I, Polycentric

One of “my” older, stranger and truer insights is this: Being is essentially polycentric. I believe this insight was conveyed to me by S. N. Goenka through his ten day Vipassana courses, but I learned it in a way that was not recognizably “taught” — at least, not recognizable until decades later.

The insight began as a realization that we ourselves are composite beings, a community of intelligences, which I called “homunculi”. The homunculi that make each of us up might self-organize into any number of political orders. A person’s soul might be harmonious and all-inclusive. Or it might be arranged hierarchically with some homunculi leading and others following. Or it might be of two minds, locked in a civil war of mood swings and self-sabotage. Or it might be sheer anarchy.

And the people with whom we associate can change our inner politics. We might find that some homunculi in ourselves are friendlier with and more loyal to certain homunculi in other people, than with other homunculi in ourselves. This is why we feel like a different person in the presence of certain others that we love or hate, or who has some strangely oppressive or inspiring effect on us. And these changes others have on us can estrange us from other people in our lives. Jealousy becomes far more credible when we realize how much we change under the influence of love of different people.

So how can it be that we feel like one person one moment and another the next, yet still feel as if we are and have always been the same person? I would say that it is for the same reason that a chord feels like a single sound despite being multiple overlaid notes, or a complex musical passage feels like a phrase despite its chordal, timbral, rhythmic multiplicity. Except instead of its being a complex object of perception, it is a complex perceiving subject.

Later, some extraordinary life events made me aware that each of us is not only constituted of homunculi but each person is, in a sense, a homunculus who participates intuitively in transcendent persons larger than ourselves. The ethnomethods that guide our social behavior and enable us to understand the behaviors of others and mske our behaviors understandable to them… our built environments and the artifacts we manufacture to furnish our semi-artificial worlds… our language and our repertoires of concepts — these are all participation in being greater than ourselves. We are organs of unknown beings whose being we only intuit. We are regulated by spiritual hormones that we do not know how to explain or control.

We explain these mysteries away with vague language. We understand or don’t understand this and that. We don’t understand, until suddenly “get it” and now we do understand. We are attracted or repelled by beauty or ugliness . We feel moods, vibes, gut sense…

We focus so much on what we know how to say and what we know how to count and calculate — and sometimes only these things for which we can account seem real to us. But really, the opposite is true: the intuitions, the felt unsayables, the immediate experience that cannot be recorded in memory and recalled — only the meager word-shells and a few impressions, negative space where positives ones pressed — these are what is closest and realest.

All the rest — all the words that can be word processed or numbers and formulas that can be locked spreadsheet cells or database records — these are abstracted from these concrete particulars.

When we lose intuition for anything but the symbols we use — which are themselves symbols of… of what? — we become numb to the real. We become alienated, animated processes. We are still participants of a sort, or at least parts — but we lose agency and intellect. We become socially passive and unconscious and perhaps believe this is the only possibility of social existence.

Listen carefully to the testimony of those who claim we are all socially determined — to those who want to wake you up to this supposed fact of the human condition — and realize they are speaking of life as they know it.

But understand: this is only one way to live, and it is not the only way. Alienated being knows only alienated being.

Human being is a kind of being which is chosen and cultivated.

Choose humanity. Try to feel your life, feel your truth, feel your enworldment, feel the world of which you are a part. These things can neither be said nor counted because they are real.

Leave a Reply