What Does It Mean Not To Be Mechanical?

A reader posed this question as an alternative to “what it means to be mechanical?” He was right. It is the more fruitful way to go. After all, over the past three decades, scientists of all stripes have amassed a great deal of evidence to support Schopenhauer’s claim (as paraphrased by Einstein) that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

Science is making it increasingly clear that free will –at least deep free will–is a perception, not a fact. As Dennis Overbye wrote in an article published in the “Science Times” section of The New York Times in 2007, “the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in contol.” In the 1970s, according to the Times article, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco “wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.

“Dr. Libet found that the brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.”

“The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.”

“In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.”

In other words, human beings in their ordinary state cannot do. The animal of the body does it. Libet’s results have been reproduced again and again and elaborated into new experiments. The ethical power that we humans authentically have, according to Dr. Libet, is veto power. We can stop ourselves from doing what we sense we are mechanically or habitually or animalistically doing. In any given moment, we can stop and sense ourselves. We can stop and be still and know ourselves. At least once in that proverbial blue moon.

But what conditions give rise to this rare lunar event? What allows for those openings when we see how it is and wish to be more than we usually are. That I live in a house in Northern Westchester, that I ate yogurt and granola for breakfast this morning, so much of my life just happens. I don’t need to be wired up in a lab to know I did not will it. Yet some of the events that have happened in my life, due a long and mysterious chain of cause and effect that I definitely cannot claim responsibility for, have made a deep impression. That is, I received certain events in a way that has been meaningful, that has given me a sense of what it can mean to be alive.

This is what I mean. I nearly died once, decades ago. I was embraced by a dazzling white light. What has stayed me, what has continued to seem marvelous after all this time are not the neurological intricacies of the NDE, but precisely that power of no, that ability to stop. What happened is arresting. When I remember it I remember that I am a mystery in progress, an unfolding process. I am more and less than I think I am.

5 thoughts on “What Does It Mean Not To Be Mechanical?

  1. Several years ago, I stopped wearing eyeglasses. My eyesight was restored and I no longer needed the thick lenses and heavy frames that had made sight possible. But though I no longer wore glasses, my hands kept reaching up to adjust a ghost of a pair. It seemed that while my eyesight had changed, my habits would not.

    In a way, through practice and repetition, we train our bodies to reach a level where direct thought is no longer necessary. Like driving a car, we move beyond conscious thought to automatic action. And action is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, action can be invaluable. But sometimes, we program ourselves so thoroughly that we become automatons and then action imprisons us rather than aids us.

    Certainly, mindfulness is an antitode to this kind of automatic response. When I am mindful, my actions are connected to direct thoughts and direct experiences. When I am mindful, I am aware of each step along the path of action. But there are times, when I am either too tired or hurried or simply too bored to pay attention. I find my mind shifting to a sort of cruise control of the soul. I drift along at even speed but lose a connection to the ride.

    For myself, not being mechanical requires the discipline of awareness. It requires being fully present in every moment. To not being mechanical is to be like a great musician, fully knowing the placement of each finger and fully awake to each note. I achieve a seamless flow of awareness between mind, body, and spirit. I am the experience and the experience becomes me.

    Any greatness requires this ability to be fully present. And by greatness, I do not mean fame or elevation or status. I mean the ability to do any action well. The master craftsmen, the master lover, the master gatekeeper; all posses this ability. And unlike other abilities, the truly great reign themselves in like cowboys reigning in the herd. To channel the currents of the self, to control and harness the flow of self, is to allow the great energy of the soul to express itself like the explosive power of water over a dam. When we cease being mechanical and become fully present, we unite the diverse energy of the body and positively explode.

    Of course, it is always easier to sleep. But to awaken is to be, to really be and not just to go through the motions of being.

  2. hi liz: your description of harnessing the flow of self with mindfulness or attention gives new meaning to the expression “grace under pressure.” i agree with you that mindfulness pulls a person together….and mindfulness in the service of a real aim can have a powerful concentrating effect.

    samuel johnson once said (this is a paraphrase) that knowing you are to be hung in a fortnight has a powerfully concentrating effect on the mind.

    but discovering meaning in an event that may well have been outside our control is another way of pulling ourselves together. more to come….

  3. ….the theme of inaugural issue of parabola was the hero, and founding editor affirmed a conviction that life is significant and that everyone of us must set out on our own quest to discover the larger meaning of our lives. the first issue exhorted people not to be smaller than they were meant to be. some smart, well-intentioned people have that talk of heroes and quests and discovering higher purpose sounds, well, creaky now.

    but we can experience a sense of the significance of life in fleeting moment, no matter who we think we are.

    when i started this blog, i wrote of being on a commuter train with my daughter on September 11. what lingers about that day and that time wasn’t an impression of mindfulness—although i felt very present in my real life as it was happening, not distracted. what i felt was a shift or a deepening in my sense of who i was and what mattered life. when i woke up that morning, my sense of myself had to do with the work i was preoccupied with the work i was doing that day–i was writing a profile about the author oliver sacks for a magazine and it wasn’t going well. no flow, as you described. after the disaster, however, i thought of something sacks said, about being a boy in london during the blitz. he would come out of his house in the morning and find familiar landmarks missing. this made him resolve to be a good observer, to notice things, to take in impressions….at least this is what i took from it.

    it was as if i had been on the surface of my life, disparging having a plastic fork (my shallow assignment…my poor work)….and suddenly needing a fork. it was just good to have a fork. do you what i mean?

  4. This is the very reason I love the verse, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land…”

    In many ways, we go through the motions of living but are are not present to the experience of living. We are like machines, performing a function but lacking consciousness.

    And I confess I love the mechanicality of routine. Routine provides a container for the accomplishment of goals but frequently sthe container or the routine becomes the focus of my attention rather than the actual experience. I am easily lulled into a kind of sleep of routine and self-categorization: a sort of “I am this and not that and I do things this way.”

    But perhaps true freedom is the ability to experience each moment as it is without preconceived notions of what it must be.

    Of course, this kind of freedom requires courage for there is no map on this road to freedom. It requires a sort of heroic confidence, like a Ulysses, trusting that whatever comes our way can be handled.

    Like an animal suddenly freed from a cage, there is comfort in the cage and a desire to return to it. But if I can venture forth, open to experience, I can return to my natural state of wonder and experience life as it is and not as I believe it should be. I can experience life as a surfer in the midst of a wave, full of grace in oneness.

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