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You are probably familiar with the following riddle. If a tree falls over with no-one to hear it fall, does it still make a sound? For most people the answer is a definite ‘yes’. Our western culture demands a scientific approach to the question: The movement of the tree will make disturbances in the atoms in the air, which carry the sound as pressure waves. This happens regardless of any observer.
Yet is this truth? Is this really the only valid way to answer this question? The scientific worldview is immensely valuable. (Earlier I talked about how it improved the quality of our lives dramatically). In no way do I aspire to discredit this worldview. In this blog I would like to argue, however, that it might not be the only way to see and experience the world around us.
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”
– Carl Sagan
On the contrary. We can choose to experience our lives in many ways. In any way we want to, to be more (or less 🙂 ) precise. Whether you experience a dog barking as annoying or pleasant is up to you. You can even train yourself to recognize the sound as a bird’s song, given time. We can choose to emerge ourselves in any reality we wish.
In many cultures that have a close connection to their natural environment, shamanic practice is held in high regard. It is exactly this practice that attempts to warp the conscious experience of reality. Often into a dream-like state. To change the very meaning of truth. For the duration of a ceremony, or more.
Maybe this is just a bunch of wishy-washy bullshit philosophy to you. I can definitely not deny you to choose that to be your reality. The idea of ‘choosing your reality’ is about to become more relevant to you though.
The way you perceive the world around you directly determines what behaviour is right or wrong. I think that the discussions between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson about morality are some of the most important discussions being had of our generation. They share the idea that we can inhabit many different moral attitudes towards the world around us, based on the reality that we choose to experience the world around us in. They argue that some of these realities, and some of these moralities, can be said to be wrong.
In their discussion, Harris argues that religions shape a reality that is fundamentally wrong. Religion is taught through scriptures that are holy and allegedly contain the absolute truth. Because of this view on the scriptures we are unable to update them to incorporate a morality that is appropriate in our current date and time. For example, religious works approve of slavery and physical punishment in some paragraphs. These are activities that only increase suffering in society as a whole and can unambiguously be said to be morally wrong.
Peterson, on the other hand, argues that religious works contain deep truth. They have aggregated the moral knowledge of thousands of years of human society and need to be studies deeply to gain insight into moral truth and psychology. To him, even though the scriptures might contain absolute truth, no-one should claim to have read and interpreted these books in a way that is absolutely correct. The way we interpret any written work depends on our emotional state, personality, and our reality as a whole. Rules formulated in these scriptures, even the ten commandments, might lose their character of being ‘absolute’, if we interpret them in the context of the complete work and our communities. Even our interpretation of these seemingly fixed rules depends on our choice of reality.
“Don’t use language instrumentally”
― Jordan B. Peterson
The argument that Peterson makes here is far from trivial. Most of us have been taught that we are logical beings. We see, hear, feel and smell that what is around us, but above all we have a mighty intellect for abstract ideas. We can speak, after all. And do we not have our books filled with knowledge? “I think therefore I am”, Descartes declares triumphantly. Clearly our intellectual mind is superior to the sensuous animate world.
Yet even now, you are staring at visual symbols and are mysteriously experiencing them as sounds. Think about that for a second. You are hallucinating a synaesthesia between sight and sound, right now. The written word is the most important way to build and communicate knowledge in the western world. But communicating knowledge in this way apparently requires this magical collaboration between the senses. “Hearing with your eyes” sounds like a deeply poetic and un-scientific thing to say. It is however at the very foundation that makes the scientific worldview possible. Profound sensuous experiences are all around us.
One existential reality we can choose to emerge ourselves in would be to state that truth is defined by the direct experience of our senses. That we are the centre of our own universe. That both the falling tree and me myself are sentient beings. That we only share a reality as long as there is a reciprocal sensuous experience between us. Thus, there can be no sound in my reality as long as I am not able to experience it directly.
So what are the implications of this sensuous reality? Our intellectual mind is clearly bound to our bodies. I cannot be consciously present in a place where my body is not. Nor are my thoughts independent from my body. My Nobelprice-winning line-of-thinking will be interrupted if you kick me in the gut. There is no me without my body. There is no me without my senses. Without smelling, hearing, feeling and tasting there would be nothing to feed and shape my thoughts. There would be no talking to share my thoughts with other beings. With other conscious entities. No way to give a place to my thoughts in the physical reality that my body is a part of.
“We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”
― David Abram in The spell of the sensuous
Yes, if I am trying to cure the world of cancer it is probably more useful to think in a scientific reality. But what about when I am walking around in the forest? Do I want to look around thinking: all this green stuff sure is doing a lot of photosynthesis? Is it not more enjoyable to make the conscious decision to step out of this reality, into this exciting and dream-like world of the senses? To take in the fresh air and wonder about the mysterious patterns the wind makes through the forest’s canopy.
“We are by now so accustomed to the cult of expertise that the very notion of honoring and paying heed to our directly felt experience of things—of insects and wooden floors, of broken-down cars and bird-pecked apples and the scents rising from the soil—seems odd and somewhat misguided as a way to find out what’s worth knowing.”
In my own life I spend a lot of time training my mind to see the world around me in this more sensuous light. I feel that seeing the world in this light contains more truth in most of the situations we find ourselves in everyday life. In kindergarten, highschool and university I always learned to see the world in an ever-increasing abstract way. Although I love and cherish this way of looking around me, it is often misleading and empty with respect to our direct environment. It teaches us that we shouldn’t play, smile and wonder about simple things, but rather explain them.
Luckily our ancestors have developed great techniques for us to cultivate a mode of being closer to our senses. Yoga and meditation practice have greatly helped me to break down some of the abstract filters I used to have in my perception. They have changed my very reality. Taught me to experience my environment more directly. And as a consequence, I learned I never need to feel bored. Yoga connects all the parts of the body, the breath and the mind in a swirling meditative movement. And how about sitting down with my eyes closed and observing my breath in meditation. This is truly an exciting experience to me now. I encourage everybody to allow your conceptions of what the world is supposed to be like to soften a bit. To let yourself doze off in the warm embrace of the only thing that is truly ever yours. That which you can share with no-one but yourself. The deep reality of your own sensuous being.