Remote Listening

And so I heard from two people in my past, a friend in high school, and the husband of a teacher I may have passed in the hallway of that high school.

Before the Internet, I wondered if thinking about someone was more than just an idle notion. Was it possible that we are not alone with out thoughts and that, in the same way that subatomic particles could interact with each other by winking in and out of existence across impossibly far distances, so might our thoughts be interactions, ways of touching, communicating, being with people, living and dead.

Have you done that thing, in private, when no one is looking, or asking you to be a serious, grown-up type person who doesn’t believe in things that cannot be proven–when you think of a person who has since died, or another you do not even know is still living, or just someone you knew too briefly, and hoped that you can say something to that person, if only for an imaginary moment?

We’re not allowed to do such things in public (unless you’re doing it on a cell phone). We can’t admit that we wish we weren’t so much alone–especially when we’re surrounded by people we work whom we’d rather NOT know so well. For me, loneliness has always been a specific passion ironically triggered by the presence of other people. I never want to speak to, or hear from, anyone person. It’s always someone specific.

Over the many years that I was isolated from the person who was to become my wife, I thought of her just about every day. We can go back now to days, weeks, minutes and find that, yes, when I was wallowing in the blues about her being somewhere else, she was also thinking of me.

This isn’t so wonderful as we wish it would be: our brains think a great deal (I was told recently that about 60,000 thoughts run through our consciousness every day–I found this disappointing and confusing. How do we count these things? How do we distinguish one thought from another? When is a thought over and one with? And why 65,000? Why not 62? Are these thoughts profoundly unique or squeaky repeats? Is this a good thing that so many thoughts gurgle along our synapses? Or should we slow down a little, pick a few choice notions from the gushing torrrent, sip them gently, swish them around in our mental mouth, contemplate the terrior that nurtured the vintage and, at some lofty point, swallow?) and, with so much thinking going on, patterns emerge. Our neurons tend to rewire when we repeat activities, or mull over a problem. Daydreaming isn’t the wasted time: it’s actually a way we process information.

And these processes can become habitual. As Tom Jones must sing at every performance, “It’s not unusual…” to think of someone who has had an effect on you, so that repeated thoughts become customary, familiar, welcome. The people I tend to think about are (or were) living in an American society that, despite who voted for whom in the last presidential election, experience similar things in a day. Run the statistics and two people who may have known each other for a limited period may eventually think of each other at one point or


Ahh, but why would they think of each other and not…someone or something else? Here we have so many possible variables that could trigger the imagination, or maybe turn some screws that were already rather loose, and…we get this idea, feeling, sense of character, identity, familiarity.

Arthur C. Clarke has been quoted famously for stating that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic to the uninitiated. What about the reverse? Are there times when technology is so specialized, complicated or just tedious, that we must step back and see it as magical in order to appreciate it?

This happens in cooking when you eat the food. So much goes into bringing that food to you, and, if you think about it while eating, it just doesn’t taste as good as when you bring it to your lips and let the flavors, textures, heat (or chill) fill your mouth.

So why not believe, occasionally, when no one is looking and you don’t have to be that rational, sensible person you were when you voted in the last presidential election,  that thoughts are more than the sum of their parts, that we are not completely isolated in our heads, and that thinking of someone here can somehow connect you to that person, wherever that person may be?

Because it can get scary. Suddenly the private opinions we may keep to ourselves become something…public. It’s not just God above (or some angel when, as Tom Waits sings, “God’s away on business”) hearing (and certainly disapproving most of) your inner monologue, it’s…someone else!

It’s astonishing but true: for about a decade the U.S. Army spent money trying to see if “psychic” powers could be used as a way of spying on an enemy at a distance without using any mechanical or technological devices (read all about it: The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson, non-fiction basis for the film comedy that starred George Clooney).

Just close your eyes, think of that person place or thing and…you’re there!

If only we could be sure that this wasn’t just wish-fulfillment and imagination. It turns out that imagination is also a pattern-filled thing. The few successes in this program may be just as easily explained away by coincidental, and entirely unrelated, similarities in what we imagine, and what may actually exist, in that person, place or thing.

But what if there was more to our imagination than just what was in our brain? What if our mind was as much a receiver as a transmitter?

Thus we get the idea of remote listening. In a quiet place where you won’t have to check your cell phone, answer the door, or take orders from a person who really shouldn’t be your boss but is, open yourself, without judgement, without fear of failure, not just to a single person, place or thing, but to…

Watch what happens.




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