There’s a vicious trap I sometimes fall into, especially when taking things too seriously, of thinking there’s something to be gained, or found in life other than what’s already occurring. There is a miracle going on, David Collins writes in Twitter thread after Twitter thread. But it’s already now, it’s everything.
Despite these miracles unfolding under my nose, the feeling that there’s something more, beyond what’s already available to my experience, remains.
I’ve come to think of this malcontent as a check engine light for consciousness, one everybody experience in varying degrees. Its presence indicates that some blockage in our interior wiring prevents us from communing with the ongoing miracle in full.
My view of Collins’ miracle is that there’s nothing beyond it. Nothing more. No awakening deeper than full communion with the unfolding present. That’s it, the biggest, most beautiful, revelatory event around. That we’re here, and things are happening, and we can feel it. What more could there be?
So if the present isn’t enough, it’s because our ability to perceive the miracle is disabled.
Sentience is a Kinked Garden Hose
When Joan Didion explores reasons she keeps a notebook, she considers that notebook-keepers are a different breed of human. Afflicted by a malcontent relationship with the present. She imagines that her daughter, or anyone who doesn’t feel compelled to write things down, is deeply satisfied with life “exactly as life presents itself to her”:
“Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
But I don’t think this kind of anxious malcontent exists only in notebook keepers. It pops up in everyone, suppressed or maintained in different ways.
In me, it initiates that vague yearning for ‘something more’. I’ve looked in many places that something more might hide, but all I’ve ever found that didn’t prove transient and ineffective were changes in my own felt-experience. Not things ‘out there’ in the world, but things that rewire my own habitual way of perceiving it all.
Philosopher Alva Noë writes of perception:
“…it registers not only how things are, but also the perceiver’s relation to how things are.”
Perception, or my felt-sensation of existing, is then kind of like a thermometer, it’s my life’s dashboard conveying information about my relation to how things are. It relays information about how all my different ecological threads — work, social life, personal life, technologies — come together in creating my experience of things.
We can read Fernando Pessoa’s following disclosure of sentience as a check engine light. If existing feels like a bleak and sullen sentence one must endure, then the ecological conditions co-creating sentience need rewiring:
“It all comes down to trying to experience tedium in a way that does not hurt.”
Life is a spark of consciousness, a brief moment of perception bookended on both ends by complete oblivion. If sentience devolves into tedium, we’re doing it wrong. The experience of tedium, like my vague yearning for something ‘more’, Didion’s malcontent, are red flags. These sensations are indications that there’s a kink in my perceptual relation with life, like a kinked garden hose.
The task, then, is simple. Find the kink, unfold it, and keep watering the garden, right?
This is one way to think of self-cultivation. Tracing the deep lines of our own perception, of how the world presents itself to us, scanning for kinks and smoothing their folds. If anyone were ever able to resolve all the kinks in their perceptual lines, this might be something like enlightenment. Jury’s still out on whether that’s possible, though. Being a human being might impose some immoveable kinks in our perceptual lines, regardless of how much unfolding we do.
To this tune, Noë also writes:
“Every perceptual experience is always, at best, a work in progress”
What makes this task exceedingly difficult is that sentience is construct of both individual and collective making. The current socioeconomic circumstances are as influential in the making of my experience as how many hours of sleep I get each night.
Capitalism can condition my sense of self-worth as directly as my parents, and both are pillars in the construction of my experience. Smoothing the kinks between my perception and Collins’ ongoing, ever-present miracle is a project that dissolves barriers between the individual and their larger sociocultural environment.
The World ‘Shows Up’
This begs the question: how can we evaluate perception? How can we define progress in perceptual experience?
Being a human being is an opportunity to experience the world, but experience itself is constructed & conditioned. Our sense of self congeals around 2 years old, when we’ve already accumulated tendencies of consciousness. We blink awake to an already-going world with prefabricated perceptual habits, ready-made participants in its drama.
One way to think about ‘progress’ is as a growing familiar with our prefabricated build. Writing in his introductory essay for The Side View, philosopher Adam Robbert writes that by default, the world:
“…unfolds in the mode of a naïve realism; it exists as an unexamined and taken-for-granted state that elides any critical investigation into why the world shows up the way it does for you.”
The ‘way the world shows up’ is a negotiation between perception and experience. The result is what I think of as sentience, or the felt-sensation of existing.
By default, kinks in sentience do not show up as such. Rather, if I sense tedium, it’s because life is tedious. If I’m unsettled, it’s because the world is unsettling. We project our own kinks onto the world we perceive.
It’s a paradox of self-cultivation that it begins with a deconstruction of that self. The way the world shows up isn’t necessarily an indication of how the world is, but how our perceptual architecture encounters and processes the world. As we smooth our own kinks, the world literally changes in how it ‘shows up’ for us.
Robbert continues, noting how deconstructing perception clears room for more desirable sensations than malcontent and tedium:
“Crucially, freedom and autonomy are limited by the inability to explore this moment-to-moment construction of one’s own experience.”
Touching the Miracle
Collins underwent a unique experience, a process through which he found a felt-sensation of the miracle he describes. These moments are scattered throughout the log of human history. Michael Pollan describes the sensation of utterly deconstructed experience after smoking the venom of a desert toad. Adept meditators describe moments of ‘cessation’. In Emerson’s famous passage, he becomes a transparent eyeball that bathes in infinite space:
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
For Collins, the moment occurred in a rare second go-around with the transition from death into life, from oblivion into wakefulness. After drowning, and perhaps dying in a pool, a lifeguard resuscitates him, and what he feels in the transition, before words or concepts set in, leave him with a bare sensation of wonder, a physical contact with the miracle always occurring beneath our obscured perception of things:
“It was enough”. In a cultural moment haunted by the questions “ how much is enough”, and “ enough for what? “, this variety of sensation, where enough occurs *before* anything else, is medicinal.
Collins’ experience suggests there’s a splendor in sentience, a satiation with being alive that occurs before anything else. I believe — loosely, as all beliefs should be held — that this splendor is the something ‘more’ I yearn for. I might need to tinker with things ‘out there’ in order to rearrange my perceptual capacities, whether ‘out there’ means the design of my living space or the design of contemporary capitalism. This is the main idea behind ecosophy, the variety of philosophy I’m developing. That sentience is an ecologically constructed phenomenon. The world is one big interwoven tapestry, and each of us are sentient nodes, expressing local dynamics of the same, infinite web.
But I’m also convinced that whatever I’m looking for is occurring right here, in plain sight, at each and every point along the web. My project is to learn how to see that.
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