Up Till Now
Crystalizing the ether of thought with ink, a handheld sewing machine is stitching an idea into my skin. Hot pinpricks are buzzing and a red dew is pulled to the surface as the needle etches. Time dilates as Cory hits some rough patches of sensitive skin and the nociceptors just beneath my surface remind me that they exist. A cool baby wipe clears away the excess and reveals the permanent decision.
Permanent like success.
Permanent like failure.
Permanent like action.
Permanent like a scar.
On the eve of my permanent decision, I was wrestling my thoughts in sleeplessness. What am I getting myself into? Will I outgrow my tattoo? What if I don’t become what I dream to be? Will this tattoo just be a reminder of my failure? Will I ever think this important thing to be silly and stupid some day?
For most of that night I was struggling to extract confidence from an ore of doubt.
On that leather and steel seat I changed myself permanently. I was brought to a moment that I could never undo. To a decision that would forever be within my sight. Forever tangled with my cells. I was brought to this moment by a relationship between a string, a deck of cards, good & evil, and a butterfly.
In a way, my tattoo began etching itself into me before birth.
It’s almost as though I was destined to get it in the same way that the sun is to rise and fall each day.
From time immemorial, a cosmic dance has been at play; a dance which holds every particle that ever was and ever will be. Bodies of liquid, solid, gas, and plasma are born and unwoven. A universe whose life is bookended in white-hot chaos and dark meaninglessness holds you and the words on this screen within it.
And sometime ago in this universe, deep within a newborn ocean, a string was crafted. The string was perhaps like no other — it was a command to be fulfilled. A command which said,
Make Me Anew.
Around turn and start again, because work is never finished — read backwards and forwards, but, this is only relative, you see.
Without each other, we aren’t anymore. Time as changes in motion. Motion in changes, as time. Any more? Aren’t we, the other each without?
See, you, relative, only is this but forwards and backwards read. Finished never is work, because, again, start and turn around.
A New Me Make.
From one came many.
And from a string of self-replication and self-reference, innumerable beings came into existence. At first, these strings were completely identical to one another - perfect copies. But physical perfection is not something withstanding in this universe — houses fall apart, photos become corrupted, and life evolves.
Over time, some of these strings changed from living singly to living doubly; from being made of ribonucleic acid to being made of deoxyribonucleic acid; and possibly the reverse. And yet, what ever the change, the core message remained: make me anew.
And from ever so slight and subtle changes accumalated throughout time, our molecular essence took on gentle and drastic new forms. These changes in form transformed function. And from changed function — changed form. This deep truth about the intertwined and inextricable relationship between form and function is present everywhere in life. To realize this, all you have to do is look down at your feet sometime. Right under your nose, you’ll find an elegant example of form and function.
The anatomy of a shoelace can be broken down into at least four parts (and probably more): loop, stitching, knot, adjuster. These four parts are so distinct, you might even be inclined to call them shoelace “organs”; even better, they all need each other to survive on your shoe. Without taking on the form that they do, they could not function.
In my opinion, that’s a bit of an odd and beautiful thing to think about.
“The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”
From a miraculous molecular string - whose form functioned to populate an entire planet - matter would be arranged and rearranged in innumerable and complex ways in order to fulfill that original and everlasting command: make me anew.
Sometimes that string would cocoon itself in fat and oils; sometimes, it would produce colonies of itself, utilizing the philosophy: “safety in numbers”. Other times, they would assemble a complicated castle with hooves, antlers, and fur. And even in some instances, those strings would create something with abstract phenomena such as: desire, anger, reason, joy, hate, love, and so on.
And most amazingly, out from all of this rearranging, came you.
As a legacy of success stories, we weave together an unbroken thread three and a half billon years long — stretching from now all the way back to the beginning of life. Our existence is the product of action and reaction, or Karma as it really is.
Molecule A collides with molecule B then collides with molecule C. Karma is the motion of the universe. Impersonal. Indifferent. Inhuman. Mechanistic. A chain reaction of events, with every link in the chain as a probability, spiraling ever upward and downward. Forever.
In this vast universe, improbability graces all. The divine nature of everyday miracles is alive in numbers. To cast light on your improbability, consider the everyday miracle of a shuffled deck of cards:
When we shuffle a deck of cards, what are the odds that you’ll have one particular card, say an ace of diamonds, on top of it?
One in 52.(Since there is only 1 ace of diamonds in a deck of 52 cards.)
What are the odds that the next card in the shuffled deck is an ace of clubs?
One in 51.
Why? Because the shuffled deck is one card smaller, as the first card — the ace of diamonds — has been removed it, making the deck 1 card smaller.
Having found the probabilty of finding an ace of diamonds, and an ace of clubs, individually in a deck of cards, what are the odds that we would have found them back to back?
One in 2,652.
Why? Because when one wants to know the odds of events happening back-to-back, one combines probabilities together through multiplication. So, the odds finding of an ace of clubs together with an ace of diamonds as the first two cards on top of a shuffled deck are 1 in 2,652. (1/52 x 1/52)
Now, imagine doing the math for the rest of the deck that was shuffled. The improbability of that particular deck coming into existence becomes staggeringly.
The improbablity that somebody shuffled their particular deck into existence is:
1 in 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000.
Or in scientific notation: 8.0658175 x 10^67. (In scientific notation, the number 1,000 is: 1 x 10^3. That’s 1 x 10 x 10 x 10.)
In the entire history of the universe, is unlikely (to say the very least), that a deck of 52 cards has ever been shuffled the same.
At this point, you might begin to wonder, “what are the odds that I should exist?”
The odds are mind-breaking:
1 in 1 x 10^2,685,000.
So many unlikely events must have happened in order for you to have the privilege of breathing.
In all likelihood, you should not exist.
And you won’t for very long.
At some point in my life I stopped believing good and evil. The gates of heaven and hell crumbled and their contents poured out into the world. No longer could people be kept in or out of heaven or hell, because it was all here on earth for us to experience. This isn’t to say that prior to this change in my life, I neither experienced bliss nor anguish; rather, bliss and anguish seemed like experiences bestowed upon me by super natural divinity.
At some point in my life, all three all collapsed into one another and only cause and effect remained.
From then on, cause and effect seen through the prism of human psychology was substantial enough a means to radiate all hues of angels and demons into the world. It seemed like our moral colorings of actions and events in the universe are what created the world as it is: a place full of struggles between good and evil.
Once I considered the world without the prism of human psychology, the saints and sinners of the world just became animals trying to navigate their way through life. We all became social animals who had simply evolved moral emotions (such as sympathy, trust, embarrassment, guilt, shame, envy, contempt, anger, disgust, compassion, and gratitude) to help us interact with one another. Instilled with positive moral emotions, we are compelled to keep cooperating with others; and with our negative moral emotions, we are urged to punish the uncooperative.
The architecture of our minds is the craft of offspring flourished and withered. Our yearnings and desires sculpted by the dead.
In adopting this darwinian and physicalist perspective, a life of vice or virtue became something out of our control. Saints and sinners were conceived before birth. Decisions became the culmination of an internal neural calculus. Once neurons decided what actions would be allowed to echo into the world, they would act; after action, they would process the world again with the immediate changes they created in mind. Only to repeat the cycle of action and reaction again. With this view, some of us were to be fated with demons in a bottle, whereas others would have no way of relating to the struggle. Some of us would be inclined ideologically leftward, and others rightward. We at once became influenced from the inside and out, and selfhood vanished from the space between.
In short, free will disappeared.
I became a determinist.
We all became puppeted by strings from moments past.
Commonly, when somebody adopts a deterministic perspective - that is, all events in history are determined, predictable, and immutable - they tend to slip into a common line of thinking: Nothing is my responsibility because everything is just one chain-reaction. However, this soulless view is dangerous, unsophisticated, and doesn’t lend itself well to our passions. On the opposite end of the belief spectrum, we find a universe inhabited with free will, unpredictability, and instability — an egocentric and arrogant view of the world, where the self is the epicenter of the universe.
Elements of both perspectives — the soulful and soulless — are separated out and made apparent under the heat and pressure of conflict.
In court cases, defendants and plaintiffs often recount a shared event in different ways. Someone is an actor and someone is acted upon. Down this divide, stories are nearly always crafted differently. Time after time, defendants/actors will explain thier actions as being rational or forced decisions under difficult circumstances. And time after time, plaintiffs/acted upon will describe the defendant as immoral and sinister in motive.
This moral divide seems to be inscribed into our very soul.
I remember back when I was in 8th or 9th grade asking my cousin, who was some years younger, to help me get the bath water ready for my toy poodle Buttons. With a moment in the tub and a lifetime as a dog, Buttons was already protesting — trying to get out of the tub before the bath had even started.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
So it was at that point, I asked my cousin to prep the water. “Make sure the water is warm and not hot, okay? I forgot his shampoo in the other room, I’ll be back in just a minute.” With that said, I left the bathroom.
Not even half way to the shampoo, I heard Buttons crying in pain.
Within a breath, my muscles became tense and the back of my neck became hot. I stormed over the bathroom and knocked my cousin on his ass, while pulling Buttons out from a steaming tub.
Once Buttons was rescued, I called my cousin every name in the book and even coined some new ones in the heat of the moment.
I made him break down crying.
He needed to learn his lesson.
And after having heard him cry for a while, I told him to shut up. That what he got was what he deserved. He hurt my dog after all. He should have been more careful. I was obviously doing the reasonable thing and teaching him a lesson so that he wouldn’t repeat his mistake. And especially one at the expense of my dog.
With a soggy and crinkled face, it was pretty evident however, that he felt I was being much too harsh on him. It was a simple mistake. He didn’t deserve a verbal lashing. I was going overboard.
At some point I was just being mean, he thought. And I especially didn’t have to knock him on his ass.
But in this moment of tears, anger, and yelps, who caused the harm here? Who was in the wrong?
Some are likely to say “nobody”; while others will end up dropping blame one of us.
You shouldn’t have let him ready the water; that was irresponsible.
He could have checked the temperature of the water like I asked him to.
You didn’t have to get so angry at him, that was just overkill.
He should have pulled him out before I had to, that was a no-brainer.
Why do we defend ourselves or others in such a rational way? Why do we go sympathy campaigning while on the offense? Why are we so predictable about how we react to a situation?
The answer likely lies in our cognitive biases that promote self interest. That is, it’s in our best interest as social animals to want to be seen in a positive light. We would like to be seen as competent, wise, charming, able, just, compassionate, and so on. Everyone wants to look good. And when this capacity to look good is jeopardized in conflict, our evolved psyche begins reading a script: we’re either rational perpetrators or sympathy-worthy victims.
The script perpetrators read has them to believe that the story begins right before the moment of controversy. Their transgression was just what any normal person would do given the situation - they were being rational. Whereas victims on the other hand, feel that the their story begins way before the incident. That out of the blue, some irrational asshole came into their life and thoughtlessly (or thoughtfully) caused them harm. And the craft and chronology perpetrators and victims tell their stories with are almost always just as described (this will happen even if a person is to imagine being on either side of a conflict they were never in).
This psychological schism between parties has been refered to as the moralization gap. And its a particularly imporant concept in a universe full of agents intersecting into one another’s lives. After all, at what point does anybody do wrong? Or right? Where does good and evil live in a universe that becomes fully known?
Well, depending on whether you’ve been wronged or not, good and evil may or may not exist. Whereas for scientists and scholars however, these moral descriptors are nonsensical because they do not lend anything to objective explanation.
It is from this soulless and soulful divide, that a wellspring of science and art has surged from. To bridge this chasm is to live life on two planes of existence: one grand and one personal.
It was about 6 months after I got my tattoo, that I went on a retreat with the temple. Out at Buddhist Peace Camp, it was my responsiblity to help take care of small children, prep food, and clean the site.
Out in nature, I took it upon myself to go for long walks alone.
In solitude, I often found and find myself entertained and entranced in thought. At the time of this retreat, I was in the wake of a significant relationship with someone. I was in need of some introspection. Changes were happening in my life.
Along a wooded path shrouded in leaves of light and shadow, alone, I stumbled into a few butterflies fluttering about. One of the three was especially quirky and flamboyant — hopping from left to right on the trail before me; it was this butterfly that renewed the world for me.
You see, in a moment that this butterfly stopped for a rest, I thought to myself, “This creature is so much simpler than me. It’s nervous system has so many fewer ways that it can act within the world — it may as well be a machine just reacting to something moving. If I get near to it, I know it’ll fly away. It’s completely predictable! I, on the other hand, can imagine what it will do, think about it’s nature, and even develop a hypothesis about its behaviour all before I even approach it. I have so many more degrees of freedom. …So I may as well just go ahead and make it fly away to prove myself right with my superior nervous system.” And then, just as predicted, as I approached the butterfly, it flew away.
Though, in an instant, my moment of satisfaction and entertainment dropped away into astonishment.
Without that butterfly I wouldn’t have had this thought.
How could I think myself any different from that butterfly when we were both changed moment to moment because of each other?
At that very instant of realization, I discovered the profound nature of oneness.
And this “realization” wasn’t something lofty and intellectual, but completely sensory. Sensory in the same way that when you tell yourself, “I will look at the moon as though it were a sphere instead of a cirlce in the sky” and actually look at it for what it really is — a sphere — suddenly, that night sky looks very different. And what’s more, is your relationship with that sky changes too.
That was the nature of my realization.
For that moment and many after that, I knew and experienced the world in a completely different way. At any given time, I realize how very much is happening at once.
The sun, that star, which is so near to us, so as to light the very ground we step upon, is not only touching my skin, but it is also feeding a storm which has been raging on Jupiter for centuries.
These two things happen at once.
The entire universe happens in a moment.
Shrouded behind a veil of ignorance is the clockwork of the universe. Entire planets move. A star is born. A baby sleeps. A paper is read. A microbe dies. Somebody falls in love. A heart is broken. A mountain grows. A thought is had.
It is from moments that I am incalculably blessed.