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Baldwin in Brahman
A trip to the hospital is more real than your politics
Recently the actor Alec Baldwin looked down a camera, aimed a .45 Colt at it, and said “Bang.” Just two feet away on the set of the now-suspended movie Rust, a young mother with a bright career dropped dead.
In Alec’s continual public bewilderment at the real bullet from what he thought was a prop gun, we see a reaction kept assiduously out of sight by our society. It’s the terrible recognition that the story of your life is not the genre you thought it was. One can never know the full reality of someone’s experiences from afar, but by objective metrics Baldwin has enjoyed, until this point, a charmed life. Minor public dramas, a bad divorce, but mostly widespread acclaim, celebrity, money, a beautiful wife and lovely children, and national laughter on SNL. And then? Bang. From comedy to tragedy.
Not that the intrusion of reality into the fantasy of normal life is always so dramatic. It comes in all sizes and degrees, can be more or less dramatic, and is sometimes fast, sometimes insidiously slow.
For me, the first time was a serious injury—my knee. Back in college I had been running barefoot, following the advice of Born to Run, a bestselling book in 2009 about how humans had evolved to run long distances. Of course, genetically, my last thousand or so ancestors lived in London. They weren’t running anywhere. But I, I would return to the Savannah! Mimicking the homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago, I ran shoeless through the streets of Amherst, Massachusetts, always passing on my route the towering colonial house of Emily Dickinson, where the poet had lived as a recluse for most of her life. I pushed and pushed myself, eight miles a day, multiple days a week.
I would not stop for pain, so pain stopped for me.
One day passing Emily’s house a liquid heat flooded my knee until I couldn’t extend my leg. So I went to the hospital. Everyone knows the situation: sitting on those chairs filmed with waxy paper like a child again, waiting for an adult to come and explain why they couldn’t help, there’s really nothing to be done, that’ll be $400 out of pocket, thank you. I limped for the rest of college, and my body, once so incredibly strong, wasted to an unhealthy thinness by the time I got to graduate school.
Later, in my early twenties I was lifting weights when I felt something shift deep in my lower spine. On the floor of my apartment I lay curled in a crescent, knowing that I was once again irrevocably damaged. For I have lived in pain most of my adult life, as many others have and do. And if you don’t live in pain, there’s probably something else wrong with you, something equivalent.
My best friend is in great shape, still youthful, with endless stamina and energy. Or so it might seem. Ten years ago he fell and hit his head and lost his sense of smell. He can taste textures, but everything else is absent, and no liqueur or incense or flower can bring it back. He can’t smell his wife’s hair, nor inhale the scent of his baby’s head.
If it does not kill us, the world damages us. It damages us in childbirth or during exercises or when moving a couch. It damages us when we become manic or depressed. It damages us when we inject heroin or crash our bikes or our spouse betrays us or when our children get damaged themselves.
Privately I and my family refer to such damages as “the real problems.” For the truth is that jobs, grades, mortgages—all the normal difficulties elsewhere in life—mostly end up being either solvable, ephemeral in the long run, or actually livable in their implications, even if they at first seem immediate and pressing. Having literally zero money in the bank is something many young people experience, but they have their health and time, and a total lack of “real problems” leads to many ending up with a lot of money in the bank. It turns out a person can manage an almost infinite number of normal problems provided they don’t have any real ones.
I’m aware that this differentiation may not be the truth, but there is a truth to it. What does you in is getting damaged by life, either via accidents, terrible hurts, inflictions, medical problems, or psychological breakdowns. One might protest that this ignores economics, privilege, all the many aspects of a system that we can indeed improve, and that’s a fair counterpoint. Yet economics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rates of mental illness and drug abuse among the homeless are so sky-high as to be nearly universal. Meaning those at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are people who got exposed to “real problems” so significant, so slippery, that they weren’t able to break from the problem’s orbit back into the normal world of merely normal problems. Humans are paper tigers; the tiniest rip reveals our frailty.
To steal a term from Hinduism, we spend most of our days in Maya: “that which is not.” The illusion. Maya is your job and the email you don’t want to answer and your worry about politics and the thing you’re mad about on Twitter. The movie Rust was Maya, and it turned out the production set of Rust was also, in a sense, just as much a fantasy, just as much Maya.
Death is the end of everything. Death is the end of life, of beauty, of wealth, of power, of virtue too. Saints die and sinners die, kings die and beggars die. They are all going to death, and yet this tremendous clinging on to life exists. Somehow, we do not know why, we cling to life; we cannot give it up. And this is Maya. — Jnana Yoga (1899), Swami Vivekananda.
The opposite of Maya is Brahman, or absolute reality. It’s not on any map, but, as Melville said, “true places never are.” For you can indeed find Brahman, or, far more likely, it finds you. Some sterile space with florescent lighting and coffee in little cardboard cups from a break room with vending machines. That’s where Life actually happens, because that’s where Death actually happens.
According to the Advaita philosophy, there is only one thing real in the universe, which it calls Brahman; everything else is unreal, manifested and manufactured out of Brahman by the power of Mâyâ. To reach back to that Brahman is our goal. We are, each one of us, that Brahman, that Reality, plus this Maya. If we can get rid of this Maya or ignorance, then we become what we really are. — Jnana Yoga (1899), Swami Vivekananda.
These Hindu terms (used in this admittedly idiosyncratic and secular way) help formalize the ontological hierarchy of problems. Hospitals, medical and psychiatric problems, personal rifts and damaging decisions, and so on, are all really real, that is, Brahman, whereas at least most of the time political and cultural issues are just kind of real, or Maya. When people say things “just got real” they are speaking, I think, quite literally. They have entered Brahman. One of the biggest fallacies in modernity is the flipping of the ontological pyramid, wherein one thinks that senate bills, cultural debates, a wayward opinion you don’t like, etc, are the foundation of personal reality, when really they are its ghostly superstructure.
Did you know there are women who get a disease called lichen sclerosus and they have to go sit in a waiting room until a bland-faced doctor tells them that a) lichen sclerosus is a progressive incurable disease with an unknown cause, and b) their vagina is going to slowly fuse together into white scar tissue making sex painful and then impossible and all they can do is rub insane amounts of topical steroids on themselves to try to slow the progression. That’s a real conversation that happens semi-regularly all across America. One in 80 women get it. Some get it in their 20s. And it lacks the sympathetic upside of other diseases: to have this disease is just to be checking yourself with a hand-mirror in a bathroom alone. That’s a real problem. Your capital gains tax rate? Not a real problem. Maya, not Brahman. Plenty of other examples. The obvious one: the Big C. Same situation, same bland-faced doctors. That catapulting conversation, or some version of it, is waiting for all of us, eventually.
Not that Brahman is solely the horrific, nor solely about medical problems or freak accidents—these are just the clearest expressions of in our secularized world. We hide the fact that the lot of humans in this world is to suffer. Yet you can still find corners where the veil lifts, like in hospitals.
Occasionally, finding “Brahman” is a positive experience. Births take place. Lucky recoveries too. There are religious revelations as well, but even in the best cases, this involves suffering, for I believe that all religious impulses come from the acknowledgement of suffering. But most of the time Brahman, what Maya is precisely structured to avoid, comes quickly, with little warning, and we are unprepared. Brahman is a friend confessing a mental illness you never knew they had. When a charmed couple, whose lives have gone expectantly and easily, suddenly finds themselves infertile, they have been thrown into Brahman.
A few months ago I found a nearby gateway to Brahman. I had to take my German Shepherd Minerva to the emergency animal hospital, which is located close to my house. We had quickly moved from normal problems (she pulls too much during heel) to real problems (she’s massively dehydrated from being sick and could die). She ended up being fine, but no doubt about it that dirty waiting room was a portal to another world. As I waited I watched an entire hours-long saga unfold: an older couple brought in their dog, the vet explained that the dog was very sick and the medication would cost more than $700, the dad said it was too expensive, and then the vet said there was only one option left. So soon their doughy adult kids came storming in as well to say goodbye, all looking like they had just come from some sort of trucking convention back in Maya, the poor dog just so excited to see its whole family, and then . . . everyone left. In tears, yes, but they left. The kids left. The woman left. And the last, the man, he left too, his huge body red and thundering out. They left the dog in the office to die alone with strangers and I watched them drive away in a big and clean SUV as white as innocence.
They just wanted to leave Brahman as soon as possible and get back to Maya, where things made sense. As I watched them leave a memory returned I had almost forgotten. I had been in a similar situation growing up with my childhood dog. My best friend. Cammie. A yellow lab, fat and greying and whose back legs didn’t work due to a stroke, in terrific pain at the end, whom I loved and who loved me. And I, merely 15, barely older than her, driving her with my learner’s permit to the emergency animal hospital because sometimes there really are no options left but euthanasia. I stroked her broken body on the surgical table and told her—I tried to tell her. I tried to tell her how good she had been, the best dog in the world. After the vet put the needle in there were those deep breaths. And I kept trying to tell her. Over and over. You were a good dog, a good girl. Then there had been that last impossibly long rattle, an unearthly exhalation, her whole body deflating and expelling a sound that just wouldn’t end. Until it did. And I knew Death was standing next to that table, leaning over, inhaling that last breath.
I took her back home rolled up in a blanket. Her body shit in my car. I carried her soiled husk to my backyard and bawled as I dug her grave.
A memory I hadn’t recollected in years. Why don’t we recall any of this in our day-to-day lives? Brahman inevitably decays into Maya, and stays that way until some new incident awakens us from our dogmatic slumber, which we are always destined to return to. Why is the distinction between the ephemeral and the eternal so hard to keep in mind?
In 1939 a young Jewish boy and his family fled Vienna to the United States, because Hitler had just taken over Austria. Then in 1962 the same boy, already a young doctor, went to France for 16 months to work in a lab studying the strangest of creatures: sea slugs.
By the time he came back to America from France neuroscientist Eric Kandel had started a line of work revolutionizing the study of memory, for which he would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize. It turns out Aplysia (one of the larger sea slugs) are perfect for studying memory because their neurons are gigantic compared to us mammals, each unit of their brain much easier to dissect and understand. Essentially you can just push a needle right into one of these giant cells while the animal is otherwise intact. And Aplysia themselves do make memories, albeit extremely simple ones.
Kandel’s big discovery was based on the gill-withdrawal reflex. Sea slugs don’t like you touching their incredibly sensitive gills, they quickly withdraw them. Kandel recorded the electrical signals directly from neurons in the reflex arc that controlled this behavior. As the gill was repeatedly touched, the electrical amplitude of the neurons triggering the behavior actually decreased after multiple touches, at the same time as the retractions ceased. Kandel eventually concluded that:
The capability for behavioral modification seems to be built directly into the neural architecture of the behavioral reflex.
It was the discovery of the neural mechanism for a psychological concept called “habituation.” Habituation is the homeostasis of the mind. It is why you first feel your shirt when you put it on only to have that feeling quickly fade. And it is also, I think, probably the neural mechanism that turns Brahman into Maya. We habituate to the world, to our own situation, even our own suffering.
In the secular world, there are only two things that shake us from our habituation, our Maya, and reveal to us Brahman (Egyptians called this “lifting the Veil of Isis”). For the secular, art lifts the Veil of Isis, and a trip to the hospital lifts the veil as well. Yet both art and hospitals are liminal spaces we must retreat from—soon the veil starts to flutter closed again, some neurons somewhere deep in the brain lowering the amplitude of their responses, until they become quiescent and we are blind once more.
From one perspective, habituation may just be the worst thing in the world. It is why wedding rings lose their glamour, why your children become just another background fact of life, why we must live constantly in Maya.
Yet from another perspective it is a blessing. Consider that:
A question was once asked of King Yudhishthira, “What is the most wonderful thing on this earth?” And the king replied, “Every day people are dying around us, and yet men think they will never die.” And this is Maya. — Jnana Yoga (1899), Swami Vivekananda.
I’m not sure we could keep living in Brahman for long, and am skeptical of holy men who claim to live there permanently. So perhaps habituation is not an evil baked into the brain of all us poor creatures. Rather, the permanency of Maya may be a necessity for getting up in the morning. In a year, maybe two, definitely in five, Alec Baldwin is going to get out of bed and the first thing he thinks is not going to be “I killed a woman” but “Am I out of that brand of coffee I like?” Even already, just ten days after the incident, he tweeted about the most sweetly addictive of all things in Maya: politics.
Whether this inevitable return to Maya that we all face is perverse, or a kind of forgiveness, depends on your perspective.
Is it possible for evolution to be kind?