“What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward.”
There is no ‘essence’
When we first built our house, we came to our empty block of land and there was a pile of lumber, cladding, roofing iron and stumps sitting on the ground. Over the next couple of weeks this pile of material turned into a house. The same material was now sitting on the block, in the same location, but now it’s ‘essence’ had been transformed from a pile to a house. When we look at a pile of timber, it is the same timber molecules that exist in a tree, and it can be the same timber molecules in a house. The material is the same but the arrangement is different. And the affordance and experience of that material varies profoundly and markedly. A pile of timber on the ground won’t keep you dry, warm and protected on a winter’s night. A tree won’t do that particularly well either, especially on a wild and stormy night. But arrange that timber into a house and you are kept warm, dry and safe. The ‘essence’ of house is not imbued in the timber molecules. You could take the same piece of timber and turn it into a house, a rocking chair, a kitchen spatula or even, if you were skilled enough, into a rose.
Let’s take the example of a rose. What is a rose? It’s a flower of the Rosaceae family. But this includes strawberries, pears, almonds and cherries. So what is a rose? We now have genetically engineered roses that are black! There’s even a rose that is rainbow colored.
With a bit of genetic tinkering magic we could create a black rose that smells of lavender. Would it still be a rose? If I took a nano-fabricator, a device that builds objects one atom at a time, and I took the atoms from a piece of lumber… atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen etc. and built a rose one atom at a time, so that before you was a manufactured rose. But it was identical atom by atom to a ‘real’ rose, it looked identical, smelled identical and felt identical. I’d argue that if you didn’t know I’d ‘manufactured’ it, that you’d think it was a ‘real’ rose. That it had the ‘essence’ of a rose. And isn’t this just what the rose bush does, it manufactures (so to speak) the rose, atom by atom, molecule by molecule in the growth process, so that it can seed and propagate itself. In essence, it is ‘rose-ing’.
Looking deeper – arrangements of energy
So let’s look a little deeper into this idea of ‘essence’. We spoke above of atoms and molecules. So let’s use those to explore this notion. Elements like carbon, oxygen, copper and zinc etc. are made of atoms. Atoms themselves are made of arrangements of protons, neutrons and electrons. These in turn are made of sub-particles, all the way down to what physicists suspect are tiny multi-dimensional wiggling string like energy quanta. Indeed, the field of quantum physics has shown that at the smallest levels, particles are really just probability distributions of energy. And this is backed up by Einstein’s discovery that energy and matter are one and the same,
E is energy and M is mass. You can convert matter to energy and vice versa. So atoms are arrangements of energy!
Now with this insight under your belt, let’s take a look at ‘essence’. If you took a piece of carbon, a black lump of soot or graphite for example. It is relatively hard (indeed, diamond, which is a form of carbon is one of the hardest elements known to man), it tastes like carbon, it is black etc. And it is made up of 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. These components arranged together create a substance that appears to have a particular ‘essence’. But if we add another proton, neutron and electron to this arrangement, we get a very different result. We now have Nitrogen, the clear, odourless, invisible gas that makes up 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere and consists of 7 protons, 7 neutrons and 7 electrons. And underlying all this it’s just energy. So with the same component processes, rearranged in different amounts, we end up with a completely different apparent ‘essence’. It’s as if I was building a house and I added some extra timber and ended up with a very different result. The material is the same, it’s just arranged in a very different way and produces a very different result. And this is what we mistakenly call ‘essence’.
So I hope I’m convincing you that there is no ‘essence’. There is just arrangings of energy and process. And these arrangings, lead to propensities for action, interaction and the production of phenomena and affordance. And this is an incredibly powerful and profound insight that opens up new possibilities that you don’t get if you think things have fixed ‘essences’.
Now these insights have been known about for thousands of years. This knowledge actually predates the erroneous Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Buddhism for example is closest to the scientific understanding of the nature of reality, in that it makes a strong and accurate assertion that all phenomena are empty of any essence,
“What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of essence. Unskilled persons whose eye of intelligence is obscured by the darkness of delusion conceive of an essence of things and then generate attachment and hostility with regard to them.”
There is no ‘essence’ of You!
So there is no inherent essence. There’s no vanilla essence of ‘you’ deep within you, hiding like a platonic ideal. You do not have an ‘essence’. What you do ‘have’, (and this is powerful), is a current arranging of a huge myriad of complex processing that leads to certain propensities for action and responding. ‘You’ are an emergence from the processes that currently constitute your ‘being’. You are a human becoming. There is no ‘essence’ for you to find or discover. And this is the point of my book mBraining and the associated ‘mBraining Evolve your World‘ personal evolution workshop! It’s not about doing a re-birth to find your ‘true’ self. There is no fixed platonic essence you need to connect with and discover. It’s ‘Evolve your World’. It’s about evolving. About changing and creating.
As we teach in mBraining and Evolve, you are inherently creative! You are the author of your self’ing. The self is not fixed but is an emergent phenomena that comes out of your multiple braining. The intelligencing of your body/mind, of your distributed neural intelligences and other underlying processes, gives rise to your ‘self’. And this self-ing and the very neurons that generate it are adaptive, plastic and able to evolve and change. You can do conscious evolution. You can direct your ongoing creation, your evolving and your becoming.
So it’s not about essence. There’s no vanilla essence of you. In reality, there’s just the arranging of you’ing. And the insight of mBraining Evolve is that you are able to evolve yourself wisely to create a more generative way of doing you’ing!
Nothing is fixed, all is flowing
As the great somatic therapist Moshe Feldenkrais pointed out many years ago, “There is nothing permanent or compulsive in your system except what you believe to be so”. So throw away any notions of fixed essences. There is no vanilla essence of the human soul. That road leads to a dead end. You as a human are amazingly adaptive, creative and flexible.
"Every brain evolves in its ability to operate as a processor, as a receiver, as a user of information."
Dr. Michael Merzenich
We have yet to find the limits to what humans can aspire to. We can evolve new neural structurings. We can evolve our minds and bodies. With greater scientific understandings we are learning about the power of epigenetics and how it is influenced by thought and belief. We are learning to tap into the intelligence that exists throughout our bodies. We are gaining a power to become the highest expressing of the human spirit. Evolving your world opens up totally new possibilities in your life and your world. This is its gift and its power.
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