When I was in 7th grade, we had a unit in school about the evils of smoking. I wrote a letter to my dad, full of the logic of the dangers, and why I wanted him to quit so he would be around to see me grow into the person I would become. And he did quit. Cold turkey. I was incredibly impressed with my ability to lay out a convincing argument in words.
It was a moment in time that led, not only to some tween arrogance, but to inspiration, too. (Everything is always more than one thing.) That story with my father stays with me as something that truly shapes a big part of my identity as a writer. It’s a friendly ghost — a pivotal memory that whispered regularly to me as I was growing up, believing in my ability to have an impact through words.
As human beings, we are unique in the way we think and talk and persuade and analyze and criticize. Our brains are amazing tools.
Of course … being smart in this way can also make us believe we know better — we think we have the “right” answer — we make judgments and emotional reactions based on which ghosts from past stories are whispering into our head in that instant. Our common sense, as Robert Pirsig said in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” “is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of ghosts from the past.”
And every one of us listens to different voices. We all have our own stored memories to choose from. I’ve heard someone compare our consciousness to a kind of storytelling conductor that decides what to pay attention to.
Now that my dad has dementia, the conductor in his head is scrambling the signals a bit — giving him more of an improvisational jazz sense of his history — notes that don’t always connect in a linear flow about who he is and where he has been.
But, honestly, if we all had an improvisational sense of story, that might not be such a bad thing. I think reliance on our own individual brain memories — listening to our ghosts and monkeys — tends to get us into trouble.
Our tendency, for example, is to think that Point A inevitably leads to Point B: if you have this skin color then this might happen, if this Cause led to this Effect once it will do it again, that there are inflexible distinctions between Us and Them. Our brain instinctively takes in moments with bias and judgment from the past. We fixate, unaware, on our own individual memories — our independent identities — the stories that set us apart from the rest.
This instinct might be a skill that helps us learn how to survive in the wild. But now quantum physicists, botanists, biologists are digging in further, beyond the lessons of evolution, and many of them are reporting that the universe doesn’t actually operate that way. We are not in a Newtonian cause-effect universe with that kind of linear structure.
I think our willingness to believe that the universe is essentially filled with individual computers — human brains — with simple on/off switches has overpowered us. And made us less aware of the improvisational nature of the universe around us.
My friend David Perry offered these thoughts in a wedding poem:
From atoms to molecules to cells to you and me,
Everything grows in greater circles of inclusivity.
Some have called it an unquenchable cosmic urge
For everything that arises to eventually converge.
What happens if we begin to recognize that nearly every layer of what exists in the universe — from atoms to molecules to cells to you and me — is not a simple one-celled organism? That we are all parts of successive circles of inclusivity? Not lines, but circles. Not bits of matter, but webs of co-creation.
What if the universe is actually defined by the way ALL of its elements interact? Contemporary quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli says: “To understand ourselves better, we cannot see ourselves in terms of personal isolation. The same is true for fundamental physics: elementary particles are better understood through the way they interact.”
What if the universe is created more from a force — not matter? Max Planck said in the 1940s, after a lifetime studying the energy of matter, that “there is no matter as such,” but rather a force that brings particles to vibration — he called it a kind of conscious matrix.
What if the human brain — our arrogance in thinking — is limiting our ability to be aware of our interconnection? David Bohm — one of my favorite ghosts — said it this way: Our human need to break things into fragments creates the illusion that our world is not interconnected. He said electrons, neutrons, and photons are entangled and guided by a ghost field.
What if there is a collective consciousness? Rupert Sheldrake is a Cambridge biologist I admire for his ability to research and articulate — despite heavy skepticism from classical scientists — what humans might underestimate about how the universe works. He theorizes, for example, about “morphic resonance” — that memories are not simply stored in individual brains, but there is a kind of collective interconnection for all species.
What if the human brain is recognized more fully as NOT the only form of intelligence in the universe? Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer stated in a 2016 On Being radio show that plants have the capacity to learn, to have memory. And she is optimistic about our ability to eventually accept this. She believes “we are at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.”
E.O. Wilson has written about all the ways humans seem inadequate compared to animals and insects. He calls us “chemosensory idiots.”
All of these people are whispering that there is more to the universe than our individual bits of matter. That there is more to the universe than what the human brain notices. That perhaps how and what we have access to is much more than brain function and data collection and sensory interpretation. That there is a conscious matrix, an intelligence, in its migratory birds, ultra-sensory animals, instinctive insects, synthesizing plants.
Wilson has written: “If the analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.”
The ghost voice of Nikola Tesla seemed to agree, saying: “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
On non-linear storytelling
A Berkeley professor of perception and consciousness, Alva Noë, says this: “We think we are fundamentally intellectual — that the thing inside of us which thinks and feels and decides is, in its basic nature, a problem solver, a calculator, a something whose nature is to figure out what there is and what we ought to do in light of what is coming in.” But he says there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Instead, he says:
“Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.”
After all, is what my dad can remember — what he figured out in the past and can recall today — the definition of who he is? Everything he once knew about analytical chemistry … cooking … driving … fixing things … tends to be gone now. He has some of his stories about childhood — and he can still come in quickly with a funny line that makes us laugh — but if he has lost some of the voices that have been chattering in his brain over the years, what does that change about who he is to me, to my mom, to my kids?
Does it erase the intersecting moments that he’s had — like every one of us has — with tens of thousands of people? From the immigrant employee he helped get American status … to the buddies he undoubtedly made laugh while doing reconnaissance work during the Korean War … to any random stranger he greeted with a smile rather than a scowl.
He is still the man who quit smoking cold turkey … whose support whispered me into writing to make an impact … a path that eventually led me to write a book about Choosing Single Motherhood … that has impacted the lives of thousands of single women … who write to me, thankful for the support and confidence the book gave them to take a similar path … whose own children — and they send me pictures — will in turn be inspired, and serve as inspiration, for others in their paths.
Our Living Web is just that. Not a linear story that begins and dies with one person. But a matrix of what we DO and feel and share and inspire. Our lives are so much more than what we think.
I know now that it was not the logic about smoking that swayed my dad to quit … but the emotions about the interactions it might interfere with into our future together. It was about him wanting to be here … still today … at age 86 … and me wanting him to be here … adding everything he could along the way to the collective memory … the entangled experiences all of us, every day, have with those around us … that we embed together into a convergent field.
To the question of whether collective unity is possible, I might answer: beyond the ghostly voices and monkey chatter in our brains, it already exists.
This is excerpted from a talk that was delivered at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and recorded in podcast form, available here.