Open Your Aperture
Of global human consciousness
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security. … The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.” — Albert Einstein, letter to a man distraught over the death of his young son from polio.
“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans.” — Humphrey Bogart. Casablanca.
“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him.” — Abraham Lincoln.
Our minds are usually so narrowly focused that we don’t think about anything other than what we see, hear, and experience in our immediate vicinity. By definition, that vicinity was limited to a few hundred yards until very recently and, despite increasing it massively over the last few decades, we have failed to make even a tiny dent in our awareness of the universe around us as we go about our lives.
There’s a simple reason for that. Our brains can process only one scene, one complex set of circumstances, one unfolding narrative, at any point in time. Of course we can context switch between a few such storylines but that approach fails to give us even an inkling of the multitude of realities our species is experiencing right now, at this very moment, across the world.
At best, we struggle to comprehend what’s right in front of us, maybe a few stories we’re following on TV or the papers or on social media. And we almost always see those events only from our own self-centered perspective. Those narratives evolve even as we context switch between them, leaving us with only a partial understanding of the circumstances.
Open your aperture.
You can bet that I’m not aware of the chaiwala walking the streets of Mumbai or the housewife driving her kids to school in Atlanta or the student activist in Myanmar, nor the four year old putting on skis for the first time or the octogenarian being helped to the toilet at some remote village in the Amazon. Never mind the mother suffering in childbirth or the dentist filling a cavity, the mountain climber hanging off a cliff with the force of sheer will or the bus driver making a left turn at an intersection.
Not only am I unaware of them and what they’re experiencing, their life story and future trajectory similarly eludes me. Try to put together eight billion such stories simultaneously unfolding in real time and you’ll start to get an inkling of what global human consciousness is all about.
Now open your aperture again.
Add to this the stories of all the interactions between individuals, two at a time, ten at a time, a million at a time. You can bet again that I’m not aware of the high school soccer team currently practicing in Tangiers or the engineering team working on the next version of a video game, nor am I taking into account the politicians arguing a bill on the floor of the Taiwanese house of representatives or the actors filming the latest episode of a Turkish soap opera. It’s too overwhelming and painful to even try to comprehend the collective consciousness of the millions of people currently chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom” in my country of birth.
Open your aperture once more.
Once you have realized the scale of what I’m talking about, take one more step backwards and take in the sweep of history and the billions of people who have already come and gone. As you do so, note that the word is basically shorthand for His-Story (from Greek, histor, meaning “learned, wise man”) and you’ll realize immediately that, as recorded, it covers at best only half the story.
Now add to that all those stories that we’ve abandoned, the ones we experienced at five and have, long since, repressed because they were too traumatic or forgotten because they were too banal. We may have forgotten them but they did happen. The proverbial tree did fall in the forest, even if no one else was around to see it.
Now add to that all the stories that have been forgotten by old people, either due to dementia or death. Add to it all the narratives we’ve lost simply because a civilization died out before they invented writing, a people died out before they had a chance to record even the most rudimentary “his” story.
Open your aperture even further.
Yup, we’re still walking backwards. And we haven’t even covered “human” history yet. Ten or twenty thousand years ago, we were not much better than our primate brethren, hanging from trees, hiding in caves, or running away from lions, unable to document our existence.
Add to that all the semi-humanoid life forms that walked the earth for a thousand millennia before us: a Neanderthal was “conscious” of his own impending death, even if he may not have been able to articulate it verbally. He had to be. There’s grandma, in a heap at the corner of the cave. There’s my brother, gored by a lion. There’s my wife, dead in childbirth.
I’m surrounded by death, by people ceasing to function. Of course, at some point, while running away from a lion at full speed, adrenalin peaking, my brain puts two and two together: Holy shit, if I don’t run fast enough, I’m gonna be like them.
It’s at exactly that moment that consciousness can be said to be born. Me, this human body that’s carrying “me”, this vessel, this machine, this mechanism for genetic propagation, this “self”, for lack of a better term, “is”. Becomes. Is born. And it’s at exactly that moment that the need for its protection is born.
So was born human consciousness.
Now, if you’re still walking backwards with me, you can add to this the “consciousness” of the planet. The trees, the animals, the mycelium network under our feet, each can and do have a sort of consciousness: animals communicate with each other using stress calls, primates understand and enforce social structures, trees in the forest have been shown to communicate with each other by releasing chemicals, and I’m pretty sure this is all just a tiny subset of what is happening on millions of planets around the universe.
“Is it not possible that rocks, hills and mountains, and the great physical body of the Earth itself may enjoy a sentience, a form of consciousness which we humans cannot perceive only because of the vastly different time scales involved? For example the mind of a mountain may be as powerful and profound as that of a Buddha, Plato, Spinoza, Whitehead and Einstein. Say that a mountain takes 5,000,000 of our human or solar years to complete a single thought. But what a grand thought that single thought must be. If only we could tune in on it. The classic philosophers of both east and west have tried for 5,000 years more or less to convince us that Mind is the basic reality, maybe the only reality and that our bodies, the Earth and the entire universe is no more than a thought in the mind of God. But consider an alternative hypothesis. That Buddha, Plato, Einstein and we are all thoughts in the minds of mountains, or that humanity is a long, long thought in the mind of the Earth. That we are the means by which the Earth, and perhaps the universe becomes conscious of itself. I tell you that God, if there is a god, may be the end, not the origin of this process. If so, then our relationship to Earth is something like that of our minds to our bodies. They are interdependent. We cannot exploit or abuse our bodies without peril to our mental health and our survival. We have definitely seen some mindless bodies dancing around us, but we have yet to observe a disembodied mind. At least I haven’t seen any. And as mind is to body, so is humanity to Earth. We cannot dishonor one without dishonoring and destroying ourselves.” — Edward Abbey, from his 1975 lecture “In Defense of Wilderness” given at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico and later transcribed and published by Jack Loeffler in his book, Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey.
Far be it for me to try to add all that in here; that would require a whole book. So let’s just stop there. Let’s stop at global human consciousness: the sum of everything that has ever happened to us as a species. And you’d start to have an inkling of how big consciousness really is. And how our brains, almost by definition, can’t be any more than mere portals into this collective consciousness, mere windows into a vast universe of information. To believe otherwise is the definition of self-centeredness. The vision of the Matrix movies suddenly seems more realistic.
Now that you’ve walked back this far with me, now that you’ve opened your aperture this far, stop and ask yourself: that thing I’m pissed about right now, in the totality of everything I’m looking at here, is it really that important? Is my belligerence warranted in the big scheme of things? Is it really worth the temper tantrum I’m throwing? Is it worth yelling at my kid? Is it worth blasting someone on Twitter? Is it worth yelling at the ATM machine (an inanimate object, mind you!) because it’s so damn stupid? Is it worth giving the finger to the driver who cut me off in traffic? Is it worth invading another country? Is it worth picking up an AK15 and going down to the neighborhood high school?
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius. Meditations.
It’s only by opening our apertures, by constantly reminding ourselves that we’re only looking at the world through a tiny keyhole, that we become fully “human,” that we learn to be compassionate toward others.
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