Sunday, August 21, 2011

Echoes, Part II

A comment I received on my post Echoes, or How to Cultivate A Free Mind has been on my mind a bit lately. The reader said what I was really talking about is leading an authentic life. I suppose I was. I think. Maybe. I guess it really just depends on how far you want to take it.

Meaning, suppose you cut out all the foreign input of daily life, the negativity: the news ("They're ruining America!"), advertising ("you're ugly/stupid/uncool... unless you buy this!"), even religion ("repent ye sinners, lest ye burn in everlasting hell!")... suppose you go and do all that stuff I mentioned, gardening or running or writing or painting... well, where does that leave you? You're still going to have to be part of the culture. You have to go to work or school, you're going to have friends, family, neighbors. All of which is going to have you submersed in the Culture, infecting you with its memes.

So then; I think I what I was trying to say in that earlier post was how distressing it is: I have all these ideas in my head but most of them come from far away. They seem so close (I mean, they're right there in my head!), but they aren't mine. I find myself questioning everything-- why do I sympathize with the Left; why do I prefer science to religion; why does this or that irritate me so much while it doesn't irritate him, or vice-versa; why do I like the music and art and books that I do? If I choose writing over running or painting, well, why did I choose that? They say kids are like sponges, absorbing whatever is poured into them. Most of who I consider myself to be, my personality, my beliefs, my likes and dislikes, and my very modes and methods of thinking, were instilled in me by others (or at best, by interaction with others); parents, teachers, friends. They meant well, but in a way, I feel robbed of my very mind-- those patterns are hard to break, or even see.

Take language itself. The English language dictates what I may and what I may not think about, and how I may go about it. The grammar and syntax determines a lot: nouns and verbs, for example. Noun are, and they do verbs. But does it make sense to say the lightning flashes? Isn't there just the flashing? Do nouns really exist? Even if I think they don't, that all is transitory, mere patterns of constantly shifting energy, the language forces me to deny that belief every time I open my mouth. Or try the fact that, if there isn't a word for something, how can you even think about it?

Yet of course every child is going to have an upbringing, is going to speak a language, is going to be educated. Is "escape" impossible? What does it mean to live an authentic life? Everything is in confluence, it's all running together. How do I separate what I'm doing authentically from what I'm doing to ape others, consciously or not? How can one be authentic?

I think what I was saying before was that going out to Nature is helpful in seeing that most of what runs through our minds in that constant internal monologue are merely echoes of what we've heard, especially the more recent things. A reader once commented that worship is whatever we give our attention to, what we focus on. If we have all these endless thoughts, repeating, repeating, it matters what those thoughts are, as they are going to shape our entire lives. So going to the woods is helpful, because there, the input is vastly reduced, simplified, clarified. There's no media, far fewer people, or none at all... less culture. It's an inhuman world out there. It doesn't exist for us, doesn't care in particular about us, wasn't built by or for us; therefore, we are not surrounded by endless layers of humanity. No part of nature is trying to sell you on anything, none of it represents anything; it is simply what it is. Symbols don't exist out there.

So, given the lack of symbols, sales pitches, and content, the mind naturally calms. We entrain with our environment, gearing down to a smoother mode of being. Something more natural. And I think that's what I'm after. Culture isn't all bad. It's just our dominant culture is. Everything is trying to sell you on something, evangelism in news and entertainment as well as in religion. I've seen better, and not in some distant, obscure tribe, but with fellow Americans. I call it Trail Culture.

(This post is second in a series of three; click here for the first post, and here for the third)


  1. "If there isn't a word for something, how can you even think about it? "

    The Tao Te Ching talks about this...naming things puts limits on them; you can never know the "ding an sich," (Kant) at least through language.

    By asking all these questions, you begin a process which helps you rise above, to get beyond, the culture, I think. But it takes time. That's part of that Taoist reversal process.

    But I think you are "authentically" on the way. I'd say, come see me in 30 years...but not likely I will be here, but I hope to have lived an authentic life.

    On the other hand, awareness that you do some things because of the cultural "pressure" is okay. I think it's the unconsciousness that is bothersome. For instance, I am quite aware that the way I dress and present myself on a day-to-day basis, on-the- job, is very culturally the mountains I tend to (happily) discard the accoutrements that seem so much "me." The few I don't discard, are probably the real, authentic me.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  2. i think about that often...why i am happiest in the woods. nature takes no prisoners. it's complete and utter honesty, the best mirror there is.
    i started crying one night, watching some documentary footage of Yosemite, i think...and I had this strong desire to do nothing else with my life but see all of what the Earth had to offer. I even think Kansas is beautiful. i keep moving from place to place hoping that the scenery will be enough to tide me over,'s beautiful and all...but it's not EVERYTHING else.
    i often ask myself why it means that much to me, i think it's great that you are musing about it.

  3. Baroness, it's always bothered me, this idea that we have to wait till we're old to be ourselves. That's the sign of a sick culture, in my opinion. Only when we're no longer of economic use (retired) can we do our own thing?

    Sarah, I hear ya on that, feel much the same way and been doing much the same thing; though more and more I'm starting to feel like I'm running from something. Otherwise I could just pick a cool spot and settle. At best I can say I'm looking for something out there that I somehow know is not to be found anywhere but within. So the roaming comes to feel a bit dissatisfying.

    Still, a big part of me still feels that the peace I comprehend in Nature gives that space I need to find it, whatever it is. So there's a bit of tension there.

  4. I think it's easier to be yourself the older you get for a reason. It takes time to master anything. It takes a while to try out this or that strategy, this or that tool. When we're younger, we travel down different paths trying to figure which path or paths are our own. In time -- aging -- we figure it out, somewhat.

    If it could be figured out when we are young, the challenge to mastering life would be over and done with too soon. What would we have to look forward to?

  5. Living a really awesome life, rather than one of confusion, half-measures and false-starts?