The Myth of the Individual Achiever: A Wormhole Inquiry

December 13, 2016

The paradigm we’re embedded in could be called the Individual Achiever Paradigm. In it we feel like a separate individual that generates achievements by setting goals, creating plans, and realizing them through willful acts. We see ourselves as entities that roam the earth manifesting our dreams and desires.

This seems obvious. We look at ourselves and we see an individual achieving things in the world and we assume that because that is the way things look that must be the way they are.

What we don’t realize is that just because we feel like an individual achiever doesn’t mean that we are one.

You see, as human beings we assume that things are the way we experience them to be. We have been trained to think that reality already exists before we experience it when in fact our experience is shaped by the assumptions, beliefs, and mental processes of perception. These influences that shape our experience of reality can be called the paradigm that we live in.

In the current paradigm we have been taught that our brains are information processing machines. We take in information about the world through our five senses and that information is filtered and arranged into a comprehensible picture of reality. We are also trained to assume that the picture of reality that our mind creates is accurate to what reality actually is.

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with how to determine when something gets to count as real. The accepted means of determining truth today is through the accumulation of evidence and proof.

Unfortunately any proof that we find will be seen through the very same filter of mind that we see through in the first place. It is like looking through rose colored glasses and then saying that the world is tainted red because everything looks that way. Unless you can take the glasses off you will never be able to know what the world really looks like.

There are lots of things you can know about the world while wearing rose colored glasses. You can now how tall buildings are, how fast you’re moving, how many pickles there are in a bushel, but you can’t know anything about color that isn’t predetermined by the glasses you are looking through.

The theory of mind that we have been trained in is called the representational model of mind. We have been taught that reality exists prior to our experience of it and our senses act like a mirror that reflects reality back to us so we can see it.

So when we see experience ourselves to be individuals who set goals, create plans and achieve things we assume that must be who we are.

What if we only experience reality this way because our perception is being shaped so that we do? What if we are wearing ‘individual achiever' colored glasses and so we see ourselves and everyone else as an individual achiever? So we look around and see that it is obvious that we are individual achievers because that is all I see around me.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that it takes an extraordinary intelligence to contemplate the obvious. I believe what he meant was that much of what is obvious to us, only appears obvious because of the preconscious filtering mechanisms of our mind.

So what might an alternative to the Individual Achiever be?

At one time I worked as a school teacher and from time to time I would show nature documentaries to my classes and of all the ones I ever watched my favorite was called The North American Beaver Pond. It was produced by the National Geographic Society and it explored the ecosystem that emerges around beaver ponds in North America.

Beavers are famed as the creatures that chop down trees and use the logs to build dams in streams and rivers. Once the flow of the water has been stopped a pond forms. These beaver ponds become the homes of numerous species of plants and animals and they all depend on the dam. The beavers maintain a home for all of these species by continuously repairing the dam anytime the water overruns it.

As a young child we might imagine that beavers love to chop wood and create ponds. And if we look we can find evidence that supports this reality. Beavers everywhere chop wood and build dams that create ponds. It certainly looks like they love doing it.

In the documentary they give a more scientific explanation. It seems that beavers find the sound of running water deeply agitating and whenever they hear it they start building dams to stop the sound. This has been scientifically studied by playing recordings of running water and finding that the beavers start working on the dam as soon as they hear the recording even though there is no actual water running. So it seems they are not building a dam. They are just trying to get some peace and quiet.

Notice that both explanations are supported by evidence. The problem with evidence based assessments of truth is that the same facts can be interpreted in different ways to lead to different assessments of what is real.

Let’s present a third interpretation of the facts of the beaver pond, but before we do please notice that both the child’s and the scientist’s interpretation above happen inside the individual achiever paradigm. That means that in both explanations we assume that the beaver pond is being formed by the beavers in an effort to fulfill their needs.

What if we don’t assume that the beaver is the agent of the action. Let’s look at the ecosystem that forms around the beaver pond. What we see is frogs and deer and flowers and trees that all start to thrive because the water has been stopped.

The child might think that beavers love the animals and plants so much that they want to create a home for them. The scientist thinks that the beavers have an intolerance for the sound of rushing water and don’t care at all about the pond that forms or the ecosystem it supports.

In either case the focus is on the beavers. What if we look at things from the ecosystem's point of view? What if the ecosystem is the real agent? What if the beavers are intolerant of the sound of running water because the ecosystem needs them to? What if we imagine that the ecosystem is calling itself into existence by making the beavers irritated at the sound of rushing water?

From the beavers' point of view it feels like they can’t stand the sound of rushing water, but looking from the ecosystem's vantage point the beaver needs to feel that way so the pond can form and the ecosystem can thrive. What if the ecosystem was driving the whole process and not the beavers?

It is easier for us to embrace the scientific explanation and assume that the beaver is an individual achiever that incidentally plays a part in a bigger picture. It is harder to imagine that something as intangible as an ecosystem is orchestrating the whole event. But if we do, we start to feel how the actions of the beaver are coming from an intelligence that resides in the entire ecosystem.

The reason it is harder for us to believe in the second explanation is because it is not aligned with our individual achiever sensibilities. But I encourage you to imagine that the ecosystem is the intelligence that is operating through the beavers. Then look at your own actions and activities and think about what higher form of intelligence might be acting through you. Maybe you are not an individual achiever. Maybe we are an active part of a larger whole that is being brought into existence through you.

What does it feel like to start to imagine yourself in this way?

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