catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 13 :: 2005.07.01 — 2005.07.14


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Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:34)

I love the moment in each day when I open my first can of diet cola. I make myself wait until mid-morning, although if I?ve awakened early then 9:30 counts as mid-morning. I love the feel and the sound of the pop of the can as it opens, my practiced finger pulling and pushing with just the right pressure and timing. I love pouring the soda out over ice, into a tall blue glass. I love that first sip, and usually the glass is gone before I?m ready for it to be over.

I love the moment in each day when I can fire up my browser and check my email and my message boards. ?Fire up? is the right terminology, even though the Internet uses no combustion, internal or otherwise. It feels like the energy of fire at my fingertips, buzzing, connecting, conflicting, finding a place for my words to shine and blaze brightly as other unschooling moms and I discuss our joys and concerns and questions and poignant moments.

I love the moment in each day when I lie down with my toddler so he can nap. For the ten or twenty minutes that I allow myself to lie next to him after he?s asleep, I can drift into the darkness behind my eyes, allowing snips of dreams and images to arise as they will.

And then there?s everything else, the crazy flow of my day.

How difficult it is to stay in the moment, with my children, with myself. I am surprised how often I catch myself mentally revising my last email, or replaying a TV show in my head, or wishing I could sleep or walk, or reaching for something sweet, something caffeinated, something to make the moments go down a little easier.

When my toddler invites me to push him on the swing by escaping out our sliding door, just when I was going to clean the kitchen, how difficult it is to stay with the tension. I will feel I have failed if I leave the kitchen, piled with a sticky tray from the high chair and last night?s dishes, for my husband. I will feel I have failed if my toddler runs into the front yard in his pajamas for the neighbors to see, or if he starts crying because he wanted to swing and I won?t push him, or if he just gives up because nobody cares enough to help him. I will feel I have failed as my older son, who prefers to stay inside, plays video games or reads his Shonen Jump magazine without me.

So I follow my toddler, I push him on the swing, but I fail to be present. I am thinking about what I want to write to another mother on one of my message boards. She has asked for advice about her son who is having explosive rages?I am composing my reply in my head as I push my son?s swing for ten, twenty, thirty minutes.

Dear Catherine,
Hugs to you. (This goes first, common shorthand for empathy on these lists. Now that she knows I?m on her side, I can advise.) It’s the hardest thing, and I have to do it with my son, too. I stay quiet, and I stay near. (Ooh, I like that rhythm.) I usually just sit down, I guess so my presence feels more solid and stable. (Do I need the sitting down part? Yes, I?ll keep it ? I want her to understand how I have to rest into it.) I don’t look at him, because that only heightens his self-consciousness and anger. (I want to talk more about that self-consciousness thing, but maybe in a separate post.) So I look calmly at something else, and breathe, and often I just count my out-breaths to myself, meditation-style. I don’t try to get through it or past it — I stay in it, with him. (Right. I stay in the moment, that?s the gift I give. Good, I think that will be helpful to her.)

(Um, where am I again?)

I am missing my own life by constantly living in the past or present, or even in someone else?s life, but rarely in this moment. I know this experience is not solely the domain of stay-at-home moms. If I had decided long ago to stay single and childless, I would still be tempted to escape the tension of each moment.

I have a mind that loves to wander, that feels most engaged when planning, remembering, weaving a complex web of connections between ideas and emotions and past and future. This imagination is where the conscious mind connects with the soul, and though my connection may be a little more active than the average bear?s (to borrow from Yogi), I know that this is not an unusual experience. In fact, it?s what our conscious mind was designed to do. Or has evolved to do.

One of the most interesting explanations of consciousness does come from evolution, that beautiful, epic theory, full of incomprehensible spans of time, starring a cast of billions of creatures, living and dying over the eons, creatures who are merely pawns to the tiny but all-powerful genes, the mysterious keepers of the code.

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, compares the human mind to a computer that creates a model and runs simulations and scenarios, like the computers now used commonly in the fields of economics, ecology, sociology, and military strategy.

Survival machines that can simulate the future are one jump ahead of survival machines who can only learn on the basis of overt trial and error. The trouble of overt trial is that it takes time and energy. The trouble with overt error is that it is often fatal. Simulation is both safer and faster.

The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. ?Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain?s simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.

So according to Dawkins, the conscious mind is what developed as a simulation machine, a survival tool, a brain that can run simulations and learn from past events. The unconscious mind is likened to parallel processors on a computer, running several bits of data at once. But the conscious mind is a linear processor, says Dawkins?one thought at a time.

As I discovered recently when my husband was briefly jobless, there is something refreshing about the need to live in survival mode ? the conscious mind quickly fills the role for which it was designed, and focuses on the need to keep, as they say, body and soul together. We started fixing up the house in case we needed to sell it, shopping at the discount food store, taking a close look at our bank accounts, looking into temp work that I could use to keep income flowing while he looked for work, and basically running as many ?what if? scenarios as we could come up with. Our simulation machines seemed to be in good working order, and it was fun to use them, to put them to the test.

And so out of this extremely clever survival tool, consciousness and identity arise, along with past and future.

Is it possible that our treasured sense of self, that collection of choices and memories and emotions that form each of us, are in fact a simple ?You Are Here? arrow on our mental maps of the world?

And are we in the habit of seeing this arrow from the outside, from the overhead view, instead of stopping to actual Be Here?

This simulation machine has, of course, enabled us to do amazing things: harnessing fire to the point of the internal combustion engine; using what are essentially glorified rocks and sticks to build complex cities and highways and that miracle of modern life, infrastructure.

We have also found ways to shelter ourselves, not just from the elements, but from unpleasantness and all that it symbolizes: the walls of hospitals and mortuaries hide the ill, the dying and the dead. Our waste is neatly whisked away, to the point that we can almost believe that we are not capable of producing it. The parts of our bodies that can bring forth life and eliminate waste are always clothed and covered, unseen and shrouded in mystery.

As much as we are in love with our conscious minds and all the really neat things that they can do, in my more imaginative states I also wonder if our consciousness causes as many problems as it solves.

Thomas Moore, the Jungian psychologist and author responsible for the popular Care of the Soul books, writes this: ?In the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino put it as simply as possible. The mind, he said, tends to go off on its own so that it seems to have no relevance to the physical world.? Moore goes on to say that the materialistic life can be so absorbing that we get caught in it and forget about spirituality. What we need, Moore asserts, is soul, in the middle, holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.

But given the stronghold of the conscious mind, will we ever get more than glimpses of the soul, the connectedness, the unconscious and all that it processes?

Living in our sanitized and relatively safe world, yet able to run scenarios and our storylines back and forth and sideways, the truth is that our conscious minds get bored pretty easily. And as we face boredom, we face the temptation to leave the moment, to find something, someone, to help us avoid the restlessness. We concoct schemes, religious and otherwise, for ?saving the world,? forgetting that we barely understand that which we purport to save. We are lured by excessive materialism, our attention absorbed by a wide array of other people?s inventions, the products of those people avoiding their own boredom and restlessness. We reach for caffeine, or chocolate, or the phone, or our email, or the TV, or a quick nap, or a sexual feeling, or ?.

It is just so excruciating for these survival machines to stay in our particular moment. Our particular moment is actually full of not knowing, of fear, of uncertainty. We truly do not know what?s going to happen next.

Consciousness seems to mean that we nearly always want something more, something different, than that uncertainty. It?s easier to run a quick simulation than to be with the not knowing.

Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun, says it this way:

[Touch] the open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It?s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold onto. ?During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earthshaking revelation that we cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time! ? In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness.

Exactly. Groundlessness. And if it took Pema Chodron, who has been practicing Buddhist meditation every day for years and years, if it took her this long to realize the tension between consciousness and the moment, and to fully choose the groundlessness of that tension, what hope have I, a lackadaisical interfaith believer? What hope can there possibly be for me?

There is none. And that is the point.

In this moment, in this breath, I can hold tightly to neither hope nor fear. In this moment, there is no time to construct my complex story line. At present, I have only what my senses can take in, only what can float up from the depths of my associative unconscious mind. I have a breath that I can release, and my ideals, my thinking, my fantasies, my various addictions and escapes?all these to release, too.

I am, honestly, still horrible at actually doing this, staying present. But what else can I do?

This is the moment where God is. This is what all of religion is trying to get to.

As I push my son on the swing in our suburban backyard. As his hair seems to startle in the breeze, while his small body rests solidly in the swing. As the birds in the woods behind us call out. As the smells of water and earth and old leaves reach my nose. As a quick glimpse to the sky tells me the clouds are moving southeast. As a memory of falling from a horse rises to the surface.

As I dissolve, only to find myself in the next moment, open and weightless as a child on a swing.

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