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.
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.
We know now that trauma is tension stored in the body that the organism has not yet dissipated. Yet we feel tension all the time. Our relationship to this tension is the key to understanding how the body learns and ultimately where the phenomenon of free will comes from.
Take the simple example of when we're feeling tension while we work. The brow is furrowed and creased, our posture in hunched and closed, and we feel frustrated. We're frustrated in comparison to an unobtained end. Having an end is not bad. We have to have an end to be able to move through the world. The gap between where we are and where we want to be creates tension, which is fuel for movement. If there's no tension, there's no impulse, and there's no movement. We would simply have no way of valuing and prioritizing the possibilities before us, and valuing implies ends. Yet by internalizing this tension too much, or holding on to it too tightly, we're actually unable to effectively move towards that end. When we're tense, frustrated, and angry, we often can't see solutions that are right in front of us. Perhaps you've had the experience of being frustrated and unable to solve a problem, and taking a short break. When you come back the solution simply comes together. The tension is always there, but our relationship to it has changed. We've relaxed into the tension rather than embodying or expressing the tension. Feeling the tension rather than relaxing into it traps us in stale energy from however long ago, prohibiting us from updating our model of what is going on or even simply feeling into the moment. It would be like a modern ship trying to sail with 15th century charts. When tension is stored in us, it's because in some way we're trapped outside of the present moment. Trauma, after all, is tension trapped in our bodies that we can't dissipate. And stored tension from our past, that is to say trauma, keeps us trapped in the state we were in at that time, always acting out those patterns rather than reacting with a more contextually-relevant expression. We can be relaxed yet alert, even in tense situations. This is the basis of learning and mastery in any field, moving from instinctual (and less effective responses) to more effective instinctual responses and ultimately the ability to intuit, in the moment, the optimal course of action. When we're relaxed, we're paradoxically not trying to force anything to happen, which frees us to act in the moment. Hence a physiological basis for a practical definition of free will.
From this we can understand that a particular mapping of tension across the canvas of the body associates certain physical responses, the circumstances that cause them, our action, and the consequences of those actions. The tension is how we learn. We know that a large percent of our neuronal matter outside of our brain is dedicated to sensing our internal state, our proprioceptive sense. We also know that our organism is a powerful associative learner. As the saying goes, "neurons that fire together, wire together." So for each experience, particularly powerful ones, some sort of neuronal "groove" is worn in and wired to associate external circumstances, internal states, and the organism's reaction. This explains how we learn from experience. The tension mapping in each moment creates neuronal associations between situations, actions, and outcomes. The stronger the tension, the more deeply it is felt, and the longer it is felt, the stronger the associations created in the neuronal network. When we "feel" that particular tension again as corresponding to a certain mapping, our body automatically knows what to do, without needing to think about it. That is how we're able to react so quickly to complex circumstances, because we're constantly being reminded of the tensions our organism has wired into itself.
An interesting etymological coincidence is found in the origin of the word to remember. I wrote above that our organism is constantly remembering the tension states that have been wired into it by our experience. Remember comes from the Latin membrum (itself from the Proto-Indo-European mems meaning flesh or meat) meaning limb or member of the human body. To re-member then is to put back together our members and quite literally re-create the embodied state we were in at the time of that memory as a function of tension mapped across our body. Certainly you can recall a powerful memory that is so vivid you cannot help but feel the same emotions and tensions all over again.
And in certain situations we want to fall back on old patterns to keep us safe. When we see an object flying at us, our bodies keep us safe by instinctually moving out of the way. Constantly playing out old patterns, however, is not an effective strategy for living. It is stagnation and recession of being. When we are relaxed and not embodying any tension, on the other hand, we are signaling to our organism that we can be open, learn, and react to the unfolding moment, rather than operating on an outdated model from however long ago, thus wiring over (though never completely erasing) old tension and reaction associations.
A common metaphor seen in mystic thought, philosophy, and all the way to self-help literature is the idea of returning to the state of being a child. Awareness and consciousness does not retrograde, at least not without permanent damage to the organism. Innocence lost cannot be regained except through tragedy. No, to be a child is not a metaphor for the state of innocence of non-awareness, but rather for the state of being where no tension was stored, and thus no preprogrammed responses and associations were needed, existed, or used. Instead, the organism was able to react to each unfolding moment, treating each one as a new phenomenon, partners in its unveiling. To be free.
So our subconscious patterns are stored in the neuronal grooves worn in by the distributed associations of tension and experience. In that way, our subconscious is distributed across our entire physiology. And when we relax into tension rather than embodying it gives us choice where previously we had none. We're overriding the programmed responses associated with the tension-detecting and associating neuronal network. Awareness literally is curative. Synchronized awareness, I should say, awareness in the present moment of what is unfolding around us.
It is interesting to consider how amputation or paralysis affects the distributed subconscious. We certainly wouldn't say that an amputee or paralyzed person is less complete psychically than someone who is not. The tension sensing is distributed across the entire body, so any neuronal networks lost are "backed up" in other parts of the body. It is a holographic system. In a hologram, any part contains the plans for the whole. If the whole is compromised, the system can be restored from any remaining part, no matter how small. A simple analogy might be how even if the film studio's archives were burned, the torrent system is a kind of illegal distributed archive that would be much harder to eradicate. Every single computer would have to be wiped, which would be the collapse of the whole system. The system would essentially be dead at that point. We can see this distributed tension and relaxation sensing in certain practices. Foot massages can trigger tension and relaxation in other parts of the body, for example, and in Tantra different parts of the penis and vagina correspond to tension and relaxation in the macroscopic human organism.
The acorn doesn't contain the tree, just the generative instructions for it, from which the tree can unfold. Every part of our organism is a generative microcosm for the macrocosmic whole. Nothing needs to be planned out, like with the acorn. It's unfolding. It's emergence. Dévoilement, unveiling, as De Beauvoir put it. The oak is there all along in the acorn, but it's also not. In the moment of unveiling, there's the ambiguity between the oak that is there and the oak that isn't. This explains why free will exists in the human organism. Consciousness is the witness, the observer. Consciousness isn't there to control. It observes and reframes, it witnesses. Camus wrote that to witness, is the only way we have to rebel against the injustice of death. Death is unjust because we are given consciousness against our will, and with death each of us must fall back into unconsciousness. It is tragic. To witness, his act of rebellion, is to utilize our period of consciousness to its utmost. It is also what frees us in the moment from unconsciousness as acting out old tension reactions. We relax into the tension rather than attempting to control it or fight it. When we directly fight something, we stiffen its resistance. The harder we fight, the harder it becomes. With awareness, we can instead witness and refuse to become the tension that exists. Our relationship to it has changed. We dissipate the tension in our own bodies which frees ourselves from our subconscious tension/reaction associations. In the act of observation of unveiling in the present moment, we have the opportunity to swerve. We relax into choice and freedom. Sartre said that to conceptualize an alternative is to be free. What he doesn't explain is that it's an embodied conceptualization, in the moment of unveiling, of the alternatives our level of awareness (or relaxation into tension) gives us. This is ultimately the mechanism for learning and transformation.
There are a couple points worth clarifying here. It is easy to think we can ignore certain tensions in our lives. Ultimately, we can’t skip over or ignore tension. The tension is painful for the organism precisely because there’s a message to us there from our bodies: that the pain must be resolved in some way. To disconnect from it would be like emergency services disconnecting their phone lines and pretending that everything is okay simply because they're not getting any calls. It might seem like it from their end , but outside the world still burns. Of course, the resolution to the tension could very well be removing yourself from that situation. This could be a first step. But at the same time, this movement away from remains incomplete until there is also something to move towards. At any rate, there is typically a definite sense of peeling back specific layers of tension and in a specific order. Regardless, feeling tension is our bodies’ way of knowing what is most pressing to solve. It is a call to rewrite our engrained tension-mappings and ultimately update ourselves in the face of new information and move towards a more relevant mode of being through personal transformation. If the situation were easy, we would feel no tension but also have no meaningful choice to make. We would be on autopilot, grow bored, and ultimately slide into disconnection.
Relaxation in and of itself is also not specifically the aim. We can easily relax while disconnecting from tension, essentially ignoring it. It may feel like it disappears, but it still lies beneath the surface. Perhaps this explains the popularity of mindless television or movie watching. It allows us to relax while effectively ignoring the issues and tensions we've embodied during the day. But it also provides no effective resolution to those tensions. Take the colloquial phrase “to unplug” in front of the television or computer, even. Why do we feel the need to do that? What are we escaping from? To gain any real momentum in our homeostatic movement, we must seek to relax into the tension, in connection with it. The difference perhaps lies in a sense of surrendering to it, reconciling your organism to it, a sense of wanting to coexist with it. The harder we want it to go away at any cost, the deeper it becomes buried. And ultimately what we lack and what we need is more time in the saddle with that tension. Time sitting in the tension in our lives is the main component we lack to fuel transformation in our lives.
That said, there exists a class of what I’ll call beacon experiences, from how a friend of mine described them. They may be related to so-called peak experiences, but whereas calling them a peak experience implies a sense of completeness and “this is as good as it gets,” a beacon experience is very clearly pointing the way to a future stage of growth. In fact, these are experiences that give you an embodied feeling of what it would be like to step into a whole new realm of being, completely bypassing the normal tension associations in the body. You’ll inevitably slide back towards your former state of being, but with an embodied taste of what you are moving towards, of what lies over the next mountain range. If properly integrated, because you’ve been there once, getting there again is easier. It feels doable because you’ve lived it. Ayahuasca journeys and perhaps some other psychedelics are famous for this. Certain therapies and practices that focus on liberating personal expression can also provide beacon experiences. And perhaps this is responsible for the famous phenomenon of workshop attendees who are exceedingly motivated for two weeks, only to later slide back into old habits.
We know that 99% of what we do is governed by completely subconscious patterns of behavior. Despite our typical way of thinking about our free will, we simply cannot micromanage our actions and behaviors in the way that we think we can when we think of ourselves as free agents, as supreme commanders of our bodies. Free will is quite obviously a function of awareness. If we are not aware of something, we cannot act in relationship to it. The more we pay attention to the little things, the more we lose awareness of the bigger situation and context. So to bring laser-awareness to one increasingly smaller phenomenon and be able to manipulate it with precise control is to miss out on all the rest of the phenomena unfolding around us, and the will we could exert upon it. Sometimes that is useful. While I am writing this, I do not want to be overly aware of everything around me. Yet too fine a focus as well and I cannot write. For example, if I think about the actual mechanics of typing, I impede my own ability to type. I cannot synchronize my awareness with this unfolding page, which is the level of awareness I want to stay at. But I cannot force that to happen. I can only create the right circumstances for it to unfold. I sit in front of the computer, staring at the page, in a quiet or safe corner and as I synchronize with this manuscript the words emerge, almost of their own accord. What comes out is a function of the work that went into my experience previously, not what I am doing per se in the moment. This is actually quite liberating. It removes the pressure of performance in the moment, facilitating relaxation and counterintuitively giving us greater choice and efficacy in the moment- because we're not acting from tension. If I am playing in a concert, no amount of micromanaging my fingers on the instrument can compensate for a lack of practice. It is the practice that allows us to sink to the level of the performance, piece, creation, or experience rather than occupying the level of mechanics. When we mistake micromanagement of our actions with efficacy, we become rigid. We get tunnel vision, losing focus of the larger phenomenon we need to sit in. We get in our own way. By impeding on the domain of expertise of our own bodies, which is the mechanics of doing, we wind up in conflict with ourselves. There is a negative value judgement towards ourselves implied there, that we do not trust ourselves to do what we know how to do, and correspondingly we block our own flow of life force into the world. The more we are in conflict with ourselves, the less effectively we can show up in the world, whether that is through general malaise and lack of motivation or emergent secondary drives that deteriorate the value of our relationships: unnecessary violence, disregard for others, and narcissism, among other traits.
If finer control as exerted by free will in the form of undue micromanagement of our body mechanics is inversely proportional to the efficacy of our total ability to interact with the world, then we can draw our next vital conclusion. Free will only makes sense in the broad stroke of affirmation or renunciation. Do we affirm a given context or situation, or do we renounce it? Do we affirm an internal impulsion through contextually-relevant expression, or do we renounce it and close ourselves off? What values do we affirm in the expression of that life-force? At any level of awareness, when we focus on the mechanics we lose our ability to be in rapport with the phenomenon interacting with us. Yet even in small or everyday phenomena or situations, like what to say in a conversation, our options at the level of that relationship are rather limited because our choices are always circumscribed by our relationship unfolding in the moment with it. We only have a gut sense, for example, of the general sense of what we are going to say, not the words themselves. An impulsion arises from within. This impulsion, an energy that wants to be expressed in a certain way based on the context, is the only meaningful application of free will we will ever have. All we can really do is decide to affirm or renounce that expression, and shape how it comes into the world. The more awareness we have in the moment, the more we can fine tune that expression and ensure contextual relevance because we are operating at a deeper level of relating. In the case of writing, it would be that I am operating at the level of the manuscript itself, which is the emergent pattern of the situation, rather than operating at the level of the typing or even the level of a sentence or paragraph. Lack of awareness in the moment is the equivalent of “lag” or latency in a videogame, rendering us always out of sync with the moment. Attempting to micromanage only disconnects us further from that awareness, trapping us in our heads and outside of the here and now.
There emerges a clear hierarchy in the expression of free will. The broadest and most basic stroke is, what phenomena do we move towards or away from? These expressions correspond to the two basic defining characteristics of any living thing, human beings included: instincts towards what we value as good, and away from what we value as bad. Remember, our consciousness has no a-priori values. Our valuation system comes from some personal mix of internal embodied disposition, shaped by experience of the world around us through interpersonal relating. How we then express that value system through our free will, itself constantly updating through feedback in the form of experience, is one of the most fundamental and difficult tasks we face. The broadest stroke of free will, what phenomena to move towards or away from, is the single biggest choice affecting our lives, because it implies change of context and therefore transformation of self. That itself, due to the ambiguity of the change, can be difficult to face. We simply cannot know who we will be on the other side, and what that possible person’s experience of life will be. But at the same time, renunciation or affirmation of context through decision and action is the first and oftentimes the only difficult task to confront. Small changes do not amount to anything if they are done in a context that we cannot affirm. It is why so many people struggle with implementing the change they seek in their lives. Caught between who they are now and who they want to become, they cannot affirm one or the other. Half-measures are implemented that compared to the influencing power of their current relationships (which in the end are what define us as people and organisms) are like a drop of water in the ocean. For transformation to occur, one context must be renounced and the other affirmed. Without physical movement towards or away from, actual action taken to either rule out possibilities or change contexts, the renunciation and affirmation is false and unrealized.
...sees much and knows much