Between the real and the artificial

We hear often that we ought to live in the present moment. What does living in the present moment mean?

Our species evolved as tribes of hunter and gathers in the jungle, tens of thousands of years ago. Every minute of our lives, we had to pay attention to our surroundings – a rustle in the bush, some water in the horizon, a bright red berry behind the foliage, an approaching thunderstorm, the length of days, the change of seasons. Each of these events had a profound effect on our lives. It was in this backdrop that our organs, our hormones, our feelings and our behaviour evolved.

In that era, every human lived in the present moment – there was no other choice. It was a survival skill. Anybody who drifted off from the present moment was dead sooner than they could snap out of their trance. It was an era of survival of the present. Merely the present.

Therefore, paying attention to the present moment – to what was real here and now, was our natural state. We had sharp senses. Our lives were filled with excitement. However, it wasn’t all good. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was fraught with fear and struggles. Living through every single day was a victory.

At some point, our fear got the better of us. We responded to the fear by seeking safety in in artificial constructs that distracted us from the real world. Safety in numbers. Safety in civilization. We started off by drawing in caves. With writing, we leaped forward by giving our thoughts a form that can be transmitted without losses. From one person to another. From one generation to another.

Fast forward to today – all our constructs are artificial – money, educational degrees, companies, religion, nations, the law. All these things exist only in our mind or on paper. Yuval Harari mentions how the company Peugeot, does not exist in the real world. It is simply an abstraction that exists on paper – in our minds. The moment we shred those papers, and people forget about Peugeot, it ceases to exist. A tree that we pass by on our way to work is quite different. Even if all human beings disappear, this tree would continue to stand tall and green.

We do not recognize the illusions we have created because we are steeped in them like fish in water. From masters of living and engaging with reality, we have turned into masters of simulation. Masters of verisimilitude. Think about the word verisimilitude – the appearance of being true or real. There are few words that can better describe our present state.

And yet, we all crave for the thrill of the jungle. We long to feel “alive”. We simulate this thrill in the form of computer games, sports, treks, ultra-marathons and other endeavours that fuel the thrill we once felt as we roamed the Savannah. These simulations attempt to create the thrill while avoiding the fear of living in our natural state.

But an animal removed from its natural state suffers. Sure, animals in zoos live longer in the safety of their cages. But they suffer from strange illnesses – illnesses of the mind, illnesses of the imagination. Illnesses of the lack of imagination.  The departure from their natural state makes them depressed.

We humans are condemned to dance between these two worlds – the natural one in which we have evolved and the artificial one which we have constructed.

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