Change fascinates us

Our fixation with moving screen images is perhaps the most obvious example of our fascination with change, but whether fast or slow, change unfailingly captures our attention. Change is so constant and pervasive that it is at times overwhelming, but change itself is really the only constant in our lives. We’re it not for our profoundly powerful powers of denial and delusion, inhibition and suppression, the reality’s constantly changing bombardment of our psyches would render us insane.

The universe and time itself are unfolding around and through each of us, each moment the irrevocable transition of a constantly changing present we call “now.” We can join with the moment of “now,” but cannot halt it; nor can we slow it down; our only option is to make choices.  “Now” is a moving target; the choices we make are always either in response to a change we have experienced or in anticipation of change we expect.

The ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, is also called The Book of Changes, and offers 64 hexagrams representing basic types of situations and choices we commonly face. By throwing coins or yarrow stalks and recording patterns, we place ourselves in sync with the moments of time, and the result produces an oracle of contemplation.

Some people consult the I Ching in pursuit of an answer, looking for advice on how to solve a problem or dilemma; a description of a state of mind or condition is described, and a possible way of working with it suggested. The images and metaphors of the I Ching are often obscure, and the relationship between the two trigrams that combine to create each hexagram often point to the duality of mind. Commonly, however, the oracle points to a shift to one or another hexagram for consultation through what are called “moving lines.” In this way, change itself is introduced into the process, forcing us to drop attachments and to understand our role in the universe as observer, not simply participant.

Painted scrolls from China’s classical period always feature magnificent natural scenes of mountains, clouds, forests, and rivers; the people in such paintings are always pictured as very small and almost insignificant. Such treatment indicates a philosophical view about the nature of being: that humanity is simply a tiny part of something much larger, much grander. Accordingly, the descriptive images in the I Ching are often of mountains, rivers, clouds and natural forces such as thunder. It is the antithesis of our western view of the ascendancy and importance of the individual, as amply illustrated in artist Andy Warhol’s garish, larger-than-life portraits of Hollywood celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor.

By linking human experience and choice to metaphors of nature, the I Ching reminds us of our connection to the greater natural world and seeks to unify the experience of being rather than highlight separateness. It wisely points to the patterns of nature, what emerges and changes, to suggest how we might get out of our own way. Our emotional penchant to try to stop time and make “now” last forever distracts us from the truth of change.

Thus, the I Ching is not a magic 8-ball; it does not make infallible predictions or tell the future. Rather, it is a device, a methodology intended to divert us away from preoccupations of self-absorption and deliver us gently into the arms of uncertainty.

The meaning of life

In the brief time we spend on earth, each of us goes about our business in whatever particular way we do, placing one foot in front of the other as the days and years roll by. “Waxing philosophical,” as my late father used to say, is something else apart, the activity of ruminating on the “why” questions that can’t easily be answered by anyone. When one gets old and organs begin to wear out, thinking about the meaning of life comes more naturally, so here’s my tentative answer: The Meaning of Life is to Eat, Shit and Reproduce; everything else is gravy.

From a biological perspective, all living things eat, shit and reproduce; it’s the essence of self-perpetuation and the perpetuation of one specific species and other species. The interdependent, synergistic system of life on earth is based upon a cycle of life and death, a “no-waste” ecology of integration and disintegration where the by-products, the shit, of all living things – plants, animals and microbes of all types – become the building blocks for the lives of other living things. Leaves on trees, for example, utilize the carbon dioxide animals discard as a by-product of using oxygen for energy, and animals utilize the oxygen discarded as the by-product of leaves’ photosynthesis. Thus it is and thus life has always been. Eat, shit and reproduce; that’s life’s system.

This brings us to the gravy part. And considering the lowliest single-celled animal to the most sophisticated, the role of gravy cannot be over-estimated. A single-celled amoeba handles life’s basics, of course; it eats, shits and reproduces, but we know nothing of how it feels to be an amoeba. In the presence of something to eat, does the amoeba feel excitement, or a rush of pleasant anticipation? Does an amoeba get gravy, too?

Emotions are essential tools of survival, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the emotions I feel evolved from the amoeba-like, simplest experiences of feeling. Perhaps the entirety of sense perception developed in service to eating, shitting and reproducing, and what we solemnly regard as thinking is simply the act of filling unattended, left-over space during a 24-hour day. Predictably, much of that thinking is about eating, shitting and reproducing. Hollywood gets it, and HBO, and Arby’s.

For the fortunate, living provides some mighty-fine gravy. The eating thing, in particular, makes people happy. Tastes vary, but when something is tasty it brings feelings of pleasure and a vast, biological cascade of chemically-induced happiness. Need I draw your attention to the newest restaurant in town? The mere prospect prompts excitement. Music produces the same effect, or enjoying the view from the Overlook Trail; this speaks to the tempting role of gravy in life and the power of feeling. Life’s motivation is gravy-centered.

Which brings us to reproduction; talk about the release of chemical happiness! Studies show that people think about sex as often as they think about food. Reproduction is what keeps the system of life going, so it delivers big ladles of gravy.

Waxing philosophically for a moment, I wonder if the arising of self-awareness – consciousness of self and other – is simply the “gravy-effect” or something more? Conversely, is the meaning of life on earth about the evolution of consciousness, and all the eating, shitting and reproducing actually in the service of gravy?

Life at the Improv

Welcome to the I Am Larry Barnett Show. I’m your host Larry Barnett, and like you, I’m making it up as I go along. Hey, this is The Improv, right?

I know, you’re going to tell me you’re busy starring in your own show, and coming up with your own material moment to moment, but here I am, at least in the form of words on the page, and somehow or other your show now includes me. Now how cool is that?

It’s not like I got in touch with you in advance and asked if I could have a part in your show, like called you on the phone and introduced myself and asked if I can join your show. Nope, it turns out that my show and your show overlapped each other, and here we are, co-starring in a combined show, at least for the moment.

Actually, you are not in my show yet, or if you are, I don’t know it. My show includes sending written information into the world in both print and digital form; it’s how I play my part, or at least how I’m playing it for now. Like I said, I’m making it up as I go along.

I could change my part, write a new script, abandon my role entirely; it would, of course, make for a rather chaotic show, a real drama I suspect, filled with strong emotions. And all the other shows with which I overlap would have to change their scripts too; that’s the nature of The Improv.

Some people who end up in my show are great at improv; others, not so much. Everyone does improv all the time, but many people in their own shows tend to forget they’re playing a part and begin to believe the character they’re playing is actually who they are. Rather than playing, they begin to take their show very seriously, and demand others take it very seriously, too. This is called “getting lost” in your character, and it makes for dramatic entertainment but also a lot of confusion and turmoil.

As if acts of continuous improvisation were not challenging enough, some people go off plot and intentionally create imaginary stories and wacky scripts just for the purposes of entertainment. In their shows, they play actors pretending to be authentic people playing improv, and hope others will forget its all imaginary. It’s easy too see how all this just adds to the confusion, I’m afraid. Sorting out the real improv from the imaginary ain’t easy and can be downright dangerous.

The worst kind of entertainment is the completely predictable kind, the kind that corporations like us to play, particularly the role of consumer. Corporations are not actually a real people. I’m not saying real people don’t play roles by working at corporations, but what I mean is that a corporation does improv too, but in a very deterministic way. Corporations are terrible at making it up as it goes along, and need stable, predictable scripts to keep their plot lines working profitably. So, they spend tons of time and resources convincing others to join the corporate show and add branded consumer products to their own shows. We call this “product placement.”

I didn’t mean to get into all this, by the way, but hey, it’s The Improv. And thank you very much; you’ve been a great audience.


Sense of “self” is just one among a constellation of mental states, and the experience of “I” varies considerably. “I” is described by some neurologists as a stable form of hallucination, which is to say, a subjective experience of being “in here” that seems to feel separate from things and people “out there.” The hallucination is enhanced by cultural artifacts — language, ideas and concepts — that reinforce belief in an external, objectified world, combined with a powerful inclination to make distinctions and divide the world into dichotomies.

Dichotomies of “I”/”other,” “good”/”bad,” “true”/”false,” and so forth all contribute to how we imagine the nature of external reality. Moreover, such mental concepts are linguistic; language itself forms the matrix out of which we construct conceptions of ourselves. This self-definition is confined within the limits of the language from which it arises.

Neurologically, our brains contain tens of billions of cells, and the connections between them are in the range of 1022, or more connections than there are known stars in the universe. How consciousness develops remains a mystery; consciousness may be built into the fabric of the universe itself, and considering entanglement observed in quantum mechanics, could even be a non-local phenomenon. What we imagine as “I” could be Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”: the universe examining itself.

We classify the maintenance of “I” as normal, or what we call sanity, and designate other mental states as abnormal, or insane. These other states are commonly manifestations of hyper- and hypo-arousal: ecstasy at the pole of hyper-arousal and equanimity at the opposite pole of hypo-arousal. We actively seek out these “abnormal” states; artistic creation, religious ritual and the use of psychoactive substances all indicate the strong attraction such mental states have for us, from the extremes of religious ecstasy and psychedelics to meditation and the calm of sedatives. The maintenance of “I” can be viewed as a stable position of psychic  “freedom” located midpoint within the broad spectrum of hyper- and hypo-arousal.

The “freedom” of the experience of “I” is so-called due to its seeming isolation from the intrusion of the underlying substrata of brain activity, what we call the unconscious. While experiencing “I” we are generally freer from awareness of the cascading flood of feelings, associations, thoughts and imaginings continuously emanating from our unconscious; this freedom is akin to a form of amnesia, similar to that we experience after awakening from dreams then forgotten. Stimulants, sedatives and peak experiences alter brain chemistry enough to tip us from the stable “freedom-of-I” into the turbulent, streaming tide of the unconscious. It feels exciting, even dangerous, to loosen our attachment to “I,” yet it is precisely the experience through which we often dissolve the hallucination of separation and make contact with the primordial unity that spiritual teachers, great artists, physicists and cosmologists report.

Recent discoveries in neurology indicate that while awake, our brains function in a state of “criticality,” balanced between chaos and order. Criticality is observed in other physical structures, where reaching a “tipping point” produces new structures of order out of chaos, just as a single snowflake triggers the chaos of an avalanche that ultimately results in a newly stable arrangement. Accordingly, the “I” we imagine manifests as a stable position of order amid the actively chaotic avalanche of the unconscious.

So, knock-knock. And, who’s there?

Your real-life 3D movie

You’re the director, the camera operator and play the lead. You’re the scriptwriter, too, and the costume designer, art director, gopher, finance director and critic. Everything about your movie is under your control, except the stuff that isn’t, which actually is quite a lot.

What’s not in your control is other people’s movies, not directly, anyway. Your movie, the plot you imagine and the words you script, might have great influence on others and the content of their movies, however. Thus advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry, and great treasuries are expended in the pursuit of favorable public opinion. Molding public opinion, another specialty of real-life 3D movies, is itself a specialty dealing almost entirely with manipulation of emotions and the generation of “facts.”

But the plot thickens; even though you are the absolute star of your movie, everyone else is also the absolute star of their own movie, in which you may or may not have any role at all, even a silent walk-in.

So, here we are, a planet of 7-billion-plus real-life 3D movies, each with its own scriptwriter enabled to modify each movie’s plot line instantaneously. And real-life 3D movies don’t just come with pictures and soundtracks, but have the added features of sensory capabilities such as touch, smell, taste and emotions. The latter capability, emotion, runs along with the movie, just like a soundtrack. We not only see and hear and speak lines in our movies, but we also feel and are affected by the content of our movies and the effects of the contents of the movies of others.

Considerable effort has been expended to convince billions of people that one particular script is more favorable than another. Some of these scripts rely on the tragic content of many real-life 3D movies with plot lines that generate terrible pain and suffering, all in order to promote the validity and usefulness of a meta-script. A meta-script typically explains why individual real-life 3D movie scripts look and sound the way they do, and offer “facts” to counteract painful scripts. Such meta-scripts often contain references to the afterlife such as heaven and hell. Over time, and to this day, vast armies scour countrysides to enforce meta-scripts at the point of a deadly weapon.

Given that the props and language of our movies have all been provided by others who had movies, one might say each real-life 3D movie is embedded within a nearly infinite number of meta-scripts. Thus, for example, the stainless steel forks we use in our movies were created by others as props in their movies. The whole idea of stainless steel forks is itself something invented in someone’s movie, a movie of the past so old and now unacknowledged that it’s been forgotten.

Perhaps we are Homo Scriptus, psychologically complex, self-conscious beings whose greatest evolutionary success is writing scripts. We call our scripts by many names, but they all begin with “my,” such as “my name, my nationality, my religion, my favorite hamburger,” and so forth. Our internal movie critics quickly compile a list of preferences about all and everything, which alters the trajectory of our running script, and keeps our scriptwriters, as they say, crazy busy.

There’s a lot of competition in the movie business, but don’t worry, you’ve got top billing, baby.

Society recapitulates phylogeny

I recall my high school biology teacher, Mr. Ricci, explaining the phrase “Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny”, as much because his long, snagged teeth made saying it nearly impossible for him to say, an amusing moment for us sophomores, as for the sheer poetry of its sound. It’s meaning — that as a fetus develops it physically displays its evolutionary genetic path — was made memorable by slides of human embryos varyingly displaying decidedly inhuman features such as proto-gills and tails. Embedded within the human genome is the history of animal life on earth.

It’s not mere history, however. Our physical selves have evolved, but various pre-human features remain embedded deeply within and under layers of accumulated change. This is true, particularly, of the human brain, which retains primordial structures and neural networks buried under masses of evolutionarily acquired nerve tissues such as the cerebellum and cerebral cortex. The “reptile brain,” in this sense, literally refers to the oldest brain structures organized with archaic threat and aggression networks vital to survival of any animal organism and still active in everyday human life.

So, too, the “mammalian brain” is at work, stimulating bonding hormones like Oxytocin that operate on the emotional centers of the brain, making matters of trust and security central to our human lives. While birds and some reptiles often protect and feed their young for a short while, mammals experience relatively long periods of dependence and human beings have the longest period of child-rearing dependence of all mammals, by far.

Thus, socially, we witness the manifestation of our genetic inheritance in observing the ways we treat and mis-treat each other, partially due to the over-sized influence of one part of the brain — like the reptile part — or another. Add to this matter of genetics both epi-genetics, the influence of environment and experience on living things, and the vagaries of chance. Epi-genetic “memory” — the effect of experiences such as severe hunger, physical abuse, feeling loved — is transferred from parent to child and to successive generations just as surely as physical genes themselves, inhibiting and exciting gene expression, ie: turning genes “on” or “off.” How we raise our children resonates through future family history.

Chance, spontaneous genetic mutation, may account for the ascent of Homo sapiens altogether. Current human genome studies indicate the inclusion of many more “junk” genes than previously predicted. Embedded in each of us is not only the genetic history of all animals, but non-animal life as well such as viruses. Our cellular mitochondria — the organelles within each living cell that are essential in supplying energy — appear to have been shanghaied by primitive animal life from bacteria, and contain their own DNA. In short, people are a genetic melting pot, largely erasing the validity of hard boundaries and distinctions human society outwardly prefers.

We are not as autonomously human as we suppose. And the implications? Chill, people. Yes, the world can be threatening and dangerous, and five hundred years ago being killed by a wild animal was a legitimate threat. Today our greatest threats reside in our imagination and the ways in which it stimulates our primitive reptile brains. Better we rely upon our mammalian brain, upon confidence in trust and security, and our capacities for reason, understanding and empathy. For to fall prey to fear-based reptilian patterns of behavior, from an evolutionary standpoint, is tantamount to moving backwards.

Particular forms of torment

The methods and strategies devised by ego to sustain itself are largely primitive and barbaric. They display themselves due to the ways we feel and imagine ourselves and others, and the behavior that flows from that. Ego does not conform well to others; a daemon in the cave of self-identity it purposefully constructs a reality to suit itself, expecting and often demanding acceptance from others.

People sometimes share tools used by ego — what psychotherapist C.J. Jung called “the collective unconscious” — archetypes such as “mother” and “father” figures. But ego also employs entirely unique and personalized constructions of reality. When bringing these constructions of reality into the world, we are then confronted with finding accommodation for them, not an easy task. Like solving an enormous jig-saw puzzle with billions of uniquely-shaped individual pieces, the task of accommodating our egos — comfortably or not — into the totality of existence is our primary psychological and emotional challenge.

The accommodation we seek is not possible by altering the shapes of others, but ego strongly resists that hard fact. To the contrary, ego’s strategy is based upon barbaric assumptions that others will bend to its will — by force of argument, clever seduction, relentless cajoling or painful brute force, if necessary. Acting as protector of our imagined self, our ruthless daemon can become tormentor, inflicting pain and suffering upon everyone, to greater or lesser degrees.

The restraints we place upon our daemon ego — conformance to external authority first and foremost, in the form of rules, laws, manners and social conventions — are not sufficient to contain the beast. Hiding the shadows of the unconscious, ego extends stealthily outwards, revealing itself in abusive speech patterns, persistent feelings of insecurity, self-destructive personal habits, distorted conceptions of others and their motivations, and in cases of extremity, violence and murder.

Those who have more successfully accepted restraints, either through intellectual views or suppression and calming borne of religious and spiritual practice, contain the beast well enough to establish a relatively stable place in the world. Yet even for these people, life remains a puzzle as pieces of ego change shape and what used to fit well no longer does. Aging, for example, causes physical and emotional change impacting ego’s ability to assert itself in the same ways it always has; in the adolescent, hormone surges generate emotional extremes, while in the elderly the spirit may be willing but the flesh becomes weak. In this dynamic situation, the daemon adjusts by shifting shape and strategy.

There are extraordinary people who claim to have transcended ego; it’s a magnificent achievement and undoubtedly they must feel very proud. The rest of us ordinary folk must muddle through, gazing at life through ego’s scrim-like veil of illusory interpretations, emotional projections and narrative delusions. Dramatic narratives and shenanigans of all sorts is our daily fare as our daemon plays out a real-life version of Game of Thrones and its soap opera plot lines of power and survival.

Thus we all suffer from particular forms of torment, devising strategies clever and otherwise, to escape them. Distraction, in the form of entertainment, mind-altering drugs and alcohol provide some short-term relief. We can’t outrun the daemon, however; accordingly, the least painful path is to become thoroughly familiar with our untamable ego-beast, to turn towards it with curiosity and through intimate understanding somewhat loosen its grip.