The Persistence of Memory

Memories are weak materials in the process by which we construct our personalities.

If you wanted to construct a castle to withstand seige, would you use bricks of ice?

Would you build on shifting ground?

Better to let the ice melt and use the water for idle entertainent.

Memory would be a fine material indeed if we could trust ourselves to derive reasonable, self affirming meaning from the past. Unfortunatley, the process of evolution has rendered us excellent recollectors of the terrible, and it is usually by fear and pain that the past holds precenence in our minds.

We must be careful not to become hoarders of the past.

And just like those who hoard physical objects, the process of accumulation begins innocently enough. We keep happy memories as if they were trophies and diplomas hung up on the wall, there for us to glance at when the chaos becomes unbearable and say “Yes. Thats me!” Other memories we keep because we believe they might be useful. That there might be meaning and experience left to gain from them.  Like old newspapers, they sit inside us unread, outdated, and collecting dust.

I read a story once about a hoarder who became trapped in her house, the stacks of newspaper having grown so high and so plentiful.

Theres a reason newspapers are sold for profit one day, and used to pack meat the next.

Their utility is in relevancy and timeliness.

But we cherish the old memories anyway, either addicted to our own victimhood and in need of reaffirmation of that identity, or else hoping for the sad, strange high that nostalgia gives.

In strange contradiction to our tendency to best remember particularly sharp instances of pain or fear, in remembering periods that make up a category of many consecutive memories, we look back fondly on what in the moment was misery.

High School is a common nostalgia trap. Our minds somehow trick us into believing the structure and order enforced by the institution were somehow the bedrock of a kind of constrained freedom more rewarding than anything we experience in adulthood.

All of this stands in perverse contrast to the rather self evident principle by which all good lives are organized:

That the future be an improvement on the present through our actions in the now.

Of course, to create a better future, you will say we must reflect upon our mistakes in the past.

Yes.

But once you’ve read the newspaper, for gods sake throw it away.

 

The Good News

The good news is this isn’t some random mass of atoms, arranged by chance, without moral or logical consideration.

The other good news is that the previous statement is substantiated by scientific research.

The Universe, and more specifically at the level pertaining to Earth, Biology, is constrained by principles that become apparent at any non-quantum level of analysis. We look at fossils and wonder why every skeleton, from the smallest mouse to the largest whale looks so strangely similar.

We look at neurons, rivers, veins, and insect architecture, seeing the same patterns again and again.

That’s all well and good. But how does it help us in our daily lives?

The human mind is as much part of the Universe as a river and as the billions of neurons that are its collective components. Thus it too behaves according to metaphysical principles, though due to our pesky friend free will, we have some choice in the matter. The principles are not obvious, though we submit to them no matter our personal attitudes. But the human mind has the privilege of being able to fool itself. We trick ourselves into perceived positions of power, depression, anxiety, and frustration. Rarely in this day and age do we simply trust our biology and act without considerations for the ego and our cherished self-conceptions.

When lacking any sense of destiny or purpose, it’s best to trust in your ancestors. Each and every one of us come from a long line of competent, reproductively successful humans,  and before that, organisms of all kinds. Do you really think that was some sort of a coincidence or a mistake? By any measure, we are the best designed, most complex, best-equipped organisms on the planet. What good does it do us to wallow inside our heads, imagining potential futures, past failures, and present insecurities? What good would it do a termite? A chimpanzee? None at all. The termite builds, the chimpanzee gathers, the human innovates. Of course, this doe

None at all. The termite builds, the chimpanzee gathers, the human innovates. Of course, this doe

The termite builds, the chimpanzee gathers, the human innovates. All the tools are already inside your head. How much time have you wasted looking for them? How many days have been spent in idle regret or fantasy? And how many of those days are rationalized as “intellectual endeavors”?

We are animals. Animals with a brain so large and complex it can never hope to comprehend itself. So stop trying, and act.

 

Self Acceptance vs. Self Improvement

How can one balance self acceptance with self improvement?

Our egos tell us that without focusing on our faults and shortcomings, improvements to our character can never be made.

But that depressing conclusion is only valid when we forget an incredibly important distinction:

 

We wield direct control only over our behavior, not over our thought process. Trying to stamp out every unwanted thought is as hopeless as fighting Hydra; as soon as one head is cut off, another appears. It’s a hopeless, frustrating, self-defeating battle.

Attempting to fight off an emotion as it arises is akin to time travel, because to truly prevent an emotion, you would have to eliminate the pre-existing mental conditions that allowed the emotion to arise. But we aren’t time travelers. Our awareness exists only in the present moment. When the emotion is there, its there. Every moment we spend wrestling with it only strengthens and lengthens its life span.

But as rational adults, we have a responsibility, a right, and a moral imperative to control our own behavior. A thought or a feeling that impels us to hurt someone need not be acted out. We’ve all felt that before, and by some method prevented ourselves from enacting the emotion. It is this capacity to regulate what internal conditions are expressed in the external world that “self improvement” helps us to cultivate. Through that ability to control our own actions, we create conditions that help us to experience favorable emotions and healthy thought patterns.

This combination of behavioral regulation with the improvement of external conditions acts upon the principle of compounding interest. As one gets better, the other in turns improves by a greater degree, and so on until incredible, almost unthinkable things are achieved.

Accept what your mind is at the present moment. No fight against yourself can ever end in victory. Only by right action can external conditions improve, an only by observance of external conditions can right actions be defined.

As for the internal…

Observe the good thoughts and the bad. Watch what frightens you as well as what gives you hope.

What is the difference between them?

Where do they go once you’ve already thought them?

And if you’re the one observing, who do those thoughts belong to?

Ownership is Illusion

Ownership is a game we play.

And like any other game, a glance outside of the game board breaks the illusion’s grasp on us. Consciousness of our own deaths reveal ownership as what is is; the fleeting and largely arbitrary positions of objects in the world we have conceptualized.

When looked at any scale besides that of a projected human lifetime (funny how we always project our own so far out!) the idea of possession, and the necessary ego identification it requires, is ridiculous.

The mansion is to the millionaire what the electron is to the atom.

It will not be held long. Soon it will vanish, on to another position. And even stranger; at a closer level of analysis, can the mansion be said to exist? Can the electron?

But to reject all objets and live as a hermit is far too easy a way out. That is merely trading one identity for another. More than likely, the hermits lack of objects will be clung to and identified with to the same degree as the mansion.

So what then? What do we have to do?

To live our lives with awareness that ownership is only a game. The objects around us have nothing to do with who we are. Here today, gone tomorrow. To lend out even an ounce of your soul in identification with an object is to cheapen your being, and devalue your life.

For what will you be when the possessions go away?

What will your possessions be once you’re gone?

Atoms sitting in empty rooms, I suppose. Not even there when no one’s looking.

And as for you; who knows?

But you will not be here, on this plane, in any condition to own things.

Not that you ever were.

Ownership is an illusion. A game.

Feel free to play. Enjoy without expecting victory. Because death waits at the end to collect all points, all trophies. Everything turns to dust.

But you can smile, if you knew all along that they were dust to begin with.

How to Not Fool Yourself

We often operate under the false impression that we are born with an unearned understanding of our own talent and potential.

But the truth is, self awareness comes from a retrospective view of our past successes and failures. Only when we have meaningful feedback from the outside world can we understand what we’re good at, and what activities grant us lasting satisfaction.

How many people want to be rock stars or celebrities, never having interacted with a large crowd, or gone without sleep for several nights, or dealt with the scrutiny of an unforgiving general public?

People want to be rock stars, because they don’t understand what the experience of being a rock star actually is.

Its dangerous to pursue something that you don’t love, and that you’re not good at. And its incredible how easily the human mind can deceive itself into doing just that.

Every person who pursues a risky career path wonders at some point or another:

Am I kidding myself? 

The answer to that question isn’t difficult to derive. Action will tell you. Failure will tell you. This is why the idea that failure is a necessary to precursor to success is much more than a glib platitude.

Without failure, we don’t learn our own weak points.

Without success, we have no understanding of our own aptitudes.

The two skills you must possess to answer that terrible question:

Am I kidding myself? 

Are these:

  1. The ability to know failure from success, and stare unflinchingly into the face of either one.
  2. The bravery to deduce your own talents and shortcomings, not from daydreams and intuitions, but concrete evidence from past instances of action taking.

Lift Your Weight

“The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.”

-Jim Morrison

The same sentiment was expressed by philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in a phrase that has been much repeated and misinterpreted:

“Hell is other people.”

Both quotes resonate with a truth known to all of us. We are social animals, forced everyday to have interactions with the most complex systems currently known; other human beings.

And of course, we ourselves are complicated and often self contradictory actors in the social world, both creators and destroyers of ourself and others. Those around us exert a social pressure that we in turn submit to, transmute, and exert back out. This occurs on the micro level within us, as different thoughts and drives compete for expression through the body, and also at macro levels in social situations as different people compete for dominance and control. The global culture itself is nothing but the final expression of this near infinite set of nested competitive frame works.

But in this jungle, 7 billion strong, full of tyrants, vagrants, billionaires, and prostitutes, who wins?

Who exerts influence, and crafts the environment to their liking?

Who dies still in love with the world, and with the world in love with them?

It isn’t the ruthless.

The Stalins and Hitlers of the world live desperate, paranoid, hopeless lives full of fear and hatred. They are not happy. They are loved only by the pathological. Any look into their personal lives and this truth becomes evident.

It isn’t the greedy.

The nature of greed is in wanting more. If one is greedy, one lacks. If one lives in a state of lack, they are not happy. To call a greedy person happy is to call a leaking bucket full.

But what of the individuals?

The people who, despite their pathologies, fears, traumas, and inconsistencies see in themselves a load bearing capability. They see that they could lift a great weight, and in the lifting make their own lives worth living, and their own pathologies worth enduring.

The people who perceive what is the most difficult, impactful goal they could attempt to attain, and strive towards it, social pressure be damned.

Power games crumble on contact with these sorts. Governments change and cultures evolve. The old games become silly as history looks back and thanks these individuals by way of the favorable narrative.

Hell is other people. Perhaps hell is the entire world, both internal and external.

But heaven is the higher ideal.

Heaven is the muscle by which we may lift the weight nature has assigned us.

Find your weight. Discover your difficulty.

Fight your most terrible fight, for yourself and the rest of us.

Justify your existence, and discover the world is a simple place.