Getting Current Part 3: 1984-1996

I lived in Tucson for five years, and in that time I learned to drive freight trains, got married and divorced for the third time, went through the death of my baby brother, Mark, and experienced the transformation of my personality.

The easy part was learning to drive trains, and even that had its moments. The control compartment of a locomotive is smaller than the average bathroom, with less headroom. The walls are made of steel, and they quickly acquire a coating of black grime. Into this dirty little room are crammed three people: the engineer on the right-hand side mostly hidden by the control stand, me, the "fireboy" (student engineer), sitting with my knees against the left front door, with the conductor packed in behind me. We are roaring through the desert at 70 mph, the outside temperature is 105 degrees and the air conditioner is not working, as usual. The noise-level makes conversation impossible, and I suddenly notice that my heart is beating faster than usual. Once I'm aware of it, it seems to pound even harder, and now I'm starting to feel claustrophobic--this cab is much too small. My gut is churning and my face is starting to feel tense--is my expression normal or is it doing something strange. I don't think I can sit here in this condition, but where can I go? I have to do something, but what? I tell myself to relax, and then I come to a decision: if it gets so bad that I can't stand it any more, I will tell them to stop the train and let me off. That's the worst thing that can happen. They'll stop the train, let me off, and then they'll fire me for being too weird to drive trains--but I don't have to sit here and explode; there is a way out. Once I come to that conclusion, I actually do begin to relax, and in a few more miles I'm back to feeling ok.

seared oak, arizona, 1988

Seared Oak, Arizona, 1988

That is an anxiety attack, railroad style. I was still having them occasionally in meetings, too, but they were beginning to taper off. Part of what was happening was that I was getting used to the normal sensations of an un-sedated body. I had been continuously stoned for at least seven years--I would wake up at three in the morning and have a couple of tokes--and part of the recovery process was getting familiar again with the feeling of being un-stoned, learning that indigestion is not a heart attack.

There was also the fact that my philosophy of life--get high, don't worry, be happy--had crumbled into dust and ashes. For the "good years" of my pot addiction, I believed I had found the answers to all of life's questions--I had figured it out. Nothing bothered me, I was happy all the time. I made good money, had a couple of girlfriends, drove a nice Toyota truck, did a little art--life was good. And then it didn't work any more. Life suddenly got scary, and if a guy as smart as me, with all my education, had come to this sad state, where could I hope to find answers? Where could I find a way of life as good as the one I had had?

How surprising that the answer to that question began with Alcoholics Anonymous.

teton caligraphy

Teton Calligraphy, 1992

Someone once said in a meeting, "This program is simple; it doesn't require much: all you have to do is change your whole personality." It seemed that one could not simply stop drinking, or smoking dope, or shooting heroin, or whatever, and go on with life as if nothing had happened. For most of us in AA, our drug of choice had been a major part of who we were, our identity; it was involved in every aspect of our lives. Without pot I was not the same person, and in fact I didn't know who I was.

I was left feeling very vulnerable and insecure. I wasn't sure how to act in ordinary situations. Even the checkout line at the super market caused anxiety--what if the cashier should speak to me? What would I say?

The people in AA said that things would get better. I went to meetings and heard people tell their stories, many of which were similar to mine in essence, and I could see that they had learned to be happy. There was hope.

And there was a procedure: don't drink (or use), go to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps. You went to meetings and listened, looking for someone who had been in the program for a while and seemed to have made the kind of adjustment you wanted, then you asked them to be your sponsor. They then guided you through the twelve steps.

I was an active member of AA for nine years, and things did get incredibly better. I was always on call at the railroad, and often out of town, so I couldn't go to a meeting every day (which is recommended, especially in the beginning), but I probably averaged five a week for those nine years. Meetings usually started with one person telling a 20-minute version of their story, and then the rest of us would take turns sharing our "experience, strength, and hope." The honesty one encounters in an AA meeting can be downright embarrassing for the uninitiated, and in nine years I was exposed to a lot of raw humanity. The net effect was that I came to be more comfortable with my humanness, and with that of everybody else. It is very difficult to shock a long-time member of AA with anything a human being does.

There is a lot of variety in AA, and different meetings acquire their own character, emphasizing one or another aspect of the process of recovery, attracting people of similar bent. I learned to find groups that I was comfortable in, and it took me nine months but I finally found a sponsor who had something I wanted--total confidence.

ancient tree

Ancient One, Tetons, 1992

This guy had no doubts about what the truth was, and since I was lost at sea myself, his equanimity was very attractive. I became a regular at meetings where he was a regular, and after the meetings we would hang around and talk, with him doing most of the talking. The most perplexing thing about our conversations was that while he was talking I understood him completely--everything he said was clear, concise, and to the point--but as I was driving home afterwards I was struck repeatedly by the realization that I couldn't remember any of it. It was as if my brain were made of rubber--it could easily stretch to accommodate the ideas he was presenting, but as soon as he let go it snapped back to its usual shape. All I was left with was the memory of having understood, at least for a moment.

One thing I did retain was the meditation technique he taught me, which consisted of sitting with your eyes closed and mentally taking note of each of your fingers in turn. If you found that you had lost track of which finger you were on you started over, and if you found yourself distracted by a thought or some exterior noise you simply noted it and went back to checking your fingers, one by one. He said that meditation was not a way to solve your problems or to accomplish anything in particular. It was just something that was good for you, like brushing your teeth. I did not become a consistent meditator, at least not with the technique he taught me, but I did learn something about the working of my mind that has proved invaluable.

I could rarely make more than one circuit of my fingers before my mind began to wander. Despite my good intentions, I would find myself thinking about some place I had been, some person I had known, what I was going to do after I finished meditating, etc. I would then take note that I had deviated from my purpose and return to ticking off my fingers, but before I actually got back to the fingers I would retrace the flow of thoughts to the one that had first distracted me. This brief reconstruction of the meanderings of my stream of consciousness was not part of the instructions I had been given, but I came to see it as one of the most important products of meditation.

What I discovered was that the first thought seemed to come from nowhere: one moment I would be noticing my left pinkie, and in the next moment an old girlfriend would appear. The next thought would inevitably follow in some reasonable way from the first. It might be of the house she lived in, or a walk we took, or something she said about my mother; and from there the next thought would follow in an equally reasonable but unpredictable way. My brain was playing a game of free association with itself, and in the space of three or four thoughts it could cross the country, or twenty years time.

While the flow of thought always followed a certain logical sequence and could be "understood" in that sense, what impressed me was that I didn't seem to have any control over it. My intention was to focus on my fingers, but all of a sudden there appeared a thought, unbidden. And while they followed each other with connections that seemed obvious in retrospect, these thoughts weren't following any conscious directive of mine--the process by which they were selected was subterranean.

hot springs overflow

Hot Springs Overflow, Yellowstone, 1992

The experience of observing my thought processes during what was supposed to be meditation occasionally spilled over into the rest of my waking life. I began to notice how the lyrics of songs on the radio would nudge the stream of consciousness this way and that--the content of my brain was being programmed by songwriters and disk jockeys. I decided to live without rock and roll for a while to see what I would think about if left to my own devices.

Without the constant input of the music machine, I started noticing how other facets of the environment bounced consciousness around in my head. I would see someone standing on the street and their body language would send my brain off on a tangent that veered from one memory or fantasy to another, from past to future and back again. It seemed there was a pin-ball machine in my head, but who was controlling the flippers? It certainly didn't seem to be me; I seemed in some way to be an uninvolved observer in my own mind.

Since I was an intermittent meditator at best, I only had this kind of awareness of the independent nature of my thought processes once in a great while, when some particular chain of association caught my attention. It was one of those rubber band insights like the kind I got when my sponsor was talking--my brain immediately snapped back to its usual mode of operation.

long beach pebbles

Long Beach Pebbles, Vancouver Island, Canada, 1989

There is probably a great deal of survival value in the brain's resistance to new ideas. If we were to change our orientation to the world with every tidbit of new information that came along, we might never maintain a course long enough to get anywhere. If a set of precepts has been working, more or less, for a number of years, there is a tendency to hold on to them. My dearly held precepts had not been working for some time, however, and it had become clear that I needed a change of course. I had become, as they say in AA, teachable.

However, while I was more open to new ways of thinking, my ability to absorb them was as yet somewhat limited--I was still struggling on occasion just to stay in my seat and not run out the door. For the most part I took the flow of thoughts in my head for granted, as I always had. They appeared simply as "my" thoughts, and I assumed responsibility for them. Some of them I approved of, and some of them I didn't, and those I didn't approve of caused me embarrassment or mental discomfort--they needed to be changed, or "I" needed to be changed so that they didn't occur. I needed to improve myself.

It is easy to see AA as a program of self-improvement: we stop drinking, which results in major improvements in our behavior, and in order to stay stopped we practice "the program"--we learn to avoid the emotional situations which had promoted our drinking in the past. Many people both inside and outside AA see it in this way, as an organization which has self-improvement as its goal.

My sponsor (we'll call him "Joe"), was very straightforward in stating his disagreement with such a view. More than once I heard him say in meetings that most people don't understand what AA is all about--they don't "get" it, even though many of them may manage to stay sober and fairly happy in spite of their lack of understanding.

What they don't understand is that, as Joe would say, "God is sick of people trying to be good. All He wants from us is for us to be honest." That was Joe with his unreserved confidence--he knew what made God sick, and what God wanted.

As much as I admired my sponsor, I had to admit that I didn't understand either. I was still trying to be good, still stuck in the belief that I was in control.

100 blades of grass and a daisy

100 Blades of Grass and a Daisy, Arizona, 1988

The "Big Book", as the book ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS is affectionately known, is clear enough about what our chief problem is--we are selfish and self-centered. This problem is manifest in its most troublesome forms as anger and resentment, and the Big Book says we must be rid of these if we are to remain sober. How can we be rid of anger and resentment without trying to be good?

Joe's answer was direct and unequivocal: he said that if you have a resentment you are wrong. He did not say that sometimes you are wrong, or that most of the time you are wrong--he said that there was no way to have a justifiable resentment. To have a resentment is to pass judgment on a fellow human being, and that is God's territory. He also said that all you had to do about it was to recognize that you had it, admit to God and to another human being that you had it, and of course, in keeping with the program, make amends to anyone that had been harmed because of it. Several years and hundreds of meetings later, his words came to have profound meaning for me, although I'm fairly sure that my meaning is different from his.

AA was the major influence in the growth of my understanding, but not the only one. In 1988 I discovered a book called WHO AM I, a compilation of the teachings of Jean Klein, edited by Emma Edwards. I read it, studied it, wrote in my journal about it, and then dismissed it. It was not for me, at least not then, but I had the feeling that I would come back to it, and kept it handy for the next few years.

In 1989 I got the opportunity to transfer from Tucson back to the San Francisco area, and I jumped at it. I had finally and just recently decided that I could feel at home in the desert Southwest, but when the chance came to leave, there was no doubt where I wanted to be. I made the transition from Tucson AA to Oakland AA with minimal discomfort, and in April of 1990 I met Eve Lurie, who was to become my fiance.

eve at crater lake, oregon, 1990

Eve at Crater Lake, Oregon, 1990

As the years passed and I continued examining the events of my life both past and present--the turning points, the decisions--it became obvious to me that my course had been determined for me by the people and experiences I was exposed to. I could remember specific occasions when people had told me I was smart, talented, that I should go to college--telling me who I was. And of course there was Ms Evans, without whom I might not have gone; and Messrs. Felhaber and Abbot, without whom I might not have finished; and the guy who taught me how to drink, without whom I might not have gone to Miami and met Fred, etc., etc.

If I hadn't gone to college, my life would certainly have been different--I would have been a different person. Any decisions I made after having acquired that experience were determined by the possibilities I had been exposed to there, and by the further delineation of who I was by my interaction with people in that environment.

The more I looked at my life, the harder it was to find any evidence that I had ever contributed anything to it. I seemed to be a patchwork quilt of values, preferences, wants, beliefs, etc., that had assembled itself from the rag-bag of all my experience. What I had thought of as my choices and decisions appeared to be dictated by a frame of reference that had grown all on its own. It seemed that I was nothing more than a sort of biological assembly plant for ideas--they came feeding in from school, teachers, family, books, movies--and my brain used them to construct a picture of reality which then guided its decisions. Most of the process was going on beyond the reach of my conscious scrutiny--I was only aware of the final stages. How could I think of myself as controlling my life when my decisions weren't made by me. In fact, the closer I looked, the harder it was to find anything I could call "me".

If these thoughts seem totally alien to you, try this little exercise: Take any decision you've ever made and ask, why? Why did you choose that particular spouse? Why did you buy that particular car, or house, or computer? Why do you have your present occupation? Then take whatever reason you come up with and ask, further, why was that an important reason? Why did this or that factor carry more weight than other factors which might have been considered equally important? If we continue this process we eventually end up with so many factors and influences that there is no way to sum them up, no way to measure their relative contributions to the final decision. We are eventually reduced to something like, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Is this the way we make decisions--control our lives? We seem to worry and puzzle over all the considerations involved, and in the end the decision just sort of appears. It may happen inside our own personal head, but we can't say exactly how.

baby california buckey shoots

Baby Buckeye Shoots, California, 1992

The little meditation I had done had given me a glimpse of the way my mind worked. I could see each thought well enough as it was briefly illuminated by the light of consciousness, but I couldn't see the underlying mechanisms that chose which thought appeared. Out of the infinite range of possibilities, what made one shine forth instead of another? I didn't have a clue. I began to realize that in all of what I had always thought of as "thinking"--as my thinking--I was only seeing the surface of the thought process. The real action was beyond my view.

These ideas were only vaguely emerging from my AA evolution in 1993, when I decided to give WHO AM I another reading, and this time my major objections evaporated. Jean Klein's point of view was a near-perfect mesh with my own, although he had gone far beyond my skimpy beginnings. It became clear to me that my problems with drugs, with women--indeed all my problems--had one root cause: personality. It was not my personality, per se, it was the very idea of personality--the idea of being a person. The idea that "I" was in control of my own thoughts and decisions; that "I" was responsible for who I was.

Eve and I were living together by then, and the immediate effect of this realization was that I stopped going to AA meetings and told her I would have to move into a place of my own. I had come to the conclusion that all my relationships--with Eve and in AA--were based on ideas of personhood that I could no longer endorse. I could no longer act as if I believed that I was in charge of my "self". I could not participate in what now struck me as the charade of personhood, and yet I realized that the habit of thinking of myself as a person was deeply ingrained. It would not be easy to break, and indeed, I could not imagine what I would be without it.

I moved into a tiny studio apartment and reduced my social life to chatting with the landlord and family as I came and went. I worked as often as they would let me at the railroad--which was every day at least once a day, sometimes more--I filled every nook and cranny of my two rooms with camera and darkroom equipment, and I read WHO AM I? over and over. I read nothing else except for a few photography books. I had learned in AA that the brain does not give up treasured ideas easily or painlessly.

It appeared that the question, "Who am I?" had no answer that made sense in conventional terms. There was no way to get a grip on it. There was no doubt that the idea of myself as a person--that which I had taken for granted all my life--would not hold up to scrutiny, but how was I to think of myself? I couldn't go back to thinking of myself in the old way--it was simply unavailable--and yet there was no way to go forward. I was stuck.

I remember sitting in my little room, staring up at a corner of the ceiling, thinking that I had finally gone over the edge. The men in white coats would come and find me sitting there, and as they carried me out the neighbors would say, "He seemed like such a nice, stable fellow."

Jean Klein said that you simply lived with the question, "Who am I", until the question became the answer. I seemed to have no alternative. Even Bubba was no help, because he had been my personal friend. If there was no person, who was he a friend to?

snow pack in the tetons

Spaceman, Tetons, 1992

After several months of reading and rereading WHO AM I?, I began to branch out into other books of Jean Klein's teaching, (none as good, I thought), and was pointed by one of them toward the writings of Chuang Tsu. From that old fellow I went on to a translation, by Stephen Mitchell, of the TAO TE CHING, which led me to another book of his, THE ENLIGHTENED MIND, (highly recommended)--a survey of the thoughts of sages from just about every religious tradition since writing was invented. The similarities among all their descriptions of reality are monumental, crossing boundaries of culture, space, time, and religious persuasion. I went on to read some of the source materials from which Mitchell had made his selections, and found that my major affinity was with Chinese Zen, which meant that Japanese Zen and Buddhism were also of great interest.

The consistency in all this literature of what it means to be "enlightened" (for want of a better term) was striking. An almost universal element was that the idea of an individual personality, ego, self, even soul, is an illusion, a myth. If you looked closely for it, most said, you would find nothing there.

They also said that finding nothing there is not a tragedy; it is, in fact, the key to the end of suffering.

Jean Klein had gotten me through some tough moments--because he had confronted the void and survived, there was hope. Finding all this additional confirmation that I hadn't exactly gone nuts was comforting, to say the least, but there was much more.

Jean Klein uses a word, "silence" for "that from which everything emerges." (I'm not quoting him directly, here, at least not that I know of--this is my interpretation. Forgive me, Jean.) He describes a technique, though he would never call it that, for getting in touch with this silence which consists of listening to the flow of chatter in our heads and waiting for a space.

The idea of listening to your brain chatter away may be foreign to anyone who has never meditated. It is so constant that we take it for granted, like breathing. I had become aware of it back in Tucson, touring the fingers of my two hands. Back then it had been an intrusion, a distraction from what I thought of as meditation, but now, paying attention to this chatter and waiting for a space in its onward rush was my meditation.

And sure enough, one day a space appeared. My brain immediately began chattering about having noticed a space, eliminating it, but now I had a clue--a sample of what a space was like. With practice they became more frequent, and then the challenge became to notice them without starting to chatter about them immediately--sort of noticing without noticing. Its a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. After a while the gaps between thoughts get longer and longer.

bark, arizona, 1988

Bark, Arizona, 1988

"But what's the point?" you say, "Should I become an idiot without a thought in my head? I enjoy my thinking." The point is not to rid ourselves permanently of linguistic thinking, but to realize how much and in what ways this variety of thinking limits our understanding of ourselves and the world.

It only takes a moment or two of non-linguistic perception to be struck with its difference from our usual mode. The reason for this difference lies in the limited number of things we can be aware of at any one moment.

I had first become aware of the degree to which awareness is limited years ago, when I was still smoking pot and living in San Francisco. In those days I spent a lot of time driving and singing across the Bay Bridge on my way to Oakland--my usual railroad on-duty point. I had been a singer in a couple of rock and roll bands in college--we played fraternity parties for five bucks an hour apiece and a bottle. Since then I had been in the habit of learning the words to my favorite songs on the radio and singing them to myself.

On days when the traffic was more congested or I had been late getting started, all my attention would be taken up in finding gaps in the traffic and getting to them--no brain-space available for singing. On other days I distinguished two possible levels of attention: If I were only reviewing the words of a song in my head, I still had enough attention left over that I could change lanes occasionally to get around a slow mover, but I could not drive as aggressively as on song-free days. If I were in a singing mood--not only remembering the words but paying careful attention to all the subtleties of voice and rhythm--there would not be enough brain-power left over for even a simple lane change.

Consciousness is limited, and the example of arriving at one's destination without remembering how one drove there is frequently encountered in the literature on the subject--apparently it is one to which many of us in the commute era can relate. There seems to be a limited amount of consciousness available, and it can either be stretched to cover a number of mental processes thinly, or focused on some particular experience or thought to the near-exclusion of everything else--no doubt there is a continuum from one extreme to the other.

For most of us, even when our current environment is demanding our full attention, we reserve some mental space for commenting on it as we go. When demands are less intense we allot even more of our available consciousness to thinking about this and that--usually in words or at least accompanied by verbal commentary. If we become aware of this linguistic background noise and learn to get a temporary respite from it, we can devote our full attention to modes of mental activity that are usually more or less obscured by the cloud of verbiage in our heads. The world looks very different when the little attention we have is undivided.

water pattern

Eve, Her Mark, California, 1990

The most obvious change in our perception of the world when we are not distracted by our chattering word processors is that sensory experience is more vivid, but this is only the beginning. A more profound realization is that without words there is no way to divide the world into parts, to identify its bits and pieces. Sensory input is unchanged by that realization--you look out the window and there stands the tree where it has always stood before--but you have no way of distinguishing it from all the other stuff out there unless you think, "tree". The naming of things as we look at them is so automatic that we usually don't notice it until we've learned to stop.

In our ordinary verbal mode we may not consciously name all the things we see when looking out the window--we are much too busy with our thoughts for that, and simply take the world for granted--but in non-verbal mode what strikes us is our inability to name things. We just can't do it without words.

Not only does the absence of language eliminate our ability to name things, it eliminates our ability to distinguish between sensory modalities. If we can learn to take a break from mentally saying, in effect, "I see the bird," and "I hear the bird," it is impossible to sort out with which of our senses we are perceiving the bird. No particular mode of sensory input is identifiable in the general rush of sensation. The result can be quite amusing.

The house in which I had my "basement" apartment was on a hill, so that one side of the apartment was actually on the second floor. One morning I was eating a bowl of cereal and looking out my window at the landlord's garden when the fog of language momentarily lifted. At this break in the flow of words I suddenly had the odd sensation that I was eating the garden. It was not that my cereal began to taste like wisteria, but that--with the lapse of my ability to distinguish between sensations--there was no way to isolate seeing the wisteria from eating the corn flakes--there was just the experience as a whole.

The "wholeness" of perception without language can come to permeate every aspect of existence. The next thing one may notice is the inability to distinguish between "me", and "not me", followed in short order by "good" and "evil", "love" and "hate", etc.--it is language, or what the ancients called, "conceptual thinking", that allows us to make all these kinds of discriminations. It is in finding a way to remove consciousness from the language processing areas of the brain that these distinctions are eliminated, providing the basis for all the great literature of enlightenment.

You can get the impression from reading some of that literature that the reality one sees after enlightenment is different than what one sees before. There are statements about the unenlightened living in illusion, for example, which are sometimes interpreted as meaning that non-conceptual reality is more real than the everyday reality of language--that there really is no valid distinction between self and non-self.

People have taken our inability to discriminate between the sensory perception of "self" and "other" without language as the revelation of a higher truth--that ultimately there is no distinction between self and other, and that "all is one". On many levels the distinction between self and other is specious, but on many other levels it is not.

I was talking to one of the guys at work once about science and cosmology--our conceptions of space, time, etc.--and in the course of our discussion I said something about the ideas we have about our selves being illusory. He replied that if my self was illusory, perhaps I wouldn't mind giving him my paycheck.

In the world of paychecks and legal responsibilities I am still a person, but in the world of pure perception I am not. The challenge is to integrate reality on all levels: on the practical level of language--in which it is usefully parceled out among our conceptions--and on the level of what the ancients called "emptiness"--reality as the undescribable thing it is, without those distinctions that language makes possible.

Describing reality is the business of science, and I had been interested in science since childhood. I began to wonder how the study of the brain might relate to the kinds of insight into mental processes that the introspective religions all seemed to share. The study of the brain and of consciousness had become hot topics, and I plunged into the new writing on these intertwined subjects.

At about this time Eve and I ran into each other at MacWorld San Francisco, in 1994, and began seeing each other again. I was still pretty vague about what was going on with all of this consciousness, reality, and personhood stuff, but I struggled to try and explain it to her, and she struggled to make sense of my garbled account. It has been challenging for both of us, but it seems our fates have been joined, and what we have now is immeasurably better (speaking for myself), than what it was before.

Everything in my life is better than it was before--beyond my wildest dreams. I am, as they say in AA, "happy, joyous, and free"; free of care, anxiety, and almost free of stress (sometimes I get a train that is a little demanding). How could such effects be produced by the realization that I am not a person? What does it mean to not be a person?

The answer goes back to what Joe had said about God being sick of people trying to be good. The problem with trying to be good is that if we are at all successful we have a tendency to take credit for our success. We tried, we made the effort, and we take pride in the improvement we have made. It is this belief in ourselves as the controller of our behavior--as the one who is responsible for our successes and failures--this belief is the source of all our problems.

If we are in control of our decisions and our lives, then success or failure are crucial to our self esteem--they are the measure of our worth as human beings. Since success and failure are relative--they depend on who we compare ourselves with--the foundation of competition is laid and the struggle to keep up, to get ahead, has begun.

In trying to be good--as opposed to struggling for material success--we are still involved in being the controller of our lives. The results of our efforts may be less harmful to our fellow creatures than if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to climbing to the top of the heap, but still we are stuck in the illusion that is the basis of the struggle--the illusion that we are in control. We still haven't seen the truth of who we are.

beached seaweed

Point Reyes Wrack, California, 1992

What we are: we are biological organisms that have evolved the ability to think about ourselves abstractly. This ability has been conducive to our survival as a species, but it has introduced some odd quirks into the universe. Perhaps one of the most odd is the idea of the person.

In describing my early meditation experience I mentioned how thoughts seemed to appear out of nowhere while I was trying to pay attention to my fingers. How our brains manipulate language is still largely mysterious, and there is quite a diversity in the theories being developed. (One of the more recent and interesting is that areas of the brain that had originally evolved for processing visual information were later adapted for the processing of language: DISCOVER).

Whatever the scientists may come up with, it is unlikely that their explanations will increase our awareness of the process of producing language as it occurs in our heads--in real time. Our ability to be conscious of what is going on in our minds can be compared to our ability to be conscious of the workings of our automobiles as we are driving them. There is no way to be simultaneously conscious of all the moving parts and subassemblies that are at work to keep this machinery moving down the road. Fuel pumps, injectors, air valves, computers, hydraulic pumps, pistons, crankshafts, bearings--thousands of pieces of metal, plastic, and silicon are doing incomprehensible things to make the automobile work as an integrated whole, and there is no way that we can picture each of them and their functions as they are doing their work. We press the accelerator and turn the wheel, and try to look out for the other guy.

The brain is a million times more complex than an automobile, and there is no way we can see into its workings as they occur. There are at least millions of interactions between neurons in the production of each word we speak, but all we are aware of is a word emerging out of nowhere. How could we possibly be in conscious control of the production of that word? We can't be. And yet we have the impression that we--our persons, our selves--are the sole and responsible propagators of all the language that pops into our consciousness and out of our mouths. It is a pervasive illusion, nearly ineradicable, and in the next installment we will look more closely at some of the reasons for its pervasiveness, its persistence, and for its inability to withstand close scrutiny.

creek bed on Mount tamalpais

Cataract Creek Greenstone, California, 1992

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(The End of Getting Current Part 3)

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