Who ‘We’ Are: An Existential Analysis

If there is a consensus in the responses I have received to my recent posts about being unhappy and ‘un-present‘, I think it would be:

  • I should be grateful (and ‘get over myself’)
  • I should stop thinking so much and just be
  • I should act (do what my instincts tell me ‘needs’ to be done) and those actions will resolve my unhappiness and lack of presence (along these lines, this fascinating article asserts our actions drive our beliefs — what we do determines who we are — rather than the other way around)

We are, I believe, products of both (a) our biology (‘we’ are a collection, a complicity, of cells and organs in a watery sack, cells and organs that together evolved our minds, our ‘consciousness’, as a feature-detection, protection and mobility management device for their — our organs’ — benefit) and (b) our culture (we are ‘each’ a part of an evolving society, a larger organism, self-organized for our collective survival). Both ‘we’s’ are extraordinarily complex, beyond more than rudimentary knowing, so we flounder around, pushed in often different directions by our biological selves and our cultural selves, profoundly un-self-aware and profoundly ‘alone’.

We have, arguably, no identity — there is no ‘us’ other than our constituent organs (whose consciousness and knowledge are largely unfathomable to our ‘minds’) and the self-delusion of ourselves as ‘individuals’ which has been created and ‘taught’ to us by our culture (through its propaganda tool, language) for their collective purpose. Our cells and organs, our microcosmic selves-as-collection, are in a relentless war with our culture, our macrocosmic selves-as-part, and the battleground is our minds. We might see ourselves as being at the mercy of two colonizing forces, one that created our minds for its purposes and the other trying endlessly to co-opt our minds for its purposes. Except that there is no ‘ourselves’ to be colonized. The suffering and weary terrain of our minds has no natives. There is no ‘us’ to take sides in this battle. We are, as I keep saying, just the space through which stuff (chemicals, information, ideas) passes.

I don’t mean this post to be about the existence, or not, of free will. I am trying to get at something more profound, about the non-existence of identity. When we fall in love, when we crave, or nurture, or erupt, or laugh, or cry, or cower, or mourn, we are doing our biology’s carefully-selected bidding — our cells and organs count on ‘us’ doing these things, for their health and survival, so they flush our minds so full of powerful chemicals that we can do nothing else. When we join others, in war, in celebration, in protest, in recreation, in obedience, in activism, in outrage, in conversation, in solidarity, in community, and especially in acceptance of our social situation, social norms and worldviews, we are doing our culture’s carefully-programmed bidding — our civilization counts on us doing these things, for its health and survival.

When the imperatives of our biology (“go hit on that beautiful creature over there”) and those of our culture (“unfaithfulness to one’s partner — and you can only have one partner —  is a sin with ghastly consequences”) are in conflict, we feel obliged (and empowered) to make a ‘choice’ which to obey. But it is hardly a choice — ‘we’ are in truth merely spectators of the conflict, and they will determine the winner.

When my cells and organs have decided it is in their interest for me to make a bond with someone, they stimulate my imagination to create a fiction in my mind of who that person ‘is’, what they are feeling, and what my relationship with them is or could or should be, that cannot possibly be real, since no one can ‘know’ what it is to be another person. The two of us act out a script, more or less mindlessly, that has been written by our respective bodies, in testosterone and oxytocin and other colourful inks, with characters and plot sufficiently delicious to make us enjoy the performance, and hopefully to enchant us to repeat it, at least until it gets boring and a change of cast is called for.

Likewise our culture uses us, brainwashing us from birth into believing that we have rights within and responsibilities to that culture, and that the way it dictates we live our lives is the only way to live, until we lose awareness that we have given up our freedom (in order to continue at a scale of 7 billion, our culture must now dictate and micromanage our every behaviour) and our health (our bodies are not evolved to cope with civilization’s endless and intense anxiety, so stress-catalyzed chronic physical and mental illnesses are epidemic). And in the process, we have mindlessly desolated our planet and precipitated a sixth great extinction of life on it.

Why has our culture done this to us? As I have written before, I think it is because we became too smart for our own good. Much of what civilization has wrought is an unintended consequence of the evolution of the human brain to the point that our inventions and technologies outpaced our ability to come to grips with their consequences, and to the point that we fell under the thrall of the imagined world inside our heads and others’ ability to manipulate that world, until we became, as ee cummings put it, “everybody-else” — the tide in the war between our biology and our culture shifted inexorably in favour of the latter. Once we became ‘smart’ enough to realize at an existential level that we were completely, utterly alone, we were even more willing recruits to the side of our culture, which comforts us with the illusion that we are not.

So now, retired, with a comfortable pension, free of debts and obligations, living by myself on top of a hill on a staggeringly beautiful island, I am free, at last, to spend the time to contemplate what all this means. To strip off the mask and belief systems and worldview and other gunk that my culture covered me over with for more than fifty years and told me was ‘me’ and stand naked, feral, unencumbered. To stand outside my biological self, still preoccupied with creature comforts and its self-induced chemical addictions. To stand outside my cultural self, so long preoccupied with the carefully-crafted fictions about my ‘self’ and the past and the future and how to behave.

And to realize that, outside of these two warring tyrant ‘selves’, there is no ‘me’. No volition. no ego, no identity, no purpose. Just space.

When I first experienced this ‘spacey’ feeling I feared it was disconnection, which is often, for me, a precursor to depression. But I’m starting to realize that it’s not disconnection from all-life-on-Earth, but from civilization culture, and it’s not disengagement, it’s re-engagement, liberation. It’s just very new to me, and not a little scary. I don’t know what to do with my ‘self’. I am meditating, taking yoga, and spending as much time as possible language-free (no talking or listening or reading or writing). I am listening to, and writing, songs without words. I am spending time in nature trying to just be, to accept what is, to let go, to really see and sense and feel. Raw.

When I am with people, now, even people I love, I am impatient. I don’t want to behave in a ‘civilized’ way anymore. I don’t want to talk at all. I don’t want to care about how others have been trapped by civilization culture, and the terrible minutiae and infinite suffering of their lives — I don’t believe in ‘saving’ people, and recognize (at last) that it is up to them to liberate themselves. I just want to ‘be’ with people who just ‘are’ themselves. Uncivilized. Primal. Wild. In the hope that, in their presence, we can learn together how to be nobody-but-ourselves.

I sit here, naked, on the deck, on the hill, staring up at the moon. Rachmaninoff playing in the background, and the sound of owls in the dark in the nearby trees. Breathing. Letting go. Dissipating, falling apart, crying, howling, becoming part of all-life-on-Earth, which calls me, always, quietly, home.

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8 Responses to Who ‘We’ Are: An Existential Analysis

  1. Brian says:

    What a swell nobody! Dredging to feral.
    A fine celebration. Worth it I think. Thank you.

    And only warriors taste defeat
    And only lovers endure heartbreak
    Only the helpless endure the power
    Only the mindful have oft’ been swept
    For it is the whole in one alone
    As it adds up to the race
    That builds our view, the mount, the throne
    That sets survival’s pace.

  2. dragonfly says:

    I think you are right as far as you go, but I also think you are missing something. I think the either-or choice between a bag of cells and biological imperatives and a culturally imposed identity is not all there is.

    I believe it is possible to peel away one’s self to reveal the emptiness (in the Buddhist sense of that term), but we (or most of us) are not built to live permanently in that state. I believe that we do have to come to terms with our selves as built, whether by biological, cultural or other forces.

    As for the advice that you have so far received, I agree that the shoulds are somewhat laughable, if only on an easier-said-than-done basis. Telling someone what they should stop doing is rather like telling then to stop thinking of a black horse. Right, that’ll work. Howling at the moon is very possibly a far more useful course of action.

    Anyway, following your journey as you write it is thought-provoking and I admire your willingness to sit naked on the internet deck.

  3. Julie says:

    And yet you still need to communicate all this? I think when you are silent you will have achieved what I suspect you are yearning for. Mind you speaking from personal experience you may find yourself more than a little barmy if you completely cut yourself off from the rest of up.

  4. Paul says:

    You hope to “learn together how to be nobody-but-ourselves.” I can understand your impatience, since most of us (even if we want to be nobody-but-ourselves) hardly know how to do that. If you don’t feel like experimenting with interactions with others, then it’s time for a long retreat. Be a hermit for a while! But I hope you don’t take silence to an extreme: a few polite words of gratitude, like “Thanks for the groceries, sorry I can’t invite you to stay,” might be appreciated. And if you’re willing to share more, as in your blog, I’m sure others will benefit in some way; thank you!

  5. Lena says:

    Like dragonfly I too appreciate your willingness to communicate your process. Perhaps you’ll realize that your quest for “happiness” — and thus your unhappiness for not having attained it — is also culturally induced. “Just being” has no room for that.

  6. Martin says:

    Dave –

    I am sorely tempted to write some zen-like and/or astutely wise comment here, but, alas, I am at a loss. Based on what you have written in this essay and others past – and especially the final paragraph of this one – I can only note that you are incredibly blessed sir….

  7. Philip says:

    Dave…have just started reading your site again after a year away. I understand some of your feelings- have felt them also. Our brains are also modular- seeking different goals. Political correctness increased greatly when we left the hunter gatherer existance some time ago. You must have read ‘keep the river on your right’ …explains part of what we are inside our cultural skin. You seem yearning for human created purpose on your hill and yet also know to be connected, in some ways it is best to have none.


  8. Candice says:

    I wonder what this “space” that you are experiencing when your “self” disappears is? Is it nothing? Can there be nothing? When you experience complete dissolution of “self”, does everything disappear, or just your “self”? This feeling of unity or oneness has been called many things. Here is what the Isha Upanishad says about it (trans. by Eknath Easwaran):

    “The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
    The Lord is the supreme Reality.
    Rejoice in him through renunciation.
    Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord…

    …The Self is one. Ever still, the Self is
    Swifter than thought, swifter than the senses…

    …The Self seems to move, but is ever still.
    He seems far away, but is ever near.
    He is within all, and he transcends all.

    Those who see all creatures in themselves
    And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
    Those who see all creatures in themselves
    And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
    How can the multiplicity of life
    Delude the one who sees its unity?

    The Self is everywhere. Bright is the Self,
    Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise,
    Immanent and transcendent. He it is
    Who holds the cosmos together.”

    Enough time spent in quiet contemplation leads all thinking persons to your exact conclusions: no self, non-duality. But what is space/energy composed of then? Dare I say it? Could it be?

    Consider that the answer might be God. Then consider the baggage that word carries in our culture and look beyond the restrictions that language necessarily imposes. Call it something different. “Lord” has baggage too; I like “Self” better. Whatever it is, the substance of the universe exists (or maybe it doesn’t?) and our current selves are a part of it, but not separate from it.

    Wait! That means that you are God, that I am God, that all is God! Or Self. Or whatever you want to call it.

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