We always must have ends and we are always in movement towards those ends. Tension gives rise to an impulsion to act, raw living energy that we harness, shape, and express to the world and to others. That impulsion implies a movement of some kind, either away from what we value as bad or towards what we value as good. We can never stand still, because each tension that is resolved is but covering another one, each successive layer leading right into the heart of the labyrinth. We see these new tensions because in resolving the previous ones, we are different ourselves, looking at the world with new eyes. Tension only disappears with death, the perfect tensionless state. Each end achieved is immediately transcended, for a new tension emerges bidding us towards a new psychic equilibrium point. Yet while the ends give us a direction, they do not guarantee a transformation into a new equilibrium. It is the experience itself of moving towards that end, the process, that results in transformation. A linear path often merely stiffens the resistance, like yanking on a Chinese finger trap. For example, we cannot force ourselves to relax. Instead, we can only create the circumstances where we can relax and achieve our desired end, such as falling asleep. This is the circular path leading to effective change, that spirals us to where we want to go, whether that be a temporary state change as in the case of sleep or fundamental transformation of being.
We do, however, have everything we need within us to complete this quest. Whatever is most alive within us in each moment, especially the tension we feel, is our compass pointing the way.
What we seek exists only in relationship, and could be brought alive in relationship at any moment. But we cannot see it yet for we lack the awareness.
An emergent system that has found an equilibrium between two polarities or opposing tensions naturally operates cyclically. Action and reflection. Day and night. Summer and winter. Youth and old age. Work and rest. Creation and consumption. The ebb and flow of an ecosystem. We only see these cycles interrupted in systems that have lost their equilibrium. Ruined or disrupted by an excess of either concentration or dispersion, they must undergo a period of sterility or chaos, respectively, to find a new equilibrium, oftentimes less complex and less rich than the one before. New levels of complexity emerge from that sterility, of course, but slowly. The extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammal life to predominate. The collapse of the Roman Empire laid the seeds for modern western civilization. Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that an equilibrium, even as it oscillates, is oscillating about a fixed point.
It’s important to note that in the context of an emergent system, selfishness and selflessness is a false dichotomy. Indeed, to think in terms of selfishness and selflessness is to be trapped in dualistic, centralized, either/or thinking. We are all various degrees of selfish and selfless at various times or in various contexts. There is also such a thing as selfish selflessness and selfless selfishness. It all depends on the observer, the relationship, and the context. What we should universally abhor, instead of some arbitrary idea of selfishness, is manipulation and coercion. When we lie, mislead, manipulate, and coerce, we deny the other the opportunity to make a free choice about whether to move towards us or move away from us. True community based on free associations can only be built on honesty. Even a selfishly made invitation, as opposed to a manipulation, is a noble thing, for it speaks to the other person as a Man or a Woman rather than as a thing to be manipulated. To invite is to exercise our freedom to move towards, and to invite the invitee to exercise their freedom as well. Invitations are humanizing, whereas coercion is dehumanizing, even if we flee from it, for in doing so we must move away from relationships and into a state of exile. To invite freedom and connection with self and with others in our communities is to create points of departure, it is to invite others to explore their own roles and selves.
Human consciousness is essentially a feedback loop, in a two-way relationship with its immediate environment. Any living organism is at its core a feedback loop attempting to avoid danger and move towards goodness. Our feedback loop became so complex, it is capable of looking back in upon itself and seeing its separateness. This act of witnessing is perhaps the key to all human experience, for the act of witnessing something creates our relationship to it, which in turn creates us.
Simplistically but accurately, all we are, and indeed all any living thing is, is a complex feedback loop driven by contextually-applied instinct. Our loop may be more complex than that of other organisms we know of, certainly complex enough to have gained a degree of self-consciousness, but it is a simple system at its core. Our sensory functions, both external and internal, create feedback that our organism uses to course-correct as it seeks to pursue its goals. These goals can be broadly divided in two, corresponding to the two types of instincts we have: the instinct to move away from things valued as bad, and to move towards things valued as good.
We can say that our conscious awareness is best directed towards understanding and controlling our own state, which is analogous to the automatic routine our other-than-conscious (embodied) self runs. We can say this because our conscious awareness is a finite resource whose utility is limited as we begin to apply it to ever finer phenomenon. Combined with an understanding of systems as bottom-up phenomenon, we can also understand why managing our state is so effective. We are tending to the relationship we have to ourselves and to the world.
I've been pondering a question that's been on my mind for years. Each of us, when we are born, are completely dependent on our caretakers for our survival. The more our caretaker provides a loving, safe environment for us, the more curious, engaged, and self-reliant we become. Even in non-ideal family conditions with neglecting, emotionally unstable, or ignorant parents, all children learn how to crawl, walk, speak, and interact with others. There is clearly some internal instinct for self-directed learning in all of us, else we would never have learned these things. Yet after a certain age it is assumed that we need to be coerced into learning. If this is an innate human capacity, why does it disappear (if it actually does)? Somewhere along the way we forgot things we should not have forgotten, things we probably didn't even realize we knew.
On the unhelpful advice of being authentic
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
-The Gospel of Thomas
Much talk is given to the idea of authenticity. Be authentic, we're told. Be yourself. But no one ever defines what authenticity is. In my mind, authenticity is simply presence. You cannot be authentic or have integrity without presence. When you are present, you are in tune with your inner experience. You are in flow. You are expressing yourself to others- as soon as you censor your words or your actions, you cease to become present. Like kinking a hose, you cease to flow into the world. Authenticity then is a moment-to-moment act of honoring and acting on our inner experience and intuition. So presence is authenticity, or at least the foundation of it, and continued presence to a given phenomenon requires that we react to it, rather than ignore or disconnect from it. Of course, the way we bring forth what is within us could be healthy or unhealthy, useful or destructive, but it must begin with awareness and release.
We cannot have personal integrity without this. Otherwise we are literally not whole as a person. We have cut ourselves off from the most basic, instinctual part of ourselves. Everything flows from presence to whatever is most alive in the here and now. Ever been around someone who doesn't seem quite there, because they are so in their head? It is hard to trust or respect them because they do not trust and respect themselves.
This inner experience, this moment-to-moment unveiling of self, is the most basic and most important component of who we are. Everything unfolds from this: ends and means, trust and sincerity, learning and transformation, nobility and excellence. And why bother hiding who we are? The people who like us will like us anyway, the people who don't won't. But like most well-worn cliches on how to live life, this must be learned from hard experience before it has any meaningful application in our lives. It is easy to bring forth what is within when it is easy, hard to bring it forth when we do not think the people around us will like what we bring forth. Yet that is when it matters the most. The fear is always worse than the thing itself. And the more the impulse dies within us when we hesitate, the worse the eventual bringing-forth will be. Every time I tell myself, "It's not a big deal, I'll forget about it and move on," it slowly grows into a big deal that must find its way out. The longer I wait, the more fallout it creates. When I bring it up in the moment, it is simply not a big deal to the people around me, because it is what is alive in the moment. It is natural.
This does not mean we are constantly spewing forth "truth" like some kind of purge, but we may have to start there. I do not believe it is healthy to stay there. Expression, the basis of human experience, requires transformation of the base material that is our pure energy and inner experience into something more contextually relevant. I do not want to punch or scream at someone just because I am angry. But I can transform that anger into something meaningful, useful, beautiful; like a mature conversation about boundaries and consequences. Or failing that, I can leave the situation completely. I always have the power to leave. If I do not, then I am ruled and defined by whatever it is I am not willing to leave. And so dies the human spirit.
...sees much and knows much