Unity of Mind

As a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, I took two classes which I enjoyed more than all the rest: Cognitive Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind. These classes presented many studies that challenged what I thought I knew about perception, free will, unity of mind, and so on. I was sure that my religion had it right, but I wondered how these studies and the evidence they presented fit into it all.

One of these studies involved individuals that had had their corpus callosum (the nerve fibers that connect the two brain hemispheres) severed. In this study, the patients exhibited a phenomenon that is now called alien hand syndrome which is where one hand, typically the left, seems to act on its own, independent of conscious control. One example of this could be where an individual goes to the closet to pick out a shirt, reaches for the one they want with their right hand, and their left hand slaps or pushes their right hand away and tries to grab a different shirt. There have been several theories presented for why this might happen, but none have been proven, as far as I know. I don’t know what is actually happening here, but it certainly leads one to imagine that consciousness may not be so neatly unified as we tend to think.

In our day to day lives, we seem to have one, and only one, consciousness that makes decisions and directs our actions. But what if there were more than one consciousness within us that shared our perceptions and experiences? Perhaps, consciousness isn’t even something that can be counted at all, but flows and ebbs like water. I have no idea what the reality is, but I think it’s an interesting idea.

If such were the case that our minds are not a single unified entity, a lot could be explained. For example, the other day, I was waiting for a student that often skips class. A part of me really wanted him to come so that we could do the work that needed to be done. At the same time, I also hoped he wouldn’t come so that I could relax and not have to stress over him. I know there are other explanations for being two-minded about things, but the idea that I could literally be “two” minded at times is interesting. What if every time I have mixed feelings about something, my mind is actually divided in the moment.

In the past, I have often talked about the various “voices” that speak to us, enticing us to go one way or another. In religion, this is often depicted as a demon and angel over each shoulder, whispering into our ears. Indeed, I used to believe that these voices came from without. These voices came from the Holy Ghost, angels, servants of Satan, spirits of the deceased, and so on. 

But what if all of these voices were just me all along? When I pray and calm my soul, what if the feeling of peace that can come is just all of my internal voices coalescing into one? Or what if that peace I feel is just another part of me, telling myself that what I want to believe is good to believe. A part of myself wants something to be true, and I can feel that when I pray or meditate. I sense this feeling as if it comes from the outside, but does it have to be?

In our day to day lives, we hear and see much more than that which we are consciously aware of. For example, each day, I drive to work. My mind is often busy thinking about various things, but somehow, I always arrive at my destination without issue. I see all of the other cars, and I carefully avoid hitting any of them. I don’t run over any pedestrians. I know when the light is red or green, and I go when I’m supposed to. But I feel like I do much of this at a subconscious level. Or perhaps “other-conscious” level? I’m not actively thinking about all of the things that I see and hear, but they still enter my brain and have an effect on my actions. 

To give more examples, I could see thousands of faces in a crowd, but not be able to consciously focus on any of them. But I still saw them, and much of that information made it into my brain. I could hear 10 or more conversations happening at once and only be able to focus on one of them, if that. But I still heard them all. Much of that information also worked its way into my brain. In a later moment, I may even be able to recall some of what I saw or heard and make connections that I couldn’t make at the time. What this all means to me is that I, at some level, know considerably more than what I can consciously bring to mind.

So, if there is so much more knowledge in my head than what I am consciously aware of, and I have some important issue that I’m trying to figure out, wouldn’t it make some amount of sense to want to access that hidden information if it were relevant to the issue I was facing? This is what I think may often happen when a person prays for answers to questions they may have. The answers don’t have to come from outside themselves. They simply need to quiet their mind and allow their subconscious or “other-conscious” to make the relevant connections and allow the information to surface.

I don’t know if this is how consciousness actually works, but it seems to fit the facts as I see them. People often get warm peaceful feelings when they pray or meditate on something they want to believe. People can also receive knowledge that they didn’t know they had or suddenly remember something that they had forgotten. 

What makes me think this is all just the subconscious or another side of our own consciousness and not an omniscient god is that although listening to these voices is generally beneficial, people get things wrong all the time. People are told to go right when they should go left. They have warm peaceful feelings that they believe come from the Holy Spirit, but then discover that what they thought was right was actually wrong. The story I usually hear from these individuals is that they misinterpreted their own feelings as being the Holy Spirit, or that God had some other plan and needed them to go in what only seemed to be the wrong direction for His own purposes. It makes a lot more sense to me that these feelings did not come from an omniscient god at all. It was all them all along, doing the best they could with what was available to their own inner selves.

In short, I believe it is beneficial to pray or meditate and listen for answers. I don’t understand the process (unconscious, subconscious, multiple consciousnesses, fluid consciousness, etc.), but I believe that the answers that may come are generally right and benefit the supplicant. However, because these answers are human in origin, they can be wrong, and people who enjoy this process should be aware of this possibility. No matter how “right” something may feel, there is always the possibility of error. In consequence, people should be open to changing their minds when they are presented with new information or contrasting views.

“I Know”

Sometimes, because of all my writings on uncertainty, I get the feeling that many people have the false impression that I’m just wishy washy, uncertain, and full of doubt all the time. This is not the case. I could be 99.9999% certain about something, but then focus on the 0.0001% uncertainty in order to demonstrate a point. No matter how sure about something I am, there is always a chance that I could be wrong. That chance could be very small, but it’s always there, no matter what I think or believe. The refusal to acknowledge the possibility of my own human fallibility is pride, arrogance, and extreme foolishness.

EarthHaving said that, there are some things I believe to a very high degree of certainty. For example, I’m pretty sure that the Earth is not flat. I have seen pictures of the Earth from space. I have seen the curvature of the Earth from airplanes and high mountains. I have traveled a great distance around the Earth, from Hungary to China. Even if I did not have my own personal experiences, there seems to be enough evidence out there to dispel all doubt. I could almost be willing to say I know the Earth is not flat, but what would be the point? When do people really use those words anyway? My complaints about the phrase – “I know” –  come from the feeling that it implies absolute certainty, but perhaps this is only in certain contexts.

Generally speaking, I think most people will simply say, “the Earth is not flat,” and then move on. There is no need to add an emphatic “I know” to the start of it. However, if someone comes up and claims that the Earth is flat and an argument ensues, a person, without sufficient ability to explain how or why the Earth is not flat, may feel pressure to assert their knowledge. “I know the Earth is not flat. It’s just not. I can’t say how I know; I just do.” 

To me, the above case is most like religious expressions of surety. People understand that their views are not universally accepted, but they lack the ability to coherently express their reasons for their beliefs. Therefore, they feel the pressure to fall back on, “I know.” If a person has confidence in their beliefs and clear reasons for those beliefs, they should be able to just say it. “This is the case because…” To me, adding “I know” to the start of an assertion is giving up on trying to reason with someone and trying instead to appeal to faith. It gives the message, “just trust me”. I know this.

Now, having said all that, I find myself in that very situation that I have just described. I am not the expert that can explain everything perfectly, but I am quite sure about certain things. I have tried to express my views for several years and have not been believed or understood. I often feel incapable of explaining all of my reasoning to those who will not or cannot understand. Perhaps it is time to fall back to “I know.”

A long time ago, it was common knowledge that the Earth was flat. This was the reality that the people experienced, and to believe otherwise would have seemed foolish. As time went on though, more and more evidence came to light to prove that the Earth was not actually flat. Gradually, people were forced to reconstruct their reality. The Earth was not flat, and this became knowledge. What would it take for people today to go back to believing that the Earth is flat without forgetting everything we have learned in the interim? I could probably come up with a number of possibilities, but I would not place any of them above a 0.00001% chance of being correct. With confidence, I can say that the Earth is not flat, and if backed into a corner, “I know the Earth is not flat.” This is not absolute, 100% certainty though. I refuse to go there.

When I believed in the LDS church, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and so on, I knew these things were true to a high degree of certainty. I had no real reason to doubt any of them, and I can remember saying that I knew they were true. Since then, I have gained new knowledge and come to new understanding. I have had to reconstruct my reality, and like those that learned the Earth is not flat, I can no longer go back to believing as I once did. How could I? The new knowledge supersedes the old completely.

Friends and family members that still believe seem to think that I have only lost something that can be regained. This is not the case. Because I have gained new knowledge, I can’t go back and believe as I once did. I have moved on. I am in a new place, and there is no going back. Here are some of the things that I have learned and know to be true (with varying degrees of certainty):

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is built on lies, deception, and fraud. Even with my gift for creativity, I struggle to save it. It is more likely that the Earth is flat than that the church is true.
  • Moroni 10:5 “By the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” – This is a lie which takes advantage of people’s deepest hopes and desires. Belief in such a principle discourages rational thought and encourages acceptance of things one only wishes were true.
  • Church teachings about family, temples, and the celestial kingdom are manipulative and do more to harm family relationships than to help.

That list could be broken down into many other points or expanded, but I think the point has been made. I did not just lose my testimony. I gained knowledge. I did not just casually walk away from the church. I made discoveries. These were not happy and uplifting discoveries, and so people that are taught to follow the Holy Ghost through feelings of peace, joy, etc. can rarely accept them. These things can be traumatic, and do not bring peace or joy, but they are true anyway.

I believe in the considerable value of uncertainty, but I also believe in continuously increasing my knowledge and understanding to lessen that uncertainty whenever possible. The church is false. I know this to the greatest degree of certainty I allow myself. Like the flat Earther that finally discovers the truth, there is no real way to go back. And why would I want to? I only want to believe what is true. My only regret is that I did not learn these things sooner. The greatest mistakes of my life are a direct result of my belief in the church and its teachings. So much heartache, depression, and misery could have been avoided if only I’d seen the truth earlier.

But… could I be wrong about everything I’m so sure about? I will never close the door completely on my uncertainty, but I have been openly expressing my thoughts and feelings about this for seven years now, and it seems nobody is able to refute a single part of it, assuming that’s what the silence means. Or perhaps, I’m just not capable of adequately explaining my position. So today, I have to fall back to “I know.”

I Know … I’m Sorry

The other day, a relative posted their testimony of the LDS gospel to social media, and they used the words, “I know.” I got a bit triggered by this statement because in recent years, those words have come to mean an expression of extreme arrogance. What sounds good and beautiful to the speaker sounds like, “I know I’m right, and you’re wrong,” to me. It sounds like, “no matter what you think you’ve learned, experienced, or discovered in your life, you’re on the wrong path because I know the truth.” It sounds like an impenetrable wall being built up. It sounds like the worst kind of arrogance.

At the same time, I’m going through some difficult times with my wife and our divorce proceedings. I’ve been reading some of the emails we exchanged in the early days of our marriage. In one of the first, I bear my testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wrote, 

“I have a strong testimony of the church and of my savior Jesus Christ. I know the church is true. … I am determined to [stay on] the path that leads to my Heavenly Father. I have felt His love strongly in my life and I know that … His love is unconditional … . I have faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ. I know that He suffered and died so that I can repent and find happiness … .”

I used the same absolute terms as my dear relative. Was I being arrogant? If not, then what is the difference? Why does one feel like arrogance and the other not? I thought about this for a while, and decided to go back to my journals to find more instances of the same. I found the first evidence that I believed the LDS gospel in 1990. As a 12 year old, I wrote, “[The bishop] asked if I believed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I happily responded, ‘I do.’ The best thing about that is, I could honestly say it.”

In the following years, those instances of private testimony multiply greatly. By the time I turned 16, I was absolutely certain that the church was true. Every other page of journal writing talks about spiritual experiences, reading the scriptures, and prayer. I wanted nothing more than to please my Heavenly Father and to return to Him one day. At the age of 17, I wrote the following:

“I went out in the rain and sang into the darkness. I feel the Spirit most readily through music, so often I’ll sing my prayers if I feel no one is within listening distance. This night, I stopped singing, being overcome with the Spirit. I felt His presence so strongly around me like a warm embrace. I made a promise at that time to my Heavenly Father that no matter how difficult things got, I would return to him in the Celestial Kingdom. I promised never to give up. If I fell, I would get up again.”

That promise defined me for the next two decades and is still with me in my thought processes, and my journals attest to that fact. At the same time though, my depression never let up. As a missionary in Hungary, I wrote, 

“I was feeling so depressed.  Sitting on my bed, close to tears, I cried out in my heart, ‘Father, hold me.’ The Spirit was instantly all around me as though he were giving me a hug, and I believe, in a way, that’s what it was.  I know He loves me in spite of me. The tears are still flowing though. Despite my prayers, I’m still me. I’m wishing right now that I had never been. I wish I could just cease to exist, both body and spirit.  God Help me!”

Several months later, I also write,

“Help!!! Sinking, ever sinking, the lights are growing dim.  I almost welcome the enclosing darkness, being nearly smothered in a familiar blanket of depression.  As I’m about to be swallowed up, voices call out and give me further desire to struggle and not surrender to the powers of hell.  O great, merciful God! Hear my voice from the great abyss!”

I have no written record of it, but I remember a particularly bad depression when I was 15 years old. I was seriously contemplating suicide and went to my Heavenly Father in prayer. I believed the church and gospel were true, but I was still not absolutely certain, and I needed an answer. If the church was true, I would keep on living because suicide wouldn’t free me from anything. If the church wasn’t true, then I … I don’t know what I would have done. I remember I didn’t want to think about it. I wish I had written more about this time of my life.

One week before my 16th birthday, I made a list of goals to accomplish. Among them is to “Find out for myself whether or not the church is true.” In one week, I finished reading the latter half of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon to its conclusion. Each day of that week I recorded my progress through these books. 

On my actual birthday, there was a situation with my dad where my birthday gifts were somehow locked in the trunk of the car, and he couldn’t get them out. He wanted me to help him figure out how to open the trunk. I had no clue, and I didn’t really care either. I had other things on my mind. I overheard someone asking my Dad why I seemed unhappy, and my Dad told them that I was disappointed that I might not get my birthday gifts. “If only my problems were that simple,” I wrote. I didn’t care at all for presents. I had more important matters on my mind… Like, would God answer my prayer about the church? I felt that if I could just finish the Book of Mormon that day, there might be some chance to turn my life around. All I actually write though is, “I read in the Book of Mormon until I finished it for the first time in my life.  And minutes after I finished came the call for supper. We had hot dogs.”

Despite not writing it, I remember feeling good about my accomplishment, and I took that good feeling to mean that the book was true. From there on, there was no looking back. I would accept that the church was true, and I would live on. Even though I often felt depressed, I put suicide out of my mind. It wasn’t a viable option anymore. I would just have to endure the pain and live on, though I often cried out to God to please just end my existence altogether.

I wasn’t happy, but I knew the church was true. It had to be. The alternatives just seemed too terrible to imagine. Although part of me wanted to die, another part of me was deeply afraid. I needed the church to be true, and I could not afford to doubt. For the next 20 years, I continued to pray regularly. I had countless spiritual experiences that confirmed my knowledge that the church was true. I was incapable of doubt. … 

And when I said, “I know the church is true,” it wasn’t arrogance; it was survival. 

And so, when I thought again about my relative’s declaration of sure knowledge, I decided that there may be other reasons besides sheer arrogance. I still don’t like certainty of any sort, and especially in religion, but I can see how it may feel necessary at a personal level. And though a person may believe that they are being open-minded, I think there are layers of consciousness or subconsciousness that may disallow doubt in order to preserve well-being. 

I guess I should get to the point now or risk rambling on and on without end. I forgive my family and friends for their certainty. I forgive them for seeming arrogant and closed-minded. I’m sorry for being arrogant myself when I’ve looked down on those expressing certainty in their positions. I’m sorry for thinking I was right and they were wrong. Sometimes, it’s not about right and wrong. These things can go deeper.

“I have a testimony that will never be shaken. I know who I follow. I know my master. As I try and live the way He would want me to, I come to know Him. God isn’t some distant force in the universe somewhere, but He’s my Father, my Heavenly Father, who stands here beside me, teaching me and leading me, holding my hand and He is showing me the way. I love Him.” – November 11, 1997

A Woman Distraught

For at least a year or so, or perhaps much longer, there has been the image of a woman that keeps intruding into my mind. I don’t know who she is, but I have a general sense of what she represents. The idea is somewhat vague, but I feel like she is a woman that is deeply distraught. I believe her inner turmoil has something to do with religion and her complete inability to come to a knowledge of truth. Why does this bother her so much? Who in the world is this woman? Why do I care about her? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can’t stop thinking about her.

She is a rather petite woman, thin and not tall. Her hair is dark but not quite black. I’m not sure what she’s wearing, but her clothes are dark-colored. Her angst has brought her to the floor, and tears stream down her cheeks. I don’t think she’s Asian or fully Caucasian. She may be a mix of other backgrounds. Who is this woman? Why do I worry for her? I have a hard time watching people suffer. I know I’m overly sensitive, feeling her emotions as my own.

I think that the first time her image came into my mind was after I received an email from a caring relative who worried about my fall away from the family religion. I don’t remember the content of the email exactly. I can’t even find it now; there are so many. But some of the words seemed to imply that I should trust in them and not in myself. They were more knowledgeable and experienced in receiving inspiration from deity. I can’t quite make the connection to my thoughts, but I know the woman is struggling with trust. Is it a person in her life that she can’t trust, or is it what this person has decided to believe?

I’m not sure my struggle is the same as hers, but I feel that it’s at least similar. If I trust in the words of caring friends and family members about the truthfulness of their beliefs, I have to stop trusting in my own ability to think and reason; my feelings and emotions are all suspect. What then can I do? If I can’t trust my thoughts or feelings, I become like a child again, having to rely on others for everything.

Better than anyone, I know that I can make mistakes. I can come to the wrong conclusions even after much thought. I do my best to think rationally, but I’m not perfect. When both logic and feelings that I had once labeled “spiritual” told me that religion could no longer be trusted, I worried that I might have made a mistake. I wrote so many blog posts, hoping to have my errors pointed out. Friends or family members did speak to me on occasion after one or another of these posts, but they never spoke to what I’d written. The topic would be changed or avoided in favor of some other only loosely-tangential topic.

So my confidence grew that I was not wrong. I’m not always right, and I certainly am capable of making mistakes, but in this case, I have no reason to trust anyone else’s feelings or reasoning over my own. I like thinking. I like reasoning. I like trying to figure things out. In the past, I often defined myself as a thinker, and I still do to some degree. … But I still can’t figure out why the woman weeps.

In exchange for the freedom of thought I gained when I turned my back on religion, I lost relationships with many in my family. At least half of my friends stopped talking to me as well. Some of those that still talked to me suggested that I’d taken the easy path; I’d let go of the iron rod. Those I left behind proved to me with their words and actions that they understood little of what I had to go through in leaving religion. It would be hard to find something as difficult. Could this be part of the woman’s struggle – the loss of human connection?

The woman is not old. The feeling she gives is that she’s in her thirties. I don’t sense that she has much in the way of friends or family. Perhaps they exist, but in the vision I have of her, they play no role. She seems to be alone with no one to comfort her. I wish I could tell her that she’s not alone. No matter her struggle, we all share this world together, and despite the many claims to the contrary, the truth of our existence is still a mystery. Many have taken comfort in choosing one answer over another, but it seems rather arbitrary which version people choose. With very few exceptions, people choose the version of truth accepted by their family or society around them.

If the truth is known, I don’t understand why that truth is so hard to recognize. When I was young, I thought the Holy Ghost could tell me the truth, but how can a person know that what they’re feeling is the Holy Ghost? Different people describe it differently. They feel different things, and it tells them different things are the truth. Then, when people hear that someone else has felt something different, they claim that that is not the “real” Holy Ghost. They haven’t trained long enough. Their reasoning is flawed. And this goes on and on. I’m right and you’re wrong, and if you think you’re right, then you’re still wrong. But why? Surely, a god can’t expect us to unravel the truth using this method. 

If a god is real, and that god expects us to use the Holy Ghost to uncover truth, but my ability to hear the Holy Ghost is somehow flawed, even if I don’t think it is, what am I expected to do? I think that I feel the Holy Ghost, or at least the feeling that they are calling the Holy Ghost, as well as anyone. Others think I don’t because it leads me in different directions than it leads them. They tell me to trust or follow them because they have more understanding of the Holy Ghost or more experience. But how can I know that they are right? If I can’t trust what I believed was the Holy Ghost, what can I use to decide who to trust regarding religion and the truth of our existence? It’s a circle with no end.

I don’t know for sure, but I feel like the woman’s anxiety is closely related to this issue. She doesn’t know who to trust or how to tell who to trust. When the Holy Ghost fails to answer the question, people try to turn to logic. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. Why are there so many religions and belief systems in the world? If there is just one logical choice, why hasn’t it been found yet? If a god exists, it seems like they are being very secretive. Some say the reason for that is to test us. How do they know? Did the Holy Ghost tell them that? Another person passing on their version of logic?

Anyway, whatever the reason, I hope the woman I keep seeing in my mind is able to move past this period of unhappiness. I have no answers regarding gods, religion, the Holy Ghost, or the meaning of existence, but knowing that we (the whole human race) are all in this mess together has helped me more than I can adequately express. Maybe it can help her too, to know that she’s not alone. None of us are. The ones I feel most sorry for are those that isolate themselves by thinking they have the answers while the rest of us don’t. Do you really have the answers? How can I know?

Not Quite an Atheist

If I hear a voice in my head that tells me what is going to happen in the future, and then that prediction comes true, what happened? Did a god confirm their existence to me? Did vastly superior alien life forms from another dimension decide to reach out to me? Did the programmers of the Earth simulation I’m currently living through need me to know the future for an experiment they’re running? Maybe ghost visitors from the future came back to mess with me. Or maybe I’ve died already and am reliving my life in that final moment before I move on, and those voices I hear are my own. Perhaps I just imagined the voice and the fact that the voice was correct is only a coincidence. Maybe I have superpowers and haven’t learned to control them yet.

Every day around the world, people have strange experiences which don’t seem to have any clear explanation. If a person grows up in a Christian environment, they will probably credit their experiences to God or an angel, or maybe a devil if it is negative. They see these experiences as evidence for the belief system they have been taught, and they become more firm in those beliefs. But what is the real cause, and how can we know?

As much as I wish I could give an answer to that question, I’m left without anything to say. I don’t know why these strange things happen. Occasionally, I will hear someone say that they know such and such is true (aliens existing, their preferred god/gods being real, ghosts, etc.) because they had such and such an experience. What? This makes no sense to me. I can come up with so many different explanations for the same experiences, and I could go on and on and on. How do people know with such certainty that their preferred explanation is the right one?

I wish I could turn to science to help resolve these issues. Unfortunately, these experiences that I’m discussing are almost entirely personal. Each person’s experience is unique to them. And more unfortunately, they can’t be repeated with any consistency. The response of science has been to discount these experiences as inconsequential, imagined, non-existent, hallucinated, fabricated, coincidental, or whatever else lessens the importance of these experiences. Because these experiences can’t be tested, they are not considered science.

But even if an experience could be proven to have happened, that would say nothing about the cause. The fact that so many people attribute the same cause (an all powerful god) to these experiences only says to me that we’re not very creative or that we lack imagination. For me, the concept of a god or gods is still a possibility. I haven’t ruled it out. I’ve called myself an atheist in the past, but I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. 

In my search for answers, I’ve come to the conclusion that the super-god of western culture doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not open to the idea of other forces in the universe that are beyond our current understanding. The universe is a big place, and what do I know about the full extent of what might or might not exist in it. In fact, it’s hard to believe that in that great expanse there aren’t other intelligent entities out there, vastly more intelligent than any of us.

At the Red Light

One of my more vivid middle school memories never actually happened. You see, I had this habit of imagining conversations and scenarios with the people I knew or saw around me. The beginning of the story is true enough though. I was walking to school one early morning and approached an intersection.  A long line of cars, occupied mostly by parents and their kids, were stopped at the red light. Of the people I could see, nobody looked particularly happy. Tired faces looked blankly ahead. I certainly wasn’t the only one that would have preferred to sleep in that morning.

My mind wandered, and I began to imagine the conversation I might have with a boy in my grade, a boy with a reputation, at least in my mind, of being somewhat of a bully. Even in my imagination though, the boy didn’t want to talk with me. I was frustrated that he was being so stubborn. If only we could understand each other, we could be friends, I thought.

Whatever… I hate that word. Whatever. Closing the door. Conversation over. Talk to the hand. 

I got angry with him. I totally lost it. With a thought and a hand gesture, palm faced forward, I lifted the kid off the ground and suspended him high in the air. I don’t remember the particulars of the conversation, but I remember that the attempt to communicate ended in failure. I wanted to shake him, to make him listen to reason, and to make him stop his bullying behavior. We could be friends.

Ha!

Perhaps my imaginary scenario could have been successful if I weren’t playing both sides. I wanted to imagine him agreeing to give up his bullying ways and then enthusiastically asking to be my friend. Instead, I imagined myself as the poor kid being suspended in the air by some mysterious power. I freaked out. Friends? What? As if that could be possible! Maybe I’d say the words this monster wanted me to say, just to get away, but that would be the end of it. I’d be out of there as fast as I could.

Disappointed, I ended the scenario in my mind. Force doesn’t work. No matter what a person would say or agree to do in that situation, it would be false. It wasn’t what I wanted. 

I had other conversations with other kids where I tried logic instead of force, and these were similarly ineffective. As humans, we’re emotional beings. Logic can feel too much like manipulation. It can feel cold and calculated. Some behavior or action may make logical sense, but who are you to tell me what to do or how to act?

I realize that as I’m sharing this experience, I’m slipping back and forth between different points of view, but that was the nature of the experience. I played every role and tried to get in everyone’s head. I was every person simultaneously, and I did and said what I thought they would have done or said in that situation. 

In recent days, I’ve experienced some real-life closed doors and minds. It can be so frustrating, especially since I know exactly what it feels like to be the one with the closed mind. Words mean nothing. Logic is irrelevant. Just go away already! I can’t do this. It’s too hard. You are that way. I am this way.

I know the feeling, and I can feel it again if I try. But I prefer to just let it go. Optimism is better than pessimism. Hope preferable to despair. Maybe I can do it. Open the door. Just a crack. Some thoughts are more helpful than others. Let them in.

In my mind, I lower the poor frightened kid back onto the ground, and he takes off running. I’m sorry, I say silently. He’s long gone already. I wanted to be friends, but that’s not going to happen. That’s okay. I’ve let it go. I hope someone else can reach his heart though. Both being the bully and being bullied are terrible experiences that no kid should have to go through.

Force doesn’t work to change people. Not really. I gave up trying a very long time ago. Logic can work with some people sometimes, but not particularly well. I wish it worked better because some ideas make a lot of sense, and the world would be a better place. Respect for people often works. If I respect somebody and they say I should change in some way, I’ll think about it. Emotions though… feelings and emotions rule the heart and our paths through life. 

 

Why Must We Suffer Alone?

My post from just two weeks ago, Who I Am and What’s Been Going On, has somehow become my most viewed post of the last 5 years. Friends and family members in 13 countries on 4 continents came to see what has been going on in my life. Frankly, I have been more than a little surprised by the response. Not only did you read my post, but many of you decided to reach out and try to connect with me personally. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Many of you had kind words for me, and words of solidarity. As I read your words, and interacted with so many friends and family members, I realized that as is so often the case, there has been a misunderstanding. I do indeed experience a great amount of loneliness in my life, but I have never believed that I was alone in these feelings.

As a highly empathetic youth, I was always acutely aware of the feelings and emotions of the people around me, whether I knew these people personally or not. As I observed and listened to people at school, church, the park, or just in my neighborhood, I realized that suffering seems to be a universal phenomenon. We all suffer. We have pain that we don’t always express. We smile with our faces, but we cry inside. 

I have written before about my habit of sitting in my bedroom window sill as a teenager. I remember one day being so overcome with the pain of those around me, that I couldn’t help weeping aloud in my window sill as I looked out upon my hometown. Their pain was my pain, and it overwhelmed me to the point where I couldn’t function at all for hours. 

Mission Viejo - View from deck 2
The View from my Bedroom Window Growing Up

To this day, I sometimes wonder when I’m feeling the lows of depression, if it’s really my depression at all. I know that, at least sometimes, I can literally feel the pain of those I interact with. When I write posts about depression or loneliness, I’m not meaning to imply that I’m alone in my condition, or that others have let me down in some way. As I tried to make clear at the beginning of this post, I have a lot of people in my life that care about me. I have met and connected with good people wherever I’ve moved to and lived in my life. Most of the readers of this blog are people that have known me in person. If you are one of these, I appreciate our connection. Thank you for being a friend.

I know I’m not alone, and you’re not either. As many of you have reached out to me, to comfort me and to connect, I have felt your need as well. I wish I could be there for all of you. I wish I could be the answer to your own private suffering and longing for real connection. … But for the vast majority of you, I can’t.

Around five years ago in Taiwan, I was walking and talking with a friend. This good friend was feeling overwhelmed by the perceived obligation he had to maintain a connection with a growing number of individuals. He was constantly on his phone, chatting with multiple people at once. Like me, he was highly empathetic. He wanted to be there for all his many friends, to help them with their assorted worries and concerns, to give meaningful advice, and on and on.  

As we walked together, I convinced my friend to turn off his phone for a while so that we could have a more meaningful conversation. I can no longer remember the words that were spoken at that time, but I remember what lessons I took away from the experience. We can’t be there for everyone. We can’t be everyone’s good friend all the time. If we divide ourselves too thinly, our ability to do good is greatly decreased. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on just a few people in our lives.

The people that matter most to me are the people that I see in front of me. If someone falls, and I’m there to do help, I should. If my neighbor is hungry, and I have more food than I need, I would gladly share. I really don’t know my neighbors at all, but they matter to me. I can sometimes hear them, and feel their emotions, through the thin walls of my apartment. When I’m at work, my students and fellow tutors are the most important people in the world. When someone emails me or reaches out to me, they matter.

I don’t feel bad when distant friends or family members don’t go out of their way to try and connect with me. I assume they have their own lives and issues to deal with just as I do. I hope they don’t take it personally when I don’t reach out the way they might like me to. When I share my issues online, I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for me. I’m just taking care of a personal need to express how I feel. I also hope that the words I write can help others. If it doesn’t help you, maybe it will help someone else. We all have our own circumstances.

Finally, if it does make you feel sad or uncomfortable when I share my experiences relating to depression or loneliness, consider taking action. I don’t mean writing or trying to connect with me, though I certainly do appreciate those people that have contacted me recently. What I mean is that there are countless others just like me all around. These people may seem fine when you see them, but things are often not as they appear. Everyone suffers. There is so much pain that is never expressed. Hidden  wounds. Unshed tears. Silent screams.

So, if you feel something for these silent sufferers, go connect with the people around you. Give a hug. Express gratitude. Offer a compliment. Don’t let the people closest to you continue to think that they’re alone or that nobody really cares.

Innerverse

The other day, my sister reminded me of a conversation I’d had with her a year or so ago about the universe and its “voice”. I wasn’t sure what I believed about God, but because of many experiences, I still felt relatively confident that there must be a higher consciousness of sorts. Maybe the universe itself was conscious. Maybe the universe had desires and goals and could influence us somehow.

I remember trying to talk to the universe like I used to talk to God, but it didn’t really work for me. Perhaps the universe is just too big. Despite being a part of the universe myself, it seems too difficult to feel a closeness to something so unimaginably large and so endlessly mysterious. What could I possibly understand about something so ridiculously complex? The universe is everything that exists… I moved on from the idea that I could have a relationship with the universe as a conscious entity.

Maybe there are other conscious entities in the universe that are far greater than us puny humans. They could be smaller than the universe as a whole but still immense. In fact, considering the seeming endless size of the universe, it is difficult for me to imagine that there aren’t greater conscious beings out there than us. This thought is kind of cool, … but also rather useless as I don’t see any way to find out one way or the other. Unless such a being were to come and interact with us in some way, it’s just a fun idea to play around with for a while with no real application.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about reality and how we perceive it. Everything we sense is received, altered, and often shared with our consciousness by our brains. We don’t see things the way they really are. We can’t. I believe that what I sense is a fair representation of what’s outside, but I can’t know for sure. Nothing outside myself is certain. So while the universe=God idea is kind of cool, it will remain out there with all the rest of the uncertain and unprovable ideas.

Here inside though is where everything exciting really happens. I don’t know what anything looks like outside my own mind, if anything can look like anything without a conscious mind to perceive it, but what I experience here within is real to me. I can’t prove my inner experiences to anyone on the outside, but I can’t deny them to myself. I see what I see. I hear what I hear. And so on for all of my senses.

As I thought about my sister’s reminder the other day about the voice of the universe, I tried to think about the new way I’m thinking about those feelings. They don’t seem to happen out there at all. Instead, they happen in here.. In my mind. The “voices” I hear may just be the voices of my subconscious or some other part of my mind that I don’t understand yet. The point is that everything that happens, happens in here, in a space I’ve decided to call my “innerverse”.

To me, innerverse means everything that happens in the mind, whether conscious, subconscious, or even unconscious, whatever that might mean. All sensations and feelings are included in this space. If I see something beautiful, have a dream, or take a breath, I’m experiencing them in my innerverse. When I look out at the stars and try to understand the universe, my thoughts, feelings, and all that I see are part of my innerverse.

When I pray or meditate, I’m trying to access various parts of my innerverse that tend to be less accessible than other parts. Ideas that seem inspired often rise up out of my subconscious, or from some unnamed division of my mind. I sometimes wonder if there are regions of my mind that have thoughts or feelings of their own that my conscious mind isn’t aware of. Maybe this is why people can feel conflicted about their desires or emotions sometimes.

Anyway, I don’t know the truth behind everything I experience in my mind, but at least my innerverse seems more accessible than the universe. I can even give names to various ideas as I test them out, Durand being an example of this that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs. Who knows if I’ll keep him for the long term or if that idea will evolve into something new. For now though, Durand is the greatest part of my innerverse.

Why Atheism Is, For Me Personally, The Best Fit

For as long as I can remember, I have been quite the daydreamer. As a child, I was rather quiet, lost in my own thoughts most of the time. I never really got bored like so many other kids seem to. There was so much to think about and imagine. When I learned to read, I loved reading fantasy most, but any genre could spark my imagination. I would often become so absorbed in a book that I became unaware of anything else happening around me. I had entered the book in my mind and the story played out as if I were there. But whether I had a good book to read or not, my own inner world was a magical place.

As I got older, I started to become more cognitively aware of the real world, of what was possible and what was not. I liked to push those boundaries though. If something hadn’t been proven to be absolutely impossible, then perhaps it could still be reality somewhere. Uncertainty, even as a child, was a good thing. If something had a non-zero chance of being right, then I could still entertain the idea in my mind.

Unfortunately, there came a point where absolutes started to intrude on my inner world fantasies. I came to believe that my family’s Mormon faith was absolute truth. My creativity was often stifled by various church doctrines. Still, I studied my religion as closely as I could so that I could find the boundary between what was absolutely not possible and what might still be. In Sunday School, I knew all the answers better than anyone, but I stayed quiet when the teacher asked any question. I think church might have been one of the only places where I regularly felt bored. Heavy, depressing, stifling, boredom. I wished I could have back my freedom to think for myself. …

And then I did.

It seems surprising to me that it took so long to understand that my church actually did have a chance of not being true. I had been so sure of its truthfulness that I could not question it in the slightest. I used my creative thinking ability to solve every discrepancy between the history and doctrines of my church and all of the evidence against it. I became an expert at doing all kinds of mental gymnastics. I’m sure I could have easily worked for FairMormon, the Mormon apologetics site.

Once I opened my mind to even the slightest possibility that the church wasn’t true though, all kinds of things suddenly made much more sense. No wonder there’s no real archaeological evidence for the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. No wonder linguistics and DNA evidence seem to point to any other conclusion than those claimed by the church. No wonder the words of The Pearl of Great Price, another Mormon book of scripture, are not found on the papyrus that Joseph Smith said he translated it from. And this goes on and on and on for every facet of the church. For each one of these discrepancies, Mormon apologists can do what I did and find creative answers to explain anything, but they really do have their work cut out for them. It’s almost as hard as proving the Earth flat, but I’m getting off topic.

When I first left the Mormon church, I considered other churches and religions. I felt most strongly connected to eastern philosophies related to Buddhism and New Age religions, but I hesitated accepting any of these as truth. My mind had been held captive by religion for so long that I could hardly remember what it was like to be free. Like a wild animal that has had too much contact with humans, I didn’t know how to act and think independently anymore. Still, something within me resisted the pull of formal belief in something. I gradually learned to appreciate uncertainty again, as in my childhood.

And thus I come to atheism. The difference between atheism and every belief system out there is that, to me, atheism is about a lack of belief. A god may or may not exist in the universe. I hold no position on the matter, and that’s how I like it. The god of Mormonism is one extremely unlikely possibility. The god of other Christian denominations seem equally unlikely, but, as far as I can tell, still have a non-zero chance of existing. The same thing can be said about the god or gods of every other religion. Moving away from gods, only imagination and creativity limit the number of possibilities for what can exist in the universe and why the universe seems to work the way it does.

This is what atheism means to me. Atheism allows me the freedom to imagine what could be. It allows me to be me.

The Most Beautiful Color – Lost!

When people ask me what my favorite color is, I usually tell them I don’t have one, that I like most colors about the same. But that wasn’t always the case. I used to love one color far more than any other. As a kid, I liked to climb trees. We had several in our backyard and I climbed them all as high as I possibly could. I never even considered that this might be dangerous.

One tree in particular allowed me to get almost to the very top, to the point that if I strained, I could lift my head up through the top layer of leaves and branches and look around. I felt as though I were in another world up there. More than anything, it was the changing shades of green that mesmerized me. The way the sunlight filtered through the leaves as I rested on my favorite branch just below the top held me captive for long periods of time. It was so beautiful. But that was then.

Now, things have changed, sadly. I try to remember what it looked like, and I think I can, but it doesn’t feel the same anymore. I find pictures on the internet that are probably similar, but the feeling that used to accompany the sight just isn’t there. I’ve taken walks outside and often look up through the trees on a sunny day, but the magic is gone. It makes me wonder sometimes – have my feelings for these colors changed, or am I just not seeing the colors anymore the way I did in my youth?

I know people can lose sensitivity as they age. In general, the elderly don’t see as well as the young. They don’t hear things as clearly. Even the ability to taste diminishes. What if I’m not as affected by what used to be my favorite color because I simply can’t see it anymore? It still seems to me as though I am seeing clearly, but what if it’s not my eyes that have lost the color, but my brain? When you imagine a color, you use many of the same parts of your brain as when you see the color directly in front of your eyes. But if that part of your brain isn’t working as well, would you even be able to imagine the color? Or is it gone forever, even from memory.

It seems clear to me that senses and even the memory of those senses can be diminished or lost. The only clue I have that something might be missing is the memory of my youthful exuberance and passion for a color – passion which I can no longer feel. I wish I could feel it again. I wish I could see what I could see as a child, but now I can’t even imagine it. It’s gone.

What else might I have lost? Have I lost other colors? Have I lost sounds? Can I hear music the same way as I used to? What about smell, or taste, touch, or other less tangible senses? It doesn’t make sense to imagine that nothing else has changed. Nothing stays the same forever. Change is the only constant.

Oh well. Maybe I have new senses now. I am not who I once was. I am a new person today and every day of my life. I don’t want to forget the past and who I used to be, but remembering may not be an option. You only remember things based on your current abilities to perceive and understand the world, and those change constantly, and so too then will your perception of the past. But that’s okay. There is still today and now, and green is still a beautiful color.

green-tree-leaves