Towards a Habitable Consciousness

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I.

Although I currently live at home — that is to say, I moved back in with my parents after graduating college — the feeling dawns on me, each day a sliver more like the progression of a waning moon, that I’ve been duped into a grave misunderstanding of what, and where, ‘home’ is. 

Sitting at my parents’ breakfast table, I often wonder if there’s something more going on here, existentially. If this morning, while eating my granola cereal, there wasn’t some sublimity cached in those oats that gave me the slip. I looked for it. With each gnashing of my teeth, I inquired into the taste of the granola. I did my best to notice the tumbling textures in my mouth, the emotional response to flavors, the movement of consciousness. This is mindfulness, right? The 21st century’s great panacea for anxiety. It worked for Buddha. He found, by staring into the back of his eyelids, the unchanging reality Hindu’s call Brahman

No matter how slowly I chewed, the only unchanging reality I felt myself a part of was that of a 24-year-old college graduate still living at home, eating granola in his mother’s kitchen. Living at home after graduating leaves one with the vague feeling of being left off the guest list for an exclusive party. As if life is always happening elsewhere, and you’re left stranded upon a paltry surface of existence. Social media now renders this partition evermore transparent, but no less solid. We’re further disillusioned from where we are because we have greater access to where we’re not. 

Living in a family home is also familiar, which may offend the thirst for novelty and excitement. But, in its defense, doing so removes me from the monthly scramble for rent. In a 5-day workweek there are approximately 80 waking hours, 40–60 of which are conventionally spent at ‘work’. In my current iteration of ‘home’, far fewer hours are required to maintain a decent standard of living; this serves up greater portions of life, measured in time, for me to do something with. 

I’m beholden to neither rent nor performance reviews, but I’m subject to the complexities of free time — something humans, unlike the modern house cat, struggle with. 

It’s a dicey gambit. Some days are spent diligently, others give way to dopamine-loop desires. I take the odds, for now, because I feel closer to the pit of my own consciousness in ‘free’ time than otherwise. Closer, but not yet there. Still orbiting an unknown center, caught in a gravitational loop. When time is not my own, I’m adrift, just looping the same old ruts. In free time I feel, though faintly, the reigns in my hands, as if I can gently steer my revolutions. Gently, because I can only exert the subtlest guidance, as a meek child raises his hand from the last row of a classroom. But the requisite force to mumble these suggestions, to steer the course of a life a sliver more towards its center, is anything but gentle. To disengage from existing tracks requires a roaring effort. But I suspect that to truly feel ‘at home’, one must try.


II.

Consciousness proved the one habitat no amount of travel could lift me from. In travel we’re said to leave home, though something of our native environment inevitably follows. Having recently returned from a year of nomadic living across Asia, I encountered the same truth of travel as did Emerson — that there are certain inward landscapes one cannot leave behind: 

Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

If home is where we permanently reside, these giants that travel with us are more home than any physical locales. From the whiplash of a year’s travel followed by a year of family-home living, I wonder if the home to be made, furnished, and maintained isn’t a plot of real estate, but in the mental landscape. Perhaps to make this inward home — a habitable consciousness — yes, you must leave the outer one and romp around the world. Mary Oliver remained a stranger to herself until she ventured out:

In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”

But you always return to something. If not a physical home, a familiar consciousness. Now, in thinking of my own home, I aspire more towards a tortoise, who carries home always on his back. I seek to be as ensconced in myself as the tortoise is in his shell. I am the shell, because ‘I’ am home. That is to say, I live in my self. 

Wherever I go, my backyard or Naples, ‘I’ remain. ‘I’ cannot even be removed from this sentence, let alone what transpires in my head. But mystics say that ‘I’ is not me; it’s what I experience as me. ‘I’ am my ego’s experience of consciousness. The contemplative proposition is that I am not ‘I’, that consciousness extends beyond ego. It’s odd to write about this because ‘I’ can only be written about by I myself, the thing in question, for if it were not I writing, who would it be? 

These things get murky. But it’s clear to me that I can never ‘move out’ of this inward home, at least until death, that great moving day. The question then looms, what kind of home can I be? Turtles may not be able to intentionally alter the composition of their shells, but it seems humans may be able to do so with their self constructs.The literature on both neuroplasticity and meditation suggest wiggle room. What can be done to me? As any skilled builder, I (there ‘I’ am again) must catalog every conceivable building material; I must study other homes and glean what I can; and, for goodness sake, mind the foundation. 

As counterweight, I also remain aware of what may be found in so many home-building manuals, alongside the odd claims of mystics: though I must seek to build, my home is always already perfected. The construction process paradoxically aims towards deconstruction, to find the home that ‘I’ stubbornly turn away from. It’s perched upon my back, always been there, ‘I’ just can’t see it, so they say. 

We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot)


III.

I sit in a blue & burgundy bathrobe at my desk in my father’s house. It’s comfortable. Both the house and the robe. My desk is nested between three large windows, beckoning natural light. I’m growing two vine plants, creeping along either side of the desk. Most people I know work at 3pm on Wednesdays. I’m writing this. I’m unsure who’s better off. 

In theory, bearing witness to the glow of a cubicle computer’s excel spreadsheet can be just as transcendental as meditation (as anything can become a meditation), or whatever else I do with my free time. The implications here are bittersweet. I’m simultaneously reassured that no matter what I do, or don’t do, that home I seek is always present. As Jon Kabat-Zinn consoles us: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Conversely, I’m also being told there’s no particular reason to remain in this familiar home, safeguarding free time in lieu of plunging into the world and figuring it out just like everyone else. So what if I have to bag groceries 50 hours/week just to afford a shoebox apartment, or work to optimize the market share of existentially frivolous goods or services; are such occupations existentially inferior to mowing my mother’s lawn, or feeding my father’s cat? 

Stretching the skin of consciousness from the comfortable quiet of a book-laden desk without having to pay rent is one thing, doing so from within the entropy of a grocery line in an unfamiliar city is another. Or from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, for that matter. The 10th and final image in the Zen Ox Herding Pictures doesn’t show the oxherd seeker serenely perched upon a quiet mountaintop, but reentering the bustling marketplace, having located an unmistakably sturdy and serene center of gravity within himself; that hard-to-reach center of all places; home. 

When I think of the phrase, “at home in the world”, I think of this smiling, round, robed, Zen buddha man taking smooth strides through a swarming market. It also calls to mind images of an ecstatic poet, prancing, equally enraptured by a vast green meadow as an industrial wasteland, a market or a fingernail. The two, buddha and poet, are impartially pleased; at home in all shades of the world because all shades are derivative of that same old original coursing vitality. They reject nothing, and thereby embrace everything.

Carrying this further, if we are confined to our ‘selves’, then to be at home in the world may be to make your very self the world. The shell to be ensconced in is not carried like a backpack; it’s the globe, the galaxy, and depending on one’s aptitude (dharma?), the Universe. 


IV.

If only it were that easy. As I write this, now wearing blue & black pajama pants, I chortle at myself: “make your very self the world”, I say. The Universe! Intellectually, it’s simple enough to convince myself that I am, in fact, the Universe. Anyone can do it. Neil DeGrasse Tyson does so in public (far better than I can): 

But what we think matters less than what we feel, and the two are often at odds with each other. We may think, or know, that we are the cells of the Universe itself, as branches are not separate from their tree. Nevertheless, I feel distinct. My experience contains boundaries; ‘I’ am still me, and you remain you. ‘I’ am concerned with the small, flimsy slice of Universe carved out for ‘I’ by my brain.

Faced with this unavoidable personal atmosphere, the self that rides along with us during travel, that resides in any home we take up, I’m enthralled by the project of working with it, like a sculptor does wet clay. What else is there to do, but work on our own plot of experience? Albert Camus lauds creators in these self-cultivating efforts: “…their whole effort is to examine, to enlarge, and to enrich the ephemeral island on which they have just landed.” 

William James retorts that though we’re island-bound to the self, there exists a common core to the inward terrain we explore: 

Out of my experience, such as it is…one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges…that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves…But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.”

(William James, “Confidences of a ‘Psychical Researcher’”)

Henry Thoreau agrees that though our lives may be separate islands, the task is not to jump off — transcending the self-island — but, with Camus, to build our homes upon ever-expanding shores:

True, a man cannot lift himself by his own waistbands, because he cannot get out of himself; but he can expand himself (which is better, there being no up nor down in nature), and so split his waistbands, being already within himself.”

(Thoreau, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker)

Fatten up, Thoreau says. Maybe, when the waistband splits, there exists a moment between their snapping and our being outfitted with a new pair of pants in which we can glimpse consciousness without its “accidental fences”, the home in which we all live, the ocean’s bottom where all our floating islands hang together. 


V.

Though you’ve got to work for these moments — if it were easy to build a sturdy home everyone would do it — they’re almost always accidental and unexpected. Annie Dillard notes: 

The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”

(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

The real nub of home, when talking about living with family compared to living on your own, taking into account all things — rent, chores, space, social life — seems to be about how time is spent (and time must be spent, because it cannot be saved). Our residence in consciousness also hinges upon this currency. I cannot help but return to Dillard:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

(The Writing Life)

So when I wonder why I stay put, why I continue eating granola in the suburbs of New York, I consider how my time is spent. This is just it, an odd and propulsive paradox: the more free time I have, the more time I spend considering how to spend it. Each moment buries me deeper in a frazzling contemplation of what to do with time. 

When free time only exists in 3-hour increments between work and sleep, we can brush it aside with Netflix or knitting without much chagrin. But in greater doses, a heavier choice is thrust upon us. Incidentally, work-life balance may just be the pursuit of a formula that allows for enough free time to recharge, but not quite enough to upend our relationship with time, just shy of igniting the paradox where we rethink our whole expenditure. 

This is where the paradox leads, rethinking our enterprises with a furrowed brow, to the point where we ask, along with Larry Gopnik, the Coen Brothers’ protagonist in A Serious Man, “What’s going on?”

The question penetrates. We know of no other animal in the world that can ask it. What’s going on here, existentially? This manner of holistic penetration is useful, for it’s clear that homes are only as stable as their foundations, and if our selves are ultimately our homes, there’s urgent architectural motivation to inquire into consciousness, their base, before building too much else. 

If nothing else, Gopnik’s question is the latest product of evolution; a reflective mutation still new on the scene. In asking, we propagate into the Universe, by planting in our-selves, seeds that blossom into an investigation of this most recent, most baffling ploy to live and inhabit the Universe. In asking, I hitch a ride on the forward-most front of life, its youngest limb, and hang on. I remain curious as the next person where the enterprise may lead. I wonder if it may lead home.


This is third in a three-part essay series

These essays slightly differ from my usual. They aren’t reporting on someone else’s text or ideas. Rather, the main text in use is my own life. Quotes are still woven in, but there’s also a little more of myself, my lived experience in there:

Part 1 — The Crisis of Identity at Rest
Part 2 — 
A Eulogy to my Dead Cat and Immortality
Part 3 — Towards a Habitable Consciousness