Thursday, November 12, 2015


The joke goes, “There are two kinds of people.  Those who divide everything into two kinds and those who do not.”  Lately the impulse has been more to say, “Everything is shades of something and there are a billion wicked thoughts about it."  But even a one-off distinction creates two sides which can be argued into two categories with different qualities.

For instance, I notice that there are websites calling themselves “religious” which are all about institutions and other sites calling themselves “religious” that are based on what they would name spirituality.  It would be intriguing to trace them back to orthodox versus heresy, as in when the original Roman Catholic church began to break up.  Something like that seems to be happening now, partly because of the mixing of populations trying to escape war or famine and partly because of the addition of science which operates like religion.

Science argues that the scientific method is the only real way to get hold of reality, but -- confusingly -- argues that there IS no reality.  Reality is a constantly reinvented consensus and, as well, human identity is a collection of interacting forces that must be constantly updated.  Science, which once assured us which things could be trusted to stay true, has now begun asserting these two new propositions, based on scientific research, that all is change and interpretation.  But religions still try to stabilize one’s identity as well as one’s understanding of what behavior and beliefs will guide a good life.

There is a concept that goes back to anthropology but is taught in schools that address both of those above.  It is the idea of “the believers’ circle” and comes from the anthropologist watching some indigenous people, the people of the land, in order to understand what it is they’re doing.  Inside the believers’ circle the people believe they are celebrating the truth, a reality that will help them survive and even prosper.  It is a place of virtue and generous enactment.  

But to the anthropologist, no matter how carefully he or she pays attention and is able to understand, it is only one system among many.  You can study all the Bundle Openings you want, but until you have a close felt knowledge of the animals represented in it, your senses connected to them, you won’t really be a believer.  To the believers, the anthropologist is a fool, uninformed, a child unable to learn.  To those with different beliefs, particularly the belief that there are no beliefs that are real, the anthro merely smiles and writes it all down.  It's just a story among many -- nothing to do with them.

Aeon is a shared thinking website based in England.  The theory is that if we all share our ideas from both inside and outside the circle, this exchange will cause us to have major insights that will eventually cause brilliant breakthroughs of human thought.  But this is a preoccupation of educated people, each of which accepts the terms of their believing circle.

I’ve abandoned that hierarchical and territorial sort of thinking in favor of an ecological criterion.  You might say that an ecology is an operating circle: everything inside the circle created by geology and weather and the main economic forces, is related to and interwoven with everything else in that circle.  In fact, vegetable, animal and insect intruders from other ecologies may throw everything into chaos and destruction.  Some elements will be lost and others will be drawn in or mutated until a fit is regained.  Then there's a new circle.  It’s not a matter of what’s “right” or “virtuous” or has always been before.  Instead the main thing is whatever works.  (Sometimes something appears to be working but has a long-term insidious influence, a slow poison.)

Human beings are unique in that they can change their environment or at least compensate for extremes by making interfaces and equipment.  They can also experiment in their minds with consequences or look for new evidence:  virtual circles.  Religion can be used to impose what is best for the people who are their believers, or it can extend compassion to all people, whatever their allegiance.  Compassion comes from empathetic awareness, even recognizing existential despair because those inside see nothing they can believe or even bear.  It's a cage.

In terms of that big scramble of religious definitions, there is one thing that some human beings can access without education, cost, or special privilege.  That is perception of the sacred.  Whether that is seen as an individual brain phenomenon or something cosmic and eternal reaching into us, we don’t know.  We don’t even know how to think about it and maybe we shouldn’t anyway.  Maybe we privilege “thinking” (meaning logic and definitions) too much.

Speech-based thinking happens in parts of the whole brain but is concentrated or managed somehow in the complex of the pre-frontal cortex behind the forehead and most often draws on the metaphors of the eyes, ears and nose.  It can be cool math or hot poetry, and for some people there are not exactly words, but just unspoken concepts of color, pitch, fragrance that they can at least perceive and possibly put into words.

Some people will be deeply offended by this joke and some people will just laugh.

The point is that speech is what we understand to be uniquely human and valuable.  It is, but what everyone forgets is that it rests in, on, and through the animal functions of bone, muscle, circulation, and the management of nourishment.  The constantly reciprocating changes of one’s body supports what is considered identity -- not just words about them.

Part of the point of a community -- which is defined by the believing circle -- is that if individual identity is so wrenched out of itself by trauma, over-extension, ecstasy, migration, then the others in the circle will remember who you are and help you rebuild.  There are many stories about people who rebuild a new identity with strangers -- amnesia, living apart, education -- and then the old and new identities are brought to confront each other.  It’s painful and dangerous, but an alluring and exciting way to escape from a circle that is no longer convincing or healthy.

Recently I watched “Snowpiercer,” a speculation on class hierarchy that is miserable at the bottom/rear, and blindly attached to rails that go round and round.  This is necessary because the whole planet has over-reacted to global warming and turned time back to “Snowball Earth” when everything was a glacier.  The tail end of the train thinks that the front end is oppressing them, and fights its way to the engine to seize power back.  Because it’s a film, the ideas of class structure luxury are vivid.  In the end there is no emperor or Great God.  The train is powered by a child who is destroyed in the process.  

When the sign of hope arrives (this is a spoiler) it is a crashed airplane that is being melted out of the ice and then a polar bear.  This film was written before the polar bears were depicted as starving.  What the bear is going to eat, since it seems to be the only living thing, will be a happy immediate surprise for him, since the train is crashing and presumably there will be many dead people, some of them even cooked.  This is an existential despair movie, but only if one is attached to one’s own circle of belief, which might be that humans are privileged, not animals at all, even if they are edible.  Give it up.  Bears are waiting.

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