The ties that bind, the separations that connect

separate goldfish in bagsA couple of years ago, I wrote this book, Beloved Distance, about how we’re essentially separate from each other… and we can never be in direct contact with anything.  Our billions of neurons, which transmit the data that connect us with the world around us, are always – by definition – separate. They don’t touch. They’re almost impossibly close to each other, yet they’re not in direct contact with each other.

Synapse IllustrationAnd yet, that very separateness is what connects us. Because the gap between synapses makes room for neurotransmitters, the biochemicals that pass along the information we need to make sense of the world around us. And our neurotransmitters provide a richness, a sort of “analog” data transmission that’s qualitative, as opposed to the “digital” electronic signals that pass along the incredibly complex (and long) network of our nervous system.

Like light, we are both particle and wave. We’re both neuron/synapse and neurotransmitter. That’s what makes us what we are. That’s what makes us how we are. And if our neurons were in direct contact with each other, we’d both short-circuit (because the data transmission would be too much, too soon) and never have the varied experiences that our biochemicals give us.

So, yeah. We’re like light, in that respect.

And now that quantum computing is getting all kinds of press (at least in the circles I run in) and other AI/Machine Learning/Deep Learning is picking up speed in active development and deployment, this whole concept segues nicely with the spirit of the day.

I wrote this book about 2 years ago. And I figured it would be a number of years (say, 10+) before other people would notice that it mattered. I’ve been a strong believer that it matters, all along. Ever since I first grasped what that picture of the neuron was telling me, oh, about 12 (?) years ago, I’ve believed it matters. And since I’ve been reading about quantum physics for close to 20 years*, a lot of what I’ve uncovered in the past decade or so really has some nice correlations with the quantum world view. Or maybe my quantum worldview came first and helps me make sense of the biochemistry and neurology…? Who knows?

Anyway, it’s all connected, as some like to say. And yeah, from everything I can tell and have observed in my half a century+ on this planet… It is.

*I’m a huge fan of David Bohm, and on some level, quantum concepts all make total sense to me. Why is it taking so long for everybody to catch on? 😉

So, what does this have to do with anything that matters to anyone else?

Isn’t this just some rambling of an inquisitive mind who loves to explore the reaches of PubMed, ArXive, Frontiers and more? Isn’t this just some philosophical hoo-hah that’s an indulgence at best, an annoying distraction from what really matters, at worst?

Well, I believe that this isn’t just about me, and it’s certainly not something that I came up with. I just noticed it and realized how much it matters. And yeah, I do believe it matters… especially today. We’re relentlessly inundated with a constant stream of disruptive, interruptive, disjointed, unconnected, random data points that scream (and I mean scream) for our attention. And we’ve become increasingly unhinged from the world we inhabit and the lives we want to lead.

We mourn, on the one hand, for oceans that are dying from too much plastic… and yet, we don’t hesitate to go out and buy all kinds of stuff packaged in plastic that never gets recycled. We bemoan our political fates, yet we don’t actually engage with the people or the process. We curse all sorts of forces around us, as though we have no control or influence… at a time when the average person has more control and influence than maybe ever in the past hundreds, even thousands, of years. The cognitive dissonance is deafening. And yet, we persist in making choices that go directly against our own best interests, even survival.

I’m not saying we need to each radically up-end our habits, and do away with every offending act and thought. It’s an idea, but it’s probably not all that sustainable.

What I am suggesting is that we just might be able to get more of a connection with our larger lives, by looking within our systems and better understanding how we — each and every one of us — functions at the cellular level. You can learn a lot from looking at the drawing of a synapse… especially if you really think about what you’re looking at.

The human race has always looked up for meaning. We’ve looked to the stars… to big-picture concepts… mythology… beliefs… religions… philosophies… storytelling in books as well as on the small and big screens… we’ve searched high and low for ways to make sense of our world. And now, since we have the equipment and the capability, we can also look within — literally — to find new clues from our cellular makeup about what it means to be us, what it means to be human… what it means to be here.

That’s ultimately what Beloved Distance is all about — looking at some very, very tiny stuff, to see if there’s any big meaning there.

I’ve found a lot of it.

You might, too.

New Facebook group for Beloved Distance

open book with waterfall pouring outAfter initial resistance to the idea, I wrapped my head around starting a Beloved Distance Facebook group. It’s open. Feel free to join.

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.

I was just reading a piece this morning by an author who was troubled by a classic writer’s situation:

…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.

So, I had to defer it till later… put it in the blog

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.

On we go… on we go.

A world on fire… so much suffering… and questions we can’t help but ask

There's so much pain, so much suffering. What do we do? Why is this happening? It's natural to seek out root causes, and there are plenty of people willing to provide explanations. “It's the separation we feel from one another that's to blame,” we're told. And that sounds about right. Thinking of someone else as being separate and apart from you makes it possible to hurt them without regret. Looking at others as being, well, Other, makes it awfully easy to dismiss their humanity and do to them what we will, regardless of the downstream impact it has to future generations – or us. This is nothing new. Humanity has been divided over one thing or another since we first walked this earth. It's just that now, with repeat warnings about the fragility of our climate and our environment, a seemingly endless string of military conflicts flaring up, the divides between rich and poor widening with each fiscal quarter, and nuclear war actually being discussed as a distinct possibility, the coordination and collaboration we need to solve our global problems together seem more elusive than ever.
There’s so much pain, so much suffering. What do we do? Why is this happening? It’s natural to seek out root causes, and there are plenty of people willing to provide explanations. “It’s the separation we feel from one another that’s to blame,” we’re told. And that sounds about right. Thinking of someone else as being separate and apart from you makes it possible to hurt them without regret. Looking at others as being, well, Other, makes it awfully easy to dismiss their humanity and do to them what we will, regardless of the downstream impact it has to future generations – or us. This is nothing new. Humanity has been divided over one thing or another since we first walked this earth. It’s just that now, with repeat warnings about the fragility of our climate and our environment, a seemingly endless string of military conflicts flaring up, the divides between rich and poor widening with each fiscal quarter, and nuclear war actually being discussed as a distinct possibility, the coordination and collaboration we need to solve our global problems together seem more elusive than ever.

“We live in a world on fire”

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 AllNow Available

Beloved Distance – The Separation That Connects Us to All

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To understand our place in the world, we must consider both body and mind

The Thinker by Rodin
“The Thinker” by Rodin

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.

Lakoff embodied consciousness intro text
George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis Click the link for the full video

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.

See Freud was a pioneering neuroscientist at The Guardian to read the full (and fascinating) article.

Freud’s theories have fallen out of favor in recent years, from what I hear. But apparently some of his findings are being proven out, much as Einstein’s Theory About Gravitational Waves Was Just Proved Right. I have to wonder if maybe Freud’s understanding of neurology actually put him ahead of not only his peers but also his professional descendants, so much so, that it’s taken greater neurological understanding on our part to fully appreciate what he was talking about. It’s a theory…

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.

Oh, but we love our distance…

hands reaching out to each otherOkay, 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.

Try this:

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.

Let the live tweeting begin – #AChristmasCarol, viewed through a #BelovedDistance lens

christmas carol start

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.

Let the tweeting begin… The full thread can be found here: