Monday, January 21, 2008

We are stardust, we are carbon

I've been contemplating tolerance of different perspectives lately. I've had several conversations that addressed the lack of ideological diversity in most of the people we consider our closest friends. Like attracts like, and we seem to cluster that way, akin to the gravitational pull that holds together solar systems. We live in galaxies of little mirrors that reflect ourselves back to us. For example, few to none of my friends are Republicans or Creationists, and I wonder if it's a mistake to not cultivate those of different viewpoints, although I often feel the need to suppress aspects of myself as a means of keeping the peace when faced with interactions with people who are so very different. We tend to stick to our own kind, and rage against those who are not in the same mental space.

I feel the best when I am working from my heart-center, the part of me that feels most innate. However, if morality is part of our biology but is shaped by culture (see Stephen Pinker's article The Moral Instinct), what feels best to me might still be "wrong" in the largest sense. It's like Christian Fundamentalists--they believe they are acting from the "right" place. I stand diametrically opposed to them, but that feels "right" from my perspective. So, who is truly "right?" And how am I to deal with my rancor for those who, from my perspective, want to deny acceptance of who I am, or hold opinions that I deem irrational?

Captain Rational had a good bit to say on the topic:
"As for your quandary as to who is truly right, its not for us as individuals to decide. Over time this question will answer itself and until then any answer is simply an opinion. The most important thing is that you act accordance with your heart-center. Being true to yourself is the most efficient growth path. If you are always following or reacting to someone else's path, you will never be truly self-determined. As a result, your growth would always contingent on that of another. It's ok to listen to other people but ultimately you have to decide what is right for you. The fact that others do not agree with you is not a bad thing, it is simply a part of the interaction of ideas that, if done correctly, will eventually answer the question of who is truly right."

If that is true, and it does seem to me to be true, there is no sense swimming against a tide, expressing anger or resentment towards those who think differently. It's a waste of energy and time. I pursued this line of thought further with someone else who shared this analogy in the human body:

All of our cells came from a single cell, which divided into many different types of cells (white blood, neurons, platelets, etc.). These are like all of our points of view. Some of us are neurons and some of us are liver cells and neither of those things are the same any longer. But, because they share the same point of origin, and because together they comprise the entire human body (the system we exist in), they all belong and *must* exist for the survival of the organism as a whole. So, differing perspectives are not just to be tolerated, but are necessary to the functioning of our social machine.

This is the perspective that places things into context, and diffuses my irritation and frustration. This sense of all things being one is something that is both the stuff of religion and science. In Princeton over the weekend, I saw a memorial to the class of 1969 that quoted the lyrics to Joni Mitchell's song "Woodstock":

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devils bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
To some semblance of a garden.

We are litterally made from the same atoms that comprise all material in the universe, and that material came from the stars. It seems that the 60s generation was on to something in their philosophy of free love and tolerance, but they lost it somewhere along the way, perhaps in the consumerist void that shifted our focus from our heart-center to our wallet-center. (I would also imagine that frequent drug use primarily served to cloud the mind and cause inertia.)

The question, for me, is how to consciously operate from one's heart-center at all times, even in the face of ideological opposition. How do we get back to that semblance of a garden? We must keep the conversation open. Staying whole may very well cause discomfort in others. It can inadvertently instigate altercations, violence and even death (which are certainly outcomes not to be wished for). But it also may serve to change minds or foster bonds or bring us back together. We must be who we are because anything else is not carbon, but a carbon copy of someone else's expression of themselves, which itself may very well be a copy. To quote Captain Rational yet again, "We owe it to the world to make people with "stupid" ideas feel at least a bit uncomfortable or they will never question those beliefs."


drinkchai said...

Wow you write a lot.

krissij said...

A. DeMello would argue that AWARENESS will keep you heart-centered.

It's a kind of self-consciousness where you're outside yourself looking in -- and if you practice (I scoff at people who say they are spiritual but not religious because it's like saying I'm an athlete and sitting on the couch) and practice and practice, you can reach a point, much like when you're driving a car (post-teen years) when you're aware of your surroundings and what you're passing but it doesn't consume you.

Unfortunately, I'm still on the couch, spiritually. I wish I was better at it.

Major Generalist said...

Thanks for your post, Krissi. I agree, it's about awareness. Lately I've been calling it "consciousness" (you reference self-consciousness as well).

From my perspective, that involves keeping in close contact with one's feelings, particularly those that cause discomfort, and allowing those feelings to surface, and experiencing those feelings without censure or trying to bury them. What if being conscious is really just a suspension of self-judgment?

I agree that we should strive to move through life without being consumed, but I wonder if trying to be all Zen all the time and removed from one's feelings is really possible or truly beneficial. Or maybe it's just that we have to deal directly with our feelings by making room for them before we can reach that place of greater objectivity.

Can you talk more about what you mean by "spiritual but not religious?" I consider myself spiritual but not religious, and what I mean by that in my own definition is that I no longer subscribe to an organized religion; however, I'm actively involved in spiritual pursuits through study, meditation and thought. I actually had a pretty profound spiritual experience in your guest bedroom a few visits ago where I experienced my being as separate from my body.

Do you see spiritualism without the guidance of the principles of a specific religion as an invalid pursuit?

Also, isn't consciousness achieved in steps? Maybe the exercise analogy is accurate in one sense, but we need not be olympic champions to find benefits in regular, moderate exercise. I guess what I'm trying to say is that spiritual striving is a process, and we probably can do a lot more than we think. It may not be as hard as it's reputed to be.

I think that you're probably more spiritually evolved than you're giving yourself credit for and that your awareness of awareness makes you someone who is no longer just sitting on the couch. :)


Krissij said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response! This is fun!

Being religious for me means that you are actively, consciously pursuing a practice. So, I agree, moderate exercise, daily small acts, are as important, if not more important than the Olympics.

For some, BIG R religion may provide that practice; for others, it may take the form of reading, journaling, etc. So, I'm not wedded to one method, just that there is thought and repetition (one meaning of "religious") and effort -- not just "believing" in something beyond.

And there are times when you falter, lose faith, get distracted, etc...and that's where building up your muscle memory through practice helps carry you through the tough times.

It's the repetition/regularity that I struggle with. I have trouble with being still, not being distracted, developing a practice. I am more disciplined when I am accountable to others.

On being zen all the time:
I don't think we should lose touch of our feelings, ever. But awareness allows you to notice your feelings and make decisions about what to do about them, vs. knee jerk reactions.

My mom has the uncanny ability to push my buttons so quickly that I'm enraged and simply reacting/lashing out in a split second. I'd rather understand and notice those feelings and then decide how to act, vs. just being ruled by things like "fight or flight" -- or understanding how my socalization created the "fight or flight" feeling without a tiger being involved.

PS - what do you think of Susan Sontag?