Paradox of Humanity

The paradox of humanity is that we must be bound in order to be free.

We have unlimited options, but must limit them in order to function and make sense of the world.

For example, the human mouth can make an infinite number of sounds, but we must confine our voice to specific sounds in order to make words and communicate.

The social contract is all about this idea of taming the chaos. When we agree to certain “confining” ideas, we allow ourselves to grow in other ways. We agree to drive on the right side and stop at red lights so that we can vastly accelerate our motorized travel and remain safe.

The process of socialization teaches us the scripts of our culture. We learn to chew food with our mouths closed, lift the toilet seat to pee, and exchange paper currency for goods. We learn that the color of an apple is called “red” and the crisp, fist-sized fruit is called “apple.” We rapidly gain an intricate system of definitions, rules and patterns that become the story that we live in. We stop seeing these agreements as “rules” and just accept them as “the way the world is.”

Imagine seeing the world as toddler does. Without experiences and explanations of things, the child would experience shapes and colors and motion and sounds. Very quickly the human mind begins to learn what things mean, and so begins our shift to a symbol-based experienced of the world. We stop seeing white blobs on blue and instead see “clouds in the sky.” In truth, we actually still “see” white blobs on blue, but we immediately register it in our mind as the symbol we’ve been taught. Life as a mature human is usually experienced in this way – not really *seeing* an image, but instead immediately seeing the symbol we know that image to represent.
Alan Watts described meditation as the process of learning to experience the world again. Meaning that meditation is intended to help us practice getting back to that first-hand experience of sensation – before we convert it to a symbol. Try to hear the sound without defining what it is. Try to experience a sensation on the skin – without imagining the cause of it.

Introductory art classes are less about “how to draw” and more about “How to re-learn how to see.”

This symbol-based experience allows us to quickly make order from the sights and sounds of the world. Our brain can then take the symbols and process the meanings in exceptionally complex ways. We can take colors in the sky, temperatures on the skin and the numbers on thermostat and decide that “It may rain today, I will bring a jacket.” This conclusion could be from personal experience, or more likely, lessons taught by parents.

But the system of symbols and conclusions gets much, much more complicated. And much more esoteric. And much more disconnected from actual experience.

Take economics or politics for example. These systems are contructs of symbols of symbols of symbols FAR removed from actual experience. They fall more into the “social contract” realm than of any core truth.

The social contract “truths” are anything but absolute, yet they are presented as so. The status quo story of the day becomes our socialization and is reinforced by our parents and teachers.

This is not done with malice. Just like driving on the right side – these societal stories are passed on in order to make order of the world. When we bind ourselves, we can be free. With a system we understand, we can move within it much faster. We can take things “mundane” things for granted and not spend time deciphering every detail or symbol.

The challenge comes when we loose track of the fact that this story of “the way the world is” not an absolute. History shows us how the symbolic worldview changes with scientific and cultural shifts. And anthropology shows vastly diverse systems for making sense of the physical world.

One of the exciting things of the Occupy movement is that people are collectively becoming aware of the scripts and stories that we live under. More importantly they are learning that there are alternatives. How we get from here to there is another matter, but the becoming aware that there even are alternate scripts is huge.

People are questioning the electoral system, taxation fundamentals, and the monetary system. As Hollis Doherty said in her TedX talk, “Money is not the law of gravity.” It is merely system of rules that we collectively have accepted – whether knowingly or not.
When we start to question and understand ALL of the systems that we live within, we can begin to see who we really are. And begin to glimpse true liberation.

This is not to say we should shun or reject these systems, symbols or scripts. As stated, these binds allow us to be free. But we must question them so that we understand and consent to their intention.

What gets scary is when we begin to understand that elements of our current worldview are not a product of pure cultural evolution, but are the carefully crafted product of marketing and propaganda.

Diamonds were not a girls best friend until DeBeers told us they were.
Apples did not used to keep the doctor away.
Greed was once considered a sin and Socialism was not always an evil word.
The very concepts of ownership, family, death, and self identity are culturally symbolic agreements – not absolutes.

What we think of as “The World” is actually an exceptionally complex story. Intricate systems of symbols within symbols within symbols. This story can be thought of as a game. It has objectives and it has rules. And there is nothing wrong with playing the game, enjoying the struggles, and relishing the triumphs.

But there is massive freedom with the perspective that this is a consensual game. The rules are not absolute.

It may *feel* like we have to have a job, a home, good standing and good credit…but that is simply the rules of the dominant story.

Believing that the Western definition of financial success is the only way to happiness is as silly as believing that there is one true way to reach heaven.

That isn’t to say that the game of capitalism isn’t a great one. Or that you shouldn’t strive for success within that game. There is nothing wrong with getting sweaty and dirty as you drive for victory in your weekend soccer league. But if you forget that you are in the league for fun, you are missing the point.


There is a vast difference between the things you truly experience – and the things you experience via their symbols or story.

Love = experienced.
Freedom = story.

Doing what feels right = experience.
Doing what you think you should = story.

Living in a story via symbols is not wrong. In fact It is mandatory. It is part of the paradox of mankind that we must embrace. But understanding that you are choosing this story can make all the difference.


One of the core rewards of travel is stepping into scenarios that do not follow the story and symbols that you “know.” Being in a new situation that you can not take for granted forces you notice the reality of things. Your brain actually sees reality instead of just registering the symbols. Of course, this experience is short lived. Very quickly you “know” what the foreign sidewalk height is, how the coffee is served, and how to catch a taxi. But this window of true awareness is a precious gift – and one we can practice in our daily lives.

This is one of the reason why Burning Man is so transcendent for people. When you remove all of the existing patterns and expectations, you are left with raw reality. Every little detail becomes something you notice – and the world feels bright and new. Patterns that always felt like “the way things are” suddenly feel unnecessary. The symbols and scripts we settled into are absent, and we have the experience of a traveler in a strange world. Or a human experiencing reality without the symbol filter.

According to the scripts and patterns we are used to, having a beer for breakfast and then letting someone draw a mustache on your face with a sharpie is kinda crazy.

We hear often the importance of “stopping and smelling the flowers.” Why? We know what the flower smells like. And there lies the crux of it. There lies the point of life: Experience the universe.
It is so easy to get caught up stories. So easy to get caught up in the past and future. The what if’s and why not’s. But when we are caught up in future possibilities or past regrets, we are not present for the Now as it is happening. When we know the story, we stop actually watching it.

The challenge of human consciousness is staying in the game enough to appreciate the excitement of it, while staying connected to the deeper Truths of love, harmony and connection.

Love the player…and love the game. It is ALL a gift.

-john halcyon
nov 8, 2011

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