Various Meanings of "Nonjohn"

Tennison's Early Interest in the Perception of Self

    "We have to learn more about the nature of consciousness.  Why is it that the matter that is arranged in a certain way in our head causes us to see ourselves as beings?"

-- John Tennison (AKA Nonjohn) at age 17, Page 1C, Texarkana Gazette, Sunday, July 17, 1986

Thoughts During Medical School

    "The name, 'Nonjohn,' has many meanings.  However, one of the most important meanings for me is its reference to the loss of the sense of self that I have experienced during mystical states of consciousness.  This idea of the self as being an illusion is common in Buddhism and modern neuroscience.  Because this idea has allowed me to be more comfortable with the idea of non-existence, it has had a profound effect on my life.  For example, IF I have never existed in the first place, then the idea of not existing provokes significantly less anxiety."

    "To the extent that the self has EVER existed, the name 'Nonjohn' reminds me of the impermanence of that self, and more generally, of the impermanence of ALL things.  By keeping this idea in mind, I am better able to resist becoming too attached to material objects, and to face my own eventual mortality."

    "The loss of the sense of self, a common characteristic of mystical states, is one that I value highly.  I make my best music during those times when I have completely lost my sense of self.  In general, such experiences seem to be correlated with creativity and optimal functioning."

    "Nonjohn is everything that I am not.  Yet, at the same time, I am Nonjohn."

-- Nonjohn, April, 1995, Stanford, California

The Influence of Buddhism

    "The sense of self as an illusion or as having no definite boundaries runs strong in Buddhism.  Moreover, a sense of self as existing as a separate entity from others can create a divisive mindset that often leads to competition, which at the extreme, results in worldwide wars.  In contrast, those who know the boundaries between self and others are constructions of their imaginations are more likely to promote peace.  While an exchange student in Japan in 1985, I began meditating at a Zen Buddhist temple and began learning about Zen Buddhism.  I am especially fond of the quotation of Japanese Zen Master Yasutani Hakunn Roshi, who said:

"The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there."

    "After returning from Japan to the United States, ideas from Zen Buddhism continued to suggest questions to me about the nature of self and foreshadowed the strong resonance that "Nonjohn" had as a constant reminder that the self, in whose existence I had been taught to believe, was illusionary.  "Nonjohn" is a constant reminder for me to strive to think in terms of a collective self, rather than a separate, individual, isolated self."

-- Nonjohn, July 4, 2005, San Antonio, Texas

Ideas of Non-Self in Neuroscience

For an excellent analytical treatise on the non-existence of self, Nonjohn recommends Thomas Metzinger’s book, “Being No One.”  Thomas Metzinger is Professor of Philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universitat Mainz, Germany.  “Being No One” was published in 2003 by the MIT Press.

Antonio and Hanna Damasio, Professors of Neurology, University of Iowa College of Medicine notes, “Being No One is a superb and indispensable book.  Thomas Metzinger’s intelligence, open-minded honesty, and knowledge combine to produce the most complete and satisfying discussion of the problem of self currently available.”

In the opening paragraph to his book, Metzinger writes, “This is a book about consciousness, the phenomenal self, and the first-person perspective.  Its main thesis is that no such things as selves exist in the world:  Nobody ever was or had a self.  All that ever existed were conscious self-models that could not be recognized as models.  The phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process – and the subjective experience of being someone emerges if a conscious information-processing system operates under a transparent self-model.  You are such a system right now, as you read these sentences.  Because you cannot recognize your self-model as a model, it is transparent:  you look right through it.  You don’t see it.  But you see with it.  In other, more metaphorical, words, the central claim of this book is that as you read these lines you constantly confuse yourself with the content of the self-model currently activated by your brain.”

First Use of "Nonjohn" by Tennison

    John Tennison first began using the name, "Nonjohn," in 1990 after having had a conversation with his friend, James (Jim) Sitterly, a violinist and professional musician in Los Angeles (see  In 1990, Tennison had seen the film, "Dances with Wolves," and as a result, had considered possibly adopting the name of "John Nonfiction" as a name that conveyed Tennison's philosophical or truth-seeking sensibility.  The Native Americans in "Dances with Wolves" had observed Kevin Costner's character playing with a wolf named "Two Socks" in the movie, and as a result, had commented, "You were right.  He is a special white man.  He should have a real name."  Tennison was inspired by the process of adopting a name that captured a fundamental aspect of one's identity, and thus thought "John Nonfiction" might be a good choice.  While living in Los Angeles, Tennison asked his friend, Jim Sitterly, what he thought of the name, "John Nonfiction."  Jim thought for a moment and simply gave the one-word answer, "Nonjohn."  Tennison responded, "Do you mean you like 'Nonjohn' more than 'John Nonfiction?'"  Sitterly answered again by simply saying, "Nonjohn."  After going home and thinking more about "Nonjohn" overnight, Tennison realized that the name had multiple resonances of philosophical, artistic, and scientific meaning beyond any name he had ever considered.  Nonjohn and the ideas the name implied took such strong hold of Tennison that he has never considered adopting another name since 1990.  So you could say that Nonjohn was "born" in Los Angeles in 1990.  Or you could say that Tennison was "unborn" in Los Angeles in 1990.  Thus, as in "Dances with Wolves," "Nonjohn" was a name given to Tennison by Sitterly, someone who intuitively recognized its significance for Tennison.

-- Bill Scribner, webmaster

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