One of my friends from Helsinki visited me here in Turku quite recently and he said in a very genuine way that he would instantly move to Turku if it would be in Helsinki. I laughed, I instantly got what he meant. I am into that kind of humour. Language is so versatile that it makes it possible to convey something like that with ease. But as powerful as language is, its most powerful aspect escapes us when we are in our everyday common sense mode.
We live in languages. We are self-entitled homo sapiens – wise beings. Our intellect is claimed to be the aspect that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is undeniable that the thinking mind has achieved a lot of things – good and bad – and can go beyond even those concepts it created itself. But it strikes me that it is virtually impossible not to think, because we think constantly, all the time. At least I do. For this reason, I started to meditate one year ago, and it became even more clear to me that I am – myself – unable to fully control my own mind. But who then is the captain of my ship if it is not I? I have to admit that I have been really interested in this phenomenon almost my whole life. So, without further ado, let’s go philosophise. (Disclaimer: I am now entering the murky waters of making an argument; I am not trying to tell you any kind of absolute “truths”.)
It struck a chord and hit home hard when I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil some years back. Nietzsche wrote that it is not the famous “I” who does the thinking, but rather that a thought comes when it wants to come. To say that the “I” was the thinker of this thought is mere interpretation of this process, that reacts too slowly to realise what actually happened. In other words, it would be more to the point to say that something in you is doing the thinking, but to say that it would be the “I” is simply an illusion. But that illusion is a very persistent one. Language is playing a record of sorts in our heads all the time, and quite often it is a broken record: meditation can be seen as trying to lift the needle off the spinning vinyl. Nonetheless, we do identify ourselves with that constant inner dialogue.
But language is only one aspect of our totality – not in any way separate from it. For instance, Rene Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am” (or “Cogito, ergo sum”) is a great example of denoting the most essential aspect of ourselves to the constant thinking process that goes on in our minds. The late English philosopher Alan Watts explains this very neatly in one of his amazing talks from the 60’s. He says that language itself tricks us to believe that we are it. He gives an example that goes something like this: in English you say: “I have a car, I have a house, I have money, I have hands, legs, skin and a heart – but I AM thinking.” So, our sense of being is with the mind. Then who is this “I” that feels separateness- to a certain degree- even from its own body?
In Hindu philosophy, especially in the school of non-duality called Advaita Vedanta, the whole purpose is to realise the connection to the totality where we live in. For them it is the maya, the delusion, that makes us think that we are separated from other people, earth, air, food, water, the sun, space, and everything. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger came to a similar conclusion as to why we can poison the waters, cut down the forests and dam the rivers: we are not connected to our being, we have lost the ability to wonder at our existence. When we wake up in the morning we are no longer amazed that we have two sticks that have five sticks attached to them, and that we can move those five sticks but we cannot even explain how we know that is it us doing that moving. Nonetheless we can open and close our fists and achieve so many other amazing feats, such as playing the piano. Heidegger said that existence has become so obvious to us that we are no longer even aware of it, in the sense that our existence is not separated from this planet; thus, it is possible for us to attack our own “mother” earth.
Language and the thoughts you have are not your own. But are you constantly aware of that? I am not. Although I try to be. Even as I write this, I feel like I am writing this myself. But most of the ideas that I have are not my own in any way. I am a remix. Endless remix. Remix of culture. Remix of biology. Remix of the universe. Baruch Spinoza explains this very meticulously in his book Ethics, in which he is follows a strict rational argumentation to conclude that everything is only one Subject (because he lived in the 15th century, he called this Subject god). For Spinoza, this god / Subject is the underlying reality that manifests itself as all the forms and attributes that we see in the world, but our minds are unable to see this continuously, because they have evolved to see patterns, forms – things and concepts. We separate everything in our minds and do not see the underlying reality (Spinoza’s Subject / god) as the backdrop for everything.
But here I have to emphasise my own personal feeling that surrounds this discussion. There is one thing that has always bothered me when talking about this topic: somehow it has a certain kind of mystical aspect lingering about it. And I do not really understand why. Maybe it’s because it just does not go well with our common sense, but still if pure common sense (or logic) is applied, it becomes clear that we are the planet. If this would not be the case, no one would bother to produce any food by cultivating the land, for example. If I am free to openly speculate, it might be that what has happened to us is that we no longer even feel the remnants of the connection to the totality due to our heavy urbanisation, scientific ideology, education and busy lifestyles. Maybe a false sense of extreme individualism has taken over.
To elaborate a bit further, allow me to say the following like it would be absolute fact. When I was reading Jacques Derrida at the Turku City Library it became rather clear to me that the common sense, everyday mode that occupies us from the moment we wake up is so good at what it does that it hides all of its own shortcomings. It only knows things in the limits of its own understanding, and is not actively aware of what it leaves out. Also, it does not remind us of that omission at all during our common state of being in the everyday mode. We humans simply cannot think without thinking, in the broadest sense, and thinking always already thinks for you. That is to say that language always mystifies reality. Our thinking mind generalises things into understandable, crude simplifications that are then in turn made into certain stories. As we do not beat our own hearts, grow our own hair, or run our own organs, we do not think our own thoughts either. But it does feel like we are in total control. Like Alan Watts asked: do you do it or does it do you?
Making the implicit explicit is to be aware of the limitations of our own thoughts and the real capacity of your intellect and understanding. Also, we should always be aware of the way/s in which we are definitely not free. I argue that by knowing how unfree you are, you can really understand where your so-called freedoms exist. For example, are you making the decision to buy a new shirt or did the advertisements decide for you? How many of your thoughts are your own? Do you want to feel hunger or does hunger tell you when to eat? Do you see when you open your eyes because you want to see, or because you cannot open them without seeing? There were several monkeys with tuxedos in a tree having an insane party with pints of beer in their hands. What kind of monkey and pint came to your mind? Or, when you see a dog. Do you really think to think that it is a dog, or is the categorisation of that certain form automatic and impossible to turn off? Language is a formidable and powerful tool, but it can also lead its user astray. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that, “I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it’s through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real.” With language you cannot access the true state of being (whatever it is), you can only try to refer to it, and coming to terms to this situation, I think, can immensely help one to understand the beauty of this limitation.
To conclude, philosopher Louis Althusser described our predicament very interestingly: that the person who you are is mostly predetermined even before you are born; you are born as a citizen of a certain country and you will learn certain language(s) from your parents (which you did not choose), you will have your mix of genes and sex, and a name, all ready for you. Your parents’ and society’s expectations are waiting, you are given certain moral values even before you have any way of thinking critically, and you are also given a religion whether you want it or not- not necessarily an overt religion like Christianity, but a covert / subconscious ideology that makes you believe that things are exactly the way they are because they cannot be otherwise.
Therefore I want to end on a cynical note, with these quotes from the witty Irish fellow Oscar Wilde, who observed that “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation”, and that “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Who am I? That was the question. I am my own idea of myself that thinks its exist independently of the air it breathes, from the gravity that keeps its body firmly on this planet, from the earth that made it possible in the first place with the food it provides – and what does the Sun has to do with this at all! Hit me on the head with a hammer and I might change the way I see and think of myself. I might even start to think that Turku is in Helsinki after all.