How to Be Free
Author: Joe Blow

Chapter 15
Degrees of Being Alive

A living system is characterised by the free flow of materials, information and energy and an efficient spontaneous interaction with the environment. In our bodies, blood flows constantly, a constant stream of information is carried through our nervous system, oxygen flows into the body and waste products flow out. And we interact relatively spontaneously with our environment. If someone throws a ball at our head we either duck or try to catch it. When we are dead, these flows will not occur, and our body will not respond to its environment. If you throw a ball at a corpse, you’ll hit it quite easily as long as your aim is good.

While some of us may be affected by ailments which impede our full efficiency as a living system, there is only minor variation in the aliveness of our bodies, until we are dead.

It seems fair to apply this same concept of aliveness to our emotional and intellectual selves. Here we find a great deal of variation in states of aliveness depending on how armoured we are.

Character armour impedes the free flow of ideas in the mind, and body armour impedes the free flow of emotion. Dogmatic, stereotypical forms of thinking keep the mind closed down and interfere with the individual’s ability to think clearly and respond to evidence that might challenge preconceived ideas. And body armour deadens the organism’s capacity for bodily sensation - this includes the relief that comes with cathartic expressions of sorrow, joy or anger, as well as the sensory pleasure which can come from the apprehension of visual or aural beauty, the taste of delicious food or the ecstasy of erotic sex.

And, when armouring is in place, the individual cannot interact truly spontaneously with their environment. Much concentration is needed to maintain the armouring and this concentration is not available for acknowledging outside factors. And the armoured individual can only respond within the bounds of their stereotyped behaviour. To get an idea of the disadvantages of character and body armour, imagine a team of mediaeval knights in full body armour trying to play a game of football.

It is said that most of us only use 10% of our brain’s capacity. This is because our thinking is impeded by our character armour. Since thinking truthfully would destroy our armoured ego structure, we have to spend a huge amount of our intellectual ability on finding ways to function without thinking truthfully.

A good example of this is the theory in evolutionary biology which interprets human behaviour in terms of the genes need to reproduce. (See The Moral Animal : Why We Are the Way We Are : The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright (Vintage, 1995).) Unable to think truthfully and acknowledge that we are suffering psychologically and that self-directed awareness is the natural response of an organism to suffering, some of us had to find another way to explain (i.e. justify) this aspect of our behaviour. But if one tries to explain human behaviour by reference to animal behaviour in this way one ends up with a complex unwieldy theory which strives to explain everything from Shakespeare writing his plays to the Pope wearing a ridiculously large hat as outgrowths of the genes’ struggle to proliferate. It takes a huge amount of intellectual effort to build and maintain such a complex alternative to admitting that we have become sick. And, of course, the only individuals who pay any attention to such ridiculous theories are intellectuals.

So it is not unfair to speak of the armoured individual as being less alive than the un-armoured individual, if we judge aliveness in terms of sensory awareness, freedom of thought and capacity for spontaneous interaction with others and the environment.

I’m not a religious person, so I don’t believe in a life for the ego after physical death. But I look for associations and patterns where I can find them. And it has struck me that a lot of what Jesus is quoted as having said about life after death and not having to die, would make a lot of sense if what was being referred to was not physical death, but the living death of armoured existence, especially given the emphasis he placed on sin (i.e. selfishness) as being a problem to be solved and forgiveness (i.e. acceptance) as key to that solution. I wouldn’t claim that this is what he was talking about. It may simply be another example of the way in which the systematic nature of life and the universe is manifested in repeated patterns.

 

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