Neuroscience and the Big Why
The Power of Ambivalence
More than any other 21st century endeavor, people look to neuroscience hoping to find an answer to the big why. But this it cannot provide: science does not yield answers to questions of purpose and meaning. But nor does it preclude them: it is one of the hallmarks of a creeping unconscious nihilism to covertly employ the attitudes of science to foreclose the possibilities of unforeseen growth, perspectival shift, radical revaluation, the undiscovered country of our ancestral past. We do not yet know what we are: neither what we have been, nor what we are now, nor what we’re becoming. We are magical apes, shapeshifters, blowhards, artisans, wizards, liars and lovers: that much can be said for sure. But a definitive answer to what it all could mean, this brief window, this vanishing vista, this trainwreck of civilization, this continually cresting history, this cascade of neural activity we seem doomed to only amplify - that we do not have.
The discipline of meditation will take you a step closer: in that much the ascetics have always been correct. But we must correct the majority of traditions immediately again: because meditation, like all esoteric spiritual practice, positively does not yield definitive final answers to anything at all. No nirvana, no final revelation, no samadhi, no high that lasts, no insight that makes you immune to confusion, no feeling that cannot fade. What it does, is change your expectations. It lightens, it moves, it teaches us to ask better questions. It teaches receptivity, gentleness, the power of quiet tender passion. I said to a student recently: “Fear is an excellent meditative fuel.” And the astonishing answer I received was: “Sometimes fear rises up from my belly, crests and crashes down, becoming ambiguous euphoria.” This is the strange power we’re cultivating: to unbind emotional valence through the power of ambivalence, the power of ignorance. Not to know, when everyone tries so hard to seem to know. To ask, “What is this? Is this feeling what I think it is? Is this thought so bad? Is this fantasy so good?” Just a little room, a few milliseconds of hesitation between stimulus and habitual response, is all that’s required for massive systemic change. Once you begin growing like this, you cannot stop: that too, is a kind of curse disguised as a blessing disguised as a curse. There is tremendous inertia on both sides of mediocrity: it’s a steep slope into esoteric neuromorphic calibration routines, for those of us unwise enough to take the challenge seriously. Unwise, in the sense that everyone who chooses stultification and stasis is so streetwise: to get the rewards of exotic self-awareness requires that we become profoundly foolish. We are fools for growth, fools for receptivity, fools for insight, fools for a deepening passion of living on the edge of breakdown.
Critical emergence as my prime metaphor for the leverage of meditation and the meaning of apperceptive consciousness, is not chosen lightly: there is a reason the ancient practices require stress, hardship, endurance, crisis. Biological systems do not function at their peak self-organizing basins of attraction until they find their way there through paths of least resistance: which means all easier paths are no longer possible due to the volume of dissipative flow - which means, shit gets tough. Which is why we insist on naming what we do, meditative discipline. This is the meaning of ascetic practice itself: some deprivation is always necessary to generate criticality. You have to want to find your way out of a trap you set for yourself: that is the cruel magic of spiritual discipline, and why so much of what we do has been confused with neurotic self-punishment and priestly schemes. But part of us always knows precisely what we’re doing, as though we’ve already been there before. Such is all growth, no? The genome knows where it’s going when a body grows: why shouldn’t the “spirit”? And if we take that to mean, the critical emergent moments along the trajectory of a self-organizing informative process, as evoked by this neuromorphic chemical bath which speaks to you now, why shouldn’t those moments be “already known” in the sense that all harmonics are anticipated and lightly visited by the basal tone? Complex systems don’t precisely evolve in a linear stepwise fashion, but rather jitter and switch between their many modes - and the more energetic the system, the more it’s already been to those moments: which means, you have already visited many of your superior growth factors, you have briefly been much wiser than you normally are. Perhaps in dreams, perhaps in your most doubtful monologue, perhaps in the midst of loss, perhaps in a fragmented repressed zone you dare not speak of: most of what is most valuable about almost everyone I meet, lies hidden and covered with shame. Most of us are terrified of breakdown: precisely where you will find that version of yourself which, truly, the rest of you should be afraid of.
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