cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti
I am looking in the mirror. I no longer see myself; I have come to appreciate that this creature, this character, this strange water-filled bag of organs called a ‘human’, is not ‘me’, that despite what I had always thought, I do not occupy it, own it, or control it.
It is easier for me to empathize (with it) when I see this creature for what it is, and is not. I was going to say it is “something separate” from me, but it is not separate from anything. I am the one that is separate, or at least have the illusion that I am. This creature, or at least what I perceive and imagine to be a creature, is amazingly everything. It has no real boundaries; it is not really an ‘entity’, not really apart from everything. It is everything, and I, seemingly separate from it, separate from everything, am an illusion, an invention. Worse than unreal — a fiction.
This creature’s brain has conjured me up. It invented me as part of a model of what its senses were perceiving, as a means of explaining, making sense of what it had perceived. The brain of this creature, at least as I imagine it, looking in the mirror, this brain inside its apparent skull, has apparently evolved to be able to store away patterns of sensations in a way that creates a very rough representation of what it conceives of as reality. An evolutionary accident: Just because it could do so, it tried that out. It had to invent the ideas of time and space to categorize these stored sensations, these remembrances. And with those inventions came the astonishing inventions of separateness, and of selves. The crazy idea that things were apart, that they existed separately in space and time. And that one of those things was me, the label given to ‘this’ as separate from ‘everything else’. This self. How imaginative, and how terrifying!
If this crazy idea were true, and if the model, this representation of reality that this creature’s brain has invented, is an accurate representation of reality, then this self, this me, now has an enormous burden to carry — it has to be responsible for this separate creature, to make decisions to protect it and help it survive and thrive. To control it. But at first, when this invented me has just emerged, this creature doesn’t seem to be in my control. It does things I didn’t decide to do. This is even more terrifying. If I am really in control of this creature, how do I control it?
I watch the behaviours of what seem to be other creatures, big, adult creatures, and what I see seems to reinforce the idea that there are selves struggling to control these creatures as well. And when this creature starts to use language, it seems obvious that all these selves believe they occupy and control, often badly, the creatures that they are associated with, and that with ‘work’ they can control them ‘better’, and that I should believe the same is true for me too.
I don’t want to believe that. It doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is that there is only everything, with nothing apart, and no need for anything to control anything else — that has always been obvious to the young me. But it soon becomes evident that such a belief is not acceptable, and that the other selves will not tolerate such beliefs, and that what was previously obvious is now simply wrong, absurd. I acquiesce, and retreat, frightened and lost, inside myself.
For the next apparent six decades I remain unhappy. There is something obviously not right, but I can’t put my finger on it. Occasionally there is a glimpse, and it is remembered, with total clarity and certainty, that there is nothing separate, that there is no time or space, just wondrous appearances, nothing appearing as everything, and that I and all the other selves are illusions, useless and burdensome afflictions, ghosts that see themselves as influencing the creatures they believe they inhabit, but which only really haunt themselves.
But then the apparent glimpse ends and I am back, unhappier than ever. I don’t want to be any more, but I don’t want to not be, either. I just want everything to be as I, increasingly vaguely, remember — perfect, timeless, free, everything appearing wondrously out of nothing, for no reason, for no one. No thing apart.
The other selves are annoyed at me. Focus, get real, they say. Do responsible work. Struggle to make things better, at least for those you love, for yourself, for the future. Empathize with other suffering selves. Do something useful — you’re getting old, and time is running out.
I am afraid to tell them that nothing is really happening, that there is no one, that there are no selves, no future and no past. That would be seen as insensitive, disengaged. They will say to me: You have just invented, or latched on to, this ludicrous belief in radical non-duality and ‘self-less-ness’ to inure yourself against feeling bad for your failings, your laziness, your spiritual and moral weakness, and to inure yourself against feeling so much futile anger, paralyzing fear, abject shame, utter and indefensible exhaustion, grinding hopelessness, and unconsolable grief over what has been lost. They will say to me: Dust yourself off, get back on the horse, and get back to work.
What can I say? Like the anti-Copernicans, and the inquisition torturers, they are earnest, doing their best, and incapable of hearing what I am saying, which sounds to them like disturbed, irrational, cultish ravings. So sad, they say to each other — he used to be such a concerned, productive, intelligent member of society; just got burned out we suppose.
So I say and do what I can. I try to empathize. I am, after all, not at all inured to the anguish of the billions of selves and the million small injustices and injuries they struggle with and suffer from every day; I am one of them, one of you, one of us, much as I long not to be. I suggest things that might make us feel better, that sometimes even make me feel better, though I know it changes nothing.
I look in the mirror, and I know it is not myself I see. I’m kind of proud of this creature named Dave for what it has apparently done, even though it has actually only ever done, in each moment, the only thing it could have done; even though it has not actually done anything; even though I had nothing to do with any of it.
I have to smile to think that I, not really here, am an invention of this creature, seemingly there, in the mirror. I am just its fleeting thought, its brain’s idea, a figment of reality, going nowhere in the infinite, perfect and timeless ocean of nothingness. But this does not make me feel better. Often, it seems, it’s better to know than not know, even when it’s the terrible knowledge of agony, atrocity and collapse. But sometimes, like now, knowing doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some knowledge, perhaps, is too terrible even for an illusion to bear.
And then the sun comes out, or someone smiles, or I read something especially clever, or a cat entices me to play with it. And then knowing is enough, and the cognitive dissonance becomes bearable. And the self, always searching, never beyond hope, trudges on, sure that soon, everything will make sense. Sure that, one day, it will be free.