Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Echoes, or How to Cultivate A Free Mind

"Men do not mirror themselves in running water--they mirror themselves in still water. Only what is still can still the stillness of other things." ~Chuang Tzu.

It's a strange world we live in. The more time I spend thinking about these questions, these things that I fill this blog with musings about, the less I know. Every idea has its flaw or failure. Which, in a world that turns more towards fundamentalism and failure every day, just goes to show the amount of thinking most people do, the scale to which our world is dominated by ideas.

Thoughts echo. As I hike in the backlands this becomes quite clear. Out there things begin to quiet down, since nature doesn't speak with language, which thoughts require. Out on a trail for weeks or even months, you begin to really realize this. But, say while hiking I listen to my mp3 player for an hour, for motivation or entertainment; after hearing the songs, I will have them bouncing around my head for hours, sometimes days.  So one must wonder what the constant bombardment of television, radio (talk and music), newspapers, advertising, school, and preachers have on the mind. Even normal socialization has its impact. When do any of us ever have a chance to truly think our own thoughts, free of influence, free of echoes?

Of course, this echoing keeps us in touch. If a person spent decades alone only to later return to society, he'd likely be so out of touch as to be considered insane (or enlightened; same thing as far as the dominant culture is concerned). We trade ideas, realities actually, with this mutual exchange of mental echoes. We keep similar thoughts bouncing around in one another's heads, so we maintain contact with a "common" reality. They call this consensus reality, and yeah, it's not all bad; humans are a social species, and this is necessary. But all things in balance, right?

It's easy to forget this truth, about the echoes. We are too immersed in them to notice. You get home from a whole day at school or work and flip on the TV, or surf the internet, or read a book, or go to church, constantly bombarded with other people's beliefs, some scripted or manufactured reality imposed from without. Programming. Dogma. Education. Indoctrination. Conformity. You never give yourself a break, never get to think your own thoughts, to have time enough away from the media blitz to really learn what it is you truly believe.

I get out to Nature in large part to let the echoes fade. It's not so much that I go out there for answers; I've tried that road, and the truth is, I no longer believe there are any answers to the questions we ask. Not the big questions, about the meaning of life, God, what we're supposed to be doing. The question "why" is a constant agony, a cruel joke. Even the smaller, more personal questions often seem unanswerable. No, in nature there are no answers, per se, but there is clarity. As the babbling of culture stills, as one's own mind quiets down, I recieve the best result that I can hope for. I subsume into my immediate experience; my former troubled thoughts quiet amid the truth of the world around me.

When I get away from the greater culture, away from its whispering, letting it bleed out of me as I walk in the wilds, I find myself thinking about the things around me, wondering about them; like why there's just that one strip of pines running up the canyon wall that is otherwise mostly scrub vegetation, why there and not anywhere else? Sometimes its just running commentary, like normal, but based on the real surroundings and events, not mental fictions; maybe musing about my weariness, the heat, or wondering when my group will stop to eat. Sometimes I get philosophical, and though I know I carry culture within me, the influence of language and years of immersion in our modern world, I feel that without any immediate or recent influence, only the more strongly held beliefs and ideas bubble up. Well, maybe that's not true, who knows. But with all day on my hands, I can spend time with them, examine them, follow the thread of their logic out, see if I really agree.

Now, I want to say that there's no reason we have to live this way, that we don't have to take a month off in the mountains to be free of the bullshit; but I'm not sure I can. Sadly, taking an hour or two a day isn't enough, the echoes take too long to fade. It's a start, and there is a benefit even with that, but nothing like a real vacation from it all. Like, I think it's interesting, that the less you read, the greater an impact a book has on you. That's my hypothesis, anyway. But it makes intuitive sense, because you are giving your mind time to process it, rather than jumping right into another book. If the echoes are like ripples, you aren't throwing pebbles, shovelful after shovelful, into the pool, but letting the ripples of that one pebble roll out and have their clear effect.

The best we can do, while living in the system, is to tune out as much as we can. Throw out your television. That is job one-- the television is becoming our government, and that is unacceptable. Then, read less. Turn off the radio. Avoid advertising, that is, real-life psychological warfare, at all costs. Increase the time each day spent without cultural input: whether in meditation, writing, running, playing with your kids or your dog, cooking, getting rid of clutter, working out, home improvement, inventing things, painting, gardening, making crafts for fun or for sale, or any of a hundred other things you could name.

Ideas are great, but often over-indulged in. So although one might say that meditation or quiet time is the key, and I do agree that it's useful and recommended, even just woodcarving or something might work. You have to be there with the wood, not off in la-la land thinking about the B.S. you watched on TV earlier, or the guy babbling on the radio you have on in the background. Otherwise, through lack of attention, you're going to fuck it all up. You might notice my list didn't really involve social activities. That was on purpose: we need to disconnect a bit. People are culture carriers, and the point here is to get to know ourselves. But since you are a culture carrier too, I don't know that this will work without extended time away.

Maybe I should have just posted the Chuang Tzu quote, rather than making all these ripples.

(This post is first in a series of three, Click Here for the second post)


  1. You wrote, "If a person spent decades alone only to later return to society, he'd likely be so out of touch as to be considered insane..."

    Actually, people placed in solitary confinement can go crazy in less than one year. An experience like this can scar them for the rest of their lives.

    While I do agree that tuning out the noise and voices can be both beneficial and healthy, doing it too much can be detrimental and unhealthy. As with all things in life, it comes down to a question of balance and balance is different for each person.

  2. Well, solitary confinement is a pretty extreme example. You're put there against your will, with nothing purposeful to do, maybe in the dark, certainly in a confined space. I was imagining a guy off in some cabin.

    Anyways, the point is that the balance is so skewed towards integration and absorbion in this cultural milieu, that right now a call for more alone time is appropriate.

  3. I think you're talking about living an authentic life..relying on media (TV, radio, film, even literature and poetry) can be a barrier to being authentic. So can gurus, politicians, employers and physicians be barriers. And family and friends, even. Everyone wants you to accept their idea, to live by. And I think the world is not so much dominated by ideas, as fear (maybe of being alone)...the ideas are there to assuage it. I think as you get older (with maybe less fear), it gets easier to create your own culture, if that's what you want to do. You can sort out which ideas are your own, and which are others'.

    I think your way may be to write poetry.