Recently I’ve been writing a lot about non-duality — the idea that the separate, in-control, free-willed self is an illusion and that ‘all-there-is’ is one ‘aliveness’, one ‘beingness’ that is ‘nothing expressed as everything’. It’s a difficult (perhaps impossible) idea to understand, because while our (apparent) thinking, striving selves can come to appreciate it conceptually, they can’t ‘realize’ it, because they are in the way of it. It only becomes apparent (to ‘not-us’) when the self drops away.
This ‘radical non-duality’, which denies that there is any path or process or practice that the self can use to achieve ‘enlightenment’ (because it’s only the seeking self that isn’t already enlightened, liberated, aware of ‘all-there-is’), is probably the most criticized of all so-called non-dual messages. Some people describe it as logically or tautologically self-contradictory or disingenuous. Some claim it is lazy (an excuse to give up trying to ‘become better’). Some insist it is nihilistic and will lead believers to disengagement, insensitivity and depression. Tony Parsons, whose fundamental statement of this message I wrote about in April, has been attacked from all sides, but he just soldiers on, honing and repeating this message patiently for those interested in it. Two slightly different statements of it from Tony, for those who prefer to listen rather than read, are here and here. They are taken from his regular European ‘meetings’ which consist simply of an opening message like the above, followed by a few hours or a few days of Q&A to explore the message and its implications.
He says his reason for holding these meetings is that people have asked him to, and he’s pleased to do so, while warning that they can be frightening or annoying for some, and that they offer no process or other ‘hope’ for the letting go of the illusion of the separate self and hence for any ‘enlightenment’ or ‘liberation’. That will happen or it won’t, he says, regardless of one’s conceptual understanding of it. The meetings appear to offer attendees (and listeners like me) an intellectual appreciation of what underlies our fundamental unhappiness with ourselves and our world, and can, he says, sometimes provoke an ‘energetic shift’ that allows this falling-away (essentially, death) of the separate self to occur. He says that’s what seems to have happened to his former self. Others, like Jim Newman, Andreas Müller and Kenneth Madden, now offer very similar ‘radical’ non-dual messages and meetings.
Of course I’ve been talking with many of the people I know about this message, since I find it so intriguing and intellectually appealing. I get a lot of strange looks, and concerns about my mental health. I realize that my appreciation for it has taken time and required a certain vector of intellectual study, without which I’d probably find it as preposterous as most others do.
What’s missing from the explanation of the messages and the meetings, I think, is an explanation of how (not why) the apparently separate self evolved. So, with some knowledge of complexity but only enough knowledge of evolutionary biology to be dangerous, I thought I’d try one out. Here it is:
Evolution, as Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin have explained, is a process that seems to have a set of rules but no particular purpose or goal. There is no ‘progress’, only a continuous, substantially random experimentation, with the ‘successful’ experiments continued and the unsuccessful ones abandoned. The primary ‘rule’ of evolution is that survival of a particular creature or environment depends upon ‘fitting in’ optimally with all other living creatures and environments. If a creature fits in and enhances the quality of life of the complex whole, it will survive and procreate; otherwise it won’t. If an environment leads to a high quality of life for the creatures that co-create it, it will endure; otherwise it will be changed by the creatures to one that does. In this way, for example, the earth’s early atmosphere that was toxic to most forms of life evolved, by trial and error over billions of years, into one that sustains a remarkable diversity of life. Likewise, creatures that were unable to adapt to this evolving environment perished, while those that could thrived, as long as they coexisted in mutual cooperation with other creatures who collectively supported that environment and ecosystem.
There is no ‘reason’ for these rules; they just are. The result on this planet has been delightful, but if it hadn’t been, evolution would have continued regardless, according to these same rules. There may be other places or universes where different rules apply, and the whole thing may just be a game played by no one for no reason; to our great annoyance, that’s all beyond our understanding.
So what has appeared to happen on this planet has been a profusion of complex life and periods of greater complexity intermingled with great extinctions, depending on random variables and how the ‘game’ played out. None of it has required anything that could be called ‘consciousness’.
I’m positing that at some point, an evolutionary experiment occurred in some creatures that might be called ‘instinct’. The evolution of an instinct to fight, flee or freeze at times of great existential threat to the survival of the collectivity of a creature, enabled by the growing complexity of neurons in some of these creatures (whether the evolution of neurons was an accident or conferred some evolutionary advantage and hence was perpetuated we cannot know), turned out to be of at least short-term evolutionary advantage in itself. Hence creatures with such ‘instincts’ survived and thrived.
What is this ‘instinct’? We could argue that it is ‘subconscious’, but it would seem to require a sense that the collectivity of the creature that ‘has’ it is somehow ‘separate’ and ‘threatened’ — that it has, at least subconsciously, a sense of ‘self’.
Or does it? If the instinct evolved and is a ‘successful’ evolution, why should it require any sense of self or separateness or sub-consciousness? Watch the incredibly sophisticated fleeing, freezing and hiding behaviours of a silverfish (an ubiquitous insect that has thrived on the planet for half a billion years) and ask what is driving this creature’s behaviours. Are silverfish conscious of being separate ‘selves’ under threat, or some kind of automatons with enough intelligence or instinct to ‘know’ when and where to go and how to hide so you can’t find them or get at them? Where does this intelligence and instinct reside? How did they ‘learn’ this, especially in the context of your unique house and this specific time and set of circumstances? Whatever your answer, you have to agree that this behaviour is evolutionarily successful and quite complex.
Now consider the fight/flight/freeze behaviours of small mammals and birds. More sophisticated, of course, but does this reflect a sense of separate ‘self’ the insects lack? Biologists agree that crows have a separate sense of self and a ‘theory of mind’ — an awareness of the separateness of others and an ability to speculate on those others’ behaviours. These creatures also exhibit fight/flight/freeze behaviours, but are they substantially different from those of insects? What’s been observed is that after dealing with existential threats mammals and birds “shake off” the threat, and some scientists’ speculation is that they then return to “now time” — a connected, timeless state in which that sense of separateness and self vanishes.
And next, of course, consider our own species. We also have instincts (too often ignored), and there is growing scientific evidence that the separate ‘self’ we conceive of is just that — a concept of the mind that doesn’t ‘reside’ anywhere and the existence of which cannot be scientifically validated. Scientists have also showed that when we believe we are making a decision to do something, the neural activity associated with decision-making actually occurs after the action has begun, suggesting the ‘mind’ or ‘self’ doesn’t make decisions, it simply rationalizes them after the fact. The model of self the mind constructs needs to justify its actions and ‘itself’, so it adjusts the facts to suit the model it has constructed — the model of a separate self ‘inhabiting’ the body with self-control, free will and conscious choice.
Why would the separate ‘self’ have evolved in such a powerful way in humans (and perhaps some other creatures), to the point it convinces ‘itself’ it exists, is in control and has responsibility and free will to make decisions and take actions? And why would it evolve to the point it continues to ‘exist’ at all times except during deep sleep, rather than just during times of existential threat?
I would speculate that this evolved as an exaptation (an unintended consequence of the continuing enlargement of the brain and brain capacity), rather than as an adaptation essential to or highly useful to our evolutionary survival. Evolution is a process of constant random variation (experimentation) to ‘test’ the possibilities of different evolutionary adaptations. That’s how the ‘rules’ of evolution work. Birds evolved feathers, scientists now believe, for light-weight temperature regulation, and only later did the exaptation of flight with those feathers evolve as a very successful experiment that has continued to evolve since.
Flight was an accident. Was the evolution of the ‘enduring self’ and its belief in control, free will, choice, responsibility, and the permanent existence of ‘time’, similarly an accident, an exaptation? I think this is highly plausible. In the short run, the emergence of continuous self-awareness (self-consciousness) might well have been evolutionarily successful — it would allow keener diligence over the safety of the creature, and enable the development of tools (technologies) that benefit that creature over the longer term. Those tools would include settlement (civilization), agriculture, language, self-domestication and weaponry.
In the longer run, however, such an exaptation would likely be severely problematic. While other creatures could shake off the stress of brief ‘self-consciousness’ and return to a peaceful state, the illusion of continuous self-awareness would bring with it continuous stress, a never-ending sense of anxiety and alert for danger (and the imagination to conceive of all kinds of new, non-existent dangers). The body evolves very slowly — could it adapt to this sudden continuous stress?
The illusion of continuous separateness and self-awareness would also bring disconnection from the sense of unity, cooperation and oneness that has been such an evolutionary success since the dawn of life, and hence lead to actions that would harm other creatures, possibly to the extent it would threaten entire species, environments and ecosystems. And with the false sense of control and free will, it would bring a sense of authority, competence, manageability and superiority that would make its actions reckless and even more destructive, and lead to massive conflicts with others with the same sense of superiority.
The problem is that, as it evolved more and more elaborate tools to ‘make sense’ of its apparent sense of separateness, self-control, free will, power, superiority and responsibility, the sense of separateness has become so pervasive that we can no longer imagine it not being real. It’s like a coat we put on to play a role and now cannot take off. It has become ‘us’. It’s a prison that keeps us locked up during our entire illusory time-bookended lives, and causes us endless suffering. Despite all we do (believing our actions to be a result of our free will and choice), things don’t ever seem to get better for any extended period of time, and we struggle ceaselessly with anxiety, fear, anger and grief over things we think we can or ‘should be’ able to control, or things we think are being controlled by others (other people, gods etc). The only escape is to let the illusory separate self ‘die’ — and the self isn’t about to allow that to happen until there is no other choice.
Of course, it’s possible that Tony’s critics are right and this is all just a fanciful, plausible, unprovable, dangerous, hopeless idea. And it’s possible that it’s my laziness, my exhaustion with a lifetime of struggle, making me want to believe it.
But the other possibility is that he’s right. That the emergence of the illusory separate self was an accident of evolution, with short-term advantage but in the longer term disastrous for our suffering selves and our desolated world. That ‘natural reality’ is perfect, wondrous, and free of suffering (though not free of pain). And that, having lost our sense of that natural reality very early in our lives, ‘we’ cannot hope to find it again.
Though I remain the eternal Doubting Thomas, this makes more sense to me, intuitively, than any other explanation for why things seem to be the way they are, that I have heard. Brief glimpses of ‘natural reality’ that have occurred throughout my life (when ‘I’ briefly dropped away), and the sincerity of those offering this message, this explanation, suggest to me that this is, just possibly, what’s really happening. The implications are mind-boggling.
So here I stand, believing, as much as I believe anything, that ‘I’ am an illusion, but that I am powerless to be or do otherwise. It seems a discouraging, tragic message, but still, I’d rather know than continue to believe a lie, even if the truth is, ultimately, a message of hopelessness and grief. Somehow, it fills me with joy, with the exhilaration of knowing that the insanity that is this life and this world is not real. This is not ‘real’ liberation, but it’s liberating knowledge. It will have to do.
It’s not that different, in that sense, from the other two great realizations I have come to in the past decade: that our civilization will end, mostly unpleasantly, in this century, and that there is nothing I can do about that; and that we’re all doing our best, even the apparent despots and tyrants and murderers and inflictors of suffering and misery and trauma, and that ‘our best’ more often than not actually makes things worse.
These three realizations are the terrible knowledge of our species, here and now. And despite them all, life is amazing, wonderful, beautiful, and worth everything.
image: photoshopped image of ‘anonymous’ from pixabay.com (CC0 license — public domain dedication)