Where am I? I’ve worked with many koans — riddles intended to get beyond rational thought (whatever that means) — but for me, this is the Swiss army knife of koans, it does it all. If you’ve never considered the locus of your thoughts, do take a minute (or hour, or decade) to ponder the deceptively simple question, Where am I?
Or if you prefer, Where am I thinking? We know, of course, that thoughts happen in the brain, that’s where all the neurons and synapses and the stuff of intelligence and emotion and memory, that’s where they all live. We know that — well, we’ve read it, it’s common knowledge, right? We’re not benighted like the ancient Greeks, who thought all thinking and feeling was harbored in our hearts (heart, cardiac, courage, credible, cordial, credo all derive from the same Indo-European root kerd-). They thought that the brain (where we feel nothing, after all) was maybe some kind of cooling system. Aristotle wrote, “The brain, then, tempers the heat and seething of the heart.” After watching decapitated chickens running around, he postulated that all emotion springs from the heart, while the Stoics claimed that the heart is the seat of the soul. Another guess, also attributed to the Greeks, was that the brain’s only raison d’être was to manufacture blood and semen.
We’re smarter than the ancient Greeks. We know we think with our brains. Researchers, for instance, can see the brain in action as they watch PET and fMRI scans of increased blood flow to different parts of the brain when a subject is asked to think of different things. But can we feel it? Do we have any visceral sense where thinking is actually happening?
This is akin to finding “myself.” Where is this “self” that I speak of so frequently and effortlessly, to whom I refer every time I precede a verb with “I” — as I’ve done three times — make that four! — in this sentence? There’s something happening alright, some process I label “thought” that I confidently ascribe to “me.” But whereas when I hear a sound, or feel a touch, or see anything, I can identify the general direction it’s coming from. What about a thought/feeling/memory/idea? Where’s that coming from? Where am I?
UPDATE ON LAST WEEK’S COLUMN
…in which I mourned the impending massacre of 219 eucalyptus trees adjacent to the 101 safety corridor. The trees are slated for removal prior to building the last stretch of the Humboldt Bay Trail. Our county supes met last Tuesday and accepted the staff report: go ahead with the trail, cut down the eucalyptus. But first, they wanted to get the opinion of two arborists to conduct detailed risk assessments and consider options, from complete tree removal to less draconian mitigation efforts.
Since it’s going to be at least a couple of years before construction of the trail’s four-mile gap (aka “Humboldt Bay Trail South), that should be plenty of time to see what a couple of tree specialists have to say. Hey, maybe they’ll even recommend the compromise of topping the trees in question, as I suggested last week. For details, read Ryan Burns’ coverage of the meeting here. And in response to a couple of comments that topping the trees would kill them: take a look at 219 happy and healthy eucalypti north of the redwood mill entrance next time you’re passing. They were topped in 1969.