Imagine a tenth grade girl. Imagine her painfully self-conscious and unsure. Imagine her having no idea who she is or what she wants but constantly surrounded by confidence and seemingly concrete ideals. Hello, it’s me.
It’s also a horrendous solo shot in Ephesus, Turkey (correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you can get more simultaneously cool and un-cool than this).
It’s hard being a high school girl. Everything’s dramatic, and you’re not quite sure what to believe.
Tenth grade was a particularly crucial year for me, looking back. It really dictated who my friends were to become and what things became of interest to me. But most importantly, it was during this year that I fell in love with literature and the English language.
In tenth grade at my high school, we studied American Literature. The way the course was structured, my teacher brought us through the all of the world views of American people from Puritanism to Postmodernism. Oh, and another minute detail: my teacher was so fresh out of college and an absolute dream. But that’s beside the point. (or is it?)
What really struck me about this course was the swing that world views take: when major world events happen (i.e. wars or genocides or the invention of the camera), the ideologies and sentiments of the entire American culture (as demonstrated by the writers of any given time) completely shift.
For example: the Realism to Modernism shift. The realist movement aimed to demonstrate events, people, or things exactly how they are. Think Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with its use of the “real” vernacular of the times and the 300 page description of a raft floating down the Mississippi. Absolutely riveting. The worldview shift to Modernism came with the invention of the portable, easy-to-use camera coupled with World War I. Because the use of the camera became so widespread, people captured the war in its reality. And it wasn’t pretty. This caused people to lose faith in conventional institutions (and even convention in and of itself). So they revolted from it. Hence the Modernist movement.
Now, what does this have to do with a sixteen-year-old girl? This proved to me that no matter what time period, people have always questioned things. No matter what the circumstances, there was/is always fluctuation with the way people think. In other words, people in history, writers specifically, had no idea what was happening around them, so I wasn’t alone. I found solace in this. And thus began my sweet love for words, philosophy, and literary movements.
Fast-forward to my first upper-level literature class in college: the semester-long comparison of Modernism and Postmodernism. Talk about a breath of fresh air. As an assignment for this class, we listened to a podcast of a lecture given by Alan Watts on the Indian philosophy of maya. This was my first real glimpse into Eastern philosophy, and it was about as total immersion as you can get, considering the podcast was three and a half hours long. Even still and all longevity aside, the philosophy was so thought-provoking, the content so applicable, and Watts’s accent so endearingly British that I couldn’t get enough. (This being said, all ideas/principles to follow are taken directly from Watts’s “Reality, Art, and Illusion” lecture.)
The basic principle of maya has three relatively succinct themes which I will try and explain as precisely and concisely as possible. Buckle your seat belts. Your brain is about to never think the same way again.
Elements of maya:
One. The world is wiggly. Think about it. Natural things (think leaves, a bubbling stream of water, the Milky Way) are not perfectly straight. The curves and wiggles of a human body and brain are undeniable; however, the human brain has a tough time making sense of all the wiggliness surrounding and even composing it. So what does it do? It imposes straightness and order onto the wiggly in order to understand it. Watts uses a constellation example: stars are in the sky in a seemingly random assortment; it’s human brains that see patterns in the wiggliness of the stars and create constellations. Constellations, therefore, only exist as a form of human approximation of the world or consciousness (making sense of nonsensical things). In other words, the Big Dipper looks nothing like a dipper from anywhere else in the entire universe. Humans also do this in the form of Calculus, language, television, and other approximations. We cut up wiggly into processable bits of straight.
Two. Humans are under the illusion that these self-created, processable bits are separate and independent from each other. In reality, all of these cut up bits are part of the same cosmos, and human culture is the one dictating the importance of some bits over other bits. We humans are under the colossal illusion that we are living under our own skin and are separate from everything else. We deem ourselves internal and the rest external. Watts argues “our real self is the whole cosmos–we are all part of what the cosmos is doing. As soon as we are taught words–which are bits of consciousness–this idea disappears.” We think of ourselves as creating the cosmos and not the cosmos creating us.
Three. Magic. The magic of the universe is making things appear to be not as they seem. The example of this is the drama, the play. Actors are, for a wage, hired to create an illusion. People as the audience pay to be deluded, to see an actor pretend to be what he is not. For example, if you go to see Hamlet performed, you want to see an actor portraying Hamlet to the best of his (or her) ability. You don’t go to a play to have the actors take off their wigs and makeup on stage–you go to be fooled or deceived for a while. And things are not as they seem, just as in reality (what we’ve cut up into straight are holistically wiggly).
These ideas in and of themselves are mind-blowing. But what I found most insightful (and kind of a justification for things I already practice) are the things Watts claimed as extensions of maya.
How do you know you exist? Ponder this question for a moment. Is it because you are composed of atoms? Or that people perceive you? Or maybe because you can touch things or feel the stigma of the actions of others? In thinking about your own existence, you become aware of everything in the universe that isn’t you. In investigating the “internal” world, you become aware of the “external.” In this idea is proof that the universe is one. And here we are, thinking we are separate, “chewing up animals and creating death in every direction.” Watts claims that “the pretense of you just being you and you have all these problems…” is complete bull shit! Which it is, from this perspective. What I claim as “me” and “internal” is just as external as the next “me” which is you. Got it? Good. Now here’s where things get interesting.
You might be thinking, well then why are all humans under this giant illusion? The answer is simple: skin. We have this container of our insides called our epidermis that physically separates our being from the external world. We walk around on two feet independently from the ground. We see this as freedom or separateness, when in reality, we couldn’t walk if there was no ground. Watts says, “walk up a hill, the hill walks you up it.” Our skin is deceptive because it is a seeming boundary between “me” and the external world. We have this idea of what human beings look like. If you look at our insides or at our bodies through a microscope, you wouldn’t call what you saw a human being. Just as the universe is collectively everything all at once and not individual pieces and parts or insides. “You are prejudiced if you think that a human being only looks like what is enveloped in skin,” claims Watt.
Now, this theory is seriously applicable in regards to my life. (And maybe yours, too. Who knows? We are all connected.) Because I am everything and everything is me, my schedule and my problems become petty. They don’t become nonexistent, just interpreted from a different standpoint. From this point of view, I then can focus on things that aren’t me. I become deeply connected with the cosmos. I become un-isolated from within my body and connected with the entirety. I am the galaxies and the oceans. I become aware of the reality of the universe, and I am it. How freakin’ cool.
Now these theories don’t explain everything. Everything could only be explained if there was another everything to rub itself up against. Like a fish can never know water or the tip of a finger can never know what it feels like. But these things prove that we are deep beings, that we are connected beings, that there is a common thread in everyone and everything. Individuality and uniqueness become connectedness and awareness. I become deep and complex and something more than myself.
And what else could an eighteen-year-old girl dream of?