“I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but the moment they are actualized, they are rendered realities; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and saved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irrecoverably lost but everything irrevocably stored.
…Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality, once and forever, an immortal ‘footprint in the sands of time’? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.
…Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
When we spoke of the neurophysiology of memory we touched on the fascinating question about where memories might exist when they are not conscious. In passing, mention was made of one of the Buddhist theories that postulates a type of base consciousness in which all past deeds have left their impression. This so-called Alaya consciousness has been used to explain how teachings about being reborn can be reconciled with teachings about the unreality of the self. It is a solution of sorts to the questions around what role the past performs in a universe characterized by interdependence and emptiness.
The openness of potentialities Victor Frankl wrote about shares some characteristics with the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Emptiness can be said to the source from which events in the present appear. There is freedom here in this emptiness that reaches right into the roots of things because, it is taught, things have no essence. It is not unlike the world revealed by quantum mechanics where there are no fixed and frozen things, only knots of spacetime.
What crosses the gulf between potential and actual is just that which current causes and conditions require. Those causes and conditions include some degree of freedom, particularly when we are talking about the choices available to human beings. While it might seem that what you will do in the next instant is rather constrained by a small handful of rational choices, it is not a fundamental characteristic of the next moment; it is a set of constraints you impose, nothing more. After all, you could get up from reading this right now and head to an airport to fly to Timbuktu or kiss the very next person you meet or any of an inconceivably vast set of possibilities.
This being the case it is interesting that more often than not the next moment follows the previous one with a degree of regularity we have learned to count on. It might very well be that ultimate reality is radically momentary but what we experience in the world of our day-to-day interactions is the world of cause and effect. The best illustration of this important point I am familiar with is found in the field of probability. The equation for dealing with what are called independent events, such as a fair coin toss, differs from the equations used to deal with events whose outcome depends on previous outcomes, such as how tomorrow’s weather depends on the weather we are having today. It is known as the gamblers fallacy to think when flipping a coin that because there has been a string of heads, a tails must be coming up soon. It might seem non-intuitive but really it’s obvious since one toss of a coin can have no effect on the outcome of a future toss of a coin by any force recognized by science.
While ultimate reality might be more akin to the independent probability of the coin toss, the relative reality we human-sized being’s experience is more like conditional probability. Most everything that happens does so because of what came before. In particular, for many of the issues we care about most, past actions alter the probability of possible future actions coming to pass.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses the analogy of a passenger boarding a flight to illustrate this interplay of free will and determinism. For much of the process of being a passenger a person can change their mind and not take a given flight; on the way to airport I can choose to return home; in the airport line I can choose not to go through with the ticketing and so on. Even at the point at which I am are strapped down and buckled in I could change my mind and get up and leave the airplane as long as the door is still open. Even when the taxing down the runway begins, if I had the clout, I could have the plane stopped and get off but there does come a moment when the choice about taking this flight or not is no longer available to me. The moment those wheels lift off the ground I am on that flight and the next set of choices in my life will have to deal with that.
Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious played a similar explanatory role as the Alaya. The world we see everywhere around us is one that was born from decisions and circumstances that filled its past. It does not just spring into being, fully formed, from some nothingness but every detail can be traced back to some previous conditions. It was Jung’s opinion that individuals brought with them a type of psychological inheritance from our long years in deep time that provided the scaffolding for consciousness to function. Further, the ideas we learn to think in, which we receive from our cultural ancestors, shape what it is possible for us to think at all, just as what we dare to think will shape the knowledge and understanding of our progeny.
Jung suggested that not only individuals but whole communities, cultures and nations also were manifesting their current forms due to the specific history they had pursued. At one level, of course, this is just a truism. The point of these teachings though is to bring attention to the fact that there is a whole cognitive dimension to these inheritances as well as the institutions we typically think of. What he had in mind was more than the scholarly pursuit often called the history of ideas, though this was involved. For Jung the psyche was working out its relationship to archetypal themes and motifs in the issues of the day. As made clear particularly in The Red Book we, the generation of the living, are tasked with taking up the burdens of our dead. The Great Depression and the World Wars occupied his thought as examples of a kind of collective psychosis. It seems reasonable: there is something within the issues of the day that reflect issues of psychological maturity among the population as individuals.
In the teachings of the east we find the idea that communities and nations have “karma” just as much as individuals do. Karma is a big subject and one that may need posts of its own one day but for our present purposes the most basic translation as ‘action’ suffices. Actions taken in the past do not just disappear – that is the central lesson of both of these ideas whether we encounter them in their eastern or western form.
Each of us can understand that actions taken in the past do not disappear by considering how our present self is a product of our past self. Who we are today is the culmination of the unique set of choices and circumstances we have experienced. This is both good news and terrifying news. Everyone alive harbors painful and profound regrets for some past deeds. We can say we are sorry and live in such a way as to show our regret is real, yet nothing we do can erase the past.
This is the sadness that accompanies the man in jail who in a moment of passion pulled a trigger and took a life. Nothing brings back the victim. A very similar sadness grips those of us who have seen the social and ecological nightmares born from the engineering and political choices we have already made. “I’m sorry” seems so pathetically weak; can you visualize the two hundred species that went extinct today – today and every day – and say I’m sorry? If you do this exercise you are acting like a stand-in for your own species. You are not personally responsible for most of what it is you have inherited. You are responsible for how you will respond.
Which brings us to the positive side of this relationship between past, present and future. The choices you make today are full of power. The tomorrow of your future self is in the hands of who you are today.
The same reality organizes our social world. In the 1970s, when the first energy crisis struck the western world, we chose not to pursue the alternative technologies that were designed to wean our infrastructure from its wholesale dependency on cheap fossil fuels. The result is the society we have today, in which we face an energy crisis more extreme with little or nothing built up to greet it. What we have instead is a morass of lies and double-talk drowning in delusional anthropomorphic hubris. We all know the system we have today is not sustainable; climate change alone is enough to put paid to the idea that business as usual has a future. Remember the projection of the current trend is that there will be twice as many cars on the road by 2050. Really?
There was once a fairly common bit of folk wisdom along the lines that it is often wise to sacrifice an immediate good for the benefit of a greater good in the future. Saying no to ourselves today is another way of saying yes to our self of tomorrow. Choosing, for example, a second helping of vegetables instead of dessert might very well allow you to experience a longer life with those you love.
Capitalism once had this core of common sense. An entrepreneur willingly sacrifices future earnings to acquire a loan, borrowing from his future self. Before capitalism became the casino it is today, such a decision was not taken lightly. It was a very big deal to borrow from the future to try and create a better present. The Protestant ethic included the belief that hard work today would lead to a better life tomorrow, much as resisting temptation today would lead to a character strong in virtue. These ideas might be properly considered hopelessly old fashion today but the core reality they are teaching us about has not changed. Well, the future isn’t what it used to be and the word is getting around.
When we hear echoes of Nazi Germany in presidential debates it should set off bells. It should jar us a bit from our sleepwalking through history. The things we are doing today matter. These too big to fail banks, the ones failing again, could potentially bring real world suffering to millions and millions of people. The foreign policy hawks itching to bring war to Russia and the Middle East have already set flame to a fuse now burning outside anyone’s control. Are we to be held hostage to witnessing further mistaken decisions being made in our name?
It is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll let you in on the secret of history – ideas are more powerful than armies.
A small blip from deep space washed over our earth back in September as a gravity wave distorted the length of a two and a half mile detector. We caught space itself warping. Two black holes spun into an embrace over a billion years ago, sending us their calling card from deep time, making world news last week (just while Bowie of the Blackstar is in his Bardo, for those who are paying attention to such things). The confirmation of one of mankind’s most far reaching and profound scientific theories was simply shocking in its specificity. To have a confirmation of those mathematically sophisticated relativity equations running into multiple decimal points is downright spooky. There is a lesson here. Einstein did his work decades before the technology could accumulate the evidence needed for its confirmation. His insight was true. It is a wonderful example of just how far the shared knowledge of the scientific community has come.
Why then do we not grant our scientific models about the ongoing ecological crisis more weight? How is that we deal with them as if what they are teaching us were optional, as if we were shopping for the truth the same way we might shop for our preferred brand of toothpaste? Nothing threatens the stability and peace of the modern world more than the threats that were laid out decades ago in the Limits to Growth study. If this science continues to track as well as it has been, we are in for one hell of a ride. Look around you, really look.
The things we are doing today matter.