Haunted by the Ghosts of Our Selves

Sometimes when I write these articles, trying to figure out why I have come to believe the unpopular and unfathomable message of radical non-duality, I feel a bit like a cat chasing its tail. It’s fun, but it doesn’t seem to get anywhere. Still, I can’t seem to help myself; “I bought that ticket, and I’ll take that ride.”


image assembled from vector graphics provided by the good folks at Pixabay, CC0

Out of nothing, for no reason, arises the appearance of three human creatures, portrayed above, seemingly engaging in a conversation. They look real enough, and their discussion (about climate collapse, perhaps) seems earnest and animated. But they are just appearances, actors in an impromptu play. There are not actually any individuals doing anything. Nothing is separate; there are no boundaries between these appearances in the timeless, infinite field of possibilities.

No self, no individual, no ‘consciousness’ is needed for this wondrous appearance out of nothing to be seen; indeed, there are no selves and no individuals to see anything. And there is no consciousness, no ‘awareness’, since consciousness would be consciousness by some thing of some thing else, and there is no thing else, no thing apart, no thing at all.

This is seen, but not by any one, nor by any creature (afflicted by a self or not). It is just seen. There is the mystery, the wonder, but it is not a mystery to any one; there is no one.

Accompanying this appearance of a conversation among these three apparent people is a bizarre but common phenomenon, a kind of haunting. The apparent brains of these apparent people have been able to create, apparently, a model, a figment (etym.: false representation) of reality in which (a) there are real, separate ‘things’ and separate ‘selves’ — discrete ‘individuals’ apart from everything else, and (b) these separate selves somehow are able to inhabit and control the apparent bodies of these apparent creatures.

It is an astonishing, recursive trick — for an appearance to be so ‘imaginative’ that it can perceive itself as real, and separate, and everything else as real and separate as well, when there is actually no thing, and no thing separate. But this trick, this illusion, this ‘slight of mind’  is fully consistent with the apparent evolution of more and more complex life on Earth, and a not-unlikely spandrel (inadvertent consequence) of the brain trying out different survival techniques and strategies. Illusion or not, it seems a convenient, sustainable and useful model of reality upon which to pin, and make meaning of, all the sensory inputs the brain receives on behalf of the creature (or, actually, the complicity of creatures) that seemingly live within the apparently separate body.

So each self believes it inhabits and controls a creature. This is a very complex and compelling illusion; the idea of it apparently emerges in the brain of every small child at an early age and is reinforced by the stated beliefs of other illusory selves from that point on, so it is no surprise the illusion is so pervasive and ubiquitous. How could these three individuals, engaged in an earnest and thoughtful conversation about what they should do, possibly not be separate and real?

For millennia, human creatures believed the Sun ‘obviously’ revolved around the Earth; given what was known, then, what other explanation could there be, or would ever be needed? Analogously, there is now compelling and growing evidence from a variety of sciences to suggest that what is actually apparently happening is completely unaffected by our haunting selves. The ghost self rationalizes what the apparent creature it presumes to inhabit was inevitably going to do anyway, given its inherent and enculturated conditioning and the situation of the moment. This apparent creature is, after all, just an appearance, akin to pixels on a screen.

Just as we cannot will the characters in a program we are watching to do, or not do, something, the self cannot and does not actually influence the character it presumes to inhabit. As ghosts, as illusions, we selves are merely audiences for the play, dogs in the stands barking furiously at behaviours on the stage or screen that we like, or don’t like, as if that can somehow change the course of the play.

If the three participants in the conversation had no selves — if there were no seeming homunculus directing and controlling each participant’s actions — absolutely nothing would change. These characters, appearances all, have no free will, and their selves do not and never did exist. These characters don’t need selves to what they apparently do. No creature needs a self. Apparent evolution has produced trillions of thriving creatures utterly devoid of selves. The fact they are, apparently, completely conditioned, devoid of free will, and not subject to the vagaries of some inept controlling self is cause for celebration, not despair.

That is not to say that creatures, human and not, are insensate — a self is not needed in order to feel pain, or joy, or curiosity; but a self is needed to take ownership and responsibility for those feelings, to claim them as its feelings, and that is where this evolutionary misstep has come to cause such grief to all the world’s endlessly lost and frightened (and completely illusory) selves. The self is a useless appendage, a psychosomatic misunderstanding. We (selves) would be better off without our selves, and if we were rid of them, absolutely nothing would change.

So what, you might ask, is this ‘conditioning’, and what is evolution, if everything is just an appearance, an arbitrary, meaningless and random throw of the dice, a play in which each character is playing a role and is handed their next line without advance notice? Why are the rules, the patterns, apparently so consistent, so compelling? What is it that prevents the apparent characters from suddenly sprouting wings, that prevents dogs from suddenly speaking Creole, that prevents us from suddenly shrinking to microscopic size or going through apparent dimension or time warps? If everything is just an appearance, why does everything seem so damned consistent, so solid, so undeniably real?

There is of course, no reason. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be Creole-speaking dogs and spontaneous metamorphoses. That’s just not what is apparently happening in this apparent time and apparent space. The brain will look for patterns and assign meaning, purpose and causality to the sensory inputs it processes — that is what it does, apparently, in hopes that that information will assist the complicity of the brain’s creatures to survive and thrive.

There is no meaning to the apparent laws that govern evolution, elegant as they may seem, just as there is no meaning to the elegant fractal patterns that ice forms inside a poorly-insulated window. It is just what is apparently happening. It is not happening in time or space — those are, quantum science now tells us, mere mental constructs, representations, models unrooted in anything beyond human pattern-making around sensory perceptions. Nothing actually has a cause or purpose, just as nothing actually has a colour, or sound — these are all just tentative assignations of the patterning brain, converting electric signals to neuronal memories and conceptions, pure imaginings.

But, you might say, if our selves have no affect on the beliefs and behaviours of these apparent characters we presume to inhabit, why is the human world so full of trauma, violence, destruction and despair? Surely our selves, twisting our, uh, selves in knots over what is happening to us and our culture and our world, must be responsible for the levels of mental illness, rage, depression, and the horrific desolation humans have, apparently, inflicted upon this world?

Ah, we do so like it to be all about us, don’t we? These three characters engaged in the conversation, arguing now whether the Green New Deal is essential action or delusional folly, are conditioned not only by their inherent, embodied nature (hormones etc) but by their culture — by each other. One of our three characters might well move the other two past a ‘tipping point’ and persuade them to quit their jobs to devote all their energies to halt carbon emissions by whatever means necessary.

But that doesn’t require any selves. It doesn’t require any volition or expression of free will. If two of the characters become XR Rebels, or revolutionaries, that is because of their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment (which include the circumstances of their conversation). The self of the convincer may be exuberant, or alarmed, at what her argument has apparently wrought in her apparent colleagues, but this is sheer hubris. Neither her character nor her colleagues’ characters had any control over what they would say or subsequently do. And her self is just a ghost, barking on the sidelines, with glee or alarm, to the three oblivious characters, just as their selves are ghosts, worrying for no reason whether their lives’ new trajectories were reckless, as if they had any control over them.

Now I’m not saying, precisely, that if our world is fucked up, it isn’t our ‘selves’ fault. There are no selves, and there is no causality — these are just mental constructs, not real. But it’s the first part of this ‘if/then’ argument that is flawed. The world is not fucked up; it isn’t anything. It is just an appearance; what seems to be happening. As an appearance, it isn’t real, and it isn’t unreal, rather like the acting out of a mysterious script by a brilliant cast, just pixels on a screen. It is our selves that judge and give import and infer meaning to what is happening, positively or negatively, not these innocent characters apparently doing the only things they could have possibly done. And this judging, while perfectly understandable given the persuasiveness and seeming pervasiveness of what we selves have come to see as real, is as absurd as judging the behaviour of a fictional character on a screen. Tempting, irresistible even, if the screenplay is really good, but ultimately ridiculous.

So my ghost analogy is in one respect a poor one. Our selves are like ghosts in that they aren’t real and in that they affect nothing. But it’s not the characters they presume to be inhabiting that they are haunting. It’s themselves that they haunt and cause to suffer, for no reason. We selves completely misunderstand what is real, and what is really going on, and that is, for us, a terrible, ghastly tragedy, a life sentence of imprisonment without parole.

But wait, you say, what about ulcers, depression, suicide — surely if our selves have no effect on the characters we presume to inhabit, these characters should be equanimous, care-free, constantly joy-filled. If they can accurately see what is real (nothing) and what is just appearance (wondrously, everything), why are so many so ill?

We just can’t get over our selves, can we? We can’t forget that these characters aren’t separate, aren’t ‘real’ in the way we imagine them to be; that they live outside of time and space and the illusion of us. That they are just appearances, and the ulcers they get are the apparent result of their conditioning, inherent and enculturated. That’s how the script reads for them, but not really for ‘them’ — the pain of ulcers, and trauma, and loss, is real, but they don’t and can’t take it personally, any more than one can take the anger expressed toward one’s character in a play personally. The person doesn’t exist. There is pain, and it is surely awful, perhaps more awful than we selves, who suffer in an entirely different and intermediated way, can imagine. But it is not the same as the pain of the self.

Of course this could all be my rationalization, my attempt to inure myself from the suffering of believing that the endless awful crap that appears to be happening is real, here and now — by denying that anything is real. Were it not for the glimpse, I would harbour such suspicions myself, and still haven’t entirely ruled them out.

I have often been accused of being insensitive, and if that’s correct, which it well may be, it’s likely because this self is too lost, scared, un-self-aware and bewildered to be able to empathize the way some people I know and love seem able to do. No excuse, and I hope I will get better at this, though at my age I’m starting to run out of time. This self is unlikely to fall away until the body/brain it seems to inhabit has been exhausted, so it behoves me to recognize and face the real tragedy of having a self, of being a self — the disconnection, the loss, the anguish, the terror, the grief, the rage, the shame that is for all intents eternal, awful, and horribly, excruciatingly imprisoning and immiserating — for no reason. Every self suffers this, and compassion is the only reasonable response. Even for an illusion, a ghost.

That’s enough to haunt anyone.

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5 Responses to Haunted by the Ghosts of Our Selves

  1. Andrea Acs says:

    Never forget that our representation of the world is in general pretty accurate, otherwise we could not adopt to it. Of course this representation is the kind of subjective that we needed to adopt in order to survive. An observer is needed to make sense/detect patterns in this huge bundle of matter. Complexity science is the field that really understands these dynamics. Everything is emergent!

  2. Jim W. says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for this. The image with the three figures brings to mind the Hungry Ghost concept in Buddhism. Perhaps all of us afflicted with selves are hungry ghosts. Seems rather on the mark to me, though I do still don’t get why you’re so attached to describing it as such a tragedy. Have you ever wondered if the biblical myth of The Fall refers to our acquisition of selves?

    By the way, the Hungry Ghost on the left has some serious junk in the trunk…that’s probably what they’re talking about! Was it a botched surgery?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Jim, I think it’s quite possible that The Fall is a metaphor humans’ ‘realization’ of separateness, which led to our disconnection from the rest of life, and the inconsolable feeling that something has been lost, that something isn’t quite right. I think the emergence of the self is a tragedy because it doesn’t actually accomplish anything, yet causes so much unhappiness. It’s not even a trade-off for greater assurance of survival, just an evolutionary dead-end, a hugely unfortunate experiment.

  4. Richard Paul says:

    Captivating thoughts : what set you on this journey…?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Richard, the 10 posts listed in the right sidebar under The Illusion of the Separate Self walk you through how I got to where I am now with this. Starting at the bottom (oldest) and working up. Probably the most important is All There Is, Is This.

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