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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Last Inch and The Cubic Centimeter of Luck

This isn’t an essay on the differences between the English and Metric systems of measurement. Sorry to disappoint. The phrases used in the title are actually borrowed, so to speak, from literary and cinematic art. The “last inch” bit is taken from the 2005 movie V for Vendetta, while the “cubic centimeter of luck” comes from Carlos Castaneda’s series of books about his experiences as an apprentice of a Mexican man of knowledge named Don Juan Matus. What can these two references possibly have in common?

First off, allow me to quote that part of the movie to which I refer. It comes from one of the most important (in my opinion, anyway) scenes in the entire film, in which the viewer experiences a flashback to past events as an autobiography is narrated. The author of the autobiography, Valerie, writes the following:

Our integrity sells for so little, but it's all that we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free. […] I shall die here. Every last inch of me shall perish. Except one. An inch. It's small and it's fragile and it's the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

What is integrity, and why is it so important? The Oxford English Dictionary defines integrity as:

1. The condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting; undivided or unbroken state; material wholeness, completeness, entirety.

b. Something undivided; an integral whole.

The etymological roots are the Latin word integritas, which means “wholeness, entireness, completeness, chastity, purity,” and integer, which means “whole.”

One description of a person who has integrity is one whose every thought and action is based on a rock-solid foundation, an unwavering and indestructible “something” that holds it all together. This “something” may be argued to be the Self, or the feeling of continuity in one’s life that gives it meaning. Most of us would claim that we have this “something,” this unwavering sense of Self – to not have it would be akin to labeling ourselves insane!

Let’s add some controversy to this discussion. The modern age mystic named G. I. Gurdjieff had this to say:

It is the greatest mistake to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. And so it goes on all one's life.

Imagine a country where everyone can be king for five minutes and do during these five minutes just what he likes with the whole kingdom. That is our life.

Essentially, Gurdjieff is implying that humans have no integrity, no solid foundation on which their very lives stand firm. In fact, he is saying here that man’s life can be compared to a country in a state of continual chaos and anarchy. Impossible, you may say. You may further think that you have been “yourself” all of your life, fully aware of and able to account for every thought and action during every second, just as you are aware of them now. But – can you really?

Let’s add another perspective here, this time one of A. R. Orage, who wrote the following about human life back in 1925 as part of an essay called “Are We Awake?”:

There is a traditional doctrine, usually associated with religion, but now and then invading great literature, that our present waking state is not really being awake at all. It is not night-sleep certainly, nor is it the ordinary somnambulism or sleep-walking; but it is, the tradition says, a special form of sleep comparable to a hypnotic trance in which, however, there is no hypnotist but only suggestion or auto-suggestion.


But how can we convince ourselves that we are really in a form of sleep when, as it appears to us, we are really awake? By comparing the two chief states of consciousness known to us and observing their strikingly common features. What, for instance, are the outstanding features of our ordinary sleep as known to us through our recollected dreams? The dream happens, that is to say, we neither deliberately initiate it nor do we create its figures and events. And in this respect it resembles waking life, in that we do not predetermine our experiences, nor do we create or invent the figures and events we meet from day to day.


Another common element of our sleeping and waking modes of life is the variability of our conduct. We are sometimes horrified, sometimes gratified, to recall how we have behaved in a dream situation. It is true that whatever our conduct may have been, humiliating or flattering to our pride, we couldn't have made it otherwise. Our disquiet or satisfaction is solely an account of the presumed revelation of our unconscious selves. But how, at bottom, do these facts differ from the facts of our waking life-dreams? In life-dreams also we cut a sorry or a good figure, not by pre-determined design but as it happens; and our regret or satisfaction is equally contingent on the effect the episode has upon our self-pride. But can we truthfully say, beforehand, that, whatever happens, we shall behave ourselves thus and thus and not otherwise? Are we not subject to the suggestion of the moment and liable to be carried away from our resolution by anger, greed, enthusiasm? Exactly as in sleep-dream, our waking life is always taking us by surprise; and we are constantly behaving as we should not have imagined we could behave.


It is true that of our waking life we preserve a more or less continuous recollection, whereas our dream-life is a series of discontinuous memories. But apart from this specific difference our actual memory-faculty appears to behave much the same in relation to both forms of experience. We know how difficult it is to recall at will a dream of the night before; the dream was vivid, and all its details were in our mind on awaking; but in an instant the whole of it has vanished, leaving not a wrack behind. Memory of yesterday's life-dream is not so treacherous, or capricious as regards its main features; but where today is the vivid detail of yesterday? We saw clearly a thousand and one objects, we even attended to them. We listened to conversation, we spoke, we watched men and things in the street, we read books or newspapers, we read and wrote letters, we ate and drank and did or perceived a host, that no man can number, of objects and actions. That was only yesterday, yesterday's vivid waking dream. How many of those details remain in our memory today; or how many could we by any effort recall? As completely as the dreams of the night, the mass of our life-dreams of yesterday fade into the oblivion of our unconsciousness.

In a nutshell, Orage claims that we are in a state of waking-sleep throughout most – if not all – of our lives. We are in no more control of our waking lives than we are in control of our dreams at night; things just seem to “happen” to us and we just sort of react, “subject to the suggestion of the moment and liable to be carried away from our resolution by anger, greed, enthusiasm.” And then, when we look back on the events of our lives, we are often “surprised” at how we acted at the time, either glad or embarrassed of our thoughts and actions. It is as if disparate parts of our personalities “take over,” so to speak, depending on the sets of circumstances in particular situations that we come across in life. Furthermore, it is as if we are not “ourselves” at all, and the only thing similar to integrity that we really possess is the deeply ingrained illusion of continuity in our lives.

I would love to be able to mention here that the above ideas are outdated and untrue, that the people quoted had it wrong – but this is not the case. In reality, the more scientific research is done on human psychology, the more the above conclusions are made as working hypotheses amongst modern psychologists; albeit worded in more technical ways, these hypotheses in essence say exactly the same thing – that we, humans, are not “ourselves.”

A recently published book (2002) by Harvard psychologist Martha Stout, Ph.D. titled The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness deals with this topic exclusively using groundbreaking clinical research. While philosophers and artists have identified this problem and attempted to show its effects, psychologists like Stout are taking a more scientific approach and trying to figure out its root causes. She writes, in part:

What we conceive of as an unbroken thread of consciousness is instead quite often a train of discontinuous fragments. Our awareness is divided. And much more commonly than we know, even our personalities are fragmented – disorganized team efforts trying to cope with the past – rather than the sane, unified wholes we anticipate in ourselves and in other people.

Dissociation, “which is the universal human reaction to extreme fear or pain [that] allows us to disconnect emotional content – the feeling part of our ‘selves’ – from our conscious awareness,” appears to be the culprit that causes the waking-sleep state in our lives. It is a survival mechanism that puts our bodies on auto-pilot, so to speak, and lets us get away from or deal with life-threatening situations in primitive ways, i.e. without conscious (over)thinking that could put us at greater risk. All of this would be fine, except, as Dr. Stout writes:

The ability to dissociate is like having an unlimited supply of medium-to-good narcotic that never habituates. And by the time we are adults, this mental analgesia is so trigger-happy that trauma or overwhelming fear or pain is no longer required to infuse it; because circumstances are frequently anxiety-provoking or difficult or confusing or just uncertain, we take small potentiated escapes from our present moments. As if even the most sober among us were lifelong addicts, our awareness goes in and out, in and out, often unnoticed, while our over-learned adult behaviors continue apace. Our lives have been this way for such a long time that we do not normally ponder these mental events any more than we normally ponder our own breathing.


[…]


The result is that adult human memory performs something like the old-fashioned kinetoscope, a peephole looking into a winding roll of separate pictures that together simulate a moving, undivided whole. Though we are largely oblivious to the fact, our lives as they advance are lined with countless unwanted blank seams of nonawareness.

So, modern humans have, as a species, essentially grown accustomed to over-using the natural mechanism of dissociation to deal with less-than life threatening situations. Rarely do we find ourselves in what we would think of as truly life threatening situations anymore – not in this day and age; however, this modern way of life is far more insidious in its ability to bombard people with copious amounts of stress, stress that too often triggers episodes of dissociation. Consider the following news release from December 2006:

Feeling stressed? You're not alone, new poll says

December 21, 2006

CBC News

Stress, that tense feeling often connected to having too much to do, too many bills to pay and not enough time or money, appears to be a common emotion that knows few borders.

About three-fourths of people in Canada, the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom said they experience stress on a daily basis, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.

Just over three-fourths of the people in Canada, 76 per cent, said they feel stress in their daily lives frequently or sometimes. Canadians were most likely to name their jobs, 32 per cent, or their finances, 28 per cent, as the most important causes of that stress.

Spaniards, 61 per cent, were not as wound up as those in most other countries polled. And they could all take a lesson from Mexico, where more than half of Mexicans said they rarely or never experience stress in their daily lives.

But that is certainly not the experience for most people in the 10 countries polled - especially women.

When the word "stress" was mentioned to Heidi Zabit of Durham, Conn., recently, it seemed to touch a bundle of nerves.

"My life is just so stressful right now I'm exploding all over the place," said Zabit, a paralegal and single mother of three boys. "Financially, the stresses are putting me under the table. After a full day of work, we finish dinner and do homework. By 9 p.m., I'm fried.

"And it's magnified by the holidays," she said. "They emotionally string us all out, they string our kids out, as far as hopes and expectations."

Germans feel stress more intensely than those in other countries polled. People in the U.S. cite financial pressures as the top worry. About half the people in Britain said they frequently or sometimes felt life was beyond their control, the highest level in the 10 countries surveyed.

In most of those countries, men were more likely to say their lives were never out of control.

"The idea that we French lead the good life is totally utopian," said Pascale Mongay, a counsellor at a private Paris tutoring firm. "We are as stressed as anyone," she said.

Here's how the countries fared:

1. South Korea (81 per cent of population feels regular stress).

2. Australia (77 per cent).

3. Canada (76 per cent).

4. France (76 per cent).

5. United Kingdom (76 per cent).

6. United States (75 per cent).

7. Germany (75 per cent).

8. Italy (73 per cent).

9. Spain (61 per cent).

10. Mexico (45 per cent).

It is a bit ironic that what we would call the most “civilized” nations on Earth have the majority of their citizens stressed out on a regular basis. The results of this are obvious: the continuation of lifestyles that breed not self-awareness but automation; not lives that are truly lived but lives that are routine, forgettable, and unfulfilling. Worst of all, most of us lead shattered, dissociated lives – there isn’t much here that resembles integrity, only an illusion of integrity.

What caused this terrifying state of affairs? We need look no further than the troubled history of mankind, as Dr. Stout explains:

Hardship and survival of the fittest through the ages have endowed us with hormonally aggressive temperaments, and us-them wiring, the law-of-the-jungle logic of which is no more astute than “He is different. Kill him.” This wiring is the basis of violence seemingly without limit, and nearly all hatred, vengeance-taking, prejudice, bigotry, and other archaic predispositions that now make us miserable on our own planet, and that have directed our history as a perpetually traumatized group.

[…]

We are a thoroughly shell-shocked species. Though we have not all suffered abuse as children, we have all endured experiences that we perceived as terrifying, and that utterly exhausted our tender attempts to comprehend and cope. From a troubled world that often seems to menace, many of us have absorbed repeated, toxic doses of secondary trauma as well, from people we care about, and even from an impersonal media. And as a result of our histories, and of our inborn disposition to become dissociative when our minds need protection, moderately dissociative awareness is the normal mental status of all adult human beings.

That last sentence should give all of us some serious food for thought. Basically, we’re all “moderately” insane!

Going back to the initial quote from Valerie’s autobiography, we see that integrity is “all that we really have … it's the only thing in the world worth having.” The thing is, integrity appears to be something we have already largely lost in our present materialistic society. It is not a coincidence that Valerie warns that our last inch “sells” for so little, because, as was mentioned, the very society we live in drains every single inch from us via stress of all kinds, whether it is stress to conform to some dubious artificial standards or even stress to financially survive in dehumanizing work environments. This stress leads to dissociation and thus disintegration of our awareness, our Selves. Our integrity is all we really own, and Valerie warns that “we must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away … we must never let them take it from us;” indeed, integrity is what keeps us human and it is this humanity that is quickly slipping away from all of our lives.

Jesus is recorded in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas to have said: “One who knows everything and lacks in oneself lacks everything. […] If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.” That is, we have literally everything to lose by “selling” our integrity. Our only hope is to regain it and fight to keep it. If we don’t, Dr. Stout writes:

…the alternative is for us to continue in something reminiscent of a tedious science fiction plot in which the otherwise admirable characters are trapped in a hermetic time loop, and repeat over and over again the same galaxy-shattering mistakes, never ascertaining that they have done it all a fathomless number of times before.

An in-depth study of our history shows that absent superficial differences such as technological advancements, humanity appears to be stuck in a “time loop” of its own. Whole civilizations and empires continually rise and fall, we continue to fight the same wars (albeit more deadly by the century), and let dubious differences divide us – all in all, we seem to be making the same “galaxy-shattering mistakes” over and over again as a species, and also as individuals who conform thoughtlessly to this paradigm.

Clearly, if we are to lead truly fulfilling lives (as most of us claim to strive for), this state of affairs cannot last. First and foremost, awareness of dissociation happening in our daily lives is necessary – we must be able to witness this paradigm at work both in ourselves and those around us. Orage finishes the aforementioned essay by writing thusly:

It may be feared that there is something morbid in the foregoing speculations; and that an effort to see our waking life as merely a special form of sleep must diminish its importance for us and ours for it. But this attitude towards a possible and probable fact is itself morbidly timid. The truth is that just as in night-dreams the first symptom of waking is to suspect that one is dreaming, the first symptom of waking from the waking state—the second awaking of religion—is the suspicion that our present waking state is dreaming likewise. To be aware that we are asleep is to be on the point of waking; and to be aware that we are only partially awake is the first condition of becoming and making ourselves more fully awake.

Dr. Stout also elaborates on the solution to this problem:

We are a young species, evolutionally speaking, and the phenomenon of conscious awareness, supposedly our claim to fame, is extremely new to us. We are bare beginners at it.


[…]


The uniquely human question is not, “Can we adapt to trauma and survive?” but is instead, “Can we now overcome our memories of trauma, and learn truly to live?” Such a development would mark a new and higher plane of human functioning altogether. And if we are to continue at all, the transition may have to come relatively soon, perhaps even within this new millennium.

Notice that Dr. Stout notices the precipice at which humanity now stands in terms of either falling head-first into a permanent “time loop” of dissociative obscurity or turning around, facing the problem, and dealing with it via the practice of conscious awareness. The latter is the road towards true life, while the former can only lead to spiritual death and essential non-existence.

And here is where we finally come to Don Juan’s phrase, the “cubic centimeter of luck.” For the Mexican man of knowledge, gaining self-awareness requires a certain resolve – a resolve to control one’s negative emotions. By this token, Don Juan said:

Self-importance is man's greatest enemy. What weakens him is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of his fellow men. Self-importance requires that one spend most of one's life offended by something or someone.

Indeed, the weakening comes about because we let things get to us on a personal level – we feel like we always deserve more than what we’re getting. This kind of thinking makes us overly emotional, feeling victimized, angry, and greedy. Recall that traumatic, emotional, and stressful circumstances often trigger dissociative states. If, instead, we become more aware of such automatic egotistical responses and look at everything in a less subjective and more objective light, we can lessen the effect that dissociation has on our daily lives. If we can do that, we can become what Don Juan calls warriors: “the basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or as a curse.” This is, of course, similar to what Orage meant when he wrote about waking-sleep and the factors that play into putting us in this trance-like state:

In life-dreams also we cut a sorry or a good figure, not by pre-determined design but as it happens; and our regret or satisfaction is equally contingent on the effect the episode has upon our self-pride. But can we truthfully say, beforehand, that, whatever happens, we shall behave ourselves thus and thus and not otherwise? Are we not subject to the suggestion of the moment and liable to be carried away from our resolution by anger, greed, enthusiasm?

The key here is self-awareness – to catch ourselves before we dissociate into never-never land via runaway negative emotions and stress. Such “catching” of ourselves is called self-observation, and this requires much work and vigilance. Don Juan explains this by referring to the “cubic centimeter of luck”:

There is something you ought to be aware of by now. I call it the cubic centimeter of chance. All of us, whether or not we are warriors, have a cubic centimeter of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time. The difference between an average man and a warrior is that the warrior is aware of this, and one of his tasks is to be alert, deliberately waiting, so that when his cubic centimeter pops out he has the necessary speed, the prowess to pick it up. Chance, good luck, personal power, or whatever you may call it, is a peculiar state of affairs. It is like a very small stick that comes out in front of us and invites us to pluck it. Usually we are too busy, or too preoccupied, or just too stupid and lazy to realize that that is our cubic centimeter of luck. A warrior, on the other hand, is always alert and tight and has the spring, the gumption necessary to grab it.

Put simply, the “cubic centimeter of luck” refers to a fleeting realization, or moment of self-Truth, that, if we are willing and ready, becomes available for “plucking” in various life situations. As Don Juan explains, however, most of us in our daily lives let such opportunities go to waste by not paying attention and simply letting things “happen.” A warrior, or one who truly pays attention, can recognize a “cubic centimeter of luck” and make it his own – make that moment in life truly his own. And that, I think, is the point of all this: to truly live and not just thoughtlessly go through the motions as we usually do; to not dissociate and sleep-walk through our days mechanically but take each moment as a challenge and embrace it.

Gurdjieff, Orage, Don Juan, Dr. Stout, and even Jesus – though they come from vastly different backgrounds and offer quite different perspectives on this matter – are all essentially saying the same thing: we, as humans, are not “ourselves” because we do not know ourselves. Integrity can only come about from self-knowledge, and self-knowledge can only come about from self-awareness, which in turn takes vigilance and work on our part. Our society would have us give up on thinking altogether and get lost in the fleeting illusions of conformity to some absurd materialistic standards that, when truly analyzed, don’t mean a thing in the grand scheme of our lives. What “they” don’t tell us is that by adhering to these artificial principles, we essentially “sell” our integrity, our wholeness; little by little, inch by inch, we “sell” ourselves to these societal standards and it gets harder and harder for us to live up to them – it is essential slavery. As philosopher and theologist Boris Mouravieff put it:

A prisoner - perhaps voluntarily, but nevertheless a prisoner - man does not do what he wants to do in life, but does what he hates, blindly obeying a diabolical mechanicalness which, under its three aspects: fear, hunger, and sexuality, rules his life. This purely fictitious existence has nothing real except the possibility of evolution - which remains latent, and forms the objective of esoteric studies and work.

It isn’t hard to realize that underneath the veil of nice’n’warm labels like “freedom” and “love” that are thrown around as slogans nowadays by our governments and corporations are the three aspects that Mouravieff points to above that serve to keep us voluntarily imprisoned and ignorant of our true potential as human beings. Our integrity is all we have; let us fight for it with all we have, because we have literally everything to lose.

On a closing note, allow me to share another quote from Don Juan, this one more encouraging that kind of puts everything into perspective:

For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must take responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous time. I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make each act count, since you are going to be here for only a short time; in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.

Think about it.

56 comments:

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Now, as a gift to all the people that were just described as having low-quality, fragmented attention, summarize that into 2 paragraphs or less.

Then something else will be possible.

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