April 29

SOUL OF A NEW SELF: CHAPTER 3 EXCERPT

I am happy to present to you an excerpt from the first chapter of my forthcoming book, The Soul of a New Self:

As a teenager one of my favorite rock bands was The Talking Heads. In fact, one of the most exciting concerts I ever attended was seeing The Talking Heads perform at a small arena called the Cape Code Coliseum during their Stop Making Sense tour. It was magnificent. Their final rendition of Burning Down the House threatened to shake the rafters loose. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t jumping up and down.

The Talking Heads were a thoughtful band. Most of the original members had been students together at the prestigious and innovative Rhode Island School of Design. Although I was too young to ever see them when they were playing local gigs in Providence they always held a certain hometown appeal for me. Recently the bands leader, David Byrne, published a book called How Music Works. The book begins with an argument about where music comes from that is a fantastic inquiry into the question of agency. Who or what creates music?

We assume that musicians create music, or at least groups of musicians. In his book, Byrne surveys the music of different time periods and different geographical locations and presents a different point of view.

Yes, it is musicians who write music, play instruments and sing songs, but it is not musicians alone that create music. The venues available to play music in, and the technology available to create instruments with, also have a profound influence on the creation of music. Music is made to be listened to and it has to be listened to somewhere. In Africa music was generally played in expansive outdoor spaces and drums are one of the few instruments whose sound carries well out there. Pipe organs sound great in the cavernous cathedrals of the middle ages, and guitars sound great in the small rock clubs where The Talking Heads would play.

We would tend to simply say that the musicians were limited in the kind of music they could play, but they were still the ones creating the music. I want you to consider a different perspective. Maybe it is not the musicians who are playing the music. Maybe that is just the way we have been trained to think about it. What if the music were not coming out of the hearts and minds of the musicians alone? What if the music was emerging from the circumstances of the time and place where it would be played? What if music was not created by people but by circumstances and environments? Would that make the whole circumstance the agent, the being, the self?

Mathew Syed was a table tennis champion in England and for those who might not know, that means being a major celebrity. Those of us in the United States may not pay much attention to table tennis, but that is not the case in England. Syed was a major public figure, which meant interviews and press conferences. Everywhere he went he was praised for his talent. Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and he wrote a book called Bounce to bust the myth of talent.

We assume that winning a sports championship means something about the person who won. Mainly we assume that his or her victory was a product of talent and hard work. Sure Mathew Syed has talent and he worked hard, but those things were not responsible for his victory. Lots of people are talented and work hard and the vast majority of them don’t ever get the chance to participate in a championship match.

In his book, Syed explains that he won a table tennis championship because of circumstances that included his dad buying him a table tennis set, the fact that he and his brother both loved playing for hours at a time, and that he happened to go to a school that had a fantastic table tennis coach. Alter any one of dozens if not hundreds of contingent factors, and someone else would be the celebrity. Seyd’s argument is that it was not him as an individual who won the championship. The true victor was a complex set of circumstances and contingencies of which his talent and hard work were only a part. In the end he was the one who picked up the trophy and received the acclaim, but it was not he alone who was responsible for the victory.

The shift in perspective from individual agency to circumstantial agency is critical for those of us who endeavor to liberate ourselves from things-in-space consciousness and emerge into a universe of continuity-unfolding. I believe this is the direction we need to lean into further. We need to see that actions are not coming out of things, but out of circumstances. You could call this an emergent perspective. Actions emerge out of environments, out of circumstances.

This is a wonderful contemplation. Think of anything that you currently think that you do and ask yourself who is really doing it. If you keep going you will come across something interesting. Let’s try it. In Syed’s case he couldn’t have won without his dad, his brother and his coach. But he also needed his mother or he would never have been born. He needed a culture that developed and appreciated table tennis. He needed a planet that could evolve a species that could play table tennis and he needed a universe within which planets that could support life evolved. How do we decide where to draw the line that separates the champion table tennis player from the rest of the universe? It is very convenient, in the Batesonian sense, to draw a line around Mathew Syed and call him the victory, but the truth is much more complicated than that.

Let’s look at another example, my writing this book for instance. I am writing it for sure, at least it is my fingers that are punching the keys and my mind processing the thoughts and putting them into words. Where is all the information coming from? I would have to trace through more than half of my life and recount hundreds of relationships to be able to account for everything that is being shared in these pages. Am I the author or does authorship have to be distributed among all of the individuals and circumstances that have made it possible for this book to be written?

Think of the last interesting conversation that you had. You probably assumed that you were the one who was producing the words that were coming out of your mouth and of course the other person was producing the words coming out of their mouth. Would you have produced the same words if you had been talking to someone else or even to the same person under different circumstances? How much was that conversation a product of a whole set of circumstances? What credit do you really deserve?

One analogy that I am fond of using to illustrate this point is talking. When we talk words come out of our mouth, but we don’t say that our mouth is talking. We feel perfectly justified to claim that we are talking. Responsibility for talking is not given to the final organ that happens to vocalize the words. The whole being gets the credit. Even thought I am the one who is sitting typing out this book the real credit, on an existential level, has to go to a vast and complex array of circumstances. This book didn’t emerge out of me. It emerged out of all of those circumstances. I am urging you to shift from a perspective of individual agency to one of circumstantial emergence. If you can make this transition you will discover a new world where conversations, books, music and champions emerge out of circumstances like flowers grow out of gardens.