The universe is change;
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
Meditations, Book IV Chapter III, 170 AD
Sirmium, Roman Empire, Earth
“Me”Perspective is everything.
Perspective springs from consciousness, the act of being self-aware. Indeed, one of the most basic tests for consciousness is called the Mirror Test. The test is simple enough: hold a mirror up in front of an animal. Does the animal try to greet its image? Does it attack it? Or does it run away in fear? Or, does the animal recognize its reflection as an image of itself? Recognizing that it’s “me” in the mirror is not something we adult Homo sapiens have to actively think about, yet our babies can’t pass this test until about 18 months old. But just like us, the other great apes (chimps, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas) also recognize the fact that that’s “me” staring back in the mirror, as can rhesus macaques, dolphins, orcas, elephants (probably), and magpies. [It's also interesting to ponder the fact that self-awareness is believed to come from the neo-cortex region of the brain, which birds, non-mammalian descendants of dinosaurs, don't have. That means that magpies have developed a whole new brain pathway to consciousness, a very interesting case of convergent evolution. And I also wouldn't count out consciousness in animals that have failed the Mirror Test: like dogs, which as everybody knows rely heavily on their noses, not their eyes, to help decipher the world happening around them].
Along with self-awareness also comes the creation of the conscious mind; the state of awareness which allows us to understand that we are generally in control of these fine bodies of ours, able to will ourselves to perform all sorts of profoundly miraculous things. The conscious mind is opposed to the unconscious, although the line between the two is blurry at best, for the unconscious mind is mostly primal instinct. Think about a squirrel for a minute—scurrying around this very dangerous world without any real active train of thought. It’s all reaction all of the time; essentially ruled by their senses, which compel them to perform all sorts of generally prescribed actions (RUN! Hide these nuts! Freeze. RUN! Hey… go have sex with that lady squirrel! Then RUN! Freeze. Ooh… let’s chew the heads off all the sunflowers in EXO’s garden! Run!!!). The squirrel body does exactly what the unconscious control of the squirrel brain tells it to do based on these deeply hardwired instincts—instincts manifested from genes which have been honed from millions and millions of years’ worth of evolutionary pressures on squirrels and their kin. And like the squirrel brain demonstrates, the subconscious brain is all about survival.
The human mind is designed to interpret a constant flow of information coming in from all around us without consciously having to think about any of it. This is mostly handled by the subconscious. Our primal brains rule us in many ways—tempting us with our various hungers for comfort, sex, and dominance. It’s the unconscious mind that shocks us with adrenaline when we suddenly become afraid, and it’s why we fight like the vicious, murderous animals we are when we’re pushed to do so. You can see the work of the subconscious in a flash of anger, or pain, but you can also see it in a heartfelt smile. Indeed, much of human communication occurs on a subliminal level of awareness, laying right on the border of what is conscious and what is not. This is how a poker pro cleans up at a table of amateurs, reading excited faces and bodies filled with all sorts of revealing tells. It’s how you can learn to see when someone is lying to you. Yet the underlying fact is that we conscious beings can choose to override most of the things our primal squirrel brains are constantly telling us to do. We can decide not to run. Or not to fight. Or not to fuck (a stupid choice in most instances). We can control these fine bodies of ours to do what we want. This is why perspective is so important.
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.
The Handmaid's Tale, 1985 AD
Toronto, Canada, Earth
“We”If consciousness is the understanding that you’re a being able to control your own actions, perspective is the filter with which we consciously process and perceive information as it comes in. And so much of our perspective is imposed on us at first; from our parents at home, from our teachers at school, from religion, television, from watching all of the people of our society all around us, much of it prescribing very specific and conventional ways to think and act. Yet perspective is a large part of the output as well, for our perspective determines how we react to the world. This is why perspective is everything: it permeates every conscious decision that we make, not only how information comes in as potential facts, but how they come out in our actions to them.
Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves,
so will he be;
so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good,
a man of bad acts, bad;
a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds,
bad by bad deeds;
bad by bad deeds;
And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire,
so is his will;
so is his will;
and as is his will,
so is his deed;
so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.
7th Century BC (9,000 years ago)
Vedic, India, Earth
The greatest human achievements have arisen from long term acts of consciousness; times where we have been able to collectively over-ride our squirrel brains to think beyond our puny selves, organizing together to create much grander things. This is how civilizations are formed, centered on a shared destiny. Consciousness is how a species of Earth monkey gets to the moon and back! It’s how great libraries are built, and wondrous cathedrals, and Grand Central Stations. But it’s also why we hold doors open for others. It’s why we give up our seats to old people on the subway and still idiotically rush to say “bless you!” whenever someone else sneezes. Consciousness is The Golden Rule and Karma (which are the same thing). But understanding that you are a conscious being able to will your body to perform actions beneficial to others is one thing. A next step is recognizing moral frameworks like Karma and The Golden Rule (or Socialism, or Rastafarianism, or Vegetarianism…) for what they really are, not just as wisdom but as particular lenses through which you view and experience the world around you. Perspective is everything because we’re constantly using it. That's because life never stops.
It’s an honest assessment when I tell you that looking back I feel like I was a squirrel for a good portion of my younger years: scurrying around this frenetic world on a much lower level of self-awareness, ostensibly making conscious decisions but not really able to understand the world and thus incapable of truly acting conscientiously. I am a much better man today because I’ve learned to see the world unfolding around me more clearly. I would call this process enlightenment, and here’s the point: with the right perspective, anyone can get there. It all depends on your state of mind.
All things are ready if our minds be so.
Henry V, 1599 AD
Getting Beyond “Me”Though we try very hard, things—this world and how it works—are not meant to be understood. Our brains struggle to piece together meaning through all that we hear and see. Our perspective, how we see the world, influences not only how we view things but also how we react to them, and our conscious intent can alter this perspective. If you are seeing the world clearly and act with the right intentions, then the right words and the right actions and the right lifestyle all naturally follow. Buddhists call this the Noble Eightfold Path, but it’s really just combining wisdom and experience with the right frame of mind. It’s not easy, but we can all change for the better if we want. And it all comes from perspective.
You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
The Velveteen Rabbit, 1922 AD
Keeping my own life as an example, I can tell you that there are many things that can help change one’s perspective. Life experience certainly begets wisdom—as long as you don’t let it beat you. The most profound period of my life was the time after my father’s sudden death. Obviously it was plain terrible all around, yet my dad’s demise created more than a few previously unattainable insights into life which would never have occurred to me otherwise. A prime example, before my eyes the person who was my mother became a very broken woman whom I needed to take care of that instant. The worst career failure of my life also provided a heavy dose of perspective—and it was far beyond my control, which was part of the lesson. The financial meltdown in 2009 wiped out my first law firm job, plunging a newly minted king of lower Manhattan into a prolonged misery of joblessness and hopelessness (and then Grandma got cancer). Yet this didn’t break me, either. I took the beating from life while reading stacks of books, my eyes a little more open to the world while my brain desperately tried to play catch-up.
But there are other ways to gain perspective beyond the School of Hard Knocks. Perspective can certainly be gained from traveling, seeing how other people live, whether it’s around your state or around the world. Traveling beyond the confines of the Earth has revealed even greater shifts in awareness, as astronauts living in the International Space Station often report a life-changing shift in perspective upon seeing our planet from orbit. There is also inner travel, new perspective coming from deep meditation; or through the use of psychedelic substances, but great risk can certainly come with this approach.
An Economical Alternative?Traveling is a phenomenal experience that can certainly change your perspective, but it’s costly, and doing it right demands a lot of time as well as money. Most psychedelics are illegal (it’s worth asking why?), and can certainly be dangerous since you’re essentially performing a non-reversible experiment on your brain. The hard truth is that any good life experience worth a damn has a fairly deep cost. Whether it’s earning a degree, getting a divorce, bringing a new child into this world or losing a dear loved one, going through difficult and challenging times can greatly alter one’s perspective. But do you want to know a secret, one of the greatest life-hacks of all? What if I told you that there was a pretty easy way to gain extremely worthwhile experience, and on top of that it was relatively inexpensive and entirely safe, with the added ability to take you pretty much anywhere you wanted to go in the Universe? Do you know where I’m going with this??? Because you’re doing it right now.
Think about how reading works for a second. As you read a piece of fiction you cast these words into your brain. Your brain puts the words together, forming images in your mind. The crazy part is the fact that our brains actively make memories of what we’re reading as we’re imagining them! Maybe these memories aren’t as profound as a death in your family, or seeing war first hand, but they’re memories nevertheless. Books are experiences, you see. Their words are crafted by their authors, based on that person’s collective experiences and intent. Yet it’s the reader’s imagination that casts the characters and settings and ideas into this brand new creation, which springs to life in their mind and their mind alone. You can grow up with Harry Potter and Scout Finch and Paul Atreides, experiencing their worlds along with them through the lens of your own mind, with its unique perspective, with all of your particular life experiences. Reading these character’s stories allows us to see through their eyes, sometimes even read their thoughts. We gain knowledge and insight just as they do. Good books leave an impact on us, making impressions in our minds. Great books, and their great characters, may stick with us forever; cherished memories which we’ve totally imagined, cast across a veritable galaxy of otherwise impossible experiences.
This is why we have to read! Reading is an excellent way to gain entrance to all sorts of perspectives, all from the safety of your mind. If you don’t believe me look at this, and this, and this—or perhaps the depressing inverse if you’d like.
The conversation of perspective could certainly go on from here: For where there is no vision, the people perish. A glaring problem is the fact that so many adults seem to have settled on certain perspectives at some point in their lives and mindlessly stick to them pretty much no matter what. If you put yourself in these discretely labeled boxes, everything is easy—all you have to do is listen to what other people tell you to do without having to think too critically about it (that is discouraged, in fact). If you say that you’re a Catholic, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Southern Baptist, and then so you believe X, basically what the leader(s) of your particular sect says X is. But this is the exact same with Conservatives and Democrats, free market capitalists and anarchists. These are all labels that people apply to themselves that obviate the need for further conscious thought in the matter. And in terms of the religious specifically? Their constant naked hypocrisies show us how badly so many of them are missing the point. The Golden Rule—love personified as taught by Jesus H. Christ—isn’t a box you check so you don’t have to think anymore… it’s a perspective. It’s a mindset that you always need to be thinking about as you’re constantly evaluating your actions in this life. Yet, working towards a clear perspective requires a constant awareness of one’s own view first and foremost. We can’t really control others, after all. We can certainly influence them though. We can use all of our experiences, real or entirely imagined through literature, and combined with the right perspective we can show each other how to be better people. It all begins with the right state of mind.
Stay on the path my friend!
January 21, 2016 AD
NYC, USA, Earth
p.s. I learned quite a lot from the book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow. A long time before that I read The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan.
You should also check out this great piece by Neil Gaiman, very much on topic.