What we think of as our ‘life’ is actually just an infinite series of fragments. Each day when ‘we’ awaken, a useless bit of software that has evolved in our brains starts up and stitches together from ‘memory’ what it believes to be the record of a continuous ‘self’ — events, beliefs, and what it perceives to be its (that is, your) history, thoughts, feelings, attributes, skills, passions, preferences, and apparent purpose, drawing on its ‘knowledge’ as far back as ‘it’ can ‘remember’.
It’s a brilliant trick, the brain’s way of trying to make sense (using its largely unused capacity) of the firehose of data coming at it from all its senses, from the body of genes and organs it seemingly evolved to serve, and from ‘intuition’ — that ‘teller of truths’ (if you listen carefully enough) beyond knowing. The extraordinarily complex human brain no longer uses its mental cycles to appreciate (in the true sense of that word) and co-evolve with everything around it, everything it is a part of, what is. Instead, it amuses itself looking for patterns and ‘meaning’ outside itself. It believes that such a process can help it cope, and thrive, and it believes that it has the free will and control to make use of the sense and meaning it conjures up.
So it would have ‘me’ believe that the little 6-year-old boy pictured above left is the same ‘person’ as the 66-year-old man, looking equally mystified, pictured above right. And it would have ‘me’ believe that, between the times the two photos were taken, some tiny homunculus residing invisibly in the apparent body of the little boy has steadfastly and continuously steered and directed this inhabited creature to strive, grow, mature, progress and finally ‘become’ the old man.
But there is no homunculus, no ‘thing there’. That little boy is not, and never was, ‘me’. Neither is the old man. There is no me, beyond the fantasies of the brain trying desperately to draw equivalence and connection between things that are just, apparently, happening. There is a body, an apparent ‘creature’, an apparatus of skin, water, bones and organs, or of cells, or of molecules, or of atoms, or, drilling down, of an infinite number of increasingly-tiny apparent constituents, all in continuous flux, that, the closer you look, don’t really have any cohesion at all, no boundaries, no substance, and most of all, no continuity. Everything is just another way of looking at nothing. And yes, I know that unintelligible statement is annoying. I wish there were a more coherent way of saying it, but I’m quite sure there is not.
That little boy, when the photo was taken, was just beginning to get snared in the mass deception of separateness. He was meandering in and out of it, finding the rigidity and desperateness-to-know of being a separate ‘person’ exhausting and terrifying, yet witnessing others, more ‘popular’ than he, embracing it. He was happiest when he was just part of everything, unconscious of and oblivious to ‘his’ existence apart. He was happy when it was his senses and instincts, the connected-with-everything parts of ‘him’ that seemingly preoccupied and motivated him, and unhappy when it was his thoughts and ideas and conceptions and beliefs and feelings, the ‘self-conscious’ parts of ‘him’, that preoccupied and motivated him. Yet strangely everyone encouraged him towards this latter, unhappy existence.
So, unhappily burdened with this fearful, ridiculous ‘self’, he grew up socially awkward, and mystified by lies, deceptions, fierce emotional reactions, and acts of selfishness and cruelty. Such behaviour seemed completely deranged. So he hid from it. Perhaps it was just a nightmare, this mad, awful behaviour, and he would one day awaken from it and everything would be perfect and eternal and connected, as it was, before.
But one’s embodied nature can only withstand the relentless barrage of enculturation by others, so sure of their separateness and its wisdom, for so long before one leaves behind one’s perceptions of the connection and perfection of everything, and adopts the ubiquitous mask of individuality, with its language, beliefs, ideas and emotions borne of assurance of the separateness of everyone and everything.
For 60 (apparent) years ‘I’ have played this game, pretended to be what I ‘know’ I am not. Sixty years ago I somehow knew there was something terribly wrong, sad and sick with everything I was told was true. But as politicians and despots and other professional liars keep showing, if you’re told something, no matter how ludicrous, again and again for decades by everyone you know, with everyone telling you it’s true with absolute certainty, you start to believe it. You begin to act as if you believe it. This is the nature of enculturation. You come to believe that humans are individuals with free will and choice and self-control, and that humans are the crown of creation, endowed with the wise and magical ‘consciousness’ of their separateness and ‘intelligence’ unique on the planet and possibly in the universe.
You come to believe in your capacity to shape your life, and that it has a trajectory and a purpose and a meaning, that it and everything has a beginning and end, a ‘progressing’ ever forward in time, only to smash into the bitter rocks of death just as wisdom is dawning.
You come to believe there is a you, that there was a 6-year-old you that was and is the same person as the you that exists, separate from everything and everyone else, today, and will exist until… well, there the agreement ends and the truly magical thinking, constrained by the horrific prison of the self, begins.
How did we humans get to this insane place?
For millennia, since the emergence of the self, we have come to believe some truly preposterous things: That the earth was created in 6 days by a humanoid deity. That human health can be “improved” by lobotomies, bloodletting, phrenology, “hysteria” treatments for women, faith healing, burning at the stake, shock treatments, etc. That some humans (by race, gender or other distinction) are naturally, or scientifically, or by the grace of some god, superior to others, and entitled to abuse and even “own” their inferiors. That the sun and everything else revolves around the little blue planet we creatures seemingly happen to live on.
Few people still share the beliefs above, but there are many others, just as absurd, that most people continue to believe fervently: That the planet and universe somehow ‘began’ with a big bang, ‘before’ which there was nothing and no time and will perhaps end with a singularity (our newest creation myth). That there is some outer limit to what is, and some fundamental essence of which all-that-is, is composed. That we can and do (or soon will) ‘know’ absolutely what is real, what is right, and what is true. That our species can and will overcome every challenge it faces, and is destined for immortality and to reach out and fill the empty, ‘undeveloped’ universe. That we can grow and steward our population and our use of resources and our creation of wastes, forever, simply by being ever-smarter and/or ever-more-cooperative about how we do it. That the way we live (in our now-global culture, and in our various local micro-cultures) is, though it may need a bit or a lot of tweaking, the only possible sane way to live. That soaring rates of illness in industrialized nations are despite human progress and the modern diet, rather than because of them. That there is such a thing as progress. That ‘prehistoric’ humans lived short, brutal lives of immense struggle and suffering, and that life for our species has never been better.
At an ever-accelerating rate, we are starting to appreciate that none of these beliefs is true — that we have been lying to ourselves and to each other since our species first developed the capacity to lie and the language and other tools to do it convincingly. There is nothing malicious in any of this. Just like our geocentric, anthropocentric, overtly misogynist, blood-letting forebears, we lie because we don’t want to know the truth, or because we don’t want our loved ones to be hurt by the truth, or because we cannot bear the truth, or because the truth is just too complex to understand and we cannot bear not knowing. We can’t help ourselves. We have to believe we know, and that we will soon know better.
Cast aside all the beliefs above and it is easy to despair. When we realize that essentially everything we have believed all our lives was true is a lie, our immediate reaction is to find “some other story, a new story” that we can believe in instead. But that merely takes us further down the rabbit hole, into wacky unprovable “string” theories, faith in magical thinking, scientism, creeping nihilism (“nope, that isn’t going to work either”), pursuit of charismatic ‘leaders’ with easy answers, or mind-shattering cognitive dissonance.
And that’s where we are, in this modern world, desperately casting about for a new story and clinging fiercely but ambivalently to the discredited ones that underlie our entire civilization. We are caught in an existential limbo that is spreading throughout that entire civilization, and setting it aflame, as one seeming truth after another is pulled from under us. This has been going on for ten thousand years, though that’s just an instant in the evolution of our planet. It is now happening at a furious pace.
That’s where the six-year-old boy and the 66-year-old man came into the picture. The six-year-old boy ‘knew’ this was all madness, a made-up game in an anguished, dreadful rush to make sense of what ultimately made no sense at all. He ‘knew’ that the answer didn’t lie in the old stories or in a new story, in the discredited, preposterous beliefs or in a new set of precariously cobbled-together replacements. He could still ‘remember’ that place outside of space and time, that place that is without separation, without struggle, without suffering. That place that has no need for action, for beliefs, for knowing, for planning, for striving, for theories, for ideas, for progress, for meaning or purpose, for despair, or any emotion other than simple wonder.
Somehow, the 66-year-old man who does not exist and is not the same as the six-year-old boy, ‘knows’ this too. It had been forgotten, but recently, thanks to the blessing of time and resources and some little-exercised capacities, that place without separation is remembered.
This is not a matter of faith. It is not something ‘I’ believe, or that I just want to believe. It is not a ‘state’ and there is no ‘path’ to it. It is not ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’ or ‘awareness’ or (thank heavens) a ‘higher consciousness’. It is not a ‘process’ of ‘letting go’.
It is the realization that there is nothing to let go of. But it is not ‘my’ realization.
I am not a believer that there will be, soon, the humanists’ dream — a sudden global raising of ‘consciousness’ just in time for us to work, furiously and together, to reform and save our staggering civilization just before it shatters. You know — the Hollywood ending. Isn’t going to happen.
But it is not impossible that, sooner or later, the self that afflicts us all will become untenable. That ‘it’ — the illusory separate self — will ‘realize’ it serves no useful function and will just fall away. It will not go easily. ‘We’ will not go easily. ‘We’ cannot believe that the world would be possible, better, perfect, without ‘us’. It will happen when the bodies we presume to inhabit die, in any case. But it might happen ‘before’. My guess is that it won’t happen, on any scale, before the end of the gradual, rolling but ultimately total collapse of our global industrial civilization by the end of this century. The self digs in harder when it feels threatened.
But I think it will happen as new human societies dawn in the millennia after civilization’s fall. It will happen at first because there will be no need for the self to emerge in the first place, in a peaceful future world of abundance and relatively free of stress. And then, victim of the virus of reconnection to everything-else, selves will fall away, unneeded and ignored — the useless bit of software will be mothballed in the brain, and the liberated human creatures will not encourage its re-emergence in their children and communities.
It will be realized that everything ‘we’ in our civilization culture believed so fervently was as ridiculous as our earlier belief in “the vapours” and the rewards of animal sacrifice.
All that will be left is fragments, pieces of everything appearing, wondrously, to no one, yet appreciated, awe-inspiring, beyond anything that ‘we’ could ever have imagined.
‘We’ won’t be missed.