Silent Lucidity (Part 1)

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.

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7 comments on “Silent Lucidity (Part 1)

  1. squiznit says:

    nice post
    If you like Plato i would encourage you to read or familiarize yourself with Jean Baudrillard’s – Simulacra and Simulation. This is a modern new philosophy which makes up some of the Postmodern philosophy. Its very interesting let me know what you think

    • G.B. says:

      Thanks for the heads up! My reading time is very limited these days but I will definitely keep it in the mental file. It sounds worthwhile from the title alone!

      Cheers!

      PS-Actually, I just skimmed the Wikipedia entry on it and it sounds fascinating (I think I heard of it before). Will definitely pick it up at some point.

  2. Joana says:

    And again, you should write a book. Really.
    Joana

    • G.B. says:

      Thanks, I think the blog serves my purposes better at the moment! :-) It allows me to write about very different topics from week to week and a book is too much work!

  3. Won Ho says:

    Very insightful post. I also believe that through replaying memories or through creating imagination, one can detach oneself from the reality and connect oneself with different time and space. I often experience this when I (sometime unconsciously) recall old memories with a strong sensation.

    • G.B. says:

      Thanks for reading Won! The mind is capable of some wonderful things. And, in fact, it is probably due to the power of imagination that some people have been able to survive horrible situations.

      However, my experience has led me to believe that every time we consciously decide to daydream and get lost in reverie, we are creating a bad habit. “Bad” in the sense that if we allows ourselves to get lost in a mental world for the sake of escapism, then we are training the brain to believe those worlds. And when the brain (for whatever reason) then generates negative imagery or useless repeating patterns of negative thoughts we will be very likely to believe the experience and get lost in a very bad way.

      I’m not saying the mind is bad, or that it can’t be very useful. Mental objects are great to enable us to do math, and to remember where we put the car keys! But they are still a mental construct and not reality as it is coming in, now, in this moment.

      Having said all that, I am just as prone as anyone else to get lost in thoughts so… It’s a part of being human. This is a topic I definitely want to write more about in my next post in this series.

      Thanks again for reading!

  4. Chuck Wentworth says:

    Nice post. A difficult subject to really explore. But there is so much that ties in with symbology, both conscious and subconscious. Religious imagery and symbology play a major roll in a lot of this kind of thing, particularly on an underlying psychological level that we aren’t always aware of. I’m fascinated by how we all relate to different cultural/personal ideals and experiences that somehow turn themselves into the mental escapes you are referring to.

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