Rings and threads as a way of understanding our life

Thursday, August 19, 2010

12:30 AM. You were going to replace “threads and rings” with a more animated concept, one not so static or mechanical. Up to the task at the moment?

We shall see, won’t we? For of course it depends more on your calmness and absence of mental chatter and emotional anxiety than on any variables on our side.

Well, it’s too early to be drinking coffee. Other than that, things are the same as far as I can tell. Let’s try.


The rings-and-threads analogy was meant to loosen your prevailing model of individual-as-unit. There might have been other ways to do it – other analogies that would have worked – but this one seemed safest in part because of its limitations. If it had seemed more complete, more satisfying in itself, it might have been difficult to pry you away from it when the time came. Thus other cultures have had the same functions and structures described in terms more obviously alive, and people mistook concepts, abstractions, for reality in the sense of it being the only way to see things. Thus, spirit possession, for one example only. It’s easier by far to move on from ring-and-threads because it is so clearly only an analogy. But that doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be easy to get to a new place and still remember that it is only one way of seeing things.


To strip that analogy down to basics, you could say it concentrates on the connections between what seem to be units, rather than the connections within what seems to be units. But once you realize that you may be considered a person-group federating into social-groups, the seemingly absolute boundaries reveal themselves as more permeable, and little-noticed connections become seen in closer to their true importance.

So. You as individual are the physical heir to two sets of physical characteristics from your parents (and, as we have said, from them back to Adam and Eve, though there are practical limits to how far back traits are inherited from). Since there is no such thing as a purely physical trait, this means that you as constituted comprise a congeries of what could be looked at as intelligent beings that have learned over time to cooperate to different degrees.

The difficulty here continues to be the same one: The concept of individuality continually sneaks in through the back door. In a way, you as investigators into the true nature of your individuality are in much the same position as investigators into the ultimate constitution of matter. You could wind up looking for smaller and smaller “irreducible” particles, only to see each in turn recede as a prospect, as each proposed new “smallest unit” proves to be constituted of still smaller ones, or ones of another nature (as energy bundles rather than very small marbles).

So we have talked of threads affiliating into strings, into ropes, into cables, extending the analogy but then being unable to make it meaningful beyond the very most elemental relationship. There isn’t any way to move from cables, seen as an image, to the person-group you experience yourselves as. And if we try to build things up from traits, as if a couple of traits decided to combine, and gradually acquired a following and began operating as more complicated strings, or ropes, or whatever – well, you can see the difficulty. So how to approach it without silently postulating an “ultimate particle of matter,” so to speak, or leaving the composition and even the origin of traits up in the air, unconnected to other things?

The only way we can see to approach it is to begin from behavior and your common experience, so that we don’t just create a pretty but ungrounded metaphor.

You seem unusually tentative about this.

Perhaps we are on new ground, too. Some explanations come easier than others. It depends partly on how we are accustomed to thinking.

Hard to imagine, but go ahead.

You can recognize, now, that you are not a unit that is in any way indivisible, seen over time, seen in space, seen mentally – which means non-physically – or spiritually, which we will discuss some other time.

Within you, you may experience various automatic mechanisms, or habit-systems. External life presses a button, your various internal mechanisms deliver their programmed responses. (We refer here not to your physical-body-maintenance mechanism but to what may seem to you sometimes mental reactions, sometimes emotional ones.) If these automatic responses no longer serve you, you refer to them as robots, and attempt to reprogram or remove them. But if they do serve you, or if you are unaware of them, they nonetheless function, and their existence provides an approach to the new description.

You have seen that a “robot” becomes programmed in response to some original situation. It is made of your own psychic stuff, of course. What else could it be made of? Another way to put it would be to say, a part of your mental world, as expressed through your physical brain, is detached to deal with that situation automatically for whatever reason, traumatic or otherwise. This is Colin Wilson’s use of the term – basically, a splitting-off of a bit of mental energy in a coherent pattern that can automatically function when circumstances allow or dictate. Thus, when you learn to drive a car, the learned behavior – the habits of driving – form a unit. As long as the task must be done consciously, it is slow, awkward, all-absorbing. Once learned, it functions as if by itself except in particularly complicated or stressful conditions. Normally you can drive while talking and listening to the radio, etc.

In other words, robots are not restricted to pathological manifestations. They may be looked at as learned behaviors functioning automatically.

But what do these words mean? You know in practice what a learned behavior is, but if you consider yourselves in person-groups what does it mean?

We suggest you think of it this way. Your total mental energy, your total resources, never function in an undifferentiated way. You are a community of more or less differentiated energies. Some of them drive a car, or provide an automatic emotional response to a given stimulus, or remember a joke, or react in complicated but definite ways to another given person. Each bundle of energy that is thus bound to a task is thereby removed from what you might call the reserve pool of energy available for any new thing that might pop up. And of course there are endless numbers of side-trails we could go down at this point – how high psychic stress reduces effective functioning of the individual, for instance – but we can’t stay for that right now.

Suppose you analyze any of these bits of mental energy doing a particular task. Take handwriting. You had to learn to write. If you can’t remember how hard that was to learn, and probably you can’t, try writing with your non-dominant hand. Try writing in cursive in that hand, and try making it legible. You’ll be surprised how difficult it is, how frustrating perhaps, what extreme concentration it requires. That’s what it is like, teaching various sub-skills to cooperate so closely as to form a skill at a higher level. That is, the skill you need to employ just to hold a pencil, or to apply only the right amount of pressure on the paper, and to orient it so that the words fall between the lines on ruled paper – none of these sub-skills is rocket science, but none of them is innate. They all have to be learned, and put together.

Your sub-skills have to be supported by your physical heredity. If you are born without motor skills, if you are born paralyzed, if you are born with any number of conditions that make it impossible for you to learn handwriting – inability to concentrate, say – then it doesn’t matter how many of the traits you do have, the determinant may be the one or ones you don’t have.

So you could look at the necessary traits as threads, the sub-skills as strings made by combining the threads; the skill itself as a several-ply string, perhaps. And if you use handwriting for any given thing it may be considered a strand in a rope. We aren’t going to make a habit of tying into the strings and threads analogy, but we thought it might help this once.

Your acquired skills require certain specific talents and the physical features supporting those talents. Everybody can see this. But looking at it in a new way may lead to other things not so well known, or rather – not well understood, though commonly seen in other contexts.

Okay. Thanks for all this. I think I can sleep again now! This took about 80 minutes, and I’m tired! See you later.

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