A Non resolution for 2021
One of my childhood's favorite phrases was "A storm in a glass of water" and I still find it relevant and vivid. It cleverly portrays the mental distance between the world and our perception of it. More literally, it describes an event that might seem very severe and disturbing at first glance but has very little true consequences.
A size of an event is subjective to the proximity we have with it. It also depends on the angle from which we perceive it and our prior definition of what it means. I remember this term being used in political context, about relationship problems and even during difficult moments in the workplace. Most often and despite the embarrassment, it is better to admit you've created a storm in a glass of water rather than caused a real disaster. Drama is better than a catastrophe. But sometimes it is also the opposite, if you start a revolution and end up with a storm in a glass of water, you probably haven't gone far enough and lost the battle too early.
In our hyper visual era this phrase receives an additional meaning. Using the confident steps that we take towards digitalizing all forms of communication, a storm in a glass of water can easily be created. You could simply get a good camera and an editing program and you can release your self-made kitchen storm to the endless fields of the internet hoping it'd catch interest. The credibility of this self-made storm and the consequences of it will be determined by the eyes (and speculations) of the curious readers of comments, blogs and articles on the topic.
I wonder how much of the previous years have been a storm in a glass of water. Don't get me wrong, I am not implying for any political or social opinion about the current state of the world. I know very little about the future, epidemiology, economy and the influences of the recent international turmoil and confusion. I also hold the perspective that some environmental catastrophes could happen sooner than we might expect. But aside from all of this, I wonder how all of the anxiety I've experienced recently (alongside many others) affected my consciousness and my imagination, how does the human animal respond to something that might seem catastrophic in the moment of happening but ends up as an insignificant memory.
My first work as performer on stage was over 12 years ago as a dancer/acrobat in the Opera "The Child Dreams" By Hanoch Levin. In one of the most memorable scenes from this bitter and powerful story, a mother and her young boy are escaping from a troupe of soldiers that are trying to kill them. They arrive to the port and find an upper/middle class ship that is about the set sail. The mother negotiates with the captain and agrees to have sex with him in exchange for a spot on the ship. The catch is that there is only a single spot so the mother decides to give it to her son. After the act is over she is asked by the captain to fulfill her part in the deal by leaving the ship and to return to the land before the ship sets sail. Since the son is already safe in the bottom of the ship the deal is done. The mother then realizes that even if she doesn't die by the guns of the soldiers, she will never see her son again and she didn't even have a chance to say goodbye. When the captain sees the sorrow in her eyes as she is going down the stairs he comforts her by saying "and isn't that the most terrible thing about humans? not their evil nor ignorance but the fact that they will eventually adapt to anything?"…
Evolution happens when there is a consistent response to stressors that don't eliminate you. If we are in danger of disappearing soon then this whole article doesn't have any contribution. Otherwise, the question of how we will collectively evolve out of this time, and how each of us will evolve personally are interesting and valuable in my opinion. And we have cognitively come far enough to not only trace the major changes that trigger our evolution but also, to ask if they support us, as individuals, as a society and as a species. We could consider that evolution mixed with the notion (false or real) of support towards something 'better' is what we call progress. It might be though, that the biggest risks for our progress are not what we will inevitably face in our reality. Our risks are potentially rooted in some sort of 'intolerant conformism' which we are slowly wearing as a uniform. It subconsciously happens and increases each additional day that we spend more time gathering 'data' rather than experiences.
This conformism doesn’t belong to any specific political opinion or standpoint. It is the risk of downgrading the quality of experience and It has nothing to do with personal opinions about vaccinations, gender, class or identity politics. This conformism deals with the mental priority we give to thinking through a sense of belonging instead of a transitory and selfless organism. The risk of having things that we'll define as replacements for the reality just to not embody the attachment-seeking, curious, distracted, ignorant, moving and desireful entities that we are. We slowly and gradually flatten the difference between subjective, personal and collective. We confuse mental activity with perception, and illustration of time with the embodied experience of time.
To explain some of our bias towards illusion rather than experience Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote his monumental work The Phenomenology Of Perception. "The theory is but a consequence, a recent and futile correction of empiricism. It accepts its premises, it shares its difficulties, and like empiricism it conceals phenomena rather than clarifying them". In my interpretation of this quote there is a basic understanding that subjectivity, context and individualization are necessary if we want to understand perception. I think that in our era, the process of individuation is becoming more difficult and less intuitive with each year of technological and political 'progress'. If in 1945 Merleau-Ponty already recognized the risk of replacing the embodied experience by data, in the 21st century this process of flattening has taken speed that's never been seen before. Intuition, introspection, and experimentation are supposedly becoming easier but are also reduced to segmented and virtual frameworks.
Tuning intuition and sensitivity to the present experience have always been challenging to humans and this is the content that is being practiced and researched in any discipline or school of meditation, old or new. Anyone that has taken meditation as a pursuit must have learned profoundly that some of these challenges appear eternally when trying to embody fully the experience of reality or 'being in the present moment'. The difficulty is always rooted in this way or another with concentration and its endless nuances. Through practice, these challenges can be perceived as concrete obstacles, and they were highlighted and defined in many of the eastern traditions of mental training; the illusion of self, attachment and dualism. But how can you not attach yourself when everything around you has such a clear virtual and visual representation? When you constantly have the possibility to consciously and subconsciously create your own personal profile with so-called friends, subscribers and consumer habits. Even meditation itself, which is supposed to deconstruct the obstacles, is done nowadays through an app or while setting your timer in your phone. In that sense, we are shooting ourselves in the foot; the sense of more control over the process leads to even less. Every stage, state or act is illustrated way before it is proposed to us internally by the 'real' external environment.
"(…) Perception is thereby constructed with states of consciousness as a house is built with stones, and a mental chemistry is imagined that could fuse these materials into a compact whole. Just like every empiricist theory, this one describes nothing but blind processes that can never be equal to knowledge, because there is no one who sees at the center of this mass of sensations and memories, no one who could experience the harmony between the given and the evoked – and correlatively, no solid object protected by a sense against the swarm of memories".
Responsibility, or, this is not a rant
But the situation of modern life is not so much of a polluted landscape but rather represents us. It reflects our priorities of what to love and what to fear. And we generally and mostly choose to make our existence more efficient instead of experiencing the ambience of our existence.
Philosopher Timothy Morton proposes that improving our relationship with nature depends also on we "make haste slowly" or "urgently do nothing". He reasons that this is not an alternative to concrete actions but a way of healing a damaged friendship or wounded love. If you think about it, healing or improving on an inter-personal level (friendship, romance, family, etc.) is often not rooted in actions but in attention and care. A change of intent is an internal process, and if there is too much focus on its expression or actualization it doesn’t take place. So a slight change of what is worthy of attention and care is what I try to float in the vast sea of mental pollution. And when it does float up, there is a warm sensation of familiarity. Like revisiting the embrace of a childhood's memory.
Reinventing the beautiful spirit
Scientifically, how the past years influence us can be resolved and expressed rather clearly. Gathering reliable evidence, making a coherent study and quantifying it. We can then speculate cause, affect and even a plan of action for desired outcomes. However, many human fundamental motives can't be broken down into these terms. For the sake of clarity, these motives are not contradictory to logic and numerical reason but rather coexist and accompany life in a parallel stream. The necessity for running water, rooftops and type of nutrition can be measured and there should be attempts to provide and equalize it. But empathy, imagination, faith and emotional healing are less tangible and cohesive. Nevertheless, they are just as necessary. I call them motives because I conclude that in our era, the lack of them or the search for them are forces that design people's lives as strongly as the motive to sleep and eat well. It is true that in previous periods "survival" elements could determine life and death more clearly, but this paradigm has shifted tremendously in the past century with the emergence of modern diseases and mental health problems.
To take my point a bit further, I will call the "non survival" life motives - "beautiful spirit". This is a name that was used by the philosopher Hegel in his work "The Phenomenology of spirit". For Hegel, a beautiful spirit is the paradox between the free, abstract and unbound internal force that each human possesses and the actualization of it in the physical world. Since every type of actualization falls short from its formless potential there is constant tension. In my opinion, love, social contribution, companionship and creative outputs are as close as one can get to actualizing their potential, any failure to do so is an integral part of our lives and one that will leave a strong psychological mark.
In that sense, the suffering of being thirsty for days can sometimes amount to the suffering of a teenage break up from a self-perception perspective. In all rational standards this makes no sense but experientially, this rationale doesn't matter even a tiny bit. I have experienced personal losses in different moments and aspects of my life. Shamefully, the grave tragedies I've been through carry a pain similar to moments that in retrospective are "normal" and it is redundant to feel pity for myself. Still, my retrospective cannot grasp or comprehend the grief that happened back then or deny the change of my spirit that happened consequentially.
But what happens if these events will disappear into the metaverse?
The hierarchy of what is 'rightfully sad' in my life will be given through an algorithm while comparing reported sadness of millions. My confusion will be rationally resolved but it will come on the account of what experientially and physically shaped and moved me. And having future generations without the possibility of being confused with their own unexplained existential and emotional imbalances is much worse than how it sounds.
And let's not get delusional, reading this article means that you have access to the internet (and possibly own a computer) which already specifies your life experience to a certain level, but many citizens of the world belong to very different groups. These differences though, don't mean that you both don't share the emotional wound for losing a loved one or the necessity for water and shelter. It does mean that your sense of control and ownership over the way you control your responses to your experience are likely functioning on different sets of conditioning and belief systems. Apart from these differences the nuances and the physicality of your experiences have been unique and not 'countable' in any way, neither with people who share the exact same lifestyle or a totally different one. Identifying the commonality (and not the repetition) between our different experiences is what brought us to the greatest humane achievements of history. Recognizing difference and identifying commonality (not repetition) without the necessity to frame it intellectually or measure it scientifically is the challenge and the pursuit of the spirit. In those great humane achievements we can think of the social progress we've experienced in terms of feminism, human rights, racial equality and the arts (and there is still plenty of work to be done on all). Freedom of expression is not to be taken for granted and it has developed thanks to enough people bravely finding abstract commonality in different experiences. To clarify I will quote Tony Soprano when he is trying to cheer his son up after a breakup in season 6:
Tony: What you're going through, what you're feeling right now, it happens sometimes… Everybody gets the blues. There's a half a billion dollar industry devoted to it.
Tony: No, the music business.
If we bring together this philosophical journey to a clear concrete conclusion, we miss the whole point. As Bruce Lee Said "A finger is pointing at the moon, if you look at the finger though, you miss all the heavenly glory". But extracting something is important. I could propose that more physical movement or seated meditation could bring attention to the important things, but I don't really believe this is enough, it is not everything. Creative outputs and practices have brought me joy and confidence just as much as sorrow and disappointments so also there I don't find an absolute answer. I suppose that every year that passes I learn to choose more carefully where I put my attention, care and my faith. I also do my best to reduce my resistance towards compassion and curiosity, focusing on the commonality with whom I come in contact with rather than differences. All of those give me a sense of direction and something to strive for and let go of when it is needed.
And while finding these strange words of summary I realize that maybe this year was not so different after all, and despite being in the middle of a storm, I am not sure if it happened in a kitchen glass, on the beach or in the strange shell of my reality that I often call existence.
"There came a wind like a bugle; It quivered through the grass, And a green chill upon the heat So ominous did pass We barred the windows and the doors As from an emerald ghost; The doom's electric moccason That very instant passed. On a strange mob of panting trees, And fences fled away, And rivers where the houses ran The living looked that day. The bell within the steeple wild The flying tidings whirled. How much can come And much can go, And yet abide the world! (The Storm by Emili Dickinson)