Monday, December 27, 2010

Dissatisfation in Austin

(Today I'll be taking a short break from my series of essays to write a more personal journal entry.)

While I've been traveling, I keep thinking back to Austin as not simply a home, but a sort of paradise. Rationally, I've known that it has faults, but I've glossed over them so readily that it's almost like I've forgotten Austin is anything short of heaven. Last night, though, I thought more seriously about what troubled me when I was home and how some of these same things were not an issue while away.

Perhaps the thing that bothered me the most was the desire to attain status. The groups amongst which I'd do this varied over the course of my ten years there, but the impulse never changed. In a similar fashion, I pretty much always have a crush on somebody, and the only way I can get over one woman is to fall for another. Well, the only way I could stop wanting to impress one group of people was to “fall” for a different one.

In some ways, I'd argue that this is a good and natural desire. By wanting to impress and belong, I'll more readily conform to group norms which, in turn, strengthens the group by improving cohesion. It's important for all members of a group to feel this way, as it encourages the group to work together. Beyond this, though, it has been a harmful desire for me. It has compelled me to do things I didn't entirely want to do, to assume values I didn't entirely believe in, and to ultimately disappoint people when my desire to belong in their group didn't fuel me enough persist with their values and projects. Perhaps beyond all of this, it was a distraction from doing the things I truly enjoy doing as well as from thinking with a clear mind. Maybe it would be possible to find a group of like-minded individuals, and then I could belong without the distraction of conforming. If this is possible, I have yet to find such a group.

While I've been away, this desire has entirely disappeared. There are no groups abroad, at least not amongst Westerners. We leave too quickly to form sub-cultures and little societies. Instead, all relationships are between individuals, and this I can handle without losing myself. So, while I've been away, I've had a break from this desire, which in turn has let me see it and the way it's affected my life. I'm unsure if I'll fall right back into doing this once I return to Austin, or if what I've seen while away will give me the buffer I've long needed to avoid losing myself in a group.

The second thing has to do with the uncertainty of dreams. There are people in Austin that lead so many different types of life, none of which seem too faraway from my own. There are people who play music and constantly travel across the country. There are people who live in the forest in homes they built themselves. There are people who live in the suburbs, work conventional jobs, and support conventional families. I don't do any of these things, but if I spend time around people who do, then I start to dream about doing them myself. This distracts me from my own dreams and also discourages me from putting down stronger roots. A part of me always wants to be ready to pick and go on a music tour, even though this is an absurd dream for somebody who can't play any music.

Third, crushes are a big deal in Austin. While abroad, there hasn't been a real chance to settle down with somebody, but in Austin this chance always exists. When I'm not on the path of settling down, then I feel like I should be. I pretty much always have a crush on somebody, and just as my desire to impress can steer me away from my true course, so can feelings towards an individual woman. Beyond that, there's also this lingering sense of “What the hell is wrong with me?” which has compelled me to make a lot of bad decisions, such as quitting jobs or distancing myself from friends. When I return to Austin, will I fall right back into this cycle?

I hope that perspective will give me strength.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Earthly Awareness

I have a number of friends who get riled up when I distinguish between nature and humanity. They insist that people are a part and product of nature, and because of this, distinguishing one from the other is deceptive. I argue back that that the terms “natural” and “artificial” still have a role in our vocabulary, as they help us distinguish between those things that we create—such as roads, office towers, and movies—and those things which we don't create. Beyond this distinction, I agree with them, though. Humanity is a part of nature. We were produced by the same evolutionary process and we are dependent upon the same systems of nourishment. We cannot separate ourselves from nature without dying.

Even as a part of nature, though, our intelligence and capacity for cultural learning distinguish us from the other animal species. This is an important distinction because it has left its mark all across the planet. Our intelligence has allowed us to dramatically change the landscape and the cycles of nature. We build dams which bring order to the flow of water. We mine, extracting rare metals from their prison within the Earth. We farm and through this practice dramatically change ecosystems one acre at a time. All of these practices bring order to nature. For the most part, they are intended solely to help help humanity, though other species benefit, as well. Corn has benefited greatly from our dependence on it, and now it dominates large swaths of the American Midwest. Similarly, birds and insects thrive off the refuse found in human cities. Go into a forest and you'll find considerably less life than along the edges of an urban sidewalk. There are fewer calories in the wilderness, and although urban landscapes don't produce many on their own, human efforts still concentrate calories within their cities.

At the moment, this capacity for humanity to order its environment has proven devastating. We've got global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain on our growing checklist of unintended consequences. Even so, there are movements meant to counter-balance this capacity for devastation, such as the resurgence of public transportation and the growing emphasis on local and organic foods. This is society learning, and perhaps in future generations, we'll order the environment in ways that are less devastating and perhaps even beneficial. The point is, whether or not we're doing a good job of it, we have the capacity and the proclivity to shape the world around us. Other species can do this, too, but none do so with the same high level of adaptivity that people can. A beaver and ant might be able to change the way they shape their environment, but doing so will require generations of genetic evolution. People just need to accept societal evolutions, which are considerably faster and more intentional. They can be undergone intelligently, rather than through the haphazard process of genetic selection.

What's curious is that, to an extent, the desire to shape our environment is a part of our nature. The joy people take in gardening is as natural as the joy they take in making friends or eating. When I'm going on a walk and I see a broken twig on a tree, I snap it off without even thinking. A lot of other people do the same thing. Perhaps you can think of a time you did this, too. This action helps the tree, because the broken twig is consuming resources but will no longer be able to produce resources on its own. By removing the twig, we help the tree flourish. Why do we do this so naturally? Why do we take such genuine pleasure in a healthy lawn or a field of wildflowers, and at the same time we're repulsed by polluted water and litter? Some part of our nature is hard-wired to appreciate a healthy environment as well as to cultivate this health within the world.

At the moment, our ability to do this is both limited and misinformed, but we're also learning. Perhaps the old belief that we are the “stewards of the Earth” isn't so arrogant. We have a unique capacity for this, and even if we're incompetent at the moment, we might some day help nature become more than it once was. Life is order. If a cell reaches equilibrium (that is, a state of chaos), then it will die. It must constantly work to maintain disproportionate levels of chemicals. By bringing order to Earth, perhaps we are also bringing life. Of course, other animals also bring order to the Earth, but we have the capacity to do so consciously. In effect, we have the capacity to bring consciousness to the Earth.


We are two organisms. There is our body, which includes our brain and its genetic predisposition, and there are our beliefs. From our perspective, it can seem like beliefs, values, and cultures are ephemeral and unreal, as they are also incorporeal. Yet at the same time, they behave very much like living organisms. They breed with each other, they mutate and evolve, and they via over territory, be it individual human minds or an entire national ethos. In medieval Europe, the Catholic Church referred to heresies as contagions, as though they were like a disease—a virus—of the mind. Ideas were also thought of as independent spirits which could possess people. In way, this is just a colorful way of describing a real process. People do become very much possessed by their beliefs, and these beliefs dictate their behavior as surely as their genetics do.

Humanity evolved for this. We are not creatures ruled solely by instinct, but instead the rulership of our behavior is shared with culture. This has given us an edge over other species, as a culture can evolve more rapidly than a genetic pool. When we are young, we eagerly model ourselves after our parents and the other people in our lives. We not only walk like them and learn their language, we also assume their beliefs. For a while, we share many things with them, including morals and religion. In time, these might be challenges by other beliefs, but this American notion that it's the “individual” challenging the norm is deceptive. How many of us, when we lost our faith in Christianity, did it because we came to that conclusion entirely on our own? Almost all of us had already been exposed to the possibility of religion being flaws. A quick glimpse at movies, literature, and music over the last thirty years reveals a growing distrust for religion. In our young minds, a war took place between the belief in religion and the belief in no-religion. In the end, one side won. One set of beliefs claimed us as surely as a wolf claims a swath of forest for himself.

This phenomenon can also be used to describe the development of personality, not just of belief. I tend to be analytical and sceptically, but these attitudes were not an inherent part of my personality. I remember in high school as I first began to develop these traits. I pushed myself to be more like the heroes of my imagination, the Socrates and Kants. Had I not pushed myself to become like these people, I would be somebody very different today. Now, I can't shake this attitude, at least not easily. Sometimes I just want to relax, to stop analyzing people and society so much, but doing so requires concentrated effort. I am so thoroughly possessed by this spirit that I cannot shake it. In way, we have bonded and become a single organism.

Similar ideas spread through culture, especially with the aid of mass media. Movies and literature portray a violent world and perpetuate feelings of fear in the populace. I know people who have succumbed fully to these cultural beliefs in a violent world and it makes them shut-ins. They rarely leave their homes or routines out of fear. Perhaps they think they'll inadvertently trespass upon gang territory, or maybe they'll cross the path of a psycho killer. My first year in Austin, I was terrified of West Campus, because I thought it was the ghetto and that I'd get shot if I wandered around there at night. It was a fear completely unfounded on my own experience, but rather cultivated through a childhood of media consumption. Although many of us may mitigate these cultural misconceptions through real-life experience, doing so is like removing a tumor. Often just enough of the cancer remains that it grows back in time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Nature, Law, and Money

Economics is a means to artificially recreate on a large scale what people naturally do in small groups. In a household, we organize ourselves to wash dishes, cook meals, sweep floors, and whatever other tasks are necessary to lead a life up to our standards. Groups of friends will similarly do favors for one another. One friend may be an experienced mechanic and repair their friends' broken bicycles, cars, and appliances; another might be a talented musician who plays for their friends' amusement; still another might spend hours in their garden only to share the bounty when it's time to harvest. As long as addictive and distracting forces like crack or television do not impede us, people naturally gravitate towards creating, maintaining, and collaborating.

Yet all these small scale favors are done amongst people who know each other and are limited by distance and social networks. An individual may have many friends within a 20 mile radius, but only a smattering outside of that distance. In order to bridge the miles and impersonality, we introduce trade and money. Commerce. This isn't what people naturally do, but it's similar enough that it works without excessive stress. But we still grumble about it, without always knowing why, because it's not what we were made for. Ultimately, this type of exchange of labor leaves many of us feeling empty. And beyond all of that, it inhibits a sort of collective human potential. We will do best what we do naturally, just as a screwdriver is better used to screw screws than to hammer nails. And collectively, humanity isn't reaching its greatest potential, because our parts are being misused.

The same can be said of government. It is a means to artificially recreate on a large scale the order that small groups enforce amongst themselves. Within a group of Christian friends, for instance, members will keep each other in check if their behavior starts to diverge from accepted norms. The same can be said of anarchists, cowboys, and socialites. All groups have shared values and beliefs about what they consider a successful and socially acceptable life, and they enforce these values amongst themselves by giving status to those who embody their values and by dismissing, ridiculing, and in extreme cases rejecting those who fail to live up to them. Governments, in turn, enforce values on a large scale through more overt means of coercion, namely fines and jail time. This is done because governments reign over many different groups with distinct values. The rules of the government become the common-ground behavior, the values that must never be broken, even if they are not enforced by an individual's particular group. And once again, this behavioral control inhibits collective human potential, because it is both rigid and prone to corruption, while our natural settings are dynamic with evolving rule-sets.

The challenge is to find a means of large-scale organizing that is also natural. The closest example of this are cultural movements, which are cellular in nature but scattered throughout the world. For instance, a group of cowboys in Loredo could travel 200 miles to another small town in Texas and meet cowboys there who shared their values. This is because they share the same culture, which evolves naturally with them. Ideas and values are transmitted by members of the culture who travel between towns. Periodically, there are large gatherings, such as Burning Man, in which members of these cultures can get together and resynchronize their values after time apart. Art, music, and literature also are a means for a culture to share its values across a great distance and to a potentially massive audience. This is particularly true of movies, though other music and literature still play a significant role, especially amongst subcultures.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Enlightened Society versus Enlightening Society

A while back I went on a Buddhist meditation retreat. Admittedly, I didn't go with the most open mind—or, rather, my mind was too open and it frightened me. Either way, I left early and with a long list of complaints about the Buddhist doctrine. In the end, the crux of it lies in the title of this essay. Tibetan Buddhism is an effort to create an enlightening society. That is, a society that uplifts all its members to a state of enlightenment through years of meditation and dedication. In the end, they will all have a perfect understanding of their own nature, and through this understanding they'll be able to overcome those impulses which degrade society, such as jealousy and lust. Although this vision is beautiful, there's a potentially insurmountable obstacle in its way. In order for an enlightening society to fulfill its goal, all its citizens must willingly participate. Not only will many be too busy farming, building, and otherwise running society to meditate, otherwise will simply refuse. Because of this, an enlightening society can achieve part of its goal, but it will likely never get completely there. Workers and rebels will remain unenlightened.

In contrast, an enlightened society does not attempt to bring each of its citizens to a state of self-knowledge. Rather, the society itself has a perfect understanding of human nature and is structured in such a way as to account for it. In this way, it doesn't matter if a farmer understands his desire for sex. Rather, within an enlightened society, he'll be able to pursue this desire without it harming those around him. How exactly this would work is still unclear, because we have yet to attain a perfect understanding of human nature. Perhaps what some psychologists say is true, and it is not in our nature to couple for more than five years at a time. If this is the case, than the institution of marriage would have to be reworked. Perhaps, instead, life-long love does exist but its nature changes over the course of years. If that's the case, then once again marriage would have to be reworked to account for these stages.

The way I'm describing an enlightened society, it sounds like the kind of place that would engineered by psychologists. Perhaps, now that we've distanced ourselves so much from our roots, that exactly what it will take. What I'm proposing isn't inherently unnatural, though. In fact, it is the very essence of human nature. All of our instincts and impulses, though they might be out of place in a modern setting, were once essential survival skills. Anger, greed, gluttony, pride. All these things we so vehemently suppress today did once before help our ancestors survive. For over 100,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer societies. Over those 100,000 years, our social instincts evolved. For that kind of society, human nature is perfectly adapted, just as thousands of years of evolution have perfectly adapted a fennec fox to its Saharan environment. Modern man is a species taken out of its environment, and this is causing both dissatisfaction and conflict with our own nature. An enlightened society acknowledges that we're better suited to another way of life and it attempts to recreate the setting in which we evolved, so that we can once again be natural.

This is not to say that an enlightened society must be a society of small hunter-gatherer tribes. Rather, it's a society that—through a comprehensive understanding of human nature—can satisfy and account for our instincts as effectively as possible without reducing the scope of today's civilization.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Over-Educated and the Under-Emplyed

I haven't done well in many things, but one place I did excel was school. I got good grades, ranked high on standardized tests, and impressed my teachers during class discussion. School was my first experience outside of the family, and it was going so well that when I was young, I thought I would have similar success with my career. Lo and behold, by the time I graduated with honors from college, I spent the next decade struggling to find a job worthy of education. It seemed that the only careers open to me for things like substitute teacher, pedicabber, or laborer. Even though I'd done well in school, the job market didn't actually need people like me, and so I was relegated to jobs that felt demeaning.

My story isn't uncommon. I have many friends with college degrees who just can't seem to find that professional career path they feel they should be on. Instead, they worked alongside me as pedicabbers or they squander their four years of liberal arts study by preparing cappuccinos all day. Throughout this populace, there is subtle unhappiness. It's not just that they wonder why they spent four years in undergraduate school (and paid the corresponding tuition), it's that they now think that they're too good for their current station in life. They're too good to be baristas and general laborers. Because of this attitude and this incipient expectation to become something better, they never fully settle into their work. They live in perpetual discontent, waiting for the day their big break comes.

While I was in India, I was struck by how different their attitude towards work was. Although the caste system has officially been done away with, it persists to this day in the same subtle ways that racism persists in the United States. For all it offends the American sensibilities of equality and opportunity, it did have apparent merits, including a greater contentment amongst the lowest classes. At construction sites, women would carry heavy loads of stone on their heads all day, making only 40Rs—the equivalent of .95 cents. Men would be during their own back-breaking labor with shovels and sledge hammers. While I had done something similar in the US during my stint with the E-Corps, my co-workers and I constantly bickered about it. I didn't see the same dissatisfied posturing amongst the Indian workers.

This makes me wonder if perhaps the high value we place on education in the United States is a disservice to our youth. It fills them with dreams and with pride that society is not able to satisfy. It convinces them that they will have a significant role somewhere, but instead market forces will relegate most of them to something far below their expectations. Is this enlightened behavior for a society? Because from what I see, it spreads discontent.

The only way I can comprehend what's going is to once again compare society to a human body and careers to types of cells. Police officers are white blood cells, constantly patrolling the veins looking for interlopers. Educators and white collar works are neurons, synthesizing information and directing the movements of society. Laborers are muscles, garbagemen are liver cells, truck drivers are blood cells. And I (and those other over-educated, under-employed members of my generation) are fat cells. We are the reserves. We serve little immediate society beyond, perhaps, keeping others warm during the winter. Really, our true purpose is to be the reserves. We are the back-ups. We have an education and a desperate eagerness to join the middle-class workforce. When society has a need for more workers, we're readily available to fill the role.

Just as having a little fat is good for a human body, having a little fat is good for a society. The only problem is that the United States has grown obsess. We support a lot of people who aren't really doing much. We've grown heavy with a populace of fat cells, many of which want to be muscles and brains, instead. What will it take for society to get back in shape?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Leadership and the Elite

For a long time, I've aligned myself with the anarchists. I hate being powerless, and in the anarchist model, power lies not in the hands of a few elites but with all people. This model is founded on the belief that those at the lowest levels—the workers in a factory, the citizens of a city—know how to make the system work best. At their level, they see the system in detail and know what works and what doesn't. How many people have complained that their management is disconnected and making bad decisions? The anarchist model is an effort to overcome this while at the same time empowering people. This essay, however, is not about anarchism. It's about elitism and why that model might be best in certain (or perhaps all) circumstances.

Consider medieval Europe. After centuries of affluence under the Roman Empire, the continent falls into poverty and disarray. People rarely live beyond fifty years. Starved, they do not grow to their full height. Uneducated, most cannot read. These were hundreds of years of scarcity, and yet at the same time, a small number of their people lived opulently in palaces. These elite received the education and nourishment the rest of the populace lacked. They also had all the power. From a modern perspective, this setup screams of inequality. Perhaps, though, no better model could have taken its place.

Looking at this another way, medieval Europeans were not the unwilling subjects of feudal lords. Rather, they invested considerable resources into ensuring that at least a fraction of their populace had enough food and education to lead effectively. These lords weren't simply drinking fine wines and eating roasted geese. They engaged other nations in diplomacy. When necessary, they led their countries to war. They also attempted to enforce some sort of order amongst the populace. All of these things require a certain level of education. A good general will know tactics, a good diplomat international decorum. To ensure that their leadership was up to snuff, societies invested a disproportionately high amount of resources into their lords and ladies.

I similar model existed in Tibet, though instead of lords, the country was ruled by monks. Once again, the nation was too poor to educate everyone, so instead they invested their resources in a handful of elites. While Europeans kept all their power in a small group of families, though, Tibetans distributed the power evenly. Monks came from every family, assuming they had a spare son. Even the most powerful of these monks could come from humble places. For instance, the current Dahli Lama was the child of peasant yak herders. He was the most powerful man in his country, and he didn't need royal blood to assume his throne.

We might think that today we've moved beyond this. In the United States and most of Europe, people receive a lengthy education. They participate in government through democracy. Many start their own small businesses. At the same time, though, only a handful go to the best private schools, and in turn, only a handful have actual power in congress or on the board of major corporations. Perhaps our education is good enough to give us a superficial say in how things are done, but at the same time, the world has grown considerably more complex than it was a thousand years ago. Not everyone receives an adequate education to really understand what's going on. I, at least, have not. If you think that you have, then seriously ask yourself how well you would do if put in the position of President. Hell, would you even make a decent diplomat? A good army general? Remember that the diplomats and generals will be highly educated. They will also be your rivals. Will you be able to outmaneuver them in the drawing room or the battle field?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Human Nature and Social Bonds

As I type this, a French couple is sitting in a nearby corner of my cafe. I cannot understand much of what they're saying, but by the tone of their conversation, it's clear that they find each other's company affable. In another corner, several Tibetans are having a conversation. I'm the only quiet one, though my attention is committed to writing, which is its own sort of conversation with faraway friends. If you go to any cafe, you'll find a similar scene. In fact, you'll see something similar on the streets of most cities or the corner stores in rural towns. Pretty much anywhere you find people, you find conversation. We do it as naturally as we breath, and he crave it like water and food. Periods of conversational deprivation lead to discomfort. Loneliness is just another form of hunger.

Somehow, I doubt tigers go through this. I doubt iguanas feel lonesome. People could have evolved differently. We could have had been a more solitary species. Instead, however, our instincts predispose us to seek out the company of others. Laughter feels good, as do massages. Without even thinking about it, we gravitate towards people so that we can indulge these feelings. I listen to the French couple laughing, and I doubt they're thinking, “We're laughing as an instinctual reward for socializing.” Our awareness of this is unnecessary. The effects are the same. By laughing together, we strengthen social bonds, not unlike monkeys grooming each other for parasites. For a species that depends on society to survive, this is essential.

The human heart is composed of billions of cells, and in order to stick together, these cells produce a substance known as adherons. Without adherons, the heart would fall apart. Without laughter and conversation, society would fall apart. Heart cells do not produce adherons because they know it keeps the heart together, and similarly we do not talk with each other because we want society to remain whole. This is simply our nature, and it's so well-designed that we do need to think about it. We simply live it. By being ourselves, we instinctively create societies.

There are other factors involved, too. Naturally, we model ourselves after others, and in this way societies became increasingly consolidated. On the other end of things, when people reject us for being too different, we experience mental anguish. Studies have shown that in periods of social anguish, the cells of the body begin dying off at faster rates. There are physical consequences for going against the collective. People who do it too much are weakened and left vulnerable to disease. In other words, those who do not adequately conform are weeded out of the gene pool.

So we have both the carrot and the stick leading us down a path of social cohesion. In 'The Cells of Gods,' I described another way of looking at human society. Here, I'm saying that this is an unavoidable consequence of human nature. We aren't simply a social creature like a dog. We are a societal creature with divisions of labor and cultural hegemony. When we laugh with each other, we are indulging in what makes us human and what at the same time binds us society. In the West, with our emphasis on the individual, a recognition of this aspect of our nature can be discomforting. A common theme in novels and movies is how stupid and cruel society can be. There's a saying that goes something like, “People aren't stupid, but groups of people certainly are.” Stories like 'The Crucible' epitomize this attitude, as do countless 'Twilight Zone' episodes and Ray Bradbury novels. We fear the movements of the social organism, as it so often gets out of control of the individuals that compose it.

The Cells of Gods

The ancient Greeks had a very week sense of self. Rather than identify as individuals, they were more inclined to identify with their City-State, such as Athens or Sparta. This phenomenon persists today in other cultures, though in the U.S. we tend to identify primarily with ourselves. One study elegantly demonstrated this by asking people from different cultures to write a list of words describing themselves. While people from Western societies tended to list words like “smart,” “athletic,” “funny,” and “pretty,” people from collectivistic societies such as Japan and rural Mexico used words like “brother,” “friend,” or “employee of Toyota.” In the West, we identify ourselves by self-contained characteristics, while in collectivistic cultures people identify themselves by their relations to others.

Returning to ancient Greece, we see the same attitude. People took great pride in their membership to a City-State and identified themselves most heavily through this association. Just as they were less aware of their personal characteristics, they were more aware of the personalities of these cultures as a whole. The Athenian mentality was very different from its Spartan corollary. To them, the personalities of these cities were so strong that the civilizations themselves became like gods. Athens was Athena. Sparta was Aries. When Sparta attacked another city, it wasn't just the wrath of Sparta, it was the wrath of Aries. When the Athenian elites cast their judgment on Socrates, it wasn't just their judgment, it was the judgment of Athena.

Today, we've lost our sense of this. Our focus is so keyed into individuals that we no longer see what these individuals constitute. This is similar to how we see ourselves as discreet individuals and not as collections of cells. In some ways, this is only natural. It is our level of perception. We do not see our cells because they are too small for us. We do not see societies because they are too big for us. Still, we can pull out a microscope. Still, we can stand on the top floor of sky-scraper. We can societies into focus just as we can put our own bodies into focus, and at times its important to see life from these other perspectives.

When we look deep into ourselves, we see the human body divided into billions of specialized cells: liver cells, blood cells, neurons, epidermis. Each of them has a job, be it transporting oxygen or processing sugars. By working together, they are able improve their odds at survival. Human society is similar. On our own, people have trouble surviving. We aren't tigers or eagles. When we band together, though, we're able to live long and relatively comfortable lives. As with cells, this entails specialization. Some of us process food while others dispose of waste. Some of gather is vast office towers and process information. Some of us behave like white blood cells, patrolling the city streets and maintaining order.

The cells of the human body are not aware of the creature they compose. Similarly, it is not obvious that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Yet just like the cells of a body, our collaborations create something. We are Austin and Chicago and New York. These cities are more than just buildings and roads. They are alive in their own right. They have their own personalities, their own momentum. They go through periods of depression and excitement. Their economies flourish and wane.

From 'Into the Night':

Were the gods truly in the heavens, or were they down here on Earth? I only had to stare at the city sprawled out beneath me, its own lights twinkling in reflection of the sky. It was alive. Cars pulsed through the intersections, moving in an organic, statistical harmony. Their brake lights were crimson, blood flowing through a giant's heart. It was something I never saw down there, wandering its veins, lost in its flesh, a part of it. But standing so high, this creature seen in a single glimpse, it was as clear as a diagram of the human body. I was forced to wonder, was this what the elite saw? When they moved into their loft apartments, was part of their reward a truer perspective of human society? As crazy as this sounds, maybe Athens was Athena. Maybe Poseidon was the sea. Maybe we are the cells of gods.

Instinct and Culture

In the West, we divide emotions into “good” and “bad.” Generally speaking, those emotions which are pleasant are considered good, such as love and joy, while unpleasant feelings such as depression or anger are considered bad. Although is primarily meant to help people gauge the quality of their own lives, we also use it to judge others. For instance, depressed and angry individuals are more readily spurned for their emotional timber than their cheerful counterparts. There are no doubt many reasons for this, including the way that moods spread. Being in the company of a sad person tends to make people sadder, while being in the company of a cheerful tends to make them more cheerful. There is also a less recognized but more interesting factor. “Good” emotions are a mark of success, and because of this, people are encouraged to emote this positive feelings even when they do not genuinely experience them. Similarly, it is shameful to experience “bad” emotions, and people will sometimes deny the presence of these feelings to both themselves and those around them.

Even amongst those who acknowledge their negative feelings, there tends to be an impetuous to purge those feelings as quickly as possible. To this end, people drown their feelings in alcohol, television, and similar distractions. Others take medication specifically tailored to “cure” these feelings. These approaches attend to the symptoms without addressing the cause. Certain philosophies do address the causes, but it's with the attitude that suffering is “bad” and the goal of life should be to attain a perfect state of happiness. Although a gross oversimplification, this attitude defines the undercurrent of philosophies as diverse as psychoanalysis and Buddhism.

Of course, there's no denying that depression and anger are unpleasant, both for the person suffering from them and for those in their company. At the same time, though, they are an integral part of the human experience. With anger comes the fire to enact change, to set firm social boundaries, and to purge from our lives behaviors and company that cause us dissatisfaction. Similarly, with depression we gain insight—a fact affirmed by psychological research, which shows a multi-point increase in IQ scores during such periods. In my own experience, moments of depression tend to be marked a heightened awareness of beauty. A thunderstorm is never so glorious as when experienced after heartbreak. After one particularly bad day, I spent a whole evening watching pigeons outside the library, and my attentiveness to their coos and struts had never been more genuinely or unshakable.

Perhaps it would be helpful to look at this from a perspective. In Buddhism, there is this notion that people are cursed creatures. We have a divine mind with the potential to reach enlightenment, but we also have all these animal instincts which cause unnecessary suffering. The purpose of Buddhist study is to distance yourself from this animal aspect of yourself and more fully embrace your divine mind. Similiarly, Christianity divides the human experience into base animal drives (aligned with Satan) and a divine conscious (aligned with God). As with Buddhism, this divide is seen as a curse. We are a tainted race and we must suppress our animal aspect to earn an eternity in Paradise.

Given what science now tells us about evolution and psychology, perhaps we should reevaluate this deeply embedded distaste for the darker emotions. Are anger, hate, and depression truly evil? Truly bad? The belief behind evolution is that everything evolves for a reason. We would not experience these feelings unless they had a purpose, unless they were meant to guide us. Sure, they're unpleasant, but so the pain of touching a fire. At the same time, that pain discourages us from touching fire again. It helps us learn and adapt. Depression is no different, except that instead of leaving a burn on the flesh, it leaves a tender spot on the mind. It is nature's way of helping us adapt to a world that couldn't entirely be predicted by genes, but instead but be learned again and again with each generation.

I try not to be prescriptive in these essay, but today is different. Today I have a recommendation. Next time a dark feeling washes over you, relish in it. Let it guide you; let it inform your choices. Don't run away from it or pretend like you're better than it. Acknowledge that it's your nature trying to come up, and rather than snip the bud, today you'll let it bloom.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Everyday Schizophrenia: Part 3

Research has suggested the presence of two warring consciousnesses in the human psyche. The right brain with its wordless imagination and the left brain with its control over speech and its affinity for math and logic. These two consciousnesses can have conflicting desires, and this accounts, at least in part, for our own conflicting desires. I emphasize “in part” here because if we go deeper, we find that the mind is fractured into yet finer pieces. There are dozens of voices, each with their own agenda, and they are constantly vying for dominance. At one moment we are guided by lust, which constantly whispers distractions in our ear. At another moment, we are guided by inspiration, which flickers images and ideas before our imagination. We might try to suppress one only to find that it persists despite our will to snuff it out. We might chance the other, only to find that it is not something we can capture like a bird in a cage.

The ancient Greeks had a fantastical but enlightening way of looking at this. As they saw it, when a person got angry, he was possessed by the spirit of anger. When he had a good idea, it did not come from his own mind, but was rather whispered to him by a muse. Although this explanation might seem supernatural, it is in some ways true to our experience. When anger comes, it doesn't seem to come from us. It wells up from some other source. It washes over our consciousness and briefly we are drowned. Similarly, when inspiration touches us, it happens all so instantaneously that it's like someone is telling us something, rather than that we have contrived these ideas on our own.

Ancient Christians had a similar view of human nature. That is, human nature was minimal. Instead, demons and angles were constantly guiding our actions. When we walked by something valuable and beautiful, the demon of envy whispered in our ears that we should take it. This thought was not our own, but rather borne from some external presence. Once again, this is true to our experience. Temptation seems to come from something other than our typical consciousness. What the ancient Christians called demons and angles, though, I would call discreet elements of the psyche. Just as there is a right brain and a left brain, an imagination and a verbal consciousness, there is a lust, a sloth, a pride, a love, a fear, a faith, an inspiration. They are all a part of us, and yet when they interact with our dominant consciousness, they are alien.

These days, psychologists are coming to refer to the mind not as a discreet psychic entity, but more like a boardroom. It is the chatter of several dozen impulses and outlooks, and only after conflict and compromise does it come to a conclusion. At the same time, certain elements dominate certain people. Some people are dominated by their imaginations. Some by their logic. Some, by lust; others, by pride. What dominates you?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Everyday Schizophrenia: Part 2

In the 1950s, neurology was still a young science, and there was no none cure for epilepsy. Since this disease could be life-threatening in some cases, people were willing to undergo experimental surgery in the off-chance that they'd get better. Scientists were also more than willing to remove sections of the patients' brains. Perhaps they really thought they could cure the epilepsy with minimal damage. Perhaps they just wanted to see how removing certain parts of the brain affected human cognition and behavior. There were dozens of such cases, many giving dramatic insight into how the brain worked. (These studies were casually taught in my undergraduate classes, and at the time, nobody questioned their dubious ethical nature, including myself. Today, though, I wonder where these scientists' interests really laid.)

One of these studies involved severing the corpus callosum of several dozen patients. As many of you may already know, the brain is divided into two roughly symmetrical hemispheres. The corpus callosum is the network of neurons which connect the two hemispheres. You can think of it as the telephone wire between the right and left side of your brain. The decision to sever this network wasn't completely unfounded, as earlier studies had shown that it experienced a heavy surge of activity immediately proceeding a seizure. Remarkably, the procedure did work, and patients no longer suffered from epilepsy. At the same time, there were no obvious ill effects. Patients were still able to communicate, they remembered who they were, they lost no points on an IQ test.

It took several months of study to notice that something about these patients actually was different, and although at first glance this difference appeared quiet subtle, its effects were actually quiet profound. The first study to notice weird behavior went something like this: researchers asked the patient to close his eyes, and then they placed a spoon in his left hand and asked him to describe what he felt. He was unable to do so. They then placed it in his right hand and asked the same question. He immediately responded that it was a spoon. It was as though he were aware of what was happening with his right hand, but not his left.

A similar study had a patient handle an object with both hands. They then asked him to point to a picture of that object with right hand. He couldn't. They then asked him to point to the picture with his left hand. He laughed and said that of couldn't do that, either, but seemingly off its own accord, his left hand rose and pointed to the correct image. He didn't know how he had done that. The researchers weren't sure, either, but they were getting an idea.

Other weird little inconsistencies were popping up, too. There was one patient who was only sixteen years old. Before the surgery, researchers had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He admitted that he was really conflicted about it. On the one hand, he wanted to be an accountant because he was good at math and enjoyed working with numbers. On the other hand, he wanted to be a race-car driver. He'd just started to learn to drive, and he found it really engaging. After the surgery, though, he stopped saying that he wanted to be a race-car driver. When asked, he always responded that he wanted to be an accountant. Inspired by their previous studies, the researchers asked him not to say what he wanted to be when he grew up, but rather to point to a picture of it. He immediately pointed to a picture of a race-car. With his left hand. When asked why, he couldn't explain his choice.

The most dramatic case happened outside of the laboratory, though. A patient was having a heated argument with his wife, and with his right hand, he tried to hit her. With his left hand, he held his right hand back. In the end, the researchers concluded that all these patients now had two personalities. One controlled their speech and their right hand, while the other operated through images and the left hand. These corresponding to the different hemispheres of the brain. As was shown with the teenager who wanted to be a race-car driver and an accountant, these different personalities already existed in the patients, but before the surgery, they were able to communicate via the corpus callosum, leading to conflicting desires in the patients. In all of us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Everyday Schizophrenia: Part 1

Just as we look at the body and see a unified whole, we look at the mind and see a single consciousness. Yet just as the body dissolves under close examination, so does consciousness. We can see evidence of this both when reflecting on our own thoughts and when looking at scientific research. But first, a story.

I was sick. It was the first time I'd gotten sick since I was a child, and it was terrible. I could barely walk out of bed. I couldn't concentrate when I was reading. The only book I could handle was a children's book, The Chronicles of Narnia. It should have been embarrassing. I was 25 and all I could manage was a book written for 10-year-olds. As I read it, though, I wasn't embarrassed; I wasn't bored. I was entranced. In my sickened delirium, reading that book was like getting transported to another world. I was there, in Narnia, and when Aslan spoke, I saw every hair of his lion's face.

When I was a kid, it was always like this when I read. I was completely immersed in the book. My intellect didn't hold back from my imagination. As an adult, though, I increasingly read books for information, even when I was reading fiction. I'd key in on style and character and plot, and I didn't really see it—or if I did, it was like looking at a painting rather than walking through a wood. While sick, my intellect was dazed and it couldn't take control of the experience, and so my imagination was free to treat me to a real fantasy. This was nice, but it isn't the point of the story.

At the same time, I was writing. I'd been writing for a long time, and slowly I was losing faith in myself. My style was too academic. It read like a high-school essay or, at best, a textbook. It didn't read like fiction. It didn't have a hint of poetry. I was on verge of giving up, but then I got sick. And when I wrote when I was sick, I had the same experience as reading The Chronicles of Narnia. My intellect couldn't step in with its precise wording, and instead my imagination dominated. It not only created its own images, it guided the story and the characters. It did these things in ways that I never could have contrived, and reading back over them later, I realized this was the best writing I had every done. Even if it was incoherent at points, even if the grammar was uncharacteristically sloppy, my style had finally acquired soul.

Once I was healthy, I started writing with my intellect again. I couldn't help it. My intellect was my words. It was the part of my mind that thought in English. Naturally, it dominated my writing. I hadn't forgotten this flu experience, though, and when I really concentrated, I could still see my imagination constructing its own images and putting its own spin on the story. When I glimpsed these pictures, I could sometimes manage to transcribe them, and when they worked, they became like poetry. They fit better than anything I could have contrived. My imagination was aware of what I was writing, and it was actively making commentary. Unfortunately, I typically didn't notice at all.

Some people might think that this is something special. This is my muse, and not everyone has a muse. Talking to people, though, I don't think this is the case. We all have this, and most of us commune with it every night, just before we fall asleep. Perhaps you've noticed this recently. There's a period just as you're drifting off when you're still awake, but your imagination is taking over. It begins to reel images before your mind, not unlike a movie. It will probably even be telling a story, though sometimes the story is incoherent. The strange thing is, you have no control of it. You, the voice in your mind. You, the consciousness you identify yourself as. You are not created these images. You are not the only one in your head.

And this is the point. You are not the only one in your head. You have at least the two consciousnesses which communicate in very different languages. One is a consciousness of words. One is a consciousness of images. They are aware of each other, as evidenced by how imagination constructed images relevant to my intellect's story. This awareness is imperfect, though. It's only an awareness of activity, and it is not necessarily an awareness of existence. When a cold front comes into town, we are aware of the change of temperature, but we don't necessarily feel the breeze. We can feel ourselves shivering, but we don't know why it's happening.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I are We

An excerpt from “Into the Night”:

It's like I'm in the seventh grade again. It was a year dominated by a dense, school-issued microbiology textbook. I spent my almost every evening laying belly-down in bed, flipping through obtuse images of ribosomes and mitochondria. It was my first struggle to comprehend something that I could not see, and it led to an obsession. Lysosomes, cytoplasms, DNA. I knew there was some fundamental truth waiting behind the curtain of unfamiliar terms. Even when I was in school and should have been learning about David Copperfield and two-plus-two-equals-four, I instead stared blankly out the window and thought about cell walls, instead. TV, once such a great pleasure, became a dull escape. The only thing that could distract me from this obsession was a walk through the woods. The sight of a lizard still excited me, as did peeking under rocks and watching the insects scurry away in dizzied alarm.

Incidentally, it was during one of these retreats that I found the truth I had been looking for. Chasing a rabbit through the underbrush, I scraped my arm against a wall of briar. A moment later, the rabbit had disappeared, and I was left alone in those woods, bleeding from three deep, parallel lines. It wasn't terribly painful, sure, but as I watched the blood seep out of my skin, tears pooled in my eyes, regardless. It was in that moment that I realized this blood wasn't really my own. It was thousands of tiny lives, just like the cells I had been studying. I could see them clearly in my mind's eye, a tide of crimson bodies, pulsing to the rhythm of their own nuclei. And as they left my skin, emerging into a bright, unwelcoming world, they were rapidly dying of exposure.

This was the realization that my mind seemed so keen on ignoring. My blood, my skin, my teeth, my tongue—they were all alive in their own right. They ate, drank, reproduced, and interacted. They had their own DNA, their own volition, their own need to survive. At the same time, they had learned to collaborate. They had joined forces like the people of a nation, and in helping each other, they helped themselves survive.

But if my body was a trillion independent lives, then what was I? For the longest time I had identified myself with a face in a mirror. But now, everything was them. Even my thoughts were just the whispers of several trillion neurons. And this left me wondering, maybe there was no 'I' at all. Maybe there was only 'we.' 'I' was just an avatar, an identity created to simplify the complexities of our true nature: not as an individual, but as a society of cells.

The point is simple. When you look at me, you see Timothy, a man in his late 20s with black hair and hazel eyes. You do not see trillions of cells working in independent tandem. At our level of perception, this is only natural. We literally cannot see what I am made of. That does not, however, change my underlying nature. What are the implications of being not an individual, but instead a pluralistic society of liver cells, blood cells, neurons, and more? Does this change my responsibility to myself? When I engage in behavior that unnecessarily damages my member cells, such as smoking or drinking Coca Cola, am I breaking a sort of microbial Social Contract?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Religious Interpretations of the Heredity of Soul

An ethnographer in New Guinea wrote a striking story of the heredity of soul. He first lived with the Gebusi in the 1970s, when they were still a stone-age tribe of hunter-gatherers, and over the years, he grew close to quiet a few of them. When he returned to their tribe in the 1990s, he was saddened to find that most of his friends had died. After a few weeks there, though, he became acquainted with their sons, who were so like their fathers in appearance and manner that they were almost the same person. While people in the U.S. might inherit their parents' bodies and personalities, our environment still shapes us in radically different ways. The Gebusi, however, had been living in an unchanged environment for countless generations. It was like they were reliving the same lives again and again.

I wonder if this is where the Hindu notion of reincarnation really comes from. The soul was not spirit, but rather an immortal expression of personality, born from blood and culture. Eventually, religion would formalize this notion and use it to reinforce class and caste, but initially, reincarnation was simply an observation of the human condition, of the heredity of soul. They saw heredity not just as genetics, though, but also as habit. The way a parent conducted himself would be passed on to his children in the form of karma. If he was slovenly, then his children would learn to be slovenly themselves. If he was angry, then his children would grow to be angry, too.

In the West, a common misconception about karma is that it's a type of cosmic scorecard, tallying our 'good deeds' the way Christian angles might. In fact, karma is not about good deeds. It's about habit. Good karma is essentially good habits, such as seeing the best in your neighbors or going on a morning job. Bad karma is bad habits, such as venting your wrath on bystanders when you really feel angry about something else. Our habits are passed on to our children through modeled behavior. Those habits which make our lives miserable will make our children's lives miserable, too, because by the time they're adults, they will have fallen into the same cycle.

We aren't a dead species, though. We can still change. Over the course of generations, children can extract ourselves from the karma of their parents. I see this in myself and in many of my friends. Each of us has something about our parents which we detest, and we make it a life goal to unwork that habit from our own behavior. Other bad karma will linger, though. We will not become perfect in a single generation. Instead, it will be our own children's task to unravel the bad karma that's left behind. This is the evolution of family. It's no longer about genes and bodies. It's about culture.

This same perspective can be applied to Christianity, and heaven and hell cease to be spiritual realms but instead become the poles of Earth's potential. Lead a good productive life and you'll make the world a more heavenly place. Lead a squanderous life and you'll make the world a more hellish place. In either case, what you make of the world you pass onto your children, to your genetic soul. In the U.S., previous generations worked hard, built railroads, developed industry and agriculture, and by the time they passed the country on to their children, they had made America an easier place for people to live. They made it a vision of their heaven.

Of course, it has now come to light that this vision has problems, and our generation is left with the task of re-envisioning heaven and finding a way to make it work sustainably and humanely. Its easy for us today to grumble about how selfish or foolish prior generations were, but it's worth asking if perhaps what they did, they did in good faith. They wanted to make a better world. They wrote the first draft of heaven. Our job is to revise.

Some of you may know that I'm a religious voyeur. I enjoy waking up early on Sunday morning and going to religious services that I don't believe in. In the U.S., I've noticed a trend. Most the people in attendance are not white. They come from poorer backgrounds, but by their clothes and their haircuts, it's obvious that they're pulling themselves up. Religion is a vehicle by which they can assume the values of the dominant culture, structure their lives by these rules, and slowly gain wealth and status within it, which they can pass onto their children. Don't steal, don't lie, don't cheat on your spouse. These rules create stability and trust. They suppress the id so that a person can thrive in a society ruled by the super-ego.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Heredity of Soul

My father never beat his children. He never criticized us behind our backs. He did, however, have a temper. It struck almost every time I visited him, and he had no control over it—or perhaps he simply never tried to exert control. Whatever the case, once the tremors started, the volcano invariably erupted. By the time the cinders died away, he was surrounded by miles upon miles of ash. The family did our best not to take this personally, but at the same time, we stopped visiting the scorched lands around him. We kept our distance; child, wife, and brother. His anger ruined his ties to us. Before I was even a teenager, I saw this. I saw that anger could destroy people, and I vowed that I wouldn't let myself become like that. For years, I held to this promise, too. I held to it so well, in fact, that by the time I graduated from high school, I was convinced that I couldn't get angry. I believed that I was beyond it.

My Junior year of college, though, something happened. I was walking home from school, and along the way, I had to cross M.L.K., an insanely busy road at that hour. Sometimes, I had to wait on my side for five or six minutes before I could cross. This time, however, ten minutes passed. And then fifteen. I started pacing up and down the length of the road. My breathing was forced. My thoughts were interrupted by static, the buzz slowly mounting into a roar. This was a feeling I'd had many times before, but it wasn't until that moment that I recognized what it was: this was anger. Maybe I never yelled. Maybe I never cursed others. But I was angry. I'd just been pretending like it wasn't there.

This marked a turning point for me. Up until then, I'd been struggling to find out “who I am.” A lot of teenagers go through this, and I can't say my search was any different. I watched movies and read books, and afterwords I'd admire certain characters and want to be like them. Other times, I'd model myself after people that I actually knew. In either case, it was problematic. I could try to act like them, sure, but I could never fully embody these other personalities. Always, in some moment of weakness or neglect, I'd revert to my old ways.

When I recognized that I was getting angry like my father, it was the first time I glimpsed an aspect of the fundamental me. This wasn't a characteristic that I had tried to cultivate. In fact, it was one that I actively suppressed. But it was there, and it was all the more undeniable for it ability to withstand suffocation. After that, I found more of these traits. There was my intellectual curiosity and it's corresponding argumentativeness. There was my sensitivity to other people's opinions which drove me between periods of extroversion and wounded isolation. There was even the way I looked, the way I carried myself, the way I gesticulated or charmed others. All of these things I could trace back to my father and mother.

I could look at my brother and sisters and see the same thing. Each of us was different, but there was obvious heredity at work. Aspects of our parents were sliced, diced, and stewed together in novel ways, each of us a strange alchemy of body and personality. This isn't unusual. When I meet the parents of my friends, I see the same process at work. People tend to get offended when I point this out, perhaps because so many of us have tried so hard to distance ourselves from our roots. It's not an ugly thing, though. It means that there is something deep inside us which is real, which is immutable, which is us. I've come to call this soul.

It is our blood and our upbringing. It is the union of sperm and egg, as well as the soft impressions left on a young mind. Nature and nurture. There is no conflict here. Both are given to us by our parents. Both were given to them by their parents. This is the heredity of soul. It is a chain that can be traced back through generations. I have seen a daguerreotype of my great-great-grandfather, and staring back at me are my nose and my brow. I have heard my grandmother tell stories of her father, and I see in his actions the same choices that I would make, whether I would be proud of them or not.

This is the first time I've been known as Timothy. This is not the first time I've lived.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ambient Unconscious

When I was in high school, I thought that I was a genius. This isn't just to say that I made good grades or impressed my teachers. After all, there were a lot of other students that did these things, and nobody would call them geniuses. They were simply good at what they did: memorizing texts and following rules. No, as I saw it, my gift was different. It was a capacity for original thought. It was the potential to change the world. Yes, this was a big claim. At the time, though, I had proof. I could even point to the exact day when I came to this realization.

I'd just purchased a history of Western philosophy. It was my first serious text. Before that, I'd been an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi, but that was the sum of my literacy. Even so, I considered myself a 'thinker,' and when my uncle recommended that I read a history on philosophy, I committed myself to the task. At first, I'd just wanted to prove that I could tackle difficult ideas, but as I read the book, I realized that its ideas weren't difficult at all. In fact, they were quiet familiar. I'd thought them all before. Plato, Kant, Hume: I'd never heard their names, but I'd come to their conclusions on my own.

This is why I thought I was a genius. What took Western civilization generations to devise, I had independently realized in just fifteen years. You can only guess at how this bolstered my self-image. At the time, I thought that I would take the banner of enlightenment and carry it to new realms. I would help society grow. It was my gift and my obligation. It was my genius, and for years I believed in it. Of course, it's easy for me to now look back and laugh. I'm twenty-eight and have not proven myself to possess any of this potential. I was just a regular kid with a thick book and big head. Still, this begs a question. How did an otherwise unremarkable fifteen-year-old boy come to the same conclusions as men like Socrates before he'd even heard their names?

The answer came to me three years after I bought that book. At the time, I was in college and reading 'Beyond Good and Evil.' Once again, I was matching each of Nietzsche's thoughts with one of my one, reaffirming my genius. At least, it seemed that way until I watched 'Batman Returns.' Of all things, Hollywood brought me to my senses. It happened while Batman was gearing up for the final conflict with the Penguin. Already, he'd shown himself to be outside of society's rules. He was a vigilante. He did what needed to be done, even if it went beyond good and evil. In other words, Batman was Nietzsche. Batman embodied the values of 'Beyond Good and Evil,' and by watching this movie, I was effectively taking an introductory course on the text. No wonder these ideas were familiar. I'd seen them when first I watched 'Batman Returns' as a twelve-year-old.

After that, I saw this happening again and again. Rousseau was in 'Requiem for a Dream.' Maugham was in 'The X-Men.' Popular culture had integrated the ideas of Western philosophy, and as we consumed its media, we came to the same conclusions as its thinkers. In time, their philosophies appeared like common sense. So, when I read a history of Western thought, of course the ideas were familiar to me. I'd learned about Locke and Hobbes through 'Law and Order,' about Socrates through 'The Dead Poet's Society,' about Nietzsche through 'Batman.'

As you might expect, this shattered my self-image. It took months to pick up the pieces. So, I wasn't a genius, after all. I was just like the other students in school, memorizing texts and following rules. It just happened that my text was more subtle, my rules less explicit. When I looked at the remains of these personal philosophies, I saw history and media staring back at me. Only after I swept away most the debris did I find a few shards that were my own, that were truly original. These, I held close to myself. These, I cultivated and refashioned, developing metaphors and stories so that I could convey them to others.

When I actually shared these ideas with my friends, though, something strange happened. They weren't confused. They didn't get riled up and contrary. No, my friends simply nodded knowingly. They had made the same conclusions themselves; they just hadn't put them into words yet. It was no different from how I immediately understood the philosophies within 'Beyond Good and Evil.' I had been primed. My friends had been primed. Still, this didn't make sense to me. I was sharing my most original philosophies. These ideas weren't in books or movies. How then had so many people also come to these realizations?

It took me a while, but slowly I began to see: what media accomplishes through implicit communication, people are doing organically, as well. We do not need to describe an idea in words to convey it to others. Rather, ideas spread just as readily through our actions and assumptions, and this is happening on a massive scale. Whole philosophies are forming just beneath our conscious, and although we are vaguely aware of them, we cannot yet talk about them. We can only skirt around them, hinting at their existence and tracing a vague outline. When I tell a friend one of my ideas and he nods, all that's happened is that I've pointed to something that he's long seen in his periphery. It is not my originality or genius that sees these things. It's just my obsession with looking sideways.

I've heard other people talk about this phenomenon, referring to it as the collective unconscious. These are the ideas which we have all begun to think, but which we are not yet fully aware of. It's a fitting label, though a bit of a misnomer, as well. When Jung originally coined it, he was referring to unconscious traits that all people are born with, such as an image of the ideal woman (anima) or a fear of death. In contrast, what I'm describing now are ideas which are actively evolving through conversation, art, and deed. They are not inborn archetypes. To avoid confusion, they need a different name, such as the 'ambient unconscious.' It's not the prettiest phrase, but ambient at least emphasizes the origin of these ideas: they are drawn from our surroundings, rather than from our genetics or soul.

I decided to start 'What I've Heard' with this essay because it highlights that the ideas to follow are not my own. Rather, they have evolved through conversation with friends, through images on flickr and facebook, through Catholic ritual and Buddhist meditation. All I am is the mixing pot. All my thoughts are is alchemy.