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Total Work, Deep Time, & The Backdrop of Consciousness
Hello out there -
What is the most dominant force shaping your life, the organizational center around which everything else turns?
For me, and most people I know, it’s work. And I don’t even particularly like my job. The centrality of work to the structure of modern life is under scrutiny. Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs, Andrew Taggart on the TED stage.
Under this paradigm, objective measures of ‘progress’ are faring well, kind of, while subjectively, not so much (this is the heart of the Steven Pinker & Jason Hickel debate: have we made any progress in the past few hundred years or not? I’ve found no un-biased summation of the exchange, but compare this Vox summary - funded by Bill Gates - with Hickel’s if interested).
Calling for new vocabulary & metrics for progress is nothing new, either. One way I like to envisage economic progress is the degree to which economic growth enables us to stop thinking about economics altogether.
Or: the purpose of economics is to marginalize itself.
If economics is the study of human action under conditions of scarcity - hence the squabbling over resources and power - then progress can be conceived as the degree to which our day-to-day concerns are lifted from mentalities of scarcity, opened to horizons of immaterial abundance. I suspect this ties in with James Carse’s making life an infinite rather than finite game, though I haven’t read that book.
Another way to demonstrate the bizarre sanctity of work is with a thought experiment, which I paraphrase from Andrew Taggart’s podcast with Peter Limberg:
Today, if you get invited to a social event, no one will find it weird or rude if you reply “Sorry, I can’t make it, I’m already scheduled to work.”
Here, work is obviously more important than any social activity. Imagine how odd the reverse would sound:
Your boss sends out a schedule for next month, and you reply: “Sorry, I can’t work that Thursday, I’m already scheduled to spend time with friends.”
But why should that be so unacceptable? We’re alive for blips of time, are we really here to prioritize work over all else?
When my friend group graduated college, we dispersed across the country, moving to cities where we found jobs. We expected to just figure the rest out once we got there ( I went to India, but that’s another story). Intimate relationships we’d cultivated for years dissolved into occasional texts, Instagram likes, and reunions.
I’m not sure this is the best way to live when time and time again, we’re reminded that the quality of our relationships determines so much of our lived-experience. Work comes first, & our lives will form around it. Seems to me it’s time to disrupt this model. It’s already happening, as digitalization moves offices to the cloud, Basic Income is creeping towards the 2020 presidential platform, and so on. Work is changing, and these are exciting, formative times in guiding its evolution.
If anyone can point me towards more ways the work paradigm is shifting, I’d love to do more reading here.
Timelapse to the End of Time - A Video
We don’t know how the Universe will behave in the deep future, but we have theories. What will happen in 4,000 trillion years? This video by John Boswell & narrated by the likes of Stephen Hawking & Janna Levin imagines one possible theory of everything. The timelapse doubles pace every 5 seconds, so pretty soon the video shows trillions of years passing in blinks.
It ends on a note that reminds us how improbable our sentience is, how improbable our capacities for feeling & intelligence are:
“After an unimaginable length of time, even the black holes will evaporate, and the universe will be nothing but a sea of photons gradually tending towards the same temperature as the universe cools them towards absolute zero. Once the very last remnants of the very last stars finally decayed away to nothing, and everything reaches the same temperature, the story of the universe finally comes to an end. For the first time in its life, the universe will be permanent and unchanging. Entropy finally stops increasing, because the cosmos cannot get anymore disordered. Nothing happens, and it keeps not happening forever.”
Insane. Meaningless, because we’ve no idea what will happen, but still insane. Here we are!
The Backdrop of All Things
On Daniel Thorson’s Emerge podcast, meditation teacher and author of the recent Seeing that Frees (a book that nicely situates meditation as a practice taking place in perception, exploring various ‘ways of seeing’) Rob Burbea points to the ‘backdrop of all things’.
This backdrop is the slew of assumptions implicit in our worldview. The facts of the universe we take for granted, and so fail to consider they might not be as unassailable as assumed.
“…our sense of what the world is…it all takes places against a backdrop of the world that’s just assumed to be a certain way…it all takes place against what’s essentially a meaningless backdrop of flatly conceived matter. It’s kind of often operating with that implicit assumption in the background…one of the things that’s possible is we can begin to question and open up that whole assumption, and all kinds of other perceptions and feelings and dedication become possible…”
My interest is in this turning of our attention towards the too-often-neglected backdrop. This is how I think of consciousness - the backdrop against which our lives unfold. This is why I meditate, because I don’t think that backdrop is fixed. I think we’re too quick to accept our consciousness as an unchanging experience, and life as a negotiation between the consciousness we find ourselves in and the cultural circumstances around us.
But contemplative practice, psychedelics, and recent neuroscience suggest that consciousness is plastic, porous, and malleable. What I experience as my self is a dynamic and adaptive relationship that evolves along with its environment - physical and mental.
“There’s a whole other dimension possible and attractive to some people, that there’s an unspeakable range of possibility of our sense of the beauty, and the sacrednesses, and the divinity, and dimensionality, and mystery and unfathomability and purposefulness of Nature…And that gives other levels to our sense of being…”
Burbea is having a moment around the contemplative circuit for his creative approach to emptiness. If you’d like to learn more, check out his book - Seeing That Frees - or begin with this intro to Burbea written by Daniel Thorson.
New Essay: Kinks in Consciousness
I’ve been working a lot with the metaphor of sentience as a kinked garden hose, and contemplative living as a project of feeling down the line for kinks, unfolding them, and carrying on. From the essay:
“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?”
But this snowballs together with my readings into ecosophy, or the ecological construction of consciousness. Capitalism is as instrumental in my feelings of self-worth as my mother.
“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.”
Upstream is the last collection of Mary Oliver’s essays published before her death. Her style cuts, with the kind of simplicity that’s anything but.
Like Annie Dillard, like Joan Didion, Mary Oliver can write about anything around her, the most simple, present, mundane facts, and see through them to the underlying eternities.
It’s the kind of writing that changes the way you see.
She led me to reconsider what I read for. Because if I’m being honest, I’m not one of those people who loves reading for its own sake. I can get lost in books, but mostly because they present some rich & unexplored landscapes of mind.
I read because I’m looking for something, and Oliver reminds me it’s not knowledge:
“Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions.”
If pressed for an answer, I’d return to Rob Burbea’s metaphor of ‘ways of seeing’. The books I’ve cherished most are those that enable different ways of seeing, that unsettle my routinized ways of experiencing myself in relation to the world. Oliver’s work lives in this canon.
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