Anthropologists often comment about a kind of ‘look’ among hunter-gatherer cultures. The tribal member stands still, eyes neither fixed nor searching. There is an expansive gaze with which the hunter considers their environment. It feels alert, but grounded. Without romanticizing what is potentially an essential survival mechanism, we witness a kind of heightened awareness, a connection to the spontaneous pantheon of the present moment. Strict joy sweeps the construct of time out of the mind, gifting us with the phenomenology of experience. Without the civilized convention of ‘history,’ the timeline is erased, leaving only isolated dots on a page.
Could we get here, now?
Rising mountain peaks.
The smell of a thunderstorm.
Bodies coming together in lovemaking.
A child’s birth.
Arms grappling mid-wrestle.
A kiss in a parking lot.
The green of stoplights.
Sun beating against the skin.
All of these exist as a conscious absorption of this, the present.
The grace of the human condition may very well be that our consciousness simply cannot exist in a state of pure awareness. While most people visit from time to time, we often retreat from the edge. Total concentration is rare. Our devotion to the present moment is fragmented. We excavate the past, project into the future, or enter the mists of mindlessness.
Psychology today is somewhat obsessed with ‘here and now’ disciplines. Take the ‘Third Wave’ of therapies, for instance: humanistic, Gestalt, person-centered, and now mindfulness-based interventions, all holding the promise of connecting us to that elusive and ever-receding event horizon.
Spiritual traditions, of course, also hint at such givenness. Jesus is memorialized by his biographers as having eaten mindfully, “Do this in remembrance…” Indeed, many contemporary Christian adherents practice a weekly sort of reflection on the here and now when taking bread and the wine in their gatherings. So too Zen quiets the mind and teaches the art of sitting, standing, and walking. Such sensory awareness aims at training the full attention of feelings and sensation.
What anthropologists reflect on in hunter-gatherer societies is not dissimilar from the intentions of psychology or religion: being fully and deeply in the here-and-now, in relationship to self, others, and the world around us. Yet to desire such lack of self-conscious presence is also to wish for a kind of regression to infancy. We cannot simply go backwards, any more than we can become a child again. We are here now, whether we like it or not. Indeed, without our ability to reflect and project, we might be ‘stuck in a moment’ – a kind of alzheimers of the immediate without recourse to effective recall or envisioning next steps. The very definition of boredom may well be being imprisoned in one time and place.
Even so, most of us are suffering from a deficit of present-moment-ness. But there is hope! We can recover a kind of second naïveté—a way of being in this world that honors where we have been and where we are going, while still remaining grounded in this sensual universe. Cultivating this ability is vital in establishing the boundaries of self.
Our culture is the most efficient one that has ever existed in terms of telling stories that compel us to feel and to act.
This is no great surprise. Humans have always existed as story-telling animals. Even our name, Homo Sapien, tells a kind of story. Sapiential or rational knowledge refers to the primacy of intellect that some scientists name as our signature contribution. Still other scientists suggest it’s our ability to stand upright, or use opposable thumbs. However, there is perhaps a more fitting label—Homo Fictus, the storytelling animal.
The genus of ‘homo’ is a latecomer. Cats, dogs, even pigs developed first. HG Wells said rightly, “man is mere upstart.” The Paleolithic era began some three million years ago with tool-making hominids, lasting until the latest inter-glacial period, commencing twelve thousand years ago. It spans 99.5% of human existence.
Change was, during this three million years, incredibly slow. Technology replicated itself generation to generation, with major change happening roughly only every 100,000 years.
Sharp stones, useful bone and wood bits, then animal skins, then wildfire, then controlled fire, then at last the advent of fire-making. This slow progression takes us to the event which changed everything: Language.
Some 70,000 years ago, for unknown reasons, our branch of primate developed the ability to consistently verbalize—to communicate.
Scientists are divided on the reasons for this. Some suggest it was because the increase of the size of the brain: from some mere 750 cubits to 1500 cubits—doubling! Others suggest its because of a physical development in our vocal chords. Some anthropologists wonder if it is because increasing human populations, due to fire, needed ways of distinguishing friend from foe. The Gossip Theory posits that humans innovated language as a result of our need to talk about each other.
When one watches a child master language, we realize how physical this process is. The first sounds a child makes are crying, then laughter, then eventual imitation of the sounds around them. Instead of being purely symbolic, it is largely a response to a very sensual universe. One can imagine early human innovation in much the same way. The birds have a certain way of communicating, an organization of sounds. Even trees have a kind of linguistic reverie as their response to wind or movement. Humans followed suit—making sounds, grouping them together in a responsive way, and codifying meaning around them.
Whatever the reasons we started doing this—the shift is remarkable.
Within the span of 30,000 years—a mere eye-blink of geologic time—we supplant all other homo genus on the planet, including our cousins the Neanderthals. Language enabled bands of humans to cooperate in larger hunts, gather seeds for planting, construct houses, plan villages, then cities; it enabled us to refine metals, wheels, then explosives. As Ronald Wright notes in A Short History of Progress, “From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took three million years….from iron to the hydrogen bomb took a mere 3,000 years.” It is as though time collapsed on itself.
This is due to humans’ ability to use the technology of language to transmit information and move beyond the environments that made us, to begin remaking ourselves—at the level of culture, which moves far faster than biology. The effects of such power were unprecedented, allowing for complex tools, weapons, and orchestrated behavior. Culture became transmissible through speech from one generation to the next.
But language alone does not equate to meaning. Indeed language without meaning is simply another kind of phenomenology, like the wind in the trees, or the song of the birds. It is the stories we tell with our words that provide context for this technology.
Humans are constantly making meaning and telling stories. And now we are constrained to it.
Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, commented that humans without meaning lived depressing and empty lives. Yet even such ‘meaninglessness’ exists within a sphere of meaning. There is quite simply no such thing as meaninglessness outside of the story we assign to it. Life is phenomenon until we tell stories about it—until we connect the dots.
Nietzsche proclaimed the ‘death of God,’ or the end of the Big Story. There would be no more metaphysics. Indeed, Camus drives the point home with his Myth of Sisyphus in which he shows a man, punished by the gods, constrained to pushing a stone up a mountain, only to reach the top and start over once more. This, Camus suggested, was the rather “absurd” reality we live within. It’s all stories…and there is no meaning…
But the knife by which Nietzsche killed God is the one by which he slit his own wrist. The existentialists, and with them post-moderns like Derrida and then Foucault, spend great amounts of words in order to tell of us of silence—they tell masterful stories to illustrate the end of stories. Which of course is absurd, to borrow Camus’ word.
A truly ridiculous story goes like this:
There was a farmer during the days when surveyors were mapping the border between Finland and Russia; he happened to live right along the line. Agents from both countries approached him and asked which nation his farm should be associated with. After thinking about it for some time he responded “Finland.” When the surveyors asked why that was, he responded: “Well I love Mother Russia, and frankly have always wanted to live there…but the winters are so cold!!”
Words are powerful. Words are meaningless.
Stories make our world. But we have the power to make—and un-make—the stories we tell.
Which stories will we choose to live by?