What is a Life?

It’s an odd question, but what is a life?

A good scoping definition to start with is: life is the objectively observable and subjectively experienceable existence of a living being over its lifetime. While helpful, this is a bit like saying a liquid is the contents of a tank that can hold that liquid.

But it’s a start.

Clearly, any answer must rest on particular understandings of objective observation, subjective experience, and time, but without getting into the philosophical intricacies of those three entangled phenomena, or into the question of life itself as a general phenomenon distinct from non-life, what can we say about the contents of a specific life? Specifically, a specific human life?

***

In the modern experience of being, the most legible understanding of life is as a process of documented accumulation. You are less of something in the past, and more of it in the future, and might be complete or incomplete something at the end. That something is your life. A degenerate version of the accumulation mental model is a financial one. Your “net worth” is a summary state of your life. You might die bankrupt or leaving a fortune to heirs, and philosophize either pattern of accumulation.

Less crude versions of accumulation mental models exist. For example, there is a notion of accumulation implicit in the idea of an autobiography. It only makes sense to try and tell a cradle-to-almost-grave story of a life if there’s an accumulating logic to it. The logic of the accumulation must be coherent enough to preserve recognizable identity from beginning to end, but not so simple that it reduces to the story of a dead rock. The logic can accommodate fairly powerful disruptions in the continuity of identity, such as religious or spiritual rebirths or consciousness shifts, and feature shallow or deep re-codings like a name-change or gender switch, but it cannot become unrecognizable. It can feature varying levels of structural complexity, but cannot become too simple or too complex. It must, for want of a better metaphor, have the same core hash from beginning to end. That continuity of identity — something like a characteristic conserved quantity; an eigenyou — is necessary, and almost sufficient, to sustain an accumulative account of what a particular life is. It is the seed around which the accumulation happens.

This accumulative experience of life is a powerful lens on it, and is the foundation of many derivative perspectives. For example, notions of legacy and genealogy connect the accumulation of an individual life to the past and future. We can trace trees of inheritance and descent radiating out from a present life, into the past and future, until they dissolve into gene pools past and future, losing their identity.

In summary, we may say that the accumulative account of life is that of a generative growth process. One which admits a summary state description at any time, and features identifying elements of continuity or conserved quantities. A life that is dominated by such a process features what on Twitter is often referred to as “main character energy.”

A life marked by strong main character energy is a life that accumulates… something that defines it in increasingly well-defined ways. Something that can be narrativized into at least a somewhat satisfying post-hoc summary assessment. A life meaningfully reducible to an epitaph, even if that epitaph is only a net worth figure.

The accumulative account of life is easy to satirize and caricature, but it is a good and expressive account, and adequately explains a great deal. But it somehow seems to miss something essential. As it stands, accumulative accounts might apply just as well to things like a river flowing into a lake.

Not everything that makes up a life rolls up via an accumulation process into a summary, integrative characterization of it, and not everything that accumulates into a summary integrative thing is a life.

***

A not-so-modern experience of being is just raw experience itself. The stream of consciousness as explored in the literary tradition of the name. Not all the experience of a life rolls up into an integrative “main character” understanding of it.

In fact, one might argue that what rolls up in any cumulative account is in fact precisely the part that is not-life. That’s just the score of a life. Or perhaps the address of a life. The least-alive aspect of life. The skeleton, so to speak. Our bones are alive, but arguably the least alive part of us. It is no accident that they survive the longest in the grave. What was never truly alive cannot truly die.

I think the deadness of integrative, accumulative accounts of life is perhaps the core thought behind David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Curiously, the most “hideous” (in Wallace’s sense) person I have encountered was a woman. She spoke powerfully and charismatically on-stage, but off-stage seemed almost like a dead shell. A main character who didn’t really exist off the stage of a visibly integrable life. A walking resume that didn’t exist outside of LinkedIn.

So the second account of life in my inventory is characterized by non-accumulating transient experiences.

As with the accumulative accounts, there are degenerate versions to be found here as well. For instance, life as a stream of instagrammable moments (or for previous generations, dull slide shows of vacations, or dull anecdotes told and retold around campfires). It is not that lives reducible to this are not worthwhile (my aim here is not to judge the worth of lives, but to get at the essence of them), but that they don’t seem to illuminate what life is.

But perhaps they point to something that does.

Non-accumulating transient experience is at the heart of the metaphor of life as a journey. If there is a less-of-something in the past/more-of-that-something in the future, it is unimportant. If there is something assessable as complete or incomplete at the end, it is unimportant.

What matters, as the cliche goes, is the journey, not the miles logged or the destination arrived at.

What can we say of the non-accumulative transient experience of being? There is the impressionistic sense of the ebb and flow of significance and meaning of events in the environment, and the Sturm und Drang of emotional responses to those events. The liveness that requires existence in the present to register at all. One may remember it — arguably a function of memory is to enable “re-living” in the sense of replaying the past in the present — but there is a strong association between “life” and a temporally anchored point of view called “the present.”

You had to be there, we like to say, at the conclusion of an underwhelming narrative account of a live experience.

This is the nowness of life that comes through dimly at best even in the finest integrative summaries of it. A well-written autobiography or biography conveys main-character energy very well, but not the nowness of a life.

The nowness need not be novel or consequential. For instance, the experience of biting into an apple can be described with poetic subtlety, to convey some of the life force of it, but there’s nothing particularly main-character or novel about it. Yet it seems odd to say that such experiences are irrelevant to an understanding of what life is.

At the same time, while the experience of biting into an apple perhaps reveals a great deal about subjectivity and life in general, it doesn’t reveal much about a particular life. What we are after (as are even the most cringe instagrammers) is the nowness of a particular life. The objective facts of the experience need not be unique, but the experience of it perhaps needs to be, at least if it is to contribute to an understanding of that life.

The genre that gets at the nowness of particular lives is not autobiography or biography, but memoir. The power of a good memoir, unlike that of a good autobiography, comes from the work’s ability to convey, at least in a weak form, what it was like to “be there.” The unique nowness of that life.

It is worth noting that while autobiography is typically a genre that makes sense only for actual “main character” types, memoir is a genre that works best in the context of an ordinary life, with little to no main-character energy. One full of apple-bitings, so to speak, woven into a kind of virtualized, transplantable form. The ideal memoir would perhaps graft somebody else’s memories onto your own, Total Recall style (or perhaps Kramer-Peterman style). You experience so completely what it was like to be there, you forget that you actually weren’t.

“Being there” is an aspect of life almost defined by its resistance to summarization. Memoirs do not attempt to summarize or integrate so much as make memories available for reliving. To read, say, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, is to “be there” with Pepys in pre-modern England. While he did enjoy a modestly impressive main-character career that would perhaps lend itself well to autobiography too, that is not why his is a life worth remembering. His life is worth remembering simply because he memorialized it effectively, conveying to the future a relivable Samuel Pepys Experience (coming soon to a metaverse near you). The novel Bright Lights, Big City takes this sort of canned-experience approach to (pseudo)-memoir to the logical extreme, rendering it rather unusually in the second person, ready for point-of-view inhabiting.

You don’t have to memorialize your life yourself. Others can do it for your life too. An empathetic listener might be able to write “as told to” memoirs for you. A historian might be able to reconstruct the experience of a particular life in a revealing way, as Barbara Tuchman did for the life of 14th century French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who lived through the Black Death, in A Distant Mirror.

The motif of a life as a mirror for a time and place is perhaps the key here. Instagram today is merely the latest technological prosthetic to enable a mode of being that is as old as mirrors — a mode of being that primarily reflects the circumstances within which it unfolds, available to those who can recognize themselves in mirrors, seeing themselves as others see them, and cancelling themselves out. If this is all it takes, we’re in big trouble the first time a robot passes the mirror test.

To hammer in the association between memoir, non-main-character-energy, and non-accumulative experience-as-mirror, consider non-human lives.

Watch a kitten at play. Yes, there is learning and accumulation of sorts, and if we could somehow record and render for human re-living, the life of Socks the cat from cradle to grave, via some sort of brain monitoring device, there would be something of a cumulative story there. A summary notion of what it is like to be, not just a cat, but this particular cat, Socks, that lived this particular life, and had these specific experiences.

It would likely be a boring story compared to both watching, or better yet, being a kitten at play. But done right, the memoirs of an ordinary cat might prove more interesting than, for instance, the autobiography of Napoleon. At least to a certain sort of romantic sensibility.

To such a sensibility, to the extent transience of experience is the essence of life, and any latent accumulative process a deadening distraction from the essence of it, a being less bound to such processes is perhaps more alive.

Perhaps being able to make narrative sense of your life comes at the cost of deadening it somewhat. You are, to the extent you’re not a story.

I like a refinement of the journey metaphor — a life is an unreliable mirror moving through space time. The essence of it is the history of what it reflects of the world as it moves through it. These are what we normally think of as memory, but not memory as the legible record of a story that is being lived out and can be rolled up like a carpet, but memory as an unreliable, replayable logged experience of nowness. A video recording that plays slightly differently each time you replay it.

There is of course, an accumulative quality here, but it is not a simple, integrative sort of accumulation that begins with teenage ambitions and ends with bucket lists.

The movies of Christopher Nolan for example, play games with notions of memory and time that get at the impressionistic ball of muddy nowness that is barely able to sustain notions of past and future without external aid. Life as an idiosyncratic reflection of the time it unfolds in, understood in the sense of the immortal words of the Eleventh Doctor:

People assume that time is a strict progression from cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

Ultimately though, this non-accumulative life-as-a-mirror account is equally unsatisfying. If in accumulative accounts, the particular person is reduced to something of a limited score-keeping, checklist-ticking caricature, in the non-accumulative account, the particular person seems to disappear altogether. The problem isn’t that the collection of fleeting impressions of a life-as-mirror way of being don’t add up to anything, but that they don’t point to the essence of a particular person at all. It is not clear that a record of the nowness of a life can get at the essence of it.

It is not about quality or worth. The problem is not that a Sturm und Drang life is sound and fury signifying nothing. The problem is the sound and fury isn’t even about you.

Finely crafted memoirs and tasteless instagram feeds suffer from the same problem. They reduce a particular life to a particular point-of-view of the circumstances of that life. Even when the account is more than spectatorial — with patterns of emphasis and choice and distortion — the arrow seems to be pointing away from the thing we are interested in.

***

Accumulative and non-accumulative accounts do not, between them, exhaust the phenomenology of life. To understand why, consider this: would a fine autobiography, along with a fine memoir and perhaps a full VR immersive point-of-view experience of the sensory circumstances of a life, convey the essence of it?

We are not concerned about minor imperfections or incompleteness or technical feasibility. What big things do such accounts miss?

A clue can be found in Barbara Tuchman’s Distant Mirror, mentioned earlier. The protagonist, Enguerrand de Coucy, curiously enough, does not come even remotely alive, despite Tuchman being a remarkable writer (and many of the other historical characters do come alive).

As an instrument for investigating the time he lived through, Coucy’s life serves well enough. Tuchman is candid about her reasons for choosing him. She has no particular affection for him as a particular human being, and no interest in conveying the essence of his life, as he experienced it. She merely wanted a convenient point of view for a tour of the history of the time and place. As a socially and geographically mobile member of the nobility, with a well-documented and eventful life, Coucy was basically a convenient choice. A found camera through which to view the 14th century.

While she does provide a rough account of his life, in both accumulative and non-accumulative terms (his career as a nobleman, and the events he experienced), we are left with a rich understanding of 14th century Europe, and almost no understanding of the man who supplies it.

This of course, is appropriate for a historian writing a careful and conservative account of a time.

We can contrast Tuchman’s book with the show Deadwood, which similarly provides a view of the Wild West through the lives of key protagonists like Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock, who were both real people. But as a fictional show designed to entertain, Deadwood simply invents real-named characters from whole cloth to “fill” the shells of the actual lives documented by history.

This is revealing and interesting: the accumulative and non-accumulative elements of a life are both equally dead elements of it. They serve only to define containers that can be filled with what we can identify as a life. Actors Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant, one might say, “wore” the lives of Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock more entertainingly than the owners of the lives themselves did.

So what’s left if we eliminate all that can be captured by accumulative and non-accumulative inventories of the circumstances of a life? What is the nature of the void at the center (if indeed that is what it is), available to be filled by the imagination of fiction writers and actors?

If your life were to be dramatized for a movie, and you were played by a competent actor, what would be the essential difference between your life and the one portrayed on screen, and even perhaps experienced in precis by the actor, if they are a sufficiently skilled at method acting?

Perhaps the answer is “nothing.”

A common plot in television shows (one that features, for example, in Castle, and Monk) is that of a show or film being made within the show, about the protagonist. For example, in Castle, there is an episode where an in-world film star, Natalie Rhodes (played by Laura Prepon), shadows Detective Catherine Beckett (played by Stana Katic), to play her in the movie-within-the-show.

The premise is cashed out the way it usually is — the actor is an extremist method actor who works really, really hard to get into the head of the subject, and succeeds. Rhodes gets so uncannily into the life of Beckett, she is able to destabilize the latter’s sense of herself. She is so good that the other characters in the show accidentally get the two confused, even though they don’t look alike.

The story works because the two actors (Prepon and Katic) behave in uncannily similar ways, with similar mannerisms and speech patterns, to tell the persuasive tale of Beckett being disturbed and depersonalized, even derealized, by the whole experience. But it is not obvious that this is what would happen in real life.

But I suspect there’s some truth to this common plot. I vaguely recollect something about primitive tribes being afraid of film cameras stealing their souls. I wonder if real people who have biopics made about them, and shadowed by good actors, experience this sort of thing. How do they feel when they watch their stories told accurately on screen?

There is perhaps something to the idea that when you take away the summary accumulations and instagram feeds of our lives, there is nothing left. No there there. And when a good actor “steals” that shell from you, you no longer exist.

I think this is wrong though. This brings us to our third and final account of what a life is. But first, we need a movie review.

***

I just watched Nicholas Cage’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where he plays himself acting out a life consistent with the public perception of him. It is an excellent movie, and one that really only works because of who Cage, the actor, is. But it’s tricky to sort out what’s going on here. I’ll try to explain without spoilers.

To start with, Cage is of course a remarkable actor with an extensive but bizarre body of work to his credit that has occupied film nerds for a decade. There is a whole genre of fan theories devoted to trying to unpack what the hell Cage’s career has been about, with its mix of huge blockbusters, interesting arthouse movies, and absolute Z-grade dreck. Theories range from money troubles to the idea that he simply likes acting work.

The incoherence of the public account of Cage provides the creative room required for Cage to play himself as not himself. Cage effectively does to himself in real life what Natalie Rhodes does to Catherine Beckett in the Castle episode we just analyzed.

The effect is really funny. The version of himself that Cage plays is obviously not the one he is in real life in gross narrative terms (there is an absurd plot involving the mafia and the CIA), but that’s not what I mean. If you leave out the absurd over-story, the character he plays is also clearly not the one he is — but it is close enough, you can’t tell. He validates both the fan theories of his work I mentioned above — that he just needs money, or that he just likes acting as a job (in fact his lines in those scenes seem to be drawn directly from particular analyses of his work, which in turn are based on his own throwaway comments in interviews and profiles). But he casts just enough doubt on those theories that you don’t know what to think.

The mixing of levels of reality and optics is actually even more elaborate and funny than I’ve indicated, but I don’t want to spoil the movie for you — go watch it. This is a metamodern gem.

But the point I want to get at it is the philosophical illumination the movie provides about what a life is.

As a prominent public individual living a heavily documented life with both strong accumulative and non-accumulative aspects, the narrative possibilities within what one might call “Cage space” are obviously immense. There is more than one way to tell anybody’s story, and in Cage’s case, because of the inscrutability of his career choices, there are probably more ways than in most stories.

But what is funny here is that because it is Cage himself playing a version of himself consistent with many theories of observable facts about him, we’ve now destablized the very idea of a canonical “life of Nicholas Cage.” He has turned himself into a walking many-worlds hypothesis. A being of liminal adjacent-possible potentialities more than an actual person.

There is just Cage space, a space of possible subjective experiencable lives. You’d think that’s just an abstract notion and that really, we all just live one real life. But it does seem like Cage has managed to defy common sense and live more than one life somehow, by making this weird movie.

There’s the life he lives, there’s the many lives the media thinks he lives, and the life, consistent with many of the latter, that he’s portrayed in this movie — presumably after some hard-working method-acting preparation using accounts of himself in the media.

You can imagine a much less absurd version of this movie that didn’t have the obviously false and fictional CIA/mafia elements, and simply played it completely straight — a sort of Life of Nicholas Cage that simply played back faithfully a digested version of everything people believe about him already. A sort of massive “I can neither confirm, nor deny” uncollapsing of the wave function of his life.

One could argue that I’m confusing the issues here.

Of course there’s only one actual Cage life, right?

The Unbearable Weight movie as experienced by Cage in the making of it is not the one I watched on screen, no matter how clever the dizzying tricks with mirrors, or whatever method-acting preparation might have gone into it. At best, you could say he’s cleverly escaped the confines of the constructed cartoon life others have created around him, by creating a fictional version of himself to inhabit it. He’s reclaimed agency over self-authorship by creating a fictional clone of himself for the public perception to be about.

You could say that the entire public discourse about Nicholas Cage is about the fictional Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The “real” Nicholas Cage is now back to being an ineffable unknown pure subject.

You could say Nicholas Cage A has successfully escaped Cage-space by leaving Nicholas Cage B behind to inhabit it. He’s sort of gleefully canceled out everything we thought about him.

He is now Cage Uncaged. He has become Life, Destroyer of Autobiographies. Look upon his works, ye paparazzi, and despair.

Still, there’s something odd going on here besides metamodern hijinks exploiting fan theories of a celebrity to deconstruct and reconstruct the image of that celebrity. What is a life, in terms of the space of potential experiences it induces, which can apparently fold back on the actual life itself, potentially canceling the specifics of it, and freeing it up?

What is this pure subject left behind in the real life when you manufacture a fiction to inhabit the apparent life, and escape it?

***

With Nicholas Cage’s help, we’ve now gotten to a much more interesting version of the question we started with. Instead of what is a life, we ask, what is a life, once you’ve played yourself in an accurate movie of it and escaped you-space?

Weird question, huh? But it does help us get past the deadening details of an actual life, accumulative and non-accumulative, autobiographical, and memorialized, and consider a life in light of its potentialities as revealed by its actualities. Life as an uncollapsed wave function of possibilities, independent of its actual trajectory.

Or to put it in a less dramatic way, the essence of a life is underdetermined by the observable specifics of it, so the observable specifics are not that useful or interesting.

I mean this in a shallow way. I have no idea if a quantum-state history of all the atoms that have ever taken part in constituting my life are my life. That’s too hard of a question. I’m talking coarse macro-phenomenology — retrievable memories, imitable behaviors, instagram pictures, resumes, epitaphs, dramatized story versions. The training data.

There is no one true way to fit an interpretation — an inferred life — through all of that. A sudden flash of enlightenment might lead you to interpret all that actuality in an entirely different way, to the point where you feel alienated from the old you, unable to imagine or relive what it was like for you to be you last week. You’ve retrained on the same data and converged to a different account of it.

Point being, you are not the data of you. You are a theory of the data of you that you are able to identify with.

Here’s a small example with two data points.

Data point 1: When I was a child, I was chronically sick and weak, and apparently very attached to my older sister Anu. I am told, when I was about 3 or 4, she went to visit our grandparents while I stayed home sick. Apparently I was very upset and cried for her.

Data point 2: Apparently, somewhere around the same time, a neighbor, a professional photographer, took several artsy photos of me in candid, unposed moments. I look pretty sad and forlorn, and possibly ill in them. Here’s one in particular, where I am apparently looking at the camera, having been interrupted looking out the window.

Anu loves this photo and gleefully reminds me, every time we look at it, that I was once so attached to her I was upset and crying when she went away. She likes to pretend that this is a photo of me in that specific period, and that this photo is a photo of poor sickly me missing her terribly and looking out the window waiting for her.

Quite possibly this is true. Or not. I don’t remember any of this. I have no retrievable personal memories of this episode. I could potentially convince myself that Anu’s reconstruction is correct, in which case this would be the life I “chose.” Or I could examine other data from pre-retrievable-memory times, and construct and graft on an entirely different account of this photo. Maybe I was just sick. Or bored.

What I do to interpolate this missing chunk of “my life” using available data is something of a matter of taste. I can be scientific about it and try to find the best fit account and internalize it, or I can be artistic about it, and pick the account that makes the most satisfying narrative sense (maybe I was actually plotting to play a mean trick on Anu when she came back).

Movies about amnesiacs (think Nolan’s Memento, or the Bourne movies) make a big deal out of much more dramatic versions of this sort of thing, but the point is, our ordinary lives as experienced are actually indeterminate, even without amnesia, psychedelics, Matrixes, or Nick Cage shenanigans.

Our apparent lives are constructed to be consistent with retrievable memories of ourselves that we can identify with sufficiently to integrate. The wave function of a life never actually collapses until you’re dead. We just pretend it does.

And this is an ordinary feature of lives. You don’t have to play yourself in a clever movie about yourself as others see you to get there. This is not an account of a life that only applies to Nick Cage.

One of the most compelling sources of evidence for the idea of a life as ongoing construction of entire remembered quasi-fictional trajectories through you-space is dreams.

Imagine an account of your life that integrated not just the stable construction of it that you inhabit in waking hours (between periodic refactorings), but the region of possibility space you are constantly exploring in your dream life. Including interpolations, dramatizations, and outright invention.

Your dreams reveal you are much more of a fictional character than you think.

Like everybody, I have many kinds of dreams, and remember them poorly. When I play Tetris too long, or use a CAD tool too long, I dream of falling blocks or device designs at night as my brain rehearses and strengthens skill memories. When I have strong random worries plaguing me, I have messy, disturbing, surreal dreams. When I’m excited about something, I might dream of choking at a critical moment — often in a scene retrieved from some critical moment in high school or college.

The soup of deep memory we draw on at night, to construct our dreams, is a sampling of the cache of recently accessed adjacent possible lives potentially loosely consistent with the constructed life we choose to experience by day. And this soup is not an accurate record of the history of your life circumstances, but the log of an ongoing sentimental exploration of the patterns of it. You are by day the construct you deep-dreamed up at night.

For example, if I dream that I wrote a risky blog post that got me canceled and fired from all my gigs, and then my high school English teacher shamed me about it in front of the whole class, leading me to choke and fail the final exams… that didn’t actually happen.

Neither did this particular dream as far as I can recall (I don’t have total recall), but I’ve had dreams kinda like this — current anxieties and life circumstances anachronistically transposed into past live situations.

But there’s something there that contributes to a truer sense of what a life is — repeated retrainings through the accumulating data of a lived life, via an ongoing process similar to the training process of models in deep learning.

A life is not the constructed (apparently objectively true and subjectively canonical) trace through the actual, factual experiences that constitutes it in some basic material sense. It is the liminal adjacent possible part of you-space that you explore in the process of creating and maintaining that trace. Confusing, I know.

You deep-learn yourself into being. You are something like a large language model of yourself.

In fact, if I had to choose what to throw out in this inventory of ways of understanding what a life is, I’d throw out the waking part of lived experience anchored to concrete truth ground. To arrive at a sense of my life, I’d simply integrate, in some loose mathematical sense, the history of my literal dreams. That would be the truest possible account of it.

If I could have a machine that recorded and remembered all my dreams, I’d want to review them daily when awake, and integrate my sleeping and waking selves better. Now that I feel, would be a life that could account for itself properly.

I can imagine myself spending a year in my dream vault towards the end of my life, reliving it in dreamspace at 8x speed like an insane podcast, to arrive at a fully integrated sense of my life as a space of potentialities. A sense of it that might perhaps fuel the truest possible account of it. One that would be better than any autobiography or memoir, and perhaps even be suitable for uploading to the cloud, there to drive an eternal sequence of reboots of me, in a Groundhog Day of an afterlife.

Good thing I don’t believe in uploads. That sounds like hell.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Aaron Dow says

    “Nolan’s Machinist”

    Nolan didn’t make The Machinist, if you’re referring to the Christian Bale movie.

    “A summary notion of what it is like to be, not just a cat, but this particular cat, Socks, that lived this particular life, and had these specific experiences.”

    There’s a famous Japanese novel called I am a Cat that chooses this particular look into the nowness of life in order to get out of human character’s ‘well that’s just what this one person thinks’ to look at life and living as a whole (as well as Japanese society and all that).

  2. Your post here reminds me of my experience on a third pilgrimage in India. After weeks of meditation, walking through villages and valleys, one night sleeping at an Ashram on Thiruvannamalai hill, I had the experience of communicating with and channeling ontologically real Gods and spiritual beings.

    Taking Sadhguru’s advice on the matter, the whole time I never “believed it,” nor bothered to “disbelieve” it. Both seem to be silly and primitive approaches, like hammering together a house with river stones. Though later, I tried to catalog things “I wouldn’t have said” or special insights gained, I always could see in retrospect that ”’I”’ also could have said them. I could never nail anything down easily as supernatural afterwards when I wished very much to do so. Yet all of it was uncanilly like Jung’s Red Book talks with Delilah and other characters, characters that were clearly outside of me, with their own volition and consciousness.

    About a year later, even as it was still sometimes easy to access that space and those beings, I commented to a good friend that “Even if it turns out at the end that this is just a world of dirt, and death ends some sparks in a neuro-chemical soup, I will die with a full and happy heart. I have experienced Durga’s friendship as real as anyone has ever experienced anything.”

    I’m still mostly a Materialist. It doesn’t matter. But I still do Durga chants and invoke Vajrayogini. It is hard for me to really think the beings are real, though I have tried, and occasionally I can almost be convinced of it. Like anyone, I can easily thirst for a taste of something outside the material! To be clear, I haven’t found anything that is clearly and definitively convincing.

    Yet beyond Belief or Non-Belief or my craving for things we humans do not get to touch and see, Durga is my friend and that is my experience. And even as an Atheist, I think the chants and friendship with her are as much a loyalty to the best dream of myself with wings as anything I could ever do. What else should I be loyal to than this?

    Perhaps mystics live a life close to your dreaming account of life?

  3. Perhaps your life flashing before your eyes if you die suddenly is merely a dream cache dump. Certainly more real than living. Great article, many thanks 🙏

    • Yep I was gesturing at that as a joke in the conclusion; you’re the only one to get it :) too subtle I guess

      I had this idea fir a story where your life flashing before your eyes is really the simulators retrieving the log file for analysis

  4. Have you read Erik Hoel’s work on the nature of dreams? I see some connections between your thoughts on dreams and his hypothesis that dreams are basically an experimental/simulative way of testing out possible experiences to give our minds more data to work with.

  5. Jacob Moya says

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  6. Fusing the waking life with a dream in a peaceful way would be daydreaming: daydream yourself into existence. Mediocre (yay!) self-help was always right.

    The nightly dream is too Freudian if not outright demonic. Adjusting the brain-weight-matrix by dying a thousand deaths before waking up a thousand times is like a cruel joke of nature: give Satan what is Satans and hope that it doesn’t infect your waking life. I haven’t needed an exorcist yet and don’t aspire being taken over by nightly creatures. Dare what you wish.

  7. > Your dreams reveal you are much more of a fictional character than you think…In fact, if I had to choose what to throw out in this inventory of ways of understanding what a life is, I’d throw out the waking part of lived experience anchored to concrete truth ground. To arrive at a sense of my life, I’d simply integrate, in some loose mathematical sense, the history of my literal dreams. That would be the truest possible account of it.

    I recently published a sort of memoir of my time exploring NYC’s VIP party circuit, and one chapter (https://onthespectrumontheguestlist.substack.com/p/silencio) depicted a dream I had during the time when I was steeping myself in the scene. It didn’t feel any less surreal than my waking experiences of the same thing, and it even prefigured several real-life events yet-to-come.

    Burning Man’s theme this year is “Waking Dreams,” and I’m planing on privileging my dreams with the same ontological heft as my waking moments all throughout while I’m there.

  8. In a chess game, the moves actually played often give little insight into what happened. In my experience, it’s the moves not played at each critical juncture, and the reasons why they were not played, that really tell the story of the game. This fits very well with the “life as adjacent possibilities” approach. But I’m not sure dreams are the best/only way to capture adjacent possibilities. The Sturm und Drang experience captures aspects of it, like emotions of fear/aversion or hope/desire/greed pushing you towards some possibilities and away from others. The explicit planning and scheming of “main-character energy” and the momentum of accumulation capture other aspects. “Adjacent possibilities” seems like a great way to unify the contributions made by each approach to describing a life :)

  9. I have a theory that people almost completely driven by aesthetics. By aesthetics I don’t mean “visual style” or “design language” but “a desired state of the universe”, the way everything should be put together.
    With this, we can characterize the “worth” of a particular life by putting it on a graph with “aesthetics complexity” and “aesthetics embodiment” as its axes.
    At various extremes you’d have the main characters, quiet nerds with rich inner lives, crude but very “alive” construction workers, NPCs, etc.
    I think the particular life events don’t matter too much in aggregate, and aesthetics is the real reason why you’d enjoy rewatching your dreams on 8x speed, because it’d still convey your aesthetics without feeling too much like real life.

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