When you’re in the desert, you look into infinity. It’s no wonder that nearly all the great founders of religion came out of the desert. It makes you feel terribly small, and also in a strange way, quite big.
It’s a chilly autumn morning in the desert. I am still in my sleeping bag, leaning against a large rock, sipping hot coffee as I soak in the first of the sunlight, looking out at the canyon through the sheltering arc of a large alcove that has been my home for the last couple of days. The air is still. Not even a single leaf in the old cottonwood trees lining the creek below me, is so much as trembling. The only sounds are the soft gurgle of water in the creek, reverberating off the stone walls, and the hushed chirping of a small flock of juncos scattered among the grasses and shrubs.
Evidence of the presence of now-long-gone Neolithic people is all around me, but no person has lived here in a couple of hundred years, and I would be surprised if more than a handful of people hike into this canyon on any given year. Although I can’t know this for sure, I take some pride in the not-unlikely possibility that I may know this canyon, and have spent more time in it in recent years, than perhaps any other human being currently alive. It’s obvious that this alcove that is now my home has been used for centuries for some social or ceremonial purposes (there are many petroglyphs in the rocks around me, but no signs of fires, food preparation, or tool making).
Although I generally try to dismiss such thoughts when I become conscious of them, I take a moment to reflect on the human world I left behind a few days ago. Here in the canyon, I can’t even tune into a radio station, let alone access the internet. Other than the occasional loud whooshing of a jetliner high above, that always feels rudely out of place here, I have not seen or heard any hint of the existence of other living people in three days so far, and I expect the trend to continue.
Somewhere in the human world, momentous events are undoubtedly unfolding; cultures shift and change; wars are fought, lost or won (depending on who you ask); relationships form and break; technologies are developed and retired; fortunes are made and lost; lives are born and die, wasted in rush-hour traffic, or reduced to stereotypes and caricatures on social media, in “business casual” open-floor office spaces, or in other manufactured realities. “Oh well,” I think. And that’s as much thought as I’m willing to give these things at this time. Certainly, some of them are eminently important to some people. Certainly some may prove to have important consequences for me, too. But there’s nothing I can do about it, or want to do about it. Giving it any further thought right now would be a tragic waste of precious living moments.
The most important thing to me at this time is to savor this experience, to make myself conscious of as much as my senses are able to feed into my brain, to “process” recent events in my life, and my new reality, and perhaps to find some meaning in it—in my being here, in the life and light and the geology surrounding me. Even photography will have to wait. There is a lot to photograph here, to be sure, but I’m not ready for it just yet. Millie the dog has climbed onto my sleeping bag, flipped on her back, and needs her belly rubbed; and we both need some breakfast.
I have learned over the years how powerfully perspective shapes experience and meaning, and thus the importance of taking control of my perspectives. Without effort, I can think of a dozen things to be concerned about, to feel anxious about, to want to rush out to where there is cellular signal so I can catch up with what’s “going on.” But why in the world would I want to do that? Right here, right now, beauty abounds—and peace, and gratitude—but only if I am open to them, only if I am willing to set aside less profitable thoughts in their favor, and can muster the discipline to maintain a mindful perspective: a perspective of myself as an ephemeral being fortunate to be having a rare and ephemeral experience: here today and gone tomorrow, with only so many grains remaining in the hourglass of my days. “A man who dares to waste one hour of time,” wrote Charles Darwin, “has not discovered the value of life.” But an hour seems way too long. In an hour, the light would be different, the birds may be gone, the wind may pick up, perhaps even another person might show up (unlikely). How can I defend wasting so much as a second of this?
In my teachings, I discuss perspective as a quality of visual composition (alongside with framing and visual balance). As a visual artist, perspective is a powerful tool for me, and also a powerful metaphor. A perspective is a relationship, sometimes in space and/or time, sometimes in other dimensions—real or metaphorical. Other than whatever practical uses I may have for visual relationships, perspective as a means of shaping inner experience is the relationship between me and something else in the world, or even the entirety of all things in the world that are not me. Some spiritual practitioners may take issue, but I never bought into the concept of non-duality. Everything that makes me, me: my brain, my body, my perceptions, my senses—all are designed explicitly to separate my self from the world, to give me a sense of agency and autonomy, and to find meaning in this separation. Everything that I know about the natural order, also tells me that my self is a transient perception, very soon to be gone without the possibility of recall. It really doesn’t matter to what degree this separation between self and world is “real” (I’m a philosopher, don’t get me started) when, by shaping my perspective according to it, I can find such depth of value and meaning in the living experience, in ways that at least feel as “real” as anything I am capable of feeling.
The calmest and most rewarding of all perspectives for me, is that in which by objective analysis I am entirely insignificant: an explicit acknowledgement of the magnitude of existence—the immensity of the universe in which I am little more than a coordinate harboring some arrangement of atoms and molecules that by some yet-unknown means has the capacity for a subjective (even if illusory) sensation of consciousness and agency. This one universe that I know a little about, stretches some ninety billion light years around me, harboring things more numerous, powerful, and fantastical, than I can begin to imagine, let alone understand or make any plausible speculation about whatever meaning or purpose it may possess. And perhaps even this astoundingly vast and spectacular universe, is not even a drop in the proverbial bucket of existence, perhaps part of something infinitely larger still. For crying out loud, I am looking at plants older than me, and that will almost certainly persist here long after I am gone; I am looking at arrangements of particles I may perceive only by their mathematical properties, but that otherwise possess no material existence as I understand it, nor obey my perceptions of how things are “supposed to be.”
There is comfort in being inconsequential: in knowing something about the limits of my ability to know, and that I cannot by any rational analysis hold myself responsible for those beyond my limited capacities. It’s only in narrowing this scope, in treating some arbitrary portion of it as if it’s all there is, that anxiety and discontent arise and peace is disrupted: when I consider such things as the fate of the planet; when I take some artificially bounded slice of time or geography out of its greater context; when I consider the condition of some individual (me included), species (humanity included), culture, country, or some other transient-by-design concept. It’s worthwhile to remind myself that such narrower scopes are contrivances: artificial designations assigned by limited minds to arbitrarily bound things, to block out inconvenient truths (ironically sometimes replacing them with yet-more-inconvenient perceptions). I know without a doubt that all things—me, the place I’m in, the society and culture I’m part of, the planet, the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, perhaps even all material existence in this universe—will change in time, and ultimately come to some end, some time; become unknown, then unknowable, a tiny thread among infinite others in the great tapestry that is the unfathomably vast story of everything.
Subjectively, it’s a different story—a different perspective. My diminishing moments of conscious living, inconsequentially minute as they are in the grand scheme, are all I will ever get to experience. To use them in the most appropriate way I know how, is as high a purpose as a mortal being may aspire to. As such, it must be reflected in every choice I make, every path I choose, every story I make myself a part of. There is no mystery about the purpose of life. The purpose of life is to be lived, to the greatest and deepest extent that one is able to.
More coffee. Definitely more coffee.
I’ve come here hoping to find the penultimate and most venerated of the so-called “stages of grief”: acceptance. (The ultimate, and often unachievable, being: forgetting.) Acceptance is not a thing, it is a perspective: a perceived relationship between me and things outside myself—events, objects, people, ideas, perceptions, feelings, memories—things located elsewhere in space or time, or in some private dimensions of inner experience.
Reality, to any given person, is the amalgam of objective circumstance, subjective perceptions, and unverified speculations, at some point in life—some coordinate within the multidimensional space of conscious experience (whatever that is). To accept reality is to come to some convincing realization that one is not at odds with it.
Acceptance, ultimately, is an ideal to aspire to, knowing that to some degree it likely will forever remain beyond reach. This is because we are not wired for absolutes, no matter how much we may wish to believe in them. Our perceptions are often not consistent with each other, and the most consequential ones seemingly are those we are doomed to doubt the most. We are each in a perpetual state of inner conflicts between rational observations and irrational emotions, between things known and things felt, between acknowledgement and denial, between parts of the brain capable of complex logical analysis, and those ruled by blind instinct inherited from our reptilian and other ancestors. Our brains are proof positive that human beings are not the creation of some conscious purpose-driven designer: they are cobbled together from structures evolved at different times, to perform different functions, according to different priorities, many of which are no longer relevant, or even detrimental, to our wellbeing. Neuroscience tells us that each of us is—literally—a “royal we”: a product of various, sometimes conflicting, desires and motivations originating in multiple incarnations of consciousness persisting with various degrees of independence within our minds, prioritized and adjudicated by some complex rules to present as, and to feel like, one consistent self.
All meaning, at least in any practical sense, being some temporarily-stable product of the magnificent chaos of our minds, is subjective. But the balance of power within the chaos is not random. Whatever component each of us considers as “me”—the singular conscious adjudicator of thoughts and feelings (or at least the one believing itself to be so), has a choice (or feels like it does) in shaping meaning—a choice often neglected with unfortunate consequences. It’s time to make some choices.
This experience, being here, seeing these things, feeling these things, assimilating them into thoughts, emotions, and memories—my conscious experience—is meaningful to me. Still, I take comfort in knowing that my own consciousness is (hopefully) finite. I never understood why so many wish for such things as immortality or reincarnation. The thought of being trapped in the game, forever, is terrifying to me. And the universe, immense as it is, surely must offer greater things to aspire to than yet another trip on this small and ever-changing planet as a human primate—things I have no way of knowing, let alone any framework for deciding whether they are desirable, or how they may stack up to this odd experience of a human animal at this point in the biological and geologic unfolding of processes more powerful and prolonged than I can relate to personal experience. This objective meaninglessness of it all fits with my knowledge and observations; it does not offend my rational mind or my aversion to paradoxes, doubts, and magical thinking. I am comforted by it.
Knowing that meaning is subjective, and that I have some conscious control over it, is what makes acceptance possible. If meaning was objective and unequivocal—an inherent property of things or events beyond my ability to control—acceptance would be meaningless; it would be either surrender or self-deception. The hard part is to maintain this perspective amid the discomforts, conflicts, pettiness, and banalities of everyday life. But this is why I’m here, in the desert, away from agents of conflict, irrationality, pettiness, and banality.
Catching sight of the tripod situated next to my makeshift bed shakes me out of my train of thought. It’s time to go for a walk, to experience and to make some meanings out of my experiences, perhaps even to make some photographs.