothing is writ in stone, everything is capable of re-interpretation, and as we describe it, so it is altered. Let us look at this more closely.
I have written elsewhere about the moment of ‘now’, but re-cap briefly here: in trying to trace the moment at which things happen, the zero moment of the present, we arrive eventually at the transition of matter to radiation, and vice-versa. Our current scientific model of the universe assumes a finite and unchanging amount of energy, which exists in two forms, that of matter, which experiences gravity and the progression of time, and radiation, which experiences neither gravity nor time. These particular states of energy are forever changing, between one form and the other. A photon strikes an atom, and dislodges an electron from its orbit, and this exchange is the only thing that can ever happen. It is an instant exchange, of zero duration, and supplies us with the ‘absolute’ present, which is also the exchange between past and future. The ‘actual’ present, of our experience, which admits memory of the past, and anticipation of the future, is the accumulation of the zillion transitions that the universe stimulates in its enormous and cumbrous lurch in the process of existence, of its being. When a photon of light strikes the receptor in my eye, a complex series of reactions occur as the message travels to my brain. The resulting impression will depend on all the factors inherent in the mass of the brain, the cultural habits of recognition that I have accumulated during my life, as well as the chemical responses triggered from the subatomic event. Though I have only the most rudimentary understanding of the new science of ‘quantum biology’, it would seem to go a long way to explaining the speed at which these reactions occur, indeed the whole concept of the ‘now’. The ‘now’ only occurs when energy, in its timeless wave-like form strikes a massive particle, and suddenly becomes beholden to the laws of mass and time.
But how do we explain the apparent coherence of the universe, if it is just a collection of random collisions? … easy enough to envisage a causal stretch of these from the beginning of time, a linear development, but how do they coordinate themselves through space? Perhaps if we consider the universe as a membrane through which a coherent pulse occurs; the ‘present’ is the point at which it passes through the membrane. The evolving form is stimulated but not determined by the nature of the pulse which drives the wave. The indeterminacy of quantum mechanics then becomes an essential, not an incidental quality of happening. ‘We’ happen (and only then are determined) at the moment the particle strikes the screen … ‘we’ are the screen on which things happen … ‘we’ are part of the template which creates ‘now’, driven by the pulse of the past, induced by the promise of the future.
I have to speak in emotive terms, because I have no mathematical language, and words are by their nature inaccurate, dependent on context, so requiring emotion to confer meaning. But I’d like to make it clear that I’m not invoking any mystical power or process in any of this. I’m just trying to find a way of describing stuff, and how it might happen.
If we describe consciousness as the experience of ‘now’, we can’t just limit it to ourselves, to human beings, but to all creation, as it happens. Neither should we, however, assume that the experience of now is the same for everything. As a human being, and more specifically, me, I experience consciousness in a very particular way. But I prefer (as is my right, as I claim it) to confer consciousness to as much as I can; the position of the pure existentialist might be interesting, but not sufficient for the universe I find myself in. It is most peculiar to find myself in the centre of all creation, to be continually on the crest of the breaking wave of time, balanced between past and future, and spatially at the centre of an ever receding universe, an agglomeration of tiny parts, yet myself a tiny part of a wondrous enormity. Despite the physical wonder of all this, it is my part in the human family that most affects me, so it is to this that I wish to return my attention.
Received wisdom … this is part of the armour that clads us. Along with the language we first learn come lists of instructions … how to behave, and the outline of a moral code; and facts that place us in history and society. This is part of the identity that grows around us, as our bodies and manipulative skills develop, and we learn to swim, to surf the moment of now. These are all essentially internal processes, that happen without our volition, that make us what we are; we continually test the ropes that support us, and gradually discard those we don’t need. At what point do we mature and start contributing to the future, move from reactive to proactive?
Although I make the distinction between past and future influences on us, acting on the moment of now, I do not believe it to be a sudden transition. Let us look at received wisdom for a start. When Plato inspected this issue, how we learn, or rather how we understand something, he had an excellent insight: he compares the moment of suddenly understanding something with recognition … it suddenly makes sense, as though we knew it all along. He describes it as recollection. With having no knowledge of the unconscious, the only way he could explain it was by reincarnation, that if the knowledge was already within us, it has to come from somewhere, and he suggested past lives. … a leap too far for most of us perhaps. Millennia later, Freud posits the unconscious, and then more recently brain imaging actually shows relevant brain activity anticipating the conscious decision. Muscle memory, and how we manage to learn our first language with no instruction; how we scratch ourselves, walk and breathe … strictly speaking, we must accord consciousness of some sort to all that occurs in the present. And a lot of this behaviour is stimulated automatically by our surroundings, both physically and culturally: when it’s hot we sweat; but we don’t take off all our clothes in public. When we use the term consciousness we usually apply it to the more complex brain functions of a human being, i.e. thought. All the physical reactions that precede the formulation of an idea, all the zillions of transitions between mass and radiation, have already occurred, conspired to the thought … however recent , they are in the past. The mass of our bodies, the physical presence of everything we can sense, all is the residue of happening (‘extruded through the template of the present’ is a phrase I have used before). The point of the present that is relevant to this essay however, is the phenomenon of our own human consciousness, and more specifically, how we share it.
So ‘culture’ is our shared consciousness, and we share it by both receiving it and contributing to it. And the act of reception is in the past, however immediate; it has already happened, and helped form our thought. The photon has already struck the eye before the brain processes the message. The act of thought we can describe as a future form, incomplete; propelled perhaps by our culture, but inspired (in that it is incomplete) by the future.
And so we return to the observation concerning happiness that was the source of this essay: our continual quest to balance the internal and perceived self, to drag our own internal assessment, and that of others, into the coherence of the present. My own preferred strategy to accomplish this is the creative process; there is nothing I find quite has the ‘zing’ of a painting when it goes right, or a song when it suddenly starts to write itself. I confirm this by how little reassurance I need from others at that point. Sure, I might need plaudits and applause later when uncertain of my self, but never at the point of creation itself. There are no doubt as many strategies for happiness as there are people, and I only mention my own through familiarity, not as a recommendation to others. How and why our strategies differ is the subject for another essay!