Life is a funny beast. Chemical processes that can be studied and understood in isolation interact with each other and become biological processes. A system emerges that can not be explained by its parts.
Consciousness, mind, may be the most ephemeral. What is life? Is it ATP production? Muscle contraction? Neurons firing in the brain?
Consider the person — a bag of oozy bits that ought not to work together and it sings and dances and makes war. It loves and loses. Inexplicable things happening that make a person: joy and pain:
…and along the edges of that pain I found a deeper appreciation for my work and my life. At the time, it felt that my world was narrowing beyond recognition for each. It took adjustment to recalibrate to gratitude.
— Jodi Ettenberg at Legal Nomads writing about having an ancient heart, having an old soul.
There are children that seem to harbor deep wisdom although maybe it is more true because it is fresh and plainly stated. Most people know one or two, who stop in their doings and runnings to utter marvels and then continue to play. Some never grow out of it and regard many parts of life more deeply than others — they take care to notice: how animals feel, what is unsaid, the differences and similarities between individuals.
There are old ways, paths long trod. Some tell stories and reflect on why the paths exist and who walked them.
Other old ways — habits — are poison to the mind. Here is a thing we don’t understand, the mind, being, and it rules our lives.
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind And trouble will follow you As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
— attributed to Buddha, in the Dhammapada.
Plant a thought and reap a word; plant a word and reap an action; plant an action and reap a habit; plant a habit and reap a character; plant a character and reap a destiny.
— Bishop Beckwaith in “A Logical Proposition,” The Sunday Critic, 22 November 1885
This river can flow both ways — habits become actions and then beliefs and then thoughts. Soon we are thinking a certain way because we acted out of habit, inattentive, automatic, and the brain, doing its thing, compensated so we begin to believe it is the right thing to do, the right decision. Decisions feel good or bad because of neurochemical reactions and the brain strives for homeostasis. What releases the chemicals or the enzymes to work on them? We learn more every day1 and still know so little! But we do a thing and feel a way and the brain compensates to become even again. And maybe the next time we do that thing we don’t feel so bad.
There’s psychology in there as well, justification and other structures, but they are governed by these disparate systems that act together and make a golem that moves and thinks and does. And at some point we are alive and can wonder who put the words in our heads?
Old ways, well-worn, become pitfalls, quagmires, swamps.
I know some people who follow their old ways. Nominally progressive, they quietly complain against immigrants and taxes, eco-friendly packaging, LED lightbulbs. Some smoke cigarettes — who would have imagined that this feels anachronistic — or will not learn how to use a computer just because it is different. Neither of those is a marker by itself, but these people I know have a lack of regard for consequences of their choices and wish to place blame on all others because they have “always done it this way.”They are not physically old, in years or failing cells, but their thoughts are. Sometimes this is me and I look in the mirror and wonder when I became old of spirit.
Awareness, mindfulness, presence. The old souls are that way because they notice, freshly, more than most. They see the expectations and the reality and see where they diverge, and even if they do not know why the wonder why. They can forge a new path because they are aware of the old way and its hazards and because their regard is the essence of curiosity and wonder and discovery.
I am trying to be be more of an old soul. It is not always easy but it is worthwhile.