Conversation comes first
Individuality is a (fleeting) accomplishment
Hello and happy New Year, dear readers!
I'm about 1.5 months into this quasi-sabbatical, and the grail of "free time" has been elusive. Between studio and holiday logistics, travel and kids home due to Covid exposure, the main gift of this 'time off" has been the chance to wallow in this messy human life without needing to clean up for public presentation quite so often. No small gift, to be sure. Also, I bought my son and myself a new Nintendo for Christmas and it's awesome.1
Now that both kids are maybe-kinda-temporarily back in school, I have enough spare brain cycles to resume writing this Substack. I’m going to try a commentary format for this piece, responding to a passage from The Dawn of Everything - A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. This book is full of pleasurably contrarian perspectives on early human history, with many implications of our modern predicament. It tickles many connected strands of thought in my mindweb, and I’d like to share a few of them.
The passage quoted below, from pages 93-94, is part of the authors’ argument against anthropology that treats humans prior to the Enlightenment as incapable of making conscious choices about how they structure their society. Summarizing this received attitude: “At best, [early humans] were mindless conformists, bound in the shackles of tradition; at worst, they were incapable of full conscious, critical thought of any kind.” (p. 95)
The book goes on to provide plentiful evidence against this view, arguing instead that early humans were just as (or sometimes more) deliberative and creative as we are today. Here they address a more focused dilemma: how can we imagine early humans collectively shaping their destiny, when as individuals we have great trouble changing the course of our own lives?
Neuroscientists… tell us we spend the overwhelming majority of our time effectively on autopilot, working out habitual forms of behavior without any sort of conscious reflection. When we are capable of self-awareness, it's usually for very brief periods of time: the 'window of consciousness', during which we can hold a thought or work out a problem, tend to be open on average for roughly seven seconds.
It only takes one attempt at meditation to discover how true this is. Our “monkey mind” is always looking for the next tasty fruit, rarely pausing to ask why. It makes evolutionary sense. Mammalian ancestors that spent too long contemplating whether to eat protein or carbs would miss out on both, or become food themselves. Where does the human capacity to introspect, to choose between different options, come from? Graeber and Wengrow make an intriguing observation:
What neuroscientists (and it must be said, most contemporary philosophers) almost never notice, however, is that the great exception to this is when we're talking to someone else. In conversation, we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems sometimes for hour on end. This of course is why so often, even if we're trying to figure something out by ourselves, we imagine arguing with or explaining it to someone else. Human thought is inherently dialogic.
Indeed, what we call thinking is largely an internalized version of our own speech. And we learn to speak through conversation with others, first replying with giggles and coos, then eventually syllables, words and arguments for more screen time.
Ancient philosophers tended to be keenly aware of all this: that's why, whether they were in China, India or Greece, they tended to write their books in the form of dialogues. Humans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other's views, or working out a common problem. True individual self-consciousness, meanwhile, was imagined a something that a few wise sages could perhaps achieve through long study, exercise, discipline and meditation.
I love the notion that our individuality manifests most clearly and sustainably in dialogue with others. Using this passage as a “dialogue partner” is certainly helping me discover my own thinking on this topic. This book is the result of a 10 year conversation, according to the authors.
Perhaps the exhilaration of a good conversation comes less from the knowledge gained than the pleasure of “knowing myself” through sustained contact with another? I feel myself groping for this satisfaction in digital communication such as texting or online forums, but the asynchronous rhythm seems to disperse the self-affirming effect of the encounter. It’s hard to stay focused when washing dishes and wiping butts between replies.
What really got my attention is their suggestion that the project of the sages can be seen as a quest for self-consciousness that is not dependent on dialogue with others. The Patanjali Yoga Sutra articulate the goal of yoga in just this way: awareness free from disturbance, realizing a Self that is unbound by any worldly conditions. One term used to describe this ultimate state is kaivalya, which means “solitude, detachment, isolation”.2
I gotta say, this sounds pretty good to me these days! Having spent two pandemic years in relentless intimacy with my unruly inner and outer children, I have rarely felt so not-alone.
But kaivalya isn’t a yoga version of “having some me time”. Accomplished yogis report an absence of any sense of “me” at all, a state that takes a lot of time, effort and grace to attain.
Now one last passage from the book:
What we'd now call political consciousness was always assumed to come first. In this sense, the Western philosophical tradition has taken a rather unusual direction over the last few centuries. Around the same time as it abandoned dialogue as its typical mode of writing, it also began imagining the isolated, rational, self-conscious individual not as a rare achievement, something typically accomplished -- if at all -- after literally years of living isolated in a cave or monastic cell, or on top of a pillar in a desert somewhere, but as the normal default state of human beings anywhere.
Are the authors implying that we moderns are mistaken in assuming that humans are rational and self-possessed ‘by default’? One could certainly make that argument from current brain science research, or just reading the news. Yet the Story of the Free Individual is everywhere. It has underwritten the rise of the modern world, both its technological wonders and horrors. The discourse of civil rights emerges from this story. So does the ravenous machine of capitalism.
As mystics have long observed, believing we are isolated selves in a world of Other is a primal cause of our suffering. It’s particularly stressful to insist that we are rational and in charge of our destiny when on the inside we often experience the opposite. You know that thing where people dress up in period costumes and reenact battles? It’s called live action role-playing or LARPing3. Isn’t that basically what we’re doing when we play the role of adults, experts or leaders?4 I spend my days acting like I’m a knowledgeable Dad to my kids, but on the inside I know how cobbled together and contingent the whole performance is.
We might do well to admit how difficult it is to really “stand free” from external influences and see ourselves and the world clearly. While I think modern yoga’s exhortations to “listen to our body” or “listen to our heart” are worthwhile goals, it is no small task to discern truth from fantasy in the inner realms. It’s super messy in there, and it’s easy to fool ourselves as I discussed in an earlier piece. Let’s be honest and humble about our baseline: we are social apes embedded in a tremendous tangle of biological, cultural and ancestral influences.
Instead of seeking a pristine Self through heroic efforts, it may be more expeditious to embrace the conversational roots of our mind. I would even go further, and point out that our very sense of being a separate self depends on our encounters with others. As we touch the world, it presses back against us, revealing our edges. Self and other emerge mutually arise from the dialogue between inside and outside. Even the evolutionary process could be seen as a conversation between species, or the universe itself as an extended riff between gravity and electromagnetism. It’s relationship all the way down!
Thus my growing suspicion with narratives that valorize freedom and independence. Seeking sovereignty is a totally understandable and developmentally appropriate goal, but it requires a stubborn defiance of our embedded, relational essence. Like yeah, maybe we can build a Mars colony, but at tremendous cost, and the Martians will still depend on the Earth for resupply. Maybe I can meditate for years on end and finesse my consciousness into exquisite states, but afterwards I’ll still need to work out whose turn it is to clean up the kitchen.
I find myself drawn to a more conversational mode of yoga, where movement and breath techniques are proposals, not demands. Like any dialogue, the outcome is not guaranteed. My low back may say “no” to a particular movement on some days. Yet I also find that if I broach the topic politely, and listen respectfully to my body’s hesitations, it may be willing to give it a try. Often, the movement becomes easier and more enjoyable that if I forced it to happen. It may even be that the tension inherent in LARPing as a “me” who can order around “my body” was the cause of my low back gripping in the first place.
One of my intentions for my post-sabbatical teaching is to develop a class format that frames yoga as dialogue rather than top-down control. Dialogue between body parts, between subpersonalities, between students, and especially between humans and the more-than-human world. The outcome will be less guaranteed, maybe less marketable, but potentially much more profound and surprising.
The ecophilosopher David Abram is one on my guides in this endeavor, and I’ll finish with an extended quote from his remarkable book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Come back to this later if you’re tired of reading now.
We may, of course, continue to speak of mind as an excellence utterly unique to our species, a capacity that springs us free from our embedment in the earthly community of animate forms. We may continue to hold that the rustling of experience — of exaltation and grief, of compassion and confusion — is a purely human thing, and hence that the felt stirrings undergone by other creatures are mute and expressionless phantoms, automatic reflexes entirely closed to creative nuance….
But by doing so, we seal ourselves into a numbing solitude — a loneliness already settling around us as the complex creativity of the forests gives way to the numbered productivity of even-aged tree farms, as the diverse riffs of songbirds steadily fade from the soundscape, and the wild, syncopated chant of the frog chorus that once rocked the fields every spring dwindles down to the monotonous hum of a single street lamp…
Perhaps the broad sphere, itself, needed our forgetfulness. Perhaps some new power was waiting to be born on the planet, and our species was called upon to incubate this power in the dark cocoon of our solitude. Our senses dulled, our attention lost to the world, we created, in our inward turning, a quiet cave wherein a new layer of Earth could first shape itself and come to life. But surely it’s time now to hatch this new stratum, to waken our senses from their screen-dazzled swoon, and so to offer this power back to the more-than-human terrain…. Surely we’ve cut ourselves off for long enough — time, now, to open our minds outwards, returning to the biosphere that wide intelligence we’d thought was ours alone.
My book links point to Bookshop.org, where your purchase can be routed to local bookstores. They also give me a tiny affiliate payment if you buy through them. Here’s a list of all the books I’ve referenced in recent newsletters:
We’re offering lots of cool workshops at my yoga studio this winter, in person and on Zoom. Here are two to consider:
For an interesting take on the artistry of gaming and many other fascinating thoughts, check out this interview with C. Thi Nguyen: https://shows.acast.com/futurefossils/episodes/175
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaivalya. The goal of yoga is defined in many other ways across time and traditions, of course.
Poet May Sarton on this theme: "It is good for a professional to be reminded that his professionalism is only a husk, that the real person must remain an amateur, a lover of the work."