“April is the cruellest month” — The first line of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, originally read “February is the cruelest month”, but Ezra Pound insisted it be changed, not to make it truer, but because it sounded better poetically. Image is from iTunes visualizer.
It’s been a stressful and anxious month for me, capping off a third consecutive hard winter in this usually balmy (perhaps in both senses of the word) part of the world. In some ways it’s been good for me — forcing me to face some fears that sometimes border on phobias, and beginning to move past them.
Such is the state of cognitive dissonance in which I live. On the one hand, I know, intellectually and intuitively, that everything I perceive, including my self and its sense of free will and choice and control over my actions and beliefs, is illusory, a trick of the brain, an unfortunate and useless evolutionary accident, a psychosomatic misunderstanding; research (and glimpses) have persuaded me that there is nothing separate, there is no time, and there is no individual person — there is only this, which cannot be known or experienced by any individual. Though there can be glimpses.
And on the other hand, afflicted with this illusion of self-hood and self-control, I am incessantly triggered by what seem to me incredibly stressful and anxiety-creating events, happening to me and those I love, leaving me exhausted and sometimes seemingly hanging by a thread from emotional collapse. It’s really insane.
It’s like watching a horror movie that you don’t want to watch any more, but discovering you can’t stop — you’re utterly immersed in the movie, and knowing it’s not real doesn’t help at all. Or like suffering from ghastly hallucinations that you recognize as such but can’t stop viscerally and endlessly reacting to. Or, of course, like finding yourself in a nightmare from which you cannot wake up.
It’s not usually like that, of course. Most of the time I’m my usual, grateful, blessed, joyful pessimist. Few people have less reason to be stressed or anxious than I do. Doesn’t matter a damn. Every prison-of-the-self is its own unique, inescapable and incomparable hell, much of the time, and knowing it’s a dream makes not one iota of difference. Like everyone, I am merely a reaction, with no control over what is apparently happening or how I apparently respond; on an endless roller-coaster alternatively laughing, and (uselessly gripping tightly) cringing in fear. Lost and scared. For no reason. And there’s no escaping it.
Of course, this is a very dismal and hopeless way of seeing the world. I think my interest in this radically non-dual suggestion of what is really real would never have seriously arisen or lasted (three years now) were it not for the glimpses. So what are these glimpses? Here’s what I wrote about the last apparent glimpse, three years ago:
- It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
- It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just perfect, exactly as it was.
- There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My self would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. The glimpse was completely impersonal, not happening to anyone.
- A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.
- If this is a glimpse, it is not my first, though this one seemed to connect me, through those suddenly recalled memories, to past glimpses. It felt wonderful, but also completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! Of course; how could I not have noticed?
My sense is that such glimpses are not rare among humankind. I suspect they happen all the time, but when the self returns, it just rationalizes that it was a nice blissful state that lasted for a while. The self takes ownership of what happened, and assumes it was a pleasant, temporary, possibly ‘out-of-body’ experience that happened to it. It cannot and will not recognize its own absence, its own unreality; its self-selected job, after all, is to be in control taking responsibility for and making sense of everything that seemingly happens to it.
This is a staggering tragedy. Not that the self is unable to see the truth of its own illusory and dysfunctional nature, but rather that the self, which afflicts us with such needless suffering and misery, such endless anger, rage, sadness, anxiety, fear, shame and depression for no reason whatsoever, evolved in the first place, probably just as an accidental consequence of the evolution of large brains and their capacity to conceptualize a separate ‘self’, which then came to accept and believe that self was real, and in control.
It’s a ghastly, awful cosmic joke that no self can ever get. There is no awakening, no enlightenment for the self, for the individual. Only the endless prison of its own invention. Awakening or enlightenment, or whatever one chooses to call it, only (apparently) happens when the self, mercifully, drops away, leaving only this. And the realization, by no one, that this is everything, this is all there is, a perfect and meaningless and astonishing appearance out of nothing, that needs nothing to be done.
My guess is that we’re getting close to a scientific and philosophical consensus that this is so. But just as there is a growing consensus that there is no such thing as free will, for the billions of human selves on the planet, this consensus will be mostly ignored, ridiculed, even condemned as cruel and escapist and dismissive of the misery of the human condition. The fact that this philosophical, existential schism will probably emerge just as the latest and largest (apparent) human civilization accelerates into chaos and collapse, is going to make the next few decades a fascinating and dreadful unfolding to witness.
In the meantime, if my description of a glimpse doesn’t resonate, I can fully understand that my recent writing must come across as non-sensical, preposterous, and probably annoying. Although there’s nothing any of us can do about it, I wish us all freedom from our selves, and the realization that, always and everywhere, all there is is just awesome, perfect, this, simply, obviously, beyond knowing, and beyond doubt.
But right now I’m still anxious, lost and scared, and this month seems (*sigh*) endless.
You should be grateful that it’s not a leap year!
Seriously though, if there is such a thing as a pessimist or an optimist, why be a pessimist?
(and I agree with everything here btw, except for the free will part)
‘I’ seem to ‘be’ holding on to some hope that ‘I’ have some freewill by the act of ‘being’ aware. Like by ‘being’ aware of ‘my’ thoughts, rather than caught up in them, ‘I’ gain some choice. Just a thought.
Anyhow, as far as ‘I’ know ‘you’ haven’t responded to any of ‘my’ comments. ‘I’ guess maybe ‘I’m’ an uncomfortable mirror for ‘you’ to look at. Which of course if true ‘you’ have no choice about. As well as ‘I’ about writing this.
Since the glimpses appear randomly, its good to stay enrolled in the Model Prisoner program. Since there’s no escape, just be the best self possible while still inhabiting a self. Staggering tragedy? Really Dave?
Martijn, David, Jim: Thanks for the comments. Free will is indeed the crux of all this — and the hardest belief to let go of, but it supports so much else that we live by. I think I am a ‘joyful pessimist’ because it reduces the shocks of bad news — not that I have any choice in the matter! And yes I do think it’s a terrible tragedy. We evolved brains capable of this very clever trick of being able to imagine ourselves as separate from everything, but those brains were then fooled into believing the separateness was real, with all the suffering that brings with it. All for what is likely an accident of evolution, something that arose because it seemed to be a good idea for survival, but was actually just a prescription for unhappiness.
Life can shock you even though you know there is nothing to destroy. A short time ago I tied our beautiful miniature horse Daisy to a peach tree in a similar fashion to what I have been doing for some six years and managed to kill her- the short story. I’m still upset on a daily basis for various reasons. Am reading jordan Peterson’s 12 rules at moment for other perspectives on existence. The lines ‘ any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters – talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.’ struck a cord…..for me. What now does my inexistent self make of this? Jim is right above…since no escape… an agreement has to be made. The relationship with yourself might as well be relevant. I keep going like I’m saving the world even though it’s obvious it’s going to the microbes.
I hear you Philip. The cognitive dissonance between what we intuitively and intellectually know, and what we find ourselves thinking and doing and reacting, is huge. As for Jordan Peterson: “Any idiot can choose…?” Not really. We don’t have choice; that’s the point. Peterson is just one more arrogant person telling people what they should do.
Your experience was real and has been studied. It goes by the name of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience or PNSE as coined by Dr. Jeffery Martin. Identification of an egoless / no-self state also has a long history in Eastern meditative traditions. Buddhist call the transition “stream entry”.
Recent neuroscience research has identified the brain networks associated with transition from an egoic identity to a non-egoic identity. Those networks are now known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Task Mode Network (TMN). This work has been validated with fMRI brain imaging. And interestingly, some people live permanently in the PNSE state you described i.e. with the DMN permanently turned off.
One can find more information about PNSE at the website nonsymbolicdotorg. For a secular discussion of this as state achieved by a Western man, please see Gary Weber and his you tube discussion under the title The Default Mode Network and the End of Suffering. For a theist discussion, see books by Bernadette Roberts where she documents her life as a Christian contemplative and the journey to no-self. A philosophical perspective can be found in the work of Thomas Metzinger in his book “The Ego Tunnel”.
For what it is worth, there are active and large communities of meditative practitioners working to make the temporary experience you relayed a permanent feature of their lives.
All the best.