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Consensual Reality

By Billy | December 7, 2010

My thoughts have been focusing around time in varying capacities these days.  Understanding time as relative to each perceiver has greatly influenced my way of looking at life — I have been kicking around this term in my head that’s something like “consensual reality.”  You can start from many trains of thought — one I like is this.  We’re all spinning about the earth’s axis at slightly different speeds on account of our unique distance from the center.  Thus, someone in Alaska is moving at a minutely slower rate of speed than someone in Ecuador.  According to the theory of relativity and my understanding of time relative to acceleration, this means that Ecuadorian second hands move at a different rate of time than Alaskan second hands, when perceived by someone in neither of those places.  Taking this thought to an extreme gives us the gem of knowledge that the moon that Alaskans see is slightly older than the moon that Ecuadorians see, simply because of the acceleration due to rotational energy of the earth.  The moon is simultaneously its young iteration and its old iteration, depending on who you are that is looking at it — but the moon is only itself as far as it is concerned.  So then we have 3 versions of the moon — the moon’s take on things, the Ecuadorian take on things, and the Alaskan take on things, not to mention everyone in Alaska and Ecuador are minutely further or closer to the Earth’s axis, and therefore every human anywhere on Earth is seeing a different moon, simply on account of its age relative to them.

Well, that’s fairly obvious to me.   I’ve been thinking about how we all sort that conundrum out.  That very same, “each person sees a different object” applies to everything.  We see different angles, iterations, shades, and pieces of it — not to mention that we cognize these objects based on what language we are thinking on as well as every other instance we’ve looked at a similar object or thought about basically anything.

So when all of campus is looking at a rainbow, the people at ISAT are looking at different photons bouncing off different water molecules to make a different rainbow than what the people on the quad are seeing.  This is even true for people standing right next to each other.   We all pretend that isn’t the case so that we can be conventional.  It’s cumbersome to try and acknowledge the fact that we’re viewing different rainbows while we’re trying to take in the beautiful experience.  I don’t even know if it’s helpful.

This is where consensus comes in.  Two people at different places in Harrisonburg at 3 PM one afternoon can both say, “did you see the rainbow?” and be speaking about “the same rainbow,” even though they were both seeing different molecules, photons, and perceiving it with different brains.  This is us coming to consensus.  We decide what is real and we invest in it, and the meaning is almost generated out of the absence of anything.  (As I write this, I suspect this process is a microcosm of the creation of the universe)  It’s exactly the same with language.  The word, “word,” doesn’t mean anything on it’s own.  It needs a speaker or thinker to think it, it needs words to reference it, and it needs to be defined by words.  More concretely, the word, “rape,” etymologically means to force or carry off (it’s linked to the word “rapture”) and has been used in reference to inanimate objects like doors and keyholes (The Rape of the Lock), but its meaning has shifted to sexual assault, and now is being used in reference to industrialized practices effecting the environment, (“mountaintop removal rapes the land and tortures the timber”)  This last example is frowned upon by most feminists I know.  So the word, as all words, is given meaning by the people participating with it.  We come to some sort of consensus as to what it means, and thus are OK using it.  This train of thought has been the only way that I’ve come to terms with saying, “how are you?” or “hello” or “I’m sorry,” and even the word “shame.”  I acknowledge there is no act that in doing so is inherently “shameful” just as there is no “rainbow,” but we all sometimes experience a feeling that happens when we perform in a way that doesn’t meet up to the expectations we hold ourselves accountable to based on other people’s supposed standards — and we all see white light broken into different wave lengths when it hits water droplets.  So we decide to call them things for convenience’s sake.

SO.  I understand this as a good reason to believe that reality is a lot softer than we usually pretend (at least in the United States).  This pliable reality creates space for miracles of biblical proportions!  If the Bush administration can change national consensus on what the definition of “terrorism” is overnight, than I don’t see why we can’t change other aspects of our reality in the same way.  At JMU EARTH club meetings, everyone has a say in decisions.  It’s a consensus based program.  New members are just as important as veteran members.  That said, someone who has been toiling day and night over a project carries a certain authority when they speak about their issues.  It’s not that their opinions invalidate someone else’s, or they are more valid than someone else because of their hard work, but I think most people who are willing to contribute to a consensus based organization are willing to yield their opinions to the person with more experience.  One person may be especially compelling, and make a difference in the overall understanding of things on behalf of an entire group.  This is what I’d say gives power to things like Elisha raising that boy from the dead.  He had enough know-how/power/spiritual practice/understanding of God’s plan/etc., to effectively speak so persuasively to the universe, that he swayed consensus about the status of that boy’s liveliness.  This is how someone can melt snow all around them while meditating on a mountainside.  This is how someone can hold their breath for hours or survive on sunlight and water for years.  Their vote is so weighty that it defies the general opinion of how things really work — and actually contributes to changing global consciousness.

There is a historical figure in Judaism called the Baal Shem Tov.  Cooper, in God is a Verb mentions several stories about the Baal Shem Tov using time very uniquely.  He is attributed with being able to travel great distances in a vastly shorter amount of time than it would take normal people.  I am beginning to suspect that this is possible because he has found a way to utilize the non-linear nature of time.

Thinking about time as a network, and a framework within which a mind can actually travel freely opens up a lot of interesting doors with regards to healing and prayer.  Preventative maintenance is invariably more effective than repairs, and I’ve been thinking about the possibility of prayers or efforts exerted on something in the past and the healing implications for today.

Topics: Philosophy, This is my life | 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Consensual Reality”

  1. nommomuntu Says:
    December 8th, 2010 at 1:52 am

    This whole post reminds me of this: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” -W.I. Thomas.

    While you say in reference to the concept of “shame” that “we all sometimes experience a feeling that happens when we perform in a way that doesn’t meet up to the expectations we hold ourselves accountable to based on other people’s supposed standards,” I think the earlier part of your post implies we don’t HAVE to experience that feeling, or at least that exact feeling. The “laws” of physics, as you explained, could be interpreted as urging us NOT to all have that same feeling, since physics makes it impossible for us to have that same feeling anyway- after all, we all see different rainbows, and the chemicals in my brain that make me feel things like joy, love, shame and guilt, are moving around in the pathways and folds of my uniquely shaped brain in combinations of times and places that will never be witnessed ever again in this world in exactly the same way.

    So though we as a society seem to have come to a consensus (as much as persons each faced with their own version of reality CAN agree!) on a definition of shame, I would argue with W.I. Thomas that even what he would call “real” consequences- say, sadness, social isolation- of the socially-constructed concept of “shame” are defined differently by each person because we experience them and interpret them differently. Or at least I will actively choose to interpret it differently than other people- again, not because my opinion invalidates those of others, but because I AM able to and I CHOOSE to be able to move freely in my own consciousness, and by doing so I probably defy- and maybe change!- the way things are. I can take those consequences and run with them in whatever direction I choose.

    Maybe someday I’ll get around to it.

  2. Billy Says:
    December 8th, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Welcome! I think what you’re tapping into is enlightenment! Or at least transcendence.

    It is said that before Zen, there is chopping wood and carrying water. After Enlightenment there is chopping wood and carrying water.

    I think you are absolutely right. We each hold the power to interpret what “shame” is and what its implications and effects are. In Buddhism this is called Shunyata. The root of that word, Shunya, is the thing that comes between 1 and -1. Often translated as emptiness, Shunyata implies that nothing exists absolutely and without conditions and causes. Before there were people, there was no shame. The difference between a floor and a ceiling is the location of the perceiver. Shame is “empty of inherent existence” a Buddhist might say. That gives us quite a bit of power.

    I encourage you to work on defying “shame.” It’s a useless construct that doesn’t help us accomplish much, if anything. Perhaps tonight I will meditate on the idea, “who is ashamed of whom? and are we OK with that?”

  3. nommomuntu Says:
    December 18th, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Hmm… I have always liked the Transcendentalists. Things to ponder: How far away is enlightenment from transcendence? How much more desirable is enlightenment than transcendence? Hmm…

    Also- I’m afraid I don’t understand what is meant by: “…before Zen, there is chopping wood and carrying water. After Enlightenment there is chopping wood and carrying water.” Could you clarify?

    Since my last comment, I have worked on defying shame, and have come very far, I think. However, I’ve also been reading some of Dostoevsky, who would argue that shame isn’t worthless, as you said- in fact, to him, full repentance for any sin DEPENDS on public humiliation and shame. According to Dostoevsky, only through this process are we refined into better humans. Sometimes I believe him, and believe I should buy into this dominant collective understanding of shame and its consequences. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    And now… some relevant lyrics!

    “Once when our mother called / She had a voice of last year’s cough. / We passed around the phone, / Sharing a word about Oregon. / When my turn came, I was ashamed. / When my turn came, I was ashamed. / We saw her once last fall. / Our grandpa died in a hospital gown. / She didn’t seem to care. / She smoked in her room and colored her hair. / I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her.”

  4. Billy Says:
    March 12th, 2011 at 1:02 am

    I somehow missed your last comment until months later, but I don’t like leaving the door open knowingly, so I’m responding after all this time.

    I don’t know enough about Transcendentalism to make any assertions about it compared to Enlightenment, and right now I’ll yeild to tradition: There are little or no positive assertations about Enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition — only what it is not.

    As far as Before/After Zen and chopping wood and carrying water: You mentioned at first acknowledging that sadness exists for each person, even though it is just a construct we create in our minds. The Zen saying is used to explain that the exact same things that were “suffering” before enlightenment exist just the same, but now they are not contributing to your suffering. You travel down the long road to find enlightenment, only to realize that it was literally right there all along. (See any of my posts on Buddha Nature)

    Dostoevsky and Shame:
    Immediately my thoughts go to absurd situations: if you need public humiliation and shaming for proper growth, can you not accomplish growth in solitary confinement in prison? A small desert island, etc.?
    What I think I’d relate that to is the Buddhist concept of “skillful means.” A parable that goes with that is a raft. You ride a raft to cross the river, but no matter how important the raft was, you must leave it behind to continue on your journey. Skillful means are things that help us with our progress, but they must ultimately be left on the other shore if we’re to get beyond that particular “river.”
    My life is littered with bias coming from a Catholic school upbringing, so I tend to view all of our western society through that lens and would immediately think that our society focuses too much on the shame, and not enough on moving past it. A man is hanging off a cliff by a small root, about to fall. Jesus walks to the ledge and offers the man help. “You must do exactly what I say or else I cannot help you.” The man nods frantically and exclaims, “anything!” Jesus replies, “You’re going to need to let go of the root.” The man looks down, then up again, then down, and shakes his head, “no.”
    “How can I help you if you never let go of your plight,” Christ says, and walks away, very sad.

  5. nommomuntu Says:
    March 27th, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Thank you for these explanations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you for being you, thank me for being me.