I have been in an open, polyamorous relationship with my partner Amanda for about a year and a half. The relationship began as open for somewhat coincidental reasons, but over its course, I have developed a respect for polyamory — an understanding of why it makes sense for me, and why, I suspect, I will want my future relationships to be open as well1. And it is not for the reasons that most people think.
For the first time in the course of the relationship, I’m currently being intimate with someone else. However, I was supportive of polyamory before I had taken advantage of its freedoms, even though Amanda was seeing other people reasonably often. The question is: why? Why would I put myself in such a position? Why would I allow Amanda to sleep with other people while she is with me?
The key lies in a word of that final question — “allow”. To me, a healthy relationship is founded on mutual respect. There are many relationships which are not, but I find the most fulfillment from a relationship which is a coming together of two whole people with respect for each other. Anything else, to me, is just a fling (maybe a long-term one). So, under the supposition that I respect my partner, what does it mean to “allow” something? More pointedly, what does it mean to “disallow” something?
Both allowing and disallowing suppose that I have the power to make decisions for her. It supposes that I am informed enough, without even being present, to make the judgment call about whether her actions were right. In a traditional monogamous setting, I have a wholly un-nuanced view of the situation — if she has slept with someone else, she has made the wrong choice, and I, therefore, have been wronged, and I (with the assistance of social norms) am the one who has decided that.
Let’s imagine a polyamorous situation to help get to the heart of this. Let’s say that she met a new partner, and asked me if it’s okay if she sleeps with them. I will not respond with yes or no. She has offered me the power (and responsibility) to decide the best course of action for her, and I feel it necessary not to accept it. In accordance with my values, I can’t accept that power for anyone but myself: it would be a disservice to us both.
However, I don’t mean to say that there are never any emotions that come with it, or that if there are I have an obligation to bury them. Indeed, I often get jealous and feel hurt when she is with someone else. But as a partner, I want to understand. Why did what she did make sense to her? How did she perceive that would affect me? — knowing that I am considered in her decision-making process is important to me. I will communicate how it actually affected me. Perhaps I spent the night alone feeling shitty — it’s important for her to know that, to take that possibility into account next time she makes a decision, and it’s important for me to understand that I am still alive and that we still love each other. But the key is that, because of respect, I give her the benefit of the doubt that she made the best choice she had — I just want to understand her reasoning, and probably be reassured that she still cares — which she always has.
There are certain “codes” that I see as being very powerful, as leading to a stronger and more aligned internal experience. One of these is honesty — I am committed to always being open & honest (in a more nuanced way than I have been in the past). This is not because honesty in itself is “right”, but because integrity (i.e. always doing what I feel is right) is a quality that is important to me, and I have found that honesty is a code that is easy to verify (i.e. it is easy for me to know if I am abiding by it), which leads to integrity. This is because if I do something which I feel is wrong, I learn that, because of my code of open honesty, I will need to tell someone that I felt what I did was wrong. And that pressure is huge — I can no longer keep it to myself, now I need to show others about my lack of integrity when it happens. This pressure very quickly causes me to start acting with integrity.
In the same way, I see polyamory as a code which is easy to verify, which leads to respect as a consequence, and respect for my partner is something I value. Jealousy happens — when she talks to someone I can tell she thinks is attractive, when she stays out later than I expected her, when she tells me she has or had a crush on someone. But I know that we are in an open relationship — we have agreed that being attracted to others, even to the point of acting on it, is okay, and therefore my feeling of jealousy cannot be instantly transformed into a feeling of righteousness and being wronged. Hence, I have to consider the larger situation — I have to see where she is coming from, I have to understand her and her choices, I have to know her better. And in doing so I understand her values, her wishes, her way of being, her way of relating to others — and such a deep understanding leads me to respect her. I have not felt such a deep respect for anyone else I have ever been in a relationship with, and I think the openness of our relationship has been a major factor in that.
Further, polyamory leads to more communication and strength in our relationship. Consider “cheating” in a monogamous relationship. Let’s say I am in a monogamous relationship with my partner and, in a flush of sexually-excited irrationality I slept with someone else. I still love my partner very much and want to be with her, and we have a good, mutually supportive relationship, but I just made a mistake. (The idea that I could sleep with someone else while still being in love with her may seem impossible to some; that idea is worth examining — consider these prompts: masturbation, past relationships, fantasizing.) The question is, do I share my mistake with her? If I do share, it’s very likely that the relationship will end by social contract — many consider cheating to be an unforgivable offense. I don’t want the relationship to end, because I still love her and want to be with her. If I don’t share, I turn one wrong into two, and eventually many — not only have I wronged her with my actions, I wrong her by lying once about it — and, as lies are, probably many more times to cover up the first one. So not sharing is incompatible with my respect for her, and sharing is incompatible with my love and desire to be with her.
Would it not be easier for everyone if I felt free to share my mistake, if I were not in this terrible bind after making it? With the roles reversed, what would it say about how much I care if I were willing to put my partner in such a bind? Letting go of the moral attachment to fidelity allows this situation easily to be a conversation — she can tell me how it affected her, I can understand that and that may inform my desire not to be so reckless again. Perhaps the conversation will reveal something about our relationship dynamic that needs attention, or perhaps something that is secretly making us both unhappy (one of the possible causes of sleeping with someone else). In that sense we can make a plan to repair it, or possibly we will mutually agree it is in both of our best interests to end the relationship, allowing us to be friends afterward, feeling sadness for our loss but not hurt and anger, because we both know that it was the right decision. In the case that the relationship does not end, the conversation may have revealed a deep problem which we are now on the road to solving, strengthening the relationship and bringing us closer. And maybe it was no big deal, and we understand that as sexual beings sometimes we just need to feel attractive and get our rocks off, and the relationship has not been harmed. All of these are preferable to an abrupt end due to an objective wrong, in which one person feels deeply guilty and the other feels deeply wounded.
There are things which I will only briefly mention: for example, it is freeing to know that a friendship/relationship with someone other than my partner can develop in whatever way seems natural, without worrying if every action has crossed the line. This freedom allows me to get closer to others in my life, even if their gender allows some sexual tension, which brings me more fulfillment and happiness. In my experience, even though I like this other woman a lot, it has not in the least diminished the love I feel for Amanda, and experiencing that helps me see that it is probably the same for her when she is with someone else. In fact, since she has asked me for more reassurance now, I am verbalizing why I love her more, thus reminding myself and strengthening my sense of love for her. Where does the idea that love is a finite resource come from?
These are the reasons why polyamory makes sense to me as a way of conducting myself in relationship. It leads to more honest communication (and therefore more integrity), more mutual understanding and respect, and ultimately a stronger relationship. I see traditional monogamy as a way to defend yourself from scary thoughts of abandonment, but the cost is a dynamic in which it is possible to justify a sense of ownership over your partner, controlling them and taking away their free agency. Is that really worth it?
1One reason is that I get to have future relationships without first ending this wonderful one.
What do you say when you have nothing to say? What do you do when your song is a nice accompaniment to a vocal line, and there are no words to accompany?
I could talk about my life. I could mention my new teaching job, the cosmic interference with my busking, the flood… those all seem so incidental.
Maybe silence is okay. Maybe I am saying something — I am writing a lot of music, after all. I’m feeling pressure from Amanda (my girlfriend and closest friend) — not in any way that she is instigating, just a side-effect of who she is — to say something meaningful, something important. I can’t. I don’t feel like my ideas are important in that way, in the way that they are ready to jump from my mind into another’s and have any benefit. I think only vague half-truths: a strong conclusion, a value to hold on to, feels miles away. I know personal truths, I am feeling confident in them, and it is a great feeling, but words always miss the mark. They always make me seem either more certain or more uncertain than I am, with them I don’t know how to walk the fine line where I really communicate. And if I could . . . would I put it in a song; would I write it here?
I don’t think I would be bothered if my music felt complete without words. But I have a couple of songs in the oven that are just begging for words, that’s musically obvious to me. The missing instrument is words. I see a symbol, a metaphor: my life for the song, the words for… what? But it does feel that way — my life has a great groove but is also missing something. Missing lyrics.
I would normally argue that my lyricless music is saying something — it does have a message — but, like my thoughts and my truths, words cannot communicate it. But I’m incredulous. That argument doesn’t have the ring it used to.
So, it turns out I’m not dead. How about that?
I have dropped out of school, and am busking for a living. It is tiring (especially when I forget to drink enough water), sometimes discouraging (when I play things to no response whatsoever or make $5 in an hour), but mostly great. My job is making music! And more importantly, my job is making my music, or music I am in love with — although certain pieces tend to attract more tippers than others, so it’s not truly free (what is?).
My grandmother contacted me telling me about a startup mixer so I could find a job. I don’t think she really understands my decision. I can understand that — she wants me to get a stable, well-paying job, have kids and a family, and go to church. The usual narrative. The other day I was idly contemplating being a father. Not now, of course. But I can see the draw; I can see that being a pretty special thing. The question is whether it is worth it to me. Sacrifice is part of love. But do I sacrifice for my child, or do I sacrifice a child (umm! — sacrifice having a child) for my other loves? That is not a question I am remotely prepared to answer.
I used to think — perhaps I still do — that big questions like those aren’t really worth answering, at least not rationally. I suppose this “used to” is fairly recent, as I had spent a long time on them prior, and they led me nowhere but in circles of unfulfilled dustkicking. My self-image can be so limited at times, and the rational mind is a slave to its images. What I can really do, what I’m really made of, I perhaps thought, won’t be small enough to be so easily decided — it must be eased into, made part of myself through exploration and long, gradual growth. But the liberation I feel from this new occupation of mine has shown me that perhaps at points along this process such a life decision is valuable, that it can be a beacon that reminds me that I chose this because it was important to me — more important than anything else at one time — and so gives me something to hold onto in times of uncertainty or suffering. It sounds very compelling, doesn’t it? But I am still in the honeymoon phase of my relationship with my life as a musician, so the only thing I can be sure of is that my thoughts about it are distorted.
And am I really good enough to make this a living? Maybe Boulder is the only place people appreciate public performances of amateur classical music. Maybe when I migrate for the winter I will be met with indifference or contempt, and I will be stuck in a new city with no job. Maybe when I improvise or play my originals people only tip me because I have brought the piano out, not because the music speaks to them in any deep way — I know that is not true, my second piano sonata is almost always met by applause, but it has been 10 years since I wrote that; do I still have it? A teenager passes by and plays most of the pieces I do — not as well, but not badly — and he will surpass me by my age. Will I ever have the guts to sing out there?
A thousand fears and doubts dance their rite around my dream — all I can do is to go out there every day and hope it goes well. I think it’s proof that I’m alive. I pose this question to myself: would I rather be wildly successful in a software company, or wildly successful as a musician? The latter, by any metric. “Wildly” need not even appear. Standing on a plank and singing to the jury, my heart beating a thousand times a minute, with the conviction of a soldier — this outshines any vision of a successful software idea.
I’m not leaving software. But my most exciting software ideas aren’t the kinds of things one can easily make a living on. I’m working on a browser-based programming environment which explores a new way of designing and organizing code. I don’t want to say too much about it because as I code the idea continues to develop in my mind, and I don’t want to nail it down yet (maybe ever). But anyway, to make money with that would sacrifice its beauty; this tool is not for productivity, at least not at first: it is exploring a way of thinking. It is easier to make a living making the music I love than the software I love. If my life is to overflow with love and happiness, music is the breadwinner.
Again — only a month in. But I think this is the way to do it, for me. I’m not setting myself up for a comfortable life, but comfort is a trap anyway. It is the contrast that feels so good, and without that contrast comfort is just normal. Without discomfort to prepare the contrast, comfort is dull and boring. Anyway, that’s how I see it. Funny coming from a hedonist like me. I guess I’m having a stint of long-term hedonism at the expense of short-term.
Maybe someday I won’t even feel the need to justify my choice anymore. That’s when I’ll really be in it.
It is part of growing up, I keep telling myself — doing what I know — for some definition of know — is right, despite the advice of my family and almost everyone (but my best friend who is my only beacon in this whole mess). I have a good family — supportive, have my best interest in mind, certainly not the image of the disapproving father so pervasive — and partially I haven’t been completely honest with them, because it’s scary. Nonetheless, I feel a lot of pressure from their attempting-to-be-neutral positions, and I know what I want — what I need to do, but when the time comes to say it I can’t, condemning myself to this purgatory.
I’m not going to finish college. I am very close, only a few credits away, but it is not going to happen at the end of this semester, and everyone is like “but it’s just one more and it’s important for the future” — not so different from my reasoning for returning to college in the first place — I have been at this decision point before, and did convince myself with the assistance of my family that it was the right thing to do. Maybe it was once, and although I did not achieve the goals I set for it, it isn’t right anymore.
Here’s the really hard part, and I have to speak this with less certainty than the other, because different parts of my mind and body are fighting over it. I don’t think I’m going to finish this semester. Try as I might (whatever that means) I cannot commit myself to something that I don’t truly believe is serving me, and right now that is school. I don’t have that kind of control over myself. My grades are really slipping; each moment here feels like trying to run in a dream, suspended in the air. I know, what’s another month? It really doesn’t matter either way. It would matter if I wanted to go to grad school, but years of getting to know myself and being friends with grad students, I don’t think it is the place for me. I am too disorganized, my intellectual exploration is founded in too much curiosity and not enough desire to contribute. Suddenly a pursuit will become uninteresting and another will take me by surprise, but you can’t just switch like that in school.
But you can just switch like that in life. Why would I arbitrarily obligate myself to someone else when I am exploring what I love? Out there in the cruel, forgiving, free world, I can pursue whatever I like whenever and however I like to. Yes, I need to make money, but that’s not such a huge deal. I don’t really get why people make their way of earning money the centerpiece of their lives. Insert canonical white-picket-fence rant.
I don’t have a good phrase to describe who I want to be or what I’m going for. I think of such phrases as potentially guiding, locally, but ultimately limiting. To define myself with words is to forget every moment the words do not account for — when would someone include the Pepsi they had for breakfast in their self-definition? — but that bottle of salt and sugar is part of me, negative or however you want to judge it. Of course, not having such a phrase makes it difficult to assess the value of a difficult easy decision like this, and without a mechanism for assessing value I have no choice but to be human and follow my hearts — there’s nothing else that I can say with my vocabulary that doesn’t sound like a waste of my life.
I have long valued every moment of my time. A year of my life spent unhappy in order to support the remainder of my life never seemed worthwhile to me — I know that sounds irrational — but that seems to be the way I relate to time. A month spent in school, a month not making my living by sharing my musical heart, a month depressed and careless, a month of missed opportunity.
And yet, it is only a month. But why would I stay? I can’t articulate any convincing reason. It will make it less work should I ever decide to come back and finish — but that is actually false. One class is just as many as four, if not more.
I have had my struggles, but at important times I have always listened to the guidance of my family, I think I have always made what they saw as the best choice. This time, I think, their poor choice is the right one — if only symbolically, if only to remind myself whose life I am living.
I have an uncomfortable yearning, a yearning to create something, but I have no ideas about what specifically I want to create. My mind falls back on those things which I have enjoyed creating in the past: a programming language, a piece of writing or music. They are taunting me with old half-ideas that never became anything, and they remain half-ideas that are not sufficiently developed to become something. I have no constraints; I am blinded by the endless possibilities the world offers me and cannot even see into the next hour. I have no goals; my former underlying goal of progress has shown itself to be illusory, at least for now, so all I have to guide me is my own creative pleasure. It is picky and has the attention span of a gnat, except for when I manage to summon that elusive, intense weeklong focus which I am not sure I’ve had for years.
“I Am Unique,” he shouts in forceful desperation as the Church to Galileo. His thoughts deeper, more profound than those of unquestioning masses, so sayeth the Lord. He sees himself pushing the boundaries of social construction, tangling with sanity, becoming the unimaginable sage he thinks he is creating. Like me, he seeks a life like none other, a life with color and breath, without limits. He believes that he is distinguished by these young thoughts.
I have stolen when I had desires beyond my means. I have lied. I have felt the weight of regret. He steals things he does not desire that are within his means. He would happily lie. He feels little regret in the name of his experiment, which he calls “growth”. He is ashamed of me, and wishes to break free from my quiet, well-meaning shackles.
He gives expectations of him the finger, trying to release his ultimately inward-focused frustration. He screams with my closed mouth. He would have me explain himself if he were ever in a position of true compromise. I can’t help but feel his adolescent influence as I write.
But we are a team. We both want to be heard. When we both have one thing to say, he will be the one with the balls to say it. He’s the one who kisses the girl, he’s the one who sings at open mic, he’s the one who writes music and love letters, who drops my secure life plan to make us happy.
And now, he is asking for the keys to my car.
I suspect those around me think I am losing my mind. They may be right — I mean, if I am right — and in that case I am not qualified to judge the rightness of either of us. Alright, enough of that, I had something I wanted to say.
Self-deconstruction is the phrase I use to describe why I think I think they see what I think they see. I have have been using that phrase being relatively certain it describes what I am doing, but not really knowing what it means. I had a rather vivid experience of it today after a bath, and I would like to give it as an example.
The lights were off, and I had stuffed my pants in front of the crack at the bottom of the door to prevent any light from leaking in. I could only feel whether my eyes were open or closed, sight was not a thing. I usually take a black bath to deeply relax or meditate. This time, it was a little too hot, and I was rather full of caffeine so my body had a natural affinity for being tense.
Squirming around in the tub, I had a little conversation with myself about whether I wanted to get out of the bath. It went something like this:
Self: Self, I would like to get out of the bath now.
Self: But you don’t feel like going to bed yet.
Self: Oh, hmm, you are right. Ok, I’ll stay here.
Self: Hey wait a minute! This is uncomfortable and I’m not enjoying this.
Self: But you still don’t feel like going to bed.
Self: Right… I get that… hmm how to resolve this.
Self: Hey wait a minute! Who said I have to go to bed if I get out?
Self: Well what are you going to do then?
Self: Hmm, I could, ummm… mmm….
Self: Wait, I don’t have to answer that. I’m just going to get out now.
After this argument I had been jolted into a place of self-conversation, just kind of describing why I was doing each thing I did. I unplugged the drain plug “because that’s what I do when I’m getting out of the bath”, and I up I stood, to Self’s disappointment. As the drain blurped the bathwater down, I pawed for the towel I had so consciously placed on top of the toilet, and began to dry myself off, “because I don’t want to get water on the floor, to be courteous.”
I am typically not a terribly courteous person. I’m often lost in my own world, oblivious of the existence of others. But I am aware that not everyone is like that. I get the impression that my roommate is very often thinking of how he is impacting people around him. In a moment of egotistical superiority-confirmation I thought “and some people get consumed by that.”
While I can be awfully egotistical for long periods of time without noticing, criticizing others is one of the things that always jolts my thought process out of its self-serving little world. I almost unconsciously catch myself and try to apply the criticism to myself. Thus:
I am trying not to be consumed by anything.
Nonsense, we are all consumed by something.
You just can’t see what it is.
One could say that being consumed by something, simultaneously being aware and accepting of that, is the definition of “living in alignment with yourself.”
But who said living in alignment with yourself is a desirable goal?
Because it makes you happy.
But who said being happy is a desirable goal?
And usually once I get to happiness the deconstruction stops and the usual motivators, the way I had for relating to the world, for measuring “how I am doing”, all that stuff falls apart and I have this wonderful feeling of blankness. Yes “wonderful”, shut up, I know.
Sometimes it goes into evolutionary ideas: happiness is a desirable goal because it reflects control and comfort, which attracts women because it used to help for raising healthy children. But that starts its own all-too-familiar chain of deconstruction about goals, free will, and the meaning and dynamics of reproduction. It’s similar to the above, and similarly I am eventually left with blankness.
Blankness is an, ehem, goal of meditation, but I seem to stumbling on it by accident over and over. Just little ones though, meditation still has a stronger effect.
But this deconstructive trend is popping up in many aspects of my life. I suspect it makes it very frustrating to argue or discuss with me, because I compulsively deconstruct the terms of the argument until I am not certain the thing we are arguing about has any meaning — or anything has any meaning for that matter. I have no idea what the other person’s experience of this is (aware that others’ ability to have experiences is one of my beliefs).
For now, I’m just basking in the liberation that this mental state is giving me. I seem to believe that it will end sometime and go back to “normal”, but I don’t really have any justification for that. I’ve been intentionally pushing the boundaries of conventional sanity, trying to experience the world in a unique way… and the other night I had the frightening sensation that it might be possible to succeed, losing touch with what others call reality. Now that I am on this path, can I stop? If I hold on to my conventional “realistic” worldview, I simply notice myself holding onto something that is not what it claims to be and deconstruct again.
Kind of cool, kind of scary, kind of … blank.
I have been working hard on my experimental posts recently, and with each post my standards raise alongside my anxiety. So I thought it would be prudent, as a way to unblock myself, to write in my simple style, speaking the simple truth.
I want to be clear with myself: this is my blog. I am not the pictures I paint of myself; my image only limits me. When I am not a Haskell hacker, it makes sense that I would not write about Haskell (99% of my traffic comes from the Haskell community, so perhaps the source of my anxiety is clear). I’m being a kid, naively experimenting with words, fancying myself some kind of artist, as I perceive my readership just wanting to learn more about their craft.
But that is the beautiful thing about this blog. It’s a big jumble of Luke, following along as he explores. As I told an anonymous commenter (who was probably my boss) right after I lost my job:
My blog isn’t an advertisement for my career. It’s here both for people who are interested in my technical ideas and for people who are following my journey to find a place in the world.
So I have to remember that, and by publishing this I hereby forgive myself for not posting anything technical for a while. That’s not where I’m at, and I am not the property of my readers.
Incidentally, I’ve been planning a post exploring the concept of “Computably Uncountable”. No promises though.
Perfection has always been a demotivator for me. I think it’s that way for a lot of people. Once I start holding myself to a standard, my expression is strangled shut. I have to let the shit through before I can see if there is caviar in it. No apologies for imagery. Poop.
Incidentally, if you are one of those people who appreciates this Luke-jumble, you can support my writing like this: . There is also a donate button on that page if you are feeling especially charitable. I really do love writing, and the fuller my reserves the more time I can spend doing it (besides, it’s inspiring to see people enjoying my work).
You are a slave? Relationships always seem to divide the world in two. “It’s easy, just do what you want.” I was waiting in the hall for my class to start. When it works, it is amazing. I wonder if anyone will get it.
Your decisions are yours. Life splits: the one you have with your partner, and the one where you get to be honest. She was full of childlike — childish? — wisdom. My mind began to wander. The moments when God takes over my hands, I cannot fathom the structure of what I am playing, I could not repeat it in ten years. I wonder if everyone will get it.
Give it up, hang with the homeless, flee to India. The closeness promised is all too often usurped by a fear of hurting them. Perhaps I could have learned from her if I wasn’t so obsessed. I thought about waiting at the bus stop. Of course, it’s couterbalanced by the moments when he goes to the john and flushes the toilet into my fingers. I wonder if I will lose readers.
Trade this life of suffering for another; at least you chose it. It is this selflessness that gets in the way. I learned about myself, I learned about who I am when I am obsessed. I thought about lying in bed, trying to convince myself to go to sleep. If that happens during a show, the best I can do is to forget it ever happened. I wonder if I’ll love it.
And because you can choose that other one, that means you are choosing this one. We are taught to be selfless, always to put others before ourselves. I didn’t learn of her yogic ways. I thought about refreshing the page for the fifth time this minute. No reflection, no embarrassment, just pretend I’m better than that. I wonder if I’m a writer.
There is no slavery. Relationships bring us back to reality where things are not so simple. Those little snippets, always pointing of a bigger picture, pointing in a world I am not. I reminisced to the days of indecisiveness at the supermarket. Because he’ll come back sometime soon. I wonder if I am wasting time.
There is oppression, but even slaves can make themselves a beautiful life by trying to break free. Here, putting the other before you can be secretly self-serving; serving yourself can be deeply compassionate towards the other. I want to see with all the bases. I longed for sitting by the bathtub as it filled. Maybe next minute, maybe next show. I wonder about the universe.
They may not succeed, but at least they lived for a purpose. The simple mantras are never the whole truth. I have a big picture, but I want to see with hers, with Obama’s, with Joe the Hippie’s, with Bob from Management’s, with Evil Knievel’s. I dreamed of half an hour before I get to see her. And I will be.
Live for a purpose. God would never be so blatant. Even with James Randi’s, which as one of its vectors has that there is only one basis. Now it is time for class to start. I love life as a human.
I have been going through an intense period of self-discovery and reconstruction. I realized that the path in life I have been following for the past several years is not working for me; it is not resonating with me, and it is taking me somewhere I don’t want to be. This realization was revealing itself to me at the same time as a complicated and heartbreaking end to a (short) relationship unfolded, and everything I believed crashed down and came into question. I was a programmer with no desire for a computer, I was a calm communicator behaving violently, I was an atheist experiencing God.
I believe that I am now picking up my pieces and realigning with my dreams — dreams I had forgotten or dumbed down. I’ve believed this several times during the past weeks, only to find another layer collapsing beneath me, so I may be full of shit. But all I can do is to use the best information I have now. It’s a very interesting, emotional time for me.
One of the axioms that crashed during this experience was the idea that I have any control over what happens in the world. This began as a grounded life principle: my attempts to control life only led to more suffering, so I should surrender to the flow of the world. It percolated up to my intellect, combining with the studies of physics I was using to distract myself from my emotions, eventually leading me to the confusing world of philosophy that I love to entertain.
The idea that there is something physically more to a human being than a physical system is something I consider absurd. The conventional non-spiritual idea is that you put more and more molecules together and suddenly a light turns on called consciousness. Humans have consciousness, dogs probably do, lizards perhaps not as they are simple stimulus-response machines, bacteria have no brains so certainly not. Associated with consciousness is the ability to make decisions as an independent entity: free will. Cognitive scientists are madly in search of the magical light that turns on consciousness, a holy grail in our search to understand ourselves.
My developing position — I won’t call it a belief, but I’ll say I am considering it and its implications seriously — is to reject the above narcissism. I see what we define to be consciousness as a gradual increase in sophistication of these biological machines. There is not self-awareness and self-unawareness, merely a band of sophistication in which we communicate that there is a definite “I” and that it is aware of itself. We can communicate that to ourselves, by having a little simulated conversation in our brains in which we say such things to some abstract person.
My experience, particularly at the end of the aforementioned relationship, showed me that a great deal of my self-awareness — my free will — is a hoax. I listened, I reasoned, I concluded the best action. I watched as a ridiculous prediction took hold of my reasoning process. I watched as I carried out, in a state of mental contradiction, the opposite of what I had concluded. I watched myself crying, simultaneously astonished and unsurprised by the way things actually unfolded. I saw myself not as a single unified “I”, but as an ensemble of communicating (or not) decision-making machines, combined with a mechanism retroactively justifying my ridiculous actions.
That free will I was so convinced I had struck me as a process, always living a moment in the past, existing to analyze and retrain my unconscious decision making processes for the future. I was a sophisticated machine, but a machine. I am governed by the same laws as a rock tumbling down a landslide. When asking whether it is possible that I will not push publish in a few minutes and share my thoughts with the world, I’m expressing not a set of a decisions available to me, but a state of uncertainty about what my action will eventually be.
I was walking down the mall and had the strongest urge to pick up a brick and throw it through a window. Jail schmail, money schmoney, I just wanted to do something nuts to release the pressure. And I did not; I watched the urge pass, frustratingly, as I didn’t carry out the action I had pictured so strongly. I couldn’t; my consciousness is not a decider but a justifier, and the action was not there to justify. There was no immediate reason it could come up with for why I didn’t — I was even disappointed that I didn’t. One might view this post as the belated conclusion of my justifier of that situation — that it does not in fact have control of my actions.
I see the universe as a great continuous four-dimensional tapestry, that I have the capability to view only a little slice at a time. I cannot ground the idea that there is some “I” which can cause the tapestry to be altered meanwhile existing within it. What could “altered” even mean in this situation: altered from what? I have been seeing this as a physicist studying something external for quite some time, but to incorporate it, to understand it as something I am part of, is taking me to a whole new place.