The Churn That Thought It Invented Butter

A couple of days ago somebody asked me what I learned during my Sabattical. Without thinking (really, the best way for me to answer such questions) I responded, "That I am not separate". I have since had second thoughts (of course), but in fact I have never been able to encapsulate in a sound bite the realization that concluded my Sabbatical and wrought great changes in my outlook. I can say, though, that separateness (or lack thereof) was an important factor in the realization.

It seems to be a side-effect of our physical nature that we perceive ourselves as more separate than we are. On the one hand we are made of the same matter-energy and information as everything else. On the other hand, our perspective is always skewed — if only because of the way our senses work. For example, if I hold up my thumb and look around it at the horizon, my mighty digit can obscure an entire skyscraper. This is an artifact of perspective, not an actual feature of my thumb. Nonetheless, I can see the gnat gnawing at my thumb but cannot see greater tragedies in the skyscraper.

Every which way I look, my perception is skewed. If I look downwards in scale towards atoms it seems that they are supporting me and serve me. If I look upwards at higher levels of organization ... I see nothing. Now that seems peculiar, but from my perspective I'm still bigger than, say, the country in which I live. The country is a far-off, nebulous concept. I don't disbelieve in it, but it hardly seems as real as, say, my thumb.

I find this viewpoint to be characteristic of the culture that created me — the higher level of organization that created me. In other words, I have never been trained to see myself in those terms. Nobody has, in fact. At no point in the past have humans or other animals had an urge to see themselves systemically. It seems clear that we need to do that now — what with ecological and other disasters looming — but the global perspective is only gradually seeping into the culture. Perhaps the generation that grew up with the Internet will be better able to see their lack of separation.

But what does that lack of separation denote? The ego-bashing answer is that we aren't anywhere near as individual as we tell ourselves we are. Or, to put it another way, we're not as individual as we've been told to tell ourselves we are. That's particularly true in North America, with its celebration of individuality. With comical paradoxicality, almost everybody believes it.


It is an interesting exercise to review last night's dream and determine where the elements of that dream came from. In my case I can usually detrmine the disparate events of the previous day that are represented in mutated form in the dream. In a similar way, it is an interesting exercise for me to look at any action I take or opinion I hold and determine what outside me contributed to or created it.

It is, in fact, hard to find anything free of the influence. Every word I write here derives from a life path that was influenced by others, expressed in a language passed down by my ancestors.

Most people do not realize how hard it is to jump out of their cultural flow and truly be a separate individual. They might point to somebody like Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein and say, "See? He was ahead of his time!" Well, yes, they were ahead of their time, just as a school of fish will inevitably have a few fish near the front edge. But Leonardo did not invent quantum mechanics. And Einstein's discoveries were demonstrably derivable from contemporary subjects of discussion; if he hadn't come up with his theories, then somebody else (like Hilbert) would have within a few years.

If one wants to find examples of really strange thinkers it might be better to consider examples like Turing or Gödel or Cantor. But it's simply the case that in any random set of events we can expect some outliers. Toss ten dice a thousand times and there will probably be a few surprising rolls. I daresay, though, that those three gentlemen probably felt rather separate. Indeed, from what I know of their lives they really did feel like they were separate. But they were information-churners, the same as the rest of life. They merely chanced to be very good at some particular aspect of churning, just as a great athlete is good at churning the information that defines his or her physique.

Perhaps I am not making myself clear. Probably not. It may not matter, though, because upcoming generations will be better able to see the One-ness.

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