Nothing real under the sun
Many centuries ago the Greek philosopher Plato intuited that mankind lived in a world of shadows: shapes and experiences whose dazzle obscured the underlying reality of existence.
The last few years I have had this idea of “living in a world of shadows” very much on my mind. Although my take on it is, perhaps, more influenced by eastern spiritual philosophy, with a good measure of modern western psychology thrown in.
My current view is that our lives are completely dominated by two general types of experiences: mental objects and physical sensations. By mental objects I mean thoughts, mental pictures, and mental stories (which are just streams of connected thoughts). By sensations I mean everything our physical body senses externally but, even more importantly, our inner sensations (joy, fear, anxiety, etc.).
The interaction between and the convergence of thoughts and sensations leads us to take any experience we may have and turn it into a symbol.
To be fair, these symbols are themselves just more mental content which provide “meaning” and a sense of control over the world (something akin to “If I can think about something before it happens, I can somehow influence the outcome”). So, we may think several separate thoughts, mix in sensations with those thoughts, and the whole experience coheres into a story or a symbol which itself is just another mental object.
Imagine a person who has had a traumatic experience many years ago. For biological reasons, the brain’s neural network has had an impression of the incident carved into its memory banks. First, let’s talk about the “impression” left on the brain.
What is a memory? Setting aside the physics of the matter, I think most people would agree that a memory is a thought, a mental experience, happening only in the experiencer’s inner world, which is created by the brain either randomly or through a trigger of some kind (perhaps another thought, or a sound, or a smell).
So, our hypothetical trauma victim is currently experiencing a memory (and memories may include accompanying sensations of anxiety, fear, or pleasure). And that memory seems real because, as the victim might say, “this really happened”. However, the traumatic experience happened many years ago. In this moment of experience, there is no trauma. There is only the mental experience of trauma. Yet the body and mind react to the mental experience as if it were real.
This is understandable but notice that the process of trauma is not actually happening outside of the victim’s inner world. This is not to discount it or somehow imply that it should not be taken seriously. But, it must be said, the suffering caused by trauma, or any other life experience, is usually completely divorced from the current moment.
At this moment in time, someone could be sitting in a quiet room at home, completely safe, with calming, peaceful music playing. Yet, if their memory is being triggered by something that the brain is playing back, like an old movie reel, the person will be completely oblivious to the peace in the moment.
Perhaps this is stating the obvious but I think it bears noticing and repeating that “all suffering is in the mind”. Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche that goes too often unexamined. It’s an entry-point to a much deeper examination of life than we usually give it. Because we don’t fully examine the insanity of living inside a mental dream-world, we create symbols and stories out of thoughts: thoughts about things that are no longer happening, about things that may or may not happen in the future, thoughts about people doing and thinking and feeling things that they are not actually doing, thinking, and feeling. How often do we actually look at what is actually happening, right now?
In other words, how often do we give in to pure feelings and sensations, without the use of symbols to navigate the present moment?
I will argue in future posts that we are afraid to be in the moment because we are conditioned to feel safe in a world of stories and symbols. But only 99% of the time! In fact, it is because of people’s inability to perceive life beyond the symbols we create (knowingly or unknowingly) that the Buddha said “Life is suffering”.
I am not a Buddhist scholar, nor a Buddhist practitioner, but I have great respect for the insights of this religion which, really, is much closer to a philosophy at its core. In fact, readers may want to visit this site for an excellent and user-friendly introduction to Buddhist philosophy. I especially connect with Zen Buddhism, which focuses so much on embracing all experience, even as one cultivates an appreciation for the Emptiness underlying all of life.
I think it has come closer than any other ancient system at unraveling what reality is actually like. From now on, though, I think western thinkers (or global thinkers, anyway), will be the ones to fully deliver on the promise of a world-philosophy, drawing from East and West, that will truly move us forward. And it will be based on an integration of the best insights from philosophy and the evidence from science.