“Your posts always bring me back to the simplicity of this moment. You have a way of taking the air out of anything my mind can latch on to. But I still feel burdened by my thoughts. Why does the “inner world” have to be so complicated when the “outer one” is so simple? Why are there even two? Why do I need to see myself as a character in my mind? Why can’t I just BE without thinking of myself? Why is there even a mind? I know these are philosophical questions and there are no clear answers. I guess I’m just tied up in confusion…”
About a year ago, my wife and I were gazing up at a full moon when I remarked, “Funny, how the phenomenon of tidal locking works. You always get to see the man in the moon.”
To which she responded, “What man?”
And I said, “You know. Like the man in the moon. The face in the moon.”
“What face? I don’t see a face,” she replied, puzzled.
“What do you mean you don’t see a face? Everyone sees a face,” I replied astonished. “Then what do you see?”
“Nothing in particular. Maybe something like a world map.”
I realized that, having grown up in Eastern Europe, the “man in the moon” association was not something she had grown up with. Many cultures, in fact, have different versions of what they see. The Japanese, for instance, see a rabbit making “mochi” (glutinous rice).
So, I showed her the man in the moon and it took her a few seconds to see what I was talking about. But then she saw it.
A couple of weeks ago, we were standing on the driveway looking up at the full moon and she goes, “You know, you’ve ruined the moon for me. Now, every time I look at the moon all I can see is that ridiculous face!”
WHY IS THERE EVEN A MIND?
Because without one, there would be no form of organization to the reality we perceive. Everything would be as it is: flux. There would be no objects, no events, no people, no space, no time – nothing but incessant emergence, transformation and dissolution. It would be like staring into a cosmic stew. Yet, the mind creates forms out of flux, events out of entropy, people out of phenomena, time out of the timeless, space out of emptiness. Without a mind to organize it, reality would be an incomprehensible soup.
It’s like looking up a starry night sky. There was a time when all I saw were incomprehensible clusters of stars. Now when I look up, I see specific constellations. My mind has learned to organize the night sky into a format that makes it more familiar, recognizable and comprehendible.
That is the basic function the mind serves. To organize reality into something that can be interacted with.
But all minds do this. Even the minds of animals.
What makes our human minds different is that we possess the power of imagination. And what that word “imagination” means is that we are able to SIMULATE scenarios that do not exist in our immediate present. That simulation may take the form of a past experience that we are recreating. Or it may take the form of a projected scenario that we may encounter in the future.
WHY SIMULATE AT ALL?
What’s the purpose? All this thinking and fantasizing seems to generate a lot of suffering…
The simple reason is that: Simulation allows for an accelerated evolution.
Think of space travel for instance. Recall when NASA wanted to put a man in outer space? Think of the countless variables and risks they had to consider in order to achieve that objective. How does zero gravity affect the human body? What kinds of conditions exist in outer space? What temperatures can the external shell of the craft withstand? What kind of heat does the friction of the atmosphere create at speeds that approach escape velocity?
Now, imagine NASA had no simulators. No means of creating similar conditions in the lab to that of outer space. Their astronauts did not spend hours in swimming pools learning to function within zero gravity. No one was trained on flight simulators to test every kind of exit and re-entry scenario imaginable. What would have been the odds of success?
If NASA had no choice but to figure it out by trial and error they would literally have to build a new space shuttle every single time for every scenario they would need to test. The financial costs of this, not to mention the loss of human life, would be so astronomical that space travel would simply be unviable. Even if they persisted with this approach of trial and error, how many millennia more would it have taken until man could finally enter space?
The mind is the body’s SIMULATOR.
Its job is to envision multiple scenarios which have either transpired or are yet to transpire and analyze these scenarios in such a way that if any one of them were to ever become a reality, the body would know JUST what to do in that scenario. It’s the same with an astronaut or an airline pilot who uses their training to crash land a plane safely. Obviously they have never had to train on a plane that is actually crashing. But they have simulated these scenarios sufficiently that when it actually happens, their automatic response is one that is suited to the event even if it’s the first time they’ve ever encountered it.
In order to simulate any scenario, the mind has to create a second version of you IN that simulation. This is your virtual avatar. Your doppelganger. And through each simulation this simulated version of you is going through scenario after scenario: some that end well and some that end badly, even as the “real you” is sitting in relative comfort and safety. This is like the astronaut who, while sitting in the safety of the NASA lab, is projecting his virtual self into all kinds of dangerous flight based scenarios.
That virtual version, that is the protagonist of the mind’s simulations, is what we commonly tend to refer to as “me”.
Now, none of what I’ve outlined so far is really the cause of any of our problems. In fact, they are evolutionary mechanisms that have evolved as SOLUTIONS to the natural challenges that life poses to all organisms.
The problem and root of our existential angst really comes down to two factors:
The first is that, the simulations that our minds create are structurally limited. The second is that, the simulation is mistaken for reality and thereby the virtual self in the simulation is taken to be the real self.
These two glitches exacerbate each other in a number of ways through an endless feedback loop.
WHY ARE SOME SIMULATIONS FLAWED?
I’ll give you an example. When my daughter was four she learned that one puts out a fire by throwing water on it. This made a lot of sense to her since fire was hot and dry and water was cold and wet. Then one day one of our electrical appliances began sparking and, before I knew it, I saw her running with an empty cup to the sink to fill it with water. So, I stopped her and explained to her that an electrical fire is different from a regular fire. And water is the one thing that she absolutely should not be using to put it out. Her mind had incorrectly simulated what would happen when she threw that cup of water on the fire. Her imagined scenario had been one in which the fire would have been put out. Whereas, in reality, she would have been electrocuted.
The limit of a simulation is that it can ONLY use data that it is already familiar with in order to project a simulated scenario. All a simulation does is re-organize that data into different permutations and combinations. But it cannot create NEW DATA.
That new data only comes from the PRESENT MOMENT and our immediate reality. So, either one needs to be electrocuted or one needs to know that someone somewhere has been electrocuted in order to understand that one does not throw water on an electrical fire.
So, for example, if you’re trying to figure out how to beat traffic to get to work, you may accurately envision a whole number of alternate routes because your mind is already familiar with the layout of the city. Whereas, when you are travelling in a foreign city with no map, your simulations are going to lack data and therefore accuracy.
Thus, the natural stance of a mind needs to be one of “data gathering”. Rather than actively simulating, it must be actively observing and registering. For a mind to effectively simulate, it must absorb as many data points from its environment, in REAL TIME, as possible. The more keenly observant it is, the more accurate its own simulations are bound to be.
All this is common sense.
However, this is not how most of our minds operate.
Most of our minds are actually perpetually focused on simulating and only minimally observing. Rather than actively absorbing data points, they are simply rehashing scenarios based on the limited data they already have.
The mind is limited in its ability to do two things at once. Its attention cannot be fully dedicated to the act of simulating and observing at the same time. Thus, when it is simulating it is hardly observing.
WHY DO WE COMPULSIVELY SIMULATE?
One of the reasons for this tendency to compulsively simulate is what I mentioned earlier. Mistaking the simulated self as the PRIMARY self, we have no choice but to favor the simulated reality in the mind as being the FUNDAMENTAL reality we inhabit OVER the reality our bodies do. And so the entire equation turns backwards. (This is the ONLY reason a phenomenon such as suicide can occur.)
Rather than adapting our simulations to the physical reality we inhabit, we instead begin to do the opposite. We try and change physical reality to line up with our simulations. Concurrently, we begin modifying our natural self to match the simulated self.
An extreme example of this, is those who undergo compulsive plastic surgery in order to embody a certain ideal of beauty. The distorted and almost inhuman appearance they end up creating is a reflection of how distorted their simulated self is in the mind. But even though most of us are not nearly this extreme, almost everyone is doing it to some extent.
Yet, beyond body image, the very choices we make in our lives: where we live, what work we do, what we believe, our political opinions, our self-esteem and so on, all have that same cumulative effect of stuffing a square peg into a round hole. Or in this case, stuffing a self into a “me”-shaped hole.
What we call the “ego” is nothing more than a flexible and fluid self, forced into a rigid identity container.
So, this is the fundamental error. This is why most of the suffering we perceive in the world exists. Simulators running amuck, trying to structure reality into whatever distorted hierarchy they are projecting onto it. Our perception has flipped backwards.
WHY HAS OUR PERCEPTION FLIPPED?
Why is there this tendency to mistake the simulated self for the real self in the first place?
Simply put: awareness is attracted to change.
To illustrate what I mean by this, let me tell you about my kids again. In our family, screen time is strongly regulated. The girls get exactly one hour of television in the evenings when they can watch their cartoons. And it’s always fascinating to watch them watch their cartoons. Because the moment that TV comes on, they go from being bubbly, enthusiastic kids into absolute zombies.
It is almost impossible to get their attention while they are watching their cartoons. And that’s because their awareness favors the TV reality over the reality they are inhabiting, because things are happening at a much faster rate in that reality.
Not much is happening in the living room reality. The cat is stretching and strolling across the carpet. Dad is clearing up some dishes. Mom is setting out the clothes for their school tomorrow. Whereas, in the TV reality all kinds of amazing, terrifying, exciting things are happening on a moment by moment basis.
In other words, the RATE OF CHANGE in the reality on the screen is much higher than that of the reality around them. And thus, they are fixated on that reality over this one.
This is also why we are so immersed in our own simulated scenarios in the mind over the one we inhabit.
WHAT KINDS OF SCENARIOS DO OUR MINDS SIMULATE?
This is a good question to ask. Rarely do we ever simulate mundane scenarios. Most of what we simulate are RISK or REWARD scenarios. In other words, we imagine scenarios in which either good things or bad things are happening to us.
In our minds, we are either getting praised or put down. We are either appreciated or misunderstood. People are either out to get us or love us. We are winning or losing. We are succeeding or failing. We are triumphing or being vanquished. Over and over, these are the kinds of scenarios we are projecting. Because THAT is the whole point of a simulation. It is to anticipate scenarios of threat or reward in an attempt to maximize our chances of survival.
But it’s precisely because these simulations are designed to focus more on the “dramatic moments” that our awareness is naturally drawn to the simulated reality over the physical one. Dramatic moments cause all sorts of chemical reactions in our bodies and chemicals are addictive. The fact that one could be standing in a kitchen making a cup of tea and at the same time be experiencing great grief or joy or terror or heart-warming feelings, based on whatever simulated script is playing out in the mind, is both miraculous and ominous.
Simulation is STIMULATION. And when one becomes addicted to feelings of stimulation (i.e. arousal) then one will go looking for more of it.
IS THIS WHY WE SEEK TECHNOLOGICAL STIMULATION?
Stimulation seeks greater stimulation.
This is why our rapid technological progress also represents an existential crisis for our species. Because all technology does, is it augments the power of the human mind. It magnifies our ability to analyze, organize and simulate, exponentially.
Yet, precisely because simulation is STIMULATION, the cumulative effect of this outcome is levels of stimulation that are reaching near critical levels. The addiction is full blown and all consuming.
And since the backwards orientation of our perception is already a source of suffering, this further technological augmentation only creates an exponential increase in that suffering.
The more we simulate, the more versions of our self we create, the more identities we begin to proliferate, the more those identities begin to seem like “reality” over the simple sense of BEING. This is more than apparent in the political climate that most countries of the world are now immersed in.
For a mind that is not stable and grounded in the reality our bodies inhabit, technology is just a PLAIN BAD IDEA. Because it exacerbates every error and magnifies every distortion by several orders of magnitude. And the fact is, of the 7.5 billion of us, only a negligible percentage actually function in a grounded manner. The vast majority are completely absorbed in their simulations.
If a child hasn’t learned how to ride a bicycle correctly, the last thing they need is a motorcycle.
Dominated by a misunderstanding of what this mind is and what we ourselves are, we immerse ourselves further and further into that labyrinth of simulated realties, further textured and complicated by technology.
And that simulated self, remains forever lost in that labyrinth screaming for a way out.
But there is no way out. Because you were never in.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the fairest one of all?”
My kids are watching Snow White and that familiar refrain from my own childhood causes me to reflect.
Why is the mirror magical? It doesn’t seem all that intelligent. If it had been, it would have told the queen something that she did not already have the ability to know. It would have provided her with data that she didn’t already possess. It would have told her that beauty is subjective and in the eyes of those who perceive it and, further, goes deeper than superficial appearances. But the mirror does not possess any intelligence. So, its own responses are limited by the queen’s limited understanding of what beauty is. Thus, it can only give her black or white answers.
Similarly, seeking life, seeking self, seeking solutions to suffering, in the mind, is like the queen looking at her magic mirror and asking for solutions. There are simply no solutions to be found because there is no new intelligence there.
What is required is a reorientation of perspective. A return of the natural homeostasis that results when the mind resumes its primary function of observing and data-gathering and only simulating when necessary, as a secondary function.
Yet, that reorientation also cannot be forced. It happens organically with time, understanding and experience. At a certain point, one may simply outgrow the need to constantly stimulate, just like every teen outgrows the need to constantly check their hair in the mirror. When that happens, awareness returns to the reality at hand rather than the simulations being projected.
And the suffering identity in the simulation is seen for the artifice that it is. And the self returns to simply doing what it does best: