I must admit, I have a (bad?) habit of writing books and then setting them loose in the world without supporting them in their physical incarnation. But books aren’t like wood ducklings, which can leap from their nest in the trees and find their way to the nearest water and start growing into full-sized ducks. Books need support. They’re inert — unless they’re enlivened by the people reading them. A book without a reader is a collection of words on paper, a saturation of ink on pulped trees, neatly bound and wrapped in a glossy cover. Without reader involvement, they don’t amount to much, beyond the mind of the writer.
…it’s also funny when you talk to someone about a story (you’ve been working on) for months and months, and when they’ve read it, knowing just how important it is to you, all you get back is a “it’s great. Loved it.” Inside me, I’m screaming “what else? what did you take away from it? … etc.” But no, no review… But still, it wasn’t reviews I long for, but human conversations, debate.
Beloved Distance is very much like that. It grew out of years of reading, thinking, reading some more, and thinking even more than that. And now that the book’s out, people can get hold of it, read it, react to it, and move on. Like we do with most things.
And yet… what else is there?
That’s what I’d like to find out in the new Facebook group – from readers, for readers, because of readers. The themes of the book have resonated very strongly with me for years, and the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve just scratched the surface. And in fact, while I was writing the book, there were so many instances where I realized I just didn’t have the time and the space to say everything that I felt needed to be said about the topic at hand.
That time is now, and as I await the final notice from Amazon that the paperback is available there, I consider all the different ideas that, like puppies in a basket, are clamoring over each other to get picked up and taken home.
The book is going to mean different things to different people, and that’s the fun part of it. Some people may not care for it at all. Others may find it dramatically changes how they think about stuff that used to barely catch their notice. Others may be intrigued, then move on. But that “travel” from a state of wondering what others think to finding out… well, that’s yet another form of distance I’m looking forward to traveling.
The Sarah MacLachlan song from years ago keeps running through my head. There’s something reassuring about the enduring popularity of that song (she performed it at the 2017 Juno awards), but there’s also something distressing.
Because if we keep singing about this, and the lyrics of distress from 10… 20 years ago, are still as impactful today as they were back then… well, what have we been doing in the meantime?
Waiting for someone else to fix it for us?
Maybe. I mean, we’re all busy, right? We’re all occupied with our own concerns, our own dramas, our own direction. And the problems of the world seem so vast, so overwhelming, so out of our control, it’s almost impossible to know where to start.
But we have to start somewhere, right? Even if it’s just at a level of understanding. Even if it’s just at a level of the myriad day-to-day interactions that we tend to take for granted. Every single detail in our lives does matter, and how we behave towards a total stranger leaves an impression on both them and us… and it ripples out, like a pebble tossed in a pond, affecting everyone else they and we interact with at a later point. Even if it’s just a small thing (and who among us really knows just what’s “small” or “large”?), it still matters.
It all matters.
And nowhere is that more true than in our bodies. We’re constantly picking up on signals around us. We may not perceive them — not every piece of sensory data gets through — but they’re there. And they affect us on levels we can’t even detect, much of the time. It’s quite amazing, if you think about it. How the heck do we get through life, in the first place?
But I digress.
Here we are, on the brink of a whole lot of pain. It feels like we’ve been here for an awful long time. Between international conflicts, to political struggles, to class and race clashes… the list of turbulence never seems to end. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost too much to think about, and everyday it seems like more revelations are coming to light about what goes on in the shadows beyond the attention span/range of our distracted and otherwise-entertained population.
It may feel like too much to process, but we actually have the innate capacity to deal with it all. I’m convinced of it. Since 2013, I’ve spent a whole lot of time realizing just how well-equipped we are to handle it all — and do so with grace and mastery. We just seem to have forgotten that we can… we’ve lost touch with the qualities and capabilities that not only allow us to do it, but compel us to step forward, to engage, inquire, explore.
What we’re facing now, is (in my opinion) not so very different from challenges that past generations have faced. We’ve just forgotten some core truths about ourselves and what it means to be human and alive. Beloved Distance is all about reminding us that, yeah, we got this.
And here’s a chill remix of the now-classic song, for your listening enjoyment.
Beloved Distance – The Separation That Connects Us to All
If you’re reading this, you have a brain. You may (or may not) use it to the utmost of your ability, but if your eyes are following this text, as you peer at your device or laptop or desktop monitor, your nervous system is working overtime shuttling information through your system, which most definitely includes your brain.
90,000 miles of nerves interconnect, both directly and through chemical synapses. They bridge the distance between our skin and our spinal cord, between our internal organs and our cerebrum. Our whole system is afire with electricity and chemical reactions, with our billions of neurons firing some 200 times per second. And all the while, the brain is “unconsciously” making sense of it.
As George Lakoff points out, an estimated 98% of thought is unconscious.
If you think about how busy your “conscious” brain is, just imagine how much moreso is the rest of you. All that chatter and static between your ears is but a paltry 2% of the total thought activity going on. Right now. All the time.
Just let that sink in for a moment…
Okay, let’s come back now. The brain-body connection has been talked about for decades, now, very much in terms of mental health and physical health. A lot of us have reached the conclusion that of course the brain and body are interrelated. How could they not be? The brain is part of the body, and its processes are organic, as well as consciousness-related.
The thing is, we seem to lose sight of this, when we think about our “higher mind” activities. When we get into philosophy and try to understand the nature of reality and our place in the world, we especially tend to split the brain from the body, like a space capsule leaving the rocket behind as it propels into the outer reaches of our cosmos. When we think long and hard about things, when we’re rapt with attention on abstract concepts. the very idea of the body seems to fade away. We forget to eat, drink, use the bathroom. We forget we have a body at all.
But of course, it’s still here. It’s not going anywhere — especially when we’re wrapped up in higher thought.
I usually think of Descartes, when I think of the brain-body split. Mr. “Cogito ergo sum“, who surmised that since he thought, therefore he was. Well, that’s fine. And certainly, it’s true. But I think it can also be said that “We think because we are.” So much of our physical systems are involved in thought, and so much of our systematic functioning is analogous to our thought processes, that the idea of neatly separating out the body from the mind and treating them as separate and distinct seems, well, very 17th Century.
Of course, it feels a lot neater, if we can conceptualize thought as something that’s mind-based, rather than body-based. It’s neater, somehow. It feels… cleaner. But as we’re learning more (and more, every day it seems) how much of the body is involved in processing the information our brains work with, that sanitized neatness carries a significant cost to true understanding. And that costs weighs us down with the burden of ignorance — both passive and active — as we both overlook important considerations and also willfully ignore the physical facts right in front of us.
In order to understand the workings of our minds, we have to understand the workings of the body. We have to understand how our nervous systems work, how they react and shape us in relation to the world around us. And when we understand the principles at work on the microscopic level, it gives us an added frame of reference, a finely tuned lens, we can use to gain greater insight into our innermost workings.
Knowing the body first, before approaching the brain, has stood others in good stead. Freud, in fact, started out as a neuroanatomist. I had no idea, till I did some digging a few months back. Long before he turned to psychoanalysis:
He carried out pioneering neurobiological research, which was cited by Santiago Ramóny Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, and helped to establish neuroscience as a discipline.
And just as debunked theories sometimes need a closer look, our favorite concepts sometimes need to be called into question. Like the idea that the mind and the body are (or can be) separate and distinct from each other. Like the idea that you can disregard the body when you’re engaged in intellectual activities. Like the idea that the mind can completely rule the body, or that the body must be overcome and made wholly subservient to the mind, in order for the human spirit to rise.
All the undercurrents of hostility to the physique that trace through the Western tradition, seem pretty much like the product of people with some serious body issues. But of course, they weren’t alone. And their Körperfeindlichkeit (hostility to the body) filled a need in the Western psyche that didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the human body, until fairly recently.
Fortunately, the trend is shifting, as more and more people are connecting body and mind in philosophical terms, as well as world view. And I find myself quite comfortable within this trend, albeit on the margins, since I’m not exactly up to speed on all the latest thinking. It’s been a long time coming — and about damn’ time, if I say so.
From where I’m sitting / standing / working, it’s literally impossible for us to understand our place in the world or fully grasp the meaning of our existence, unless we factor in the body. It’s both a full partner in our thought process, as well as full of microscopic templates that can inform our macroscopic patterns. Our bodies guide us unconsciously, and when we engage with them consciously, they can enrich us even more.
And now it’s time to get a drink of water. My brain can use the hydration. And the walk to the water cooler will do my mind good.
Okay, I know we’re all supposed to strive for unity. We need to reach out to each other, cross the divides between us. Connect, cooperate, unite.
Especially at this time of year, when the holidays bring us together with friends and family in our annual rituals of connection.
Separation leads to suffering, we’re told. This is our season to overcome it.
We’ve all experienced the pain of separation at some time or another. There’s no denying that it can be excruciating.
At the same time, though… we still love our distance. The separation between us actually draws us closer together. It makes us more keenly aware of how much we need to connect.
Like in the image above, hold your hands just an inch or so apart from each other. See how long you can do that, until they’re drawn together. They may seem to have a life of their own, as your palms meet or your fingers intertwine.
Now try this:
Hold your hands, palms facing, an inch apart. Leave them there for a count of 10. Now, slowly draw them apart… feel that? Feel how each hand pulls on the other, almost like there’s an ever-strengthening magnet between them?
That’s the connection we experience from separation. And that connectedness across separation actually animates our entire bodies. The gaps between our neurons — the synaptic clefts — are the sources of neurotransmitters which pass information throughout our systems. And the total distance actually adds up to thousands of miles, when you tally it all up, end-to-end.
That’s a lot of distance.
And we love it.
We have other types of distance in our lives, as well. Whether we’re starting a book that begins with an intriguing premise (and promises an ultimate resolution at the end)… or we’re watching a football game between two teams that are so evenly matched that nobody knows who’s going to win… we’re incorporating distance into our lives. It’s the journey across that distance which intrigues us, pulls us in, and holds us rapt until we reach the “other side” of that gap between what-is and what-will-be.
We love our distance. We’d better… we’re chock full of it.
I’ll be watching “A Christmas Carol” shortly, and tweeting my way through, drawing connections between what’s in the story, and what’s in our nervous system.
As I’ve said before, Scrooge’s transgression is that he refuses to be “synaptic” – he refuses to connect with others across the distance at Christmas time. And when he sees the error of his ways an finds it in his heart to fix that, it resolves the tension that made his whole story possible.
When we think of our nervous system, a lot of us tend to think of it as a continuous, connected network that seamlessly transmits information immediately from the experienced sense to the brain and back again. When you step barefooted on a pointy building block at 11:00 p.m. when you’re turning out the lights to go to bed, or you brush your hand against soft fabric while you’re shopping for a coat, the experience is so immediate, it’s easy to think that the neurons transmitting the info from your skin to your spinal column and/or brain and back to your muscles are directly connected to one another.
History showed who was right — Cajal and others who agreed with him, with their counter-intuitive conviction that our nervous system had to be comprised of separate cells.
Indeed, our nervous system is comprised of billions of individual nerve cells (neurons), which aren’t actually in direct contact with each other. Oh, sure, in some cases, the connection is direct — individual neurons can be connected in electrical synapses, where tiny proteins join them at “gap junctions”. But for chemical synapses (the vast majority of the connections between neurons), there’s a tiny gap that is never actually connected.
Think about that for a moment. (It’s fun! I’ve thought about it for a number of years, now, and it never ceases to amaze me.) The vast majority of our nerves aren’t actually in direct contact with each other… Hmmmm… But they still manage to do their jobs getting sensory data — and more — back and forth in a dizzying, complex system of sending, receiving, decoding, and acting on signals. There’s all this electricity… all this chemistry… time, space, quality, experience… kicking of thousands, even millions of interactions, each living moment of our lives.
So, what does this have to do with the Holiday Season?
A lot, actually.
See, synapses are the connections — the bridges — which join all our disconnected neurons. And although they may be minuscule, they are incredibly powerful in their ability to connect. They’re built to connect, in fact. Their purpose is to bring together separate entities — axons and dendrites, for example — and get them “talking” to each other.
The fact that I’m writing this — and you’re reading it — is evidence of how well they’re working. Even if you’re not totally on board with what I’m saying, the fact that you differ tells us that your synapses are doing their job extremely well.
So, yeah. The Holidays. They’re a time when usually separate people come together in season-specific ways — families, friends, co-workers gather for meals and gift exchanges. We reduce the separation between ourselves with parties and get-togethers and reunions, and we connect in ways that are a bit different from our usual means.
We build special kinds of “bridges” in the Holiday Season — ways we can be more in sync with each other, exchanging presents to show we care enough to think about what would make someone else’s life a bit better. We donate presents, money, food, clothing, to put joy and comfort just a bit more within reach for complete strangers.
In many ways, the Holidays make us about as synaptic as we can be. And those who withhold, who don’t lend their support, are viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Ebenezer Scrooge is a quintessential example of the anti-synaptic human. At the time when the most connections are being created, he refused to participate… until he was brought back in line with a series of disturbing and alarming experiences.
Ultimately, he got back in line with the rest of humanity and did his part — even moreso. And there was great rejoicing.
The same thing happens in real life — on a micro and macro scale. We see the same dynamics that animate our cells, bringing this time of year to life. There’s correspondence. There’s similarity. Perhaps we feel that so deeply about hour holidays specifically because of the similarities to our most intimate inner processes.
In the spirit of the electrical-chemical-electrical sensory transmission process, I wish you the most synaptic of Holiday Seasons.