Mind Matters

The Garden of Sentience, Pearls & Perils of Thoughts

Hello Hello, 1 longer thing & 2 short things:

  • The Garden of Sentience - Been thinking a lot about sentience as a better aspirational object than meaning, mostly because I don’t think meaning exists, and sentience is real and very interesting.

  • Alan Watts on meditation as when we just stop incessantly thinking to ourselves.

  • Great essay by Lawrence Yeo on how thoughts are both awesomely useful, and insidiously dangerous.

Unwind & Enjoy!

The Garden of Sentience

Ok. So we’re born on this tiny floating planet in the middle of a potentially infinite universe, enveloped by cultural and social dynamics that lend a sense of importance to localized events, and from which we might emerge every now and then to contemplate the arbitrariness of everything, the unknown cosmic fabric on which we float, and the miracle that we get to experience anything at all.

We’re born into all this mystery, all these impossibly complex webs and endless possibilities, but we’ll die before the whole ordeal is resolved. So what to do?

Put more concisely, an old Tibetan saying goes something like: “Death is certain. It’s time uncertain. What should I do?”

Or as this sign reads:

And again, Annie Dillard asks:

“What might be the relationship of the Absolute to a lost schoolgirl in a plaid skirt? Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?”

And is there any trans-individual glue binding people together in all our splintered attempts at living well? Are there common principles and strategies, or some common thing that pervades all our differentiated goes at making the most of the miracle that there is something rather than nothing, and that we’re here to experience it?

How about sentience?

I think of sentience as what it *feels* like to be alive, to exist in this stream of moments. My sentience is what it feels like to be me. How the universe both expresses and experiences itself through my consciousness.

Other usual suspects - meaning, purpose, enlightenment - do not actually exist in nature. Meaning was created by the human mind, a concept born and so trapped in the intersubjective mental web.

Sentience, on the other hand, is a property of the universe. It existed before humans and will exist after humans (eek). This, for me, gives it a more natural footing than meaning, or anything else that lives exclusively in the human intersubjective mind-web.

So, I don’t think a meaningful life is the answer to Dillard’s, or the Tibetan’s question, because I don’t think meaning really exists. Rather, maybe it goes something like: tend to your sentience like a garden, do your best to encourage conditions for its growth, its flourishing, prune as necessary.

This doesn’t mean meaning is a useless or delusional concept. I think it plays an important role. Craving meaning might signify a blockage in sentience, like a garden hose with a kink obstructing water flow.

This kind of blockage in sentience isn’t some rare condition, Buddhists suggest it’s the default human condition. That we’re born into it, or at least sentience coagulates into a (mostly illusory) self at some point that obstructs sentience with various mental tendencies, habits, and conditions. Layering upon those inborn obstructions are emotional traumas and heavy socioeconomic conditions that aggravate these blockages, feeding the self-referential thinking that incites anxieties.

Massaging these blockages is one way to visualize the human project. Cultivating a wider sentience as we smooth away kinks in the hose. This imagery of expansion is found in Emerson’s essay, Circles:

“The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul…The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is…to draw a new circle.”

A life is a self-evolving sentience. Beginning in a narrow constriction, it seeks to grow, to unfurl and widen its scope. We can also place the universe inside this metaphor, itself one big thing, a self-evolving entity that seeks to widen its circles and capacities for sentience.

Albert Camus, too, uses a similar metaphor. He describes the effort of humans faced up towards the eternal, the Great Matters, one of enlarging and enriching their ephemeral islands (of sentience in the dark):

“All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. Creation is the great mime. Such men know to begin with, and then their whole effort is to examine, to enlarge, and to enrich the ephemeral island on which they have just landed.”

So sentience is a kind of ember we’re each born with, which we can either fan or let simmer.

What excites me most in all this, what ties together socioeconomics, psychedelics, meditation, interior design, digital technology, etc., is our ability to study the possibilities for sentience.

What a fucking time to be alive, where we can recognize sentience, our experience of what it’s like to exist, as a product of ecological circumstances, and so tinker with those ecological conditions and give rise to new iterations of sentience.

We can explore various modalities of sentience, and build the ecological conditions that incentivize our preferred modes. It’s absolutely insane that we get to be alive at this moment. What organisms before us had such luck? And, true, such a burden. But the possibilities for sentience, to me, outweigh the costs.

“What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?” ~ (Annie Dillard)

I recently wrote an essay for Ribbonfarm about the ecological side of sentience. This braindump grew out of this Twitter thread:

Alan Watts on Meditating and Shutting Up

If someone walks around in public talking to themselves, they look weird to the rest of us. If someone is talking to themselves while we’re talking to them, they seem rude, and still weird.

But this is what we all do, all the time. We walk around talking to ourselves internally. What’s the difference?

“Oh my god, look how weird that person is who’s speaking out loud to themselves rather than just speaking silently in their head.”

Strange, right? Alan Watts felt this basic and incessant preoccupation with our own thoughts is dangerous, and an object of meditation.

“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts and loses touch with reality.”

From this view, meditation is just a practice to experience something other than ones own thoughts.

The Right Side of Thought

Lawrence Yeo’s More To That is one of my favorite corners of the writing-on-the-internet universe.

His latest is about thought. On one hand, thought is responsible for almost everything around us, all our technological achievements and constructions. On the other hand, thoughts are like quicksand, the more we heed them, the more we’re pulled into believing they’re the only way of relating to the universe, the only foundation of sentience. Yeo writes:

“We like to believe that we are the conscious authors of our thoughts, believing that these intentions and directives come from a structured, orderly place where willpower reigns supreme. However, if you take a brief moment to sit down in silence for just a minute or two, you’ll notice that the nature of thought is anything but that…This is the true nature of unchecked thought – random, uninvited, and sporadic appearances in consciousness….When Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living, I feel that he was making a reference to this tide of unchecked thought. Without being aware that we are being pulled into this tide at every moment, we are at the whims of our impulses, blindly giving in to every wave that strikes the neurons of our monkey minds.”

Read his full essay here.

‘Best Of’ Pocket!

My recent essay published on Ribbonfarm - What If We Already Know How to Live? - got the red/pink stamp of approval from Pocket, marked as ‘Best Of’:

Thanks to everyone who read & shared, it’s been loads of fun receiving comments from people and getting conversations going. Most notable response so far is from “Jan”, who commented:

Thank you Jan, & all.

That’s it!

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